Kamikochi: A cool, quiet retreat in Nagano Prefecture
This is Part 15 of a 47-part series of occasional blog posts looking at curries from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures.
Late October has been pleasantly cool in Tokyo this year. This comes as a relief after a scorching summer of record-breaking heat — including temperatures above 30 C (86 F) well into October.
In August, I dealt with this by doing what heat-averse Tokyoites have done for many years. I escaped to Nagano Prefecture for a weekend.
Nagano Prefecture map by Lincun via Wikimedia Commons
Though it is nearly on the same latitude as Tokyo, Nagano’s elevation is much higher, making it a natural summer retreat. It’s also known for skiing; the Winter Olympics were held there in 1998.
The most popular summer resort area is Karuizawa, where then Crown Prince Akihito first met his future wife, now Empress Michiko, while playing tennis in 1957. It’s also where John Lennon and Yoko Ono used to go to relax in the 1970s.
But on my own latest trip to Nagano, I visited a less crowded destination: the Kamikochi valley.
There is no rail service to Kamikochi, so getting there requires a long drive by bus or car from Tokyo to Matsumoto, a city famous for its “black crow” castle.
From there, you drive upstream along the Azusa River as it snakes ever higher into the mountains. Visitors pass several dams owned by TEPCO, even driving over the top of one of them, and go through more tunnels than I could count.
Finally, there comes a point at which you can drive no further. The road goes on, but private cars are prohibited. To preserve the beauty and tranquility of the valley, only buses and taxis are allowed to drive beyond a certain point, and there’s a long stretch of the valley even beyond that, which can only be accessed by hikers. There are a number of campgrounds and small hotels scattered along the river, most of them well hidden by the trees. Here’s what it looks like…
In addition to such soothing scenes, the air was clean and refreshing, and the place was nearly silent. Too cool for the shrilling cicadas that occupied Tokyo at the time, the valley had a low-key soundtrack dominated by the river gurgling over rocks and the susurration of the wind in the trees, punctuated only by the occasional quack of a river duck.
It also had a souvenir shop where I bought two different Nagano curries.
Like neighboring Yamanashi, Nagano is a big producer of fruit. The prefecture is especially proud of its apples, which are often used (usually in pureed form) to sweeten curries. But instead of apple curry, I bought some beef curry made with the meat of apple-fed cows. While I was at it, I also got some curry made with yeast-fed Nagano pork.
The beef curry came in a dark sauce with a ketchuppy demiglace flavor that was slightly spicy, slightly sweet and not terribly interesting. The pork curry was much better, although not spicy at all. It had a very umami flavor and a luscious creamy fatty mouthfeel. A big chunk of soft fat undoubtedly contributed to that effect, but there was only a little actual meat. In fact, there didn’t seem to be anything special about the meat in either of these curries. Still, of the two, the pork is the one I’d be happier to eat again.
By the way, if you’d like to see a little more of Kamikochi, check out the post about the valley’s Myojin-ike pond over at The Lobster Dance.