The Bianco Guide To: Nagano Food For Lovers
*Update: I’ve added a google map (here) to this guide now. You now will be able to see all the places I’ve visited in Japan, from Ramen to Izakayas and Matcha greatness on a big map that puts them all together in one master list.
Nagano is a small town on middle-west of Japan’s main Island. It is surrounded by mountains and nature, it’s the perfect place for a short break from busy Tokyo. Overseen by the big Zenko-ji temple and its very own spirit animal - a cow - Nagano will make you fall in love quickly and very smooth. The cow btw, comes from an old legend, it says that a cow once guided a woman to the temple to enlighten her to Buddhism.
I will try to guide you to Nagano the same way and enlight you with some drinks and food. Makes sense right?
Nagano City is a pivotal point of the Nagano prefecture and you will have many options in and around that city. From staying there and chill to travelling to famous onsen towns to relax, or exploring the Kiso Valley and diving into traditional Japan or visit some Snow Monkeys. Nagano will treat you well and especially in winter this town does a lot of things right - if you choose the right place to stay and the right place to eat. Trust in Bianco.
The town will slow you down a lot and at the same time motivate you to move your ass to travel to the near and fascinating destinations, and trips around the Nagano prefecture. Expect some very cosy vibes here, good food and a very unusual & open Japan.
This guide will show you some laid back spots to do nothing, eat good, be a bit romantic and enjoy Japan. Take it slow, read it.
The Bianco Guide To: Nagano Food For Lovers
Chuokan Shimizuya Ryokan
First of all, start your trip to Nagano with booking a traditional Ryokan. Enjoy some real Japanese vibes, tatami rooms, an onsen bath and some authenticity without feeling you are in a Disney Land theme park restaurant. A Ryokan is a picture perfect dream, and it doesn’t have to be that expensive at all (at least some of them).
We stayed at Chuokan Shimizuya Ryokan and totally loved it. It all felt a bit like the big old wash house from Spirited Away, the old couple that run that place was amazing, the house full of creaking staircases, and the breakfast belonged to the best food I ate in Nagano. I wish I would have eaten breakfast like this all my life - I would probably have 10 more years on my life clock just because of that.
Kushi Sakaba Keyaki
Once you hit the town, you should start with some fried food and probably the favourite place of mine in Nagano so far. The Kushikatsu you get there is originally from Osaka but also tastes amazing in Nagano. On top of that this small place offers an amazing assortment of Oden and some small side dishes. Kushikatsu basically is fried vegetables and meat on a skewer, its heaven. The places I had Kushikatsu so far all been a bit faster, a bit more greasy and the spots weren’t that small and cosy. Kushi Sakaba Keyaki is different.
The two guys running this restaurant are taking their time to prepare everything for you, every skewer is made with patience and love, and they taste incredible on point. I actually never had such good Kushikatsu outside of Osaka. Please don’t forget Oden here and most importantly order it at the end of your dinner. Oden is a Japanese one-pot dish consisting of different kind of ingredients cooked in broth - very healthy very honest food.
The Oden here is amazing and on point, and if you eat it after the Kushikatsu it helps you to kill any bad vibes your stomach usually has after a lot of fried food. Also don’t forget the drinks here, these guys are skilled, even tho we just ordered Ginger Highballs all the time.
Time to put some respect on this area and some fire under your soles, time to make you move.
Nagano City is close to the famous Kiso valley, an old trade route and famous hiking road now. This path connects small towns that got kept, rebuilt or renovated in a picture perfect historical condition. It’s all like a dream and you can be entirely within. One of these towns is called Narai, it holds some of the most beautiful houses and picturesque moments of my life.
We have been there on a bank holiday, so everything was calm, no other tourist and empty streets. There will be more when you arrive, but that should not hold you back to visit it and maybe even start hiking to another town from here or spend some days over there in one of their inns. But let's talk about food and this amazing rice with mountain vegetables/sansai gohan.
After a long but very interesting and beautiful train ride to Narai, you will find a lot of small restaurants and shops offering Japanese traditional food and snacks. One of them was this restaurant, that you won’t find on Google Maps but your eyes might lead you to their door above.
A simple dish called sansai gohan/rice with mountain vegetables easily topped every other vegetarian meal I’ve ever eaten in my life. Partly because of the taste of the local ingredients, partly because of the atmosphere, the place, the old restaurants and the warm sake and then the second bottle of warm sake, this meal belongs to one of the most memorable food experiences in my Japanese life.
They had some other interesting dishes on the menu too, and there are, as said before, plenty of other restaurants in this town - so you really won’t make a big mistake choosing another dish or place to eat as long as you make your way down to Narai to enjoy this one of a kind experience. Do it.
I recently started to drink coffee. I copied the work coffee routine of my boss and fell in love with it. SO from now on, there will be coffee spots in my guides too. I don’t know that much about coffee beans and all that, and I don’t want to.
I just like to have a good coffee or latte or whatever. So Foret Coffee is a really nice stop, they do have beans from all around the world, lots of stuff for people who know about coffee, and I just ordered super ice cream, chocolate espresso whatever, and damn it was good. I'm sure this shop will please every coffee lover reading this. Go for it!
Time to get into some more cosy and boozy vibes, time for a classic Japanese Izakaya and some signature Nagano dishes. If you don’t know what an Izakaya is you better update your Japan game and read my Tokyo Izakaya guide. Besides showing you the best Izakayas in Tokyo, it explains this restaurant type in detail and style. Read it here.
But let's talk about Nihonmatsu. The owner of the Izakaya grew up on a small farm where they produced buckwheat and dedicated their lives to one thing - soba. Years later, he now runs his own Izakaya for more than 25 years, and yes, of course, there is soba on the menu. Soba is a very healthy buckwheat noodle dish that you usually eat after a big ass meal in an Izakaya or stand alone in Soba restaurants. It comes with some dipping sauce and tastes way better and more interesting than cold noodles with sauce might sound like to you.
After you eat your soba, they bring you the broth in which the soba was cooked to mix with the rest of the sauce or drink it pure. It's hella healthy. It saves your life and ass, and this restaurant has everything explained from a to z on their menu. Just go there and eat and read it. It makes my life easier, and you will love me for that anyway.
Besides soba - that we ordered as the last dish, we had some small bits from raw horse meat sashimi/Basashi to soy milk skin/Yubasashi and deep fried tofu/Atsuage Oroshi. The set up here is really traditional and og. Simple homemade food style, a lot of sake, good service - soba at the end. Please don’t miss this place and fall in love with a local Izakaya.
Time for more coffee, time for Shinkoji Cafe. This cosy, wood-fire-room-place sold us another coffee, and it was good. I really don’t care so much about the places that sell the coffee so please mind me being very short and direct when I talk about coffee shops (except the last one on this list). So Shinkoji sells good coffee, and you can sit on a nice couch or vessel next to a woodier. That’s it.
Otozuma / 乙妻
Let's pull out some real gun, and something that represents Biancissimo the most - Otuzuma. Biancissimo goes places for good food, loves authentic neighbourhoods and somewhat real and affordable than famous and posh spots. Otuzuma is all that. A bit away from the city centre you find this restaurant waiting for you and a lot of locals that seem to know and visit these spot forever and every day. They offer set menus - a so called teishoku restaurant - which means you get a soup, small side dish and main dish and some tea at the end.
Don’t even ask for an English menu, this is probably the first time a foreigner has written and shared their magic. Use the google translate app or just say omakase (boss decides), Tonkatsu(fried pork cutlet) or ask someone in the line what they order, don’t be scared. Please just go there and enjoy some real Nagano vibes and pure and authentic food.
From real and authentic to a Pizza place? You might ask yourself if that works, and yes it does. Japan knows his shit and also all the other shit around the world. Trust me you will find some of the best ice cream in Kyoto, the best Pizzas in Tokyo (and Nagano) and everything else you might like reduced to is original finesse and remixed with Japanese craftsmanship and hardcore dedication into details.
Tiku is one of these places, and their pizza is just amazing, incredible good and the place is straight out of a Ghibli movie. This one-man pizza army run by a lovely Japanese guy will serve you an excellent pizza, with the very best local and organic ingredients, with a big smile. It's perfect. Trust me. And come there early and either book a table for later or be lucky and start ordering asap. Its an in win place and situation.
We start my coffee journey pretty heavy and visit the third coffee shop here already. Cafe Barbara is super special cause the place is kind of hidden and unremarkable at first sight, but offered something special after entering. In an unreal cool, rough and genuine setting you will find a cool crew, some low-key electronic music, and a damn good cafe and some chilled minutes. There was a vinyl player, and it seemed like you could also bring your own vinyl or listen to the team's selection at least.
It's a real gem and something you should def go to if you want to strive away from the very same tourist spots and streets (that are all still good, don’t get me wrong). But you’re worth more than that, branch out. There is food too btw.
Time for some comfort food, time for Nabe. Nabe is a Japanese hot pot dish that gets cooked right on your plate with different kinds of options. Shoya overs a wild range of food, but focuses mostly on seafood nabe on an actual budget-friendly level. This is definitely not the fanciest and highest level of quality place in the world for Nabe and all the other stuff they offer but yes, it tastes good, and yes the beer glasses are really that big.
They create a real cosy atmosphere through room dividers and small cabins and also offer an English menu that saves your ass to find the right Japanese food. The whole restaurant feels like a little stuck in the 90s or 80s, and that's what added the extra special to this place: if you fancy old ass restaurant chains, nostalgic vibes and a cheap alternative to expensive eventing treats, just go there. Don’t expect too much, just chill and eat and drink your big ass beer.
Imuraya / いむらや石堂店
We are almost done, but now we talk to another supper hidden restaurant, right in the centre of Nagano. A pretty special one on top, something for lovers I guess. Imuraya serves different kinds of food - all lovely (or rather not so lovely) presented in their shop window, but almost everybody comes just for their Yakisoba.
Or more specifically their Ankake Kata-Yakisoba. A hard name for an even harder and strange looking dish. When I heard about this place and saw this unusual plate, I knew I had to come. To be honest, I did not really felt the scripted world and style of Ugly Delicious by David Chang but eating at Imuraya made me at least think about that name a lot.
So this ugly deliciousness we find at Imuraya basically is hard/fried noodles topped with stir-fried vegetables, meat, some other stuff (I really don’t know) and the Ankake sauce with consists of a lot of cabbage and sticky sauce. I know my text really doesn’t really add too much sensation to the already poorly presentation of this dish, but let's just say I liked it and it tasted way better than it looks and sounds, ok.
There even is a line right at 11am when the shop opens, and all that they want that fried noodles with pork, cabbage, watery mustard sauce and a lot of other stuff. This is something for the brave and hungry ones. It's a big dish, and I actually ordered a small plate that still was big. It's tasty in an extraordinary way and I would eat there probably again, but would 100% would bring all my friends to this place if they would come with me to Nagano. It's some real ass food. I can't really put it in words, just try it if you call yourself a real food connoisseur.
For our last dish, we go very close to the famous Zenko-ji temple to eat Soba again. As I told you before, Nagano is renowned for its Soba and in this one main street alone, you will find a few extraordinary places to eat it. Kadono Daimaru is one of them, and you can easily spot their class by just looking into the small window from the streets where you now and then you can watch the master preparing soba noodles.
It’s a simple set up but with extra good taste. Just go for one of their soba variations, drink some tea - or sake and feel some traditional Japanese vibes. A quick look into the kitchen and the summarised age of all present chefs will fill you with respect and excitement your upcoming meal.
Don’t be scared to land in a sketchy tourist place that close to a main attraction of the city - Japan cares for its excellent food and will not serve you any sketchy food options that we know from European towns. Or would you ever drink a coffee on St Markus or spend your money right next to the Eifel tower? Lose your fears of tourist traps and enjoy excellent food at Kadono Daimaru. And if Kadono is too crowded just choose one of the many close other Soba restaurants. You will be fine.
See you soon