The Perfect Summer Vacation Destination: Kamikochi

August 17th, 2010 by
Category: Information

The day our kids’ summer vacation started, we took off for our annual family summer trip. Destination: Kamikochi, the gateway to the northern Japanese Alps.

Yaki-dake from Taisho Pond

Yaki-dake from Taisho Pond

Even with the weather not cooperating and the sky being overcast, we were still treated to awe-inspiring views of the majestic mountains.  From our first stop, Taisho-ike Pond, we could see always-steaming Mt. Yake-dake.  And from the  from the iconic Kappa-bashi Bridge in central Kamikochi, we could gaze up at massive Mt. Okuhotake-dake and the surrounding peaks. And the temperature was so nice and cool. Where we live, Togura Kamiyamada, the elevation is 370 meters, and the mountain behind us (Kamuriki-yama, the mountain from the famous Obasute-yama legend) is 1,252 meters. The Kamikochi valley is situated way up at 1,500 meters, making for cool days even in the middle of summer.

Kamikochi's symbol:  Kappa Bridge over the Azusa River with the Alps in the background

Kamikochi's symbol: Kappa Bridge over the Azusa River with the Alps in the background

And the mountains that raise up above the valley are simply awesome. Yake-dake (2,455 meters and still puffing volcanic ash) and the 3,000+ meter peaks on the north side, and 2,646-meter Mt. Kasumizawa-dake & 2,449 meter Mt. Roppyaku-zan on the south tower over the valley. For people with the time and courage, the mountains beg to be explored. For everyone else, there is still so much beauty and nature to be enjoyed around the basin below with the Azusa River flowing down the middle. I have been to Kamikochi several times, and one of my favorite parts is the Azusa River, with its turquoise blue water. This time, I was excited to finally be able to share my love of the river with our kids, and they, too, enjoyed it.

The turquoise blue waters of the Azusa River

The turquoise blue waters of the Azusa River

In fact, looking around we saw many other families bringing their kids to Kamikochi. There were families from northern Japan, western Japan, even the southern islands. In fact, there were a number of travellers from Hong Kong, Korea and Europe, too. I think the need to experience and have your kids experience the wonder of nature is universal!

For visitors that are just staying down in the valley, I highly suggest taking a walk along the Azusa River. The Kamikochi Information Center by Kappa-bashi offers nature walks, one in the morning to Taisho-ike, and one in the early afternoon to Myojin-ike Pond. The walks cost 500 yen to cover insurance. For more info, the Center’s tel# is 0263-95-2433.

This time, we ran into cloudy weather so we couldn’t enjoy Kamikochi’s beautiful sunset and sunrise, and the stars at night must be spectacular. The valley can get pretty crowded during the afternoon with daytrippers, but after the tour busses leave in the evening, Kamikochi is at its quietest and most peaceful. That means you simply have to take the time to spend the night at Kamikochi. We had the pleasure of staying at Nishiitoya. Okuhara-san, the owner, kindly gave us all kinds of information about the Alps. For our room, we choose one of the Japanese style tatami mat rooms, but they also have western style with beds, as well as an annex with hostel-type rooms. And the meal was short on seafood, and long on Nagano’s regional cuisine. We enjoyed soaking in the bath, but it would probably even have been better if the clouds weren’t obscuring the 3000-meter peaks normally visible from the picture windows.

Alpico provides convenient bus service to Kamikochi from Sawando and/or Shin-shimashima Station

Alpico provides convenient bus service to Kamikochi from Sawando and/or Shin-shimashima Station

From all across Japan and the world, travellers are coming to Kamikochi to enjoy the spectacular nature. A trip here makes a perfect summer vacation.

www.kamikochi.or.jp is the official website for Kamikochi.

Kamiyamada’s quaint Fall Festival to be held on September 26th

August 17th, 2010 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Experience

Kamiyamada Onsen is overlooked by the centuries-old Habeshina Shrine. Every year, the shrine holds an Autumn Festival that usually takes place on the autumnal equinox, 23-Sept. However, this year the Fall Festival has been moved to the weekend and will be held on Sunday 26-September.

The Okagura lion dance troupe members

The Okagura lion dance troupe members

Habeshina Shrine’s Fall Festival is a unique opportunity to see a small local festival here in the Japanese countryside. It is a time for the locals to give thanks for the harvest and enjoy some traditional fun. The day’s schedule varies by year, but is generally something like this:

8am: Opening banquet at a nearby community center
10am: Ceremonial Procession departs the center.
12noon: Procession arrives at Habeshina Shrine
1pm: Adults sumo
2pm~: Kids sumo
Evening: Karaoke contest
8pm: Ending ceremony featuring an “okagura” shi-shi lion dance

Kids Sumo -- fun to watch!

Kids Sumo -- fun to watch!

The kids sumo is very entertaining to watch, and for the adults sumo, often times there are not enough participants. I have twice had the dubious honor of joining their ranks. You drink your way through the 8am banquet, parade around town in your ‘fundoshi’ g-string, then when your name is called, enter the ring and hope your opponent had more sake than you did.

Adults sumo -- not as easy as it looks!

Adults sumo -- not as easy as it looks!

(If you, too, are interested in being a sumo wrestler for a day, contact me here at Kamesei Ryokan and I can see about getting you an invitation.)

There are a few food and toys booths set up for the festival, and a lot of drinking goes on (sake is an important part of Japanese ‘matsuri’). After it gets dark, at some point the sounds of the shi-shi flutes and taiko drums can be heard, as the okagura lion dance troupe finishes up its tour of the town and arrives back at the shrine. The elders gather in front of the shrine’s main building holding ‘chochin’ lanterns, and the lion dance takes place in the center.

The lion dance by lantern-light is a pretty powerful experience. I was really moved by it when I first saw it right after moving here. Later, when the the leader of the troupe invited me to join, I was honored to accept. I’ll be there this year trying to keep up with the other flutists.

Habeshina Shrine is located on the southeastern edge of Togura Kamiyamada Onsen.  Follow Koen-Dori street past Joyama-dori up the hill and you’ll see the ‘torii’ arch on the right.

New Gourmet Guide and Walking Map for Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada

July 23rd, 2010 by
Category: Accomodations, Cuisine, Culture Art, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Shopping, Sightseeing

Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada has a new Gourmet Guide and Walking Map in English.  20 different restaurants representing a wide variety of budgets and cuisine are listed, with full color pictures and helpful descriptions, along with 7 of their menu items translated into English for you.  There are also indications showing which restaurants accept credit cards, are no-smoking, have vegetarian menus, and provide western-style sitting.

The New Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada Gourmet Guide and Walking Map

The New Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada Gourmet Guide and Walking Map

The map side features descriptions of 21 shops and businesses, giving guests an idea of places to check out when they visit our onsen town.   The map shows locations for a coin laundry, convenience stores with ATM’s, a pharmacist and medical clinic as well as a church with service in English, so guests from overseas will know their various needs are covered.  As travellers from abroad often like to walk and enjoy the outdoors, the map mentions walking times and distances between major points and shows where rental bicycles are available.

So on your trip to Togura Kamiyamada, stop in at the Visit Japan Information Center aka Kamesei Ryokan (www.kamesei.jp) and we will be glad to give you your own personal copy of the new Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada Gourmet Guide and Walking Map.

Taking the Tanaka Honke Museum’s Appeal Overseas

July 15th, 2010 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Experience

The Nagano Inbound Summit team members and I held our 3rd in a series of “Unique Nagano” cultural activities “monitor tours” today.  12 of us toured the Tanaka Honke museum in Suzaka, highlighted by not just eating, but experiencing their bento lunch recreated from a 300 year old menu. 

Entrance to Tanaka Honke museum

Entrance to Tanaka Honke museum

The Tanaka Honke museum is a unique place.  It is the residence of Suzaka City’s Edo-era merchant family.  The buildings and gardens will please lovers of Japanese traditional architecture and formal gardens.  Besides, that, the museum’s artifacts give you a glimpse into the lifestyle of  this wealthy merchant family.  Some samples of the fascinating stories we gleamed from curator Tanaka-san’s explanation:

The "Autumn Garden"

The "Autumn Garden"

*What was the 2nd storehouse originally used for?  (Hint: the ceiling was stained a pitch black.)
Answer:  sake making (smoke from cooking the sake rice blackened the
ceiling)
*What was the room next to the vegetable garden for?  (Hint: There is a channel with water running down the middle.)  Answer:  Mill room (there used to be a water wheel there.)
*In the tea items display, there was a bowl painted with a design of an elephant surrounded by monks.  If you see it, try to guess how many monks are there.
*There was a lidded bowl amongst the tea display.  It’s exterior was completely black exterior, but open the lid and the inside was decoreted with and autumn color leaves.
*The dolls in the antique toy display had caucausian, not Japanese features.  Why?  Because they were for export to Western countries.  In the past, toy export was as big an industry as car export is today. 

Cool architecture

Cool architecture

So what did us foreigners think of the esteemed Tanaka Honke museum?  Here are our results.

Enjoyed:
*architecture
*760 year old tea items
*antique toys
*the Bento (more on this later)
*garden
*tools used to move the garden stones
*300 y.o. pines
*mill room
*sitting room
*sake making room
*plum juice

Disappointed:
*Lack of English explanation

Suggestions:
*audio guide in English

For us, the main draw besides the buildings, gardens and museum displays, was the bento lunch.  The museum painstakingly recreated the lunch from a 300 year old menu discovered in the premises.  It is a fabulous chance to see what a wealthy merchant in mountainous Nagano ate during the Edo period.  The bento was full of suprises, like mozuki seaweed — that must have been a delicacy, as it would have had to have been carried by horse up from the Sea of Japan, and salmon that had also been carried up from the ocean, where it would have been caught before the long trip up the rivers as opposed to salmon caught in the nearby Chikuma river that had already depleted their stored fat by climbing up the river.   So many amazing stories, that really took us back to the Edo period.  All while enjoying the beautiful formal garden and the classic construction of the buildings. 

Enjoying the 300 year old bento lunch

Enjoying the 300 year old bento lunch

More than a museum that serves a 300 year old bento, we felt the Tanaka Honke would be best considered as featuring the bento and also offering a tour of the museum.  It would be a great addition to a trip to Nagano, for example to see the snow monkeys.

Tanaka Honke Museum is located in Suzaka, the city renowned for its earthen walled storehouses, just to the east of Nagano City.  The 300 year old bento is 4000 yen (reservations required), museum admission is 700 yen.  Hours are 9am-5pm (shorter in winter), closed most Tuesdays (days of operation are shown on their website).  For more, see www.tanakahonke.org

Summer Entertainment at Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada’s Noh Theater

July 9th, 2010 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

In the center of Togura Kamiyamada Onsen is a small little park with a really long name: “Mizu to Midori to Uruoi Koen” which roughly means “Water and Nature and Moisture Park”. In the middle is a cute koi pond with a stone bridge to the island with its shrine to the water god. You can weave in and out of the tall trees as you walk around the pond, then take a rest at the wooden gazebo. And since this park isn’t in any old town, it’s in Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada, there is a spot to drink the onsen water (the minerals are good for your health!) as well as the new Kara-Koro Footbath, to soak your feet in the soothing onsen. The biggest feature of the park is across from the grassy lawn — the impressively huge, wooden Noh theater.

Togura Kamiyamada Onsen's Noh Theater Stage

Togura Kamiyamada Onsen's Noh Theater Stage

It gets used for events throughout the year, such as the Halloween Party. And now, this summer it will see some action twice a week. The Bijoren ladies is a group of traditional Japanese dancers (“Buyo”).  They have been praciticing every Sunday night, and for the summer they will move their practice to the Noh stage so that anyone and everyone can enjoy watching.  Practices start around 7:30pm.

Kamiyamada's Bijoren dancers

Kamiyamada's Bijoren dancers

Also, every Wednesday night, the Kamiyamada Kagura Preservation Group will hold their lion dance practice at the stage starting at 8pm.  The lion dance troupe Wednesday night sessins are low-key practices, not full performances, so you can interact up close and personally with the members.  They typically held their practices at an area community center, but this summer and through October, they will be helping to liven up the onsen town by bringing their traditional arts to the Noh Stage. Come and check it out!

Kamiyamada's Okagura group performing on Stage

Kamiyamada's Okagura group performing on Stage

Access:  Togura Station on the Shinano Railway line.  For more information on Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, check out www.onsentown.net.


Unique Souvenirs from Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada

July 9th, 2010 by
Category: Onsens (Hot Springs), Shopping

When travelling abroad, it’s tempting to buy some souvenirs for the folks back home, or for yourself as a momento from your trip.   But finding the right item can be tricky.  You want something made locally rather than mass produced in some other country.   And you want something compact so as not to take up room in your pack.  Well, here in Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, we are fortunate to have 4 local shops producing some pretty unique items.  Guests to our onsen town can enjoy shopping for these 4 locally-made items:

Manju, Miso, Kanroni and Pottery:  Togura Kamiyamada Onsen's Unique Souvenirs

Manju, Miso, Kanroni and Pottery: Togura Kamiyamada Onsen's Unique Souvenirs

Sasasuzu Manju with the Rokumonsen Mark
You can find manju pastries with the purple adzuki bean paste inside at pretty much any onsen town, but you can only find manju with the Rokumonsen mark of the local Sanada samurai family at Sasasuzu here in Togura Kamiyamada Onsen. You can also try your hand at branding the manju yourself with a hot branding iron. Baked freshly every day, so they are extra delicious. On Ginza Dori. Tel(026)275-1228.

Shimaya Kanroni Marinated River Fish
Nagano Prefecture doesn’t have an ocean, so river fish are an important part of the local cuisine. Shimaya takes ayu, the main fish from the Chikuma River, as well as wakasagi and haya, two other local types of river fish, and marinates them in a sweet sauce “kanroni” style. You can see how the kanroni process is done when visiting their shop, as well as try a sample of some of their creations. They are constantly making new batches, so if you’re lucky you can try some just-made kanroni, too. The kanroni is available for sale in take-home vacuum packs. On Ginza Dori. Tel(026)275-1175.

Nakajima Miso’s “Homare” Label Shinshu Miso.
Shinshu, the classic name for Nagano, is one of Japan’s major producers of soybeans. So the prefecture has naturally become known for the quality of its miso paste, Shinshu Miso. Here in Togura Kamiyamada, we have our own maker of Shinshu Miso, Nakajima Miso. In their showroom and shop at the front of their factory, you can sample the different types of miso they make, as well as see some of the antique tools frpm their trade that they have on display. Be sure to try the shoyu mame, a local variety of processed soybeans. On Ginza Dori. Tel(026)275-1069.

Sarashina-Yaki Pottery at Takaraya
Our local pottery style, sarashina-yaki, has a distinct blue color resulting from the ash of applewood from the local orchards. Takaraya is a small, chic shop displaying lots of the beautiful sarashina-yaki pottery as well as Ueda Shishi lion wood carvings and wood block prints by local artist Mori Bakuro. At the western entrance of Ginza Dori. Tel(026)275-0778. Hours from 8am to 7pm.

So if you’re hunting for some souvenirs from your trip to Japan, items that you can only find here, come to Togura Kamiyamada Onsen and enjoy our unique shops. 

ACCESS:  Togura Station on the Shinano Railway line.  For information on Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, see www.onsentown.net.

Eastern Nagano’s “Cool Samurai” Tour Opportunity

June 3rd, 2010 by
Category: Information

“Sanada Yukimura” is apparantly eastern Nagano’s cool samurai.
I always ask our guests when they arrive here at our inn if they did any sightseeing along the way. Often times, guests reply they are Sanada Yukimura fans and stopped to see Ueda Castle. (Female guests, too. Apparently once a cool samurai, always a cool samurai.)

A bus tour company called Saito Kagoya has recently started a new tour that takes visitors around to Ueda Castle and other Sanada family related places.  The bus tours every Saturday and Sunday, departing Ueda Station at 10am, stopping at the various Sanada sites with explanation and on-site guidance by the driver, returning to Ueda Station at 2:30pm.

Sanada Yukimura Short Tour flier

Sanada Yukimura Short Tour flier

This Saturday June 5th, I have been invited to attend. So if you are interested in the Sanada history, why don’t you come and join this tour with me? The normal driver speaks a bit of English, but for this tour I’ll be available for interpretation.

Reservations can be made by calling Saito Kagoya at 0268-44-2241.  Price for the Sanada Yukimura Short Tour is 2,980 yen per person, including a light snack of oyaki dumplings.  Reservations required minimum 1 day in advance.
 Click here for more info on Saito Kagoya bus tours.

Ueda Tsumugi Silk Weaving Workshop Details

June 3rd, 2010 by
Category: Culture Art, Experience

Last week, fellow Nagano Inbound Ambassador Tom-san wrote about Silk Weaving in Ueda.  Here are a few more details about this unique opportunity to experience one of Nagano’s traditional crafts.

 

Silk Weaving

In the Ueda Tsumugi Tradition

 

At Koiwai Tsumugi Studio, Ueda City

 

Come sit at a loom at an actual working silk weaving studio and weave your own hand-made creation.  Ueda Tsumugi is a silk weaving tradition with a 300 year history, and is considered one of the top 3 such traditions in all of Japan.  The family-run Koiwai studio maintains this hand weaving tradition to this day, incorporating the fabric into modern items such as neckties, purses and scarves.  The Koiwais would be happy to guide you on a tour of the studio so you can see the entire silk weaving process, from dyeing to spooling, then to the weaving on the handlooms. 

 

And, if you have the time and creativity, you too can choose the thread colors, sit at an actual loom, decide your own pattern, and pass the shuttle back and forth across the weft to make your own personal Ueda Tsumugi weaving.

 

Sericulture was a major industry in rural Japan starting in the middle of the Edo period and peaking in the Meiji era when silk accounted for 60% of Japan’s exports.  Silk production worldwide declined with the Great Depression in the 1930’s.  After a brief comeback post-WWII, Japan’s sericulture gradually disappeared.  In the Shiojiri neighborhood where the Koiwai Tsumugi Studio is located, you can still see many earthen-walled storehouses with their unique raised center ridges – indicating that silk worms had been grown there in the past.  And the Faculty of Textile Science and Technology at Shinshu University’s Ueda campus, celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2010 and one of only 2 such centers in Japan, continues to expand on Ueda’s silk history with futuristic research on fiber science and textile technology.

 

The Ueda Tsumugi silk weaving tradition has its roots in this local sericulture background.  Its unique characteristics are in the coloring (browns derived from apple tree bark and indigo blues) and design (checkered patterns are common).  The fabric is also known for its strength, which derives from the combination of single strands of silk in the weft with the thicker gathered strands (“tsumugi”) in the warp.  Many examples of fabric are on display and available for purchase at the small gift shop at the Koiwai Tsumugi Studio.  You can ask to see their book of patterns that dates back to the Edo period.  Those same patterns are still being made today.  While some are used to make kimonos and in other traditional ways, the Koiwais also use Ueda Tsumugi in making vests, hats and other more western styles, too.

 

Ueda Silk Weaving Workshop

Koiwai Tsumugi Studio offers silk weaving workshops, where even beginners can experience making Ueda Tsumugi on an actual wooden handloom.

*40 Minute Course  Learn basic weaving techniques and make a small place mat, approx. 20x30cm.  2,500 yen.

*60 Minute Course  Using basic weaving techniques, make a larger 30x50cm wall hanging.  4,500 yen.

*Independent Course  Make a weaving to the size that you desire, such as an obi for kimono.  Prices and times are negotiable.

NOTES:  Workshops are available on most days from between 9am and 5pm.  Please contact the Studio for a reservation at least 1 day in advance.  Children from 10 years and older are welcome.  Minimum 1 person.  For groups, there are 3 looms available, so participants can either take turns making individual weavings or team up to make one or more weavings.

 

Gathering at the entrance to Koiwai Tsumugi Studio

Gathering at the entrance to Koiwai Tsumugi Studio

Location / Contact Info

Koiwai Tsumugi Studio

40 Kamishiojiri, Ueda City, Nagano Pref. 386-0042

Tel (0268)22-1927 

E-Mail:  koiwai-tsumugi@po13.ueda.ne.jp

Website: www13.ueda.ne.jp/~koiwai-tsumugi/

Access: 15 minutes by car from Ueda Sugadaira IC on the Shin’etsu Expressway via Ueda Bypass and Route 18; by train, 7 minutes walk from Nishi Ueda Station on the Shinano Railway.

Nearby Points of Interest:  Shiojiri Neighborhood (Narrow streets lined with classic earthen-walled storehouses, in the area surrounding the Koiwai studio); Kutsukake Sake Brewery (historical brewery, tours available by reservation, “Fukumuryo” label, 5 minutes walk from the studio).

Nearby Lodging: Akiwa Kosen Ryokan (5 min. by car; Tel 0268-22-1446), Togura Kamiyamada Onsen (11 min. by train)

New 2-Day and 4-Day Bus Passes to Enjoy Kamikochi and Beyond

June 1st, 2010 by
Category: Information

Many foreign tourists travel around Japan using a JR Rail Pass. But when they get to Nagano Prefecture, they are hit with the realization that most of the most popular destinations like Kamikochi, Togakushi and Jigokudani Snow Monkeys (as well as my onsen town, Togura-Kamiyamada) all require non-JR transportation. Then there’s the issue of getting from Hida Takayama to Matsumoto, two major “Inbound” tourist destinations. Using JR would take over 5 hours to go around the Alps. However, another option would be the trans-Alps bus that takes just over 2 hours.

Well, the people at Alpico Bus have apparently been listening, and have come up with the following 2 new bus passes that are perfect for people wanting to explore the Matsumoto – Kamikochi – Hida Takayama area:

Alpico Bus's 2 new Passes

Alpico Bus's 2 new Passes

2 Day Free Passport Kamikochi / Norikura
*Price: 5,000 yen for adults, 2,500 yen for children
*Area: Kamikochi, Shirahone and Norikura to the west, Matsumoto, Asama Onsen and Utsukushigahara to the east.
*Availability: Buy at the Matsumoto Bus Terminal or Shin Shimashima Station from 01-April 2010 until 31-March 2011.
This pass covers Nagano’s most spectacular scenic spot, Kamikochi, which is also the launching area for mountaineers to climb the Japanese Alps, as well as secluded Shirahone onsen with its milky white hot spring waters and Norikura, outdoor sports paradise. Then you can ride back down to Matsumoto and see its world-famous castle, take a dip in the hot springs at Asama and Utsukushigahara Onsens, before riding back up to the panoramic views from Utsukushigahara Kogen.

4 Day Alps Wide Shinshu/Hida Free Passport
*Price: 10,000 yen for adults, 5,000 yen for children
*Area: Same as the 2-day pass PLUS Hida Takayama, Shirakawago, Shinhotaka Onsen and Gero Onsen
*Availability: Buy at the Matsumoto Bus Terminal, Shin Shimashima Station, and Takayama or Gero Bus Centers from 01-April 2010 until 31-March 2011.
Included in this Pass are the impeccably restored neighborhoods of Hida Takayama, the world heritage thatched roof farmhouses of Shirakawago, Shinhotaka Onsen on the western side of the Alps, and Gero Onsen, known from long ago as one of Japan’s top 3 onsens.

Fellow Nagano Inbound Ambassador Tom-san reports that Kamikochi is in fine spring form, so take advantage of these new passes from Alpico and enjoy!

For more information, contact Matsumoto Dentetsu at 0263-28-3111
And/or check out the official Kamikochi website.

Upcoming Katana (?) Making Events in Sakaki

May 16th, 2010 by
Category: Events, Experience

As previously mentioned, the Katana Museum in Sakaki Town offers knife making lessons using katana techniques from time to time.  The next lesson is scheduled for Sunday July 4th at the Tetsu no Tenjikan (http://tetsu.town.sakaki.nagano.jp).  There will be 2 sessions, a morning one starting at 10am, and an afternoon one at 1:30pm.  Price is 500 yen and children elementary school age and older are encouraged to participate (accompanied by an adult). 

Katana (err, knife) - making lesson at Sakaki

Katana (err, knife) - making lesson at Sakaki

In addition, on Sunday June 6th, the same Museum will offer a tour of an actual katana workshop.  The 2 hour tours will be held twice, 10am and 1:30pm.  Museum admission (400 yen) is required.   The swordsmith is Miyairi-san, son of a national living treasure (and destined to become one himself).  This is a unique opportunity to see inside a classic, historical sword making workshop.