Eating my way around Mount Hakusan

Sampling the local delicacies is always one of the joys of travelling, but today I had a perfect excuse to eat: my Hidden Beauty was the cuisine of the Hakusan area. Mount Hakusan is one of Japan’s most famous mountains, featuring even in the literature of the Heian Court a millennium ago. Its slopes sweep down to a coastal plain, resulting in rich supplies of both game and seafood in a relatively small area.

Mount Hakusan seen from the coast

The region experiences heavy snows, so fermentation has played a key role in preserving food for the long winters. However, at Arayo, my first destination, they use a unique fermentation process for another, vital reason.

Can you guess what these are?

Fish roe is common in Japanese cuisine, but when it comes to pufferfish roe, there is one small problem: it is highly toxic... To deal with this, the roe is first pickled in salt for a year, which draws out the water and much of the poison.

But even after pickling, the roe is still too poisonous

So it is coated with rice bran and malt in order to ferment further

Each barrel is carefully labelled with the date, then left for another year and a half

This is not a dish for the impatient...

Every day, the barrels are watered with the juices from pickled sardines, to add to the flavour

Two and a half years later, this is the result. It’s salty but tasty.

That was just elevenses... Lunch, at Shishiku-so, was a veritable spread of fermented foods, including salmon baked with salty rice malt, daikon with creamy rice malt, pickled herring, and even grapes topped with rice malt, eaten around an open hearth.

I never knew there were so many ways to pickle...

I also made sasa-zushi, rice balls topped with dried prawns and seaweed, then wrapped in bamboo leaves and pressed in a wooden mould. This is another method of preservation, albeit only for a few days.

Making these is easy and fun

Tomorrow’s lunch!

There are several sake breweries in the area, making good use of the spring water that flows from the mountain. I visited Miyamoto Brewery, where the three brewers produce high-quality artisan sake.

Miyamoto-san explains the brewing process

The brewery has also developed liquor from a local breed of potato, which is sold in Kutani-yaki bottles

However, even I could not spend the whole day eating and drinking... I also paid a quick visit to another famous local industry, Asano Taiko, where I saw drums being carved from huge logs.

The drums range in size from small to enormous

And no visit to the area would be complete without taking in Shirayama Hime Shrine.

The shrine is the head of around 3,000 “Hakusan Shrines” spread across Japan

The shrine allows worshippers to receive the spiritual merits of having prayed at the summit of the mountain without actually having to climb it! This was an opportunity too good to miss, so I participated in a ceremony to invoke the favour of the gods.

The priest purifies us all. We weren’t allowed to look, but the shrine assistant took these photos!

The kagura dance is to entertain the gods. The drums are of course made by Asano Taiko.

Then it was time to head back to my accommodation for dinner, taking in some mountain scenery on the way.

Wata no Taki (Cotton Wool Waterfall) does look wispy up close

Soba (buckwheat) is also grown locally

I’m staying at Iwama Sanso, a small inn high up the slopes of Mount Hakusan. No sooner had I parked my car than a tanuki (badger-like creature) sauntered nonchalantly past. In the lobby, however, was a rather fiercer animal...

Even wearing a scarf, this bear is not cute and cuddly

The owner’s husband is a hunter, and bear and wild boar meat feature heavily in the delicious meals served here.

Today’s sashimi is... bear!

For dinner tonight, I also ate bear hotpot, stewed bear with daikon radish, wild boar with mushrooms, bee larvae, and to finish, wild grape sorbet. Kitamura-san is hosting a lot more overseas guests lately, so I taught her the word “wild” - most of the food on the menu comes from the mountains, with the rest from her garden.

I cannot move... But I’m sure I’ll have an appetite again by tomorrow! I’m heading over the mountains to Toyama to try some woodcrafts.