- Welcome to a bit of Aomori in the heart of Tokyo
- Enjoying the alcohol made in Aomori
- Aomori food is not only about apples!
- A delicious surprise: Chie, the mangaka shamisen player!
- Introducing Aomori culture in Arakicho
Welcome to a bit of Aomori in the heart of Tokyo
David and I were standing under the typical tsuyu rain in front of the izakaya, admiring the paper lanterns and talking about how to write this article, when the owner, Manami-san, opened the door and invited us to come in. She must have thought that we were hesitating, and she actively came to meet us and made us feel welcome.
We followed her and she sat us down at one of the western-style tables. Behind me, under a big TV screen, I noticed some Japanese-style tables too (the kind where you have to sit on cushions on the floor). With a counter and five or six tables, the place is a little bigger than most places in Arakicho that only have a counter for a few people, but there is something almost familial about its size. I spent the five first minutes admiring the paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling, similar to the designs of the famous and impressive floats from the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri.
The walls are also decorated with posters and curtains advertising or inspired by this festival taking place every year in August. For us foreigners, it’s a very traditional and exotic sight, but so it is for the Tokyoites! As a matter of fact, Ringo no Hana is one of the rare places in Tokyo where you can eat Aomori cuisine and enjoy its folks aesthetics. As many autographs displayed on the wall proved it, the place is regularly visited by Japanese celebrities originating from Aomori.
Enjoying the alcohol made in Aomori
David, who loves traveling and hiking, told me about his trip to Mount Iwaki, and his encounter with the delicious and famous Aomori apples. As for me, I never went to this part of Japan before, and I was eager to taste the local food and drinks. The counter displays an impressive selection of different apple wines and some strangers specialties such as garlic wine. I immediately chose an apple wine on the rocks, and I let David take his time with the Aomori Nihonshu menu – there was plenty, plenty of choice. After apologizing for not having an English version of the drinks menu, Manami-san gave us some recommendations. We would learn later that she is a ‘Kikizakeshi’, a specialist that can explain the tastes of the sake to her customers and advise you the best ones to go with the dishes you ordered.
I know close to nothing about Nihonshu, so I was happy to have David with me. As many of you might already know, David is quite knowledgeable in the matter and he has written a great article for anyone to be able to choose a good bottle: How to choose a good Nihonshu or Japanese sake?
My apple wine reminded me of the French cider – without the bubbles. It was very sweet and the alcohol in it sort of took me by surprise a few minutes later! I also got a taste of David’s Nihonshu selection. For the first one, he chose something a little sweet, and something dryer for the second one. Both were really excellent, and I promised myself to study (understand: drink) Nihonshu more often when I’m out!
But I think it’s best to let David talk about the two Nihonshu that we ordered that night.
So as Amelie mentioned above, we enjoyed two different kinds of Aomori sake. Each time we ordered one “go” (“ichi gou (一合) which is about 180ml, and two small sake cups or “ochoko” so that we could share. 180ml pours about 3 cups – I’ll let you guess who had two cups each time!
The first one was called “Houhai” (豊盃, the kanji stand for abundance and cup respectively), a “tokubetsu junmai” (特別純米) from Hirosaki city (close to Mt Iwaki and famous for its castle). I thought it had a strong flavour, almost vibrant, and it paired well with the food. I tried to order something that Amelie, as a sake beginner, would like and I think I was successful. Actually, even though I spent a lot of time studying the menu, I ended up ordering the sake that was recommended on their website as being the most popular one.
Next I went for something a little drier “Kamekichi” (亀吉 the first kanji can mean tortoise or heavy drinker while the second one means good luck), another “tokubetsu junmai”. This one was featured on the drink menu as an award-winning sake. The taste was sharper, with a rough edge. Since I prefer dry sake, I enjoyed this one more. By the way, my absolute favourite sake from Aomori is “Mutsuhasen” (陸奥八千) which is also on the menu but I skipped it since I wanted to discover something new. I’ll need to come back in the future to try some of the other Aomori sake, among the 16 available on the menu.
Aomori food is not only about apples!
Ringo no Hana has a very detailed, humorous English menu. It was very useful to us because we discovered some new dishes and food we might not have understood had we read the Japanese version of the menu. David eating almost everything (you can read his adventures eating offal here) and me being a vegetarian (some recommendations from me here), we first ordered animal-free food that we could share: a delicious apple-based potato salad, butter sauteed Chinese yam, and something new to me: deep fried apios served with apple salt.
In the menu, Apios is referred to as the ‘superfood of Native Americans’.
‘Excuse me, but why is there food of Native Americans in a restaurant of Aomori cuisine?’ I heard my ignorant self ask Manami-san.
‘Apios was brought to Aomori from North American at the same time as the apples, and it has become a local food as well!’, she explained.
Apios tasted a like small potatoes, with a nutty touch in it. David who is from Belgium, and I, from the North of France, kind of share the same food culture and we both naturally wondered if we could make sort of fried potatoes out of it. Well, very small fried potatoes. After research, apios is also called potato bean, and it has three times the protein content of a regular potato. It also has a lot of calcium, iron, isoflavones and apparently is said to have some positive effects on blood pressure and preventing a series of diseases. If you want to, you can even buy some frozen ones from the restaurant to cook at home!
I will let David express himself about the food, especially the dishes he ordered for himself:
As Amelie mentioned above, I made a hiking trip to Aomori in October 2016. Aomori may seem far when looking at the map, but thanks to the shinkansen, it’s only a 3-hour comfortable train ride away. During that trip I discovered that Aomori has great seafood – the fish market in Aomori city is a lot smaller than Tokyo’s, but at the entrance you can buy food tickets and a bowl of rice. Then you can walk around the market and exchange the tickets for some sashimi to put on top of your rice to create your own customized seafood rice bowl! As Amelie related above, I also encountered the Aomori apple – I was given a couple as a present at a restaurant in Hirosaki. I was really taken by how crunchy and juicy it was compared to other apples. However I was about to discover that Aomori has a lot more to offer than fresh seafood and crunchy apples.
First I went for some cold smoked mackerel, their most popular item on the menu. It tasted just like prosciutto – even though the English menu said exactly that, it was still surprising. I also really enjoyed the Kuroishi soup yakisoba which, as the name suggests, is yakisoba in a kind of soup. I can guarantee that it tastes far better than the name sounds. Since it contained pieces of pork, it reminded me of the flavor of pork miso soup (“tonjiru”). We also ordered their original Cesar salad – there was something crunchy inside but it wasn’t croutons (nor the Aomori apple) – it was small pieces of Aomori Nanbu crackers (“nanbu senbei”). “Senbei” are typically made from rice but those made in Aomori are actually made from flour!
There were so many things that looked good on the English menu but even with two people it was impossible to order everything. The menu includes descriptions and explanations for each dish so it’s really easy to figure out what you want to eat. It also does a good job at pushing some of the dishes with amusing comments such as “constant requests for second servings” next to the horse meat sashimi (“basashi” 馬刺し) dish, and “It has been proven that this garlic smell disappears after 5 hours” under the deep-fried Aomori garlic dish. I will certainly make another visit to Ringo no Hana, especially since I want to try more Aomori food and sake!
A delicious surprise: Chie, the mangaka shamisen player!
After about an hour of enjoying the local specialties, a fairy-like young woman bearing a musical instrument pushed the door. ‘Oh, you’re a little late today’ said Manami-san.
We had heard that it was sometimes possible to hear someone play the shamisen (a Japanese traditional instrument with three chords). The young woman was bearing a little sign saying ‘Nagashi no jikan’ (Nagashi time), and we learnt that nagashi was the term for such musicians who go from to place to place to play their music and entertain the customers (in exchange of a little fee). We could not resist but ask for a song, and we asked her – her name is Chie – to play us something. To our delight, she sung us an original song about Arakicho, this district we learn to love more and more everyday! It reminded us of the time Arakicho was a geisha district and such shamisen music must have been heard echoing in the streets in the summer nights… Personally, it gave me chills. Here is the video of her performance, enjoy!
After she finished singing, I realized she was also bearing a small pocket full of marker pens, and that her sign was actually introducing her as ‘Chie, singing mangaka’.
‘Wait, you are also a mangaka?
– Yes. if you wish, I can draw your portrait and sing at the same time.’
I could not resist and I asked her to show this other side of her talent, and so she did. It was very impressive to hear her sing without a false note while drawing my portrait! She even kindly accepted to draw me as a Thai Kickboxer (a sport I practice).
After she finished, we got to know her a little more. Her business card represents her singing, accompanied by a man striking the chords, but she was alone. Chie-san told us:
‘I wanted to become a mangaka, but it’s a difficult business and it did not turn out very well, so I have been doing nagashi with my shisho (master) for more than five years. He passed away last year and since then I am doing my best at playing the shamisen and continuing the nagashi on my own.’ We were both very touched by her story, and as she left the place as eerily as she came in, I promised myself to try and meet her again to hear more.
Introducing Aomori culture in Arakicho
The name ‘Ringo no Hana’ means ‘Apple Flower’, which is the symbol for Aomori. But actually, the real full name of the place is ‘Aomori PR Izakaya – Ringo no Hana’, which could be translated as ‘Aomori Promotion Izakaya’.
The shop is not only serving Aomori food and drinks in a typical atmosphere, it also sells a few products, and also organizes activities such as folks embroidery workshops.
Manami-san opened Ringo no Hana seven years ago, a longevity that is a proof of quality in this gourmet town.
‘I chose Arakicho because it’s a place where you can find so many original drinking places with a strong identity’, she told us.
‘Were you not scared by the competition here? I mean, only the best bars and restaurants remain in Arakicho – the other ones seem to disappear very quickly.’, I asked.
‘Not really. I knew Aomori cuisine was quite rare and that we had a chance.’
Manami-san seemed very happy when David mentioned the fact that when he was walking down the street, the bright lanterns caught his eye and made him want to come in.
‘Do you have many foreign customers?’, he asked.
‘Yes, actually quite often. They seem to enjoy the place. If foreigners want to visit us and discover a bit of Aomori, they are very welcome. Actually, we have a Facebook page in English on which we introduce Aomori food and traditions!’
Ringo no Hana is definitely trying to communicate Aomori culture to everyone, Japanese people and foreigners alike, and they do it in a very up-to-date way. They are very good at using social media: if you make a post on Instagram or Facebook with a specific hashtag, you can get a free drink!
I discovered later that they even have a Youtube channel (in Japanese). The channel is pretty awesome with many humorous videos, information about the shop and its sake but also funny videos involving Aomori people like this music video of AKB48’s ‘Koi suru fortune cookie’ you have to watch because it’s so great:
Check the full channel here:
Their Facebook page in English is here: