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Japan Hour

It's Lunch Time

More “food investigation” adventures await us this week. Our first location is Toyooka Village in Nagano Prefecture.

More “food investigation” adventures await us this week. Our first location is Toyooka Village in Nagano Prefecture. A small village with a population of about 6,800 people, it is situated on the banks of the Tenryu River, which stretches over 213km. The village is well known all over Japan for its top-grade matsutake mushrooms, an autumn delicacy.

We walk around the town and drop by a store called Asai Shoten. Established 92 years ago, it sells different grades of matsutake mushrooms, including the smaller-sized koro mushrooms. They are sold at the current market price. For example, a huge matsutake can cost as much as 12,000 yen, while koro mushrooms sell for about 3,500 yen per 100g. We head to the mountains with shop owner Mr Asai to see how he picks matsutake mushrooms. Nagano Prefecture produces about 80% of Japan’s matsutake mushrooms, which grow from matsu or red pine trees. Toyooka Village offers an ideal environment to grow high-quality matsutake mushrooms, due to its well-drained soil and many pine trees.  

Mr Asai agrees to show us his lunch. So we head back to the store and go to his home on the second floor. His wife, Ms Maki, does the cooking. The meal comprises nine dishes made from the freshly picked matsutake mushrooms. They include tempura, deep-fried mushrooms, matsutake pickled with miso, matsutake with rice and steamed mushrooms. Other items are miso soup with Jersey cow mushrooms, and salted and sweetened koutake, which literally means "aromatic mushrooms".

We continue exploring the village and meet the Takigawas, who are working in a rice field. We visit their house to see their meal, which comprises salted squid with sake lees dressing; stir-fried pork, green pepper and eggplant with sweet miso; small crucian carp cooked in soy sauce; vegetable tempura made with sweet potatoes, okra and other vegetables from the family’s garden; and pork miso soup.

Our next destination is Agatsuma County in Gunma Prefecture. Okkirikomi is the local speciality dish here. The noodles are made in thick flat strips known for their soft and chewy texture. Furthermore, the sweetness from eggplant, taro and other vegetables is a perfect match for the miso-flavoured soup.

We visit the Azuma Fish Farm, where river fish such as rainbow trout, char and landlocked salmon are raised. We meet fish farmer Shunsuke Ikeda who tells us the fish are raised in the water which springs from the base of large pine trees in Hakoshima Fudoson. The water has been named one of Japan's 100 Best Waters.

Azuma Fish Farm also runs a restaurant. The most popular item on the menu is donburi featuring a top-class rainbow trout, Ginhikari, soaked in soy sauce. For their meal, the restaurant staff are having a colourful rice bowl which includes red rainbow trout eggs and golden-coloured char eggs. The former are known as red caviar and sell for 10,000 yen per kg, while latter can only be found in char larger than 30cm.    

The next person we speak to is 66-year-old Yu Horiguchi. In his backyard, he has an enormous stone kiln which he took half a year to build. He lives in a house which is about 100 years old. Mr Horiguchi used to work for a company that farmed pigs in Agatsuma County. He has since retired and now pursues his hobbies and spends time with his ex-classmates, some of whom he has known for about 60 years.

One such friend of his is Sho Karasawa, the District Chief of Agatsuma County’s Isama District. Mr Karasawa is joining Mr Horiguchi for lunch. They use the stone kiln to make a delicious meal of roasted chicken wrapped in green shiso; pizza topped with cheese, onions,  green peppers, tomatoes, bacon and sausages; and baked apples for dessert.  

1) A must-try delicacy of Nagano Prefecture is matsutake mushroom
2) Okkirikomi is the local speciality dish of Gunma Prefecture’s Agatsuma County


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