Foodie hotspots: Matsumoto, Nagano, Togakushi, Kaida Kogen, Iiyama, Ueda, Nozawa, Saku, Shiojiri, Azumino, Iida, Ina, Nagawa, Kiso Fukushima and the Nakasendo post road, Nakai-juku, Tsumago, Motai-Ainoshuku.
Foodies Look Out For: Shinshu soba buckwheat noodles; shichimi togarashi spice; wasabi; sansai mountain vegetables; inoshishi wild boar and shika niku venison, Shinshu miso, Nozawana pickles, sake.
The Basics: This fabulous, alpine prefecture, landlocked in Central Honshu, is always a pleasure to visit, for its beautiful landscapes, historic castle towns, amazing hot-springs, and, best of all, its great food and sake. For a glimpse into rural Japan, Nagano simply can't be beaten. It is living proof that a prefecture doesn't have to have a coastline in order to produce fabulous cuisine.
Nagano's main cities are easily accessible from Tokyo via the Nagano Shinkansen bullet train. It takes one hour fifty minutes to Nagano, around three hours fifteen minutes to Matsumoto. Getting up into the high mountains takes much longer, of course, but it's worth the trip. The bus ride over the Alps from Hida-Takayama to Matsumoto, for example, is simply spectacular.
Foodies Go Nagano: Nagano is synonymous with buckwheat noodles. They are generally referred to as 'Shinshu soba' (Shinshu is the old name for Nagano), and may also have specific names donating the area, and style in which they are made and served. The prefecture is the nation's second largest producer of buckwheat, after Hokkaido, and claims to have more soba shops than anywhere else. It certainly feels that way!
Togakushi, Kaida Kogen, Ina and Nagawa are all famed for their soba - and all worth seeking out, though you can easily find their noodles being prepared in Nagano and Matsumoto. The latter's Naka-machi district, with its 'gourmet street' and contless bars and restaurants is a particularly happy hunting ground. Takato soba is a style in which soba is served with the region's famed miso, which is grilled before being soaked in the tsuyu dipping sauce.
Tomikura soba, from the snowy climes of Iiyama, has a pronounced chewiness, as a result of the buckwheat being mixed with the oyamabokuchi plant, a kind of burdock. Try it in Tomikura village at the splendidly dilapidated, rather remote, Hashiba Shokudo.
Toji soba, a specialty of Matsumoto, Nagawa and the Kiso region, features noodles dipped into a hot broth using a bamboo strainer. A well-regarded specialist in Matsumoto is Nomugiji.
Throughout the prefecture, particularly good soba shops have earned fame and fortune, and a nationwide reputation. This often means long lines of people waiting in line, especially during peak tourist seasons. Uzuraya in front of the Chusha Shrine in Togakushi is one such place, but most people agree its tempura soba is worth the wait. Lesser-known gems include Katanaya and Kusabue in Ueda city, Sobaya Shimizu in Shiojiri and Ogiso Seifunsho Azumino-ten in Azumino. Whenever we are in Matsumoto we stop by the splendid Soba Club Sasaki, and a trip to Kiso Fukushima isn't complete without dropping by Kurumaya Honten in Kiso Fukushima for a dose of their rustic, rough, yet delicious noodles. Be warned though that they will be closed from October 2017 to May 2018. Sobadokoro Yamanaka and Kokorone (good Toji soba) in Narai-juku and Yoshimuraya in Tsumago are also good options in Kiso.
Nagano's other claims to culinary fame are wasabi, Nozawana pickles, Azumino-Azusagawa apples, Yamabe grapes, sansai mountain vegetables such as warabi, tara-no-me butterbur, kogomi and yomogi, and the region's signature Shinshu miso. To sample the latter, head to Ishii Miso, just a fifteen-minute walk from Matsumoto station, where you can have a lunch featuring their three-year fermented miso and, yes, miso ice cream.
The Nagano Budget Gourmet: Sanzoku grilled chicken breast in a tare sauce; Sanzoku burgers (find them at the Tobuyu no Maru Service Area on the Joshinetsu expressway); oyaki steamed dumplings; goheimochi glutinous rice grilled on wooden skewers: sasazushi; Komagane Sauce Katsudon, especially at Meijitei in Komagane.
The Ramen Professor Recommends: The prefecture obviously favors soba, but Saku city has pioneered its very own Anyouji ramen. Fourteen shops across the city vie with each other to make the best noodle dishes using one common ingredient, the local Anyouji Miso. Tonchikimen, Bunzoh Black, Nanadaime Sukeya and Menya Tenho are the pick. In Nagano city, try Chuka Soba Shouki; in Matsumoto, try the miso ramen specialist Mensho Sakura. It's across the street from Parco.
FGL Favorite Tipple: Saku city's Chikuma Nishiki, Kametaya Alps Masamune, Takeshige Honke's Bokusui from Motai Ainoshuku are all good. If you like bone dry sake, try Imai Shuzoten's Wakamidori Okarakuchi, or, for something much smoother, their luscious Wakamidori Daiginjo.
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