Vegan Two-day Trip in Hakuba (2020)
What and where I ate during a two-day trip in Hakuba, Nagano prefecture, while most of their incredible Vegan cafe's were closed as a result of COVID-19.
Hakuba is a village located in Nagano prefecture. Part of Nagano's Northern Alps, Habuka is a great area for winter sports and it got worldwide recognition for hosting the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics!
Due to its popularity, there is a large surge of tourists all year round - both Japanese and foreigners. As a result of this, there are many hotels, guests houses and eateries, including a surprising number of fantastic (all-) Vegan cafes and restaurants.
Fun fact: the kanji characters for Hakuba are 白馬 meaning "white horse". It is said that the name was inspired by a horse-shaped blanked of snow covering the mountains during spring time. Many Japanese cities have their own mascot, and Hakuba's is as follows....
When we visited Hakuba in the autumn of 2020, almost all vegan advertised restaurants (the one you find on Happycow and Facebook) were closed. Some answered the phone when we called to confirm, and told us so; Others, we only found out by driving up and seeing for ourselves.
Luckily, Nagano is famous for its beautiful nature, and the delicious foods that are grown in it.
One of the well-known dishes is Soba, buckwheat noodles. There is a large variety of soba and how to eat them. Many hot soba dishes contain bonito dashi, fish stock. Plain, cold soba, however, is usually made out of 80-100% buckwheat noodles, topped with some nori or wasabi. In this case, you will get a separate cup of "tsuyu" to dip the noodles in. If you bring your own tsuyu, which I do for any trip, you will be able to eat cold soba almost anywhere!
After a 5-hour drive, we arrived at our remote, cute, little guest house. Included in the - very reasonable- price, was a private 露天風呂 outside bath, which you could use at any time, if vacant! There was only one pub and one konbini on walking distance, so I just got some late night snacks: dried mango, raspberry-chocolate nuts bar*, orange juice.
*I later found out the Raspberry bar contains honey! so unfortunately not Vegan.
The next morning, we woke up early for a hike. Breakfast was a shio (salt) onigiri and a anman (steamed bun with sweet beans), from the same konbini. A quick search showed that some of the guesthouses in the area offered breakfasts, and one had a home bakery - so you may check these options out if you want a more satisfying meal. Our priority this time was not the food and Vegan finds, but fresh air and stunning views! Mission accomplished!
After a couple of hours of hiking, we got back into the car on our way to a local soba restaurant. A quick search from the rope way for the best place to get soba, resulted in a pleasantly surprisingly find: SHOJIN SOBA!
Shojin Nagano-style Soba
Sobadokoro RIKI gets great reviews on all major review websites, and promises authentic Nagano style, 100% soba with local, fresh ingredients.
Shojin ryouri is the traditional Japanese, Buddhist cuisine that does not include animal product (beware: some temples and restaurants now-a-days will still use eggs or katsuo!).
Upon arrival, we confirmed with the staff that this menu really did not include any animal ingredients. They were knowledgeable and pointed out which side dishes to look out for.
The Shojin set includes a soup/dip with Yuzu (Japanese citrus) and Mitsuba (Japanese parsley), a large bowl of freshly made, cold soba noodles, some pickles, and scallions. The soup was flavorful, but mild. The soba had a great bite and an undeniable fresh taste, incomparable to buying soba in the supermarket or a bento.
You can select a larger amount of noodles for an extra fee. We had a side of Sobagaki - my favorite side dish ever: it's basically a mochi from just soba dough. I think you'll either love it, or hate it. It's soft, chewy, and mochi-ish, but instead of sweet, it tastes doughy and like... soba!
The pickled vegetables were recommended to us, too. That's NOT fish.
After more exploring, and a dip in a local private outside onsen, we were quite hungry. That is when our search begin. Hakuba has a lot of places to eat - but they're all a bit spaced out, so driving around without a plan, is NOT recommended. We randomly drove to a couple of Vegan- or Vegan friendly places we found online, but all of them were closed.
Completely out of options, we finally landed in an Indian restaurant, that was nearly empty - which we preferred over the restaurant of a local hotel, that looked very full from the outside.
I looooove Indian food! And I hate to write a negative review. However, we were not very impressed with the flavor and price-quality balance. The apple juice was amazing - understandably so for a price of ￥500 for the champagne glass. When the curry came, without rice, we were so shocked by the small size, I forgot to take a picture. We left hungry with a bill of ￥5,500 for 2 small curry's, 2 small bowls of rice (ordered later, because... just curry?!), the 2 side dishes and 1 apple juice pictured. We were grateful for the Vegan option, and it's a good option for those not on a budget, (perhaps it suits your taste!), but I would personally elect my standard konbini dinner and spend the money on something else. And yes, on the way back, snacks were bought at the konbini!
Another day, more of the same: Hiking and Soba! I don't need much to be happy!
After another konbini breakfast and breathtaking morning hike, we went onto the next soba restaurant. Maybe even better known than Sobadokoro RIKI the day before, is Sobajin, which is more conveniently located, right across Hakuba Station. Sobajin uses organic, pesticide-free ingredients for their 80% (buckwheat) soba, and advertise themselves as longstanding local favorite.
They offer tepmura too, but warned us it was fried together with the fish dishes and would have to confirm whether they contained egg (we were the last customers before they closed for the afternoon, so we didn't push).
I had a simple portion of cold soba with nori, scallions, daikon and wasabi, and I used my own Vegan tsuyu to dip. Despite being very simple, it was a very delicious dish - with fresh, slightly chewy noodles. I never liked wasabi, but it is definitely worth getting used to, to eat with simple dishes like this, as it does bring out the flavor of the soba even more!
One of the best parts about traveling through inaka (countryside) by car, are the amazing farmers and local-produce shops you'll find along the way.
As Nagano is famous for their fruits, we had some delicious apple, peach and tomato juice.
These places often also have great, vegan friendly wagashi, senbei or fresh onigiri.
The larger shops will be full of veggies and local miso, pickles, sauces and dressings, and alcohols, which serve as great souvenirs!
Sobadokoro RIKI 蕎麦処 りき
Address: 〒399-9301 長野県北安曇郡白馬村瑞穂 3020-90 (Hakuba)
Food: Handmade, fresh 100% soba, side dishes, desserts and drinks.
Price: ￥1,350 Shojin Soba set. ￥740 Sobagaki (bit overpriced)
Service: They are busy, so won't spend longer at your table than necessary, but are friendly and knowledgeable on their food.
Location: A bit out of the way, but close to great hiking spots!
Address: 〒399-9301 長野県北安曇郡白馬村北城 3020-55 (Hakuba)
Price: ￥5,500 for two people, very pricy, Average quality. Local apple juice was great.
Service: The chef was helpful on deciding a vegan friendly menu (although did not mention it would just be curry, without naan/rice). Lady behind the counter was uninterested and un-welcoming.
Location: Accesible by cart from most guesthouses/hotels
Sobajin 蕎麦神 白馬店
Address: 〒399-9301 長野県北安曇郡白馬村瑞穂 3020-90 (Hakuba)
Food: Organic 80% soba. Possible tempura or side dishes (ask staff)
Price: ￥900-920 for standard, cold Zaru soba
Service: Busy, but very kind, knowledgeable on the menu and proactive in thinking of options. We got a free side of pickles as it was their last ingredients for the day and it didn't make a full portion.
Location: Very convenient - a couple minutes walk from Hakuba Station
The vegan tsuyu I always bring on my trips, so that I can eat cold, plain soba and udon wherever is this one.
Hakuba can have some AMAZING views, but especially the views up in the mountain will depend on the weather that day. Can you imagine how beautiful this would have looked on a cloudless day?!
Also beware that depending on where you hike, bears are regularly being spotted. Most people will walk in groups, with bear bells. Be sure to inform about recent activity and read what to do if you do come across Mr. Pooh.
Overall, Hakuba is known for their amazing skii slopes, but is also worth a visit if you like to hike and enjoy nature. The fresh fruits and vegetables, and plenty of soba restaurants should be enough for some great experiences, even when the local Vegan hotspots are closed!