Suzaka – a town with abundant nature and historical vibes that speak volumes for Shinshu Nagano’s food culture
Suzaka is a quiet yet charming city in the Northern Shinshu region of Nagano prefecture, once prosperous in its silk-reeling industry. There are popular tourist spots such as Zenkoji Temple in Nagano, west of Suzaka and Jigokudani Monkey Park in Yamanouchi, north east of Suzaka. If you take the time to get in touch with the local scene, you might uncover a bonsai specialist or a seal (hanko) craftsman, meet a guesthouse owner who brings together locals and foreigners or a mushroom researcher. Suzaka is the epitome of a cultural city blessed with nature and diligent people. For starters, we look at some representatives of food culture that Suzaka prides itself after, Miso and Fruits.
Shioya – Take a walk through the history of producing Miso at one of the few surviving producers of fermented foods made traditionally in warehouses.
Miso, one of Japan’s “soul food”, has a prominent place in Japanese cuisine. Most of Miso nowadays sold in groceries stores are factory-made and you hardly find miso produced in warehouses and fermented in wooden barrels. Approximately 16 minutes’ walk away from Suzaka station, you would find 300-year-old Shioya, one of the few miso-producers which preserves such traditional methods. As its name suggests, its history is rooted in the trade of salt, a precious ingredient especially in land-locked Shinshu.
Miso is produced at Shioya with these 3 key ingredients: rice malt, salt and soybean. The warehouses aid in ameliorating drastic temperature changes and thus provide an optimum fermenting environment for microorganisms such as koji mold and yeast. Also, the unique make-up of microorganisms present on the walls of the Shioya’s warehouses adds on a complex flavour fashioned only in Shioya. There is a free tour of the facility where visitors are shown the “Miso Warehouse”, the “Shoyu Warehouse” and the “Grain Warehouse”; all of them have converted into exhibition or event spaces where the local community can gather for social activities. For keen visitors, they can also pay a fee of 3,000 yen to experience miso-making and bring home 4kg worth of miso, ready for consumption after laying it for 6 months (reservation required and available only on non-work days). At the shop, there is also a whole range of miso products as well as shoyu and tsukemono (preserved vegetables) to choose from. One special recommendation would be Enoki Miso, imbued with Enoki mushroom for enhancing the “umami” of the miso.
As miso has always been a supporting actor in Japanese cuisine, 11th generation owner, Taro Uehara, would like to recommend a dramatic way to savour the essence of miso: dipping raw vegetable sticks such as cucumber in miso paste.
Matsubaya – Rustic local cuisine, heart-warming local hospitality.
Having seen how miso is made and purchased some, how can we not resist the temptation to try out a local delicacy using Shinshu Miso right away? A short walk westwards of Shioya and just around the corner, there is Matsubaya, a soba restaurant established in 1887 and currently helmed by 5th generation owner Norimichi Matsumura. Alongside Soba, the Misosuki-don is a formidable contender as one of the signature dishes at Matsubaya. 880 yen for a bowl is more than affordable. If it is really tough to decide, why not get both, each with half portions. Misosuki-don uses Miso in place of Shoyu in the Sukiyaki base sauce. While the ordinary size can easily fill small stomachs, the savoury goodness keep you digging in. Matsubaya’s version of the Misosuki-don is packed with plenty of ingredients: pork slices, shimeji and matsutake mushrooms, shirataki, gobo(burdock) and onion.
Yamahon Sorimachi Farm – Pick grapes and apples and unwind in the countryside
After satisfying yourself with a hearty lip-smacking meal, let us whizz out into the rural fields of Suzaka on a rental bicycle (available at Kura-no-machi Tourism Center). In the Northern region of Suzaka city, there is a line of orchards along national highway 403 leading towards neighbouring town Obuse. Come autumn, this area would be transformed into fruit haven. One such orchard, also accessible in less than 15 minutes’ walk from Kita Suzaka Station, where visitors can freely come and experience picking grapes and apples is Yamahon Sorimachi farm (grapes are from mid-August to mid-October while apples are from early-September to end-November). A grass patch and wooden benches, coupled with an extensive canopy formed by a mesh of grape vines draping overhead, what an idyllic scene this is. There is a wide range of grape varieties such as Kyoho, Suiho, Niagara and Steuben. But the limelight falls on the two seedless and edible skin varieties, Nagano Purple (first cultivated here in Suzaka) and Shine Muskat. Further inside the farm’s grounds, you can spot various breeds of apple trees with different shades of red and even golden yellow. The apples are round and shapely, sits comfortably in one palm. After picking your choice, simply weigh and pay for it at the storefront. And if you are craving more, you are free to sample the various varieties or you could buy home more if you like!
For further information, please refer to the following websites.
Shioya Jozo (Salt-House Fermented Foods) <Japanese only>
Matsubaya Soba Shop <Japanese only>
Blog Page (Local Guide)
Listing on Suzaka Tourism Association’s Webpage
Yamahon Sorimachi Farm <Japanese only>
Blog Page (Local Guide)
Kura-no-machi Tourism Center
Suzaka Tourism Association Webpage