For the first-time visitor, Japan is the Land of Surprises. Having supermarket employees randomly yell at you, for example, and people walking around wearing shoes three sizes too big. Other things are kind of expected, like five-dollar apples, and not getting your pocket picked (though charging five bucks for an apple does seem a bit like robbery.)
Japanese food can also at times look mysterious to the newly-acquainted. But the standards are everywhere: raw fish, ramen, rice, and that brown, super-salty pasty stuff called miso. On your way to Japan? I challenge you to spend two days here without coming face to face with a bowl of miso soup. They used to serve it on all incoming flights, until the Japanese flight attendants could no longer stomach the sight of all those foreigners eating it with a spoon.
Miso is everywhere, and in many forms other than soup. But what is it, exactly? What goes into making high-quality, traditional miso? To find out, head up Agata-no-mori Boulevard for a visit to the Ishii Miso factory.
Shinshu, Home of Real Traditional Miso
Miso is sold and enjoyed in every kitchen and corner of Japan, but much of it – almost 50% – is produced right here in Nagano, in the region once known as Shinshu. Sign of the times that most of it is now mass-produced, with only a small percentage still made the old-fashioned way. To make it clear which is the good stuff, the miso makers who stick to tradition are given the exclusive right to use the name ‘Shinshu Miso’.
Only a handful of Nagano’s miso makers have earned this right. Ishii Miso, founded in 1868 right here in Matsumoto, is one of them.
Six Generations of Quality
The Ishii family has been making miso for over 150 years. Over time, they’ve stuck to their top-notch standards of traditional quality. They ferment their miso in massive cedar barrels held tight with bamboo. And massive is no overstatement; each of their barrels holds four and a half tons of miso! What’s even more impressive is that during the three-year fermenting process they transfer all that miso from one barrel to another three times, by hand.
On the walls of the storehouses where the miso ferments you might notice a few interesting things. Here and there are signs and miniature shrines related to Mitsumine Shrine, located in Saitama, and Matsuo Shrine in Kyoto. Since 1868, Ishii’s miso masters – along with many other miso, sake, and soy sauce makers – have made the pilgrimage to these shrines to pray for continued success in their endeavors. These days a trip to Saitama or Kyoto can be tackled in a day or two. For the first Ishii miso masters it took quite a bit longer!
See (and Smell and Taste) for Yourself
Kosuke Ishii is the family’s sixth-generation miso master. He speaks nice English, and is more than happy to introduce you to the miso-making process, mixing in plenty of tasty bits of miso trivia along the way. Ishii Miso also has a restaurant where you can order a meal featuring some of the best miso available. And, as one of those unsurprising things about Japan, there is a gift shop.
Ishii Miso is located close to downtown, so it’s easy to fit in a visit to Ishii Miso, for an up-close look at the miso-making process and a sample of some of the best miso Japan has to offer.
If you prefer to experience the Ishii Miso Factory via professionally-guided tour, complete with lunch, extra samples of miso cuisine, and the added enjoyment of seeing things through the eyes of someone who lives right here in Matsumoto, get in touch with our friends at Matsumoto Experience! They’d love to show you around.