Trends in Japan > J-food > Niigata, The Rice Capital of Japan
Bountiful Harvest Essential to the Japanese Diet
(December 26, 2007)

Rice ready to harvest. (C)UONUMA City Tourist Association


A view of rice fields. (C)Niigata-ken Professional Photographers

Niigata Prefecture boasts astounding natural beauty. Looking out over the Sea of Japan to the West and surrounded by majestic mountains on its other three sides, lush rice fields fan out over the region's serene landscape. Niigata is known throughout Japan as the home of Koshihikari rice, sworn by many to be the best in Japan. The region is also known for its severe winters and heavy snowfall. The Echigo Plain, sometimes referred to as Japan's rice belt, stretches far and wide around the city of Niigata, home to around 810,000 people. Niigata's abundant harvest of high-grade rice yields some of the most sought-after sakes and rice crackers in Japan.


Sasazushi. (C)Myoko Tourist Office

Rice at the Heart of Local Cuisine
Niigata boasts Japan's biggest harvest of rice, which is essential to Japanese cuisine. Koshihikari, Niigata's most celebrated variety of rice, is famous throughout Japan for its taste. Large variations in temperature between night and day, the fertile soil of the Echigo Plain, and the pristine melting snow that feeds into the rice paddies create a natural environment ideal for nurturing Niigata's exquisite rice. Koshihikari in particular benefits from this environment as a resilient and savory rice variety with a delicate sweetness all its own. When freshly cooked, it is fragrant and tasty enough to be eaten on its own right out of the rice cooker.


Sake made in Niigata Prefecture.
(C)Niigata Prefectural Sake Research

Sasazushi (bamboo leaf sushi) is a delicacy made with rice and enjoyed especially in Western Niigata and the Joetsu region. Sasazushi recipes vary from family to family, but generally rice seasoned with vinegar is molded into small oval shapes and placed on bamboo leaves. Such toppings as mountain vegetables and mushrooms marinated in soy sauce and sugar and omelet are laid out on top of the rice, producing a vivid, colorful feast. The toppings take a lot of time and effort to prepare, but it is worth it to see the joy that sasazushi brings to people's faces, particularly at festivals and special occasions.


Winter in Niigata.
(C)Niigata Prefectural Sake Research Institute


Sunset over the Sea of Japan. (C)Niigata-ken Professional Photographers

Fine Rice and Pristine Water Yield Exquisite Sakes
Niigata is also renowned for its sake, Japan's traditional alcoholic beverage made by fermenting rice. Plentiful high quality rice combined with the pristine waters that flow from heavy mountain snowfalls in the region make for exquisite sakes. Local sake breweries in Niigata meticulously brew a wide selection of sakes that are revered nationwide for their dry, sharp finish and refreshingly crisp flavor.

There are many wonderful varieties of Japanese sake such as junmai-shu, made from only water and rice, and namazake, which has a clean flavor and is not heated during the brewing process. Sake can be enjoyed chilled or warm, and a fine variety thoughtfully selected is sure to complement the best of either Japanese or Western cuisines.


Kaki-no-tane. (C)KAMEDA SEIKA CO., LTD.

Crackers from Japan' Rice Belt
Niigata produces a vast assortment of rice crackers and has by far the highest production of these savory treats in Japan prepared by its many famous rice cracker manufacturers. Rice crackers are either grilled or deep-fried and are dabbed with soy sauce or other seasonings. Varieties of the snacks produced in Niigata include the hard-textured sembei rice cracker and the lightly crunchy pea-sized arare treat.


Spring in Niigata.
(C)Niigata-ken Professional Photographers

The persimmon is a popular fruit in Japan, and Niigata's best-known rice cracker snack is called Kaki-no-tane, literally "persimmon seeds." Shaped like the seeds of the popular fruit, Kaki-no-tane are made by coating small arare crackers with a slightly spicy sauce, making for a fabulous snack that goes well with such drinks as beer and sake. In addition to the traditional Kaki-no-tane snack with the spicy coating, other popular variations include one that adds an additional coating of chocolate, creating an incongruent yet surprisingly tasty sweet and spicy blend.

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