The art of dining on the bounty of mountains and rivers, devised in a land far from the sea.
Nagano Prefecture, whose bounds encompass a range of mountains with elevations around 3,000 meters (approx. 9,800 ft), is known as “the rooftop of Japan.” Because it extends a great distance from north to south, the prefecture’s climate and terrain vary considerably, resulting in equally varied food cultures in each area.
Eighty percent of the land of Nagano consists of mountains, and the prefecture is landlocked. In return, the prefecture is endowed with the bounteous harvest of mountains and rivers, including higher-altitude vegetables like lettuce, river fish caught from snowmelt-fed rivers, fruits like apples and grapes, and the nationally-renowned Shinshu buckwheat. The prefecture takes active efforts to preserve these diverse local cuisines for posterity.
Partial video source: SHUN GATE, Japan food culture informational site
Coverage support location: Yu-An Japanese Cuisine
Distinct food culture that has arisen in each area of Nagano
Nagano Prefecture is divided into the four areas of Hokushin, Toshin, Chushin, and Nanshin, each with its own distinctive local food culture. Differences in climate are manifested in the depth of the snow that accumulates each year. In the northern part, seasonal winds bring frequent snows in winter, while in the south and central areas, the seasonal winds overtopping the mountains are dry and bring a succession of sunny days. The many mountains create dramatic differences in altitude, and locals often say there’s a different culture in every valley. With eight other prefectures surrounding it, including Niigata and Toyama, Nagano’s areas are also influenced by their neighbors. In the Hokushin area, Iiyama is influenced by Joetsu City in Niigata, while in the Chushin area, Kiso is influenced by Ena and Nakatsugawa in Gifu. The distinctive local cultures are also affected by how Nagano was divided into eleven feudal domains during the Edo period.
The prefecture takes measures to preserve and pass on this diverse food culture as a valuable asset. There is a long history to such efforts, and dishes like oyaki dumplings, pickled nozawana, and hand-cut soba noodles have been on the register of Nagano’s selected intangible folk cultural properties since 1983. They were chosen at a time when no other prefecture had designated food as a cultural property before. Professor Hiroko Nakazawa of Nagano Prefectural University says, “Because they were chosen as cultural properties, Shinshu soba noodles and nozawana have become popular souvenirs for people from all over the country. This delicious local cuisine makes good use of homegrown products, and it would be a waste to not recognize its significance as a vital element of our culture or to not make efforts to pass it down to future generations.”
Colorful oyaki dumplings that reflect the character of the area
The best-known local dish of Nagano Prefecture is a stuffed dumpling. Typically called oyaki, these dumplings are so distinct from one place to the next that one could make a map just by their varieties.
It was once customary in Nagano to eat one meal made of flour (either wheat flour or buckwheat flour) out of the three eaten each day. To this day, Nagano City is the number one buyer of wheat flour in Japan. (Source: Household Budget Survey [Households of Two or More People: Average amount spent and quantity purchased per year from 2016 through 2018], Statistics Bureau of Japan) Oyaki is often eaten as a day-to-day meal, but because of the auspicious connotations of “kneading together” the dough, oyaki is also served to guests on special occasions and at gatherings.
Oyaki made with wheat flour are the best-known kind, but in the past, they have been made with other kinds of flour. These have included scrap rice flour; mixtures of corn flour and flour made from sparse and unripe ears of rice in locations where wheat is hard to grow; and in Toyamago and Oku-Shinano, buckwheat flour
Ingredients and cooking methods for oyaki also vary by locality and household. There is also a seasonal touch to the ingredients used, which include well-pickled nozawana that has been stir-fried, sliced and dried daikon radish, wild plants in the spring, eggplant in the summer, and sweet potatoes and squash in the autumn. Oyaki can be roasted, steamed, or fried, and in the mountainous areas outside Nagano City and the western mountains, they may be carefully baked in the ashes of a sunken hearth. About the appeal of oyaki, Professor Nakazawa says, “It is a genuinely local dish, with both dough and filling made from things that are harvested nearby. You can see the individuality of a household in how moist the dough is and how the filling is flavored. The fun part of oyaki is that there are so many variations in fillings, and you can choose what you like.”
Similar to oyaki, another dish popular as a snack is konetsuke, which is made by mixing cold cooked rice with wheat flour, grilling it, and flavoring it with miso paste. Mr. Tadahito Yumoto, president of the Nagano Prefecture Chef’s Association and head chef at Yu-An Japanese Cuisine, recounts, “There were always some of them in the pantry when I got home from school. They were made in a bunch of sizes so I could pick how much I wanted. At the time, I longed for western-style sweets, but now I think that konetsuke are the more luxurious snack.”
Nozawana pickles, a quintessential pickled green that spread throughout the prefecture
Hokushin, which extends along the Chikuma River that runs through the heart of the prefectural capital Nagano City, was the site of many of the events of the 1998 Nagano Olympics. The area offers several famous sightseeing spots, including Zenkoji Temple and the Jigokudani Monkey Park, famous for the Japanese macaques that bathe in its hot springs. The northern part of the area, which includes the five mountains of northern Shinshu along the border with Niigata, experiences such heavy snowfall that some places are closed off for up to five months. The southern part experiences less precipitation and is suitable for the cultivation of various crops including paddy rice, fruit, mushrooms, and livestock.
Buckwheat is cultivated on sites scattered throughout the prefecture. Wheat flour is used as a binder when making soba noodles, but wheat is difficult to grow in the Hokushin area. In Tomikura, Iiiyama City, an unusual kind of soba noodles is made using fibers of the plant oyama bokuchi as binder. There is also a style called “hot towel” soba or udon, in which dashi soup stock is replaced with juice pressed from sharp-tasting daikon radishes and mixed with Shinshu miso paste to make a dipping broth. People of Sakakimachi use the especially sharp juice of mouse daikon. As the name suggests, mouse daikon have the cute appearance of mice, but they’re very sharp-tasting! Locals use the word amamokkura to describe the distinct flavor obtained by mixing mild Shinshu miso paste with sharp daikon radish.
Pickles are a preserved food essential for getting through intense winters. “People say nozawana are delicious when harvested and pickled around the first frost, but before that, I eat the pruned leaves as an ingredient in miso soup or as chopped pickles. They’re delicious when they’re green and crunchy, but aged pickles that have turned amber have an intense flavor, too,” says Professor Nakazawa. Aged nozawana pickles in a sweet-and-spicy stir-fry are also popular as filling for oyaki.
Nutritious Saku carp reared in bracing river waters
The Toshin area is centered on Sakudaira and the Ueda Basin. Ueda City averages around 900 mm (35 inches) of precipitation each year, low for Japan; receives more hours of sunshine each year; and experiences significant differences in temperature from day to night. This inland climate makes it suitable for growing fruit. The plateau area of the Yatsugatake Mountains, which includes the village of Kawakami in the south, is a top-ranked producer in the nation of higher-altitude vegetables like lettuce and cabbage. Karuizawa is also a popular summer resort, while Ueda City is well-known for its association with the samurai Yukimura Sanada.
To the people of landlocked Nagano, river fish are a valuable source of protein. Carp in particular is regarded as an auspicious fish thanks to the influence of the Chinese legend of Longmen, in which carp that successfully struggle upstream become dragons. Carp is therefore served as a special treat on New Year’s Eve and during autumn festivals. The breeding of carp in the Saku area began in 1825, when the cloth merchant Tan’emon Usuta brought carp home from the Yodo River in Osaka. Farmers in Sakudaira, where the intense cold makes it impossible to grow two crops per year, began raising carp in their paddy fields as a side business. Carp raised in the cold, clear stream of the Chikuma River, fed by underground streams from Yatsugatake, have firm meat and are now well-known under the brand name Sakugoi. When carp are cleaned, only the gallbladder needs to be removed carefully, because carp do not have stomachs. “Koikoku is a nutritious local dish in which carp is thoroughly simmered to bring out its flavor. Eating it gives you energy, so there is a culture of making it for expectant and post-partum mothers,” says Professor Nakazawa. Today, there are many restaurants in Saku that serve carp dishes.
An essential element of koikoku is Shinshu miso, which is made with rice koji and soybeans. No dashi stock is used in making koikoku; instead, it is flavored only with miso paste and the flavors extracted by thoroughly simmering the carp. According to 2019 Table of Commodity Statistics by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Nagano is number one in Japan in miso paste production, with a value of ¥67.35 billion in shipments, and many local dishes are flavored with miso paste. Professor Nakazawa says, “The saying goes that miso paste is to be prepared when the kerria flowers are blooming. In the past, each household made their own, and it was eaten both as a condiment and as a side dish itself. The leftover koji is used to make sweet half-sake; or salt may be added to it for preservation. Miso paste is an essential element of the lifestyle of Nagano people.”
Sunki-zuke of Kiso are pickled without any salt
The Chushin area is the western section of Nagano, adjacent to the northern Japanese Alps. Its landscape varies completely from north to south, ranging from the Kiso area, surrounded by precipitous mountains and where rice cultivation is a struggle, to picturesque valleys like Azumino and Matsumoto, which are said to be the leading grain-producing areas of the prefecture. In Azumino, where the snowmelt of the northern Alps gushes forth, there is a thriving cultivation of wasabi, which is indispensable for Shinshu soba noodles.
Kiso is a mountainous area that once prospered as an inn town along the Nakasendo road during the Edo period. Today, it retains its historic character and makes visitors feel as if they have stepped into a time warp back to that era. Soaring mountains like Ontake, with an altitude of 3,067 m (about 10,062 ft), mean this area is even more intensely cold than the rest of Nagano. Because there is little flat land and rice is difficult to grow there, other grains have been a staple of the diet.
For this reason, Kiso is the origin of the dish sunki-zuke. Sunki, fermented without salt using natural lactic acid bacilli, came about due to the high value of salt in a mountainous area closed off by snow. The stems of the red turnips used as the raw ingredient are washed in hot water at a certain salinity. This activates the lactic acid bacilli that are naturally present in the leaves. Sunki-zuke from the previous year and their liquid are also added, and fermentation is encouraged through temperature management. Thanks to the unique flavor, which is sour and distinctly savory, says Professor Nakazawa, “There are more and more fans outside the prefecture and sales are rising. But good sunki are made only with red turnips grown in Kiso. Previously, it was only available in Kiso, but now it is sold online and at ‘antenna shops’ selling hometown specialties in Tokyo. Sunki has been so popular that there haven’t been enough red turnips to make it, and if it goes on sale in November, it’s sold out by February. It’s a marvelous kind of pickle that you can’t stop eating once you’ve tried it.”
Suwa’s practice of freezing using the frigid weather
The Nanshin area is a long and narrow strip of land along the Tenryu River from the central Alps to the southern Alps. While the Suwa area to the north has an intensely cold, dry climate, the Ina area to the south has a Pacific climate and is warm compared to the rest of the prefecture. Lake Suwa, which extends through Okaya City, Suwa City, and the town of Shimosuwa, is sometimes called the Sea of Suwa. Eel and Japanese pond smelt are caught here. The lake is also famous for the omiwatari, raised cracks that form on part of the frozen surface of the lake during January and February.
In the Suwa area, people have developed methods for freezing and preserving food using the dry, frigid climate. Products of these include frozen daikon radish and freeze-dried mochi, but the most famous of them is kanten gelatin. According to the 2019 Table of Commodity Statistics by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, Nagano is the number one producer of kanten with shipments of ¥8.511 billion. It is made during the coldest part of the year, from the middle of December until around March. The platforms lined up in drained paddy fields to sun-dry the unprocessed kanten are a typical winter scene. Kanten is used to make tenyose, a banquet dish served at important family events or for the grand Onbashira festival at Suwa Grand Shrine. This local dish lets the maker show their individuality in its flavor, appearance, and the way it’s made; eggs or tofu can be added, and on celebratory occasions the dish is colored red.
The Ina Basin that extends along the Tenryu River is a rich area where a variety of crops flourish thanks to the warmer climate and plentiful water. The area grew wealthy through sericulture from the 1910s until the mid-1920s and boasted of Japan’s largest mulberry plantations. The rice grown in the Ina Valley is used to make gohei mochi. Gohei mochi is also eaten in Kiso in the Chushin area, but there are variations in what is used to top the mochi. In the Ina Basin, oilseed perilla and Japanese pepper are used. In areas along the Tenryu River where bamboo is grown, round balls of mochi are put on bamboo skewers, while in mountain villages with thriving forestry, small pieces of mochi are stuck to planks of aromatic wood like hinoki or sawara cypress for grilling. Though gohei mochi is best known now as a snack or light meal, it was once offered in spring and autumn at shrines to pray or give thanks for a bountiful harvest.
Mr. Yumoto says that it is served at Yu-An as a local Nagano dish. As a native of Suzaka City in the Hokushin area, he has a deep affection for hometown cooking. “As a local cook, I want to make use of the environment of these ingredients that I have experienced firsthand when I create hometown dishes. Local cooking isn’t flashy, but it has an element of wabi-sabi. Its simplicity elevates it. I hope to pass that on to future generations.” We hope you’ll enjoy the local cuisine that Nagano’s varied landscape produces.