After the energetic Namahage Festival, I was ready for the second day of our Akita trip after a good rest. I started to fall in love with Akita just after a couple of days. Compared to metropolises like Tokyo and Osaka, While Akita might have less entertainment to offer and transportation is apparently less convenient, it is also full of a different kind of charm that no city can offer.
A blessed land with rich natural resources and amazing people
Akita is rich in natural resources. The water and air is excellent here, so Akita can produce famous rice and sake. One of the most famous rice brands “Akita Komachi” is in fact from Akita. If you are a fan of Japanese rice and sake you should take a chance to taste them.
Besides that, because people here enjoy lives that revolve around nature; they have fantastic skin. The people I met here all seem to look younger. Just as a famous Japanese saying, that you can’t find a cockroach in Hokkaido; you cannot find a breakout face in Akita. No wonder Japanese say that, other than rice and sake, Akita is famous for its ‘‘Akita beauties”. One of the famous celebrities Nozomi Sasaki, for instance, was born and raised here. I believe also because of the fact that Akita is located in the north by the Japan Sea, which brings them more rain and snow, people living in Akita receive less damage from ultraviolet rays.
Besides their appearance, Akita people also famous for their “kenminsei (prefecture personalities)”. Japanese media loves to talk about “kenminsei” across the country. Akita people are usually described as friendly, honest and hard working. That is why Akita has a very low crime rate, and Akita students always achieve high average scores in the national exams for elementary school and junior high school students.
Odate Candy Market Festival: where gods also come for candies
Our destination today was Odate city. It is a 2 hour drive from central Akita city. On the second weekend of February, Odate city holds a traditional event called Odate Amekko Ichi (Odate Candy Market Festival), which has over 400 years of history. Each year around 150,000 visitors come to this event, which is over double the size of Odate's population (approx. 70,000).
According to the locals, the famous Shirohige Okami (God of White Beard), together with other gods from the mountains of Akita, would make a trip to shop for candy from this market. Because Shirohige Okami does not want humans to realize his coming, every year after he gets candy and is ready to head back to the mountains, he calls a snowstorm to hide his footprints. Whenever he gets down the mountain, he brings a human girl with him. The girl is called “Amekko oko (Candy Girl)”. Her parents were sick and passed away when she was young, so she wanted to create a type of candy that can cure diseases. Afterwards, she got the help from Shirohige Okami, so she respects the god a lot and decided to follow him and live together in the mountain.
Because of this story, even until now, the people in Odate still believe that after you eat the candy from this market, you will not catch a cold.
Hinaiji Chicken oyakodon that melts in your mouth
When we arrived at the Candy market, we saw a long line next to a restaurant. In Akita, where the population is much smaller compared to big cities, it is usually hard to find lines waiting in front of restaurants. I got a feeling that this Akita restaurant must have something amazing.
This restaurant is famous for Oyakodon. “Oyako” literally means parents and kids, which refers to chicken and eggs in here, and ‘‘don’’ means rice bowl. The reason why oyakodon is so famous here is because the dishes are made with Akita branded chicken - Hinaiji chicken. Besides rice, sake and beauties, Akita is also famous for its chicken. Hinai chicken in Japan is a national treasure (protected species), and Hinaiji chicken is its first filial generation. Hinaiji chicken is famous for its strong taste and thick texture, and even after you cook it, the meat remains soft. As the breeders have to overcome many challenges to raise Hinaiji chicken while conforming to high standards, Hinaiji chicken became one of the top 3 chicken brands in Japan.
After a short wait, it was finally my turn to give it a try. Hinaiji Chicken mixed with steaming eggs covered the Akita rice. After the first bite, my friend and I looked at each other in surprise, could not believe what we just ate. The meat melted like a piece of chocolate. The juicy meat mixed well with the egg and the aftertaste kept spreading inside my mouth. This is definitely one of the best oyakodon I have ever tried during my 8-year stay in Japan.
After oyakodon, we decided to stroll around the candy market. The venue was located at Omachi Hachiko Kaido, which is a shopping street during normal time. Only in this period, you can find more than a hundred booths selling different types of handmade candy. Besides candy, there are also booths selling skewers and coffee as well.
Besides candies, the must-try item would be the Akita specialty “kiritanpo nabe”. Kiritanpo nabe is tremendously popular here, so it gets sold out pretty quickly. If you want to try it you may want to get there earlier.
There is a stage in the middle of the street, where different groups constantly carry out their performances – taiko, shamisen, soran bushi (fishermen dance), lion dance, singing, etc. They are all organized and performed by locals and communities in Odate. Watching how they are dedicated into the event, you could tell how much effort they had put into preparing this. Every participant, both on and off the stage, enjoyed the show very much. From this I could see that people living here value very much their relationship with others in the same community. Probably because the population is not so large, people among different age groups could mingle together easily. I have spent most of my life in big cities, therefore I admire this harmonious atmosphere of a close-knit community.
After watching a few performances, I discovered another small booth by the corner. A group of kids gathered around and was playing with an Akita dog. How could I forget that besides rice, sake, Hinaiji Chicken and Akita beauties, Akita is also famous for its Akita dog?
The last activity for this festival was the parade of Shirohige Okami and his crew. After their parade through the whole venue, it marked the end of the event. This annual event is definitely not the most exciting event out there, but you could take your time to enjoy the snacks and performances, experiencing the friendliness of the people living in this small community.
A Visit to Akitainu Kaikan
After the Candy Market, we went to Akitainu Kaikan, or Akita Dog Museum. The building has 3 floors, and the main exhibition room is located on the third floor. You can find information about Akita dogs such as history, lives and bibliography. Besides being a museum, Akitainu Kaikan is also a global institution, which protects the lineage of Akita dogs in different countries. This building itself serves as the headquarters, and is responsible for issuing “Certificate of Descent” to all Akita dogs around the world. On the side, the Japanese government has a practice of “Akita Dog Diplomacy”. Russian President Putin received one earlier, and when the ex-US Ambassador to Japan Kennedy visited Akita, she was welcomed with two Akita dogs. It showed how highly valued Akita dogs are in Japan.
Akita is for travelers who are seeking for a deeper Japan experience
In these 2 days in Akita, I could feel the warmth from the lovely people and culture here. I am planning to visit again sometime next year for other festivals like the Kamakura Festival in Yokote, to explore more about the Japan I have not discovered. I recommend Akita to those who had been to Japan a few times and are trying to seek for a deeper Japan experience in their next journey. In Akita, you can enjoy hot springs, join the festivals, learn the local culture and appreciate its natural beauty. I am sure you will have a memorable and unforgettable journey here.
1. Odate Amekko Ichi (Odate Candy Fair, Japanese: 大館アメッコ市)
- Homepage (English): http://www.city.odate.akita.jp/dcity/kankou/29-7836.html
- Location: Oomachi Hachiko Dori
- Time: Every second Saturday- Sunday in February
- Access: Shuttle bus from JR Odate Station
2. Akitainu Kaikan (Japanese: 秋田犬会館)
- Homepage (Japanese): http://www.akitainu-hozonkai.com/
- Address: 13-1 Sannomaru, Odate City, Akita Prefecture
- Access: 15 minutes walk from JR Ou Line Higashiodate Station, walk towards the direction of city hall