In a small crowded izakaya in the Japanese city of Aizu-Wakamatsu, a local leans over and asks me, almost in a whisper, if I’ve tried Aizu beef.
I haven’t, and I tell him so. His eyes open wide – shocked, a little disappointed, but also sensing an opportunity. He says he’s going to try to arrange something for me.
True to his word, the next day I get to taste some Aizu beef. The hype was justified.
When it comes to beef in Japan, most people think of Kobe Beef . The rich fatty meat is one of Japan’s best types of wagyu – but it’s not its only one, just its most famous.
You don’t have to go far from Tokyo to find regions that have their own types of Japanese beef that are just as good. But, without the notoriety, you’ll find they can be much more affordable.
So, why haven’t most people heard of Aizu beef? Well, there are probably quite a few reasons.
One of them is that food in Japan is often marketed just to Japanese people. There are enough of them here to eat most of what is produced, so there’s no need to look towards an international market.
But, also, I think many foreigners already find what they do know about Japanese food a bit confusing. They’re happy to eat the dishes that they’ve learned about and leave it at that.
But I can assure you there is a lot more to discover and it’s worth the effort.
If you enjoy trying new food, I’ve got good news. A lot of Japanese cuisine is regional so, if you’re going to new area, there’ll always be something you haven’t had before.
Which brings me to Aizu.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, you may like to read my story about experiencing the samurai heritage in Aizu. It’s a fascinating part of Japan with a rich history that’s easily accessible from Tokyo by train.
It also has incredible food – which was one of my favourite things about visiting. I can assure you, you will not go hungry!
To whet your appetite if you’re planning a trip, or to give you some helpful tips for when you’re there, I’ve put together this list of the best things to eat in Aizu.
Obviously I’ve already talked about this but, it’s so good, it deserves another mention. The Aizu beef is wagyu, which means it has that wonderful marbling of fat throughout it. When it’s cooked, it is so soft that you hardly need to chew.
Unlike in Kobe, where you’ll find a lot of restaurants that specialise in wagyu beef, in Aizu it’s more likely that it will be included in a set menu of multiple courses.
If you like meat, you should also try the local sauce katsu, a special take on a combination of popular foods. It’s a breaded pork cutlet, on a bowl of rice, with a special (and delicious) sweet sauce over the top.
There are a few places in Aizu-Wakamatsu that serve the dish but I would recommend going to Jumonjiya, where they serve a specialty called ‘Bandai Katsudon’, named after the region’s main mountain because the meal is so big. The pork cutlets are 450 grams each and the large meal comes with two of them!
A meal of miso dengaku is a real experience in Aizu-Wakamatsu. They take bamboo skewers with things like tofu, mochi rice cake, or vegetables, cover them in sweet miso paste, and then bake them over charcoal.
You’ll watch it cook then it will be delivered right to your spot, where you can dip it in a selection of sauces. I would recommend going for lunch at Mitsutaya, where you can choose your skewers or get a tasting menu.
A very special Aizu dish is Nishin-no-Sansho-zuke. It’s made by taking a clean dried herring and pickling it with the leaves of sansho pepper and soy sauce. The sansho pepper has a very interesting flavour that balances out the fish taste to create a very easy to eat dish.
It’s particularly popular as a bar food or something to snack on while you drink beer or sake. For a night out where you can try to herring, I would recommend Izakaya Hairansyo.
Now, stay with me here… but another delicacy you’ll find in Aizu-Wakamatsu is horse sashimi. It’s particularly popular in izakayas, so Hairansyo is a good place to try this too.
Horse sashimi is not common across Japan but the people love it here. It tastes very much like a rare beef steak and is much easier to eat than you might suspect.
I know you can get ramen all across Japan but there are three types of ramen that are particularly famous in the country. One of them is called Kitakata Ramen and it comes from a small town just outside Aizu-Wakamatsu called (not surprisingly) Kitakata.
The noodles have their own characteristics – they are wide, flat and slightly curled. They also have a different texture to other types of ramen noodles. And, although there are many ingredients that can be used to make the broth, Kitakata Ramen is known for using local soy sauce and mountain water from a nearby reservoir.
I would highly recommend a trip out to Kitakata for ramen and, to make it even more special, go out at breakfast to one of the restaurants that serve early morning ramen. The most popular is Bannai Shokudo and I guarantee there will be a queue of people waiting in the morning!
Soba is another noodle that you’ll find all across Japan but, once again, Aizu has brought its own twist to this traditional dish. Look out for a special dish called Negi-Soba where, instead of using chopsticks, you’ll use a large green onion to pick up the noodles (and slowly bite some of it along the way).
I tried the dish at a restaurant called Takino, which is one of the best places in Aizu-Wakamatsu to have a range of local foods (and you should definitely head there for a meal).
The lacquerware produced in Aizu-Wakamatsu is famous across Japan and one of the region’s most important meals is traditionally served in a special red lacquer bowl.
It’s called Kozuyu and is a clear soup filled with ingredients like dried scallops, carrots, mushrooms, jelly noodles and croutons. Each family has their own recipe that is passed down the generations and is served at important events each year.
I love that so much of the regional cuisine in Aizu has a story behind it. In the case of Wappa Meshi, the history goes back about 600 years. It was back then that the woodcutters of Hinoemata village used a special wooden box to carry their lunch.
The Wappa Meshi today is based on that. It’s essentially a small lunchbox with special seasoned rice that’s cooked in two stages. On top are local ingredients like fish and seasonal mountain vegetables.
When it comes to fresh produce, Aizu is famous for its fruits. In summer, peaches are one of the most popular fruits and you’ll see them for sale everywhere. You are missing out if you don’t try one – they’re so sweet and juicy.
For something a bit fun, you can even go to a peach farm and pick them for yourself. I would recommend the Kawashima Orchard, which also has a pleasant space to sit and eat some fresh peaches before you take the rest away with you.
And, finally, I have to tell you about sake. You’ll find sake all across Japan but not all of it is made locally. There are some regions of the country that are particularly well-known for the quality of their sake and Aizu is one of them.
As well as tasting the local sake at restaurants and izakayas, it’s worth visiting a brewery to learn a bit more about the process. I would suggest the Suehiro Sake Brewery, which is one of the most famous in the whole Tohoku region.
If you have any other recommendations for your favourite dishes or places to eat in Aizu, please leave a suggestion in the comments below. And happy eating!
Time Travel Turtle was supported by Aizu-Wakamatsu but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.