Today I want to share a cultural and gastronomic experience, which isn’t even well-known among Japanese people. Imoni-kai is very enjoyable, and one of my favourite memories of living in Sendai.

So, what is it?
Imoni-kai is an event that takes place in autumn, starting in September/October and running until November, or until the first snow falls. It’s a sort of outdoor picnic-slash-barbecue of stew (imoni), cooked and eaten by the river to enjoy the lovely weather and beautiful scenery of autumn leaves. Some people compare it to the spring picnics called hanami, which are held to enjoy the lovely weather and beautiful scenery of the cherry blossoms. Just like during hanami, it’s a group event for families, friends or co-workers, and a very sociable one.

Although the main ingredient of imoni is taro root (which is very similar to potato in texture when cooked), there are various other ingredients. Common ones are meat (usually beef or pork), vegetables (such as onion, carrot or daikon) and konnyaku, a type of savoury jelly, low in calories, made from the konjac plant. I’ve also had tofu, mushrooms, soy sauce and mirin in imoni before. Many of these ingredients are mix-and-match, but there are also specific combinations that make local variations of imoni, which I’ll explain more about below.
Click image for larger version  Name:	Imoni.jpg Views:	1 Size:	88.9 KB ID:	1087
(By H-shimo, CC by-sa 3.0,

Tell me more.
As it says in the title, imoni and imoni-kai are a northern tradition. You can find them in all of the prefectures that make up the Tohoku region, minus Aomori. That means Miyagi, Yamagata, Fukushima, Iwate, and Akita. Therefore, people who live in the south have often never heard of it – and they’re missing out!
Yamagata prefecture is often considered the main place for imoni, and Yamagata City has a festival each year to celebrate. Tens of thousands of people gather to eat a communal imoni cooked in a pot that’s so large, it has to be stirred by construction vehicles!

The type of imoni made is actually cooked in the “Yamagata style”, a kind of sukiyaki style, based on beef and soy sauce. The neighbouring Miyagi prefecture’s capital, Sendai, uses its famous miso to create “Sendai style”, which is a tonjiru (pork stew)-like dish which not surprisingly requires pork and miso!
Tonjiru is the main style, and can be found in all prefectures, including the coastal area of Yamagata. Other types of imoni include torisuki style, which is similar to the tonjiru style and found in the inland areas of the north of Tohoku; and yosenabe style, made in the Sanriku coastal area. There’s even a version that uses fish and potatoes!

These different areas also have their own names for imoni, too, such as imoninoko in the Osaki part of Miyagi prefecture.

But, what is it actually like?
The event is lots of fun! When the leaves start to change colours, supermarkets and convenience stores will stock all of the equipment you need to make it, from the ingredients to the pans and the firewood. You can rent what you need for the day, grab some drinks and some friends, and head down to the river.
Click image for larger version  Name:	Imoni-kai.JPG Views:	1 Size:	47.3 KB ID:	1088
(By Haseyu, public domain,

The imoni itself is pure comfort food, and perfect for staving off the growing chill in the air. I was lucky enough to attend two imoni-kai, and try both the Yamagata and Sendai styles of imoni. Both are delicious, but I prefer the Yamagata style (sorry, Sendai!). It’s smooth and has a stronger umami flavour compared to the textured Sendai style. I’m also biased towards beef, so don’t let my opinion put you off!

My experience of imoni-kai was in Sendai, and the place to be is the Hirose River, which meanders through a large portion of the city – there’s plenty of room for everyone. I ate with colleagues and it was all very organised, from making the stew to packing away at the end. It could be a little uncomfortable sitting on the rocks, even with a blanket, but there’s no experience like an imoni-kai. As a bonus to the pleasant company and chance to see a bird of prey swoop down to catch a fish – if you’re not already full after a hearty portion of stew - you can add noodles (or rice) to the remaining liquid to make your imoni go even further.
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One of the many places along the Hirose River that are perfect for imoni-kai

I want some!
Me, too – remembering it has made me hungry! If you do want to try imoni, and you’re in the right place at the right time, I highly recommend it. You can either go to the festival in Yamagata, or try it yourself. My advice would be, first, to get there early, both for reserving equipment and a spot by the river. You should also be courteous in sharing the public space. Finally, clean up after yourself, and not just to get the deposit back for the equipment. The reputation of foreigners throughout Japan depends on it! Of course, if you have a good Asian or world food shop or supermarket nearby, there are recipes online that you can use to have a go at making imoni at home.

But however you decide to do it, I hope you enjoy this delicious little slice of northern Japanese culture! And if you have any questions or opinions, as always, let me know in a comment!