Going off-piste on a midwinter tour of central Japan reveals a feast of flavour and tradition.
It’s a dazzling bluebird day when I break my snowboard into two pieces and carefully assemble them so they become a set of cross-country skis. It’s my first time splitboarding and I’m both amped and a little apprehensive.
I extend a set of collapsible poles, hoist a backpack full of lunch, layers and avalanche equipment on to my back, and follow our eager group into the Japanese Alps. We are led and tailed by Evergreen Outdoor Center guides who are committed to two things: finding us untracked powder slopes and ensuring our safe return.
It’s a three-hour slog to the top of the ridgeline, but the views steal my breath away. The Japanese Alps, a series of ranges that bisect central Honshu and are dotted with 3000-metre peaks, are the most dramatic in all of Japan. Named after their European equivalent they backdrop the area’s major ski resorts and beckon serious skiers and snowboarders into their majestic topography.
We lunch quickly at the top and reassemble our skis so they are again boards. Hearts hammering, adrenaline surging, we drop over the ridge and take turns snaking through soft powdery snow down the steep mountain face. Our hoots ring out across the icy valley as we follow the fall line through well-spaced trees, past a frozen waterfall and down a deep valley. From the bottom looking back we see our tracks etched like signatures into the mountain. It’s all over in 40 minutes then we’re back on the busy piste of the underlying ski resort fist-bumping our good fortune.
The experience marks the end of a week of snowboarding at Hakuba Valley and the start of a whole new adventure. Hakuba is an enormous ski area made up of the 10 individual resorts that hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics. Famous for its deep powder snow and steep, varied terrain, it’s become a popular winter destination for Australians. And yet while it has onsens, ryokans and great Japanese food there is still an inescapable sense you are in a westernised ski town.
On this, my third visit to Japan, I want to see and experience more than après bars and slopes packed with Aussies. Japan is a fascinating blend of modernity and ancient tradition and this time I’m looking for a deeper understanding of its people and culture. More than anything else I want to eat my way around the country. Japanese food is regionally distinct and infinitely varied – I’ve been told that to appreciate its subtleties and depth of flavours you need to explore the areas where the freshest produce is sourced.
And so, with the help of Japan I Can, I plot a moveable feast around the centre of the country. Starting in Nagano and using the extensive and ultra-efficient rail system, I will loop out to the Sea of Japan, duck back into the mountains to an onsen retreat, explore the historic merchant city of Takayama and skip across Japan’s biggest lake, Biwa, before ending my journey on the Pacific coast at its third biggest city, Nagoya. In total I’ll visit six prefectures, each of them known for a signature dish or cooking method.
Food, I discover, acts as a portal into Japanese culture and history. In Nagano I follow custom and slurp a hot bowl of soba noodles in a small speciality restaurant. Soba – thin noodles made from buckwheat flour – was first consumed in the Edo period (1603–1868) when small soba-and-sake eateries dotted the cities and towns like the cafes of today. Rice was the main staple of the time, but because it was deficient in thiamine it could cause serious health issues. Soba, rich in thiamine and amino acids, solved the problem and remains hugely popular today.
Tsukemono (pickled vegetables) are a constant wherever I roam. They turn up at breakfast, lunch and dinner in small colourful piles: radish, cucumber, eggplant, carrot, cabbage, water lily root and ginger. The pickling tradition tells the story of a land that was once largely Buddhist – so no one ate meat – and which spends a significant portion of the year buried under snow. While modern-day skiers and snowboarders rejoice at the arrival of a bucketing snowstorm it must have made life incredibly challenging in the day of peasant farmers in the mountains.
It’s snowing when I arrive in Takayama, a bustling merchant town in Gifu Prefecture known as Little Kyoto, and I don a puffer jacket and take to its historic streets. The township narrowly avoided destruction during World War II only to be razed by fire shortly afterwards. Local tradesmen rebuilt much of the town in the old style and its main trading street is stuffed with beautiful artisan stores, small restaurants and sake distilleries. Takayama is famous for its Hida beef, a richly marbled type of wagyu, sourced locally from specialised cattle. I try it grilled rare and it’s so tender and juicy – and almost sweet – it makes my mouth water. Afterwards I tour a sake brewery and get a glow on. There’s something to be said for sipping rice wine while snowflakes swirl and jive to a Coltrane solo outside a frosted window.
In the nearby World Heritage village of Shirakawa I’m transported back to the Edo period when the winters were long and jazz-free. The four-storey wooden houses have thickly thatched roofs pitched steeply to shed snow (known as gassho or prayer-hands construction). Even so, they are layered marzipan-thick with white frosting giving the village an enchanting appearance. Inside tells the real story: it’s dark and cold and smoky and speaks of austere times when subsistence farming was supplemented with the funds from gunpowder manufacture.
Modern Japanese winters are much easier to deal with, but it remains a quiet time for non-skiing tourism. While most of the gaijin (foreigners) are fanging down the slopes I get to see many of central Japan’s cultural highlights – Matsumoto’s samurai castle, Nagano’s Zenko-ji Temple, Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa and the Shinto shrines at Chikubu Island on Lake Biwa – often with only a handful of fellow travellers. Shirakawa, with its busloads of tourists, is the exception.
In the hot-springs town of Unazuki I score a room in the luxurious Ryokan Enraku, which once hosted Emperor Akihito. Yuki, a middle-aged woman in a beautiful kimono, shows me to a series of rooms overlooking the mountains and divided by washi screens. I kick off my shoes, change into a cotton yukata robe and descend seven floors to a steaming outdoor onsen by a burbling river. I’m the only westerner in the onsen, the hotel and, as far as I can tell, the entire village. Practising my rudimentary Japanese and bowing frequently I feel like an eighteenth-century Dutch trader breaching the closed country edict, a period during which Japan banned foreigners for more than 200 years.
Dinner is often the highlight of a ryokan stay and mine arrives that evening in 10 tantalising courses. As the Sea of Japan is close by the seafood is especially delectable. There’s tuna sashimi with reduced sake, bonito flakes and pickled plum, charcoal-grilled zuwai crab, grilled himi beef, and crab porridge with seasonal pickled vegetables. All of it is presented so artfully I feel guilty pinching it between chopsticks.
Not that Japanese food needs to be exotic for it to be wonderful. At the end of my trip I’m in Nagoya sipping on a simple bowl of miso soup. Unlike the white miso I’ve regularly been enjoying, this one is deep red in colour and has a strong umami flavour. It’s a completely new taste sensation. Miso, I learn, comes in many regional variants and dates back to the dawn of Japanese cuisine when it was paired with rice and seasonal side dishes. Downed for breakfast, lunch and dinner it remains Japan’s signature dish.
Food, as it does everywhere in the world, brings people together here. In Japan I learn to slow down and enjoy a two-hour degustation. I love cooking thinly sliced wagyu on the tiny table barbecues or boiling it alongside vegetables and fresh herbs in a bubbling shabu-shabu broth. The restaurants here tend to be small and at some you sit on a communal bench that allows you to meet people. The Japanese, although shy by nature, are wonderfully polite and hospitable.
Perhaps my favourite meal of the journey is in a small restaurant in Kanazawa called Sentori Sushi. I sit at a wooden bar and watch the head chef expertly roll parcels of soft white rice in his hands and layer them with delicate slices of raw tuna, eel, shrimp roe and abalone. Paired with a little sweet local sake and eaten, at the insistence of the chef, with my bare hands, the food is simple, fresh and delicious.
But what really makes it special is the conversation. Chef Kazuhisa Yoshida speaks English slowly and thoughtfully. He reveals that he is the third-generation owner of the restaurant, which welcomed its first customer in 1952, seven years after the war. We speak about Australia (he’s been twice) and he tells me about the local fish market, his grandfather and his fondness for the Australian artist, Ken Done. An elderly gentleman and his wife overhear our conversation and join with their own anecdotes about Down Under.
They can’t seem to believe I’m here in a back street of Kanazawa in midwinter. Why are you here my new friend asks? “For the food. For the sushi,” I respond, and we all laugh. Them because they think I’m joking. Me because I know I’m not.
Qantas flies direct from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to Tokyo’s Narita Airport. You can fly home indirectly from Nagoya City – JAL has one-way flights from there to Tokyo starting at about US$57. The renovated Chubu Centrair International Airport, about a half-hour from Nagoya on the train, has a Flight of Dreams dining and shopping district. qantas.com jal.com
Traditional ryokans offer simple rooms with paper-screened walls and futons on tatami-matted floors. Breakfast, dinner and sometimes an onsen are included in the price, which ranges from US$70 to US$610 depending on location, quality and season. Rooms at Ryokan Enraku start at about US$305. Both hotels and ryokans can be booked through Japan I Can. japanican.com
Japan’s rail system is the envy of the world. Fast, efficient and always on time it will get you to most places of interest. Hyperdia is a great app for riding trains and buses around Japan. Touring central Japan is tricky for independent travellers who don’t speak Japanese. Again, Japan I Can is a great source for booking organised tours, transport, entertainment, hotels and for general area guides. You can also get more information from the website of the Japanese National Tourism Organisation. hyperdia.com jnto.org.au