A goldmine of produce, food culture and delicious sake and wine that Japan can be proud of. Nagano is not just for skiing.
The grand mountain range engulfed in snow is breathlessly beautiful. In the spring, the snow slowly begins to melt away, and the rocks at the base of the mountain start to bear resemblance to a horse. I was told that it’s exactly at that time of the year that rice planting preparations were made and also how the town of “Hakuba” (White Horse) received its name.
The first dish I recommend you try in Hakuba is the “Hakuba Galette”. The locally harvested Hakuba buckwheat is rich in sweetness and has an appetising fragrance to it, due to the large temperature difference between night and day. Using this buckwheat powder of high quality that is unique to Hakuba, the “Hakuba Crepes” are a new special must-eat dish special to the area.
Currently there are more than 30 restaurants in Hakuba that you can get a taste of, the fun of which being that each shop has its own personality and quirks. The Hakuba Galette in “Happokan” serves a dish called “Hakuba Salmon” which features a topping of edible cape gooseberry, which is infused with Shinshu apple cider. Shinshu also refers to the name of the area. Cold-smoked Hakuba Salmon has a concentrated umami and is slightly viscous, but the real surprise was the sweetness of the cape gooseberries. Shinshu apple cider has a classic taste and is on the dry side, but the quality of the ingredients definitely stood out. (http://www.happokan.com/) (http://www.hakubagalette.jp/)
“Hakuba Pork” is without any odour and truly is a pure variety of pork meat. It is said to be SPF, or “Specific Pathogen Free”, and great care is taken to breed the pigs in such an environment. These healthy pigs are isolated from the majority of pathogens as well as stress and antibiotics. In order to get a taste of this exquisite meat, I gave the Shabu Shabu (a type of hot pot, where you parboil meat in hot soup or broth) a try at “Hakuba Hifumi”. The taste was divine and the pork, so beautifully tender. Coming to this restaurant to try out this dish truly became a special experience. (http://www.hakubanobuta.com) (http://www.hakubahifumi.jp/eigo/)
Sashimi is also delicious in Hakuba. The seafood you see here is the fishing bounty brought over from a well known fishing port in Nou. Because this area is in a snowy, mountainous region, historically, they have had trouble getting their hands on fresh seafood, meaning the people are very particular with their seafood, or so I have heard.
This next place is called the “La Neige Higashikan”, where I enjoyed an evening meal. Pictured is the locally bred Shinshu Daiou Iwana Mountain Trout which has been smoked. It has a mild taste and slight oiliness to it, but the flesh is nice and firm. During the egg-laying season, the female Iwana mountain trout does not hold onto all of its eggs and therefore becomes thinner, bringing out some of its umami flavour, making it a very special kind of fish. In Nagano Prefecture the Fisheries Research Station has put mass-production procedures into place to make this fish their own distinct brand. (http://www.pref.nagano.lg.jp/kokusai/government/english/index.html) (http://www.laneige-higashikan.com/)
“Shinshu Salmon” is moist and delicate, with beautiful colouring. It is cooked with the flavours of cape gooseberries and a sauce made with locally grown leeks. The flesh is thick but tender and delicious. It is a new variety of salmon crossbred with rainbow trout and brown trout. This variety of fish is also raised through cultivation and therefore does not lay eggs. The famous sommelier Yoshida, winner of the Kusonoki Winery’s Yoroizuka Amulet 2014, kindly arranged a wine matching for this dish. (http://www.kusunoki-winery.com/)
In this photo you can see Seki from Azumino Fishery taking care of some cultivated fish. These beautiful fish are raised in the cold springs of perpetually snowy mountains. Seki told me that river fish have the tendency to have a muddy odour, however, this is not due to living in murky waters, rather, the algae on which they are born. The local chefs are able to come over and catch whichever fish they like whenever they like! I saw some even leave with some fish. Seki had called out, “I don’t mind if you pay later!”. That’s right, for everyone that came by, they did not need to write out an invoice for every single fish they took out of the waters, and it was then that I realised the strong sense of trust and close relationship amongst the locals. It is Nagano that is giving birth to delicious cuisine and ingredients.
The craft beer brewed at Hakuba’s “Hakuba Brewing Company” is also something I definitely recommend to you. The meltwater that takes a long long time to flow down from these great mountains are pumped into the brewery to go into making this beer. Its specialty is that it is refreshing and has a good quality hop to it and uses an unfiltered manufacturing method. (http://www.hakubabrewery.com/)
Lastly, since the La Neige Higashikan is so wonderful, I’d like to mention it again briefly. The sophistication of the staff is unrivalled even by those at the best hotels in Tokyo. If you get to know the owner a little, you may come to realise how a hotel with this much sense is able to maintain such a high standard of service for many years.
Afterwards, I enjoyed a wonderful night tasting a number of Nagano’s wines with good friends. Nagano is overflowing with delicious ingredients, food culture and more. Seeing the sincerity, passion and warmth of the people who bring these things to life, filled me with the desire to definitely return to this place.
Article: Masahiko Iga
Photography: Hideaki Yoshimi
Translation: Jessica Waugh