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Oishii Shinshu: Must-try foods that exemplify Nagano’s mountainous lifestyle

Oishii Shinshu: Must-try foods that exemplify Nagano’s mountainous lifestyle

Rich in nature and soaring mountains, Nagano Prefecture (長野県 Nagano-ken) is one of the most mountainous prefectures in Japan, and boasts the highest life expectancy in Japan for both men and women. How have Nagano people survived in this mountainous land? What’s their secret to longevity? Perhaps the answer has something to do with Nagano’s unique foods and the traditional diets of their people.

 

Being landlocked with no access to the sea, coupled with a mountainous terrain and a cold climate, protein was hard to find in Nagano, and rice was difficult to grow. In the past, the people of Nagano had to make do with what they could in the harsh climate and conditions, and many of their traditional foods reflect this mountainous lifestyle and their wisdom for adapting and surviving.

 

In addition to foods born out of the need to survive, Nagano also has many delicious crops and dishes. Curious to know what Nagano’s representative foods are? Read on to find out!

 

 ① Buckwheat (soba), a Nagano staple

Buckwheat flowers. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Nagano’s mountainous terrain made it difficult to grow rice. On the other hand, the higher altitudes, soil rich in volcanic ash, and cold climate with extreme temperature differences between day and night made Nagano perfect for growing buckwheat (そば soba).

 

In the past, soba was grown as an emergency crop for people living in mountains to survive severe winters, but over the years, soba has become a staple in Nagano people’s diets, and is now one of Nagano’s leading agricultural products. Even today, soba is still grown all over Nagano, bearing pretty white flowers in autumn.

 

Shinshu soba

Delicious and healthy Shinshu soba can be found all over Nagano. (Image credit: Nagano Convention & Visitors Bureau)

 

Speaking of soba, probably the first thing that comes to mind is soba noodles, isn’t it? Made from ground buckwheat flour, wheat flour, and water, soba noodles are low in calorie content but are highly nutritious.

 

Ask any Japanese person to name a brand of delicious soba noodles, and many of them would say “Shinshu soba” (信州そば). Shinshu is the old name for Nagano, and soba noodles is one of Nagano’s signature foods. In particular, the Togakushi (戸隠) region is especially well-renowned for their quality soba.

 

Shinshu soba has excellent texture and flavour due to the ideal soba growing conditions in Nagano, and has less calories compared to other Japanese noodles like ramen or udon. Is soba one of the secrets to Nagano people’s longevity?

 

Oyaki

Oyaki with a variety of fillings. (Image credit: Nagano Convention & Visitors Bureau)

 

Another soba product and a popular snack among locals is oyaki (おやき), a traditional dumpling that uses dough made with buckwheat flour and wheat flour. The dough is stuffed with a filling before being grilled. Oyaki’s fillings range from vegetables like nozawana (a pickled local vegetable), mashed pumpkin (a crowd favourite), and eggplant with miso (my favourite), to sweet items like red bean paste, cheese, and apples (Nagano’s most famous produce).

 

Originating from the snowy regions in northern Nagano, nowadays oyaki shops can be found all over Nagano, and oyaki is such a common snack that you can even find them at local grocery stores, convenience stores, and souvenir shops. They usually cost around ¥100–¥250, and make great (and healthy) snacks to munch on while exploring the area.

 

② Mountain harvests, blessings from Nature

Blessed with so many beautiful mountains, Nagano is also the prefecture with the highest average elevation (1,132m) in Japan. It should come as no surprise that many of the ingredients used in traditional Nagano foods come from these mountains, and are also referred to as mountain harvests (山の幸 yama-no-sachi). Although Nagano lacks access to the sea, it more than compensates with its high-quality produce, many of which are suited to be grown in the mountains.

 

Mountain vegetables

Mountain vegetables. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture / JNTO)

 

As its name suggest, mountain vegetables (山菜 sansai) originally referred to wild edible plants that were picked from the mountains, traditionally enjoyed in spring. Some of the more common and popular mountain vegetables include kogomi (こごみ fiddlehead fern), warabi (わらび bracken fern), and  fukinoto (ふきのとう butterbur).

 

In modern times, some mountain vegetables have since been cultivated and grown in fields, so that more people can enjoy these delicious greens. Despite their delicate appearance, mountain vegetables are full of flavour, and some even offer unique textures.

 

Mountain vegetable dishes. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Mountain vegetables can be enjoyed in a variety of methods. Sansai soba (山菜そば soba noodles in warm broth served with mountain vegetables) is a popular dish mixing two of Nagano’s famous foods—mountain vegetables and soba noodles. Other ways mountain vegetables can be enjoyed are fried with batter as tempura, or as a topping for rice.

 

Mushrooms

Nagano produces most of Japan's mushrooms. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Vegetables aren’t the only things that grow in the wild though, mushrooms (きのこ kinoko) do too! Nagano has so many different varieties of delicious mushrooms, and is one of Japan’s largest producers of both wild and cultivated mushrooms.

 

However, there is one wild mushroom that stands out among the rest, the king of mushrooms: the prized matsutake (松茸), Japan’s most expensive mushroom. Unlike common mushrooms like shimeji or enoki, matsutake cannot be cultivated, even though farmers have been trying for years. As such, matsutake can only be foraged from the wild.

 

Matsutake usually grow under pine trees, and are highly sought for their unique, spicy flavour and deep aroma. Blessed with a mountainous terrain and ample rainfall, Nagano is the top producer of matsutake mushrooms in Japan.

 

Try a matsutake set course in autumn. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture / JNTO, and JR East / Akio Kobori)

 

During autumn, when matsutake are in season, high-end specialty restaurants even offer matsutake set courses, serving up a number of dishes with matsutake as the star ingredient. In particular, the area around Ueda (上田) produces a lot of matsutake, and you can find many of these specialty restaurants there. Matsutake can be enjoyed in many ways, but to really bring out the flavour, grilling is recommended.

 

Chestnuts

Chestnuts are synonymous with autumn in Japan. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

In Japan, autumn is not complete without chestnuts (栗 kuri), a symbol of the season. Tucked away in the northern part of Nagano is the prefecture’s smallest town of Obuse (小布施), which is famed for its delicious chestnuts and delightful chestnut desserts.

 

The acidic soil along the banks of the Chikuma River is ideal for growing chestnuts, and Obuse has a 600-year history of cultivating them. Their large size and deep flavour make Obuse’s chestnuts highly sought after.

 

Different ways to enjoy chestnuts. Clockwise from top left: Chestnut rice, chestnut yokan, chestnut dorayaki, mont blanc. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

While chestnuts were traditionally eaten either mashed or mixed with rice, creative pastry chefs have since developed a variety of desserts using whole boiled chestnuts and chestnut paste. During chestnut season in Obuse, you can often see people start queuing even hours before stores open, just to get their hands on some chestnut desserts from Obuse.

 

Popular Japanese-style confectionery include chestnut dorayaki and chestnut yokan, while for Western-style desserts, mont blanc (モンブラン monburan), a French-inspired chestnut cream cake, has become one of the most popular autumn desserts in Japan.

 

③ Ef-fish-cient fishing

As a landlocked prefecture, Nagano has no access to the sea, so their fish has traditionally been freshwater fish from rivers and lakes. In modern times however, fish farmers began cultivating hybrid fish, leading to the availability of new species for consumption. Let’s check out two of Nagano’s delicious fish:

 

Iwana

Iwana grilled over a hearth. (Image credit: Matsumoto City)

 

Of Japan’s freshwater fish, iwana (イワナ  white-spotted char) live the most upstream—there are no other fish that live higher up the stream than iwana. You might have the image that freshwater fish have a pungent fishy smell, but not iwana. Living in clean and clear waters, iwana mostly inhabit the upper reaches of main rivers and tributaries, at places with beautiful clear rivers like Nagano’s mountainous areas, where water comes from melted snow water from the peak of the mountains.

 

Iwana is best enjoyed slow-grilled over a hearth. Unlike larger marine fish, you can eat the entire iwana—head, fins, tail, bones, and all—and it tastes especially great with beer and alcohol!

 

Iwana kotsu sake. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Another interesting way to enjoy the flavour of iwana is in iwana kotsu sake (イワナ 骨酒), which literally means “iwana bone sake”. Grilled iwana is submerged in warm sake (酒 rice wine), in a fish-shaped sake container. After a while, the iwana’s aromatic flavours and umami seep into the sake, creating a drink perfect for warming you up in Nagano’s cold winters.

 

Shinshu Salmon

Shinshu Salmon is now a representative fish brand of Nagano. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture)

 

While fish from the river were delicious and edible, they could not be eaten raw as sashimi. Thus, fish farmers in Nagano worked on developing a hybrid brand of fish. After over 10 years of research and trial, Shinshu Salmon (信州サーモン) was successfully cultivated in 2004. Despite its name, Shinshu Salmon is actually a hybrid trout, made by crossbreeding female rainbow trout and male brown trout.

 

Boasting a smooth texture and visually appealing bright orange flesh, Shinshu Salmon has a taste that is delicate, smooth, and consistent, with no lingering fishy aftertaste. Its meat is delicious when eaten in any manner—be it sashimi, grilled, shabu-shabu, or others. Shinshu Salmon is also more resistant to disease than other trout, which means more yield for consumption.

 

Mainly served in restaurants and hotels in Nagano, Shinshu Salmon is a pioneer of locally-cultivated salmon brands across Japan, an amazing feat given Nagano’s landlocked status. Today, Shinshu Salmon is the most produced local salmon brand in Japan, and is highly regarded all over the country as a fish brand representative of Nagano Prefecture. Be sure to give it a try if you visit Nagano!

 

④ Preserved foods made to survive long winters

Being located at a high altitude means a cold climate, and the people of Nagano had to find ways to preserve their food to last them through the cold, harsh winters, when running out of food was a problem. Some of their solutions to prolonging food usage included fermenting foods, pickling foods, drying foods, and burying foods under snow.

 

Fermented foods

Nagano is the kingdom of fermented foods. Clockwise from top left: miso paste, natto, shoyu, tsukemono. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

If you are a fan of Japanese cuisine, you probably already know that it uses a lot of fermented foods like miso (fermented soybean paste), natto (fermented soy beans), shoyu (soy sauce), tsukemono (pickled vegetables), and more. Fermentation not only preserves food and adds nutritional value, it also alters the way the food tastes and looks, giving rise to new flavours and textures.

 

Miso is part of everyday food in Nagano. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

As a mountainous land with cold winters, it’s no surprise that many of Nagano’s traditional dishes heavily use fermented foods, especially miso. Did you know? Nagano is the largest producer of soybeans in Japan, and it also produces about half of Japan’s miso!

 

Rich in protein, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, miso is made by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji mold for a minimum of 3 months, resulting in a paste which is used as flavouring. You can dilute miso into soups or sauces, or use it as a dip that goes great with some of Nagano’s fresh vegetables. Nagano’s delicious and high-quality miso is one of the reasons why miso ramen is so popular in the region.

 

Even today, miso and other fermented foods are enjoyed as part of everyday Nagano meals, and Nagano is sometimes referred to as the kingdom of fermented foods (発酵王国 hakkо̄ о̄koku). Eating fermented foods can boost the number of probiotics in your gut, which is associated with a number of health benefits like better immunity and digestion. Are tasty and healthy fermented foods the secret to a longer life?

 

Pickled foods

Pickled foods are also abundant in Nagano cuisine. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Technically a type of fermented food, pickled foods (漬物 tsukemono) are also common in Nagano people’s daily diet. In the past, vegetables were mainly pickled to increase their usage period, but the pickling process also increased the nutritional value of the vegetables, created extra depth of flavours, and gave unique textures. In modern times, pickled foods are well-enjoyed for their flavours, textures, and health benefits.

 

When you visit Nagano, one pickled item you must try is nozawana (野沢菜). Nozawana is a leafy vegetable resistant to hot and cold temperatures, growing well in Nagano’s cold climate. When pickled, nozawana’s flavours are enhanced, and it develops a crunchy texture. You can find pickled nozawana sold on its own, or even as fillings in oyaki and onigiri.

 

Dried foods

Ichidagaki are a delicious and healthy fruit snack. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture)

 

The next preservation method makes use of what is already abundant in Nature: air! After produce is harvested, it would be hung and left out to dry. The result? A longer lasting food product with amplified flavours and increased nutritional value. In Nagano, ichidagaki (市田柿 dried persimmons from Ichida) are a well-loved and easy-to-eat dessert, boasting a natural sweetness and unique texture after undergoing drying.

 

Freeze-dried foods are made by taking advantage of Nagano’s cold winters. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Living in a cold climate, Nagano people found a way to take advantage of their freezing winters to bring drying to another level: freeze-drying. As Nagano’s bitterly cold winters can go below freezing temperatures, local people made use of this to naturally freeze-dry foods and make things like frozen tofu (凍み豆腐 shimi-dо̄fu or 高野豆腐 Kо̄ya-dо̄fu), frozen radish (凍み大根 shimi-daikon), and agar (寒天 kanten).

 

The produce would be tied up with straw and hung outside homes to dry. During the cold winter nights, the foods would freeze, and during the warmer daytime, they would thaw. Continuing on for days, the repeated processes of freezing and thawing reduced the water content, condensed the nutritional value, dried out the product, and enabled it to be kept for months after.

 

In modern times, this wisdom of natural freeze-drying has been adapted and industrialised, and Nagano is currently the number one producer of frozen tofu, making over 90% of Japan’s supply. Even today, frozen tofu is still well-loved for its strong flavours and health benefits, and is a key ingredient in Buddhist cuisine.

 

Storing produce under snow

Vegetables stored under snow during winter emerge sweeter. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

In areas with heavy snowfall, locals have developed a technique for preserving fruits and vegetables—by burying them under a thick 2–3 metre layer of snow throughout winter. These vegetables are known as yukishita yasai  (雪下野菜 vegetables under snow) or secchu yasai (雪中野菜 vegetables in snow).

 

The thick layer of snow keeps the vegetables at a constant temperature of around 0°C and a constant humidity of around 90%, conditions which lead to increased water and sugar content in the vegetables, making them sweeter, softer, and removing heavy odours!

 

Snow carrot juice from Iiyama. (Image credit: JR Times / Sue Lynn)

 

In the past, storing vegetables under snow was done on a personal level, where families would bury vegetables like cabbages and radishes under the snow in their backyards. But nowadays, this traditional know-how and wisdom has been passed on and applied commercially, in particular for snow carrots (スノーキャロット), which are well-loved for their sweet and juicy texture. Naturally sweetened from being stored under the snow, you will be surprised at just how sweet and delicious snow carrot juice is!

  

⑤ Unusual sources of protein

With limited access to protein, Nagano people of the past had to make do with what their environment provided them, leading to some unusual protein sources, like insects and game meat. Formerly eaten out of necessity, these are now enjoyed as a novelty or delicacy. Would you like to try them the next time you are in Nagano?

 

Insects

Insects are a valuable source of protein. (Image credit: Nagano Ina Valley Tourism Bureau and JR East / Todoroki)

 

Fermented foods can be an acquired taste, but insects? These are truly unique experiences you’ll probably never forget. With limited access to meat and proteins, Nagano people used to eat insects like grasshoppers (稲子 inago), bee larvae (蜂の子 hachinoko), and silkworm pupae (蚕のさなぎ kaiko no sanagi) to supplement their diets, as these insects were a good source of protein and vitamin B12.

 

Usually flavoured with soy sauce, sugar, and sake, inago are crunchy and enjoyed as a snack with alcohol, while hachinoko are softer and can be enjoyed as a topping over rice.

 

As people gained access to better meats and started rearing livestock, consumption of insects dropped. However, you can still find many of these insects being sold in Nagano’s grocery stores, as well as in street food stalls and festival sites. In recent times, with the healthy food movement, insects are enjoying a resurgence in popularity as a sustainable food source. Would you like to try them?

 

Wild game meat

Venison croquette, venison steak, and venison hotpot. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

Other than having many mountains, Nagano is also one of the most heavily forested prefectures in Japan, and dwelling in its forests are many wild boars, deer, bears, and rabbits. In the past, since protein sources were scarce, game meat from wild animals was part of everyday life, traditionally prepared as hot pots and stews. But with the arrival of modernisation and foreign influence during the Meiji Period (1868­–1912), game meat waned in popularity.

 

Recently however, game meat, especially venison (鹿肉 shikaniku), has been making a comeback in the form of gibier (ジビエ jibie), a term borrowed from French and currently used in Japanese to refer to wild game for consumption. Deer populations have exploded in recent years, causing traffic accidents by running into roads and railway tracks, and causing a nuisance to farmers by destroying their crops. With deer in abundant supply, venison has been making its way back onto menus around Nagano. 

 

You might be hesitant to try game meat fearing a “gamey smell”, but modern methods have been developed to reduce or eliminate the smell. Aside from being tasty, venison is also said to be healthy—high in protein, low in fat, and rich in minerals like calcium and iron! Just like how Shinshu Salmon is a fish brand representative of Nagano, Shinshu Gibier (信州ジビエ) is rapidly gaining attenttion as Nagano's representative gibier brand, and can be found served in restaurants around Nagano.

 

⑥ Sake, wine, and all things fine

Fermentation isn’t limited to just food, it can also be applied to liquids, to make delicious alcohol like sake and wine, both of which Nagano Prefecture is known for. In recent years, Nagano’s locally-brewed craft beers have also been gaining popularity.

 

Sake

Some of Nagano’s local sake. (Image credit: Matsumoto City)

 

After Niigata, Nagano has the second highest number of sake breweries in Japan—over 80. Nagano’s unique terrain provides the perfect environment and resources for brewing sake: clean natural spring water from the mountains, and a cool climate that’s cool in summer and freezing in winter. This helps to maintain low temperatures in the brewery, which is needed to provide microorganisms with the ideal environment for fermentation.

 

Sake that is slowly brewed in cold air has a more delicate and fresher taste, which many sake afficionados enjoy, and Nagano’s climate naturally provides this cold air.

 

Nagano Wine and grapes

Nagano Wine. (Image credit: Matsumoto City)

 

Did you know? Nagano is the top producer of wine grapes in Japan, and is the prefecture with the second highest number of wineries in the country. Compared to table grapes for eating, wine grapes are smaller, have thicker skin, higher juice content, and more seeds.

 

The climate and landscape of Nagano provide favourable conditions for growing wine grapes—mineral-rich soil, great temperature differences between day and night thanks to the presence of tall mountains, long periods of sunshine, and protection from typhoons. Currently, there are four wine valleys in Nagano producing Nagano Wine, but without a doubt the most famous and the one with the longest wine-making history is the Kikyogahara Wine Valley (桔梗ヶ原ワインバレー) in Shiojiri (塩尻). Fun fact: the train platform at Shiojiri Station has an actual vineyard growing on it!

 

Try grape-picking in autumn. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture)

 

Other than wine grapes, Nagano also grows table grapes, with the most popular varieties being the flavourful Kyoho, the sweet and juicy Shine Muscat, and Nagano Purple—a locally produced hybrid. In autumn, you can enjoy grape-picking around Nagano, and some farms even have 30-minute all-you-can-eat courses.

 

⑦ Bonus: Shinshu apples and Shinshu apple beef

Nagano has many apple orchards. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture)

 

You can’t talk about Nagano without mentioning the one food item that people associate most with it: apples (りんご ringo)! Nagano may rank second in apple production (number one being Aomori), but many apple connoisseurs will tell you that Shinshu apples (信州りんご) are the tastiest in Japan, prized for their sweetness.

 

Nagano's high altitude creates a temperature difference—warm days and cool nights—which is ideal for growing apples. Fertile soils rich in volcanic ash also help contribute to the size and delicious flavour of Shinshu apples.

 

Apples are such a part of Nagano’s identity, that the prefectural mascot Arukuma even wears an apple on his head, and huge assortments of apple-flavoured confectionery can be found all over Nagano. If you prefer fresh apples, you can try apple-picking between mid-September to mid-November at one of Nagano’s many apple orchards.

 

Shinshu apple beef

Delicious Shinshu apple beef. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

If you’re a meat-lover, something special you can only try in Nagano is Shinshu apple beef (信州林檎牛Shinshū ringo gyū), which has a melt-in-your-mouth texture, mellow flavour, and subtle sweet aftertaste.

 

The secret to the sweetness lies in how the cattle are raised: they are fed special diets which consists of local Nagano produce, including the aforementioned Shinshu apples. In fact, the cattle are also known as “Shinshu cows raised on apples” (りんごで育った信州牛 ringo de sodatta Shinshū gyū). This decadent meat can be enjoyed in a variety of cooking methods, but I highly recommend teppanyaki.

 

Closing

The next time you visit Nagano Prefecture, be sure to get a taste of some of its unique cuisine, made with ingredients from Nature and steeped in wisdom from generations of people who have adapted to and survived in Nagano’s mountainous climate. Will you be able to live as long as Nagano residents by eating these foods? Give it a try and let us know!

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are thinking of visiting Nagano Prefecture, check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥18,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Narita Airport and Nagano (~¥22,000). You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.

 

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

Header image credit: Matsumoto City

 

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