The Food Specialties to try in the Japanese Alps

Within the literal heart of Japan exist a series of mountain ranges that bisect the main island of Honshu. Dubbed “the Japanese Alps” by English missionaries in the 19th century, the history of this natural landmark and the areas they loom over go way back, a source of both spiritual needs and natural resources.

Sansai 山菜

Sansai literally translates to “mountain vegetables” and is a staple of Japanese cuisine during the warmer months. As the name implies, these wild vegetables grow on the slopes of mountains and are often harvested via foraging. 

The wild nature of these plants results in a large variety, and in Nagano, upwards of 50 different types are often picked for use in both home cooking and local restaurants

In Nagano, the most commonly picked varieties include kogomi (fiddlehead ferns), takenoko (bamboo shoots), and fukinoto (butterbur). 

Sansai are often cited as having a wild, often bitter flavor. Though, with proper preparation, the bitterness is often subsided and provides a deep and rich umami to a variety of dishes. 

Foraging for sansai can be done with guides in the areas around Lake Nojiri and, notably, at Nozawa Onsen.

 

Kogomi (Fiddlehead Ferns)

Kogomi (Fiddlehead Ferns)

@Wikimedia

Takenoko Bamboo Shoots

Takenoko Bamboo Shoots

@Wikimedia

Fukinoto (Butterbur)

Fukinoto (Butterbur)

@pixbay

This farmed salmon is a relatively new species. It is the product of cross-breeding two types of trout indigenous to Nagano’s freshwater bodies: the brown trout and the rainbow trout.

Nagano’s high elevation and proximity to the mountains of the Japanese Alps make its climate perfect for the cultivation of such fish. Domestic fish options have been pushed more and more within Japan in the last few years, especially with the popularity of dishes like salmon sushi that were actually initially introduced to the Japanese diet via Norway. 

Shinshu salmon is noted for its buttery fat, mild flavor, and soft flakiness. Despite being a freshwater fish, it is safe for raw consumption and is often served as such in donburi (rice bowl dishes).

Shinshu Salmon from Nagano

Shinshu Salmon from Nagano

@Wikimedia

The snowy winters provide the prefecture with high-quality water during the colder seasons, and once things warm up, sunlight is plentiful with long days that contribute to the high-quality rice crop that Niigata is also famous for. 

The sheer number of different breweries makes them cater to more local markets within the prefecture, but some of the most famous ones don’t even exist on Japan’s mainland. 

Sado Island is located off the coast of Niigata Prefecture and is accessible via a ferry ride that takes 1-2 hours, depending on the type of boat. Here, beautiful nature can be observed while sampling sake at the breweries of Hokusetsu Shuzo, Obata Shuzo, and more!

 

Sake Barrels in Niigata

Sake Barrels in Niigata

@flickr/ Magnus D

Soba noodles, by definition, are made of buckwheat flour, but what differentiates this iteration from Niigata from other soba noodles is the incorporation of funori seaweed, which gives the noodles a bit more of a smooth mouthfeel, but firm chew.

In addition to being served on the hegi tray, the noodles are often separated in bunches by mouthful, contributing to their unique presentation. When eaten, an assortment of garnishes such as kurashi (spicy Japanese mustard), wasabi, and green onions are often served alongside the noodles. 

For the residents of Niigata, hegi soba is often reserved for special occasions and celebrations. However, for travelers with a culinary intrigue, there are special soba tours available in the prefecture for hungry visitors to sample hegi soba from a variety of locations and restaurants.

 

Hegi Soba from Niigata

Hegi soba from Niigata served with tempura

@Wikimedia

Buri from Himi

The seas and mountains collaborate and contribute to Toyama’s most famous landmark: Toyama Bay

The glaciers of the mountains in Toyama melt and flow into the bay, making the waters notably cold and rich in nutrients, providing ideal conditions for sea life to flourish.

Throughout, not just Japan, but the world, the waters of this bay are known to be home to some of the most sought-after seafood, prized not only for its quality but unique offerings as well. 

 

 

Buri Sashimi

Kanburi sashimi sourced from Toyama

@Wikimedia

Hotaru Ika and Shiroebi

Two of the most distinct catches to come from Toyama Bay are hotaru ika (firefly squid), and shiroebi (glass shrimp). 

During spring, hotaru ika come up in large numbers and illuminate the bay, as, like their name implies, they are capable of bioluminescence. Hotaru ika are often eaten whole and prepared simmered, tempura-fried, or grilled.

Toyama Bay is the only body of water where shiroebi can be legally fished for commercial reasons, as it is the only location in the world with enough numbers that are sustainable. 

Shiroebi are individually very small and were initially used as bait for local fishermen. Nowadays, the delicacy is de-shelled and served in bunches as sashimi or in gunkan sushi. 

It is also often served fried with salt. The color and treasured nature of the shrimp have led to Shiroebi being dubbed “the jewel of Toyama Bay.”

 

Hotaru Ika from Toyama

Boiled hotaru ika from Toyama

@flickr/ Ippei Suzuki

The most well-known variety of wagyu beef is that of Kobe Beef,which is sourced from the city of Kobe in Hyogo. However, wagyu sourced from the Hida area of Gifu Prefecture has garnered its share of fame following its victory in the 2002 Japanese Wagyu Olympics

Hida Beef’s quality is often attributed to the large green pastures of Gifu and the rich river water that flows from the mountains of the Japanese Alps. The meat itself is notable for its consistent marbling throughout all cuts of the animal (as opposed to the heavy concentration of fat marbling solely in the loin area of some cows).

 

Hida Beef Yakiniku in Gifu

Hida Beef Yakiniku in Gifu

@Wikimedia

 

They are often taken whole and grilled on a spit over open heat with charcoal or over indoor grills placed over hearths known as irori. They are also often eaten whole during outdoor activities like camping, barbeques, or summer festivals. 

The many mountains and valleys throughout Gifu make way for lush rivers and streams. Oftentimes, ayu is taken directly from these water sources and grilled on the bank. Hikers at rest stops can sometimes see the fish standing up on spits, roasting by irori.

 

Ayu being grilled

Ayu being grilled over an open fire

@Wikimedia

Probably no other beverage is as synonymous with the Japanese Peninsula as matcha (green tea). There are a few regions in the country that are famous for matcha production, including Ishikawa and Kyoto.

However, Shizuoka’s proximity to the Japanese Alps and Mount Fuji in particular gives it especially ideal conditions thanks to its rich volcanic soil. In fact, 40% of the matcha production in Japan comes from here. The fields for cultivating the tea are lined with rows of deep green bushes, with the imposing image of Mount Fuji in the background.

Green tea powder itself is unique in the sense that it is derived directly from the tea plant's leaves and is ground down via stone until it becomes a powder. This is why matcha powder has such a deep green color and bold flavor. 

 

Matcha Field in Shizuoka

Matcha Field in Shizuoka with Mount Fuji in the background

@Wikimedia

The people of Shizuoka have taken the liberty of differentiating their oden cooking method through both the broth used and the fact that individual ingredients are often skewered with a stick during preparation. 

Instead of the usual dashi broth made from bonito fish flakes, the broth in Shizuoka oden is made with beef sinew and seasoned with deep soy sauce, providing a stronger flavor than other oden. But in addition to this, instead of being discarded, this broth is usually replenished with new ingredients, integrating the flavors of previous batches and deepening the flavor over time.

 

Shizuoka Oden

Shizuoka Style Oden

@Wikimedia

Travel by train to the Japanese Alps

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