According to visitor surveys, food is one of the most anticipated aspects of a trip to Japan, and Snow Country is a foodie’s dream with local, seasonal, and organic being the norm. This area, surrounded by forests and mountains is home to a rich and varied food culture. There is everything to suit all tastes but the history and climate has produced some interesting aspects here.
Rice probably needs no introduction. The clean air filtered by the falling snow, and the abundant pure water of the springs help make the rice grown in the valleys some of the most highly regarded in the whole of Japan. The growing cycle of the rice dictates much of life in Snow Country.
The heavy snows of winter have played a large part in the formation of the food culture here. With snows covering the ground for half the year having enough food to last through the winter was one of the main occupations for the rest of the year. Preserving foods became one of the specialities in these heavy snow areas. Pickling was one option with pickled vegetables lasting as an accompaniment to rice throughout the winter. Even these days, many families, as well as restaurants and accommodations make their own pickles. The Imanari Pickle Shop in Muikamachi uses the lees from Hakkai-san Sake Brewery to make their famous spaghetti squash, marrow, or eggplant pickles. The process is much the same today as it has always been and is well worth a visit.
Using the winter snows has also been a traditional way of preserving food. Once the rice harvest had been brought in every fall, the preparations for the long winter could begin. Using straw from the harvest twisted into spirals and bound with rope hand woven from several additional strands the Snow Country locals could make a small shelter that would be buried by the winter snow. This daikon tsugura which is like an outside refrigerator keeps the white radish stored inside it at the perfect temperature and humidity to last for months. Come spring when the snow melts the straw is broken up and spread on the fields to rejoin the cycle again. These are still made around the region and it is a fascinating process to watch and try.
Some places use the snow in larger facilities as cold storage. Head to Uonuma no Sato Yukimuro Cellar to see a huge storage facility that is partly filled with snow every winter. This snow remains throughout the year keeping the building cool and at a steady temperature, and is used for storing sake. Vegetables stored in this environment develop a much sweeter flavor, and there are even places that using this knowledge, leave vegetables under the snow. Once harvested after their time in this natural cold storage their taste is highly prized.
Living off the land has always been an important aspect of the food culture here, and again, it is still well practiced today. Foraging during spring and fall is a way of life, and there are tours arranged by the local tourist offices for people who would like to experience the fun of searching for food in the woods. Fall is the season for mushrooms and there are a huge range of edible ones if you know what you are looking for. Enjoying a bowl of mushroom stew from ingredients you found after a day of searching, cooked in the open air, is food at its best. Spring sees the locals traipsing over the slopes looking for mountain plants and vegetables. Traditionally there had been no fresh food for months so the reappearance of greenery into the diet holds a special captivation for the people of Snow Country. Picking, cooking, and feasting on these is one of the joys and tastes of the season around here.
Hunting was also popular and game can still be found on the menu around the area. Hunters are getting more scarce as the younger generations shun this form of life, so animal populations are booming. Bear, boar, and deer are all hunted but not always for their meat.
There is a project in the region to find and preserving the foods cultures that represent this area. It is the A-kyu Gourmet Project. It is a play on words in Japanese about top level and everlasting cuisine. The restaurants, ryokans, and producers who have been approved according to the criteria can be found here (website in Japanese.) Even if you can’t read the text the pictures will certainly whet your appetite, and the project is a fascinating look at the food of the area.
Tradition has played a strong part in forming the food culture of the area but that is by no means the end of the story. There is a vibrant modern culinary movement that is using the best traditional skills and pairing them with modern techniques for amazing food experiences.
Foraging for Bamboo Shoots – https://snowcountryblog.wordpress.com/2017/07/05/foraging-for-bamboo-shoots/
Mountain Foraging in Fall