From Akita With Love
Published: June 15, 2021
Ogahanto is a long-established restaurant serving the finest of food and drink from Akita Prefecture, in the north of Japan. On a recent sweltering early summer afternoon, we dropped in for a chat with manager and chef Mr. Noboru Hori and his charming wife.
While Ogahanto is just a four-minute walk from Monzen-nakacho station, its location on the sleepy island of Botan feels a world away from the bustling traffic of Eitai Street.
Stepping out of the blinding sunlight, heat and humidity into the suddenly cool, dark wooden interior of Ogahanto was momentarily disorienting, akin to being transported several hundred kilometers in an instant. The interior is modeled on that of a traditional Akita-style kominka, large wooden houses built at least 80 years ago.
Akita is best known for its seafood and hotpot dishes, as well as two originals, kiritampo and iburigakko. The latter is a cherrywood-smoked and pickled daikon radish, a strikingly-flavoured accompaniment to the high quality sake for which the region is also famed. Kiritampo is cooked rice which is mashed, then shaped into cylinders around cedar skewers and toasted over an open hearth (irori). These hearths are set into the tabletops at Ogahanto.
While hotpots and kiritampo are popular dinner items, we were visiting to check out the highly-esteemed lunches and lunchboxes. The lunch menu may be fairly short but it’s certainly high on quality and is excellent value. This is the Oyaji no omakasedon (1,200 yen), which features a sumptuous selection of fresh seafood on Akita rice, a light soup with edible wild vegetables, a dish of vinegared seaweed and cucumber, together with another dish of pickles.
The seafood bowl contains several cuts of tuna, together with scallop, shrimp, salmon roe, egg roll and a sizable portion of sea urchin (uni). Sea urchin is usually pricey, which makes this lunch set incredible value.
“I go down to the Toyosu Fish Market nearly every day still and buy the seafood,” explains the silver-haired Mr. Hori, who has been running Ogahanto for 43 years now. The oyaji no omakasedon, (which literally means “middle-aged chef’s selection”) comes in three levels at 1,000, 1,200 and 1,500 yen, depending on the amount of seafood. There is also a salmon and salmon roe rice bowl (900 yen), plus a tuna and salmon roe bowl (900 yen) and a straightforward tuna bowl (800 yen).
This is the take out lunch box version of the chef’s selection lunch (1,000 yen). It contains the same seafood plus homemade pickles and hijiki, the mineral-rich brown alga that grows on rocky shores and is simmered with julienned vegetables and soy beans. A delicious and healthy lunch!
While this is the salmon and salmon roe lunch box (800 yen).
Ogahanto (Oga Peninsula) is named after the small Akita peninsula that juts out into the Sea of Japan. It’s a wild and remote place, known for its spectacular scenery and harsh winters. It’s also renowned throughout the country for Namahage, ferocious-looking horned demons wearing straw capes who go house-to-house at New Year frightening recalcitrant children. The masks, capes and traditional straw items that adorn the walls, together with the lanterns over the kitchen counter create a unique and comfortable atmosphere.
Ogahanto is a restaurant popular with Akita natives in Tokyo, business people working in the Monzen-nakacho area and local residents. “With so many people working from home, we aren’t quite as busy as usual,” explained Mr. Hori, “so now’s a really good chance for people to drop in and enjoy the best of Akita Prefecture.” Having sampled the excellent seafood, all selected freshly everyday by the vastly experienced chef, we heartily agree with him.
Story and Photos by Stephen Spencer