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)

This hilltop fortress is a recreation of the Warring States Era castle that was originally situated here.  These types of fortresses were different from the typical Japanese castles mostly seen in Japan today in that they were designed so as not to be visible from down below.  In other words, they were strictly for defensive purposes only.  Arato-jo gives you a unique chance to see and appreciate the hardships of Sengoku-jidai (the Warring States Era).

Another view of the sunrise from Arato-jo Castle (picture courtesy Kazumasa Kodaira)

Arato-Jo Castle

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.

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.)

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.
Read the rest of this entry »

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!

Fall Family Fun in Nagano — Chausuyama Zoo & Dino Park

October 19th, 2014 by
Category: Experience, Outdoor Activities

I took our 2 elementary school age kids to the Chausuyama Zoo and Dinosaur Park in Nagano City’s Shinonoi District one recent fine autumn day.

I was reminded how fun it is to climb a dinosaur,

Our daughter Misaki climbing the Chausuyama Dino Park triceratops, with the Zenkoji Plain in the background.

and just how cute the zoo’s lesser pandas are.

One of the Chausuyama Zoo's popular lesser pandas entertaining the audience

Chausuyama makes a great play date destination for families with small kids.

By the way, Chausuyama Zoo’s 2014 edition of its annual Zoo Festival takes place October 18th and 19th. Besides the normal activities such as feeding the giraffes and pony riding, there will also be turtle races (?), naming the baby lesser pandas, and other fun events.

Chausuyama Zoo and Dino Park

For access by train, the “Zoo-guru” bus runs from Shinonoi Station on the JR Shinonoi Line on weekends and holidays through Nov. 3, 2014.

Mt. Ontake Eruption

September 27th, 2014 by
Category: Information

Mt. Ontake, the 3067-meter volcano towering over the west side of the Kiso Valley, erupted around noon on Saturday 27-Sept.  The mountain is popular for climbing, and all climbers have or are in the process of evacuating the mountain.  According to the Nagano Prefecture Tourism Department, Mt. Ontake has been closed for climbing until further notice.  Nearby Route 19, the main highway along the Kiso Valley, as well as the JR Chuo Line which also runs along the Kiso Valley, and the Chuo Expressway which runs one valley over, are all 0perating normally.  The only area to be affected by the eruption is a 4km-radius cautionary zone that has been set up around Mt. Ontake for danger of falling ash.  If/when the prefecture’s Tourism Dept. offers new information, the Go-Nagano blog will be updated accordingly.

UPDATE: As of Sunday 12-Oct, 2 weeks from the eruption, a total of 63 people have reportedly died or are unaccounted for due to the eruption. Minor earthquakes and volcanic gas plumes are continuing (0-1 earthquake in the last 24 hours, gas plume approx. 300 meters high drifting in an southwesterly direction.)

(Map showing the evacuation area at http://www.go-nagano.net/?p=963)

Mt. Ontake, the 4km-radius cautionary zone, and major sightseeing spots:

See a large map.

Notice: JR Chuo Line Disrupted by Typhoon

July 14th, 2014 by
Category: Information

A section of JR’s Chuo Line between Shiojiri/Matsumoto and Nagoya near the border between Nagano and Gifu prefectures got washed out by a landslide on 09-July caused by Typhoon Neoguri.  Specifically, the track between Nojiri (野尻) and Sakashita (坂下) stations got washed away, affecting train service to a total of 5 stations including Nagiso, gateway to the popular post town of Tsumago. 

JR Central Japan released a statement saying the JR Ltd. Express “Wide View Shinano” service will be suspended until further notice while the tracks are repaired.  Regular train service will be offered between Shiojiri and Sakashita on the Nagano side, and from Nojiri on to Nagoya on the Gifu side.  JR will operate busses between Sakashita and Nojiri, including Nagiso.

Car travel is unaffected as Route 19 (the major highway in the Kiso Valley) and all other major routes in Nagano Prefecture are open as normal.  For train travel between Matsumoto and/or Nagano City to Nagoya, going via Tokyo may be your fastest option (either using the Nagano Shinkansen from Nagano Station or JR Ltd. Express “Azusa” from Matsumoto).  Highway busses also are running.  As soon as Nagano Prefecture’s Tourism Dept. provides an update on the JR Chuo Line, I will revise this post. 

Current train / bus schedule at http://jr-central.co.jp/news/release/_pdf/000023034.pdf.  Schedule is in Japanese.  Main stations as follows:

松本 Matsumoto

塩尻 Shiojiri

奈良井 Narai (Gateway to the post town of Narai-juku)

木曽福島 Kiso Fukushima

坂下 Sakashita

南木曽 Nagiso

野尻 Nojiri

中津川 Nakatsugawa (Gateway to Magome post town) *Change here for trains on to Nagoya.

Come Get Those Tart Apricots in Chikuma City!

July 4th, 2014 by
Category: Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Fresh apricots are once again in season, and Chikuma City (just south of Nagano City) is Japan’s largest grower of apricots. 

Apricots are once again in season in Chikuma City

Called “anzu” in Japanese, apricots here actually come in an amazing array of varieties, from the tart heritage varieties to newcomers from North America such as the sweeter “harcot” variety. 

Chikuma City’s “Mori” district is known as “Anzu no Sato” (Apricot Village).  On the other side of the Chikuma River, just downriver from onsen town Togura-Kamiyamada, is Kyohoen‘s orchard.   I stopped  by the other day and the owner, Takamatsu-san, was in a great mood as apparently this year is a bumper crop.  The growers are especially thankful, as last year many of the trees were damaged by frost during the blossom season resulting in a decreased yield. 

Besides coming to an orchard and picking (and tasting!) fresh apricots straight from the tree, apricot jam making activities are also available.  The season should continue through mid-July.