10 things I love about Ashikaga, Japan
Olive|January 2021
Chefs share the unique ingredients, traditions and dishes of their home cities. This month, we discover the historic city north of Tokyo with Masaki Sugisaki of Dinings SW3

I was born in Saitama city, not far from Tokyo, but I spent my childhood in Ashikaga, a city two hours from the capital. It is also known as ‘East-Kyoto’ and ‘North-Kamakura’, as several hundred years ago it was one of Japan’s most important cities. It remains the location of beautiful, historical buildings, temples and shrines. It’s surrounded by some incredible areas of natural beauty. It is in Ashikaga where I can recall my best childhood memories – I spent a lot of time in the mountains, where we would catch river crabs and fish before cooking them over an open fire.

1 Festival food

Festivals are very important to the people of Ashikaga,which typically take place in temples and shrines. My favourites are Hanabi Taikai, a fireworks festival which happens on the first Saturday in August close to the river Watarase, made even more special by the reflections cast on the water. Here you’ll find traditional food stalls serving dishes such as grilled squid, sweetcorn and takoyaki, which are balls of diced octopus. I also love the Batou-Matsuri festival on New Year’s Eve. Batou means ‘curse’, and the premise is that one is encouraged to put all bad things behind them at the end of the calendar year by cursing loudly from the top of a mountain. As you can imagine, this sounds ridiculous, but it is such fun to see hundreds of people together cursing like mad. It is a Japanese tradition to have soba noodles at the end of the year, symbolic of a long and peaceful life and relationships. My favourite is hot soba noodle with tempura on top.

2 Soba noodles

The area is known for its high-quality buckwheat, whichis what soba noodles are made from. The climate and natural spring water from the mountains provide the perfect growing conditions. Naturally, there are a lots of very good soba noodle restaurants in the area. Making soba is acknowledged as a very special technique, just like sushi. I love to prepare them more than any other noodle. My favourite way is in zaru-soba (see recipe, p72), which is cold noodles served with a fish stock-based dipping sauce. There is a very specific way that these should be eaten. First, you must pick up the noodles with chop sticks and dip them into the sauce – but only half the length of the noodle.

A lot of people go crazy and dip in the whole noodle so it tastes stronger, but soba is all about experiencing the delicate aroma of buckwheat on its own. Second, you slurp! There is logic behind this. When you slurp, you breathe the air in with a gentle aroma of the noodle itself. When you breathe out from your nose, you taste it in the best possible way. Slurping can be tricky to master, both mentally and physically, but I strongly recommend giving it a go – it makes a huge difference to the experience.

3 Sake

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