Escape up to Utsukushigahara

July 1st, 2018 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

 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 Open Air Museum


Utsukushigahara can be reached from Matsumoto by bus, but the windy ascent and scenic Venus Line highway are paradise for drivers.

Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada’s Newest English Map and How To Videos

March 18th, 2018 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Sightseeing

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,

Video 1: How to Enjoy an Onsen Town 

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!

Video 2: How to Enjoy Local Food

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.

Video 3: How to Stay at a Ryokan

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.

Video 4: How to Bathe in an Onsen 

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.

Zenkoji’s Lantern Festival — Part of Nagano’s Olympic Heritage

February 13th, 2018 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

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:

New Years Bonfire Tradition: Suzaka’s “Dondo-Yaki”

December 29th, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Events, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

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.

Meet Japan’s Emperors (and General MacArthur)

November 4th, 2017 by
Category: Culture Art, Information, Sightseeing

Curious about Japanese emperors? The Japan History Museum on the hill behind our Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada has a permanent display of portraits of all the emperors and empresses dating back to mythological times.
The museum will be open until the end of November and the again in the spring. Entrance is 500 yen.
The museum’s temporary display features the history of Daihongan, one of the two Buddhist sects that manage Zenkoji Temple. Kanon-ji, he temple neighboring the museum, is a branch of Zenkoji under the Daihongan sect

 

Happy Harvest Moon, From Nagano’s Top-2 Moon-Viewing Spots

October 6th, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

The Harvest Moon is spectacular to see from anywhere in the world, but Nagano Prefecture has 2 locations that are particularly famous for viewing the moon:  Matsumoto Castle and the Obasute terraced rice fields in Chikuma City.

Matsumoto Castle has a ‘tsukimi-yagura’ (moon-viewing tower), from where you can see the moons three-fold:  one in the sky, one reflected in the moat, and one reflected in … well, any guesses where?

 

(Picture courtesy of Keener-san)

 

At the Obasute rice fields, the number of moons you can see doesn’t stop at 3.  The terraces are known as “Tagoto-no-Tsuki” meaning the moon reflects in the individual rice fields.  I think you need some of the local sake in order to see that properly.  (Oh, there’s a hint for the answer to my question!)

亀清旅館さんの写真 亀清旅館さんの写真 亀清旅館さんの写真

Nagano’s Apple Season Has Officially Started

September 30th, 2017 by
Category: Events, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Apple season has officially started here in Nagano Prefecture.  Deep-red ‘akibae’ and shiny-yellow ‘Shinano gold’, tangy ‘Shinano sweet’ and tangy classics like ‘kogyoku’, these early-season varieties will continue through October before transitioning to fuji’s in November.

Tobita-san from Crown Farm dropped off some first-pick apples for us.  His orchard is only 5 minutes by car (15 minutes by bicycle) from Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada. They offer all-you-can-eat picking, as well as tasting.


Nothing beats the sweetness of a freshly-picked Nagano apple.

Typhoon Talim Passed, Now Back to Autumn: Cosmos Flowers in Saku

September 18th, 2017 by
Category: Events, Seasonal Topics

Nagano’s mountains kept us mostly safe from Typhoon Talim — now it’s back to enjoying Autumn.

Cosmos (the flower) Festival in Saku City on the eastern edge of Nagano.
Route 254 is lined with cosmos flowers for several kilometers.
The festival runs through 20-September and features music, fresh-picked grapes, yummy crepes and … colorful cosmos blossoms.
By the way, the ‘kanji’ for cosmos is 秋桜, “Autumn Sakura (cherry blossoms)”.

Cosmos Flowers Lining the Cosmos Highway (Route 254)

Leisurely, Luxurious Train Ride: Rokumon

August 3rd, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Sightseeing

From Nagano City to Karuizawa, the resort town on the eastern edge of the prefecture, it is a blazingly fast 30 minutes by Shinkansen bullet train.

Red carpet treatment to board Rokumon at Karuizawa Station

Or, as a luxurious alternative, you could take Shinano Railway’s special Rokumon train and enjoy a leisurely 2 hour 20 minute ride through Nagano’s scenic countryside.

Classy interior

For those that care to indulge, you can partake in a gourmet meal along the way:  French featuring cheese from Tomi City’s esteemed Atelier de Fromage, on the run from Karuizawa to Nagano, or kaiseki-style Japanese from Obuse’s famous restaurant Suzuhana on the return.

I had the opportunity to ride from Karuizawa to Nagano.  The warm wood interior furnishings of the train and the friendly smiles of the attendants combined with the carefully prepared dishes featuring an abundance of local ingredients would have made the trip a perfect 10 for me.

Friendly Staff

However, what made riding Rokumon extra special was the enthusiastic hospitality we received along the way, from local preschoolers to the Station Master at Ueda.

Rokumon — the perfect unhurried way to enjoy Nagano’s countryside.

 

Summer in Nagano: SUP on a Mountain Lake

July 20th, 2017 by
Category: Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities

Iiyama’s heart-shaped Hokuryu Lake is hidden in a valley on mystical Kosuge Mountain.  Not fed by any rivers or streams, the pristine lake is filled only with snow melt run-off and natural springs.

Romantic heart-shaped Hokuryu Lake

Recently my daughter and I had the opportunity to appreciate the lake doing SUP.

Stand-Up Paddling, a combination of surfboarding and canoeing, is a relatively new sport but it is gaining in popularity and is scheduled to make it’s Olympic debut at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.  Despite it being our first time, thanks to some skillful coaching by Powerdrive R117‘s charismatic owner, Gyaruman, we got the hang of SUP surprisingly quickly.  Soon we were skimming across Hokuryu Lake and enjoying the mountain scenery.  As we got more comfortable with the paddling, we tried a few rounds of SUP Sumo.  Losing was actually rewarding as it meant falling into the lake for a refreshingly cool splash.

Nagano is blessed with many scenic mountain lakes, and SUP is a perfect way to appreciate their natural beauty.  Friendly outfitters make it easy to enjoy even for beginners.  Besides Gyaruman and Powerdrive R117 at Hokuryu Lake in Iiyama, other popular alternatives include Evergreen Outdoor Center / Hakuba’s Lake Aoki and Sunday Planning / Nojiri Lake in northern Nagano.

Polynesian demigod? No, charming Gyaruman the SUP pro.