New Years Bonfire Tradition: Suzaka’s “Dondo-Yaki”

December 29th, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Events, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

After New Years, neighborhoods traditionally gathered the spent bamboo, dharma dolls and other decorations, piled them up and held a bonfire for an event called “Dondo-Yaki”.  While this tradition is becoming less common in urban areas, many communities in Nagano continue to put on “Dondo-Yaki”, usually around the holiday weekend at the beginning of January.

Suzaka Town’s “Dondo-Yaki” for 2018 will take place on Monday 08-Jan (“Coming of Age Day” national holiday) on the grounds of Suzaka Elementary School.  The bonfire will be lit at 5pm.  Participation is free.

It is said that if you eat mochi (sticky rice) roasted over the “Dondo-Yaki” bonfire, you will have good health for the year.  Many participants bring their own mochi rolled up in colorful balls and stuck to a branch for roasting over the coals.

Suzaka’s Guesthouse KURA can provide more details.  On Sunday, they will make mochi and prepare to roast it at the bonfire, so guests can enjoy a full “Dondo-Yaki” weekend.

Nagano’s Hidden Ski Resorts

December 22nd, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities

Excellent glades and powder at one of Nagano’s hidden ski resorts: Madarao Kogen.

If you’ve ever considered a ski trip to Nagano, chances are you’ve heard of Hakuba Valley and Nozawa Onsen. But what about the others? While there’s certainly a lot of fun to be had at some of the more popular resorts, the recent spike in tourism has led to crowded lifts. Besides, you never know what you’ll find if you trek off the beaten path. If you’re thinking of making a trip to the land of the rising sun, here are a few lesser known resorts you need to visit.

Madarao Kogen: King of the Glades

Madarao Kogen Ski Resort offers ski runs that suit people of all levels.

Overview

Madarao is a mid-sized, lesser known (to foreigners, at least) resort that provides a unique and authentic experience of Japan’s famous ski scene. Here you’ll find the same fluffy powder that Japan is known for, but without the crowds and lines to hold you back. With 30 runs, 15 lifts, and a vertical drop of 440m, you’ll have no problem spending a day or two (or even seven) exploring the incredible terrain.

Unique to Japanese resorts, 60% of the runs are ungroomed, making way for some of the best off-piste skiing in the country. Whether you’re addicted to the glades or just looking for some fresh terrain to make your mark, Madarao has you covered. With that being said, Madarao is considered one of the best places in Japan to sate your needs for tree-skiing.

Both Madarao and adjacent Tangram have plentiful, ungroomed tree runs.

Not only is tree-skiing allowed in Madarao, it is actively promoted. The resort was the first one in Japan to clear trees to create designated glades. The tree lines are wide to accommodate skiers and snowboarders of all levels. There are also a few shots of steep tree slopes for the adrenaline junkies.

The resort opens on the 16th December 2017 and is expected to close on the 1st April 2018.

Places to eat

Once it’s time to refuel after a day on the slopes, your options are as diverse as they are abundant. The area boasts some of the most amazing cuisine we’ve ever had; here are some of our favorites.

Honda: Specializes in Unagi/Grilled Eel dishes.
Address: 1117 Iiyama, Iiyama 389-2253, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-62-2213

Jazzy: A classic Jazz themed restaurant with western and Japanese dishes
Address: 1101-78 Madaraokogen, Iiyama 389-2257, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-64-3767

Restaurant Rudolf: Mouthwatering pizza and pasta right on the Madarao Slopes
Address: 1101-152 Madaraokogen, Iiyama 389-2257, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-64-3153

If you’re willing to explore, the local town of Iiyama is a 10 minute drive or a 35 minute bus away from Madarao resort. Iiyama provides more dining options than the resort, and it’s also a great destination to visit local temples and enjoy other cultural activities.

Rate

Lift Tickets (One Day): 4,500 yen for adults, 1,500 yen for children

Add 500 yen per day for the Mountain Pass to access neighboring resort of Tangram Ski Circus (you can ski/board through the top areas of Madarao).

Location / Access

Located between Myoko Kogen and Nozawa Onsen, the mountain is roughly 170km from Toyama Airport and 100km from Matsumoto Airport. You can travel from the mountain to Nozawa using the No-To-Mar Bus, which usually takes about an hour each way.

By Bus: If you’re coming from Narita Airport in Tokyo, Japan Ski Bus takes about 5-6 hours, costing 8,500 yen one way or 15,000 yen for a return trip. This is your only option if you arrived in Narita at night, unless you’re planning on staying overnight in Tokyo.

By Train: A faster option (4 hours total) is the Narita express train to Tokyo Station and then the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Iiyama, followed by bus service to Madarao Ski Resort.

Ryuoo Ski Park: Dragon King!

On a powder day, Ryuoo’s steep kiotoshi courses can’t be beat.

Overview

Ryuoo has some of Japan’s richest snowboarding history as it was one of the first resorts in the country to allow it, though skiers will love it here too. The resort is family friendly and features an adventure park where non-skiers and boarders can enjoy other snow activities such as tubing, sledding and tobogganing.

The mountain has one of the largest vertical drops in Nagano at 1,080m, and it features one of Japan’s longest ungroomed runs; the 1.4km Kiotoshi Course (you’ll need a helmet if you intend to tackle this course!) Kiotoshi is serviced by a 166 person capacity ropeway, one of the world’s biggest gondolas. At the top of the ropeway, visitors can take in the spectacular view from the Sky Terrace atop the Kiotoshi section. Despite only having 15 runs, the resort is separated into three sections:

  • The Valley contains beginner and green runs.
  • The middle ‘Kiotoshi’ section is best suited for intermediate and advanced riders. This area is the main draw for those seeking powder, but you’ll also find many steep ungroomed runs and a variety of glades to enjoy.
  • The top section is the Sky land area which is accessed via a chairlift from top of the Ropeway to the summit of Mt Ryuo (1,930m above sea level). The area can be enjoyed by confident beginners and intermediate riders. Expect softer and drier snow than the lower valley area, but make sure to close all your vents and rug up as it gets much colder at the higher altitude.

Ryuoo Ski Park’s adventure park has sledding, snow rafting, and snow buggy rides.

The resort also has two terrain parks; Dragon Park is their more advanced park, complete with rails, boxes, kickers and walls. Those who are new to park skiing can visit the Cherry Park for smaller features and a more gradual incline. The park opens on the 23 November 2017 and closes on 06 May 2018. Just make sure to check the snow conditions as some of the steeper runs are closed during early season due to lack of snow coverage.

The resort is a great day trip from Shiga Kogen or Nozawa Onsen, but there’s also plenty to see and do nearby.

Where to stay & eat

There a number of hotels around the Ryuoo Ski Park providing ski-in/ski-out experience such as Ryuo Park Hotel and Hotel North Shiga. Alternatively, you can stay in local town Yudanaka or try the authentic Ryokans (traditional inns) in Shibu Onsen. When you get hungry, check out a few of our favorite spots to grab a quick bite:

Enza Cafe: A popular restaurant located near the Snow Monkey park, serving a mix of Japanese and western dishes
Address: 1421-1 Hirao Kamibayashi, Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun 381-0401, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-38-1736

Japanese Dining GOEN: Conveniently located near the Yudanaka Station, you’ll find delicious Japanese cuisine including sushi and sake!
Address: 3227-1 Hirao, Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun 381-0401, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-38-0550

HAKKO beerbar & restaurant: A mix of traditional wooden design with a modern touch. This restaurant provides a great environment to enjoy some locally brewed beer with Japanese-Western Fusion cuisines.
Address: 381-0401, 3010 Hirao, Yamanouchi, Shimotakai District, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-38-8500

Rate

Lift Tickets (One Day): 4,600 yen for adults, 3,000 yen for children

Location / Access

The mountain is located about 300km from Tokyo and sits about 25 minutes drive outside a small town called Nakano.

By Train: Take the Shinkansen from Tokyo station to Nagano city (90 minutes). Change at Nagano and take the Nagano Dentetsu Line to Yudanaka Station (50 minutes). From Yudanaka Station, take the Ryuoo shuttle bus or taxi to Ryuoo Ski Park, 7 km away.

Togari Onsen – Nozawa Onsen’s quiet little brother

Togari is in Iiyama, just across from Nozawa Onsen ski resort, and enjoys similar powder without all the lines.

If you are staying a few days in the Iiyama and Nagano region, make a day trip to Togari Onsen to experience the famous Nagano powder without the crowd. Togari Onsen is Nozawa Onsen’s more laid back, less crowded younger brother. The mountain is great for those looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of it’s more internationally well-known neighbor, while still taking advantage of the region’s notorious fluffy powder. Not to mention the more than reasonable prices.

The resort is smaller than Nozawa with 18 runs, 650 meters of vertical and 7 lifts including 4 quad chairs. Togari is beginner friendly, home to many low angled and groomed runs, so intermediate skiers will find the entire mountain accessible without fear of getting stuck in steep and unmanageable terrain. The only drawback, however, is that there aren’t many steep, heart sinking runs for highly skilled skiers and snowboarders. With that being said, ungroomed runs in the upper side of the mountain provide a great opportunity to experience the famous Nagano Powder. Those who want to experience the best powder Togari has to offer can try the private back country guiding service, which we highly recommend.

Togari Onsen, as the name suggests, also has a number of rejuvenating hot springs.

Where to stay & eat

If you want more of a resort feel, there is a small resort-style hotel near the bottom of the slopes called Alpen Plaza. However, if you’re looking for a more authentic experience, there are many Ryokans in the town of Togari. If you’re in the area, here are a few eateries you’ve got to try:

Grilled Chicken Hashiba: Authentic Japanese cuisine, specializing in chicken
Address: 6792 Toyoda, Iiyama 389-2411, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-65-2666

Cafe & Bar & Music Ambis: Great live music and a wide selection of drinks
Address: 6796 Toyota, Iiyama 389-2411, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 50-1492-2910

Penticton: Their claim to fame is yaki-curry in a big bowl with melted cheese
Address: 6543-1 Toyoda, Iiyama, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-65-4611

Rate

Lift Tickets (One Day): 4,200 yen for adults, 2,800 yen for JHS students, and 1,500 yen for younger children

Location / Access

Togari Onsen is located just over 40km northeast of Nagano, featuring two base areas about 1km apart. Pegasus side is on the southwest, while the northern base is called Orion. Two onsens (hot springs) sit at the base of the mountain; Akatsuki on the Pegasus slope and Nozomi on the Orion Slope. Known for their landscaping, Nozomi’s outdoor views shouldn’t be missed.

By Train: From Tokyo Station take the Shinkansen to Iiyama, followed by bus service to Togari Onsen

By Bus: JP Mountain also provides an over-night shuttle service to the resort from Shinjuku Station (leaves at 23:00 Shinjuku) for 10,000 yen.


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Karuizawa’s 19th Annual International Curling Championship

December 20th, 2017 by
Category: Experience, Information, Report

Morozumi, skip of the SC Karuizawa Club, curls the stone as his teammates wait to sweep it.

Curling, called “chess on ice,” is a sport that originated in Scotland. Two teams take turns sliding large stones over a bed of ice, attempting to put their stones closest to the center of the home circle. Teammates have brooms to sweep the ice in front of the stone, affecting the stone’s direction and speed. Beyond the actions of curling the stone and sweeping the ice, curling isn’t particularly athletic, rather a game of prediction and strategy. The only tools at the player’s disposal are their stones, their wits and their brooms.

Both teams discuss the score at the end of a round during the women’s finals.

Curling was recognized as an official sport of the Olympic Games during the 1998 Nagano Olympics, and the curling events took place in Karuizawa. Since then, Karuizawa has held an annual curling championship to commemorate the sport. Last weekend, it held the 19th iteration of its Karuizawa International Curling Championship, where 30 teams in men’s and women’s curling competed for top prizes.

The championship was held at the Karuizawa Ice Park of the Kazakoshi Sports Park, home of the original Olympic curling facility (now used for ice hockey and figure skating).

SC Karuizawa Club team members sweeping the ice in front of the stone.

On Sunday, teams faced off in the championship games. The Men’s finals featured Nagano’s own SC Karuizawa Club team versus the South Korean C. Kim team, and the Women’s finals were between the C. Matsumura team of Nagano and the Fujisawa team of Kitami, Hokkaido. SC Karuizawa took first place in the men’s division with a nail-biting 5-4 victory, and the Fujisawa team defeated C. Matsumura 10-3.

Both the men’s and women’s division champions will represent Japan in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, so look out for them early next year!

Try Curling for Yourself!

The new Karuizawa Ice Park facility, where anyone can enjoy the sport of curling.

Watching curling for the first time, I was at a loss to understand the significance of their plays, but I found the way the teams floated effortlessly across the ice mesmerizing. After the curler released the stone, their teammates would slide beside it, sweeping the ice to affect its speed and direction. To my amazement, the right stroke could make the stone veer to the left or right, passing obstacles or knocking opponents’ stones out of the way.

Members of team C. Kim sweep the stone as it approaches home.

While the skill and strategy of the competing teams were incredibly high, curling itself is a sport that can be enjoyed by anyone. Curling isn’t aerobic and doesn’t require much strength, rather balance and coordination. Adults and children can play together, and special devices are available to assist elderly or disabled individuals in throwing curling stones.

The Karuizawa Ice Park is open to the public year-round and also offers curling lessons for beginners. Curling is another unique way to enjoy the winter season, and a great escape from the heat of summer.

Additional Information

The Karuizawa Ice Park is part of Kazakoshi Park in Northern Karuizawa. The Olympic curling facility is also located here, and monuments are dedicated here to the 1998 Nagano Olympics and 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Ice Park also has a small curling museum where you can learn more about the sport and its history.

If you’d like to learn more about Nagano’s winter activities, check out our blog on five ways to enjoy the snow this winter.

Karuizawa Ice Park

Hours: 9:00 to 22:00
Holidays: Dec. 31, Jan. 1
Operating Period: Year-round
Address: Kazakoshi Park (389-0113 Nagano-ken, Kitasaku-gun, Karuizawa-machi, Oaza Hocchi 1157-6)
Curling Rink Use (price per hour): Adults/800 yen, Children/400 yen
Rentals: Some items require an additional fee
Access: Take the Karuizawa Loop line bus from Naka-Karuizawa or Karuizawa stations and get off at the Kazakoshi Koen bus stop (14 to 25 min.). It’s a short walk from there.

Five Ways to Enjoy the Snow

December 1st, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Winter is a wonderful playground.

The winters in Nagano, while cold, are picturesque. The mountains and valleys are covered in a carpet of snow, trees are frosted with ice, and fine diamond dust shimmers in the air. Japanese macaques warm themselves in steamy hot springs and solitary kamoshika (Japanese Serow) plow through the snowy woods foraging for food.

Most travelers flock to Nagano this time of year to enjoy its plentiful powder snow on the ski slopes, but there are plenty of activities for those interested in connecting with nature and playing in snow. See a new side of Nagano while snowshoeing through the woods or enjoy an exhilarating ride on a snowmobile. See our recommended winter activities below!
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