The House of the Ladies of the Early morning sun: Akatsuki No Kai, Aomori

Meet the Remarkable women of aomori preserving traditional Japanese cuisine

Most family houses in rural towns and villages across Japan are noticeably more expansive than their urban counterparts, with large gardens with pine and maple trees, sprawling grounds, and large rooms. What sets the one we have just walked into, in the village of Ishikawa, Hirosaki, apart is the kitchen. It's huge! Actually, it is three kitchens in one, with immaculately clean preparation tables, sinks, delivery trolleys and pots, pans, sieves, graters and utensils of every kind at every turn. Drying vegetables are suspended from every available pointy object, Divine, occasionally mysterious aromas fill the air.  

Maitake gohan rice laughter Akatsuki no Kai Aomori

Theses dishes you are about to eat were in danger of disappearing forever. This is why we founded our group, to make sure we can pass on our knowledge to a younger generation. It's not that they are particularly fancy, or special. It's just that the knowledge, like the ingredients themselves, needed preserving - Ryoku Kudo, founder of  Akatsuki no Kai 

We are in Hirosaki, Aomori. More precisely, we are in the nerve center of the Tsugaru Akatsuki no Kai, literally 'the Tsugaru Early Morning Sun Association', a group of splendidly energetic women, aged from 86 to 20, who formed to preserve and promote the traditional dishes and cooking skills of this region of Aomori. If you are a foodie and plant to visit Aomori, visit here.

I apologise now if the title of this article was slightly misleading, in that postwar Hollywood B-movie slightly risqué style, but I couldn't resist: the Akatsuki no Kai women are a hilarious, bunch, eminently teasable, and their propensity for bursting into laughter, and flirty conversation - especially the over-70 contingent - is infectious.

The name actually refers to the fact that the ladies are typically up before sunrise to start their preparations, and thus would be cooking beneath the light of an early morning sun. 

Kitchen akatsuki no kai Aomori

"Here, eat this!" says the apron-clad matron, shoving a pickled nasu eggplant almost up my nose. I duly oblige. "Wow, foreigners eat this stuff too!" she announces to the kitchen full of scurrying elderly Japanese ladies, cooking and serving up a storm. Cue collected mirth. I tell her, honestly that it is fabulous. The 'usual' response in this situation would be a polite 'arigatou' - thank you, but my interrogator fixes me with a mock stern gaze. "How come you speak such good Japanese?" she asks. Deadpan, I reply "We all speak Japanese in England". Cue further hysterical laughter all around. 

Staff Akatsuki no kai Aomori

What a very special place this is. The founder of the Akatsuki no Kai is Ryoko Kudo, a beautiful, smiling gentle lady of some senior years: 77, she admits with a giggle as I tell her she 'doesn't look a day over 23'. Her able second-in-command is Keiko Nakata, she of the proffered eggplant and explosive laughter. What a great team!

As the ladies bring dish after dish to the huge table that dominates Kudo-san's farmhouse kitchen table, she explains that this cuisine is, essentially, hozonshoku, literally the preserved foodstuffs that were once essential in allowing the farmers of Aomori to make it through the icy, snow-filled winter months until the ground thawed enough for farming to recommence. The fisherfolk of the Aomori coastlines could always send out their trawlers, but the farmers here inland had to innovate in order to survive. Thus hozonshoku was born.


 
 

The style is the local Aomori 'kaiseki'-style of formal dining known as kyusaigozen, which roughly translates as 'nine splendid vegetable dishes'. What an apt title.

I am reminded of the legendary British ceramic artist Bernard Leach's comment, from 1960, that "There is a saying that the Chinese eat with their stomachs, and the Japanese with their eyes".

Well, I plan to do plenty of both. 

 

  

Kudo-san explains "These dishes you are about to eat were in danger of disappearing forever. This is why we founded our group, to make sure we can pass on our knowledge to a younger generation. It's not that they are particularly fancy, or special. It's just that the knowledge, like the ingredients themselves, needed preserving". 

Nakata-san runs us through today's offerings. I take copious notes, as her accent is rather strong, and her Tsugaruben dialect frankly impenetrable. Every few minutes she consults with her colleagues, asking "How do you say this in 'normal' Japanese?". More laughter ensues.

Akatsuki no Kai's dishes are, in my humble opinion, a must-experience for any truly curious Japan-bound foodie. Despite its visual appeal, this cuisine is a far cry from the delicate, genteel tastes of, say, a Kyoto kaiseki meal, or the familiar sushi/sashimi axis of Japanese restaurants from Tokyo to Tacoma to Turin. In fact, when I read the Akatsuki menu to the Kyoto-born 'Mrs FGL Editor-in-Chief' she says "It sounds like a foreign language". Even FGL's Aomori-based local cooking expert, Naoko Nagisa, has to check certain details, such is the rarity and localized speciality of the dishes. For example, we realise that the damakko of damakko-jiru simply means 'a soup containing round things'. Cool, no?

There's often an earthiness, a bitterness, a sourness, or just occasionally full-on fermented - ye Gods almighty! - smack-in-the-face pungency in these dishes to remind us that this is indeed food from the deep countryside.  Not least the izushi fermented fish. The nearest I've had to this previously is Shiga prefecture's famed, stinky, aged Crucian carp funazushi. It knocks your socks off. Go Aomori, go!

Personally I am especially taken with the kenoshiru soup, the mizunokobu sansai vegetables - sort of caper-like but with a crunchy texture and mildly bitter taste - and the same namasu shark and daikon giant radish aemono, a real taste-bud revelation, surprisingly mild given the images conjured up by its two main constituents. Does any of this amke sense? Mizunokbu, and indeed so many of these hozonshoku dishes, is so hard to describe. It is the fruit of a type of yam, redolent of the forest, mysterious, rare. That is to say, the perfect Foodies Go Local ingredient!

Same namasu shark and daikon radish

The maitake gohan, with its 'hen of the field' mushrooms plucked that morning from, well, the field is wonderful. So too the igamenchi deep-fried squid. 

Sasage no denbu Aomori_0300.jpgOh how we cried out for some sake, but alas that would convene local rules. "We always have sake when we do events outside!" laughs Nakata-san, not a little mischievously. It is with genuine sadness that we have to leave our newfound friends of the Tsugaru no Akatsuki Kai. But we know we'll be back. 

Kudo-san, Isabelle and Nakata-san_Aomori Akatsuki no kai.jpg

 

If you'd care to join us at the Akatsuki no kai and other Foodie destinations, watch this space, as we plan for our first exclusive FGL/SHAREpro gourmet tour to Aomori in the Spring of 2018. 

If you enjoyed this article on Aomori, make sure to check out our overview of Aomori cuisine, and some some favorite local products. Also you might like to take a look at our articles on Aomori cuisine, Aomori products and 'At the Inn of the Forgotten Geisha'.

Tsugaru Akatsuki no Kai
Address: Yagishi-44-13 Ishikawa, Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture 036-8124。
0172-49-7002
Google Maps link
Reservations required for parties of more than four.
Cash only
Non-Smoking. 

Tsugaru Akatsuki no Kai

Address:
Yagishi-44-13 Ishikawa, Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture 036-8124
Phone: 0172-49-7002

Find directions
Nearest station: Ishikawa, on the Konan Owani line

Seats: around 20
Irregular closing days
Reservations required, minimum party of four • Cash only  
John F. Ashburne

John F. Ashburne

Editor-in-Chief Foodies Go Local