Snow Country has a rich food culture. It grows some of the best rice in Japan, and brews some of the most famous sake. The pickles are also highly regarded, as preserving food to last through the six winter months was a vital skill. Living off the land has also been important through the ages, and collecting the bounty of the forests and mountains is knowledge that has been passed down through the generations. The Snow Country Tourism Center is now offering a foraging tour which gives a fascinating insight into this part of the food culture.
There are two versions of this tour. The fall foraging collects mushrooms and plants, and the spring foraging concentrates on the new shoots of mountain vegetables. In both seasons you spend some of the day collecting ingredients in the forests and mountains. You then head to Hatago Isen (a local ryokan inn with modern Japanese-style rooms), freshen up in the onsen hot springs and then head to a private dining room where the head chef prepares your freshly gathered local produce into a top class meal with each course paired with locally brewed sake and wine. We took part in the autumn experience and it was absolutely amazing.
A local guide leads the tour. By all accounts his grandmother is a legend, and even in her late 80s is capable of a couple of trips into the mountains a day to gather food. She has taught him all about the local plants and mushrooms. Apparently mushroom areas are carefully guarded secrets and locals go to great lengths to make sure no one knows where they go to find the choicest kinds. We were taken to a patch of local forest close to a river, and even within two steps had already found two kinds of walnuts, a herb, and two types of edible plant, all of which ended up in our baskets. If you don't know what you are looking for it is easy to miss and walk over. Deeper into the woods there were all kinds of different mushrooms, but again you needed sharp eyes, and an experienced guide to make sure nothing poisonous ended up in your collection.
Hatago Isen is a really cool ryokan opposite Echigo-Yuzawa Station. Having spent several hours in the forest, the onsen was bliss. (They also have a private onsen for those that are not so keen on the public type.) The rooms are simple and stylish, with dark wood and tatami mats.
Dinner is served in a small dining room fitted with a kitchen. The head chef prepares the day's haul, supplemented with other local ingredients right in front of you, and each course is explained in details. Needless to say it is amazingly presented and delicious, and there is also a recipe sheet provided. The meal is worth it on its own but it is extra-special finding things that you picked earlier on your plate. All in all we had 8 courses with several kinds of sake, and one of the nicest Japanese wines I have ever drank.
After the meal we had a nightcap at the Irori Bar downstairs. With the great food and copious amount of drink I'm pretty sure everyone slept well, and none of our fellow foragers were up early for breakfast.
The Foraging Tour is ¥26,000 per person and includes the tour, guide, multi-course dinner, one night stay and breakfast. It is one of the best things that I have done and would highly recommend it. (They are offering a special 50% discount on November 14th/15th when their photographer is in town in order to get some additional photos for the brochure.)