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.

Japan Alps Art Festival 2017 to End 30-July; Omachi’s Rich Culture and Beautiful Alpine Scenery Endless.

June 27th, 2017 by
Category: Information

The Japan Alps Art Festival 2017 is taking place in Omachi City until 30-July.  Produced by Furamu Kitagawa (creator of the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale), Omachi’s festival is also planned to take place once every 3 years.  For its inaugural exhibition, the Festival sure managed to attract some world class artists for some absolutely stunning art installations.  Some pieces will likely remain permanently, but you’ll have to come before 30-July to see all the artwork.

What makes Omachi’s art festival so unique is the way the artists incorporated local material and cultural heritage into the make-up and thematic design of the art.  While enjoying the visual and emotional beauty of the art installations, visitors get new perspectives and appreciation of Omachi’s Alpine beauty as well as it’s rich culture.

I was invited to take place in a Go-Nagano bloggers tour of the art festival, and would like to share some pictures and thoughts on Omachi.

Among the various festival locations spread out throughout the city, our first stop was Takagari Mountain.  Located to the east of the city’s center, the 1164-meter tall mountain features a lookout point at the top featuring a panoramic view of the Northern Japanese Alps across the valley.  Taking advantage of this trademark mountain vista is arguably the most noteworthy artwork of the festival, Mé.  This is a typical old-fashioned farmhouse with white plaster walls and ebony posts and beams, where the walls have morphed into elliptical shapes engulfing the wooden frame in such a way as to draw your eyes to the beauty of the Alps in the distance.  I really hope this is one of the artworks that will continue to exist after the festival ends, as it is a visual treat, especially the way it pays homage to Omachi’s Alpine vistas.

Nearby Mé is “Windy” by Taiwanese artist Kuei-Chih Lee.  Taiwan and Japan share a proneness to typhoons, and the artist used materials found in the forest to make this typhoon-like swirl.  Majestic ferns were left in place and the existing trees used to support the structure.  See if you can resist the temptation to run around the verdant vortex!

Besides being the site of these Art Festival installations, Takagari Mountain is also a Lover’s Sanctuary, with the Northern Alps as a romantic backdrop.

After Takagari Mountain, we descended down to the Yasaka area, to enjoy the “Bamboo Waves” installation by Russian artist Nikolay Polissky.  Inspired by waves in ukiyo-e prints, the artist teamed up with area residents to use the locally-abundant bamboo.  Yasaka was apparently the main supplier of bamboo to the lord of Matsumoto Castle, and boasts some seriously huge bamboo.  Some used in this installation were 18-meters long!

Note the hills in the background used as “Borrowed-landscape”

The master craftsman demonstrating how the artist described the intended shapes

Collecting stamps at each installation.

Also on the east side of town are two other amazing installations:

“Hameau d’ ellipe” by Swiss/French artist Felice Velini, a series of psychedelic ellipses superimposed on 3 old farmhouses showcasing one of Omachi’s many tiny hamlets, and

“Corridor to Buddhist Temple” by local woodworking artist Sadao Takahashi whose pieces that combine wood carving and lacquer art majestically expound on the spacious interior of Reishoji Temple.  (The temple’s intricately carved gate is art in it’s own right.)

After that inspiration, we descended back down to central Omachi City, first to the Omachi Onsen District, where our tour of art complementing history and culture continued.  For example, “Invisible City: Long Goodbye” is like an ode to Omachi’s crystal clear winter nights as well as the town’s historical Salt Road roots,

and Maaria Wirkkala’s work “ACT” embraces the musical arts that so often take place on the Forest Stage.

One other thing the Japan Alps Art Festival also does so well is to highlight Omachi’s culinary heritage as well.  After all, viewing art work is bound to make one hungry.  As part of our tour, we had a lunch that featured bamboo shoots at Iroriya Yasaka (the place appropriately famous for bamboo)

and 3 o’clock tea ‘dolce’ infused with salt at the Omachi Salt Road Museum aka Choujiya.

If you want to see all 38 of the installations, make sure to come by 30-July.  However, Omachi’s historical, cultural and culinary heritage will proudly continue on.

NOTE:  For getting around, using a car is highly recommended.  Rental cars available at Shinano Omachi Station.  Regarding footwear, some of the installations are located in rugged areas so sturdy shoes would come in handy.  However, please keep in mind that several locations require removing your shoes and changing into slippers.

(Special thanks to Ogawa-san from Nagano Prefecture for the insightful tour.)

 

 

 

 

 

Hanami with a Tengu

April 19th, 2017 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

The Togura Tengu looks out over the Chikuma River Valley from his perch above Togura Station.  The park around him, Togura Kitty Park, is ablaze in pink at the moment, clearly pleasing the Tengu.

The park is within walking distance from Togura Station on the Shinano Railway Line, in between Ueda and Nagano Stations.  Besides the Tengu, there are a gazillion rabbits, 3 goats, 2 sheep and a godzilla.  Plus the longest slide you’ll ever see, a mini zip-line and other playground toys.  All with a great view of the valley below.  And all bathed in pink with cherry blossoms now.

Exciting new developments in Yudanaka, gateway to the Snow Monkeys

February 12th, 2017 by
Category: Onsens (Hot Springs), Report, Shopping


Yudanaka and Shibu are a pair of onsen resort towns at the base of Shiga Kogen near the Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park (home of the Snow Monkeys).  If you go by train to the snow monkeys, you’ll likely pass through Yudanaka Station.  Yudanaka, as with many resort towns, is struggling with shops and inns closing up due to not having anyone to take over the businesses as the current owners retire.

Nagano’s largest bank has teamed up with an investment fund to create a civic improvement organization called Waku-Waku Yamanouchi.  (“Waku-waku” means to be excited.)  They purchased 4 such businesses, renovated them, and are in the process of reopening them repurposed as guesthouses, a restaurant, an art-themed boutique-ryokan, and a coffee shop.  I recently toured the new shops and certainly found them to be “waku-waku”!

A Nagano Winter Pastime: Greenhouse Strawberry Picking

February 2nd, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

One scrumptious way to beat the winter cold in Nagano is to go strawberry picking.  You can pick all-you-can-eat strawberries inside a toasty-warm greenhouse.  One such location is Agri-Park in Chikuma City.  I went there recently with some bloggers from Taiwan.  They really enjoyed picking the berries, dipping them in some condensed milk, and popping them into their mouths.  Deliciously sweet berries and a warm escape from the cold — a perfect winter day in Nagano.

One of Agri-Park’s greenhouses with the Northern Alps in the background.

Agri-Park is located in the vicinity of the Mori Shogunzuka ancient burial mound, so you can indulge in prehistoric history after you’ve had your fill of yummy strawberries.  For further historical intrigue, the Nagano Prefecture Historical Museum is adjacent to the burial mound’s visitors center.

Nagano Prefectural History Museum’s prehistoric village in the springtime with peach blossoms.

Access via public transportation is from Yashiro Station on the Shinano Railway.  Bus service from the station is infrequent so either taxi (approx. 7 min., 800 yen) or on foot (2km, 25 min.).  By car, Koshoku IC on the Nagano Expressway is approx. 6 min. 3km.

 

Happy Splendid New Year from Nagano!

January 2nd, 2017 by
Category: Information

As they say in Japanese, “Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!” (Happy New Year!)

How did you spend your New Years Day?  Here in Nagano, it is common to climb a mountain in the morning to see the first sunrise of the year.  At our onsen town, Togura-Kamiyamada, the fortress at the top of the hill behind our town, Arato-Jo, hot tea was provided as we huddled together to watch the sun rise over the Chikuma River valley.

1st Sunrise of 2017, as seen from Arato-jo Castle (Picture courtesy of Andy Lynch)


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Mystical Togakushi in transition from winter to spring

May 11th, 2016 by
Category: Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

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.
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Norikura Nature Walk, Snowshoe-style

March 7th, 2016 by
Category: Accomodations, Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

The Japanese Alps are a treasure trove of natural wonder, and knowledgeable guides at Little Peaks in Norikura are just the ones to  reveal the splendor.  Today I had the pleasure of joining in a magical snowshoeing tour of Norikura.

Here is how the adventure went:

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Golden Week — Nagano Style

May 3rd, 2015 by
Category: Cuisine, Events, Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Happy Golden Week, everyone.

Or is it?  With practically everyone and her brother having the week off, it seems wherever you go there will be crowds, crowds, and still more crowds.

Here in Nagano, the major attractions such as Matsumoto Castle, the Utsukushigahara ridge drive, the resort town of Karuizawa etc. also tend to be jam-packed during peak holidays.  And the many major events taking place in Nagano during Golden Week, such as the hot air balloon festival in Saku, the rape blossom festival in Iiyama and, especially, the once-every-seven-years Gokaicho at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, will likely draw hordes of visitors.

Don’t despair — the prefecture has plenty of off-the-beaten-path places and simple, local events to enjoy in a quiet, Nagano-like fashion.
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Kamishiro Earthquake Update

November 27th, 2014 by
Category: Information

On November 22nd at 10:08pm, a Magnitude 6.8 earthquake hit our prefecture centered on Kamishiro.  The Kamishiro area several houses collapse and several people injured but overall, we seem to have avoided major damage. That is fortunate, as Hakuba, Nozawa Onsen, Shiga Kogen and the rest of Nagano are gearing up for another season of powder snow and spectacular skiing. In fact, some ski areas are already operating (such as Shiga Kogen) and Hakuba’s ski lifts are scheduled to start from Friday 05-Dec.

Latest earthquake-related transportation info as follows.

TRAINS
Area trains stopped running at the time, but as of the 25th the only disruption is on the JR Oito Line which is currently stopped between Hakuba Station and Minami Otari Station due to a landslide. (Temporary bus service between the two is being provided.)

BUSSES
Alpico Express Bus service between Nagano City and Hakuba / Omachi has resumed.

EXPRESSWAYS
As of 7am on the 23rd, all Expressways in Nagano have been operating normally.

ROADS
Main roadway disruptions as follows:
Route 148 is currently closed. Detour on Route 433 (large trucks prohibited).

As you can see, transportation disruptions caused by the earthquake are fairly limited. Nagano is waiting for you to come and visit, and enjoy as always our towering mountains, fantastic powder snow, prestigious temples, authentic castles, historical post towns, frolicking snow monkeys, rejuvenating onsen baths, and so much more!