Mt Chausu Botanic Gardens: Dinosaurs and Fun for all the Family

April 16th, 2013 by
Category: Outdoor Activities

This dinosaur may have become extinct due to a lack of appropriate camouflage coloring

I was planning to climb Mt Chausu as part of my research on Nagano City hikes. I found some information on the internet that said the trail started from the Dinosaur Park parking lot. Having googled our way to the car park, my wife and I asked the person in the office for directions to the trail head. She said to walk up through the Dinosaur Park and just keep going. While the hike up the mountain was pleasant and peaceful, we first had to walk the entire length of the Dinosaur Park, which is part of the Botanic Gardens at the base of Mt Chausu. It turns out that this whole park and the gardens are a great place for families with young children. The park itself is about 2km long, and about 150-450m wide. It climbs up from an elevation of 420m at the car park to 650m at the top. In the first half of the walk, we passed by 23 life-sized model dinosaurs. Primary school children in particular will probably love these. Toddlers might be temporarily terrified.  Tyrannosaurus, Diplodocus, Pterodactyl, Stegosaurus, Pteranodon, Ankylosaurus, Trachodon, Iguanodon, Triceratops and a host of others come to life in glorious and gaudy fiberglass. They are stationed in among some excellent gardens, and on the day we were there, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. There is also a lot of azaleas planted in the lower part of the park, so in May they should be a splendid sight.

The dinosaurs really are a hoot. Many of them have holes in them that the kids can climb into, and some even have slides going down the tail. Further up the park there is an adventure playground where the kids can play in forts and on all sorts of bits of equipment. Up beyond the adventure playground is the “Wisteria Big Tunnel”. This is a very long series of pergola-like structures which are covered in Wisteria vines. Wisteria produces long, drooping purple flowers in June, so if you hike up through the park then, it should be spectacular.

Finally, one might well ask “Why a dinosaur park?” and”Why here?”. According to the brochure, it is not because dinosaur fossils have been found in the area. Rather, there was once a big landslide there, and the scarred landscape reminded the people undertaking the rehabilitation of some kind of primeval Jurassic scene, so they decided that life-sized model dinosaurs would fit in quite nicely.

Full Name: Nagano City Mt Chausu Nature Botanic Gardens and Dinosaur Park

Address: 2358 Okada, Shinonoi , Nagano City

Tel: (026)293-5168

Hours: 8.30am – 5pm; 20 March – 19 December

Entry: Free

Either it is a very large navel, or this dinosaur has had a tracheotomy.


A dinosaur grazing on cherry blossoms.

This dinosaur saw the funny side of it.

I think this one just wanted a hug.


Not so much smoke and mirrors, as fiberglass and wires.


Togari Onsen Ski Fields – Good Value without the Crowds and Lines

February 16th, 2013 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

There are great views down to the Chikuma River valley from up on the mountain at Togari Onsen Ski Fields

Last weekend my wife and I went skiing with a couple of Japanese friends at Togari Onsen ski fields. Being new to skiing in Nagano, we have been trying out various ski fields and comparing their strengths and weaknesses. We liked Togari Onsen ski fields for a number of reasons. First, it was good value. The day lift pass is 4000 yen for adults (and only 2500 yen for over 50’s – show some ID to prove  your seniority). In addition to the lift pass, you get a free entry to one of the two local hot springs (worth 500 yen), plus a 100 yen discount coupon to use in one of the restaurants. You also get “repeater” tickets and when you have collected five of them, you can get further discounts. The other good value aspect was the Sky Top (スカイトップ) restaurant at the base of the Casseopea lifts. It had udon, curry rice and so on for 600 yen, compared to 1000 yen or so at the Kogen Warabi restaurant next door.

Second, we liked the fact that the ski fields were not too crowded. Our friends had been to Togari years before, and they describe it as a “local” ski field. By this they mean that it is relatively unknown. Certainly it did not have the long lines for the lifts that you find at Nozawa Onsen or Hakuba. It is often the case that the cheaper the lift pass, the slower the lifts, or the less variety in the slopes. But at Togari the quad lifts in particular were fast enough, and there is plenty of variety in the slopes. The slopes were relatively uncluttered, so I didn’t feel that it was just a snowy version of Tokyo’s legendarily crowded Shinjuku crossing.

There are two main parking areas at Togari. The one to the south is at the base of the set of runs known as Pegasus, while to the north is the Orion side. Further up the mountain, the two sides are joined by the Casseopea runs. There is a total of over 11kms of runs, with more than 4kms for beginners, 5kms of intermediate level, and 2kms for advanced skiers. Intermediate level skiers have access to all parts of the mountain, unlike some resorts where you have to be an advanced skier to ski at the top of the mountain. The beginner runs are relatively easy compared to beginner runs at other places I have been skiing, while there is quite a bit of variation in the difficulty level of the intermediate runs.

The snow conditions were quite good the day we visited, especially in the morning. Because the resort is not as high as say Shiga Kogen, there is a tendency for the lower slopes to get a bit icy later in the day. But up on the Casseopia runs the snow stayed good and powdery all day.

After skiing, you can choose between Akatsuki Onsen, near Pegasus, and Nozomi Onsen, near Orion, to soothe your muscles. My “Nagano Onsen Guide: The Top 100 Day-Use Onsens” (if you are interested, you can get it on recommends Nozomi Onsen because of its superior outdoor bath view, landscaping and environment. It is right across the road from the car park at Orion.

Togari Onsen Ski Fields are located in Iiyama City, about 45km by car from downtown Nagano City. You can find a location map for Togari onsen at the English language Snow Japan site – the marker on the map is positioned at the Pegasus car park.

On the Trail of John and Yoko in Karuizawa

February 4th, 2013 by
Category: Culture Art, Information, Miscellaneous


As most Beatles fans know, John Lennon’s second wife is Yoko Ono, the Japanese singer and artist. During the late 1970s, John, Yoko and their son Sean spent several summers in Karuizawa, an upmarket hill resort town in eastern Nagano. These days, Karuizawa is just an hour or so from Tokyo by bullet train. The family stayed in the Mampei hotel, just off the main shopping street in Kyu-Karuizawa (above). There has been an accommodation establishment on this site since 1764. The main building dates from 1935. Stop by for lunch in one of the restaurants and “imagine” what it was like back in the ’70s.

John used to ride his bicycle to buy baguettes at the French Bakery (below) in the main shopping street at Kyu-Karuizawa (opposite the Information Centre). If you go in there, there is a photo on the left hand wall of John, his bicycle and a basket of baguettes. You can also get coffee, buy some pastries and sit and “watch the wheels go round and round”.

Sometimes John, Yoko and Sean would cycle over to the Shiozawa area of Karuizawa and have coffee at the Rizanbo cafe (below). To find it, head from Karuizawa station towards Nakakaruizawa station on route 18, and turn left opposite the Karuizawa Junior High School. Cross the railway line and then the bridge over the shinkansen line. Head down about another 800m and look for the cafe on a corner on the right. It is across the road from a wooden sign that says “Rantasalmi: Live in log home, Live as you wish”. The cafe is open from early April to late November. Sit out on the porch in spring and watch the birds in the trees. “A splendid time is guaranteed for all”.


Legends of Zenkouji Temple – the Devoted Raccoon Dog

December 16th, 2012 by
Category: Culture Art, Information

Zenkouji Temple in Nagano City has many legends associated with it. On the east side of the road leading to Zenkouji, just south of the Nioumon Gate and outside one of the pilgrim lodges, is a small statue and sign about a devoted raccoon dog (mujina in Japanese).

The raccoon dog story on the roadside south of Zenkouji Temple

Next to the sign is a small sculpture of the raccoon dog and the monk.

Sculpture of the devoted raccoon dog and the monk

The lantern itself is still in the grounds of Zenkouji Temple. Look for it about 20m west of the southwest corner of the main hall.

Mujina Lantern at Zenkouji Temple

There is another, longer version of this story. A raccoon dog’s parents had died tragically, so the raccoon disguised itself as a human and travelled to Zenkouji. He wanted to dedicate a lantern to comfort his parents’ souls. He checked into the pilgrim’s lodge, and organized the construction of the lantern. After it was completed, he was relaxing in the bath when the landlord discovered he was a raccoon. He ran away. A while later, a samurai came to Zenkouji. Late that night, he went to pray at the temple. Near the lantern, he saw an apparition which was following him. He drew his sword and fought the ghost, and in the battle, he accidentally struck the lantern. Next day, the samurai went back to the temple and saw a scar on the lantern, from which blood had oozed. The lantern photo above shows a diagonal mark on the square stone above the vertical writing. Maybe that is the sword mark? The samurai left town and headed north. While travelling through the deep forest in the mountains, he was buried alive by a sandstorm, and died. Why? Because three years earlier he had needlessly killed the raccoon dog’s parents while travelling over a mountain pass. (Thanks to Miyairi-san for help with the translation.)

Brave Warriors Take Nagano by Storm

December 9th, 2011 by
Category: Information

The expansion of the Japanese Professional Basketball league to include a team from Nagano Prefecture has brought a new source of entertainment and interest to the region. The purple, black and white strip of the Shinshu Brave Warriors has excited crowds at “home” games in a range of cities in the prefecture, including Chikuma, Matsumoto and Ina. Their schedule shows that in the second half of the season they will also appear in Okaya, Nagano, and Saku. Last weekend’s game at the Togura General Gymnasium  in Chikuma City (locally known as “The Cauldron”) found the Brave Warriors 20 points short of the Niigata team on Saturday night. However, on Sunday afternoon, before a packed crowd, they turned the tables and ran out winners by 3 points in a cliffhanger. After the game, US import and former Pittsburgh State star Ed Morris said of the crowd “We really appreciate you guys. Showing your support means a lot for us.” Below is a shot of Ed dropping one in from the free throw line early in Sunday’s game.

Ed Morris drops one in from the free throw line

Ed Morris drops one in from the free throw line

When the final siren sounded, the crowd erupted, and the Shinshu Brave Warriors congratulated each other with chest bumps and general jumping around:

Brave Warriors victory dance

Brave Warriors victory dance

The Brave Warriors next home games are in Okaya City on 24-25 December against Yokohama. It will surely be the beginning of their run from their current mid-table position to the top of the standings.Why not pay a visit to Nagano and join in the fun?

My Favorite Sento in Togura-Kamiyamada Onsen

December 2nd, 2011 by
Category: Onsens (Hot Springs)

Togura-Kamiyamada Onsen in the southern part of Chikuma City has seven public baths. My favorite is the sento known as Zuishou Yunohana Sento. The temperature and texture of the hot baths is just right for me, while the variety of baths, the elegant outdoor bath area, and the general ambience of the place are all positive aspects.

There are separate male and female bath areas. Usually, men enter to the left of the reception desk, while women go in to the right. However, on the 6th, 16th and 26th of each month, these are reversed for the day. Each side has a large indoor bath landscaped with a variety of big, colorful boulders. If you shade your eyes so that you cannot see the tiled upper walls and ceiling, you can imagine that you are in some hotspring deep in the mountains. Also indoors are a sauna, a jet bath with both standing and sitting positions, and a small cold water bath that is usually about 20C. Outdoors on both sides there is a large bath, gracefully landscaped with stones, and covered with a timber roof. Each side also has a shallow stone bath with a number of sitting and lying positions. Another feature is a large stone slab with water trickling across it from the head position, which is perfect for a snooze in the winter sun. Finally there are what I call “cannibal pots”; ceramic pots for a single person to submerge themselves up to their neck. On the left side there are two hot water pots and one cold water pot. The latter is awesome on a hot summer day. On the right hand side there are two hot water pots.

Both sides are nicely landscaped. Even though the sento is situated right downtown, there is a view up to Joyama. Within the outdoor area, there is a range of well kept trees and shrubs, and some bamboo grass around their base. A deciduous vine that turns yellow and red in the autumn creeps over much of the wall. In the corner is an “accessory” room where you can book a massage for the usual kind of prices.

The Front Entrance of Zuisho Yunohana Sento

The Front Entrance of Zuisho Yunohana Sento

Apart from the baths, there is also a “self-service” cafeteria with both Japanese and Western style dining areas. They dish up the usual noodles and curry rice fare, but the serves are quite a bit more generous than most similar places.

Name Zuishou (瑞祥) Yunohana Sento
Description Public baths
Address Chikuma City, Kamiyamada Onsen 2-chome 18-8 (Google Map)
TEL 026 275 4321
URL (Japanese)
Access From Togura Station on the Shinano Railway, take a taxi (10 minutes) or walk (20 minutes)
Operating dates and hours Daily 9am-1am; Weekend/holiday ‘morning bath’ hours 6am-8am. Open only from 5.30 pm on one Tuesday per month
Prices ¥650 for adults (¥500 for morning bath); ¥350 (¥250) for primary school aged children.
General information for Chikuma City Chikuma City Tourism Association and Information Centre, Kamiyamada Onsen 2-12-10; 上山田温泉2-12-10, Tel: 026 276 2241 (fax: 026 275 3678).
Wikitravel site

Climbing Mt Oobayashi

August 24th, 2011 by
Category: Outdoor Activities

At 1333 meters, Mt Oobayashi (大林山) is the highest mountain overlooking Togura-Kamiyamada onsen on the west side of the Chikuma River valley. To get to the start of the climb, take route 77 south from Togura-Kamiyamada onsen. At the Mezawa Bridge intersection, turn right on route 55. After about 1 km you will see Chishiki Temple on the right. If you have time, stop and take a look around the temple, which has an 11-faced goddess that is displayed in public only once per year.

Follow the road as it winds up the mountain. Just before the tunnel, there is a car park on the left. The track starts from here and is signposted in Japanese (look for the wooden sign that says 八頭 大林 登り口). After about 200 meters the track reaches the old route 55. Turn right and follow the road for about 100m. The track then goes off to the left, up the hill. After climbing up the hill, you reach an intersection. The track on the right goes up a short steep climb to the top of Mt Hatto (八頭), although the views from here are somewhat obscured. We saw fresh bear droppings on the track here, so be careful.

Returning to the main track, turn right and follow the path to the summit. In the spring, you will see many purple and orange mountain azaleas flowering along the path. On a clear day, from the top you can see Mt Kamuriki (1252m) to the north. To the northeast is the Nagano City plain, and to the east, the Chikuma River valley at Togura-Kamiyamada.

Looking down to Togura Kamiyamada from the summit of Mt. Oobayashi

Looking down to Togura Kamiyamada from the summit of Mt. Oobayashi

Azaleas at the top of Mt Oobayashi

Azaleas at the top of Mt Oobayashi