Like many of Japan’s prefectures, Matsumoto has some fantastic local specialties. From unique Matsumoto foods to folk crafts and natural resources, here are the key things you should seek out during your visit.
Fresh Spring Water
As a city surrounded by mountains, Matsumoto is fortunate enough to have an endless supply of fresh natural spring water flowing into and around the city. It seems like everywhere you look, there is water rushing through gutters, canals and rivers, and trickling from springs all over town. If you have an empty drink bottle with you, it’s perfectly fine, nay encouraged, to fill it with this plentiful resource. Get hold of a town walking map and you’ll see all the springs clearly marked out to make it easy for you.
Keep an eye out on Nawate-dori (Frog Street) for the spring by the entrance to Yohashira Shrine. Though, if you can only choose one well, make it Genchi Well; it has been supplying water to the locals since the Edo Period and is woven into the community lifestyle.
Folk crafts: temari balls
Temari balls are quintessential Matsumoto. If there’s any doubt, just look at the drain cover designs around town! These beloved folk crafts originated in China but are said to have made their way to Japan sometime in the 7th Century.
Originally, they existed among the elite noble class; strips of old kimono would be wound into balls, then adorned with colourful geometric patterns using silk strands. They started out as toys, sometimes including a hidden chamber of rice for a noisier play. However, once rubber made its debut in Japan and cornered the toy market, people began to appreciate temari in a more aesthetic sense. Parents would give them to their children at New Year with a wish hidden inside, while brides would present temari to her groom’s family in a gesture of harmony.
These days, a gifted temari symbolizes friendship, loyalty and the wish for a brilliant and happy life for the recipient. Pick up your own Matsumo folk craft at Takagi or one of the many souvenir shops around town. Better yet, consider joining a temari making workshop and creating your own!
Matsumoto foods to seek out
Nagano is just one of Japan’s 47 prefectures, yet it produces almost half of all the country’s miso. Therefore, it’s absolutely essential that you try some while you’re here. This paste, made from fermented soybeans, koji grains and salt, is a staple of Japanese cooking. It’s deep, salty and a little nutty (like the best of us) and is packed with protein, vitamins and minerals. Said to have links to longevity, miso forms the base of the famous miso shiru (miso soup) and is used in various sauces.
A great place to sample miso in various forms is at Ishii Miso Brewery. Founded in 1868, this brewery produces their miso in a traditional method and ages it for three years in wooden barrels. This results in a rich flavour that the mass-produced supermarket brands can only dream of.
If you’re interested, you can see the equipment and process during one of the brewery’s short tours. Once you’re curious to try the three-year-old paste, head to the gift shop/restaurant where there’s free miso soup available. You can also try yaki onigiri (rice balls brushed in miso paste and grilled) and miso ice cream which is a mind-blowingly delicious dessert.
Before you leave, pick up some miso paste or miso-flavoured sweets to take home as a great Nagano souvenir.
Soba is another Nagano must. As soba (buckwheat) grows so well in this climate, Nagano prefecture has been making flour, tea, noodles and more for generations. You can eat it hot or cold with many variations, making it a satisfying meal in any climate. If you want the real deal, look for juwari, or 100% buckwheat soba, which is gluten-free and much trickier to make. If you’re gluten-free, just be wary of the dipping sauce—check out our gluten-free guide for tips. When in town, make sure you seek out toji soba, Matsumoto’s regional specialty. This style involves using a small bamboo basket to dip the noodles into a bubbling hotpot before taking a bite.
Oyaki is another local specialty that’s shamefully not as well known as soba. These bun-dumpling hybrids are a blend of buckwheat and wheat flours, stuffed with local produce like mushrooms, pickles, vegetables, beans and miso. They’re steamed, pan-fried or grilled and always served nice and hot. In many ways, they could be the ultimate Nagano snack, as they contain many of Nagano’s finest exports all wrapped up in one savoury little package.
Basashi (raw horse meat)
Raw horse meat may sound a little challenging to some, but it’s honestly not so bad. In fact, it’s a delicacy and can be found at some very upscale dedicated restaurants. Also known as sakuraniku (cherry blossom meat), horse meat is mild and sweet and befittingly pink in colour. It’s typically served sashimi style with wasabi, soy and ginger on the side. All told, it’s really not so different. Another option would be to try sakura nabe, a sukiyaki-style hotpot made with thinly sliced horse meat and vegetables. Both dishes are sure to pleasantly surprise you while adding meat to your culinary credentials.
Sanzoku yaki fried chicken
Fans of karaage fried chicken will be delighted to know that Matsumoto has its own special version called sanzoku yaki, or ‘mountain bandit fry.’ Traditionally, a whole chicken thigh—skin on—is marinated in soy and garlic before being coated in potato starch and fried. It’s then sliced up and served hot, making the perfect accompaniment to a few cold beers. For this reason, you’ll find it in almost every izakaya (Japanese tavern) in the city!
And so much more!
Nagano Prefecture’s abundant natural resources have blessed it with countless other delights, from wine, beer and sake, to mountain vegetables, pickles and fresh, juicy fruit. In particular, Nagano is known for apples and grapes, so make sure you crunch into some while in town. Sweet tooths out there should also keep one eye out at the souvenir stores for special Nagano flavoured snacks. When you crack them open back at home, you can fondly remember your time in this charming mountain city.
Post by Japan Journeys.