Miyagi Prefecture was one of the hardest hit areas during the 2011 Tohoku Disaster which included a 9.1 magnitude earthquake, followed by a tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown in neighboring Fukushima Prefecture. Miyagi’s biggest city Sendai was the closest major city to the epicenter, and sustained major damage to its airport and seaports. Residents of Sendai had eight minutes to evacuate.
I visited Sendai last year, and the resilience of the people and city was most impressive. I felt fortunate to be able to eat and drink my way through this magnificent prefecture that seemed to have very little physical scarring left from the disaster (from what I could see). A 90 minute bullet train ride from Tokyo takes you to the heart of Miyagi – where flat plains of rice paddies, bubbling hot springs, curious eats, and food-friendly sake awaits.
Rice paddie surrounding Katsuyama Brewery in Miyagi Prefecture, picture by Katsuyama Brewery
Miyagi is the oyster capital of Japan (the prefecture cultivates 23% of the countries oysters). Facing the Pacific Ocean, with very cold winters, it is a prime location to harvest these gleaming jewels. They are so famous for their oysters that oyster cultivators from the U.S. took them from Miyagi to raise on the west coast, and simply named them Miyagi oysters. From Tomales Bay to Puget Sound, Miyagis are now ubiquitous on these shores. Look for them at your local fish counter!*
Sendai is also known for their gyutan-yaki (grilled beef tongue). People from all around Japan travel to Sendai specifically to tour all the gyutan restaurants in the city. Tender pieces of meat are sliced and grilled over binchotan charcoal and dipped in tare sauce for a decadent meal. I’ve often found beef tongue charcuterie at local meat counters here in Oakland. Just slice it up and you’ve got a perfect otsumami (snacks) to your Miyagi sakes! You can also visit a Korean or Japanese BBQ spot and enjoy a plate of gyutan.
“Have you had hoya yet?” my friend from Miyagi asked me with a chuckle last year as he picked us up from the local station. I had never heard of hoya, and asked him to describe it to me, which he has a very hard time explaining. “I think it lives on the sea floor, it’s kind of like a clam, looks like a pinapple, and local ojisan (older men) like it,” he said. Ultimately, he wasn’t really advocating for it, but told me I should try it while I was in Miyagi. We found it at the train station depachika later that day in Sendai. A fish monger was hacking at it with a cleaver, looking like a scene straight out of an Italian horror movie.
Hoya in the depachika in Sendai
In English, it is referred to as Sea Pineapple, a type of sea squirt. Served as sashimi with soy sauce and vinegar, I’d say the experience was unlike anything I’ve had before. It is bitter, salinic, and smells a bit like rubber. Although off-putting by itself, it is much better with sake. In fact, I revisited it a few times during the trip when sake was present.
Raw hoya in vinegar
If you walk down the miso aisle in a Japanese market, you will find several types of Sendai miso. Sendai miso's history started when the samurai Date Masamune built a miso factory at the base of the Sendai Castle way back in 1593. In those days most of the miso was made right in the city, but nowadays, Sendai miso is produced all over Miyagi Prefecture. The dry, mild taste is a consequence of just two ingredients, rice kōji and soybeans fermented for longer than other types of miso. Sendai miso can be enjoyed by itself because of its mild flavor, and some people even refer to Sendai miso as namemiso (lickable miso). Mix some Sendai miso with a dollop of Kewpie mayo and dip carrot and cucumbers sticks for a simple appetizer.
Miyagi is known to brew dry sakes. At both levels, we have dry expressions of sake, Michinoku at Level 1 and Atago no Matsu at Level 2. As a prefecture, 90% of their sake is considered premium, the highest of any prefecture in Japan. This may be due to the fact that the region enjoys their sakes alongside fine food like oysters and gyutan. Katsuyama Brewery (offered at Level 1) was the first to develop shokuchu-shu sakes (sakes to be enjoyed with food). From my trip to Miyagi, I can attest that their sakes are not generally pretty or flowery, but beg to be paired with distinctly savory flavors like miso and hoya. I’ve created two recipes online on our blog to pair with these sakes, Katei Gyutan Yaki and Buttered Bamboo Shoots. Try making them at home to pair with your bottles!
When we can travel again, I highly recommend visiting Miyagi, as it is easily accessible from Tokyo and is rich in sake and food culture. For now, let’s kanpai to Magnificent Miyagi from afar.
Co-Founder + Sake Director
LEVEL 1: Introductory Membership (Two 300ml bottles)
Michinoku Onikoroshi Honjozo
Uchigasaki Brewing Co. (Miyagi, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Local Miyagi rice 60%, SMV: +10
Onikoroshi is translated to “demon slayer” to convey that this type of sake is spicy enough to kill demons. Thanks to the harsh, cold winters of Miyagi, Uchigasaki has been making low-temperature, long fermentation sakes that result in very dry brews, for over 300 years. This sake has a particularly high SMV of +10. Dry sakes are ideal for everyday drinking – the dryness can be enhanced when chilled, and mellowed when warmed. It is very versatile when food pairing, and complements Miyagi flavors from Miyagi oysters to Buttered Bamboo Shoots (recipe on the blog at umamimart.com). I kept grabbing for this one during dinner!
Katsuyama Ken Junmai Ginjo
Katsuyama Supreme Sake Co. (Miyagi, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Yamada Nishiki 50%, SMV: +2
This brewery only makes one tank of sake a week. That means all of the focus and energy goes into the one type of sake they are brewing. Heizo Isawa, president of the brewery, says that because of this, “Our brewing style is like raising a gifted only child. If you only have one child, you can devote all your passion, skill, time and love for that child.” You can taste that outcome in this sake – it is multifaceted and mature. The sweetness and acidity working together reminds you of a phenom that excels both in art and mathematics. I enjoyed the cherry blossom aroma, followed by a creamy texture, and crisp finish. Have this sake chilled with Katei Gyutan Yaki (recipe on the blog at umamimart.com). The acidity cleanses the palate between bites of rich beef tongue.
LEVEL 2: Premium Membership (Two 720ml bottles)
Atago no Matsu Tokubetsu Honjozo
Niizawa Brewery (Miyagi, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Yamada Nishiki 60%, SMV: +6
This sake is a perfect example of a jizake (local sake) that embodies Miyagi. With the clean elegance famous to Miyagi, the current owner Iwao Niizawa keeps this traditional brew that his father created in the lineup for the locals. This slightly golden sake has a pleasant aroma of honeysuckle and finishes dry. Niizawa likes to stay away from flashy, trendy flavors, brewing what he calls “ultimate food sakes” that have crisp acidity and herbal notes that pair with a range of foods. Try slightly with oysters and Katei Gyutan Yaki (recipe on the blog at umamimart.com).
Miyakanbai Junmai Ginjo
Kanbai Sake Brewery (Miyagi, Japan)
Seimaibuai: Miyama Nishiki 55%, SMV: -1
Kanbai Sake Brewery prides itself on their rice, and goes by the motto, “To know the rice is to know the sake.” They take special care in understanding the rice harvest each year, to make a consistent brew year after year. Balancing the sweetness of spring nectar and a clean finish, this sake uses highly polished, locally grown Miyama Nishiki rice for a ripe rice flavor. Enjoy the a bouquet of tropical fruit flavors of mango, and pineapple, with a clean, dry finish. Try chilled with Buttered Bamboo Shoots (recipe on the blog at umamimart.com). The brewery was completely rebuilt after sustaining damage from the 2011 Tohoku Disaster. They credit the people of Miyagi who rushed to help with the reconstruction of the brewery after the earthquake.