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Akita prefecture was formed from the ancient provinces of Mutsu and Dewa just after the Meiji Restoration. Located on the northwest side of Honshu, it faces the sea of Japan with the Dewa and Ou mountain ranges on the inland side. This geography has resulted in Akita being known as “snow country” in Japan with possibly the highest snowfall levels of any other area in Japan. Summers are warm and humid while winters are cold and snowy. Snow removal from roofs, to avoid damage or collapse, is a common winter chore for many who live in detached houses. The population is just under a million with 310,000 of those people residing in the capital, Akita City.
Agriculture, namely rice production, is the primary economic activity in Akita along with fishing and forestry. Akita has some manufacturing with nearly a third of this being electronic components and devices in addition to automotive and transportation equipment, and medical and pharmaceuticals. Akita is also one of the few mining regions in Japan, which includes minerals and some crude oil extraction. There are only about 20 English conversation schools that hire native English speakers and about half as many other types of educational institutions that may employ foreign teachers. Then the hospitality industry, mainly onsens and ski resorts, will hire foreigners with a proper visa.
Akita has several claims to fame in Japan and around the world. It known for “Akita bijin” (beautiful Akita women), which according to local lore is the result of some mixing of Russian blood from port calls of ships in early trading days. Then, the much loved Akita dogs, which have thick fur coats to survive the cold, snowy Akita winters, have become ubiquitous around the world.
Akita is probably most famous in Japan for namahage, which are mythical ogre-like creatures who traditionally would come to houses at New Years to scold children who were lazy or not behaving very well. Something akin to a demonic version of Santa Clause, namahage have evolved a place into most Akita festivals and cultural activities. This custom has spread throughout Japan including namahage-themed restaurants. There is one in Ginza serving Akita cuisine with one of these creatures lumbering around in full traditional costume demanding to know if guests have been behaving well. If not it will then harangue a guest in front of his/her group, all in great fun with lots of photos taken.
Kakunodate City is the cultural capital of Akita with Samurai era attractions and accompanying history when the area was ruled by the Satake Clan. Other points of interest are Senshu Park (situated on the remnants of Satake Castle with a rebuilt watchtower), Oga Aquarium GAO, Akita Omoriyama Zoo, Statue of Tatsuko, Godzilla Rock, volcanic Lake Tazawa (the deepest in Japan at 280 meters), Akita Castle, Kubota Castle, Dakigaeri Gorge, Hottai Falls, Shijuhachi Falls, Nyuto Onsen, famous for its milky waters and mixed bathing (i.e., men and women together), Tsuru No Yu Onsen, Tamagawa Onsen, Takanoyu Onsen, Tazawako-Kogen Onsen, Shinzan Shrine, Gozanoishi Shrine, etc.
Some major museums include the Akita Prefectural Museum, the Akita Museum of Art, Akita Senshu Museum of Art the Masakichi Hirano Museum of Fine Art (known for a 425-meter-long painting, “Events of Akita,” and said to be the longest painting in the world), Akarenga-Kan Museum (a folk museum), and the Namahage Museum.
The Akita Kanto Festival is held every year from Aug. 3 to 6. This tanabata-style festival features a parade with hundreds of men doing acrobatics while balancing 15-meter bamboo poles with clusters of lanterns on their chins, foreheads, hips, palms, etc. In the winter there is the Yokote Kamakura Snow Festival when the area becomes a winter wonderland. Held annually on the 15th and 16th of February, this is one of the main winter festivals in Japan. Hundreds of small snow domes (kamakura) are built at locations around the city, and these become illuminated at night. The festival also features snow sculptures, a variety of events, food stalls, etc.
For cuisine Akita may be best known for its kiritanpo, which is grilled rice on bamboo skewers and then put into a nabe (hotpot). Although popular all over the Tohoku region, kiritanpo is said to have originated in northern Akita when lumberjacks applied rice to wood splinters for cooking. Other dishes include Inaniwa Udon with thin, cream-colored, chewy noodles having a 300-year history and known as one of the three best Udon’s in Japan; Yokote Yakisoba made with a special sauce and cooked with cabbage, minced pork and pickled vegetables, and topped with a half-fried egg; Jumonji Ramen in light soup with dried sardines and bonito stock; Akita Kayaki (grilled shellfish), a pot dish with shellfish on the side; and Hatahata, a small fish generally pickled as a zushi side dish, but also grilled or served in pot soups. Akita cuisine would not be complete without babahera or “granny scoop” ice cream, which originated in olden days when elderly women would sell ice cream on the roadside for extra money. Their multiple scooping method would form a rose-pedal-shaped ice cream product, and this tradition continues today at least with the shape of the ice cream served and possibly some older women selling it at festivals.