The cultural heritage of every country talks through its food, specially isolated countries for centuries, like the islands of Japan. Nowadays it’s easy to have a bowl of ramen in the streets of Barcelona, or taste fresh sushi in a market in Los Angeles, but many agree (and I’m one of them) that food has to be eaten in their country of origin. And if it’s region located, even better for new discoveries and unique experiences. Last year I went a few days through Niigata prefecture and discovered some dishes, tried the local meibutsu (specialities) from the region. There are many more, but here’s the short list of things I’ve tried.
When I went to Yahiko village
, the lady at the tourist office recommended me to try this traditional dish before leaving the village. A bit late, but I could find one little restaurant open on my way back that served Wappa meshi. Rice based, it’s served in a wooden box, topped with seasonal seafood steamed or raw. A real delicacy that fulfilled my stomach and sympathy for the restaurant owners. Not so many “westerners” visit the area so they were afraid I couldn’t understand the food or Japanese eating manners. Which shows the importance of respect for the local cultures and traditions.
Wappa meshi, local food speciality from Niigata.
One of the main known specialities from Niigata, this soba plate has more differences than meets the eye. The unique presentation, with the soba noodles separated into mouthfull lace bites, ar served in a wooden tray called “hegi”. We understand the name, so is that the only difference? For noodle aficionados, they will probably notice the difference in texture and taste compared to regular soba noodles. In Niigata, hegi soba is made with added funori, a type of seaweed that makes it more bouncy and slippery than regular soba. And the results are also delicious.
Hegi soba, local speciality from Niigata.
Japanese regional sweets are well-known souvenirs to bring to your coworkers and friends in Japan. All packed and separated into single little packages with lots of plastic and wrapping involved. Until I saw the sasa dango at Niigata station. Environmentally friendly packaging, sasa dango literally means “rice cake wrapped in bamboo”. Like dango, the rice mochi paste is sweetened, and in Niigata’s regional speciality, wrapped in bamboo leaves. A bit sticky to unwrap and eat, but sure is good.
Sasa dango, Japanese sweet from Niigata.
Japanese cuisine is special for its seasonal food and caring about the ingredients. In Niigata I noticed the love for those ingredients in every restaurant I went. Talking to the vendors at the local market, with hall staff at the restaurants and people, all appreciate their local specialities and seafood. I got dozens of recommendations for restaurants to try, but didn’t have the time for all of them. my recommendation. Try the kaisendon in the local market, or go to the kaiten sushi restaurant Benkei, near the Pia Bandai market. Loved it.
Probably the best kaisendon I’ve ever tried, in Niigata.
Plates running on the conveyor belt at Benkei kaiten sushi, Niigata.
The sake brewery tours are a real deal in Niigata. If you have the time, join the local tours and get the whole experience. Bad thing, not so many in English. If you want to try more than one, head to the Ponshukan. This little sake museum and shop has a tasting corner. For ¥500 you can get to try 5 different cups of sake from regions of all Japan. Take your time between sips, enjoy.
5 coins, for 5 cups of sake at ponshukan, sake museum in Niigata.