What do you get when you spell Tokyo backwards?

November 12th, 2018 by
Category: Information

What do you get when you spell Tokyo backwards? You get out the Oykot, a tourist train that runs through the Japanese countryside of Northern Nagano.

The Oykot runs along the Iiyama line from Nagano to Tokamachi Station, passing the Chikuma River, the Sekida mountains, and idyllic farms and rice paddies.

For just 520 yen on top of your regular train fare, you can enjoy the Oykot’s elegant interior while gazing out over beautiful rural scenery.
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Tasting Sake in the Japanese Countryside

October 25th, 2018 by
Category: Cuisine, Information

A ball of pine hung outside means, “There’s sake here!”

When visiting a foreign culture, you would be amiss not to taste the local cuisine and drink while you’re here. In Japan, that includes lots of delicious dishes like sushi, ramen, tempura, and, of course, sake.

Sake, called Nihonshu in Japanese, is considered by many to be a mysterious beverage. It is often referred to as rice wine in English, but that name doesn’t seem to fit quite right. It doesn’t look like wine, and it doesn’t really taste like wine either. It’s something completely of its own. How do you learn more about it? By drinking it, of course!

Whether you have experience tasting sake or not, you can expand your sake knowledge by tasting it right from the source. Japan’s many sake breweries that have been producing this complex libation for centuries, and can enlighten you on sake’s many styles and flavors, from floral, elegant Daiginjo to the straight-forward and dry Karakuchi.

Nagano has over 80 sake breweries around the prefecture—the second highest number of all prefectures in Japan—where you can taste local flavors slowly perfected over the centuries. Below are breweries and specialty shops where you can try a range of the prefecture’s most delicious sake.
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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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