Togakushi is special any time of year, but this transitional period, after winter has departed and before the trees have grown their leaves in the spring, is magical. The creamy white flowers of the mizubasho plants (known in English very un-romantically as skunk cabbage) serve as a reminder of the recently melted snow, while the cacophony of ground plants are a harbinger of vernal green.
Mizubasho, aka “skunk cabbage”
My wife and I made a post-Golden Week day trip to Togakushi. We started off at Yamaguchi-ya for some soba noodles. Located near Chu-sha (Togakushi’s Middle Shrine), this restaurant’s eating area provides a spectacular view of the Togakushi Mountain Range. Today, unfortunately, the mountain was hiding behind clouds, fitting in a way since the peak has traditionally been home to hermit monks hiding in its depths. Even without the normal scenery, the noodles were still fantastic. There is just something different about noodles made with local buckwheat and Togakushi’s clear mountain water. The fresh mountain air seems to add to the experience, too.
Soba noodles at Yamaguchi-ya featuring Togakushi-grown buckwheat.
After our late lunch, we were treated to a guided tour of the Togakushi Ninpo Center, one of two ninja-related sites in Togakushi, by a real-life Togakure-ryu ninja.
Entrance to the Togakushi Ninpo Center
Technically called Togakushi Minzoku-kan (戸隠民俗館 The Museum of Togakushi Folklore) inside a recently re-thatched schoolhouse displaying traditional local tools, clothing, etc.
Lots of stories inside this old schoolhouse-turned-folklore museum.
Hemp weaving used to be Togakushi’s main enterprise. Now it’s outlawed due to its byproduct – marijuana.
as well as Togakure-ryu Ninpo Shiryo-kan (戸隠流忍法資料館 The Museum of Togakure School of Ninpo [Ninja Arts]), a ninja museum, ninja fun house, and shuriken throwing range. As is common in Togakushi, not everything is what it seems. Several of the tools displayed as artifacts in the folklore museum can be used as weapons by ninja. Conversely, the items displayed in the ninja museum used for making poisons would also have been used by the hermit monks to make medicines. When you go, take the time to look at each object and imagine what its uses were.
Farm tool that can double as a weapon — popular among the Togakure-ryu ninjas
Even the ‘kunoichi’ (female ninjas) had tricks up their sleeves, or, hidden in their brooms.
By the way, the ninja fun house and athletic activities are enjoyable even for adults — my wife and I can attest to that.
Wind your way through the mazes and trap doors of the fun house to this crazy room.
No trip to Togakushi would be complete without visiting Oku-sha, Togakushi’s Inner Shrine. The trail to the shrine is lined partway through by ancient cedar trees. This time, we skipped that landmark, and rambled the boardwalks through the forest preserve (戸隠森林植物園 Togakushi Shinrin Shokubutsuen).
Boardwalk over the mizubasho marsh
The previously mentioned mizubasho flowers were in full bloom, but the majority of visitors were there for something else — bird watching. Before the trees grow their leaves is when the forest’s birds are the most visible. Our guide wasn’t looking up at the trees, though, but at the various plants sprouting up through the marsh down below. He showed how similarly-looking plants could have drastically different effects if eaten.
On the left: Alpine leek (Allium victorialis）. The Japanese name is Gyouja-ninniku 行者にんにく, which loosely translates ‘hermit garlic’, as the mountain hermits used to eat the shoots as an energy snack. On the right: V.album var.grandiflorum (geranium molle?), in Japanese Baikeisou 梅恵草, which is poisonous. Their shoots look almost identical.
At the top: Anemone flaccida (wind flower, nirinso 二輪草), which is edible and puts out pretty little white flowers.
The serrated-leaf plant at the bottom: monkshood (Aconitum, “torikabuto” トリカブト), which is, err, not edible.
And he explained that the English name for mizubasho makes sense — the flowers have a skunk-like disagreeable aroma. Apparently bears do eat the flowers to regulate their stomachs after coming out of hibernation, but otherwise they are not attractive for eating. Fortunately that leaves lots of beautiful flowers to enjoy viewing.
Everything in Togakushi seems to have a mysterious story behind it. Come discover for yourself! (It’s a convenient 1 hour bus up from Nagano Station, with 12 runs a day during the green season.)