Miso Grilled Pork Chops And Pure Natural Shaved Ice: Must-Have Delicacies in Nagatoro in Chichibu, Saitama!
As more effort is put into promoting Japan's regional tourism, Chichibu has risen as a new favorite among nature lovers. A 20-minute train ride from the city would take you to Nagatoro, another town worth a visit. There you can find a shaved ice dessert that is tasty enough for people to brave the biting cold, the wildly popular miso grilled pork chop, and miso okkirikomi udon that is only available in winter. Besides, Nagatoro is said to be the cradle of geology in Japan because of its magnificent landscape. Have we piqued your interest by now? Read on to find out more!
Feb 17 2021 (Feb 22 2021)
※Article by commissioned writer
Let's say you've decided on a trip to Nagatoro – where exactly is it? The town sits in Saitama Prefecture next to Tokyo, and is accessible by taking a train from Ikebukuro (JR, Seibu Railway or Tobu Tojo Line) then transferring to Chichibu Railway. The 100-minute ride might seem a bit daunting, but if you think about the scenery and delicious food awaiting you, it would all be worth it!
Chichibu Specialties: Okkirikomi Udon & Miso Grilled Pork Chop
Located within Chichibu City, Nagatoro also offers that city's specialties. Wild vegetables are the staple of the region's cuisine, and natural water is often used to accentuate the flavor. Some of the most famous examples are miso and udon. There are numerous restaurants offering miso pork chop, miso konjac jelly, stirred udon, and okkirikomi udon near Nagatoro Station. Each of them is unique in its own way, and among them is Garden House Yurin, a long-standing restaurant where guests can enjoy their meal in a relaxing atmosphere.
Managed by Chichibu Railway, Garden House Yurin serves reasonably priced local cuisine, including signature dishes like waraji pork cutlet, miso grilled pork chop and okkirikomi udon. Miso grilled pork chop is a traditional Chichibu delicacy. In the old days before refrigerators, locals would cut up the wild boars they caught and pickle the meat with miso for preservation. The method remains in use to this day.
Although nowadays wild boar meat is no longer used in preparing miso grilled pork chops, they are adamant that the miso must be from Chichibu. Not only is the grilled pork aromatic and savory, there is also a hint of sweetness in the salty miso which goes perfectly with rice. It is so popular that Chichibu Railway decided to open another branch called Yurin near Nagatoro Station, focusing solely on miso grilled pork chops. If you're fixated on that dish, you may consider eating there instead.
Okkirikomi udon is a very common household dish in Chichibu, its name literally meaning udon that is thrown into the pot right after being cut. It might look like udon with vegetables at first glance, but it is actually nothing like what we are familiar with. The noodle used here is flat and salt-free, and wheat bran is sometimes added into the dough. And instead of cooking the noodles before adding them to the vegetable broth, it is simmered together with the vegetables, thus the dish is regarded as a stew.
The broth of okkirikomi udon is usually miso- or soy sauce-based. Even though there is no restriction on the choice of vegetables, it is common to use seasonal vegetables, eddoe and radish. In other words, you would come across different variations of the dish depending on the season. The picture above shows the basic version with miso broth and Chinese cabbage. The rich miso soup, which is sweetened by stewed vegetables, is sure to disperse the cold, while the udon itself is more smooth than chewy. Have a nice bowl to warm yourself in winter!
For those interested in sampling Chichibu miso in its simplest form, the miso konjac jelly would be worth a try. Their jelly is usually unseasoned, relying solely on the miso to give it flavor. There is no better way to learn about the locally produced miso!
Established 130 Years Ago, Asami Reizo's Shaved Ice Never Grows Old
Asami Reizo is a store that has been producing and selling ice since 1890, but it wasn't until 1992 that they opened their own shop to sell shaved ice. They started off humbly, but since their secret ice-making techniques got featured in Japanese magazines and TV programs, they have risen to become the superstar of Nagatoro, so much that they are the very reason why some people visit the area at all. Nowadays, almost every restaurant there has Asami Reizo's flag displayed at the shopfront to emphasize where their ice comes from.
So what is so special about Asami Reizo's ice? The key is "natural": they would dig an "ice pool" in the wild to collect water from the subterranean river purified by Mount Hodo, then wait two months for it to freeze naturally. This is only possible in places with very cold winters, and Asami Reizo is the sole ice manufacturer around Chichibu still using this method. Ice made from subterranean water is higher in mineral content than normal water, with a trace of sweetness unique to natural water. Moreover, everything is natural with no artificial additives, from the syrup that dictates the frozen dessert’s quality and flavor to the toppings, a testimony to the care they put into their products.
Asami Reizo has two restaurants: the Kanasaki main shop near Nagatoro Station, and the Mount Hodo branch close to sightseeing spots. Their closing days are different, so at least one is always open. The Kanasaki main shop is divided into the main wing and new wing; the former is in modern Japanese style, whereas the latter is in traditional Japanese style and more spacious. The photo on the right below shows the menus from both wings placed at the entrance. The new wing's items are slightly more expensive and most of them are sets. Before taking guests to their seats, a server would first introduce the menus and let them choose a wing. Unless you have a particular interest in a traditional Japanese setting, the main wing should do the trick.
Stepping into the main wing is like going back in time to the Taisho period, when East and West met. The old Japanese structure is adorned by western decorations and a piano. Western paintings are hung above the self-serve corner, where tea is kept in a traditional Japanese teapot. Things seem at once conflicting and well-coordinated, resulting in an unexpectedly calming atmosphere. It is a nice escape from the outside world. On the menu brought by the waitstaff are items like signature shaved ice, special shaved ice, drinks, toast and anmitsu (Japanese dessert with agar jelly, red bean paste, mochi and fruits drizzled with syrup), while on the wall there are posters of newer items like matcha-flavored shaved ice with red bean paste and mochi. They are very generous with their servings of shaved ice, so it is recommended to order anmitsu or toast along with the ice, and help yourself to some hot tea to avoid numbing your taste buds!
The picture on the right below shows their signature "ultimate shaved ice with Kuramoto syrup", which includes the famed syrup of Asami Reizo and a variety of bean pastes. You might also try their side set of cheese toast, yogurt and coffee (can be changed to black tea), and matcha-flavored shaved ice with red bean paste.
The huge iceberg is a challenge in itself, as if asking guests "Are you sure you can finish me by yourself?" as it arrives at the table. There is no need to worry though; the three glistening pastes (red bean, white sword bean and matcha flavored bean) and abundance of syrup are there to help you make it through the trial.
The bowl of natural ice is solid, but not so hard as to pose a threat to the spoon. When you have a scoop, the ice melts at the tip of your tongue as soon as you experience its crispy texture, leaving behind a hint of sweetness. After sampling its natural taste, the next step is to pour over the syrup made from wasanbon sugar from Tokushima. Its light and refreshing sweetness is a perfect match with shaved ice, leaving you wanting for more. Lastly, the three bean pastes have varying degrees of sweetness: the slightly bitter matcha is for those preferring a lighter taste, the traditional red bean is the most sugary and goes well with syrup in bringing out the different layers of sweetness, and the unique white sword bean is right between the two. All three have their own magic as toppings. Even though the matcha-flavored shaved ice with red bean paste is just as charming, the ultimate shaved ice is still the most recommended!
Coming next is the savory cheese toast, which practically screams of chewiness as one tears it into smaller pieces by hand. A bite of salty treats is just perfect to balance things out after a big dessert!
If you have time to spare, check out Asami Reizo's goods and gachapon machines at the shopfront, including the flag seen at many restaurants in Nagatoro, as well as useful items like bibs and towels. During summer, you can even take a stroll in the garden outside the restaurant and snap some pictures to remember your trip by!
Experience Nagatoro's Four Seasons: Beautiful Mountains, Waters And Night Sky
Nagatoro is well-known for its river valley and historical sites, but those aren’t the only things worth visiting here. Its abundant natural resources make sure that there is always ample reason to come anytime of the year, whether it is the plum blossoms in late winter to early spring, river cruising in the summer, maple leaves in autumn, or icicles and hot springs in the winter. If the weather is fair, you can even see a starry night sky. Mark the following sightseeing spots for your eventual trip to Nagatoro!
Boats With Heated Tables!? Nagatoro Valley And Iwadatami
Nagatoro Valley is a natural river valley formed along Arakawa River. Due to the unusual landscape, in 1878 geologists from Germany traveled there to conduct research, and concluded that the geological structure is indeed of a rare type. As a result, the area has become the cradle of geological research in Japan. While you are there, remember to check out Iwadatami, a rock formation that looks like successive layers of tatami overlapping each other, and don’t miss out the magnificent 500 feet-wide Chichibu Red Cliff, Myojin Falls, as well as Toraiwa, a crystalline schist with stripes resembling a tiger’s skin.
You can participate in river cruising all year in Nagatoro Valley. It is especially exciting in summer to be rushed downstream by the raging currents. On the other hand, you get to enjoy the activity in a whole new light in winter; boatmen set up heated tables on their boats for passengers to stay warm while admiring the beautiful scenery. Of course, you can opt to climb Iwadatami to observe the rocks up close, and capture moments of boats drifting down the river valley.
Hodosan Shrine, a Scenic Spot With a Michelin Star
Standing on Mount Hodo and said to be built in 111, Hodosan Shrine has been the religious center of Nagatoro locals since ancient times. In 2011, the shrine received one star in the Michelin Green Guide Japan for its beautiful sculptures. Apart from cherry blossoms in spring and the pond where the legendary hero Yamato Takeru no Mikoto is rumored to have bathed, the main hall which was rebuilt in the early Meiji Period is noteworthy too.
Unlike other Japanese shrines, Hodosan Shrine's main hall has plenty of carvings depicting scenes from two traditional Chinese stories, "The Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars" and "Records of the Three Kingdoms". All of the carvings are colored and show excellent craftsmanship. One might even mistake it for a Taiwanese temple at first glance!
The Photogenic Nagatorogura Sake Brewery And Old Arai Residence
Nagatoro is lined with old houses and shops. Some are open to visitors, while others offer accommodations. Among them, you should check out the Nagatorogura Sake Brewery located next to the Nagatoro Town Museum, which has been in the brewing business since 1729. The Old Arai Residence nearby also has more than 200 years of history.
The Nagatorogura Sake Brewery is one of the few sake breweries in Nagatorogura. The founder, Fujisaki Sobei Mitsushige, brought brewing techniques with him to the Kanto region and established the Fujisaki Sobei Shoten. Then, noticing the high quality of Nagatoro's sake and the tourism potential, the 13th-generation head Ozaka Shigeru decided to move the entire business there. Nowadays, not only can visitors witness the brewing process and have a taste of the four locally produced sakes, but they can also shop for handicrafts in the brewery.
The Old Arai Residence allows people to glimpse into the structure of old houses around Chichibu. In the past, there used to be many silk farms, including the Arai family. However, as the practice fell out of favor, tools and structures designed for silk farming disappeared as well. This residence kept its thatched roof, and visitors can still see the partitions from before. It is a cool respite from the summer heat, and makes for an interesting backdrop for photos.
Have you run out of ideas about where to go in the Greater Tokyo Area? Try leaving the city proper and travel to smaller towns like Nagatoro to experience their local culture. You will definitely be pleasantly surprised by the delicious food and extraordinary scenery!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.