Soba and Great Rural Cuisine


 Foodie hotspots: Hida Takayama, Gifu, Seki, Gero Onsen, Oku-hida Onsen, Nagaragawa.

Foodies Look Out For: Hoba misoyaki; Hida-gyu beef; Hot spring cuisine; Takayama ramen; ukai cormorant fishing; ayu sweetfish, kawazakana river fish; soba buckwheat noodles; Tamariya soy sauce ice cream.

The Basics: Landlocked Gifu has always been an important crossroads at the heart of the central Chubu region. Lacking any large cities of note – even Gifu city is humble – it has an off-the-beaten track feel. The further north you go, the more rural, and interesting, it gets. Hida-Takayama, the old Nakasendo postal road, and the World Heritage village of Shirakawa-go are all highly worth visiting.

 Foodies Go Gifu: Almost all visitors to Gifu start out in the South, in the rail hub and Prefectural city of the same name. Gifu city feels more like a large town than a small city, and there’s little to hold the casual visitor except for a modest castle, and three excellent soba shops: Sarashina, Suzuno in Shiraki-cho and Kochoan Senba. All and any are worth seeking out. Sarashina is old-skool, popular, no frills; Suzuno is homely, with fine noodles and a soba purin dessert to die for, and Kochoan Senba is refined, a little cocksure, with top-notch soba.

Most visitors head quickly North via Gero Onsen hot springs – easily accessible, you can almost walk off the train into a bath – to the historic town of Hida-Takayama in the North, or else they take the old Kiso Valley Nakasendo postal route up through Magome-juku and Tsumago-juku into Nagano and the Alps. Both are highly recommended routes that we’ve taken often, eating local delicacies all the way.

However there are two foodie attractions in the South that may be of interest. On the Western outskirts of Gifu city central Japan’s great river, the Nagaragawa, makes its way towards the ocean. At times, it is a raging angry torrent, at others, barely an over-excited puddle. Foodies will want to catch it in the summer months, where it is host to the ancient art of ukai cormorant fishing, in which the birds are trained to retrieve ayu sweetfish, which they return to their boat-borne handlers by burning torchlight at dusk. The Ukai museum is worth a look. While you are in this area, check out the lovely old shoyu maker, Tamariya and its 'shoyu ice cream'.

The other Southern Gifu foodie attraction lies across the prefecture in Seki, long a center – along with Sakai in Osaka – of sword and knife manufacturing. If you are in the area for the first week in October, make sure to get there for the Seki Cutlery Festival. It may sound dull, but it’s here that you’ll find some of Japan’s finest cooking knives, and at 70 to 80% of their normal retail price.

It’s hard for foodies to put a foot wrong in the old castle town of Hida-Takayama, long one of this editor’s favorites. From its fabulous asaichi morning markets (yes, two, one in front of Takayama Jinya, the other along the east bank of the Miyagawa river) selling fresh local produce, to the cool cafes and cut-price rural shokudo canteens, to the dining tables of the finest ryokan traditional inns, Takayama just rocks. No wonder even the august greybeards at the Michelin guides saw fit to declare it a ‘3 star’ destination. We especially recommend Ohnoya-Takeda in Honmachi for its shoyu and miso: just the best. We pack our bags with ‘souvenirs for self’ on every visit, and send miso by takkyubin transport to friends and family.

Takayama’s ‘signature dish’ – in reality, everything seems like a signature dish – is hoba miso yaki, a simple preparation in which vegetables and other ingredients are finely chopped, mixed with the local miso, and slowly roasted atop a Magnolia leaf over an open flame. Fortunately, the leaf doesn’t ignite, but slowly a fabulous aroma fills the air, and one’s thoughts inevitably turn to sake and good conversation.

The luxury Hida-gyu beef (pictured above, roasted in charcoal at Narisawa in Tokyo), simple yet excellent soba buckwheat or yomogi mugwort udon noodles, pickled local vegetables, locally-crafted miso, and sweet mitarashi dango dumplings, are just some of the many foodie temptations Takayama offers. A leisurely stroll in the Sanmachi old quarter – a great place to stay – will unearth even more.

Hida-Takayama is a good jumping off point for foodie excursions into the hot spring Oku-Hida area, Mt. Hodaka, and further into Nagano and the Alps, where botan nabe wild boar hotpot, venison, yamauzura partridge, kiji pheasant, and similar dishes prevail. Check the weather carefully as the snows come early and stay late in these parts.

 The Gifu Budget Gourmet

Catfish namazu no kabayaki; Betokon (best condition) ramen; wild boar curry; Hawaiian-style Gravy Sauce Gifu Burger; Gifu motsu soba gizzard noodles, Takayama Chuka. 

The Ramen Professor Recommends: Ramen never tastes as good as it does high up in the mountains as the temperature falls, especially after a day out in the wilds. Or to put it another way, ramen never tastes as good as when you’ve been shopping for Hida miso and spices and sake all morning.

What I mean is, ramen tastes great all the time at Tsuzumi Soba in Hida-Takayama. Founded in 1956, it is the origin of Hida-Takayama ramen, or Takayama Chuka as it is called here. A light but deep pork, vegetable and ‘secret ingredient’ broth is mixed with ‘traditional’ soy flavor base, the noodles are thin, the charshiu pork is succulent, and the overall effect: perfect.

If you are unlucky enough to be in Takayama on a Tuesday when Tsuzumi (and all the ramen shops, it seems) is closed, try the simple shokudo Hosoe, in front of the Jinya morning market. It’s good.

 FGL Favorite Tipple: Try Takagi Shuzo's 'Oku Hida', Hirase Shuzo's 'Kusudama', or Oita Brewery's bone dry 'Hidaziman Onigoroshi'. It's name means the 'Pride of Hida Demon Slayer', no less. All of these breweries offer tours and tastings. 

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