the most beautiful villages in Japan

March 30th, 2010 by
Category: Report, Sightseeing

How do you define “beautiful”?  What makes a beautiful village?  There is one organization, “Nihon de mottomo utsukushii mura/the most beautiful villages in Japan”,  (Japanese only site: http://www.utsukushii-mura.jp/ that has set a few guidelines and based on those guidelines has named 33 villages to this special list.  Among other criteria, the village must have a population under 10,000 and a low population density, must have beautiful scenery and natural resources that remain undeveloped, and must have a festival, architecture, or cultural resources that have been been preserved over time.    Of the 33 villages on the list, 6 of those are in Nagano-ken and one of those is my neighboring Nakagawa-mura.   On my way to visit a friend who lives there, I took a picture of the logo-sign.e4b8ade5b79dsign

The best way, if not the only way,  to get to this place is by car.  Get on the Chuo Expressway going towards Iida-city.  Coming from the north, exit at Komagane I.C. or from the south at Matsukawa I.C. then follow the signs for Route 153 towards Iida.  From either exit, Nakagawa is about 20 minutes.  There is no train station.  The nearest train station would be Iijima station on the Iida train line.  From there you can take a taxi.  For any of our overseas visitors who are really interested, let me know if you are in the area and I can be your personal guide for half a day.

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“Beautiful” is a patchwork of culture, history, and tradition against the backdrop of natural scenery that remains largely untouched.

Is it safe?

December 28th, 2009 by
Category: Miscellaneous, Report

In looking back at the blog entries I made, I’m reminded of the people I met while I was out looking for something to write about, places that I visited, and events that caught my attention.  Writing for the blog gave me the chance to view Nagano through the eyes of a tourist or first time visitor.  One of the qualities that stands out about Nagano, especially rural Nagano,  is how safe it is and how trusting people are of each other.  It is only one isolated example, but to illustrate the point, I’ll tell you about mujin hanbai jo.

Mujin hanbai jo means unmanned selling place.  Japan is notorious for vending machines, but no, this is not a vending machine.  There is nothing electrical or mechanical about it. It’s usually a small wooden shed or a pre-fab storage shed by the side of the road where you can buy fruits, vegetables, cut flowers, pickles, or whatever the farmer or the farmer’s wife wants to sell there.  The ones pictured here all all within 5km of my house.

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Right now you can buy apples and pears, Chinese cabbage, daikon, and a lot of other winter vegetables. Spring will come with its own array of greens and all kinds of flowers, and in summer you will find watermelons and corn.

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The interesting part is that there is no one there.  You just drive up or walk up, choose whatever goods you want, drop your money  in the piggy bank, and walk away.  It is all based on honor and trust.  Isn’t that rare in this day and age? A few years ago when I first saw this, I was moved that people would be so trusting and wondered how long it would be before the hard-working farmers were forced to stop selling this way  because of people taking advantage of the system and walking away with the goods without paying for them.  It’s been a few years now and I am happy to say that the mujin hanbai jos are still around.

To rebut anybody who would say that this is such an impersonal exchange, look at this.  It’s a notebook hanging on a string and placed there for communication.   People leave comments about what they bought, they leave their names and other personal information, and they invariably say thank you–for the goods, yes, but also for this form of trust and this way of life.

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Traveling in a foreign country, especially if you do not speak the language, can be scary.  Nagano ken,or Japan for that matter, is not known for its English speaking population.  If you do not speak Japanese, there may be times when you feel lost–but not necessarily scared for you physical being.  As I tried to point out, there is a general feeling of trust and safety that pervades. I hope you will come and experience it for yourself.

Art & Nature: A museum in the highlands

October 28th, 2009 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Autumn in Japan is associated with art and culture, sports, good food and a good book.  Aside from sports, the others conjure up more passive, leisurely activities best enjoyed in calm, quiet settings.  A visit to a museum or gallery, for example, is a pastime that I like to think of as quality “down time” before the hustle of the year-end busyness and the harshness of winter comes around.  One such place that provides both the art and the ambience is μ Museum of Natural Art in Jibuzaka Kogen. From Iida City, it’s about a 30 minute drive along Route 153.  At this time of year the foliage along the winding mountain pass is beautiful, and the local cuisine of gohei mochi or soba can be found in any of the small roadside restaurants. Jibuzaka Kogen is the highland farthest south in Nagano-ken.  At an altitude of more than 1200 meters, it is high enough for skiing from late December to early March.  Just a short walk from the parking lot of the grounds, the museum sits in a little wooded area.p1000304

On this particular day, the rain made the air a little more crystal, a little more pure, and the red, yellow and orange leaves deeper and more vivid.  The path leading to the entrance felt so inviting, I felt like I was visiting someone’s home for the first time. My feelings only intensified when I saw the slippers set out for visitors.  p1000296

The rain had made the day a little chilly so once inside I was glad to find the heater on. Perhaps because of the rain, I was the only person there. I took my time admiring the works of local artists, known and unknown. This picture doesn’t do it justice, but I especially liked the wood carvings of Tomio Matsuzawa.p1000298

The 700 yen entrance fee includes your choice of coffee, tea, or juice.p1000302 I indulged in savoring the coffee AND the view from the large window.p1000301

After the museum I went to the onsen, Yadorigino Yu, also next to the ski parking area. I couldn’t have asked for more — I had the bath all to myself! In spite of the rain, or maybe because of it, it was a perfect—almost enchanted– autumn afternoon.

Minshuku

September 22nd, 2009 by
Category: Accomodations

Hotels, ryokans, youth hostels, lodges and cottages, or a tent in a campground.  Nagano has accomodations for every type of traveler and any size budget.  There is also a minshuku. It’s the Japanese version of a  bed and breakfast in the home of family who will provide you  with a no-frills room  and meals if you wish.  If the accommodations themselves are less important to you than the cultural insights gained from staying with a Japanese family, then a minshuku might be the place for you.

p1000128The other day I visited a minshuku in Takato-machi run by Isoda, Yoshiyuki-san and his wife, Mika-san.  For 6,500 yen you can stay in their home and have breakfast and dinner.  Feel free to visit with them and get to know them or interact with their two young children.  If you’re a vegetarian or have any food allergies, Mika-san loves to cook and will listen to your preferences.  Yoshiyoshi‘s website (Japanese only) is here.

Kitahara, Ayako-san also runs a minshuku in Ina city.   Lodging without meals is 4,000 yen per night.  Meals are extra or you can cook for yourself in a separate kitchen. Ayako-san is a jack-of-all trades and weaves and dyes her own yarns, makes wooden accessories, and plants her own garden.  Her husband has a full time job in the city but helps Ayako-san around their property on his days off.  They just finished building this one-room wooden cottage behind their house and would like to offer it to guests. p1000132 They have purposely left it without electricity and running water for those willing, daring and brave enough to try out the”rough” conditions.   Besides growing all the vegetables that she uses in the meals she serves her guests, Ayako-san also has blueberries, raspberries, and chestnut trees on her property.  She says her land is too big for her to do all the work by herself, so in exchange for a couple of days of work on her property, she can let you stay in one of her rooms.  That just goes to show how flexible and willing to negotiate that she can be.  If you’re back-packing in southern Nagano or are cycling in the area, you might want to check out Fudangi.

Be aware, though.  Unless you have a car, these two minshukus are not easily accessed by public transportation.  On check-in/check-out day, the Isoda’s will provide transportation to and from  Takato train station and Kitahara-san will do the same from Ina station. After that you are mostly  on your own to explore the surrounding area on foot and enjoy the sights, sounds, and try your hand at weaving, chopping wood, picking blueberries or whatever is in season.  Be prepared for slow life – plain and simple.

Iijima Jinya: Nagano Pref… then and now

August 12th, 2009 by
Category: Experience, Information, Miscellaneous, Sightseeing

Just as Tokyo was known by a different name and was not always the capital of Japan, Nagano ken, or prefecture, was also known by another name and the kencho, or government office, was in another town.  There was a time during the Edo period when Nagano ken was “Ina-ken” and the kencho was Iijima Jinya in the town of Iijima.  The highest ranking official at the Jinya was a daikan, or substitute of the daimyo who controlled and ruled the area. Today, even Nagano-ken residents may not know about Iijima, but, way back then, the Iijima Jinya government office was front and center. The end of the Tokugawa Shogunate saw the closing of Iijima Jinya and the end of Ina-ken.  After some reorganizing, the prefecture became known as Nagano-ken.

16 years ago, the town of Iijima decided that Iijima Jinya deserved to be recreated and earn its rightful place in the history of our town.  After a lot of research and excavations,  Iijima Jinya was re-built in the original location and opened to the public as a museum, Iijima Jinya Kinenkan.p10000561

A few days ago Harold Critney and I visited the museum. Many of the artifacts on exhibit can be picked up and examined and you are welcome to take pictures inside. Harold had a little fun being the o-daikan sama.

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p1000053On a quiet day, you may even be treated to a cup of tea at the irori seen here.

The museum is open from 9 to 5.  It is closed on Mondays, the day after national holidays, and from 12/15 to 3/14. It is about a 7 minute walk from Iijima train station on the Iida-sen. By car it is about 15 minutes from the Komagane or Matsukawa IC on Chuo Expressway.

Let us show you around.

July 6th, 2009 by
Category: Information, Miscellaneous, Sightseeing

The Ina Eigo Guide Club (IEGC) or Ina (City) English Guide Club is a group of local men and women who provide volunteer guide services in English to visitors to Ina City and the neighboring areas.  The group is basically a self-study group that meets twice a month to discuss and “rediscover” local points of interest and how they would best be presented to foreign visitors.  With the help of a native English speaker employed by the prefecture, the members of the group are working hard to improve their English hoping that they will someday have a chance to introduce the shrines and temples, food and festivals, or other places of interest in the Ina-dani Valley. Some of the members are already very fluent and are ready to welcome you and be your guide.  Printed pamphlets and guide books are very useful and full of information.  But long after the pamphlet is filed away and the guidebook is put back on the shelf, what will remain fresh in your mind is the friendly, face to face interaction and the “personal touch” of the local volunteer guide.  Let me know if you are going to be in this area and would like someone to show you around.   I’m sure we an arrange something for you.

In April, IEGC and some of the assistant language teachers working throughout Nagano prefecture got together for 0-hanami at Takato Park.

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Jazz in Toyooka Village

June 1st, 2009 by
Category: Experience, Miscellaneous, Outdoor Activities

It happens all the time.  You meet someone and then you lose contact for a while and then suddenly you run into them again.  It happened to me the other day.  Not with a person–with a dog.  I first met Jazz about 12 years ago when he was  with his first owner, Ms K.  The second owner was Mr Y and I knew him, too.  To make a long story short, Jazz is smart, handsome, and gentle and that’s why everybody loves him and wants him.  So, when Jazz needed a new home after Mr Y died,  a Mrs. K whom I had never met called me and asked me if I could help her to get Jazz and she explained why she and her husband were good candidates.    That was five years ago–and I had totally forgotten about it.  Until today.  I was on my way to Iida (largest city in southern Nagano prefeture) when I decided to turn and use an older, less traveled road.  I like the surprises and the discoveries that come when you to stay off the beaten track.   I saw a small hand-painted wooden sign by the side of road with an arrow pointing up towards the mountain.  It said SORA KUBO, coffee shop & gallery.  For some reason the name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t imagine why because I had never been this way before.  The sign seemed old–beaten up by rain and sun and time–and my first thought was that probably the only thing remaining was indeed this old sign.  But, I wanted to be surprised, so I followed the arrow.  I stopped once to ask an old lady who was planting rice and she told me to just keep on going. and that I would find it at the top of the mountain.   I drove about 10 more minutes and when I could go no further, there it was.  It was a log house  sitting on top of the hill, surrounded by blue sky and trees and flowers leading up to the doorway. And there he was!! Jazz!  Suddenly, all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place and I knew.  This is the lady that had called me and who had explained why she and her husband and their place would make a good home for Jazz.  p10002901

Not only is Sora Kubo a great place for Jazz, it is a great place, period.  Mr K is a potter and Mrs K makes glass beads and accessories. Their shop doubles as the gallery and if you make reservations you can try your hand at making glass beads or pottery.   Mrs K will serve you a homemade lunch or dinner right there from her own kitchen.  After lunch, I walked behind the house and looked down to see the whole of Ina Valley.   It’s easy to see why the K’s gave up their big city life in Osaka and moved to Toyooka Village–and why they and Jazz are so happy here.p10002861

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By the way, pets are always welcome at Sora Kubo.

Green cherry blossoms.

May 2nd, 2009 by
Category: Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Pink. Pink. Pink. What other color comes to mind when you think about cherry blossoms and the trees that define Japan at this time of year? Pink, of course. Having been in Texas for the better part of April, I had resigned myself to missing this year’s sakura. Oh, well, there’s always next year. This is what I was thinking as I drove to Senninzuka Prefectural Park in my town of Iijima. The park has a small lake that is circled by about 600 cherry trees that are beautiful against the back drop of snow capped mountains. Today I was going to the park to get pictures of the mallet golf course that is also at the park and that I had promised to write about for this month’s entry. (Postponed for later because I got sidetracked.) p1000277I never expected–but was pleasantly surprised to do so–to find some of the trees still in full bloom and the park nearly deserted.

You know that feeling you get when you walk into the matinee for a movie you’ve been wanting to watch and almost missed but is now about to play wide screen and you’ve got your choice of seats? Yatta!

It’s the altitude –about 800 meters–and the lower temperatures that lets the cherry trees here bloom later than anywhere else in the Ina Valley.

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The man who keeps the grounds and I started talking and he said, “there’s a tree with green flowers.” Say what? At first I thought I’d heard wrong, but he said, “…midori iro no hana.” Sure enough. Green cherry blossoms!! See the tree in the middle? It has green flowers. No, it’s not just leaves. p1000279

Here’s a closer look. The color is actually a yellowish,
lime green. White, pink, all shades of pink, and maybe red or purple,even. But green? I never would have thought. This type is called gyoikozakura, and it was a present given to Iijima from a town from in Shizuoka as a symbol of friendship.

I lingered at the park a little longer and met this retired couple who were on their way to a neighboring town to volunteer at an apple farm. They had decided to camp here for the night. They travel in their van throughout Japan for about 120 days out of the year and they said they had never been in a town with such beautiful views of both the Chuo and Minami Alps. Over green tea and an apple that Mrs. Y peeled as we talked, we sat on the grass and talked about world affairs, their travels and mountain climbing, and why I am in Japan. Green cherry blossoms, o-cha, and a lovely couple. What a nice afternoon.p1000282

March 31st, 2009 by
Category: Events, Miscellaneous

I was in Okinawa the other day for our daughter’s wedding. One more milestone. Yeah! Speaking of Okinawa, did you know that Okinawa women live longer than the women of the other prefectures? Guess who’s #1 for the males? That’s right–Nagano. Not that it’s a race but, Go! Nagano. (Sorry, couldn’t resist 🙂 And while it may be just a little trivia, living a long, healthy life is no trivial matter.

With their low-salt, healthy, plenty of fruit diets and their laid-back, “don’t worry, be happy” lifestyle in a warm and sunny climate, it’s not hard to imagine that the people of Okinawa would live long lives. Compare that to relatively harsh and cold Nagano where we eat a lot of tsukemono (salted pickles), miso (soybean paste), and soy sauce and you wouldn’t expect a long life. It’s a paradox, I know. I like to think that it’s the clean air and water, lots and lots of vegetables, and apples. Yes, apples. While Okinawa grows mangoes and pineapples, Nagano grows apples. Tons of ’em. Nagano pref. is Japan’s 2nd largest producer of the biggest, sweetest, juiciest apples. Just plain deee-licious! We’ve all heard the saying, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”. Well, Nagano-ites are living proof of that.

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You’re probably wondering what this picture has anything to do with what I’ve written above but it does. Like the people of Okinawa, it is not unusual to find Nagano people well into their 70’s working their rice fields, tending their gardens, and generally staying active. And when they’re not working, they’ll find something fun to do. Like golf. No, not Tiger Woods golf, but golf just the same–all 18 holes of it. It’s called maretto gorufu (mallet golf) played with a stick, the mallet, and a ball the size of an orange. The game is so popular that I would venture to say that almost every town in Nagano-ken has at least one course. This is a group from my neighborhood that I ran into while I was out walking the other day. Average age of these players? 75 years young! In my next entry I’ll write more about the game and about the Senninzuka Maretto Gorufu Sekai Taikai = The Senninzuka Mallet Golf World Tournament to be held in May. The tournament is open to anyone. Drop me a line if you’re interested.

A blogger in the south

March 1st, 2009 by
Category: Information

In southern Nagano, comfortably nestled between the Chuo (central) and the Minami (southern) Alps, lies Ina-dani valley and the town of Iijima, my little corner of the world.

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In the 28 years that I’ve been here I’ve seen a lot of changes in this area. The list of what we didn’t have then that we do now is long. For starters, here are just a few: the Chuo Expressway (national expressway that links Tokyo and Nagoya) wasn’t connected all the way yet. Nagano didn’t have an FM radio station and broadcast satellite hadn’t started. Fast food was nowhere near to be found and drinking “o-cha” (green tea) from a can or plastic bottle from a vending machine? Heck, no!! The Nagano Shinkansen wouldn’t come along for another 17 years and keitais (cell phones) and the internet were unheard of–and not just in Japan. To be sure, there was no such thing as a “blog”.

But things change. And blogs happen. So…in the coming weeks or months, I will write about places and events, about local customs, culture, and traditions, and about the life and the people of minami Shinshu. But, mostly I’ll write about what HASN’T changed in this rural part of Japan and this place that I call “home”. Hope you drop by and visit–anytime!