There is no ocean near Chino City in Nagano Prefecture, so why is agar their speciality?
Chino City is surrounded by the mountain resorts of southern Nagano Prefecture,
including Yatsugatake, Tateshina highland and Kurumayama.
Its City Hall is located at an elevation of 801 meters, making it the highest city hall location in Japan.
In this mountainous region, the winter speciality of Chino City is agar.
The men are making bundles of Chino's specialty, 'kaku-kanten', or square shaped agar
Most of the foreigners may be unfamiliar with this product, but the raw material of agar is a seaweed called 'temgusa'.
Sorry for the poor example, but basically this sounds as strange as saying that "Mussels are the specialty of Zurich.".
This landscape of agar production is so unusual that it is completely unique within Japan, and well worth going to see.
During winter, it is truly beautiful to see the rows of white agar lined up in fallow fields as they bathe in the morning sun.
Even amongst the Japanese, there are few who know about this landscape, yet it's one that everyone should definitely know about.
The reason for agar is the cold
So are you curious as to why agar is the speciality of Chino?
The reason lies in Chino's winter climate.
On winter evenings, the city's temperatures average between -5℃ and -15℃.
There is also little snow and the air is dry.
This nighttime cold and lack of snow provide the necessary conditions for making agar.
Now let's see exactly how these two conditions produce agar.
Borrowing nature's power; how to make agar
As mentioned earlier, agar is made from 'tengusa' seaweed.
A large amount of 'tengusa' is first boiled, and as it cools, it hardens into a jelly called 'tokoreten',
used in Japan for vegetarian dishes and summer sweets.
In Chino, they cut the tokoreten into long and narrow square bars that are 4cm wide, and in the evening,
they line them up in the rice fields on drying tables. ￼
As the night cools, the tokoroten freezes, and when it melts in the morning, it loses its water content.
For this to happen, the temperature needs to be below -3℃.
At the same time, it is whitened by the ultraviolet light of the sun’s rays.
After repeating this process for about 2 weeks, the dried-up tokoroten becomes agar.
Boiled in a huge iron pot, it takes a long time to cool down and harden, which is why work starts in the total darkness of dawn.
A landscape of dried agar covering the rice fields
Chino City is a place surrounded by high mountains, with Yatsugatake in the north and the Southern Alps to the south.
As such, the place where the agar is dried also offers a beautiful view of snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Take a trip to see this traditional and rustic way of working deep in the mountains,
as well as the wonderful landscapes produced by beautiful nature which can only be seen in the winter.
The production takes place every year from mid-December to mid-February,
but January is said to be the month when the agar is spread across the largest area.
Go to Agar Village for Souvenirs
If you want to purchase agar as a souvenir, then you can buy it directly from one of the producers of agar,
Matsuki Kanten Sangyo, in a shop called Agar Village which is attached to their building.
Inside the shop, you can try a free sample of raw tokoroten.
Agar has plenty of dietary fiber so it's good for improving intestinal health,
and it's also a good beauty food, making it a perfect souvenir for women.
However, although it's light, it is bulky.
If you don't think about the amount, your bags could fill up quickly…