Walking around the mountainous region of Chichibu, you would have no idea that you were just a 90-minute train ride away from the crowded streets of Tokyo. Not only is Chichibu great for mountain treks and outdoor adventures, but that abundant nature also lends itself well to the local cuisine and variety of alcoholic drinks.
While other regions of Japan might be known for certain types of alcohol, like wine in Yamanashi, Chichibu is known for its wide variety. From local wines to quality whisky, there are lots of options.
Here we’ll look at some of the gourmet highlights in Chichibu.
Make your own noodles
Before you get carried away with the delicious drinks the region is known for, don’t forget to eat your fill of udon noodles. What better way to do that than to experience making your own?
Udon noodles (along with soba) are a Chichibu specialty. Udon noodles are thick noodles made with flour and are most commonly served in soup. Saitama, the prefecture Chichibu is in, is known as one of the top udon producers in Japan, thanks to excellent natural resources for growing wheat.
At Nagatoro Furusawa-en, the udon master shows you how to make your very own in the multi-step process that involves you actually stepping on the dough at the start! One of the great things about this experience is that the more people you have making udon at the same time, the more variation you can see in the noodles when you eat them at the end.
Sake at Buko Brewery
Once you’ve had a taste of Japan’s traditional food, it’s time to have a taste of a traditional drink: nihonshu (Japanese rice wine), commonly also referred to as sake. Especially in Chichibu, with its annual Chichibu Night Festival.
Playing out that cultural role in Chichibu is the Buko Brewery, not far from Chichibu station. Many say that the key to good sake starts with the best water. So, since its founding in 1753, the brewery has moved several times in search of the best water to create the best sake.
They finally settled on the current location because of its access to the water in the Nanatsudo Well, which is said to never dry up, even during the harshest drought. The cool water comes from the mountains, giving it a clear and refreshing taste.
Combined with the Buko brewery techniques passed down through generations, this water has been turned into an array of award-winning sakes you can buy at the premises. You can also tour the brewery and try out some of its most popular sake, which may include a seasonal option.
Traditionally, sake was only drunk on special occasions such as festivals. So if you want a real hands-on experience of sake culture, participating in the Chichibu Night Festival is the way to do it. The 300-year-old festival is held every year on Dec. 2 and Dec. 3, with the main events being on Dec. 3. It is quite a sight, with impressive traditional floats paraded down the streets, followed by a dazzling fireworks display.
Suppose you don’t happen to be in town on the day, though? In that case, you can experience some magic at the Chichibu Festival Museum. A life-sized float greets you at the entrance in an immersive light display to replicate that festival feeling.
Whisky at the Highlander Inn
If you’re more of a whisky (or even beer) fan, then the Highlander Inn is probably the destination for you.
The Highlander Inn brings British food and drinks to a distinctly Japanese setting. The warm lighting and wooden interior create a welcoming atmosphere. You can sit at the bar, in armchairs surrounded by your favorite whisky, or even on a tatami floor with a view of their elegant Japanese garden.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the elegant interior means a quiet and stifling atmosphere, though. On the contrary, the owners want you to feel at home. As a Brit, I felt cozy sitting down and ordering a large (and delicious) plate of fish and chips. But of course, the star of the show is their incredible selection of malt whiskies. The most famous is Ichiro’s Malt, which is made locally.
Here, you can order from a curated selection of whisky or sample Ichiro’s Malt with a tasting flight. Ichiro’s Malt is one of Japan’s most well-known and has won various international awards. It is said that the whisky gets its unique flavor and character due to the Chichibu climate. Chichibu has hot and humid summers and harsh winters, lending itself to a fruity and well-balanced whisky even after its relatively short aging period.
There is also a selection of whisky from around Japan and worldwide, including well-known names such as Suntory, Nikka, Glenfiddich, Glen Moray and Laphroaig. If you drag along a friend who isn’t into whisky, plenty of other drink options are available, such as gin, cider, beer and cocktails. And why stop at just one? There are so many excellent nightlife spots and sakes to try, so spend the evening bar hopping.
Stay the night in Chichibu
Thankfully, the Buko Brewery and the Highlander Inn are very close to the station, meaning you can easily get back to Tokyo without worrying about having a designated driver. But if you want to experience more of Chichibu or just want to rest after sampling such delicious drinks, there’s no reason not to stay the night.
Instead of staying at a run-of-the-mill business hotel, you can make the most of Chichibu’s unique atmosphere by staying at Banba Oosone, which has renovated a kominka (traditional Japanese house) into a place to stay. There are actually many kominka in Chichibu to choose from. They have traditional charm but combine it with modern comforts. At Banba Oosone, you can look out onto a traditional garden or marvel at the antique roof rafters before taking a dip in their luxurious private rental bathtub.
After getting some much-needed rest and relaxation, there are many ways to experience Chichibu culture before returning to Tokyo. A popular option is Nagatoro river boating, a relaxing boat ride headed by skilled boatmen down the Arakawa River. At the other end, you can sample Chichibu street food and walk through the quaint streets.
For more information on accessing Saitama, visit https://en.chocotabi-saitama.jp/access/ and start planning your trip today!