5 Great Winter Festivals in Nagano

December 9th, 2016 by
Category: Events, Information, Seasonal Topics

Enjoy fire festivals, illuminations and more in this winter wonderland.

Winter is here. Snow is falling steadily up in the mountains and people around Nagano are bringing out their kotatsu tables, kerosene heaters and nabe pots. Once again, it’s that time of year for skiing, hot springs and great winter festivals. Why stay inside when you could warm up in front of a magnificent fire festival or in the company of Japan’s many spirits?

Make some wonderful memories this winter with some of the festivals below!
Read the rest of this entry »

Experiencing the Japanese Countryside in Chikuma

November 30th, 2016 by
Category: Accomodations, Culture Art, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities

Tyler shows our group some Showa era graffiti on a local earthern wall.

On a beautiful fall day, I joined a group of foreigners on a cycling tour of Togura Kamiyamada Onsen south of Chikuma City. The area was once home to several mountain castles and a post town so there is a wealth of history in the area. Our guide, local ryokan owner and area expert Tyler, took us along beautiful mountain roads and pointed out interesting relics and features along the way.

From small stone dosojin carvings used to ward off bandits to legacies of the region’s districts and landscape features, Tyler pointed out interesting aspects of history that we would have never noticed on our own. As a lover of traditional Japanese architecture himself, he told us about the significance of different design features, from thatched roofs to decorative tile crowns on various buildings. And occasionally there were some heart-warming discoveries as well, like the preserved lovers’ carvings on old, earthern walls.

The temple gate of Chishiki-ji is made entirely without metal fastenings. Fasten-ating!

Tyler recounts the history of Chishiki-ji temple in Chikuma.

Along the route there were expansive views of the Chikuma valley and surrounding mountains. While past their peak, the autumn leaves still burned vividly and brightly around us and cattails swung in the breeze. As we passed farmers tending their fields they greeted us warmly and occasionally we stopped to chit chat. Groups of school children shouted “Hello!” as we cycled on. It was a much closer inspection of the countryside than I’ve had in most of my time here.

We tasted one of these delicious sun fuji apples from Crown Orchard along the way.

Lovely views from the Crown apple orchard.

After 2 hours touring around the area we were starting to get cold, so headed back to Tyler’s inn, Kamesei Ryokan, to take a dip in the hot springs.

An Evening Geisha Performance

Togura Kamiyamada Onsen is also home to practicing Geisha performers. They usually work at larger banquets, but Tyler sometimes arranges them to visit for 30-minute performances in his own ryokan. Unlike seeing geisha in Kyoto, here it is an interactive experience, playing games and learning dances from them! They danced and sang several songs. One of them, called “Kawanakajima,” was about the great battle between Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen that happened here. As they danced, their bright fans slashed through the air like swords.

The geisha perform the song and dance “Kawanakajima.”

We learned a coal miner’s dance, and while our hostesses explained it very well in English, the timing and coordination are not as easy as you might expect. After a few revolutions around the table, they kindly told us how good we all were at it (despite actually being quite uncoordinated and clumsy). Finally, we played a simple drinking game against the geisha. As it turns out, they are very, very good at this game and none of us stood a chance against them. They would then hand the loser a glass of beer, and we all cheered in rhythm as they drank it down.

But actually, Tyler himself is a seasoned veteran of the game. Here he upsets the champion in a practice round.

I make my drinking game debut with another guest (and won!)

Additional Information

Cycling through the countryside is one of the best ways to see it up close and personal. Having a local guide to point out interesting features and history makes it even better. For an unforgettable experience of rural Japan, consider visiting Togura Kamiyamada Onsen.

Access:
From Nagano Station, take the Shinano line train to Togura station (about 25 minutes). From there, buses run regularly to Kamiyamada Onsen, or you can walk there yourself in 25 minutes.
(Click here to browse the timetable in Japanese. It’s unnecessarily complicated so I apologize in advance.)

Related Links:

Autumn Colors in Nagano’s Golden Season

October 24th, 2016 by
Category: Information, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Beatiful autumn colors from Togakushi over the weekend.

While some of the mountaintops are already experiencing a spell of winter, Nagano’s valleys are finally enjoying the sights of autumn. Red, yellow and golden hues are descending from the highlands and a cool wind is blowing through the valleys.
Read the rest of this entry »

The Night View Train to Obasute

September 28th, 2016 by
Category: Events, Information, Report, Sightseeing

The front of the Night View Obasute train.

Perched several hundred meters above Chikuma City is Obasute Station which boasts beautiful scenery of the Nagano valley. The Shinano line passes through this area on its way between Nagano and Matsumoto cities, and is considered one of Japan’s three best train line views.

Read the rest of this entry »

Beating the Summer Heat in Shigakogen

August 26th, 2016 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

One of Shigakogen’s many jewels in summer.

In another attempt to beat the summer heat, I headed up to Shigakogen with a group of friends to enjoy the highland weather and the area’s unspoilt nature. There are a total of 19 trails around Shigakogen that climb its many peaks, wander its marshlands and cut through its forests. In addition to its beautiful ponds and mountains, the views of the Nagano Plain below are stunning.

We drove up Shigakogen separately and met in the Kuma-no-yu area by the Sanzen Ski lifts. There is plenty of parking next to the ski lift and by the hotels across the street. A bus stop is also nearby, so those without a car can use the Shigakogen line bus from Nagano or Yudanaka station to get here.

One of Shiga’s many marshes.

Our course for the day was the Ikemeguri Trail (#6 on Shigakogen’s list here) which passes through Shiga’s marshlands and ponds before reaching Onuma-ike. The whole course takes about four hours total. You can either walk straight through the course and ride a bus back from the ending point, or double back from Onumaike to Kuma-no-yu. If you do the latter you can enjoy a dip in the local Kuma-no-yu hot springs[1] .

The weather was great and Shigakogen was a pleasant 27°C. A few clouds hung high in the sky and a gentle breeze blew over the fields below. The trail was shaded by birch and pine forests and interposed with sections of man-made boardwalks across delicate marshes.

The beautiful waters of Onuma Pond.

About 2 hours into our hike, we came to a clearing above the striking, cerulean-blue waters of Onuma-ike. As we descended towards the shore the water changed colors, becoming more vibrant and green one moment, calm and clear the next. When we finally reached the shore we walked out towards the bright torii gate in front of the pond’s Shinto shrine. The contrast of the lacquered wood and water made for a great photo op.

Gnarly forests.

The rest of the trail continued through shaded woods, lasting about another hour and a half. When we resurfaced on the main road we took a friend’s car back to our starting point. As a reward for our outdoorsiness we planned to take a dip in the hot spring there but it was inundated with high schoolers on vacation. Instead, we headed down the mountain and got gelato at one of my favorite places in Nakano City[2], then parted ways to our separate air-conditioned apartments.

Additional Information

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to visit Shigakogen yourself but don’t have your own vehicle, check our Shigakogen line bus timetable.

Shigakogen Trails list

See this page for a list of all of Shigakogen’s hiking trails (Japanese only).


(Back to text)

Kuma-no-yu Hotel

This hotel at the base of the Kumanoyu ski resort is known for its jade-colored hot springs. The water contains a variety of minerals and a relatively neutral pH. A great place to soak after a long day on the slopes or in the mountains.

Entrance Fee: 1000 yen for Adults
Hours: 12:30 to 15:30 (Weekdays), 12:30 to 15:00 (Weekends)
Website: http://www.kumanoyu.co.jp/hotel/english/


(Back to text)

Fiore Gelato Shop

This small shop in front of the Tsuruya in Nakano City is conveniently located on the main road towards Shigakogen. They have a rotating selection of flavors including local specialties Nagano Purple (Grape) and Shinshu Ringo (Apple).

Holidays: Closed on Wednesdays
Hours: 10:00 to 18:00
Location: See Google Maps

Summer Mountain Biking in Nagano

August 19th, 2016 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Suzushii naaa!

When I tell people that I live in Nagano, they always respond with an envious, “Suzushii naaaaa (How Refreshing)!” But while they’re imagining all of the grassy highland fields gently undulating in the cool breeze, I’m sitting in my apartment in Nagano city sweating profusely on my couch. I’ve been doing my best recently to get out of the city and into the cooler parts of Nagano, and this weekend I visited Hakuba for some outdoor adventures.
Read the rest of this entry »

Fantastic Views from Mt. Chougatake

July 22nd, 2016 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

The Chougatake mountain hut facing Kamikochi and the Northern Alps.

The rainy season has ended and the time for hiking is officially here. Monday’s weather was perfect, so a couple of us decided to climb Chougatake, a 2,677 meter high mountain in Azumino. Bordering Kamikochi to the Southeast, it has splendid views of the Northern Japanese Alps.

Read the rest of this entry »

Impressions of the Onbashira Festival

July 13th, 2016 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Report

Locals watch as the first pillar is lifted into place at the Harumiya shrine.

The Onbashira festival is finally at an end. After months of preparation and twelve long days of labor, the sixteen onbashira pillars have reached their resting places at the corners of the four shrines of Suwa Taisha.

Read the rest of this entry »

Highland Trekking in Kirigamine Kogen

July 6th, 2016 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Report, Sightseeing

Our guide Uchino-san points out distant blue mountains.

On Saturday we set out for a tour of Kirigamine Kogen, one of Nagano’s central highland areas connected by the Venus Line[1]. The name Kirigamine means “the misty peak,” because the warm airs of Suwa regularly rise up here and condense into fog. On clear days, however, you can enjoy an amazing view from the top of Kurumayama, the tallest point of the Kirigamine area.

Read the rest of this entry »