Winter is almost upon us. The temperatures have dropped and the tops of the mountains are turning white with frost and early snow. But autumn hasn’t ended just yet, and there are still delicious foods to harvest before the snow swallows it all up. On Wednesday, I joined some travelers from Singapore to go mushroom and apple-picking. We spent the day in Nozawa Onsen and Yamanouchi enjoying the last, but not least, of autumn’s bounty.
Deep in the woods near Nozawa Onsen is an area perfectly suited to the growth of wild mushrooms. A group of local people own and operate the land, and expert guides will take you into the forest for mushroom-picking. Picking season begins in late September and ends at the beginning of December. At the height of season, the area is full of different, tasty varieties. While it’s late now, the cold makes mushrooms that much more delicious. Or poisonous…
Our guide was the owner of the Marunaka lodge in Nozawa. Along the beaten path to mushroom fields, he showed us many wildly growing fungi. The cute little yellow ones, he said, were extremely poisonous and would kill you in just one bite. The goofy dark-brown ones were called tofundake, and caused numerous hallucinations upon ingestion. The disc-shaped white ones were certainly edible, but were also not delicious.
The main picking site had rows upon rows of neatly-arranged logs with mushroom bunches poking out here and there. We set off looking for nameko, shimeji and shiitake varieties, and soon people were filling their baskets with prizes the size of their heads. I wasn’t quite as skilled as everyone else and was slightly disappointed in my haul—but it was okay, because we shared our mushrooms for lunch!
Back at Marunaka lodge, we ate a hearty meal featuring the mushrooms that we picked that day. We started with a seven mushroom stew while our guide and chef thoroughly cleaned and checked the mushrooms that we picked. After he removed a few poisonous ones that snuck into our haul, he made fried shiitake and mushroom risotto to finish it off. The meal was huge and brought out the freshness and flavor of all the different mushroom varieties. I still don’t know what half of them were, but I’ll brush up on my fungi and come back next year.
In the afternoon, Ryokan Sakaya’s manager, Mori-san, drove us over to Yamanouchi where we visited the orchards and went apple-picking. My shoes are still wet from the cold, slushy rain, but just as the cold brings out the flavor of those mushrooms, it brings out the sweetness of the apples as well.
In late-November and December, Sun Fuji apples are especially delicious. They are Fuji apples that are cultivated without being covered, so they take in maximum sunlight. Their outside coloring somewhat suffers, and is usually a duller red or pink than the protected Fuji apples, but it has a fuller, sweeter flavor. You can tell when they’re ripe because they develop a translucent, yellow center. City folk may think that farmers are injecting honey into their apples, but it’s a natural phenomenon that is commonly seen in Nagano.
The sweet flavor and crispness of these apples is unparalleled, and makes for delicious apple juice. We visited a small family apple juice maker called M’s Country nearby. The mom was there to greet us and tell us about their process. It seemed simple enough: clean the apple, juice the apple, and pasteurize the juice. They make their juice with nothing but apples; no added sugar, preservatives or coloring. At their small factory, they make around 60,000 bottles of juice a year, and each bottle contains about 6 to 7 whole apples! You can taste definitely taste the sweetness of Sun Fuji apples when you try it. It was almost like American apple cider, even without the spices.
Winter is Coming!
It’s taking its sweet time, but winter is on its way. If you find yourself in Nagano soon but without snow, apple or mushroom-picking may be a good way to pass the time and enjoy these foods at the height of their flavor. Who needs squeaky button mushrooms or red delicious apples when you can eat a face-sized Shiitake or a honey-filled Sun Fuji?
Ryokan Sakaya is located behind the O-yu public bath in the center of Nozawa Onsen, and across from a great beer brewery and tap room. It has recently received two michelin stars in the Japanese edition of their green guide book. For information and booking, see their English website.
Marunaka Lodge is off the main road into Nozawa and offers mushroom picking from late September through November. Guests are treated to a meal featuring the very mushrooms they picked. They also offer bamboo shoot picking, snow shoe and forest trekking. You can book through sites such as tripadvisor or booking.com, or get a feel for its atmosphere at their Japanese website.
M’s Country is a small apple juice brewery in the orchards at the foot of Mt. Kosha. Their juice can be bought in souvenir shops in and around the area, including the Yamanouchi Michi-no-Eki (Google maps link) on the way to Shigakogen or the Snow Monkeys.