Two recent guests from España made good use of Shinano Railway’s new Banzai Pass which provides 2 days of travel all the way from Karuizawa to Myoko Kogen. They spent 2 nights here at Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada and used the pass for a day trip to Karuizawa yesterday and are using it today to go to Nagano for a side trip to see the snow monkeys.
The pass is 2000 yen and can be purchased by people with a foreign passport. Skiiers staying at Akakura / Myoko Kogen could use the pass for a day trip to Zenkoji Temple (Nagano Station) and/or our Onsen Town (Togura Station).
Banzai Pass details: http://banzai-pass.com/
Deep in the foothills of the Southern Japanese Alps, you’ll find the tiny hamlet of around 100 souls called Shimoguri no Sato. Or maybe you won’t, as Shimoguri is considered a ‘hidden village’. Perched precariously on a steep hill, the area is also known as the “Tyrol of Japan”, although “Japan’s Machu Picchu” may be more applicable. Not short of nicknames, Shimoguri is also thought to be a ‘tenku’ (天空) for the way it seemingly floats above the clouds.
Due to its harsh geography with its hillside location averaging a steep 38 degree slope ranging from 800 to 1100 meters above sea level, practically the only thing that can be grown is potato. And the elderly farmers, mostly by hand, produce a variety called shimoguri, named after their land.
Many moons ago, I helped with the text for Nagano Prefecture’s official “Go-Nagano” website. I tried to do as much research as possible for each entry including physically visiting many of the sites. Due to its remote location, I never made it to Shimoguri. But I have been enchanted by it’s storybook-like setting ever since writing the Shimoguri entry.
However, I recently finally got the chance to visit. A colleague of mine had spent time there on many occasions including for the mystical Shimotsuki Festival. 10 shrines in the Toyama District hold the ceremony every December, including Shimoguri’s Gojusha Daimyoujin Shrine where it takes place annually on December 13th. The highlight of the festival is a ritual where water is splashed from a boiling cauldron with a bare hand. I was to find out that the festival, a nationally designated Important Intangible Cultural Property, is much more complex than just that ritual.
After what seemed like an endless drive into the deep unknown, we finally arrived at Shimoguri around 10pm. After tea at the house of an acquaintance of my colleague, we headed up to the shrine reaching there just past 11pm to find the evening’s events just getting underway. We passed through the brand new stone torii gate and slid open the door to the main hall and ducked in.
A bonfire was burning in the center, heating two cauldrons of water. Visitors give a little donation and then stand along the edge of the crowded hall craning to get a look through the smoke at the various dances and proceedings centered on the fire.
The main theme of the Shimotsuki Festival is gods come from all across to Japan to have a bath, hence the afore-mentioned splashing of the boiling water. If that sounds familiar, you may have seen “Spirited Away”. The animator, Hayao Miyazaki, got his inspiration from Shimoguri’s festival.
One after another, different gods and characters dance around the fire in a hypnotic rhythm, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs, often in groups of 8.
When we first arrived, 8 people slowly circled around the fire with a ‘sensu’ fan in one hand and ‘suzu’ bell in the other other.
Then they switched to a katana sword and continued their mesmerizing movements.
Various gods represented by people wearing unique masks then took their turns.
Some interacted with the people watching, such as the ‘mother’ god carrying a ‘baby’ that some tried to touch for good fortune.
A couple red foxes performed an intricate dance.
At one point, a real 3-year old child battled a dragon.
Punctuating the festivities were some younger participants whose dance grew wilder, culminating in what can only be described as stage diving but without the stage.
At intervals, the bonfire was built up and the flute and taiko music reached a crescendo
for the men wearing tengu masks
to perform the ritual of splashing the boiling water with their bare hands.
I took a direct hit a couple of times and the water was painfully hot — I can’t imagine the courage it took to stick their hands in the scalding hot water.
We wound up leaving around 3:30 in the morning with still a few more gods to come. The locals apparently end things with a banquet at 4am. Their stamina is incredible! And it all the more amazing considering one other nickname for Shimoguri — ‘genkai shuraku’, literally, a hamlet faced with extinction. Currently there are only 6 school-aged children in Shimoguri and in all likelihood they will move away for high school and not come back.
In some ways, Shimoguri and its Shimotsuki Festival have a primordial, almost timeless feel. But time is not working in Shimoguri’s favor. The village and its festival need to be treasured now.
Arato-jo is a mountaintop fortress overlooking the Chikuma River Valley and present-day Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada. The rice fields down in the valley are in their golden glory, just a couple of weeks away from harvest. Just one of the beautiful scenes awaiting you if you visit Nagano in the fall.
Info on Arato-jo Fortress: http://www.onsentown.net/interests/arato-jo-castle The castle is a 30-minute walk uphill from the onsen town. The trailhead is reachable by bus from Togura Station on the Shinano Railway line.
Cities and towns throughout Nagano put on fireworks displays in summer. It’s a great excuse to wear a colorful yukata (summer kimono) and enjoy the relatively cool evening ambience. The grand-daddy is the Lake Suwa Hanabi festival, held every year on 15-August. It boasts over 40,000 fireworks reflecting in the lake surface. Then in early September, a separate display featuring a competition of Hanabi-shi (professional pyrotechnics) takes place. For details, see the official website.
Below is a picture of this year’s Chikuma River Fireworks Festival at Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada. It’s about the 1/4th the size of Lake Suwa’s, but is an area favorite because the viewing are is so close to the action and the sound reverbrates off the surrounding hillsides, making for a very dynamic display. The grand-finale includes a cascading ‘Niagara’ of fireworks along the upriver bridge (to the right in the picture). It is held every year on the 7th of August. (Photo is actually by my son, Andy, taken from the Kannon-ji Temple on the castle hill behind town.)
One of my favorite ways to escape the heat in the summer is to go waterfall hunting. My latest target was Naena Falls in Shinanomachi Town. The waterfall is actually on the border of Nagano and Niigata Prefectures. We visited during a stay at Lake Nojiri. From the lake and/or Kurohime Station, it is a 10 minute drive (or you can rent bicycles at the station), then a short (approx. 1km) walk. The trail starts out at a rather garish concrete weir, but soon ascends to a lush forest path (sturdy shoes recommended) before arriving at a suspension bridge crossing the river in front of the falls.
The name, ‘Naena’, apparently derived from the word for earthquake, referring to the sound of the waterfalls echoing off the surrounding mountainside.
Naena Falls is listed as one of Japan’s Top 100 Waterfalls, and makes a refreshing break from the summer heat.
The 2000-meter Utsukushi ga Hara plateau makes for a beautiful (that’s what ‘Utsukushii’ means — ‘beautiful’) high-altitude escape. The wide open fields are home to a heard of cows and in late June are punctuated with wild azaleas.
The 360-degree panorama vista looks out to the Yatsugatake Range to the south, the Hotaka Range of the Northern Alps to the west, the Hakuba peaks to the north, and Mt. Asama to the east.
Our recent visit was too brief to be able to enjoy the Open Air Museum’s inspirational artwork, nor the trek to the stone bell tower. But we’ll be back.
Utsukushigahara can be reached from Matsumoto by bus, but the windy ascent and scenic Venus Line highway are paradise for drivers.
Nagano’s Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada now has its 3rd generation Walking Map & Restaurant Guide as well as 4 PR videos.
The new Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada “How To” video series,
Showcasing several of Togura-Kamiymada’s unique shops as well as a feature on Zukudashi Eco Tours. Come wear a yukata robe, slip on the wooden geta slippers, and explore our onsen town!
Shows how to order (and eat) at some quintessential types of Japanese restaurants, like soba noodles, yakitori, izakaya and even ‘horumon’ (not for the faint of heart). Plus a local Nagano favorite, oyaki dumplings and the video has a feature on Togura-Kamiyamada’s legendary Kohaku including an interview with Susa-san about our area’s signature ‘oshibori udon’ noodles.
Curious about staying at a traditional ryokan while visiting Japan, but not sure what to do during your stay? From the kaiseki-style dinner, soaking in the onsen bath, and your futon spread out on the straw tatami mat, this video explains how to make the most of your ryokan experience. It also shows many of the great inns here in Togura-Kamiyamada. Don’t miss the seeing one of our town’s geisha, Takeshi, showing the proper way to wear a yukata robe.
When in Japan, one of the can’t miss experiences is taking an onsen bath. But the process can be a bit intimidating. (Yes — as local onsen expert Tonegawa-san explains in the video, you have to be naked.) Learn these simple tips of onsen etiquette and bath like a native. The video also explains the unique characteristics of Togura-Kamiymada’s hot spring mineral water (beware bathing with silver jewelry!), featuring a special interview with Goro-san, president of the Kamiyamada Onsen Company.
Last night, we went to Nagano City’s venerable Zenkoji Temple for the last night of the 15th annual Toumyou Matsuri (Lantern Festival). It is in commemoration of the 1998 Winter Olympics. The visual artistry was a heart-warming display, which was dearly welcomed with the sub-freezing temperatures! I’ll let the pictures do the talking:
After New Years, neighborhoods traditionally gathered the spent bamboo, dharma dolls and other decorations, piled them up and held a bonfire for an event called “Dondo-Yaki”. While this tradition is becoming less common in urban areas, many communities in Nagano continue to put on “Dondo-Yaki”, usually around the holiday weekend at the beginning of January.
Suzaka Town’s “Dondo-Yaki” for 2018 will take place on Monday 08-Jan (“Coming of Age Day” national holiday) on the grounds of Suzaka Elementary School. The bonfire will be lit at 5pm. Participation is free.
It is said that if you eat mochi (sticky rice) roasted over the “Dondo-Yaki” bonfire, you will have good health for the year. Many participants bring their own mochi rolled up in colorful balls and stuck to a branch for roasting over the coals.
Suzaka’s Guesthouse KURA can provide more details. On Sunday, they will make mochi and prepare to roast it at the bonfire, so guests can enjoy a full “Dondo-Yaki” weekend.