The old saying goes that a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. From my own experience, this applies to women too! So it stands to reason that the food we enjoy when we are on holiday can have a big impact on how we feel about a place, and whether we are likely to visit it again. Thankfully, here in Nagano there is no shortage of culinary delights waiting for the eager adventurer to sample. So, join me today dear readers as we sample the very best of Nagano Prefecture’s local cuisine.
Many culinary experts in Japan look upon rice in the same way the French and the Italians look upon wine. To the uninitiated all rice may look and taste the same, but to the discerning palate, quality will always rise to the top. This is why the rice produced in Northern Nagano is considered by many to be among the finest in Japan. The rice farmers of Nagano really do pride themselves on their long held reputation for producing some of the best rice there is to be found in all of Japan.
Each individual grain is checked for quality and washed to remove imperfections. Perhaps the best time to sample Northern Nagano’s own rice is in late October to early November, when the best rice of the season, goes on sale each year. As one would expect from a top quality rice producer, many of the producers in this region also make a fine line of sake rice wine too, but more on that later…
2. Nagano Prefecture Original Sake
Nagano is home to the second most sake breweries in Japan. Only Niigata, to the north west, has more sake breweries than Nagano. Nagano benefits from remarkably clean and pure water, much of which flows from the Japanese Alps and the region’s other numerous mountain ranges. In turn, this water also makes it easier to produce the highest quality grains of rice, making fine sake brewing a whole lot easier too.
However, as any expert or enthusiast will tell you. Mere words alone cannot do this delicious drink justice. To truly appreciate the value of a particular sake, one must sample it for themselves. The best way to do this is by touring a local brewery. You could even integrate your visit into sightseeing at other popular locations too. After a long day of touring around temples and such like, nothing quite beats a fresh class of sake to toast a day of hard work well done.
3. Apples and Everything Apple-Flavoured
When most people think of Japanese apple producers, most of us think of Aomori, Japan’s undisputed top apple producer. However, you may not be aware that number 2 on that list is Nagano Prefecture, in fact some Japanese in the know will even tell you that Nagano’s apples taste better! Indeed, apples are so popular in Nagano that even our prefectural mascot, Arukuma, wears one on his head. You can find Arukuma and a whole load of other Nagano apple related goodies at our gift shop
Another good place to sample Nagano’s apples and their application in various local dishes, is at Enza Cafe. Just a short walk from Jigokudani Park, Enza Café is the perfect place to stopover on your way to visit the snow monkeys.
Another of Nagano’s signature foods is its world famous soba noodles. Made from buckwheat, these noodles differ from the shorter and thicker udon noodles. Not only do they look and feel different, but their composition gives them a different texture and taste too. You will find soba noodle producers all over Nagano Prefecture, with plenty of restaurants dedicated to serving them too.
I especially recommend kakiage soba. This is a bowl of soba noodles served in a thin soup, with a large cluster of shredded vegetables in tempura batter on top. Pressing the vegetables down into the noodles and soup before eating creates a delicious mush of veggies, batter and noodles. Sometimes the simple foods are the best, and kakiage soba is such a food. If you enjoy soba noodles, then why not join a tour and try your hand at making some of your own?
This fiery little green plant has become something of an international hit in recent years. Although most commonly enjoyed as a smooth green paste, mixed with soy sauce to accompany sushi, here in Nagano you will find many novel and occasionally bizarre applications for wasabi. How about a potato croquette flavoured with wasabi? Or wasabi enthused noodles. If you’re truly adventurous, and up for the ultimate culinary challenge, then maybe you are ready to sample wasabi ice cream.
Yes, this isn’t a gimmick, this is actual ice cream, flavoured with real wasabi, including the spiciness. It is maybe the ultimate example of one of those foods that makes you think: “This shouldn’t work, but somehow, it really does!”. Azumino is probably Nagano’s best known producer of Wasabi. They even have wasabi beer! A visit to one of Azumino’s wasabi farms is highly recommended, and yes of course, our tour includes that the biggest wasabi farm in Japan.
I remember the first time I came to Nagano a little over 3 years ago. One of the first foods I tried was Oyaki. These delicious little dumplings come in a variety of different flavours: some sweet, some spicy, but all delicious. Oyaki are made of a dough that comprises fermented buckwheat, the same crop used to produce Nagano’s famous soba noodles. The dough is formed into small fist-sized dumplings and then stuffed with one of any number of fillings before being roasted to perfection on an iron pan. Pumpkin is a popular filling, as is the local green leaf vegetable “Nozawana”. Personally, I like the spicy radish or aubergine and wasabi fillings.
For those with a sweet tooth, anko red bean paste oyaki are also a common sight in most supermarkets and snack shops. The best oyaki however, are those bought directly from local oyaki shops. Nothing quite beats the smell and taste of a piping hot, freshly roasted oyaki, especially on a cold day. Some of the department stores around Nagano city will also sell frozen Oyaki, allowing you to take them home and cook them in their own time.
7. Horse Sashimi
We’ve all heard the old cliché: “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse!” Well, when you visit Nagano, you’ll finally have the chance to call out your friends on this over-used line of hyperbolae. For here in Nagano, you can actually eat a horse, or least a small piece of one. Horse sashimi, or raw horse meat, is something of a local delicacy here. In many ways it tastes similar to rare beef, though as one would expect from looking at the musculature of a horse, it is decidedly leaner and less fatty than most types of beef. The meat itself also has a delicious, melt in the mouth consistency, and is particularly good when paired with some soy sauce and a good, local craft beer. More on those later.
Horse sashimi is often referred to as Basashi (formed by pairing the kanji character for horse with the first character for sashimi). Again, if you can have the courage to look beyond western culinary conventions and try something a little bit outside your comfort zone then you are in for a treat.
8. Shinshu Beef
Much has been written over the years about the famous Kobe Beef. However, did you know that Nagano also has its own speciality type of “Wagyu” beef? Shinshu beef comes from farms in and around Matsumoto City. It is known for its soft texture, mellow flavor and somewhat sweet aftertaste. Some fans of Shinshu Beef say that this is sweet aftertaste comes from the fact that, among other things in their healthy, locally produced vegetable based diet, the cows that give us Shinshu Beef are fed apples.
Having tasted both Shinshu beef and Nagano apples in quick succession, I think there may well be something in this theory. Whilst steak remains the most common way to enjoy Shinshu Beef, the meat is so flavourful and pliable that there are a host of different ways it can be enjoyed. Sukiyaki, sashimi, even burgers are popular when it comes to Shinshu Beef.
9. Ishii Miso
A Japanese friend of mine once joked: “There are only three things certain in life: death, taxes and that your Japanese friends will always have miso in their food cupboard!” Indeed it’s true. The Japanese love their miso. In fact, a common way for a Japanese man to propose to his future wife is to ask her “Will you make miso soup for me everyday?” Of course there’s much more to miso than just the simple soup. It can be used as a marinade for pork, chicken or beef steaks. Some places even make miso ice cream.
One such establishment is the Ishii Miso Brewery in Matsumoto City. Their miso has a far deeper and more aromatic flavor. This is due to the unique way in which their miso is brewed. Typically, most miso producers only ferment the miso base for, at most, a few months. Ishii however, using their own special process, ferment their miso for around 3 years. If you’re touring Matsumoto, then this place really is a must see.
10. Kyoho Grapes
Anyone who has ever spent some time in Nagano will know that we have an abundance of mountains here. But did you know that these mountains are also famed for producing mountain grapes. Nagano is one of Japan’s principal producers of Kyoho (Giant Mountain) grapes. These grapes, noted for their large size, deep purple complexion and sweet, sugary taste are actually the most commonly cultivated grape variety in the world. Their sweet flavor makes them a common ingredient in desserts such as fruit jellies and sorbets.
Fans of Japanese alcoholic drinks may also be aware of their use in “chu-hai”. Chu hi is a popular fruit flavoured alcoholic drink available from most convenience stores in Japan. It is made by blending sparkling fruit juice with shochu, a Japanese spirit similar in taste and composition to Russian vodka. Grape chu hi is one of the more popular varieties and some of these drinks are made using grapes grown right here in Nagano.
11. Chestnuts from Obuse
The history of chestnuts in Japan is almost as ancient as Japan itself. The earliest uses of chestnuts in Japanese cuisine goes right back to the Jomon period, around 15,000 years ago. In Obuse, a village in Nagano famed for its chestnuts, their use is a far more recent thing, with the earliest recordings of chestnut trees being planted dating back to 1367. That first harvest of chestnuts was said to be so delicious that it was offered as a sacrifice at the local shrine. In other words, Obuse chestnuts are literally the food of the gods!
One of the best way to sample Obuse chestnuts is with a bowl of “kurigohan”. This dish is made with white rice served with large chunks of steamed chestnut. The chestnuts permeate the rice, giving the entire dish a distinctive, nutty flavor. Another popular Obuse chestnut dish is the dessert “kuri youkan” a chestnut jelly based cake. There are a whole host of other exciting chestnut dishes for you to try when you visit Obuse, but I will leave that for you to discover yourself.
12. Soba Ramen
I’m sure many of us have rounded off an evening of drinking with friends with the obligatory bowl of Japanese Ramen. Likewise, you may also have partaken of a bowl of soba during one of your many visits to Japanese restaurant either here in Japan or elsewhere. Both of these noodle based dishes are delicious, yet quite different. So, you may be surprised to hear that there is a popular dish here in Nagano that combines both. Soba noodles, served in a ramen style, or Soba Ramen to give it its more common name.
Traditional ramen noodles are dried and then enthused with oil during their preparation, making them very high calorie and somewhat unhealthy, though admittedly delicious. Using soba noodles, crafted from buckwheat and far lower in fat than their conventional ramen counterpart, makes for a far healthier dish, and a different, though no less appetizing taste. One of the best places in Nagano to sample Soba Ramen is Goen, a Japanese restaurant near Shibu Onsen. You can find Goen directly opposite the entrance to Yudanaka Station.
The term “superfood” is one used all too often assigned to new and trendy foodstuffs said to have all manner of seemingly impossible health benefits. However, such hyperbolae may not be too far from the truth when one is talking about Agar. This seaweed extract, is probably best known for its use in sweets, such as yokan. Much like tofu, it doesn’t really have a flavor of its own, instead it is used to add depth to dishes by absorbing surrounding flavors. In addition to its use in sweets and desserts, in Nagano, strips of Agar ore commonly added to miso soup.
As a zero calorie food, agar is also thought to have a number of real health benefits. Most of Nagano’s agar comes from Ina City. The flows from a number of surrounding mountains meet in Ina, giving the city especially pure water, which makes for the perfect ground from which agar can grow. Not well known to use outside of the food industry, agar is one of those foods you have probably tried already and didn’t even realise.
Pickled food, known in Japanese as “tsukemono”, is commonplace in the diet of most Japanese people. However, the vibrant colour, crisp texture and specialist preparation methods of Japanese pickles make for a unique culinary experience. The most common way to eat tsukemono pickles in Japan is as an accompaniment to rice or as a side dish with your bento (boxed lunch).
Perhaps the most popular type of tsukemono in Nagano is pickled nozawana. As the name suggests, nozawana is named after the town, Nozawa, were this green vegetable is cultivated. Typically pickled with salt, Nozawana looks a little bit like celery but tastes more like a green leaf vegetable. It makes for a highly effective palate cleanser after enjoying an especially spicy or rich dinner.
15. Mushrooms From Nagano
Nagano’s mountainous terrain isn’t just suited to skiing and hiking. It has also made Nagano the number one in Japan for mushrooms. More mushrooms come from Nagano each year than any other prefecture in Japan. In total, Japan has about 4,000 different types of mushroom growing in the wild, although only around 100 of these are edible. In Nagano, the most commonly grown mushrooms are Shitake, Shimeji and enoki. Occassionally, masutake mushrooms are also found here, but these are out of the price range of most ordinary shoppers.
Similar in some ways to European truffles, masutake mushrooms are difficult to find and harvest. Renowned for their unique texture and strong fragrance, they can retail for up to 100,000 yen per kilo. Like many other mushrooms, they are best enjoyed after being lightly grilled.
16. Chili Peppers
Although more commonly associated with Mexican and Indian cooking, chili peppers are very popular in Japan too. Nagano produces a variety of chili peppers which are often used in the preparation of garnishes, condiments and sauces. One of the most common uses for chili peppers in Nagano is in the creation of shichimi. Shichimi is a powdered seasoning made with a blend of seven different spices, including a few different varieties of pepper. I would especially recommend the blend that incorporates Yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit with a unique taste that falls somewhere between a lemon and an orange.
Nagano City has a shop, and adjoining café, called Yawataya Isogoro, dedicated entirely to shichimi in all its varieties. If you’re planning to have lunch there, I highly recommend the vegetable curry! If you have a delicate palate then please don’t worry. Although all of the cafe’s dishes use chili in some way, they have a variety of dishes that are mild too. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, then why not try the cocoa drink flavoured with chili powder?
17. Original Nagano Craft Beers
I have written extensively today about Nagano’s remarkably clean, mountain water. However, there is one attribute this water has that has gained truly national recognition: It helps make a very fine pint of beer! Using Nagano’s crystal clear waters as a base, a whole range of craft beer micro-breweries have sprung up in Nagano in the past decade or so. You will probably be familiar with some of these beers, as they are available in convenience stores and supermarkets all across Japan. The likes of Karuizawa, Shiga Kogen and Suwa all produce nationally renowned craft beers.
However, perhaps the best known of all Nagano’s beer breweries is Yo Ho Brewing Company, based in Saku Shi. Their most popular brands, “Suiyoubi No Neko” (Wednesday’s Cat), Yona Yona Beer, and Ao Oni (blue demon), are all made using the finest Nagano mountain waters. On a hot summer day, after a long hike across the Nagano countryside, there’s no better thirst quencher!
If there’s one thing these Nagano folks love to use in their cooking, it’s their local veggies. From the unique nozawana, to the finest mushrooms, and all manner of other vegetable goodness, Nagano is a veggie lover’s paradise. Most supermarkets in Nagano have their own area within the fruit and veg section dedicated exclusively to locally sourced produce. It may sound somewhat pretentious, but when you choose a freshly farmed local pumpkin, potato or eggplant, over an imported one, you really can taste the difference.
Although vegetarian restaurants remain something of a rarity in Japan, Nagano is getting in on the act. One such establishment is Ichimanryu, near Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City.