Nagano Day Trip to Obuse and Togakushi

October 4th, 2018 by
Category: Information, Report, Sightseeing

Early autumn colors on Togakushi’s Okusha Shrine trail

Nagano City is surrounded by idyllic, countryside spots with a wealth of culture and nature.
Bountiful fields grow along the Chikuma River, ancient shrines lay in the shadow of great mountains, and sleepy towns embrace historical sites tied to some of Japan’s greatest warrior clans—there is so much to see but often too little time!

Some of Nagano City’s most popular sightseeing spots include National Treasure Zenkoji Temple, the shrines of Togakushi, and the museums and cafes in the charming town of Obuse. It just so happens that a new sightseeing bus visits all of these, making sightseeing around Nagano City easier than ever.
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Two Days of Driving Around the Roof of Japan

August 16th, 2018 by
Category: Accomodations, Culture Art, Information, Sightseeing

Driving among the clouds
Surrounded by the 3,000-meter-high mountains of the Japanese Alps, Nagano Prefecture is called “the Roof of Japan.” Its gorgeous alpine scenery and breezy highlands attract visitors year-round.

In Central Nagano, several highland areas extend from the base of the Yatsugatake mountains past Lake Suwa towards Matsumoto. Ranging in heights from 1,400 to 2,200 meters, the lofty plains here have panoramic views of the Northern, Central and Southern Alps. They’re the perfect place to escape the summer heat and enjoy a scenic drive. On these roads, you’re at eye level with the clouds—like you’re driving through the sky.

Chino City is at the entrance to these highlands. Starting here, you can enjoy beautiful drives on the Roof of Japan while seeing some of the area’s own unique history. A short two-day trip around the area is a great escape from the city, or as another leg on a longer journey around Japan.

Day 1: Chino and the Merchen Highway

On your first day, take a train to Chino Station and rent a car from one of the many agencies nearby (see car rental agencies in Nagano here). The start of the Venus Line is less than a kilometer from here, and a little farther up the road is the Merchen Highway.

From the station, take the Merchen Highway for about 50 minutes up to Shirakoma Pond.

Shirakoma Pond

Shirakoma Pond seen from the rocks above Takamiishi Lodge
At the top of Mugikusa Pass of Yatsugatake, Shirakoma Pond sits amidst beautiful forests covered in over 400 species of moss. The forest floor, fallen trees and rocks are carpeted in a rich green. It looks like something straight out of Ghibli’s “Princess Mononoke,” and even one of the woods here is named after the film. Its high altitude—2,115 meters above sea level—makes it a cool place to pass the time even during the hottest days of summer.
The paths around the pond are well-maintained and easy to walk.
The walk to the pond is just 15 minutes from the parking lot through mossy forest. You can stroll around the pond in another 40 minutes and stop for a bite or coffee at one several mountain huts on the shore. Several trails radiate out from the pond leading to other campsites. For a great view of the pond from above, taking the 45-minute trek to Takamiishi is highly recommended.
Bioluminescent moss found under a boulder on the way to Takamiishi Lodge
We may not be able to discern many of the different types of moss in the forest, but there are some cool ones that stand out. With moss, what it grows on is often more important than the shape of the plant itself. I saw many different mosses of all shapes growing on the ground, on living and dead trees, and hidden in cracks in rocks. If you’re lucky, you may also be able to see bioluminescent moss as well!

Togariishi Museum of Jomon Archeology

The museum has a large display of Jomon era pottery, figurines, and tools.
Next stop is the the Togariishi Museum of Jomon Archaeology. It is located on the Togariishi settlement where Jomon people lived over 5,000 years ago. At that time, the highland areas around Chino were home to as many as 1,000 unique Jomon settlements. Experts believe that the cooler weather and the abundance of obsidian, a precious commodity, made the Kirigamine Highlands and foothills of Yatsugatake an attractive place to settle.

In front, the Jomon no Venus figurine. In back, Kamen no Megami.
The museum has an extensive collection of Jomon pottery and clay figurines, including the “Jomon no Venus,” a National Treasure and the most exquisitive example of Jomon figurines found to-date.

Models of Jomon dwellings can be seen behind the museum on the Togariishi settlement.
Visitors may be surprised to find many of the organic, coiled patterns of the pottery strangely familiar. While little regard was given to the Jomon period and culture for much of the 20th century, its aesthetics have increasingly influenced Japanese art and pop culture. Comics and video games have paid homage to the shapes of the Jomon figurines and patterns of Jomon pottery, like the most recent installation in the Legend of Zelda franchise.

The Works of Terunobu Fujimori

Takasugi-an Teahouse
For the architecture enthusiast with interest in Japanese design and a sense of humor, Terunobu Fujimori’s buildings are a delight. They incorporate traditional materials that harken back to ancient Japan, even as far back as the Jomon Period, while staying light-hearted. The architect has built several museums and homes, and some of his first works can be seen in Chino City, including the Moriya Shiryokan Musem and several tea houses.

Moriya Shiryokan
The Moriya Shiryokan is a repository, housing documents related to the history of Suwa Taisha, one of Nagano’s most venerable shrines. Entrance to the repository is 100 yen, and it has a few small exhibits inside. For such a small fee, it is worth entering just to see the interior of the building itself, like the stairway that leads to an indoor drawbridge on the second floor.

Left to right: Takasugi-an and Soratobu-bune teahouses
Behind the museum is a small path that weaves through a few small fields up the hill towards a spot of land where Mr. Fujimori’s teahouses lie. They are called Soratobu-bune (Flying Boat), Takasugi-an (Too Tall Teahouse), and Hikusugi-an (Too Small Teahouse). From the names themselves it is easy to see that his creations are not your typical architectural fare.

Spend the Night in Tateshina Onsen

A fast-flowing river cuts straight through the hotel.
Heading back towards the Venus Line and Merchen Highway, stop in Tateshina Onsen to spend the night. There are a number of great hotels and inns here. Tateshina Grand Hotel Taki no Yu is just off the Venus Line and very close to the Kitayatsugatake Ropeway, making it a perfect place to spend the night. Its hot springs, facilities, and buffet meals are the cherry on top.

The Keiryu Rotenburo bath at night, offering views of the river below.
From the sound of the river that runs through the hotel, you can tell that the area is abundant in water. The hotel has several hot springs here to enjoy, whether you’re staying the night or just visiting for the day. There are two outdoor baths, one tiered bath with majestic views of the gorge, and another more intimate space with views of trees and flowers. There are also indoor baths and private baths for families or couples. (See below for day-use hours.)


Its dinner and breakfast buffets include a variety of Japanese and Western options, from roast beef and pizza to sushi and udon. In addition to being able to eat to your heart’s content, you can also choose what you like. Even the fussiest of eaters will be able to find something that they like here, and those adventurous ones can try plenty of Japanese traditional dishes.

Day 2: The Venus Line

The Venus Line connects Nagano’s central highland areas and enjoys amazing panoramic views of the surrounding area. Traveling at altitudes between 1,400 to 2,000 meters, you drive across vistas that seem to float in the clouds. The road cuts through Tateshina Onsen, heading towards Kirigamine Kogen and Lake Shirakaba. Just a 7-minute drive from the hotel is our next stop, the Kita-Yatsugatake Ropeway.

Kita-Yatsugatake Ropeway

The lower ropeway station looks like something pulled straight out of Bavaria
The Kita-Yatsugatake Ropeway travels up the Yatsugatake mountains to a 2,237-meter-high plateau. Beyond the ropeway station is an otherworldly garden of igneous rock and windswept pines surrounded by the peaks of the Yatsugatake mountains. Trails wind through the plateau’s garden and continue to the summits of nearby Mts. Yokodake and Shimakare. Even in the hottest days of summer, the weather here is cool.

The upper ropeway station seen from the Tsuboniwa garden

The forest on the hillside shows the shimakare phenomenon.
Here you can see a phenomenon called shimakare in Japanese, or fir waves in English. Looking at the mountainside, stripes of dead trees cut a swath through the forest. Over many years, these stripes move up the mountain as trees exposed to the wind begin to wither and new trees grow behind them.

Enjoy a refreshing kokemomo (mountain cranberry) juice at the ropeway’s cafe.
Back at the station there’s a café and an observation deck. From the observation deck, you can see all three ranges of the Japanese Alps and the rest of the peaks of Yatsugatake. Have a coffee and a treat like daifuku or soft serve made with mountain cranberries.

The Venus Line

A car drives along the Venus Line away from Lake Shirakaba.
After leaving the Kita-Yatsugatake Ropeway, continue up the mountain towards Lake Shirakaba. The Ikenotaira Hotel and Resort can be found here, offering many activities for families, from small amusement parks to water slides and petting zoos. Those who are just passing through can stop by an overlook just above the lake to enjoy the view.
Lake Shirakaba seen from an observation point on the Venus Line.
Day lilies in the plains of Kirigamine
Next stop is Kirigamine Kogen. In summer, bright yellow day lilies carpet the grasslands and during autumn silver cattails sway gently in the breeze. You can stop at the Chaplin Restaurant to see fields of them up close. Or, head to Yashima Shitsugen and walk along trails through the marshlands with day lilies, irises, thistles and more.

Gun for Sparrow OSAKA PUNCH by Bernhard Luginbühl
At the Matsumoto end of the Venus Line is the Utsukushigara Open-air Art Museum. 350 sculptures dot the grassy hillside, overlooking expansive mountain scenery. Whether the artworks or the natural vistas are more impressive is for you to decide!

Heading Home or Continuing your Journey

After the Utsukushigahara Open-air Art Museum, head towards Matsumoto or Ueda to return your vehicle (see more about car rental agencies in Nagano). You can continue your journey by visiting Matsumoto Castle, or you can head back to Tokyo using the Super Express Azusa from Matsumoto, or the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Ueda.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about the Central Nagano area, see some of the links below.

Related Blog Posts

Highland Trekking in Kirigamine Kogen
Climbing the Yatsugatake Mountains: Mt. Neishi-dake
The Japanese Alps are an Overlooked Gem
Summer Fun Around Lake Suwa

Notes

Back to Text.

Tateshina Grand Hotel Taki No Yu
Day Use Hot Spring

Hours: 13:00 to 21:00
Reception: 3rd Floor Reception Counter
Price: Adults/1,500 yen, Children/800 yen
Face Towel (purchase) 200 yen
Bath towel (rental) 300 yen

Outdoor Activities for the Whole Family in Northern Nagano

July 31st, 2018 by
Category: Outdoor Activities

Many Japanese people long for their furusato, a place with rolling hills, picturesque mountains, and clear rivers. Where their grandparents pickle vegetables in barrels covered with heavy stones and make soba noodles carefully by hand. Where life is slow and the weather is fine. Somewhere they can get back in touch with nature.

Iiyama in Nothern Nagano is just that: a beautiful countryside area surrounded by nature and outdoor activities. Thanks to the introduction of the Hokuriku Shinkansen a few years back, access to Iiyama and nearby Nozawa Onsen have become even easier than before. In just two and a half hours, you can escape the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and take in the idyllic scenery of Japan’s furusato. Explore the Chikuma River, the Sekida Mountains, Iiyama’s temple cities and farms!
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Renting a Car in Japan

July 9th, 2018 by
Category: Information

Japan’s countryside is full of charm and wonder. But for many travelers, some of its sights are just out of reach! From beautiful mountain roads, hidden hot springs, and idyllic terraced rice fields, there are some spots that you just can’t get to without a car. But, renting a car is easier than ever. Figure out what you need to bring, what you should look out for, and where to go when renting a car in Japan.

Places to Drive in Nagano

Nagano by Car
Hot Springs and Waterfalls in Matsukawa Gorge
Seven Ways to Enjoy the Kiso Valley this Summer

What do you need?

©Tony Webster (CC BY 2.0)
In order to rent a car in Japan, you’ll need a valid driver’s license. For most international tourists, that means applying for an international driver’s permit in your home country before your visit. If you happen to be from one of the following countries, you can use your home country’s driver’s license with an official Japanese translation: Germany, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Slovenia, Moneco, or Taiwan.

You’ll also need to present your passport. It should have an immigration stamp with your date of entry into Japan.

Where should I rent my vehicle?

©TTTNIS (CC0 1.0)
Rental agencies that accept international driving permits include Toyota, Nissan, Nippon, Orix, and JR Rent-A-Car (among others). You can find counters for many of these agencies when you arrive at the airport. For most people, it is easier to travel by train out of the city and pick up a car once they’ve arrived in their countryside destination.

You’ll find many of these agencies near Nagano’s major train stations. You can see a map of their locations around the prefecture below.

Pick the most conveniently located store for your trip and place a reservation on their website. Pick your favorite style of car and any options (such as GPS, ETC card, snow chains), as well as your return location (some agencies, such as Toyota, offer free one-way rentals within Nagano prefecture). Once your reservation is complete, head to your pick-up location and get driving!

Things to Look Out For

©Laichuan Yinfu (CC BY-SA 3.0)
For some, driving around Japan may be intimidating. Complicated highways, confusing signs, and inclement winter weather can make driving a daunting task in a foreign country. But, if you keep the following in mind, driving in Japan isn’t so different to anywhere else. Take it slow and enjoy the scenery as you drive around the countryside.

Driving on the Left

Many travelers will have to get used to driving on the “wrong” side of the road. Consequently, the driver’s seat also changes places and the windshield wiper and blinker controls are reversed. As long as you check which way cars are going before you pull out onto the road, you’ll be fine!

No Turns on Red

Unless a red light is accompanied by a green arrow in the direction you wish to go, there’s no turning on red.

No Drinking and Driving

Japan has a zero tolerance policy for drinking and driving. A BAC over 0% is against the law. Also, any passengers in the drunk driver’s vehicle may be penalized as well for abetting their behavior.

Snowy/Icy Roads in Winter

Japan can get pretty snowy and icy during winter. And many people are surprised when they find out that Japanese roads aren’t cleared quite as a well as roads in their home country. If you plan to drive during winter in Japan, winter tires or snow chains are a must—you won’t even be allowed on the highways without them! 4WD is also recommended.

Narrow Roads

Japan is an old country. Some of its roads have stayed the same for hundreds of years, back before cars existed. These roads are wide enough for people, carts, or horses, but not necessarily for two-way car traffic. If possible, skip the hummer and pick up a compact car instead. There will be times when you’ll have to yield to another car and pull off to the side of the road to let them through.

Roadside Hazards

Many of Japan’s roadways are flanked by gutters. Sometimes they’re covered, sometimes they’re not. They’re easy to miss to regardless, and many a foreigner has accidentally driven into them. are open drains on the side of many roads in Japan. During winter, they may be hidden under the snow, waiting for their next victim…

Seven Ways to Enjoy the Kiso Valley this Summer

June 22nd, 2018 by
Category: Information

The Kiso Valley is one of Nagano’s hidden gems, sandwiched between the Central Alps and Mt. Ontake. Surrounded by these near three-thousand-meter peaks, it is characterized by its steep slopes and gorges which are covered in dense forest. The emerald greenery of the canopies and crystal-clear waters are a refreshing sight, especially during hot summers.

For centuries, passing through Kiso was one of the main ways to travel between Kyoto and Edo during the Edo Period. Called the Nakasendo, this route stretched from the Sanjo Ohashi bridge in Kyoto to the Nihonbashi bridge in Edo. Along the way were 69 post towns, some of which have been impeccably preserved. Here, visitors can see the Japanese countryside as travelers, merchants, and samurai would have seen it hundreds of years ago.

Enjoy the natural beauty and historical sites of the Kiso Valley that have been protected by its steep mountains. Here are some of the best places to visit in Kiso this summer!
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Planting Rice and Tasting Sake in Hakuba

May 22nd, 2018 by
Category: Events, Information, Report

Rice is Japan’s main staple. It shows up nearly every meal, morning, day and night, and is used in the production of many of Japan’s flavorings, desserts, and drinks. Among Japan’s most famous rice products is, of course, sake, and over the centuries, agriculturalists have bred and refined rice varieties especially for its production.
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Where to See Flowering Fields in Nagano

May 18th, 2018 by
Category: Information

With summer quickly approaching, colorful flowers will soon be carpeting Nagano’s fields and hillsides. Cherry blossoms disappeared in a flash this year, and Iiyama’s Nanohana flowers come almost a week earlier than expected, but there are still plenty of other flowers to enjoy in the coming months.

Around Nagano’s ski resorts and historic sites, you can see wisteria, lavender, lilies and more. In the mountains, beautiful alpine flowers bloom throughout the summer season. Among myriad beautiful gardens and landscapes, we’ve chosen some of the most picturesque, accessible locations below.
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Spring Flowers in the Japanese Countryside: the Iiyama Nanohana Festival

May 2nd, 2018 by
Category: Events, Information, Seasonal Topics

The flowers grow high enough to make a veritable maze of yellow.


As the cherry blossoms fade away, other flowers take the spotlight around Nagano. In Iiyama, nanohana blossoms cover the fields along the Chikuma River, turning everything a sunny yellow.

The annual Nanohana Festival is held during the latter part of Golden Week, this year from May 3rd to 5th, during which there are musical and dance performances and plenty of activities to enjoy. It all takes place at the Nanohana Park in Iiyama City on the far side of the Chikuma River. The park is located on a small hill and has great views of the surrounding countryside. The Sekida mountains were mostly bare of snow this year, but as the clouds cleared we could see the brilliant white visage of Mt. Myoko in the distance.
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Cycling and Cherry Blossoms in Spring: the Alps Azumino Century Ride

April 24th, 2018 by
Category: Events, Information, Outdoor Activities, Report

Taking a break at the Alps Azumino Park aid station

The 10th annual Alps Azumino Century Ride cycling event was held last weekend. Beginning in Azumino and extending as far as the ski resorts of Hakuba, the event course weaved through rice fields, orchards, and the lakes of Omachi. While the course was the same for all participants, there were different lengths available, ranging from 70km to 150km. Somehow, I found myself participating in the race along with one of my coworkers. But at least it was on the “friendlier” 70km tour.
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Cherry Blossoms and the Japanese Alps

April 13th, 2018 by
Category: Information, Report, Seasonal Topics

Nagano’s special springtime scenery: cherry blossoms and snowy mountains

With temperamental weather going back and forth between sunny, summer days and winter flurries, it’s been difficult to get a handle on when Nagano’s cherry blossoms will bloom. This year, the trees have been blooming very quickly, making hanami a much more hectic affair than it should be. Cherry blossoms around Ueda and Matsumoto are already almost gone, and spots that usually bloom in May are on their way to full bloom.

Cherry trees around the Japanese Alps usually bloom in mid to late April, but due to this year’s warm weather, many spots already reached their peak last weekend. Since the weather was clear and sunny yesterday, I took an opportunity to check up on some of them around Ogawa, Omachi, and Azumino.

More On Cherry Blossoms

Nagano’s 2018 Cherry Blossom Forecast
Go! Nagano Bloom Watch Page

Our first stop was Ogawa Village. Located between Nagano City, Hakuba, and Omachi, it is a place that most people who travel to Nagano will have passed through at some point without knowing it. In winter, it’s just another small hamlet on the side of the road, but in spring, it becomes one of Japan’s most beautiful villages.

Cherry trees of all kinds dot the hillside along Ogawa Village. There are the popular Somei Yoshino cherries, weeping cherries, and mountain cherries as well. The subtle palette of creams and pinks contrasts beautifully with the fresh greenery around it.

The Nitanda no Sakura cherry blossoms in Ogawa Village

The most impressive section of Ogawa’s spring display is in Nitanda. The cherry trees here, called Nitanda no Sakura, almost completely cover the hillside. While they may have been planted by man, the cherry trees seem wild, growing by their own accord. Rather than a common tourist attraction, Nitanda no Sakura is a countryside fairy tale. At the foot of the hill, farmers till their fields and grocers stock fresh produce, almost oblivious to the magnificent display above.

Petals were falling off the trees, covering the road below in pink

The cherry blossoms were already falling when we visited yesterday, but the sight is still impressive when seen from afar. The view should hold through the weekend at least.

Ogawa’s famous oyaki shop: Ogawa no Sho

Ogawa is also known for its delicious oyaki. After visiting the cherry blossoms, we made a quick pit stop at Ogawa no Sho. The shop specializes in char-grilled oyaki, which they fry on a pan before burying them in ash by the fireside to finish. Popular flavors include nozawana, sweet azuki bean, or eggplant with miso, but during this time of year you can also find oyaki filled with delicious mountain vegetables. We had fukimiso (butterbur sprout in English).

Char-grilled oyaki in front of an irori hearth

After Ogawa, we drove to Omachi City about 40 minutes away. Our desination was Omachi Park, on the hillside outside of town. Despite being a weekday, there were quite a few people enjoying hanami in the park, as well as a couple of food stalls already set up and selling food. The park was quite small, but sometimes big things come in small packages. As the sky cleared up, we saw amazing views of the 3,000-meter-high peaks of Japanese Alps in front of us.

The platform below the park offers uninterrupted views of the snowy alps.

According to the local news, the park reached full bloom yesterday, but there were still quite a few buds that hadn’t bloomed when we visited. The park’s blossoms should be at their peak this weekend and into next week as well.

A view of Omachi Park from below

Omachi Park’s cherry blossoms were on the cusp of full bloom yesterday

For the last leg of our journey, we drove another 40 minutes south to Mt. Hikarujo in Azumino. About three-quarters of the way there, we could see the trail of cherry trees rising up the mountain like a white dragon.

The cherry trees follow the hiking trail up the mountain.

The cherry trees are planted along a hiking trail to the top of the mountain, which takes about 40 minutes to walk up. Lights are strung up along the trail to illuminate it and the blossoms at night.

The path up Mt. Hikarujo is full of views like this

The trees by the trailhead had already lost half of their petals, but we could see fuller trees on the trail up above. As we climbed up, the cherry blossoms grew progressively thicker. The whole way up we were treated to amazing views of the Japanese Alps, and there were plenty of great photo spots for shooting the mountains and cherry blossoms together. After our 40-minute hike, we reached the park at the top of the mountain, covered in full-bloom cherry trees.

Cherry blossoms at the park atop Mt. Hikarujo

A clever, transparent sign which shows the name of each mountain along the Japanese Alps.

Cherry trees along the descent from Mt. Hikarujo

Peeking at the alps from between many branchs and blossoms

A little higher up was a small shrine with cherry trees still budding, so it looks like Mt. Hikarujo still has plenty of sakura left to offer next week.

How to Get There

Omachi Park (Omachi City): By train/bus, a 25-minute walk from JR Oito line Shinano Omachi Station, or a 5-minute taxi. By car: a 40-minute drive from the Azumino IC exit. Parking is available at the park.

Nitanda cherry blossoms (Ogawa Village): By train/bus, A 50-minute bus ride on the Shinmachi Takafu line bus (get off at Takafu bus stop), then a 20-minute walk to trees or 15 minutes to viewpoint. By car, a 45-minute drive from the Nagano IC. Park at the Bikkurando Gymnasium. There is also a viewpoint along Route 31.

Mt. Hikarujo (Azumino City): By train/bus, a 35-minute walk or 10-minute taxi from JR Tazawa Station. By car, a 7-minute drive from the Azumino IC exit. There is a parking lot beside the trailhead. See location here.