On the north-east coast of Japan, where mountains roll into rice fields and waves crash on sandy shores, two historical cities stand out for their gastronomic delights. Harbour side Niigata and mountainous Tsuruoka - located in the Tohoku region of Japan, a few hours from Tokyo by train - have a very different culinary style, but both approach cuisine in a way that celebrates the farmlands, oceans and mountains that surround them. The cities may be 140km apart, but their commitment to the country's natural abundance unites them in reputation: as true culinary capitals of Japan.
Niigata - Sea sensations
Niigata is renowned for its seafood. This port city faces the Sea of Japan, where an abundance of fish surge through the warm and cold currents that collide in the water. At the city's Pia Bandai Market - one of the largest fish markets on the east coast - you can see hundreds of varieties of seafood laid out every morning, from giant red snow crabs to oysters that shine like pearls. Grab a selection of ready-to-eat sashimi to go, or take your fresh-bought seafood to the charcoal grills in the middle of the market, where you can cook up a lunch that sizzles.
Niigata's close relationship with the sea has resulted in other bounty too. In the 1800s - thanks to a maritime shipping route known as the Kitamaebune - Niigata became linked to Kyoto in the south, with the two cities exchanging ingredients, culinary techniques and culture. This heavily influenced Niigata's gastronomic style, resulting in dishes like noppeijiru soup - a daily staple available in many local restaurants - where colourful vegetables and seafood were finely chopped in the traditional Kyoto style, but served in soup form to keep people warm through Niigata's chilling winters.
This maritime trade route also brought with it another cultural gem: Geigi, Niigata's equivalent of Kyoto's Geisha, complete with their white-powdered faces and vibrant kimonos. The rich new population travelling from the south needed rich new means of entertainment, and so the Geigi thrived; and with them, the restaurants and teahouses that the Geigi frequented. You can still experience this special cultural spectacle to this day. At Saito Villa - a traditional Japanese house set among maple trees and bamboo groves - you can spend time in the company of the Geigi, with traditional songs, dance and games to be enjoyed while the koi carp swim lazily in the pond outside.
Tsuruoka - Mountain high
The city of Tsuruoka, by contrast, didn't receive Kyoto's grand influence. Instead, this rural, mountainous region adopted a more simplistic approach to cuisine. Harsh winters meant locals had to find innovative ways to preserve their mountain vegetables, which is why dozens of varieties of tsukemono (pickles) are so prevalent in all the restaurants today. Now they're eaten as Tsuruoka's finest delicacies - but for centuries they represented survival.
It is thanks to this uniquely uncomplicated food culture that Tsuruoka was designated a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy: the only city in Japan to achieve such a feat. The locals take a single, basic ingredient and transform it into something special. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the collection of colourful dishes that form shojin-ryori- the traditionally vegetarian meal of Yamabushi (monks) that Tsuruoka has become famed for.
The region is also home to three of Japan's most sacred mountains - a Japan Heritage Site collectively known as Dewa Sanzan. Traditionally this was both a Shinto and Buddhist spiritual area, where monks from both religions would live in harmony, foraging for their own vegetarian shojin-ryori from the ingredients found on the mountains: bamboo sprouts in miso, sesame tofu topped with dainty light bulbs, and mountain vegetables dried in the sun.
However, in the Meiji era of the 1800s, Shinto and Buddhism were officially separated, and Dewa Sanzan followed the path of Shinto under the pression of the government. This also resulted in the removal of any Buddhist influence from the local cuisine. Whereas shojin-ryori had always been vegetarian - followed Buddha's words that no one should eat a creature trapped in the circle of reincarnation - Shintoism was about letting natural elements become one with the body: and so meat and fish were gradually added to the selection of dishes.
You can sample this Shinto-style for yourself at Saikan's Pilgrim Lodge (3,500 yen; £23), which sits at the top of Mount Haguro, one of the three sacred peaks. The 40-minte hike up goes through thick cedar forests with waterfalls and deity statues hiding among the trees. You'll understand why Tsuruoka won the culinary UNESCO designation when you taste it (made even more satisfying thanks to the 2,446 stone steps climbed to reach it) but you can also fid shojin-ryori served in 12 other pilgrim lodges at the foot of Mount Haguro too.
A taste of the plains
One thing Niigata and Tsuruoka have in common are rice fields that stretch far into the horizon. Both regions see heavy snowfall in winter, which brings moisture to the soil, and intense sunlight in summer, creating optimal humidity. This results in some of the best rice in Japan. Niigata's local brand, Koshihikari, is much sought-after by sushi chefs for its texture, while Tsuruoka's Tsuyahime rice has for six years in a row been awarded the highest raking in the annual Japanese Rice Tasting Contest.
For Niigata, this bounty of delicious rice has led to high quality sake. The conditions are perfect for producing it: the heavy snowfall purifies the air; the n creates an abundance of pure fresh water when it melts. This is used to ferment the local rice, resulting in a premium rice wine that is considered one of the best in the country. There are around 90 breweries in Niigata, many of which can be visited for a tour and tasting. Imayotsukasa found near Niigata Station is a well-known brewery. Founded in 1767 it has free tours in English. Or, try and time your visit 'Sake no Jin' for a taste of Niigata's annual sake festival.
Tsuruoka, on the other hand, uses their award-winning rice in more deferential ways. Locals see rice as a divine gift, and so use it as a main ingredient to food and drink at festivals. On 31 December, one of the largest celebrations takes place on snowy Mount Haguro, where toasted onigiri (seasoned rice balls) and hot local sake flows freely, to warm the bodies - and more figuratively the hearts - of participants, 'purifying them' for the year ahead.
Both cities and their approach to gastronomy can tell you so much about their way of life. They paint a picture of how history, geography and culture can profoundly shape the cuisine of a destination- a very enticing prospect for all travellers.