Local Bus Trip To Gunma Prefecture
Our culinary tour around villages in Gunma features local specialities such as a "miraculous vegetable", an award-winning variety of rice and a luxurious fish called "the salmon of clear streams".
There are nearly 200 villages scattered around Japan. So this week, we embark on a culinary journey around villages in Gunma Prefecture to find unique foods and ingredients. We will also learn how to cook some local speciality dishes. We will drive a food truck, equipped with an all-purpose cooker, to the various villages while searching for delicious foods.
Our trip starts from Shibukawa City and the first stop is Takayama Village, located in a highland area. It is a peaceful place, with many fields and great views. We learn from a villager that jumbo garlic is a local speciality here. There is also the White Roppen variety, known for its strong smell and rich flavour. We are told to check out a roadside station called Nakayama Bonchi, where cheap freshly harvested vegetables are sold.
A popular item sold at the facility is beetroot, which the locals call “drinkable blood” or "miraculous vegetable". A beetroot farmer, Mr Hiragata, tells us that nitrates found in beetroots are converted to nitric oxide in the body. This is said to expand blood vessels and help prevent arteriosclerosis, stroke and heart diseases. Many people thus call it a “superfood”. We talk to Kozo Goto, the village headman. He tells us the village is located on a plateau at an altitude of 600m. The huge difference in temperatures between day and night plays a part in making the vegetables here sweet and tasty.
We return to our food truck to make some dishes using garlic and beetroot. Mr Hiragata’s wife teaches us how to cook the beetroot. We are taught to first peel it with a knife, not a peeler. The skin of beetroots has a strong smell so peeling it thickly helps to remove the smell. Once it is peeled, we cut the beetroot into thick strips to maintain the texture. This vegetable can be cooked in different ways, such as for soup or to make pickles with. We use wood to start a fire and make stir-fried beetroot with finely chopped garlic and olive oil. The dish is seasoned with just salt. Mr Hiragata also makes some garlic pasta for us to have with the beetroot.
After this, we drive our food truck to Kawaba Village, which attracts a lot of tourists. It has a huge roadside station called Kawaba Denen Plaza, which was selected as the favourite roadside station in the Kanto region for five years in a row. We ask a villager about well-known foods here and he tells us about Yukihotaka rice, a local speciality. It has clinched the top prize in a “rice flavour” competition more than 10 times. Yukihotaka is a type of Koshihikari rice that is grown using the water of melted snow from Mount Hotaka. It costs 8,000 yen for 10kg.
We drive to the village office to get more information about other local foods. We are told about Ginhikari rainbow trout, another local speciality of Kawaba Village. It is more than twice the size of a typical rainbow and weighs over 1kg. If a typical rainbow trout is grown for more than two years, its meat quality will deteriorate. This is not the case with Ginhikari, so at Kawaba Village, they spend three years to make them grow big. Ginhikari is three times more expensive than regular rainbow trout. It is a luxurious fish which is often called "the salmon of the clear streams".
A Yukihotaka rice farmer, Mr Hoshino, chats with us and tells us about another speciality, chickens which are fed with the high-quality Yukihotaka rice. They cost 2,000 yen per kg. We also speak to the village headman, Kyotaro Toyama. We walk back to our food truck to cook some dishes using the luxurious Ginhikari fish and locally grown Yukihotaka chicken. This time, Ami Kikuchi, a housewife, will help us cook. The rice is cooked in an earthenware pot. We fillet and slice the Ginhikari fish. It is sprinkled with salt, pepper, herbs and flour, before being grilled on a hot iron plate. The Yukihotaka chicken is also simply seasoned with salt and pepper and grilled. Ms Kikuchi makes a fish dish called Namerou using Ginhikari. Someone from the village office offers us freshly harvested strawberries from a farm in Kawaba. This completes our meal in Kawaba Village.
1) Jumbo garlic is a local speciality of Takayama Village in Gunma Prefecture
2) Must-try delicacies of Gunma’s Kawaba Village include Yukihotaka rice and Ginhikari fish