By Vicky Amin
It has been said that Togakushi is the birthplace of soba, the buckwheat noodles served hot or cold that are popular throughout the country. A visit to this small mountain village in northern Nagano will offer you numerous dining options to choose from. So why not go with the best of them all: the centuries-old, family-run Uzuraya.
Located next to Togakushi's Chusha Shrine, with an 800-year-old cedar standing guard at its side, Uzuraya has been in business for several hundred years, and it is well-known by the Japanese. This will be obvious by the line of people you will see outside the front door. The proprietor and his staff are some of the friendliest folk you will find anywhere in the country. You will get nothing but outstanding service with a smile and the owner will actually greet you in English (albeit a limited selection of pre-rehearsed useful phrases!).
At your table you are given a multilingual menu, where you will notice the variety of items that you can order. The most common is the tempura soba, known as TEN-ZARU SOBA and served either cold on a bamboo latticed plate with the tempura on the side, or served hot in a soup with tempura on top. Either way it is delicious! For those who order the cold soba you will first be given a small stem of wasabi and a grater. You grate the wasabi yourself here, unlike other restaurants which usually provide pre-packaged wasabi paste that is squeezed out like ketchup at a fast food restaurant. Those who get hot soba with tempura will likely be amazed at the texture and size of the shrimp tempura spread across the top of the bowl. Truly a masterpiece of culinary art!
And even before your food has arrived try the tsukemono they will bring to you on a small plate. This is pickled Chinese cabbage and makes for an absolutely wonderful appetizer. You will also have a chance to order a drink. Go for the apple juice! Nothing compares to it!
The menu contains other popular items you probably have never seen, such as sobagaki, a kind of dumpling-shaped ball of soba served in a broth. While the tempura soba is the most popular and safest choice, try anything on the menu. You will likely enjoy it.
But with its popularity comes the catch -- this place is so crowded you will have to arrive early, especially on the weekend. The restaurant places a reservation book outside the front door at 9:30 am, one hour before opening. Guests already waiting outside will write their name and the number of people in their party. And then wait for opening. While waiting you can look in the window to the left of the front door and watch the chefs making the soba, preparing vegetables and other dishes for the day. They only prepare a set amount for each day. If it runs out at any time, even if it is not yet closing time, that is it. They do not make any more. Arrive early. If you can, try to come here on a weekday. Even then it will be crowded, but you will not have to start waiting at such an early hour as you would have to on a weekend day.
To get there, take the city bus route bound for either the Togakushi Campground or Togakushi Chusha. Get off at Togakushi Chusha. Facing the shrine's torii gate, look to the right. Uzuraya is right there by the big, fat cedar tree. Those driving will want to take the Togakushi Birdline to Chusha shrine and turn right. Head down the small road past the restaurant and you'll see a parking lot on the right in front of a farming field, across the street from a Japanese ryokan (traditional inn). Park there and then walk back the short distance to Uzuraya.
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I first came to Japan in 1998, figuring I would be here for a year and then go home. As it turns out, I never did go home. I made Nagano my new home, and I now live far from the city in the forested mountains of northern Nagano Prefecture. I have come to love much about Japan -- the culture, the architecture, the food, the history, the people, but most of all the beutiful natural scenery that everyone can find once they leave the crowded cities.