The Snow Monkeys!

January 20th, 2011 by
Category: Events, Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Report, Sightseeing

You know something has reached the big time when they add a THE to the front of it; THE BEATLES, THE BODY SHOP, THE DAISO (OK, so maybe this¥100 shop is not THAT famous but anyway…) .

And (unbelievably after having been coming to Nagano for as long as I have and never once visited), the other day I finally got a chance to pay a trip to see THE Snow Monkeys!!!

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After hiking up though a snowbound cedar forest, the first bit of wildlife we saw was not a monkey after all but a Kamoshika (Japanese Serow) struggling uphill through thick powder. But a steady trail of Macaque poop told us we were on the right trail and after 30 minutes or so, we arrived at the valley directly beneath the monkey park where a bridge crosses over the river to the best (and only!) Soba noodles in the area. We climbed the final flight of stairs to the ticket gate and proceeded on to the main monkey bathing area.2-start-gate

The park itself is a curious cross between a national park, safari park and disneyland – without the trimmings. Don’t expect fancy explanations or commentary; facilities are simple, but the monkeys are very, very cute and you can get right up close to take all the pictures you want. In the main bath were around 25 of the little furry fellas,  posing for the tourists’ portraits, crapping, scrapping and wallowing in the hot spring. Apparently, there are 160+ of them altogether in the troop – they spend the night in the surrounding forest and head down to the Onsen during the day. Anyway, if you’re in the Nagano area this winter they are definitely worth a trip which can be combined with a trip to one of the amazing Onsens nearby at Yudanaka or Shibu where you can get great food, check out a traditional Onsen Town and of course relax in a hot bath WITHOUT any monkeys :)

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Like ’em or love ’em, The Snow Monkeys are a firm favourite on the Nagano Must-See list. See here for Access info.

Matsushiro Day Trip

December 7th, 2010 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Report, Sightseeing

   Matsushiro is one of Nagano’s hidden gems, located in the south part of Nagano city conveniently close to the Interchange. This historic castle town has a wealth of cultural and historical assets ranging from vintage samurai residences to WWII tunnels. The area is also famous for its beautiful blue folk ceramics, known as Matsushiro-yaki.

   This castle town ‘built from 100,000 stones,’ was the domain of the Sanada family, a samurai clan which ruled for 250 years from 1622 until just after the collapse of the Tokguawa Bakufu in 1868. We visited last Saturday, and lucked out with the weather but not with the rentacycles – apparently they go into hibernation from December.

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   First we visited the museum where many of the Sanada family treasures are on public view, including samurai armour, swords and calligraphy. Then we visited the Samurai residence, built for his mother by the 9th generation lord. The tatami rooms and sliding doors still carry the vestiges of a bygone era and it wasn’t hard to imagine Lord Sanada taking his tea looking out over the carefully landscaped garden.

   Next we stopped off at the Bunbu Gakko, a set of original classrooms dating back to 1855 where martial arts skills as well as brains were once honed at the school. Lessons on the curriculum included Kendo and Jujutsu, as well as Chinese studies and Dutch (the official language for communicating with aliens at the time!). The halls are still used today for Kendo and Kyudo tournaments.

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   Last stop before lunch was the WWII tunnels, an impressive network of about 13,100 meters of underground tunnel which was blasted out of the rock towards the end of the war by conscripted Korean laborers. The Bushido ethic of the time made it impossible for some sections of the Imperial Japanese Army to contemplate surrender, and the Underground Headquarters were part of a desperate plan to evacuate key institutions, including the imperial family, government, and military HQ, in the face of the imminent American invasion.

 

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   Next stop was a local lunch of nagaimo, a Matsushiro specialty which turned out to be a type of yam, mashed into paste. Matsushiro is a major nagaimo growing area, as the sandy soil along the Chikuma River is perfect for growing them. Then we headed on to the day’s main attraction…a Kimono experience! The Ecole de Matsushiro Club offers lessons in a range of Japanese traditional arts such as tea ceremony, flower arrangement and traditional musical instruments and we had timed it just right for a Kimono workshop complete with Origami lesson!

 

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Finally, it was time for the last stop of the day, at Matsushiro Onsen, a luxury hot spring resort which used natural spa waters to heat the bath. The high iron and salt content turns the water a muddy-brown colour and makes for a memorable Onsen experience.

from Hong Kong…to Kamikochi!

October 20th, 2010 by
Category: Events, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities, Report, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Although the Ozzies bagged the No.2 spot for inbound overnight stays in Nagano Prefecture last year (thanks to the colony of snow bums camped out in Hakuba:)  the vast majority of overseas visitors are still from East Asia. Taiwan claimed top spot – AGAIN! – in 2009 and Hong Kong came in No.3., so I was glad of the chance to join a recent tour of some of Hong Kong’s top journalists to visit Kamikochi and get an Asian perspective on the Nagano inbound scene.

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Kamikochi was looking at its most picturesque, with the mountains reflected in the still pondwater of Taisho-ike. Also, we were able to enjoy a Guided tour, with colourful explanations of the plantlife and local legends (do YOU know where the secret tennis court is?!?)

After a loop hike to Myojin, and a meeting with the wild monkeys, we stopped for Lunch by Kappa Bridge then headed on back down to Taisho where the sun was dropping down behind the volcano.

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Takayama-Kamikochi

October 12th, 2010 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Experience, Outdoor Activities, Report, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

   The Autumn is a great time to travel around Japan, coz there is a brief window of opportunity when it’s not too hot and not too cold AND plus you get to check out the falling leaves into the bargain. Unfortunately, although that was the theory behind last weekend’s trip to Takayama, the reality was a little different…

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First off the rain came down cats and dogs,  forcing visitors off the streets into the coffee shops and Hida-gyu restaurants of Takayama. No problem there, since there are street upon street of hidden gems to choose from. Next, though, when the sun did come out on Sunday it seemed like the rest of the  world and his dog had the same idea as us, maybe because the festival (always held on the 9th and 10th) had by chance fallen on a 3 day weekend this year!!! Anyway, the event lived up to its billing as one of the Big 3 Float Festivals in Japan (be warned! there is also a Big 3 of Illumination Festivals/Ice Festivals/Floating Ice Festivals…).

As well as the festival itself, we also had a great time picking our way through the morning market and checking out the old town. There were loads of international tourists from all around the world, and plenty of locals as well.pa100426 Maybe it has something to do with their Kansai nature, but the locals aren’t shy in the slightest but are ready to mix it up with the inbounds, and as much as bartering for local goods the market is just a great place to swap stories and photos.       Note: Takayama is on the West and Matsumoto the East side of the Japan Alps, with the mountains making up the border between Kansai/ Kanto in olden days Japan. Nope, I didn’t know that either until I visited :)

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On the way back from the Takayama festival, we stopped off at Kamikochi, in time to catch the best weather of the 3 day holiday and see the golden Autum colours. If you haven’t seen the falling leaves of the Alpen forest it’s well worth a visit but best be quick about it as Kamikochi closes for the winter from early November. (The easiest way to do the Takayama-Kamikochi route by public transport is the Alpico 4 Day bus pass (Alps Wide Shinshu/Hida Free Passport) which costs  Y10,000 and gives unlimited travel between Matsumoto,  Kamikochi, Takayama and the Hida area).

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The 4-day Alps pass is available at the following 4 locations: *Matsumoto Bus Terminal, *Shin-Shimashima Station (the gateway to Kamikochi), *Takayama Bus Center, *Gero Bus Center.

Kamikochi by Taxi

October 4th, 2010 by
Category: Events, Information, Miscellaneous, Outdoor Activities, Report, Sightseeing

Last Saturday, there was a Kamikochi Monitor Tour run by Chuo Taxi. The tour was designed to meet the needs of inbound tourists who want to see several of Nagano’s top destinations in a short space of time, such as one weekend or a few days.

sany0613First up was a 9AM pick-up  at Nagano Station for an Ozzy from Tokyo with her Mum. Next, the taxi picked up a German guy from Tyler’s Onsen, and the team was on its way!

En route, they stopped off at Azusagawa Service Area before arriving at Kamikochi in time for lunch. Fortunate enough to enjoy bright sunshine and warm weather, the team was treated to great views of the Hodaka mountain range and Yakedake, the only active volcano in the Japan Alps.

After lunch at Nishitoya, everyone walked downstream to Taisho-ike Pond. This short hike along the Azusa river is a great favourite among Kamikochi visitors because it takes in a variety of natural attractions such as Tashiro marsh and Tashiro-ike Pond, and cultural ones such as the Weston Plaque and Yamanokami shrine.

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After having a good luck around the National Park, everyone piled back on the bus to the next stop, which was the Fuketsu Wind Cave further down the valley on the way back towards Matsumoto. This natural cellar is used to store local Nihonshu, the Japanese sake for which Nagano is famous. It makes use of a unique set of geographical feature which keeps the temperature at a steady 5-6ºC even during the height of summer, and was once used by Nagano’s extensive sericulture industry.

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Many thanks to all the organizers and participants that helped make this tour such a success. Watch this space for details of upcoming tours and events :)

Kamikochi/Norikura 2 Day Free Pass

September 29th, 2010 by
Category: Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Report, Seasonal Topics

 The Kamikochi/Norikura 2 Day Free Pass, launched by ALPICO earlier this year, is a great way of getting around the Japan Alps National Park. Not only does it save you the hassle of researching and buying a load of one-way tickets to get you up to the mountains and back again, but also you can make considerable savings IF you use the pass to the max. So that is what we did!

p9260312On the first day, we caught a direct bus up to Kamikochi from Matsumoto; there are a couple of these every day, and it cuts down on the journey time becuase you don’t have to change at Shinshimashima. Down on the plains, Matsumoto was a warm sunny memory as we arrived at the Kamikochi Bus Terminal and the temperature plunged! Although the sun was shining by the time we arrived at Myojin, the clouds had closed in again as we returned to Kappa Bridge. It was going to be a long night, with the mercury dropping to Zero for the first time in the year – just the night to camp out in summer tents and sleeping bags!! Luckily we got a good camp fire going and spent the night sharing wine, cheese and body heat :)

 

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The next day we were glad to get up and moving, catching the 8AM bus to Norikura. A couple of hours – and 2 nifty bus changes later – we arrived at the 3000m on top of the Alps. Getting off at Tatamidaira, there were panoramic views of Matsumoto on the Nagano side and Takayama on the Gifu side. No sign of the autumn leaves yet but still stunning scenery in every direction. The only area we couldn’t see too clearly was the Yari-Hodaka range to the North, as it was hidden by a persistent cloud bank, but the smoke rising from Yakedake was clearly visible.

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Leaving our bags at the bus terminal we climbed up to the peak, passing some serious looking mountaineers and a couple in high heels! The Kami-sama was watching over the shrine at the top, nibbling away on a rice offering as he did so.

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On the way down we hit up a great Onsen in Norikura Kogen. There was still no sign of Yari, although we did find a likely replacement. Maybe Yari will have to wait until next year…p9260368

Kamikochi Monitor Tour

September 8th, 2010 by
Category: Accomodations, Events, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities, Report, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

On the weekend of September 4th-5th, a group of Nagano-based ALTs headed up to Kamikochi to check out the sights, access and facilities. Matsumoto City started the Kamikochi Inbound Project this April to meet the needs of growing numbers of international visitors to Kamikochi and the Japan Alps national park. This time round, 14 English speakers had signed up to a 1 night 2 day trip to the mountains which was sponsored by Alpico and the Kamikochi Tourist Association.

 

p9040060p9040067Day 1 – After an early start, everyone met at Matsumoto station to check out the access to the mountains. Amazingly, everybody made it ON TIME for the 8AM start, but the Tourist Information Office was still closed so the ALTs would have to work to find the answers to the Quiz questions which checked out a range of information such as cost of a round-ticket to Kamikochi and number of direct buses per day. Maybe the JETs were still a little sleepy (or hadn’t monitored the Starbucks coffee hard enough to full wake up yet:), but almost half of the Quiz questions were WRONG!!! Still, most people agreed that between the JR Green Window and Tourist Info. Office (when it’s open) there would be plenty of helping hands to point new arrivals in the direction of the Japan Alps. Also, the 2 Day Pass made it easy to get up – and down – without worrying about extra transport expenses.

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After changing from the mountain railway to a bus at Shinshimashima, we continued on up the 158 highway which follows the the Azusa River up the valley to Kamikochi. The blue skies were reflected back in the water of the 3 huge dams we passed before a series of long tunnels finally lead us into the Kamikochi basin itself.  On arriving at Kamikochi, we checked out the Information Centre and Bus Terminal before setting off on a Guided Tour of the Kamikochi basin downstream to Taisho-ike Pond. The local Guide, a member of the Nature Guide Association, explained about Kamikochi’s nature and culture in English and en route, we walked through shady forests, past marshland and along wooden boardwalks. Our guide explained the Kesho Yanagi Willow trees and handed round a pair of binoculars so we could see the smoke rising from the top of Mt. Yakedake – the only active volcano in the Northern Alps.  On the return trip we also met a pair of local Macaque monkeys who were entertaining tourists doing flips from tree to tree!

That night we stayed at some of the  most luxurious hotels found anywhere in Japan, with the 14 volunteers spread out across 7 of the accommodation facilities. All stood up to the test of English Check-In, and more than held their own for comfort and hospitality. Even the weather was doing its best to promote Kamikochi, with amazing starlight skies and the Milky Way seeming to shine down directly on Kappa Bridge.

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Day 2

The next day dawned fine again and after breakfast we crossed the Kappa Bridge again before testing the water of the Shimizu River…a chilly 6 degrees centigrade! Next up was the Visitor Centre which had some amazing photos of the mountain ridges and peaks of the backcountry beyond. Then we set off for Myojin, following the Azusa upstream for an hour through the forest before emerging at Myojin where the smell of freshly fried fish was rising from the Kamonjigoya, 130 years old and home to Kamonji, the first hunter known to have lived at Kamikochi. We also saw the sacred shrine and pond, and – for extra good luck – a large grass snake whose sun bathing was rudely interrupted by 14 pairs of foreign hooves.

All too soon, we had to had head back downstream to the Kappa Bridge, by now buzzing with tourists; we finished the final group discussion and had some lunch before people went their own seperate ways, tired out but refreshed by the Alpen experience and a great weekend in the mountains.

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Experience Matsumoto Castle!

July 9th, 2010 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Experience, Information, Miscellaneous, Report, Sightseeing

The other day I got the chance to play Last Samurai at Matsumoto Castle, one of the best preserved castles in Japan. The event was a photoshoot as PR for the 29th annual Matsumoto Castle Takigi Noh, an Outdoor Noh Performance by Kazufusa Hosho. Despite weighing in at around 25kg, the armour (or Kachu as it is known in Japanese) was surprisingly flexible, although it was also stiflingly hot even with the Aircon on – one luxury the Samurai didn’t have.

Unfortunately, trying on the Kachu was a one-off event to celebrate the Noh, but we are working on adding a Kachu experience to Nagano’s Menu of unique experiences. In the meantime, visitors to Matsumoto Castle can take a free guided tour (details here).

 The Noh is a special outdoor performance given right in the inner garden of Matsumoto Castle, starting in the early evening and continuing by lantern light after the sun sets. The venue is Honmaru Park in the Castle grounds on August 8th; there will be free admission from 3PM and the Noh starts from 5PM.  Samurai armour is not supplied but you are welcome to BYO J

Kamikochi Rain Monkeys!!

June 28th, 2010 by
Category: Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

 Everybody knows about Nagano’s Snow Monkeys. They’ve been on the TV… they’ve been in the New York Times… they’re even rumoured to have had a paw in the concept design for Bathing Ape T-shirts (But that is JUST a rumor, so don’t sue this website:)

 But less widely-known among foreign visitors is that top Nagano-destination Kamikochi also has its fair share of wild Macaque monkeys. There are said to be 2 troops that live in Kamikochi along the banks of the Azusa River in the Japan Alps National Park. The Myojin troop alone has a population of about 70 monkeys, and we must have met most of them on a recent trip because the Myojin-bashi Bridge area was swarming with the little beasts who seemed untroubled by the pelting rain.

 

There were so many of them that I was sure the numbers must be on the increase, but one of the Visitor Centre Staff told me that this was not the case; according to their research, the populations have remained stable over the past few years. The same cannot be said for their range of movement; last Sunday morning they could be seen frolicking on the banks of the river, crossing the bridge and swinging on its metal support wires.

 

Unlike Jigokudani, where the Snow Monkeys live, the only time you are likely to see the Kamikochi monkeys actually IN the water is in March, as the first signs of Spring appear. Although the air temperature is still brutally cold, (it drops down to minus 25 degrees centigrade in the Winter) the river water is a few degrees warmer, although nothing like as cosy as at Yudanaka Onsen.

 

 

And even in the darkest depths of winter, the Azusa river is still home to Iwana. Although it is hotly disputed if the monkeys actually eat these fish, they may well gain nutrition from insects living on and around the river, as well as solace from this lifeline for local wildlife. More usually, the Kamikochi monkeys live off a diet of plant shoots and roots, topped up with dwarf bamboo sprouts and tree bark in the Winter, when they lie low over long periods, sticking close to their food source and sheltering from fierce snowstorms.

 

We visited in late June, towards the end of the breeding season, and saw lots of little baby monkeys piggybacking  a free ride across the bridge. When the summer comes around the monkeys are on the move again, clambering up the steep sides of the Hodaka Range to reach the Alpine meadows and peaks above.

Japanese Matterhorn

June 14th, 2010 by
Category: Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities, Report, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing
Yari June 2010

Yari June 2010

Although Mt Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan, and Tanigawadake the most dangerous (in terms of numbers of dead climbers), Mt Yari is possibly the best-loved among the climbing community due to its distinctive shape and enviable location at the heart of the Japan Alps.
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