Mouse over the various parts of the illustration for detailed descriptions.
Nagano is famous for soba (buckwheat noodles). It doesn't matter if you eat soba chilled (favored by purists) or in a bowl of warm soup (perfect for in winter), jyu-wari (100% buckwheat) or mixed with wheat flour, but just be sure to eat it when in Nagano. It's against the rules not to.
The mountains around Nagano City offer a cornucopia of wild mushrooms. Fortunately, not too many varieties are poisonous. The ones used in cooking have names like nameko, numeri iguchi, haniguchi, naratake, etc., and have equally wild shapes.
The dictionary says nagaimo is a Chinese yam. It should be called Matsushiro yam, because that Nagano City district is a major growing area for nagaimo. It's a long root and has to be grown in sandy soil, like along the Chikuma River, otherwise it's impossible to pull it out at harvest. When grated, it turns into a slimy, marshmallow-like texture. Yum!
Those little green bits are pickled nozawana. The dictionary says nozawana is a turnip green. It's not. It's nozawana. And it's a specialty of northern Nagano Prefecture. Restaurant owners will be arrested if they don't serve it.
We take soybeans on the way to making soy sauce and stop the process halfway through to make shoyu-mame, kind of like chunky soy sauce. Spoon a little on a bowl of rice and top with chopped green onions. It's only made in the area within the sound of the Zenkoji temple bells.
Those dishes that look like bee larvae and grasshoppers – they're not chicken. They are full of protein, though, which is important here in land-locked Nagano where seafood is hard to come by.
No matter where you go in Nagano, you will see this little red tin with a drawing of Zenkoji Temple on it. This is 7-spice. Nagano-ites have this 7-spice in their DNA – they are that fond of it. Line up the stem of the pepper with the cap to locate the pouring hole, and sprinkle a bit on top of your bowl of soba noodles.
Togakushi is a major buckwheat growing area. Many of the soba restaurants in central Nagano City feature Togakushi soba, saving you the trouble of having to actually trek up to the mountain.
Togakushi is home to one of Japan's 3 main schools of ninjutsu, Togakure-ryu. You never know who is a ninja – even the guy making the soba noodles may be one. Watch out what he does with the rolling pin!
Nishinomon, Unzan, Kawanakajima and Genbu are just some of the sake labels you will find made in central Nagano City. Most are brewed with sake rice grown right here in the Zenkoji Plain, and go oh so well with the local cuisine.
At these Japanese-style pubs, guests order lots of little dishes to share with their friends. It's a great way to try some of the more unusual local cuisine. That dish that tastes like chicken -- it's not chicken. You may be better off not knowing what it is.
Here in the countryside, many restaurants haven't caught on to the trend of a neon ‘open' sign. Instead, they do it old-school, with a noren curtain in their entrance. If the curtain is out, you're in luck – it means the shop is open.
For some restaurants, you have to take your shoes off at the entrance. Staff will put them away in a shoe closet while you eat. When you leave, make sure to not take a pair nicer than the ones you brought.
Nagano's winters are long and cold and snow is common (although deep accumulations are uncommon). Just another reason to tuck into a local izakaya to warm up with some sake.
Despite being tucked away in the mountains, Nagano City offers a surprisingly cosmopolitan selection of restaurants. A new wave of younger owner-chefs has added even more creativity and energy.
From juicy Kawanakajima peaches to gigantic kyoho grapes, Nagano City is blessed with an abundance of fruit orchards. Here we just don't say ‘apple' – we say the variety, such as Shinano Sweet or Golden Delicious. Fuji is still the granddaddy, but try the new varieties, too, such as Akibae, as dark as Snow White's poisonous apple.
A cross between rainbow trout and brown trout, Shinshu salmon is a popular fish breed in Nagano. We may not have an ocean, but that doesn't mean we don't have delicious fish.
Thanks to handful of very skilled vintners, along with some help from climate change, Nagano wines have started to gain critical recognition. The chardonnays especially have developed a faithful (and happy) following.
Many restaurants feature deer meat on their menus. Wild boar, pheasant and other game meat can also be found. As Japan's hunters age and have become fewer, deer have increased in number so much they have become a pest. Do your part to help control the deer population by eating deer meat!
Japan's wagyu beef is famous throughout the world for the marbled meat so smooth that it can almost be eaten with a spoon. Nagano's version is called Shinshu-gyu. We feed the cows our local apples, giving the beef a faint fruity fragrance.
Vestiges of the ‘98 Olympics Nagano hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, bringing an international flair to the city. Perhaps the best place to feel the Olympic spirit is at the official Nagano Olympic Museum at M-Wave.
A series of shukubo surround Zenkoji Temple. They have traditionally offered lodging to travelers making a pilgrimage to Zenkoji. Some offer zazen meditation and juzu prayer bead making lessons.
Based on the Buddhist concept of non-violence, shojin ryori (devotion cuisine) is vegan food. Shojin meals are artfully prepared by the shukubo temple lodges as well as a few nearby restaurants.
Nagano Prefecture is Japan's largest producer of miso. Many of the local restaurants have increasingly added miso as an accent to their dishes. Think beyond just miso soup!
Loved by the locals, oyaki dumplings are stuffed with an array of fillings (from kabocha squash to eggplant, potato to nozawana, even sweet purple beans) and are cooked in a variety of ways, from steamed to roasted over coals. Each particular area's oyaki are the best. (Don't try arguing differently.)
After the snow melts, the mountains awake in a cacophony of plants. Many are edible, such as bamboo shoots and fern fronds. Collectively, they are called ‘sansai', and are a popular, if pungent, addition to shojin and other meals, especially in the spring.
When you go to Zenkoji Temple, take a step off to the side streets paralleling the main omotesando road. The quiet lanes are lined by shukubo lodges, a treat for those that appreciate traditional Japanese architecture (and/or for those that want a break from the crowds).