Recent surveys have indicated that food is one of the main highlights of trips to Japan for visitors from overseas. Every area of Japan is immensely proud of their cuisine and produce, and here is no different. If you are headed to Yuzawa or any region of Snow Country you are in for a culinary treat.
From long ago, inhabitants in this area have had to deal with the fields being under snow for half of the year, so had to come up with techniques to lay up enough food to see them through the long winter. Once one winter ended preparation for the next one began again. They became very adept at storing and preserving food. The pickles you get with your meal are part of that tradition. Also check out this natural cold storage method that is still used today, (or you can see several examples of snow being used for cooling in this region.) The long winters without fresh vegetables also explain why the fresh green shoots that appear in spring are still regarded as such a delicacy.
Local and seasonal ingredients are important in Japan. Most supermarkets have a section selling fruit and vegetables from small holders in the region. Lots of the little restaurants in the area know exactly who they get their ingredients from, and you might see photos of the suppliers on the walls.
Rice - The koshihikari rice grown in this region is regarded as the best in Japan. The winter snow filters the air as it falls and also provides an abundance of clean water for the rice fields in spring. Anything made from rice from this area is also likely to be highly regarded - try the sake in the tasting center in the station, and also wander around and try some of the local foodstuffs laid out, especially the rice crackers.
Kenchin Stew - this is a traditional hot pot from this region. Full of root vegetables it is both filling and warming. There are many other kinds of hotpots served in big pans (nabe) that are fantastic when it's cold outside, and also with one pot in the middle, really sociable.
Noodles - both the udon and soba noodles from this area are highly regarded for their taste and texture.
If you are staying in a ryokan definitely try the kaiseki dinner on one night. Course after course of beautifully presented little dishes. Sometimes served in your room, or sometimes in a dining room. Japanese hospitality at its best. Even if you are staying in a small family run ski lodge, an in-house dinner on one night of your stay is a good idea. You are likely to be stuffed with delicious, home-style countryside dishes (and you'll probably find that your host also grew the rice!)
Yuzawa has plenty of restaurants, and you could dine out in a different one every night for several week. There is an English guide leaflet available in the Information Centers in Yuzawa. There are all different kinds, so no matter what you are feeling like, you should find something to satisfy. If food is one of your interests we often recommend staying in the center of town so that you can stroll out to dinner every night. We'll try to get some posts up from our regular instructors about their favourites. [A love it or hate it note - Some restaurants, especially in the evening, still allow smoking.]
English menus are more and more common in town, so the old favourite of "point and hope for the best" are almost over.
One of the common refrains you hear is that it is almost unheard of to have a bad meal over here. Food is a source of pride and tends to be very well executed. Portions are generous, prices are reasonable, and that amazing service requires no tipping.
On most nights you can walk right into most restaurants without queuing. On weekends and holidays things tend to be busier, with skiers and boarders from Tokyo filling the town. Bookings might be an idea unless you are happy walking around for a bit. Don't forget there are also restaurants in the station - the close earlier than restaurants in the town but usually have quite a quick turnaround time.
Get involved. If you fancy trying your hand at making some local cuisine there are a couple of restaurants and workshops that will teach you how. Soba noodle making is a great one, and you can also learn how to make some of the traditional sweet mochi rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaf - sasadango. Cooking is a game you can eat.
Convenience store food (an instructor favourite) almost needs an entire post of its own. Fill your pockets with an array of interesting snacks before heading out to the slopes, or grab a bite on the way to or from a night out. You might find that you develop a mild addiction to a certain product that will have your rushing back to your favourite convenience store on your next visit to Japan. Rice balls (onigiri), Pocky, flavoured KitKats, and the new, limited edition versions of popular sweets and drinks that keep appearing make the conbini a guilty pleasure for many.
Food on the slopes. This can vary wildly, with some truly amazing restaurants (check out La Locanda del Pittore in Iwappara), some that are fantastic value and delicious (Hiiragi in Ishiuchi), to some that are OK. Chances are you'll be so hungry....
As we've mentioned, it's hard to go wrong, so get out there and explore. We are hoping that the Yuzawa Tourist Information will be releasing a special Restaurant Crawl plan soon that will make it even easier to try lots of tasty treats. If you are having a ski or snowboard lesson with Snow Country Instructors ask your coach for some tips on where to go both on and off the slopes. If you have special dietary requirements or restrictions, and need some assistance, feel free to drop us a line.