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Soba Off the Beaten Path – Part 1: Inakaya (田舎屋)

While there are soba noodle shops galore in central Matsumoto, there are some great options you can find off the beaten path, too. Since these shops usually aren’t trying to cater to the troves of tourists coming to the city, you can rest assured you’ll have an authentic experience.

The first place I want to talk about is Inakaya (田舎屋), a soba shop located straight east from Matsumoto Castle on the way to the Utsukushigahara Onsen hot springs area and not too, too far off the beaten path (see below for access info).

Inakaya's entrance

Inakaya’s entrance

I’m a little partial to Inakaya because it’s the first soba shop I visited when I moved to Matsumoto, but they definitely serve some high quality soba! They make their soba noodles by hand using soba flour from the Kaida Highland area in Kiso, Nagano and you can see the soba noodle making room on your right when you walk in the door.

Inakaya serves a variety of both chilled soba and hot soba in soup, and like many classic soba shops, you can get a side of crispy tempura on the side. The simplest way to enjoy the soba is the plain chilled soba which has a great texture and delicious, subtle flavor. It gets dipped into a concentrated dipping soup (tsuyu), which after you’re done eating, gets diluted with the thick water from boiling the noodles so you can drink it like soup. Another, more luxurious option is to get the chilled soba with the duck dipping soup, which includes a small, but tasty piece of roast duck.

Chilled soba with duck dipping soup

Chilled soba with duck dipping soup

There is also a hot version of the duck soba noodles:

Hot soba noodles with duck

Hot soba noodles with duck

If you’re a fan of tofu (in particular, fried tofu), then you’ll love the hot tanuki soba (yes, that would be the same tanuki from Super Mario!) which features a big, fat, juicy piece of fried tofu in the soup. Similarly the hot kizami soba has slices of fried tofu with green onion in the soup.

Tanuki soba noodles

Tanuki soba noodles

Kizami soba noodles

Kizami soba noodles

Other types of soba are sansai soba noodles which are served with wild mountain herbs and plants, soba with grated Japanese yam, and tempura soba.

The shop itself has a cozy, country-style atmosphere with a wood-burning stove in the middle of the restaurant and old Japanese folk masks hanging on the walls. Most of the seating is on tatami mats with low tables, but there are also a couple of regular tables with chairs.

Inakaya's wood burning stove

Inakaya’s wood burning stove

An old "otafuku" mask on the wall

An old “otafuku” mask on the wall

The good news is that if you want to try Inakaya’s excellent soba, it’s not too hard to get to!

The shop is only about 2 kilometers from Matsumoto Castle, so you could easily get there by bicycle in 15 minutes or in 30 minutes by foot. From Matsumoto Station it’s 2.7 kilometers, so it’ll take a few more minutes from there. It is also accessible by bus: just take the Utsukushigahara Onsen line bus to the Souza bus stop in front of the Delicia Supermarket (this bus departs both from Matsumoto Station and Matsumoto Castle/City Hall).

Shop Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

I’ll be posting about a couple more soba shops you can find “off the beaten path,” so keep an eye out! 😉

Gonta: Your Dango Destination in Nakamachi

If you find yourself walking down Nakamachi Street in need of a snack, you should check Gonta’s dango stand, a little gem hidden down one of Nakamachi’s side alleys. (But, be careful because they are only open on weekends and holidays!)

Gonta's dango stand

Gonta’s dango stand

If you’ve done your Japan research, you probably know that dango are a kind of sweet, mochi-esque rice “dumpling” often served on skewers. Mitarashi dango, which are slathered in a sweetened soy sauce syrup, and the multi-colored hanami dango (cherry blossom viewing dango) are especially common.

You can get both mitarashi and hanami dango, as well as other kinds at Gonta.

Part of Gonta's dango lineup

Part of Gonta’s dango lineup

Seductively glistening mitarashi dango

Seductively glistening mitarashi dango

Their full line up is shown in this menu (I’ll translate below):

Gonta's dango menu

Gonta’s dango menu

  • Mitarashi dango ¥90 — Plain dango slathered with sweet soy sauce syrup
  • Gohei mochi ¥300 — A hefty, regional treat made from pounded rice, glazed with a sweet sauce, and grilled. Gonta’s version is made with egoma seeds, walnuts, and peanuts.
  • Danhei ¥200 — Three smaller dumplings similar to gohei mochi, but with a sesame seed sauce
  • Shinshu-hei dango ¥100 — Flat grilled dango with a Shinshu (= Nagano) miso-based sauce
  • Pota-pota mochi ¥150 — A flat, round dumpling with a toasty sweet soy sauce and piece of nori seaweed
  • Kibi dango ¥70 — Dango made with millet (no sauce)
  • Yomogi dango ¥70 — Dango made with yomogi, a kind of Japanese herb (no sauce)
  • Also available but not shown on the menu: Hanami dango and anko (sweet bean paste) dango

I haven’t tried all of Gonta’s selection yet, but the past weekend I did try out the danhei, kibi dango, and Shinshu-hei dango. Each had its own interesting texture and flavor, plus the price is quite cheap.

Left to right: Danhei, Shinshu-hei dango, and kibi dango

Left to right: Danhei, Shinshu-hei dango, and kibi dango

The kibi dango had a pleasantly chewy texture with a subtly sweet taste. As expected, the Shinshu-hei dango had a miso-flavored, yet sweet coating that was slightly toasty due to be grilled. The danhei dumplings had a softer texture (which I believe is from being made with pounded steamed rice) and had a richer sauce that had a nice touch of sesame seed flavor.

Also, since the dango are stuck through skewers, they are easy to carry around while strolling around Nakamachi and Nawate. There are also a couple of small tables to sit at in front of and inside the futon shop that Gonta is attached to (if you happen to need some really nice futon bedding, you can get that there!).

Cute figurines on Gonta's counter

Cute figurines on Gonta’s counter

To find Gonta, walk down the alley that’s diagonally across from the Kurassic-kan.

7th Matsumoto Pub Crawl

Matsumoto Shiromachi (Castle Town) Baru (Bar)

tickets

bar crawl

Drawn by the medley of options and undeterred by the cold, I savored the flavors of the 7th Matsumoto Pub Crawl. With 70 venues offering great selections, it was tough choosing where to go and required a bit of strategic planning to get some of the dishes before they were sold out. Although some of the places I had hoped to visit sold out early in the evening (e.g. the pub with the sea urchin dishes), I was not disappointed with my other selections.

If you purchase your tickets in advance, you get a booklet of five tickets for ¥3,500. Non-alcohol booklets were also available for ¥3,000. One ticket was good for a specially paired set of one food item and one drink item. You also had the option of forgoing the food item for two drinks instead. I used up all of my tickets, but those that don’t can still redeem them for a slightly cheaper value for about one week after the event.

I went with a full-course style for the evening. Below you’ll find the five places I visited.

1. Shiki Shunsai Bar Ichi

oyster

Raw Oyster in a Ponzu Citrus Sauce

The oyster was very fresh and the wine had just enough sweetness. Both table and counter seating is available. The staff were very friendly, offering a nice atmosphere for drinking alone or in a group.

Map

2.Yakiniku Bansankan

yakiniku

Kalbi with sides of kimchi and lettuce

The beef was tender and the kimchi had a nice kick to it. It seemed difficult to get the attention of the staff, but it could have been because of the large crowd.

Map

3. Cafe Dining Gaku’s

roast beef

Roast beef with mashed potatoes

I lucked out by getting one of the last servings of roast beef. It was delicious! The mashed potatoes were light and fluffy and paired nicely with the meat. The wine was full-bodied and smooth. The bright red walls and lighting created a nice ambiance. Additional seating is available on their second floor.

Map

4.  Hogyoku

hotpot

Massaman curry and chige motsunabe

Hogyoku is a Thai-Japanese fusion restaurant. Both their chige motsunabe (kimchi and offal hot pot) and massaman curry were fantastic. The chilled hard cider balanced out the slight spiciness of the dishes. The seats are comfortable leather couches, and a spot near the window offered a nice view of the area.

Map

5. Mukokuseki Dining Ku

chocoparfait

Parfait

I decided to end the evening with dessert, so I headed to Ku for their parfait. A nice mix of chocolate and vanilla ice cream and sherbet topped with chocolate cake and whipped cream awaited me. Counter and table seating is available. The background music consisted of more recent pop and electronic dance music making for a fairly energized atmosphere.

Map

 

Event organizers posted updates on their Facebook page throughout the night so that participants would know when places were running low or had run out of their dishes. Keep an eye on their page for the next event! It is scheduled for Tuesday, June 5, 2018. I know I’m looking forward to participating!

¥500 Meal Deals around the Greater Matsumoto Area

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¥500 de Dozura!? is a gourmet coupon book that offers great discounts at restaurants, cafes, and bars throughout the central Nagano area. I’ve used the book a number of times in more than one area and not only have I gotten some nice discounts, but I’ve found places that are worth visiting even without the book.

WHERE can you go?
The Chushin (central Nagano) version introduces places in Matsumoto,  Shiojiri, and Azumino! The page number of the restaurant corresponds to the number on the map. A number of locations can be found on Nakamachi Street, just south of the Castle.

map

The red area is the area to the east of Matsumoto Station.

HOW does it work?
All items listed in the book are ¥500 and you can visit each place up to three times! Some locations even offer additional coupons on your second or third visit. The book can only be used by one person at a time, so if you go with a friend or family, be sure that everyone has their own copies.

WHEN can you use it?
Volume 8 of Dozura is valid from now through April 7, 2018. Many locations serve both lunch and dinner and even offer the discounts on weekends, but certain time restrictions, such as lunchtime only, may apply.

WHERE can you buy it?
Typically bookstores and convenience stores carry it, and I picked up a copy at Tsutaya. The closest bookstore to Matsumoto Station is the bookstore in the attached Midori department store. Maruzen is also just a few minutes down the road from the Oshiro (castle) Exit, but you may find it at a convenience store as well. The book itself costs ¥980.

hours

Books are in Japanese only.

In addition to local Japanese fare such as sushi, takoyaki, and soba noodles, you’ll also find a variety of other food and drink. Desserts are also on the menu!

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¥1,180 down to ¥500! Dozura p. 70

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¥780 down to ¥500! Dozura p. 50

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¥750 down to ¥500! Dozura p. 58

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¥830 down to ¥500! Dozura p. 25

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¥750 down to ¥500! Dozura p. 40

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¥750 down to ¥500! Dozura p. 123

Look forward to a growing list as I visit more locations, and find places you’ll want to keep going back to!

Matsumoto Recommended Eats: Nagomi ごはんや和み

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One of the places that I highly recommend people eat at in Matsumoto is Nagomi. This family run restaurant serves delicious, healthy meals with great portion sizes and at reasonable prices. The staff are very friendly and attentive. There is even a small play kitchen for children to use. They offer healthy takes on dishes like Taco Rice and local specialties such as Sanzokuyaki “Bandit Chicken” prepared with fresh ingredients.
It can get busy during lunch, so if you’re pressed for time, try to get in early!

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Taco Rice (miso soup and side dish included) ¥900

Their special (pictured below) lets you choose from three main items and is accompanied by salad, an orange slice, and other side items that change regularly, all for ¥1,000.

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Main Item “Bandit Chicken” – Thigh Meat

The chicken is very tender and juicy with just the right amount of breading.

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Main Item “Crab Cream Croquette”

Two large croquette with a flavorful, creamy filling.

For an extra ¥500 you can get a set drink of your choice and their assorted sweets plate that lets you try 3 desserts selected by the chef.

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If you’re interested in just an afternoon snack, they offer an a la carte menu in addition to  various cakes and parfaits including a sweet take on a tofu parfait, a chocolate parfait, and more. Drinks paired with a food item are discounted.
You can also look forward to a variety of cocktails and other alcoholic beverages if you stop by later in the day.

You can even get recommendations on other cafes in Matsumoto while you’re there! This large map on the wall can be used as a reference. (Nagomi is marked with the red dot.)

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Hours

Mon − Sat: 11:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. (last order 8:00 p.m.)
Closed: Sundays & 1st Monday of the month

Location & Access

They are located just down the street from the Matsumoto AEON Mall.
4-7-16 Chuo, Matsumoto 390-0811
Map

Walking: About 20 min from Matsumoto Station, about 15 min from Matsumoto Castle

By Bus: Take the Town Sneaker bus that runs along the Eastern Course. Get off at Hinodecho in front of AEON Mall. One way costs ¥200.

Find them on Facebook.

*Please note that they do not accept credit cards.*

“Morning” Places to Get Breakfast in Matsumoto

Referred to as simply “morning” in Japanese, breakfast at restaurants in Japan can sometimes be hard to find. The following are all within walking distance from Matsumoto Station. While this is not a complete list of all breakfast-serving facilities in Matsumoto, it should hopefully give you some options that you find to your liking.

Local Restaurants

Abe

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One of the earlier opening restaurants in the city, this traditional coffee shop is just down the street from Matsumoto Station. The classic decor creates the perfect ambiance for easing into the day.

Breakfast available: 7:00 to 11:00 a.m.

Closed: Tuesdays

Price: Drinks are ¥390 and food items are ¥50 to ¥100 with the purchase of a drink.

Some English spoken, English menu available, cash only, will be non-smoking from January

Location


Marumo

Connected to a traditional Japanese inn along the Metoba River in the Nakamachi area, this coffee shop is over 60 years old. Sit back in some of Matsumoto’s traditional furniture and enjoy their slightly acidic, aromatic coffee.

Breakfast available: 8:00 a.m. (9:00 a.m. in the winter) to 10:00 a.m.

Price: Starting at ¥550 for a set meal

Some English spoken, English menu available, cash only, non-smoking

Location


Paneterie Marunaka
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A bakery run by friendly women. Morning set options include toast, tiny sandwiches, or a bagel. All sets are accompanied by a salad, drink, and your choice of yogurt or a hard boiled egg.

Breakfast available: 7:00 to 11:00 a.m.

Price: Starting at ¥497 for a set meal

Some English spoken, menu includes pictures, cash only, non-smoking

Location


Nakamachi Cafe

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Open slightly later in the morning, this cafe sits in a renovated storehouse and serves pancakes and waffles all day. They also serve their very own specialty-blend coffee.

Hours: Weekdays: 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. / Weekends/holidays: 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. (last order for food 30 min before close, 6:00 p.m. close during winter months)

Closed: Thursdays

Price: Pancakes starting at ¥750, waffles starting at ¥600 (tax not incl.)

Some English spoken, English menu, cash only, smoking section available

Location


SWEET Co. (Temporarily closed until April 16)

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Located on Nawate Dori (Street), this bakery was opened in 1924 after the company was founded in Seattle in 1913. Their breakfast includes a bread buffet with a variety of bread and your choice of drink. One of the breads contains peanut butter, so those with nut allergies should ask about the selection of bread.

Breakfast available: 9:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Price: Starting at ¥650

Some English spoken, English menu, non-smoking, outdoor seating available

Location


Agatanomori Tea Room

Located within the Former High School Memorial Hall in Agatanomori Park. It is quite far from Matsumoto Station, but within walking distance from the Matsumoto City Museum of Art. Offers cakes and traditional Japanese desserts as well as full meals.

Hours: 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Closed: Mondays

Location


Yatoro-Onkan

Located within Matsumoto Hotel Kagetsu which is a 5-10 minute walk from Matsumoto Castle.

Breakfast available: 7:00 to 10:00 a.m.

Price: Coffee starting at ¥500

Location

Chain Restaurants

Gusto – Ohashi Store

While Gusto usually lets you order individual items off of a menu, this Gusto is affiliated with Hotel Richmond and is buffet style only. Various Western and Japanese dishes with English name cards.

Breakfast available: 6:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

Price: ¥1,200 unless you have a hotel meal voucher.

Credit cards accepted, non-smoking

Location


Vie de France

Located on the first floor of the Matsumoto Station building, right next to the escalators on the Castle (Oshiro) Exit side. A variety of freshly bake bread with optional side items such as hard-boiled eggs and yogurt. The morning coffee blend is discounted slightly.

Breakfast available: 7:30 to 11:00 a.m.

Price: Starting at ¥330 for a set meal

Credit cards accepted, non-smoking

Location


Matsuya

A cheap, fast food restaurant specializing in gyudon (beef bowl) that is open 24 hours and located just across the street from the station. Here you’ll find only traditional Japanese breakfasts that include salmon, rice, miso soup, sausage, eggs, and more. Coffee is not on the menu, but you’ll be served some hot tea instead.

Breakfast available: 5:00 to 11:00 a.m.

Price: Starting at ¥360 for a set meal

Cash/Suica cards only, non-smoking, English menu

Location


McDonald’s

Also located just across the street from the station with fairly standard McDonald’s breakfast food. Open 24 hours.

Credit cards accepted

Location


Starbucks

Located on the third floor of the Matsumoto Station building.

Hours: 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

Credit cards accepted

Location


Tully’s

Just a few blocks from the station, morning sets include toast, sandwiches, and more.

Breakfast available: Weekdays: 7:30 to 11:30 a.m./ Weekends: 9:00 to 11:30 a.m.

Credit cards accepted, smoking room available, outdoor seating available

Location

How to Make Your Own Oyaki Dumplings

When I first sunk my teeth into an oyaki dumpling (one of Matsumoto’s local food specialties), I was instantly addicted. Oyaki are fat, round dumplings that are made by stuffing a flour-based dough with various fillings, and then steaming and briefly grilling or pan-frying them to give the outer skin a bit of nice crisp. They remind me a little bit of Chinese dumplings, except that oyaki are plumper, less oily, and their dough skins are usually thicker.

A batch of homemade oyaki!

A batch of homemade oyaki!

The fillings for oyaki are most commonly vegetable-based, being made with Nozawana greens (a local vegetable), eggplant, mushrooms, and daikon radish. There are also sweet versions made with kabocha squash/Japanese pumpkin and sweet bean paste.

If you’re in Matsumoto or other places in Nagano, it’s pretty easy to get your hands on some oyaki, as they’re sold in oyaki specialty shops, souvenir shops, supermarkets, and sometimes even convenience stores. But what to do when you go back home and you wish you could have just one more bite of a tasty oyaki dumpling? Well, we’re in luck because they are surprisingly easy to make at home!

After I had declared my love for the oyaki, my neighbor and a soba shop owner here in Matsumoto generously offered to teach me how to make them. So, I figured I should share with everyone else too!

My neighbor demonstrating how to fill the oyaki.

My neighbor demonstrating how to fill the oyaki.

The best thing about oyaki is that once you know how to make the simple dough, you can stuff them with any kind of filling your heart desires. I’ll go over the basics below.

DOUGH INGREDIENTS/EQUIPMENT (for 10 oyaki):

  • 250 g (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour
  • 150 ml (just a bit less than 2/3 cup) warm water
  • Steamer (Any kind will work. If it’s small you’ll just need to steam in batches)
  • Working surface for working with the dough; e.g. wooden cutting board, clean counter, etc.

OYAKI FILLING IDEAS:

  • Stir-fried vegetables and/or mushrooms
  • Mashed kabocha squash/Japanese pumpkin sweetened with sugar
  • Thickly sliced Japanese eggplant rounds, smeared with miso paste (also good if you mix in a little sugar into the miso paste). You could also chop the eggplant into cubes instead. Keep it raw, as it will cook when steaming.
  • Sweet red bean paste
  • Ground or chopped meats, seasoned how you like (e.g. salt, pepper, chopped onions, spices, etc. or think Chinese-style dumplings!)
  • Any kind of cooked leftovers that you think might taste good stuffed into a dumpling 😉
  • Japanese-style ingredients include kinpira gobo (spicy carrot & burdock root), unohana (okara & vegetables), hijiki seaweed cooked with vegetables, etc.

MAKING THE DOUGH:

  1. Measure out flour in a medium bowl and gradually mix in water until the dough comes together. It shouldn’t be very sticky and wet, but it also shouldn’t be crumbly-dry.
  2. Cover the dough with plastic wrap to prevent if from drying out and let it rest for 30 minutes.
  3. Place the dough on a working surface dusted with flour. Roll it into a long, thick tube shape and cut the dough into 10 equal sized pieces (around 20 g, if you’re measuring).
  4. Form each piece of dough into a round ball.

STUFFING THE DUMPLINGS:

  1. Flatten a ball of dough and stretch it into a thin, circular skin. Try to keep the middle slightly thicker than the outside. You want to be careful not to stretch it super thin or the skin could tear when stuffing, but if the dough is too thick, it may end up chewy.
  2. Place the skin in the palm of your hand and put a good dollop of your filling into the middle.
  3. Begin folding over the sides of the skin until it completely encloses the filling. Use your fingers to pinch or press the skin together so it creates a seal.
  4. Repeat for the remaining dough balls until all oyaki dumplings are finished.
  5. P.S. It may seem hard at first, but the more you do, the better you’ll get!
Folding over the sides of the skin to seal the dumpling. This one is stuffed with eggplant slices, miso paste,  and shiso leaf

Folding over the sides of the skin to seal the dumpling. This one is stuffed with eggplant slices, miso paste, and shiso leaf

STEAMING/GRILLING:

  1. Prepare a steamer so the water is boiling by the time your oyaki are ready to be put in. You can optionally line the bottom of the steamer with greens (lettuce, kale, etc.) or something like wax paper to help prevent sticking, but usually they are fine without.
  2. Without overcrowding, place the oyaki in the steamer. They get a little bigger as they cook, so leave some room in between each one or else they dumplings will stick together and the skin will tear when you try to take them out (do it batches if necessary/have a small steamer).
  3. Steam for 20 minutes and remove to a plate
  4. To get a nice crisp texture and color on the surface of the dumplings, grill or pan-fry each side on each side. This is optional.
  5. They are ready to eat! Oyaki also taste great after they have cooled down.

Oyaki in the steamer

Oyaki in the steamer


Grilling oyaki in a frying pan

Grilling oyaki in a frying pan

SAVING LEFTOVERS:

  • Freezing: Cooked oyaki freeze very well. Just wrap each one in plastic wrap and freeze. When you’re ready to eat, you can simply microwave them until they are warm.
  • Refrigerating: Cooked oyaki will stay good for a few days in fridge. Wrap in plastic or put in a container. You can eat them cool, microwave, or re-grill when you’re ready to eat.

I hope you enjoy!

Make a whole bunch and freeze for later!

Make a whole bunch and freeze for later!

Okinado: Old-fashioned “Western Food” from the Heyday of the Showa Period

There are tons of the so-called “western-style,” or yoshoku, (洋食) restaurants in Japan. I always find this name a little troublesome because while yes, they certainly don’t serve your typical Japanese food, I think a more appropriate description would be something along the lines of “Japanese-style western fusion.” In fact, some dishes are actually Japanese inventions inspired by the west.

Typical dishes you might find at yoshoku restaurants are curry and rice (was curry even Western to begin with??), hayashi rice (tender chunks of beef in a thick, demi-glace-ish sauce over rice), omurice (tomato-y fried rice wrapped up in a super thin egg shell), and hambaagu (basically a delicious, Japanese version of Salisbury steak).

That being said, even though yoshoku technically translates to “western food,” it still offers you an authentic Japanese experience—one that dates back to the Meiji Restoration (late 1800s).

In Matsumoto, one of the best places to get your fix of yoshoku is a restaurant called Okinado. While not quite as old as the Meiji Restoration, Okinado has been around for a long time: it opened its doors in 1933 at the beginning of the Showa Period, first as a coffee house and then later adding a full menu of “western-style” food in 1957 that included curry rice, hayashi rice, sauteed pork, and other items. It is family owned and is now with its third generation owner.

Entrance to Okinado, complete with plastic food display

Entrance to Okinado, complete with plastic food display

Today, Okinado still serves many of their original dishes and compared to some other yoshoku restaurants, I’d say their menu items tend to be more “fancy,” if you will. For example, they boast fresh, locally sourced ingredients and their hayashi rice sauce is apparently cooked down for an entire week!

A few days ago, I went with a couple of friends so we got to share and try a few of Okinado’s most popular dishes: the napolitan pasta (a spaghetti-esque dish with a ketchup-y/tomato-y sauce and stir-fried vegetables), omurice, and hayashi rice.

Out of the three dishes, the omurice was my favorite. The thin egg shell was perfectly wrapped around the nicely flavored rice, plus it had a portion of their special hayashi sauce on top along with another kind of white sauce. The hayashi rice was pretty good too, though the sauce had quite a strong flavor that reminded me of coffee (they may actually use coffee when cooking it). You could tell the sauce had been cooked for hours and the beef was super tender.

The napolitan pasta, on the other hand, was a little disappointing, as it seemed like the spaghetti noodles were just mixed with stir-fried vegetables, pork, and a bit of tomato-ish sauce (nothing like spaghetti sauce though). Not that it didn’t taste good, but I was looking for something a little more unique.

Omurice

Omurice

Pouring the chunky hayashi sauce over hot rice

Pouring the chunky hayashi sauce over hot rice

Napolitan pasta packed with veggies

Napolitan pasta packed with veggies

Other dishes that looked good (on other people’s tables) were the hambaagu/hamburger steak and fried pork dishes (katsu), though they are more on the expensive side. There are also combo plates that let you try two or three different dishes on one plate. I didn’t get to to try any this time, but the desserts looked very enticing too, especially the custard pudding!

More than the food, I loved Okinado’s atmosphere—still housed in its original building, it looks as if it were stuck back in time in the heyday of the Showa Period. Old-fashioned decor, manager in suit vest and bow-tie, vintage diner seats, heavy ceramic lights above the tables…it really gives you a good sense of what Japan might have been like when it was in love with all-things-western. Plus there is a great view of Nawate Street and Yohashira Shrine from the big windows!

Inside the restaurant on the first floor

Inside the restaurant on the first floor

Spiffy ceramic lights hanging about the tables

Spiffy ceramic lights hanging about the tables

Okinado is located in Nakamachi, which is a 10-minute walk from either Matsumoto Castle or Matsumoto Station. It’s on the corner across the bridge from Yohashira Shrine. Budget-wise, it will cost you 1,000–1,500 yen for most meals, though the meat-heavy dishes are closer to 2,000 yen. You can go for both lunch or dinner.

Hours:
Weekdays & Saturdays: 9 am—3 pm, 5:30 pm—8:30 pm (L.O. 8 pm)
Sundays & Holidays: 9 am—6:30 pm (L.O. 6 pm)
(Google Map)

By the way, you can check out more photos on Okinado’s website. It’s in Japanese, but the photos explain themselves :)

Outdoor menu with 3 recommended items for the day: Volga Rice (omurice topped with fried chicken and hayashi sauce), Omurice (rice-stuffed omelette), and Napolitan pasta

Outdoor menu with 3 recommended items for the day: Volga Rice (omurice topped with fried chicken and hayashi sauce), Omurice (rice-stuffed omelette), and Napolitan pasta

Mame Mame serves up a little known local specialty: Usuyaki

Usuyaki at the Mame Mame cafe

Usuyaki at the Mame Mame cafe

When I started looking into the local foods in Matsumoto, I learned about soba (buckwheat noodles), oyaki (a kind of stuffed dumpling), sanzokuyaki (marinated and deep-fried chicken), and nozawana green pickles. Usuyaki, however, never came up.

So when I spotted Mame Mame (pronounced “mah-may mah-may”), which on its shop windows boldly proclaims to sell “usuyaki, a Matsumoto local food,” it instantly piqued my curiosity. What was this supposed local specialty and why hadn’t I heard of it? So, when I popped into the shop, I took the chance to ask Mr. Maruyama, the Mame Mame’s owner, all about usuyaki.

Mame Mame storefront

Mame Mame storefront

Mr. Maruyama describes usuyaki as “Matsumoto-style pancakes,” though they are quite different from the fluffy, maple syrup-doused breakfast version you might typically think of when hearing the word “pancake.” In Japan, traditionally usuyaki was cooked when rice was scarce and also served as a way to use up leftovers: cooked beans, vegetables, and even steamed rice.

To make usuyaki, leftover scraps of food or cooked vegetables are mixed with flour, water, and sometimes eggs to make a batter, which is then fried in an oiled pan like a pancake. There is no set recipe—just like everyone in the U.S. has their own recipe for the “best” pot of chili, every household here makes their usuyaki different from their neighbors: Some people use eggs and some don’t; some usuyaki are thin and flabby and others are thick and dense.

Usuyaki getting cooked up in the frying pans

Usuyaki getting cooked up in the frying pans

Technically, you can find usuyaki in nearby regions outside of city, but Mr. Maruyama, a native of Yokohama, was inspired by the usuyaki he ate in his wife’s hometown, the Nagawa area of Matsumoto. Here, he told me, the older ladies would whip up usuyaki as a snack to take with them to their farms or to give to children when they came home from school. Although locals would regard these pancakes as nothing more than a humble way to use up leftovers (hence its absence from local food shops and internet searches), Mr. Maruyama found the dish and its endless variety so fascinating that he decided to open a cafe in Matsumoto dedicated to it.

At Mame Mame, Mr. Maruyama offers about eight kinds of usuyaki every day, including sweet and savory flavors. He uses only local, Nagano-produced flour and buckwheat flour as the base for the batter. The fruits, vegetables, and herbs used to create the different flavors are chosen based on what is in season locally—including many ingredients that are grown on Mr. Maruyama’s own farm in Nagawa.

Mr. Maruyama's soba farm

Mr. Maruyama’s soba farm

The traditional usuyaki mix-ins include kabocha squash, sweet potatoes, and hanamame beans; while more unorthodox versions might be flavored with cheese and sausages, or verge on the sweet side with apples and cinnamon, or chocolate and bananas. The batter is fried into thick, round pancakes, then cut into wedges so you can easily try several flavors. The price for one wedge ranges from ¥180 to ¥250.

Wedges of usuyaki on display

Wedges of usuyaki on display

One whole usuyaki pancake fresh from the frying pan!

One whole usuyaki pancake fresh from the frying pan!

For my first taste of usuyaki, I tried the popular “hanamame bean and egoma seed” flavor. Hanamame beans are large, purplish, locally grown beans that are cooked to be slightly sweet. Egoma seeds come from a plant related to the Japanese herb, shiso (also known as perilla or beefsteak plant), and adds a delightful and subtle crackling texture to the usuyaki. The batter was made with fifty percent buckwheat flour which gave batter a wonderfully toasty aroma.

Hanamame beans and egoma seed usuyaki

Hanamame beans and egoma seed usuyaki

You can get usuyaki as a take-out snack, or turn it into a light lunch combo with soup. It makes a great treat to bring for hiking or walking around Matsumoto. On Sundays and holidays, you can also get it for breakfast starting at nine o’clock. Mame Mame has a good assortment of drinks like coffee, tea, local juices, wine, and beer. You can eat at the counter in the shop and there are even outlets with phone chargers available! Shop hours and location are as follows:

Shop Hours

Weekdays & Saturday: 11:00 a.m.–7:00 p.m. (Closed on Wednesdays)
Sunday & holidays: 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.
Lunchtime hours: 11:30 a.m.–2:00 p.m.

Location and Map

Mame Mame is located on the east end of the Nakamachi Area, less than a 15-minute walk from the castle and about 10 minutes from the station.

(Photos from Mame Mame’s Facebook page, used with permission)

Matsumoto Soba Festival

The 14th Matsumoto Soba Festival was held at Matsumoto Castle this past three-day weekend October 7 – 9 (Sat – Mon), 2017. Soba, which means buckwheat, is also used to refer to buckwheat noodles. Due to the high altitudes and harsh winters of Nagano Prefecture, soba has long been cultivated as it is a robust crop that can withstand the elements.

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Since the festival was held on the outer edge of Matsumoto Castle, you could also enjoy the view of the historic wooden structure while browsing the various stalls. While the castle is walking distance from JR Matsumoto Station, temporary bicycle and scooter parking was also available at businesses around the castle.
 

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20171008_143011With nearly 20 soba vendors from all over the country, there was a variety of tasty noodles and broths to try. Soba is served both hot and cold.  While Nagano Prefecture is especially famous for its soba, other vendors representing prefectures such as Hokkaido, Fukui, and Fukushima allowed visitors opportunities to savor their spins on the dish.

 

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Soba noodles served cold in a tsuyu broth and topped with grated radish, chopped onions, and bonito flakes.

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Rows of food stalls offered freshly made soba and also dried soba to take home. Local fruits, vegetables, crafts, and more were also being sold, including apples, another Nagano specialty that is now in season. Other food trucks and stalls offered tacos, grilled meats, crepes, and more.

If you missed the festival, fear not, you can still find many local restaurants offering great soba year round!


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