Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
It’s not a local herb or an exotic spice. There’s another ingredient that makes the cuisine (and drink) of this little-visited region of Japan extra-special: Snow.
As I cross into Niigata Prefecture, it quickly becomes clear why Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata dubbed this region “snow country”.
It’s spring and the first cherry blossoms are due to appear within a fortnight. And yet on either side of the road in Myoko Kogen, one of Japan’s top ski resorts, precipitous banks of dense snow loom over the car, and thick two-meter piles cover the rooftops. In fact, the snow gets so deep here in the winter that many houses have a second front door on the first floor to allow people to get in and out. My guide Ayako Furuya tells me this as a blizzard gradually envelopes the car in a white cocoon.
Few foreign travelers make it to Niigata on the northwest coast of Honshu Island, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) from Tokyo. Those who do come to ski. But I wanted to sample another, little-explored aspect of the region: Snow food, a distinctive cuisine shaped by brutal winters, prodigious snowfalls and local ingenuity.
Hemmed in between the Sea of Japan, the Northern Japan Alps and the Iide mountain range, Niigata is one of the snowiest regions on earth, receiving around 220 centimeters during the winter. Higher elevations like Myoko Kogen can get double or even triple this amount.
“Every winter, cold winds from Siberia sweep over the Sea of Japan, picking up moisture,” Theodore Brown of the Itoigawa UNESCO Global Geopark Promotion Office explains. “They blow over Niigata and hit the mountains, which force the clouds to dump huge amounts of snow. In the spring and summer, the snow melts and the water passes down the mountains, picking up minerals, as rivers and streams.”
“We spread salt-cured chillies out on the snow on fields by the factory. We then cover them up, making a ‘snow sandwich’, and leave them for three to four days. This softens the chillies, removes the bitterness and makes them milder.”
Kuniaki Tojo, Kanzuri
In the past, Niigata was frequently cut off from the rest of the country over winter, and this isolation has fostered a creative, self-sufficient approach to food. For over a thousand years, residents have used snow to preserve their fruit and vegetables, storing them in natural refrigerators known as yukimuro (snow rooms), burying them outside, or allowing unharvested fields to be covered.
Not only do these techniques allow produce to be kept for longer, they also result in a fresher, crisper and often sweeter taste. And after a few bites of a delicious, sweet fuji apple, which had been buried under snow for several months, it was easy to understand why Niigata’s snow produce is now popular across Japan. And with travel time to Tokyo reduced to around two hours thanks to a new bullet train, the region’s chefs are hoping Niigata Prefecture will benefit from a gastro tourist boom, with people keen to sample snow food from the source.
One of Niigata’s best-known snow foods is produced at the Kanzuri factory, in the inland city of Myoko-shi, a 20-kilometer (34-mile) drive north of Myoko Kogen—Kanzuri fermented chilli paste. Once made in homes across the region, the intensive labor involved means most people now buy it from the only company producing it commercially.
In a room festooned with chilli paraphernalia—including a wooden samurai sword with a pepper-shaped handle—the firm’s chairman, Kuniaki Tojo, explains the idiosyncratic Kanzuri-making process. “We spread salt-cured chillies out on the snow on fields by the factory. We then cover them up, making a ‘snow sandwich’, and leave them for three to four days. This softens the chillies, removes the bitterness and makes them milder.”
The chillies—red, finger-sized togarashis—are then mixed with rice mould, a by-product of the Japanese sake-making process, spicy citrusy yuzu paste and salt, before being aged for three years. While chillies are not typically associated with Japan, Kanzuri is popular all over the country—the company produces 60 tonnes a year. It’s also exported to the USA, and there are plans to expand into the UK.
“Snow makes really good-quality sake, because the water is so clean. The main characteristics of Niigata sake is that it’s smooth, clear and dry, rather than sweet.”
Hisahiro Kobayashi, Kaganoi sake
“It’s really good with yakitori [skewered chicken], fried chicken, even miso soup,” says Tojo, as a platter of yakitori is brought out and liberally smeared with Kanzuri. It’s hard to disagree. It’s punchy, fruity and aromatic—Siracha could have a rival on its hands. As I leave, Tojo presses a selection of Kanzuri jars into my hands. “This is a cold region,” he says, smiling, “so you need the heat of the chilli to warm you up.”
Something else that will warm you up is the region’s ‘snow drink’. Snow also plays an integral role in the region’s sake, Japan’s national alcoholic drink—and Niigata’s sake is amongst the best in the country, with over 90 sake breweries, many of which are open for tours. In the coastal city of Itoigawa, a 55-kilometer (34-mile) drive west of Myoko-shi and just two hours by train from Tokyo, I visit the oldest one, Kaganoi, which has been producing sake since 1650.
“Snow makes really good-quality sake, because the water is so clean,” says Hisahiro Kobayashi, whose family founded and still operate the brewery. “The main characteristics of Niigata sake is that it’s smooth, clear and dry, rather than sweet.” Kaganoi was being rebuilt after a serious fire during my visit, but will be open again—and welcoming visitors—by summer 2018.
Kobayashi’s comments are echoed at the award-winning Kiminoi brewery in Myoko-shi, home of the region’s famous Kanzuri chilli paste. Founded in 1842, Kiminoi was a favorite watering hole of Japan’s Emperor Meiji who reigned from 1867-1912, earning it the nickname ‘Emperor’s Well’.
The atmospheric brewery building has remained largely unchanged, with its black-tiled roof and wooden beams. “All our rice comes from Niigata, some from our own fields,” Makoto Kiga, whose family run the brewery, tells me. “And we only use water from our own well, which comes from snow melt and has a lot of minerals.” He pours out generous tasters of his beautifully smooth, clean-tasting and dangerously easy-to-drink sake.
The region is also a haven for pescatarians, with over 240 kilometers (150 miles) of coastline and a thriving fishing industry. To build up an appetite, I cycle along the scenic 33-kilometer Kubiki bike trail which follows an old railway line between Itoigawa and Joetsu City.
I conveniently make my midway stop the lively Marine Dream Nou fish market. Here, stalls are piled high with red snow crabs, translucent squid, and gleaming halibut and monkfish—the latter is so popular in Itoigawa that the city hosts no fewer than three monkfish festivals a year between January and March.
Dinner that evening consists of rich crab broth, tiny sweet shrimps, a juicy monkfish fillet, and locally grown Koshihikari rice—considered one of Japan’s best. Why is that, I ask? Unsuprisingly, it’s thanks to the quality of the snow-melt that waters these paddies. Of course it is.
Find out more about this intriguing region of Japan: Niigata Prefecture.