A Culinary Journey Through Nagano
Like all Japanese cuisine, Nagano foods are based upon using the most fresh and simple ingredients of the season. Typical dishes are made from what Nagano people find fresh and local at the markets making many of them very unique. Surrounded with Japan Alps, Nagano is known for the fresh produce from the mountains such as buckwheat, honey and wasabi (they even have a few bold meals like grasshoppers and bee larvae). During my last Nagano visit, I had a wonderful chance to try some of these specialties.
Slurp Soba Noodles
Nagano is synonymous with soba noodles. Its highland climate is perfect for growing buckwheat. It‘s among very few places in Japan that you can slurp soba noodles as breakfast food in every street corner. Many soba shops in the prefecture still offer fresh traditional handmade buckwheat noodles that mark Nagano soba apart from other regions in Japan. They’re different, incredibly chewy, slippery and fragrant with strong elasticity. If you are there in the winter, I recommend you to try toji soba because it’s good and it warms you right up. Toji soba is the local specialty where diners place the noodles in the bamboo strainer and reheat them in the hot pot filled with lightly flavored broth and seasonal vegetables. These shabu shabu styled soba noodles were served widely in Matsumoto, Nagawa and the Kiso Valley.
Sample Fresh Wasabi
With the largest wasabi farm, Nagano is notable for the wide array of culinary delights made with this popular Japanese condiment. You will commonly find food creations such as wasabi ice cream, wasabi soba noodles, wasabi drinks, wasabi wine, etc. Adding wasabi to desserts and drinks sounds weird but these food are not only popular, they are delicious and refreshing. Fresh wasabi tastes strong and hot but with no harshness and no lasting burn; it is short - lived compared to the effects of spicy chili peppers. The wasabi loses it's burning sensation in less than 20 minutes if left uncovered. So when combining it with other foods, the diners wouldn’t catch any distinctive pungent. You can try fresh wasabi and all these wasabi-themed food creations at Daio Wasabi Farm and many restaurants in the prefecture.
Fill up on Soba Flour Dumpling
Oyaki is a dumpling made with fermented buckwheat dough wrapped around a stuffing of vegetables or red bean paste then roasted over low heat. Oyaki has long been a favorite in Nagano households. It’s usually served hot with a cup of tea. The texture of the dough is similar to Chinese steamed bun but it is firmer with the subtle taste and fragrance of the buckwheat. The dumpling is served mostly as street food, which you can find at one of many stalls at flea markets, shopping streets throughout the city. Also several soba restaurants serve this one of a kind dumpling.
Eat Persimmon Leaf Sushi
Though this dish originated in Nara Prefecture, another food that you will commonly come across in Nagano is persimmon leaf sushi (kaki no ha sushi). In case you aren’t familiar with it, persimmon leaf sushi is a Japanese dish consisting of vinegary rice and fish cured for several days creating rich flavor, wrapped in a persimmon leaf. This sushi was compact and very handy for people in the old days. It was how local people had enjoyed the taste of seafood before the rails and highways connected the area with other cities. The persimmon leaf has strong bactericidal qualities so it keeps well at room temperature. So grab kaki no ha sushi from supermarkets, shopping malls or train stations and enjoy it as an on-the-go lunch.
Trek for Mountain Vegetables
Nagano highlands bring forth a number of Japanese vegetables from the mountain. If you happen to travel in the area during spring, don’t forget to sample sansai, the vegetables that grow naturally in the wild. For the best experience, try sansai soba, buckwheat noodles soup topped with the assortment of wild vegetables; sansai tempura, the lightly battered, deep fried mountain vegetables; or sansai oyaki, stuffed with wild plants. Mountain vegetables are nutritious, fresh, clean, crunchy and juicy - you will never have guessed that you’re eating a vegetable and it is this good!
Pick Up Pure Honey
Nagano is climatically and geographically ideal for producing honey. The honey from the area is outstanding for its purity and finest quality. Before leaving, don’t forget the get yourself a bottle or buy some for your loved ones back home. You will find many variations of this sweet treat depending on the flowers: acacia, horse chestnut, buckwheat, apple, blueberry, cherry and many more. If you love honey, just walk into the shops near Nagano Station or Matsumoto Castle and select one. The good news is the prices are very affordable and many shops let you try before purchasing.
There are so many more Nagano classics that I can’t show you all in one article. However, I hope this story gives you some of the highlights and will make you want to go visit Nagano and try them yourself someday.
Get a taste of great toji soba at Sobadokoro Matsushita, a low-rise, family-run restaurant located 10 minutes’ walk from Matsumoto Castle.
Munch on oyaki dumplings and handmade soba noodles at Kurekino Ekisha, a down to earth restaurant situated very close to Matsumoto Station.