A Gastronomic Journey Through Joetsu and Itoigawa in Niigata, Asahi in Toyama, and Omachi in Nagano
Eating delicious food and drinking amazing sake are some of the best things about traveling through Japan. And if you know the stories behind the local fare, history, and culture, you get to enjoy the food on a whole other level. That’s why, for this article, we literally went the extra mile and visited Japanese cities surrounded by the mountains and seas that tourists rarely journey to, like Joetsu and Itoigawa in Niigata Prefecture or Omachi in Nagano Prefecture. During these travels, we visited a sake brewery that’s over 100 years old, a winery, a high-class ryotei, a local eatery that local residents love, and a hot spring inn that emphasizes local and seasonal flavors. In this article, we hope to convey the essence of Japan’s food culture in its entirety through the regional cuisine.
Jan 27 2023
*This article was written in collaboration with the North Alps and Sea of Japan Tourism Cooperation Committee.
The Essence of Gastronomy
Stretching from north to south, the island nation of Japan is surrounded by seas on all sides. Due to the seasonal winds and ocean currents, each of its regions have developed their own unique customs and habits. As such, there are many parts of the country’s food culture that you just won’t be able to understand until you actually travel to each of its regions and sample the local vegetables, seafood, and sake, and see the unique way that the locals prepare and arrange them all on the dinner table. Many factors can influence the taste of food, such as geography, climate, local habits and customs, and the stories of those who grow, catch, and prepare the food. By understanding those, you gain a greater appreciation for the food you’re eating and journey far beyond the constraints of its flavor. This is the true appeal and essence of gastronomy.
For this article, we visited three cities spread across Niigata and Nagano Prefectures. Our goal was to understand the relationship between the local culture and their food. We explored sake and wine in Niigata Prefecture’s Joetsu City and the rare seafood of Itoigawa City, as well as the regional cuisine of Omachi City in Nagano Prefecture. By the end, enjoying all those dishes became more than just a treat for our palates and stomachs, as our trip turned into a journey to the very soul of Japanese culture.
Famous Brews From Niigata’s Joetsu City
Joetsu City's Food Culture
Joetsu City is situated in southwest Niigata Prefecture. It’s surrounded by mountains on three sides while facing the Sea of Japan to the north, resulting in hot and humid summers and heavy snowfall in the winter. It can be said that the culture and lifestyles of the locals are the results of learning to live in harmony with the city’s magnificent yet harsh natural environment consisting of both inland fertile plains and sand dunes near the shore, all while enjoying the blessings of the mountains and the sea.
In addition to rice cultivation, Joetsu’s climate is perfect for fermentation, which is why the local economy is actively focused on the production of sake, wine, miso, soy sauce, and other such foods and condiments. This has earned Joetsu a reputation as a “fermentation town,” with fermented products being an integral part of the region’s identity since long ago.
Takeda Shuzo’s Katafune Sake: Going Against the Stream
Niigata Prefecture is known as Japan’s holy land for sake lovers. In the past, smooth, dry sake was the mainstream brew in these parts. As such, a lot of the sake produced in Niigata had long been known for its low acidity, high alcohol content, and smooth taste that made it go down like water.
Takeda Shuzo stood out from all the other breweries that followed this trend. Located among the sand dunes near the coastline of Joetsu City, they take pride in sticking to traditional sake brewing methods. Since their establishment in 1866, this brewery that’s been focusing on small-batch production for over 150 years has reserved itself a special place in the hearts of sake enthusiasts.
Katafune is made with groundwater that has been filtered through the sand dunes over many years. The water is slightly soft and is good for fermentation, giving the sake the sweet aroma of rice and a full-bodied, complex flavor unique to sake that spreads through the mouth and is simultaneously smooth and rich.
The brewery is able to achieve such a complex flavor profile thanks to their unwavering stance towards not cutting any corners. Rather than rely on efficient machines, every part of the brewing process, from steaming the rice to making the "koji" mold and the yeast, creating the "moromi" fermenting mash, and filtration, is left up to the eyes, hands, and tactile senses of professional, experienced brewers who are quick to spot any changes in the sake.
Normally, pasteurization is done by putting the sake into bottles and heating everything up in a machine in one go. At Takeda Shuzo, however, each bottle is individually warmed in hot water before being stored at a low temperature to slowly mature the drink and make it sweeter and more flavorful.
Takeda Shuzo sticks to the traditional methods of brewing but still manages to move with the times. The ninth-generation owner, Shigenori Takeda, gave us a good example of that during his passionate introduction of the Hanajikan sake that was developed with modern people in mind. In Japan, Friday night is sometimes called “hanakin” and it’s best celebrated by having a lot of fun and rewarding yourself for working so hard. Hanajikan, with its slightly sweet and mellow flavor, is perfect for a Friday night when you get home at 9:45 pm and just want to relax by treating yourself to a cup of sake from a fancy wine glass.
Iwanohara Vineyard: The Fruit of the Founding Father of Japanese Wine Grapes
Besides sake, Joetsu is also known for its top-quality wine. Iwanohara Vineyard was established in 1890 by the father of Japanese wine grapes, Zenbei Kawakami, on a plain by the Sea of Japan at the foot of Mt. Myoko.
In the past, rice was the main crop of the area, but the heavy snowfalls in winter and frequent floods in the summer made rice cultivation extremely difficult. The yields used to be so poor that the phrase "sannen issaku,” meaning “three years, one harvest,” was created to describe them.
Zenbei Kawakami was born into a family of landowners, and when he saw farmers struggling to grow rice, he decided to create a new industry to revitalize the area. Through his interactions with Kaishu Katsu, a famous politician from the late Edo Period (1603 – 1867) and a friend of the Kawakami family, he learned about Western grape wine. Seeing how grapes could grow even on rough terrain, he thought that they could be the key to saving the farmers, and so, at the age of 22, he set out on the path of viticulture and wine-making.
However, the grape varieties used to make high-quality wines were non-native and unsuited to Joetsu’s climate. Believing that he had to develop a variety that was not only high in quality but also suited to the local terrain and climate, Kawakami spent many years crossbreeding over 10,000 varieties of grapes. In the end, he successfully created the Muscat Bailey A, a now-iconic Japanese red wine grape variety.
Even after 130 years, Iwanohara Vineyard still spares no effort in making excellent Japanese wine. In an era without any cooling systems, Zenbei Kawakami managed to produce a quality product by taking advantage of Joetsu’s freezing winters. He created special storerooms in his wine cellars and filled them with large amounts of snow, which kept the cellars at a steady cold temperature, allowing the wine to ferment and age.
When we visited, we were guided to these snow rooms by the vineyard workers. Though cooling technology has significantly advanced since then, Iwanohara Vineyard continues to use Kawakami’s method in order to lessen their carbon footprint and be more environmentally friendly. The snow rooms also allow visitors to get a taste of Joetsu’s winters even in the middle of summer.
After a free guided tour through the wine cellars, why not visit the shop for a wine tasting, available for a moderate fee?
Iwanohara Vineyard is most known for its Miyukibana Red, which has a slight acidic flavor from tannins and a strong, fruity aroma that beautifully represents the "snow country" of Niigata. The wine also carries wooden notes from the casks, which only enhances the fragrance and results in a smooth and pleasant mouthfeel. There’s also the Miyukibana White, which smells citrusy and boasts a refreshing, well-balanced flavor reminiscent of fruit juice brought out by the cold-temperature fermentation.
We also highly recommend their Red Millennium series made from Red Millennium grapes. We tried the sweet variety, which really did taste super sweet (with just a hint of acidity) thanks to being stored at a very low temperature. Its rich fragrance reminded us of honey.
The vineyard sells a lot of other wines, including brand-new creations they produce each year and sparkling wines, so be sure to try a bunch of them and choose the ones that best match your palate.
Ukiyo: 100-Year-Old Ryotei with Heavenly Fish and Eel Dishes
Now that we’ve covered the rich variety of Joetsu sake and wines, you might be wondering what its food is like. If you want to dive deeper into the history behind Joetsu’s cuisine, then you need to visit Ukiyo. Located a 15-minute walk from Takada Castle, this establishment was originally a fishmonger for the first 200 years of its existence. In 1881, at the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912), it was converted into a ryotei, a type of high-class and traditional Japanese restaurant. Since then, it has been actively contributing to the continuation of Joetsu’s food culture through its luxurious cuisine.
During our visit, manager Kato showed us each room while telling us more about the ryotei. For example, we learned that the name "Ukiyo" means "a space that is full of joy." Even though life has its ups and downs and things don’t always go the way you want them to, good food and drinks can cheer you up and help you get back on your feet the next day. This philosophy was also the inspiration behind their logo, the self-righting okiagari-koboshi doll. You can see it everywhere throughout the restaurant, from the sign hanging from the east entrance to the room pillars.
Though the surrounding area used to be a bustling red-light district, Ukiyo has always added a sense of sophistication to the neighborhood as an authentic ryotei housed inside a three-story wooden building with a detached room on the rooftop, glistening wooden staircases, clean and comfortable tatami mat flooring, and gorgeous scenery outside its windows. Once a place where dignitaries held important talks and exchanged sake cups, it is now used by locals for special occasions such as birthdays and meeting the parents.
Ukiyo has a total of 10 dining rooms, all of which are designed in their own unique way. For example, there’s the Matsu no Ma (Pine Tree Room) on the first floor where you can enjoy your food while gazing out at a Japanese garden. Then there is the Ohiroma (Grand Hall), a sprawling 235-square-meter room with a wooden stage, and the Myoko no Ma (Myoko Room), the highest dining space in the restaurant offering views of Mt. Myoko on clear days. We noticed that the entrances to the rooms on the third and fourth floors were intricately hidden away. This was done to prevent customers from running into each other when dining at the ryotei.
While we found the architecture incredibly fascinating, the real charm of Ukiyo lies in its elegant and delicate cuisine served in a relaxed atmosphere.
Eel has been a specialty of the restaurant since it first opened, with the ryotei’s signature dish being the Ukiyo Traditional Unagi made from top-quality eel slathered with the secret kabayaki (grilling) sauce of past chefs. It’s simply seasoned, but that only enhances the delicateness and tenderness of the eel.
We also recommend the Irodori Hako Zen, a dish that is stuffed full of an assortment of fish, shrimp, and seasonal vegetables served in a segmented wooden box. Just looking at this beautifully arranged meal will have you instinctively reaching out to try it!
As for dessert, try out the exquisite Chocolate Yokan (a jelly-like confection solidified with agar), which also features coconut milk and cranberries that give it just the right amount of tartness. One bite is all it takes to be completely captivated by this dessert.
Enjoy the Bounty of the Seas in Niigata’s Itoigawa City and Toyama’s Asahi Town
Itoigawa City's Food Culture
Itoigawa City is located in Niigata Prefecture, which borders Toyama Prefecture. It lies on the Itoigawa-Shizuoka Tectonic Line that divides the Japanese archipelago, with the Sea of Japan to its north and the Japanese Northern Alps to the south. This major fault line is not only a geological boundary, but also a boundary between the food cultures and lifestyles of eastern and western Japan. Since Itoigawa sits right on the divide, it has long been a place where Japan’s east meets west.
This diversity can also be seen in its natural environment. Itoigawa’s elevation ranges from 0 to 3,000 meters above sea level, with the city boasting a wide variety of flora and fauna as well as plenty of seasonal delights from both the sea and mountains. Along its long coastline, there are many fishing ports of varying sizes that bring in fresh snow crabs, northern shrimp, monkfish, and other rare seafood thanks to the steep seafloor and the close proximity of fishing grounds.
Michi-no-Eki Marine Dream: Red Snow Crab Heaven
Located right next to the Michi-no-Eki Marine Dream roadside station is Kaniya Yokocho (Crab Market Street), the largest market for red snow crabs around the Sea of Japan. Here, you’ll find nine vendors with mountains of these locally-caught crustaceans on display, showing off their bright red shells and long legs.
Though most seafood is seasonal, red snow crabs are actually in season all year round as they live in a deeper part of the ocean where the water temperature remains at a chilly 0°C, constantly keeping the crabs fresh and delicious. (Please note, however, that Niigata Prefecture prohibits crab catching in January and February to prevent overfishing.)
Although many people like the plump, delicious meat of regular snow crabs, red snow crabs are incredibly affordable, sweet, and juicy, which has won them the hearts of not just the Itoigawa locals but also people from all over, who make the journey to Michi-no-Eki Marine Dream just for the crustaceans!
The prices are about the same regardless of the vendor, so just go up to whichever store you like and you’re sure to be given a warm welcome. As for how to choose the best crabs, we were told that they should be heavy and their shells should look thick, especially on the belly side. However, please be careful. Even if a crab is heavy, if the belly shell looks a little translucent, there’s a chance that it may just be water weight. If you’re having difficulty choosing, ask the shopkeeper for help! The crabs can either be brought home in a box or eaten while seated in front of the store.
According to the prefecture’s food safety regulations, freshly-caught crabs must be frozen before they can be sold, which is why all the crabs sold at this market are on ice. This is a good thing, because this locks in the freshness and deliciousness of the crabs until you’re ready to dig into them! And if you look closely, you can see that the crabs are all arranged belly-side up, indicating that all the stores are confident about the high quality of their crabs.
In addition to Kaniya Yokocho, guests can also visit the Fresh Fish Center and buy a wide variety of fish, shrimp, shellfish, and other seafood. There’s also a Gift & Produce Center selling processed seafood products to take back home, as well as restaurants where you can enjoy a seafood rice bowl together with freshly-made crab miso soup.
Drive In Kanamori: Enjoy the Local Fisherman Soup
Seafood from the Sea of Japan is so delicious and varied, not just because of the deep waters, but also thanks to the Tsushima Current that flows northward along the Japanese archipelago. The sea creatures that inhabit its borders are particularly diverse, ranging from shallow- and deep-water fish to seabed-dwelling creatures like crabs. Asahi, the easternmost town in Toyama Prefecture which borders the Sea of Japan, is especially known for its abundant seafood.
Asahi is also famous for its jade, but if it’s delicious regional food you’re after, just get on National Route 8 that goes right through it and head towards the famous Tara-jiru Highway where you’ll find restaurants, inns, and drive-ins selling the eponymous tara-jiru dish.
Tara-jiru is codfish soup, and it is said to hail back to the time when cod fishing became popular in Asahi Town, between 1955 and 1965. Whenever the local fishermen went out to sea, their wives would apparently make soup with miso and codfish for them to eat when they returned. The fishermen would also support each other by sharing the soup in a large pot and eating it on the beach.
Now an Asahi specialty, tara-jiru can be enjoyed all year round, but a lot of people prefer to eat it in the winter as December to February is spawning season for codfish, making their milt and roe exceptionally fresh, plump, and sweet.
The secret to a delicious bowl of tara-jiru is to take out all the innards from a single cod, cut the fish into large chunks, and then simmer the meat, head, liver, milt, and roe inside a pot. The final flavor of the soup depends on the miso and seasonings used.
We enjoyed a bowl of tara-jiru at a place called "Drive In Kanamori." We went there on a weekday, but the place was packed! Their light and refreshing tara-jiru is made with specially-selected miso and exquisitely simmered cod stock. We felt as though we could eat an entire pot of the soup and still not get enough of it!
Whether you’re looking for local soul food or have been feasting during your travels and crave a simple home-cooked meal, you can’t go wrong with tara-jiru. In addition to the soup, Drive In Kanamori also sells set meals that can be supersized with dishes displayed in a glass case at the counter, including oden, yam salad, "tamagoyaki" egg rolls, sashimi, grilled fish, and other Japanese specialties!
The Regional Flavors of Omachi City in Nagano Prefecture
Omachi City's Food Culture
Located at the foot of the Japanese Northern Alps, Omachi City in Nagano Prefecture is known for its abundant and delicious water resources, as well as for being home to some of Japan’s most famous dams such as the Kurobe Dam. Its high altitude, cool climate, and stark temperature differences between day and night have given this city blessed by the mountains and rivers plenty of opportunities to grow unique produce and create one-of-a-kind regional cuisine.
For example, Omachi’s clean water and cool climate make it ideal for growing soba (buckwheat). It’s why Nagano Prefecture and specifically Shinano-Omachi Town are famous for their buckwheat. The rapid changes in temperature throughout the day are also great for cultivating vegetables, as they enhance the produce’s freshness and nutritional value, making it exceptionally delicious. Winter vegetables that only get sweeter the colder the weather gets, such as highland-grown runner beans and daikon radish grown underneath snow, are just some of the unique winter vegetables that you can savor in Omachi.
Wachigai: A Delicious Lunch Awaits You Inside a Former Village Head’s Home
The Shio-no-Michi (Salt Road) that runs north to south through Omachi City was once used to transport salt and marine products from the Sea of Japan to the interior regions of mainland Japan. The town of Kaminaka-machi once prospered as a rest area for those transporting goods along the main route.
Within Kaminaka-machi sits the former residence of the village’s head, a 130-year-old building with classic Kyoto-style townhouse architecture. Since it’s located at the center of the town and well preserved, it has been registered as a Tangible Cultural Property for its high cultural value and role in promoting tourism, as well as in passing on the local culture and history.
Instead of treating the residence as a relic of history, the locals have decided to honor it by turning it into a restaurant. Today, Wachigai offers visitors to Omachi a delicious taste of the local cuisine.
The first floor is the dining area where you can savor meals made from local ingredients, while the second floor is home to a small gallery displaying crafts made by local artists, photos, and so on. Wachigai also offers a 1-day cooking class where participants can learn to cook local produce.
You can view the gallery without eating at the restaurant, but we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try their Wachigai Zaza, which are the restaurant’s original noodles that closely resemble udon. Made from 100% Nagano wheat, these thin noodles are smooth, firm, and have a rich wheat aroma to them. You can really savor the grain with each bite.
We also really liked the Omachi Kurobuta Don. Omachi Kurobuta are pigs raised on Omachi’s clean water, fresh air, and feed fermented with lactic acid bacteria. As a result, their meat is savory, plump, and soft. Though it’s so juicy that it feels like it melts in your mouth, it also has a light and refreshing quality to it.
The last dish we had was the restaurant’s Water Jelly, a dessert made with water from Omachi, once known as the "town of water." It is crystal clear, and when scooped into the mouth together with the tart fruit sauce, it feels like a refreshing, cool wave flowing across your face.
Hoshino Resorts KAI Alps: Enjoy the Snow Country Life and Food
Hoshino Resorts is a hotel management company with several high-class facilities under its name. Among them is KAI, a brand of elegant "Japanese Auberge" in classic hot spring regions that blend tradition and modernity. Apart from enjoying onsen baths, travelers who stay at KAI inns can enjoy the comfort and convenience of modern life while immersing themselves in the charms of local cultures.
Hoshino Resorts KAI Alps sits within the Omachi Onsen hot spring village at the entrance to the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. A little bit luxurious and rustic, the inn has incorporated elements of Nagano Prefecture into the entire facility, from the food, clothing, and rooms, to the shuttle bus. For example, its architecture features walkways covered by roofs extending outwards in the so-called "gangi-zukuri" style created to block falling snow, which you only find in snowy regions like Nagano.
In the winter, you can experience simple daily life in the Snow Country by walking around the inner courtyard wearing kanjiki (Japanese snowshoes), exploring a traditional "kamakura" snow hut, warming yourself up with some amazake, and more.
Of course, a stay at Hoshino Resorts KAI Alps won’t be complete without a dip in the hot springs! The onsen water is drawn from a hidden source within the Japanese Northern Alps and gives guests a chance to relax and forget their troubles as they soak while enjoying the view from the open-air bath in the inn's large bathing area surrounded by larch trees.
Made with nutrient-rich produce grown amidst Nagano’s natural surroundings using the area’s crystal-clear water, the heavily anticipated food looked absolutely stunning.
We sampled the Yukinabe Kaiseki, a winter-to-spring special featuring stock poured over fluffy cotton candy. The way the cotton candy melted away made us think of the melting snow atop the Japanese Northern Alps.
We also got to savor the Kuwayaki Kaiseki, a dish made from the bounty of the mountains. The name "kuwayaki" comes from the Japanese word "kuwa" meaning “hoe,” which is what farmers of old used to grill meat and fish. Hoshino Resorts KAI Alps offers a completely new interpretation of this dish that is pleasing to the eye while offering a glimpse into the wisdom and ingenuity behind Nagano’s food culture.
Eat Your Way Through Joetsu, Itoigawa, Asahi, and Omachi
Flavor is always enhanced by the story behind it. In this article, we met people and visited places related to the local cuisine of Joetsu and Itoigawa in Niigata Prefecture, Asahi Town in Toyama Prefecture, and Omachi Town in Nagano Prefecture. Through visits to sake breweries and wine vineyards, as well as high-class cuisine from ryotei and ryokan inns and fisherman dishes, we have learned how the roots of century-old cultures are passed down through growers, managers, cooks, and consumers, each being another piece of kindling that keeps the fire burning. We hope that someday you too can sightsee and eat your way through these places.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.