Enjoy the distinctive cuisine of Nagano and Niigata, made possible by the fresh air and pure water of this beautiful, mountainous region.
Soba is also used in the more contemporary galette. Based on a French dish, soba is used to create a crêpe which is topped with local eggs, salmon, pork, and vegetables. Look for this particularly in the Hakuba and Togakushi areas. Be sure to try oyaki, a bun-like creation filled with vegetables, fruit or sweet beans, then steamed or baked. Found only in northern Nagano, this regional favorite is a simple, delicious treat. Nagano is also well known for its apple, grape and apricot orchards, with the apple juice a natural, delicious favorite throughout Shin’etsu.
Long before the ski resorts were established in Shin’etsu (a combination of Shinshu and Echigo, the old names of Nagano and Niigata), the mountains, streams, plains and ocean found here made possible a variety of delicious foods. The region remains a major producer of agricultural products, including some of the finest foods to be found in Japan.
Soba, or buckwheat, is grown throughout the region, and is the source for the healthy and very popular soba noodles. There are several local varieties: Sugakawa soba in Shiga Kogen; Tomikura soba from Nozawa Onsen, and kiri no shita (literally, “under the fog”) soba in the areas around Myoko and Togakushi.
Sasazushi, also known as sasami sushi, is a unique kind of sushi found in the area from Myoko to Nozawa Onsen. There are many colorful local stories about its origin—that it was an improvised offering to a visiting lord, or that samurai used to carry it for mid-battle meals—but there’s no doubt that it is both distinctive and delicious. Vinegared rice is placed on a sasa (grass bamboo) leaf, then topped with fish, mountain vegetables and other ingredients. The sasa leaves have a natural antibacterial effect, which preserves the sasazushi (and add a flavor of their own, too!).
The clear air and water of this mountainous region, the rich farmlands below the peaks and the nearby Sea of Japan all combine to make possible a wide range of delicious and healthy ingredients—and those delicious dishes of the region.
The mountains traditionally made it difficult for good seafood to make it inland past Myoko, but today the finest fresh fish from the sea can be enjoyed throughout Shin’etsu. Salmon are caught on rivers along the ocean, while inland in Nagano a crossbreeding of rainbow and brown trout has created the Shinshu Salmon. Raised in carefully-controlled conditions, the Shinshu Salmon has a beautiful orange, clean, salmon-like flesh perfect for sashimi or smoking (and finds its way onto those galettes in Togakushi and Hakuba!). Much of the pork in the region is designated as Special Pathogen Free (SPF), because of the very careful control of the pigs’ living conditions. This pork is free of antibiotics and is used in many local dishes. Shinshu beef is a kind of wagyu, with apples added to the feed. This outstanding beef, like all top wagyu, may not be cheap, but it makes for a memorable meal!
In this part of Nagano and Niigata prefectures, you’ll find not only great food made with passion from outstanding materials, but some special seasonings and flavors only available here.
Within Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City is Shukubo, an inn where you can not only stay within the temple, but also enjoy shojin ryori, a style of cooking tied to Buddhism that uses no meat or fish. It’s beautiful, elegant, a symbol of the value of life, and a special experience.
But to really get the unique taste of this land of cold and snow, you must try the distinctive spicy flavors found only in Shin’etsu.
Most anywhere you travel in the area, you’ll find an attractive red, yellow and blue can containing shichimi. Literally meaning “seven flavors,” shichimi contains red togarashi peppers mixed with orange peel, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, ginger, nori and other ingredients.
It can be sprinkled in soups or used to flavor skewers of yakitori grilled chicken or other grilled meats and fish. The little cans can be found everywhere around the famous Zenkoji Temple in Nagano Only or at shops throughout the region. The producer, Yawataya Isogoro, has a shop within Nagano Station where it sells two varieties of shichimi along with six other kinds of similar seasonings—and you can even mix your own blend.
In Myoko, the makers of Kanzuri have been growing togarashi peppers for decades, slowly developing a strain that is much larger than the normal thumb-sized variety. They take these jumbo peppers, soak them in a brine bath, then throw them out onto the snow. They’ll stay there for four days, often covered in the continuously-falling snow. The process removes bitterness and some of the harsh heat of the peppers; they come out still spicy but more fruity and rich flavored. They are ground and mixed with salt, yuzu (acitrus flavor) and koji, fungal spores used in fermenting saké.
This is left to rest for three or six years; the resulting paste-like seasoning is used for flavoring nabe (hotpot) dishes, yakitori, tonjiru (a popular soup of pork and miso) and many other dishes.
And, while they’re not unique to the region, the vast quantity of fruit grown means some of the best jams and jellies to be found anywhere—perhaps as a sweet treat after your spicy main course!
You can’t mention Japanese cuisine without talking about saké, the indigenous beverage often called a rice wine but actually quite different—and delicious.
The Shin’etsu region is home to many top sakagura, or saké breweries, once again thanks to the snow, and the pure water it creates, as well as the rice from the plains below the mountains. Saké is traditionally brewed only during the winter months, and some do provide tours during the heart of ski season. Check out names such as Mizuo in Nozawa Onsen, Engi in Shiga Kogen, and Kimi no I or Ayu Masamune in Myoko.
Wine, on the other hand, might seem as more of an import item, but in fact there is a long tradition of winemaking in the region, and the local vintages keep on getting better. For many years, Japanese tastes and production ran to sweet wines, but this is no longer the case. Nagano is the first prefecture in the nation to create an Appellation Control system for its wines. Some local vintners, such as Kusunoki Winery, have studied aboard and brought back new skills which are resulting in some very good new vintages. Also try the wines of St. Cousair, which also produces an apple cider from Nagano’s most famous fruit.
Craft beer brewing has also taken off in the region, with some exciting new brews coming both from new entrepreneurs as well as saké brewers extending their skills into a new beverage style. Some top craft beer names include Shiga Kogen Beer, Hakuba Brewing, Myoko Kogen Beer, and Libushi in Nozawa.