Foodie hotspots: Kanazawa, Kaga hot springs, Noto Hanto peninsula, Wajima, Anamizu, Nanao, Notojima, Suzu, Senmaida.
Foodies Look Out For: Finest seafood, rural markets, Kaga kaiseki cuisine, wagashi Japanese sweets, fine green tea, jibu-ni soup, kabura-zushi sushi, hot-spring dining, sake from the Ishikawa Toji.
The Basics: Long isolated from the rest of Honshu due to its remote, windswept, location, Ishikawa – with the exception of its main city and cultural heart, Kanazawa - was long a destination only for the more intrepid travellers. How this has changed. The long-awaited opening of the Hokuriku Shinkensen bullet train line means that visitors can reach Kanazawa within a few hours from Tokyo. With just a little more effort, you can reach the hot-spring resorts of Kaga, Katayamazu, Yamashiro, Yamanaka, and Bessho onsens.
Heading out to the wilds of the Noto Hanto takes more work, and a trip to the delightful fishing port and lacquer ware center, Wajima, the East Coast towns of Nanao and Anamizu, and Suzu and the Senmaida rice paddies takes quite a while. The effort is more than repaid, however: this is rural Japan at its most attractive with great views, friendly people, and fabulous food.
Foodies Go Ishikawa:
From the picturesque rice paddies of Senmaida to the gourmet delights of Wajima’s asaichi morning market, from the wilds of the Noto Hanto peninsula and Notojima to the sophisticated climes of Kanazawa, Ishikawa prefecture is a great foodie destination.
Your first point of entry is likely to be the prefectural city of Kanazawa, with its samurai heritage, picturesque old quarter, and fabulous Kenrokuen garden (hint: get there early before it fills with tour buses). Kanazawa is often refered to as a Ko-Kyoto, a ‘little Kyoto’, and for once the comparison is not odd, as it is a sophisticated city – a large town really – with a proud history, and a highly developed food culture.
Like Kyoto, Kanazawa loves its wagashi Japanese sweets. In no particular order, check out Murakami’s kurosato fukusa mochi, Kintsuba Nakataya’s trademark kintsuba, Ukkoukei’s fabulous purin desserts, or Mameya Kanazawa Bankyu’s beautifully presented gift sets. Their warabi mochi baumcuchen containing chestnuts is a work of art. The one-stop shop for wagashi, and many traditional Ishikawa foodstuffs, is the 100 bangai shopping complex beside Kanazawa station.
The shops of the Higashi Chaya district of the city, and the central Omicho market, are a must-see. If you are a green tea lover, look out for the luxurious Kaga bocha, a kuki-hojicha roasted tea made using just the stems of the green tea plant. Look out too for Kanazawa’s Utsuki Gensuke daikon radishes.
If you are a fan of seafood in general, and sashimi, shioyaki, and tsuboyaki in particular, I cannot recommend a trip to the Noto Hanto peninsula enough. A stay at a Noto ryokan inn or minshuku is pretty much a guarantee of foodie delight. Several times I have stayed at the humble Minshuku Hanafuji on Nodojima island, and feasted on the finest seafood until I thought I would explode, all for the princely sum of ￥8000 (including accommodation). Next time I am thinking to get a few friends together and hire their fishing boat (!).
If you can, try to make it to the splendid asaichi morning market in Wajima, if only to pick up a bottle of the fabulous fish-bashed soy sauce known locally as ishiru. Nodoguro rosy sea perch, ika squid, awabi abalone and, in winter, snow crabs, are all superb.
Prefecture-wide, look out for jibu-ni, a hearty hotpot dish, originally prepared with kamo wild duck as part of Kanazawa’s signature Kaga Ryori kaiseki cuisine. It originated in the villages of the Noto Hanto peninsula, and the Kaga mountains, and today you are likely to find it in both high-end ryokan inns and ordinary izakaya. Another Ishikawa favorite is kabura-zushi, where buri yellowtail is salted and pickleed in a koji fermenting agent, and layered with kabura winter turnip. It dates back to the Edo period.
Hasu-mushi is grated lotus root that is steamed, and covered with a thickened broth, often containing grated ginger. Ingredients such as ebi shrimp or ginnan gingko nuts are also added. It is usually served in a lidded lacquer ware dish. When you remove the lid, the aroma is just wonderful.
Ishikawa’s hot-spring ryokan inns, especially those in the Kaga district to the South of the prefecture, tend to be upscale despite their rural settings. One of the best food-wise is Yamashiro onsen’s luxury Beniya Mukayu. Their seafood-based cuisine is top class.
The Ishikawa Budget Gourmet: Kanazawa kare (Kanazawa Curry) has achieved national fame, with a thick black roux, so deep you can't even see the rice below. Topped with pork cutlets, and thinly sliced cabbage, it is said to be the finest at Kitchen Yuki in Kanazawa. Shoyu Ice cream is almost as well known. Shoyu Soft Ice Cream, from Yamato Shoyu, in Kanazawa's Ono-cho, is apparently its originator. If you go to Hakui, on the West coast of the Noto Hanto peninsula, look out for UFOs (it’s a popular viewing spot, apparently), and the alien-inspired UFO senbei.
Most improbable of all, however is hanton raisu. It is reliably reported that the ‘han’ refers to Hungary, and the ‘ton’, although it usually implies the presence of pork, is actually an abbreviation of the French word for tuna, tonneau. All well and good so far.
However, hanton raisu has nothing whatsoever to do with Hungary. Or pork. Or tuna. It is actually plain omuraisu with battered white fish, drenched in tartar sauce. But it’s not finished yet. Then the whole contraption is covered with tomato ketchup. How mad is this? Apparently it was invented by a certain Mr. Yamashita as food for his staff at Grill Otsuka, where it is still served today. Their response to his, er, genius is lost in the mists of time.
The Ramen Professor Recommends: There seems to be a trend in Ishikawa these days for ramen topped with either bright red, rare-done charshiu pork (something of which I cannot say I am a fan), or voluminous toppings of ‘regular charshiu’ (not keen on those massive volumes either). If you do like these styles, Miso Senmon Menya Okawa (the former) and Maximum The Ramen Kiwami (the latter) out near the Kanazawa Institute of Technology are the way to go.
In Wajima, if you fancy a post-morning market bowl of noodles (just the thing in the dead of winter), head to Kokaen for a bowl of no-nonsense shoyu-based chijirimen ‘curly ramen’ noodles. Just 550 yen. It opens at 11am.
FGL Favorite Tipple: Anything at all created by the Noto Toji no Shiten-oh or the ‘Four Guardians of Heaven of the Noto Toji Guild (see John Gauntner’s excellent article on one of them, Mr Nohiko Noguchi here). So, for example Kikuhime’s startling, flavorful Yamahai-jikomi or Jokigen Yamahai Ginjo, a favorite of ANA business class travellers.
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