Fruit Picking Season 2013 in Chikuma City is Here!

June 28th, 2013 by
Category: Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Ever wanted to  taste a tart apricot picked right off the tree?  Curious about how much minute care goes into growing an apple in Japan?  Want to see grapes as they are growing on the vine instead of at a supermarket counter?  Then Chikuma City is the place for you with a plethora of fruit orchards. Practically year-round there is some type of fruit picking that can be enjoyed:

Apricots and Cherries from late June to early July
Grapes from early September to early October
Apples from late September to December
Greenhouse Strawberries from December to early June

The fruit picking season for 2013 is now under way, with sweet, juicy cherries and fresh, tart apricots ready for you to come and pick.

Kamiyamada Cherry Picking 2013
Watashima-san (Kamiyamada’s Yasaka district)
Tel (026)276-1834 (Sorry — Japanese language only.)
Cherry Picking Start: Sunday 23-June
Cherry Picking End: Thursday 04-July
Price: 1500 yen for 30-minutes all-you-can-eat (while picking)
Quantities are limited, but feel free to contact me c/o Kamesei Ryokan tel# 026-275-1032 for help in making arrangements. 

Watashima-san's cherries (taken when I visited in 2012)

Mori and Sarashina Apricot Picking 2013

Here in Chikuma City, the Mori district is known as Japan’s #1 ‘apricot village’. The blossoms in early April are so famous that this year even the emperor and empress came to see them. Mori is a 20-minute drive from the main resort area, onsen town Togura-Kamiyamada. A short 15-minute walk away from the onsen, along the Chikuma River, are the apricot orchards of the Sarashina district. And Kyohoen Apricot Orchards are one of the most modern growers, trying to develop better varieties and using cutting-edge techniques to maximize yield.

This past April our area had some devastating low temperatures that are effecting the apricot trees’ production. But the folks at Kyohoen believe strongly in giving guests  the opportunity to enter the apricot field and pick fruit themselves. This year’s apricot picking schedule is as follows:

Kyohoen Orchard near Togura-Kamiyamada Onsen
Office: 1092-2 Wakamiya, Chikuma City, Nagano
Tel: (026)276-6018 Kaneko-san (limited English)
Apricot Picking Start: Around 24-June (Monday)
Apricot Picking End: Around 05-July (Friday)
Price: 1000 yen per Kilogram (Showa variety)

Our son Kenny eating as he picks at Kyohoen's apricot field this year.

New Ninja Dojo in Nagano City — Mesmerizing fun for kids and adults!

June 23rd, 2013 by
Category: Experience

An NPO trying to find uses for empty houses and buildings around Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City hooked up with another NPO teaching ninjutsu to kids. The result is the Monzen Ninja Dojo.

Miyashita-ninja in front of Monzen Ninja Dojo by Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City

Officially open for business, the owner Miyashita-ninja gave me a tour of the dojo recently. The tour included crawling through holes in the walls and floor, jumping off the 2nd floor roof, and throwing shuriken darts — not your typical everyday experiences!
I am looking forward to taking our kids there for some father-son bonding through ninja training!

Ninja Training Lessons by Miyashita-san, a master of the Togakuredo school of Ninjutsu, are available to the public. He offers 3 lessons per week, on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday mornings from 9:30 to 10:30am. Price is 2000 yen per person.

How to go up to the 2nd floor ninja-style

Lesson content varies according to the interests and abilities of the participants. Want to learn how to walk stealthily like a ninja? Or are you interested in learning some basic self-defense manuevers? How about throwing shurikens? Or climbing up walls to reach the roof of the building — and then jumping down from the 2nd story? The Monzen Ninja Dojo is the place for you!

Anyone can participate in the lessons — from kids to adults, and even kids WITH adults

For information and/or reservations, call or e-mail Miyashita-san at 090-3558-0179, 200111hayaki@ezweb.ne.jp.  (English OK)

For lovers of river fish cuisine: Tsukeba

June 23rd, 2013 by
Category: Cuisine, Information, Seasonal Topics

Do you like eating river fish? I mean really, really like it? And does the idea of eating river fish in a simple shack along side the river from where the fish came sound appealing? Then perhaps you should try eating at a “Tsukeba”.

Salt-rubbed grilled river fish 'haya' at Shomura Tsukeba fish shack

Read the rest of this entry »

Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada News: Taiko Concerts, New Cycling Tour and Free Onsen Baths

April 28th, 2013 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities

This year onsen town Togura-Kamiyamada is celebrating its birthday.  The Togura side is 120 years old, and the Kamiyamada side 110 years.  On April 21st, we celebrated with an event that included a performance by our town’s geisha guild and lion dance troupe as well as free pottery and stained glass making lessons.  And on the 26th of each month from April to September, 2013, all of the inns and hotels will be offering free onsen baths.  Register at the Tourism Hall (tel 026-276-1056)  from 12:30, and enjoy onsen-hopping until 3pm. 

Togura Kamiyamada Onsen's Anniversary Celebration

Also coming up is a taiko drum concert series by our local troupe, Kamuruki-daiko.  They will perform at the main stage by the Kara-Koro onsen footbath in the park in the middle of town.  The energetic performances will take place most Saturday nights in June and September (specifically June 8th, 15th, 22nd and 29th, and September 7th, 14th, 21st and 28th).  The concerts will start at 8:30pm and last approximately 30 minutes, with a chance at the end for people from the audience to come up on stage and try drumming with the group.  Kids will especially love it.

Taiko Drum Concert Series June and September 2013

One other exciting item is starting in May, guided cycling tours of the onsen town will be offered every Saturday morning.  The tours will start at the Kara-Koro onsen footbath at 10:30 am and will last approximately 1-1/2 hours.   ‘Mama-chari’ rental cycles will be provided.  The tour will cover everything from Designated National Cultural Treasures to hidden secrets and will take in the beautiful scenery of the Chikuma River and the surrounding mountains. The tour will also include a footbath stop and each participant will get a manju sweet to eat.  The tour will be led by an English-speaking guide for your full enjoyment.
Tours will take place every Saturday morning from May through November.
Price is 1200 yen, including cost of the rental cycle, insurance, and the manju sweet.
Maximum 8 people per tour, so reserve early!
To reserve, contact the Chikuma City Tourism Association.

Guided Cycling Tours of Togura-Kamiyamada Onsen Every Saturday Starting in May

Ninjas and Skunk Cabbage Awake: Togakushi Transitioning into the Green Season

April 18th, 2013 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Located on a perch at the foot of Togakushi Mountain high above the venerable Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City is Togakushi Kogen. Signs of spring are starting to appear throughout Togakushi as it transitions out of winter and into the green season. As the snow melts, the ‘mizubasho’ skunk cabbage and the Togakushi ninjas are coming out of hibernation. Even the bus from Nagano Station has switched destinations from the ski area to the entrance to the fabled Okusha (Inner Shrine). (See the updated Transportation Guide) And for people coming by car, it is only 60 minutes from our onsen town Togura-Kamiyamada to the entrance to Okusha when using the Expressway.

According to my Togukashi ninja connection, Yamaguchi-san of soba restaurant “Yamaguchiya”,

*Snow still remains along the approach to Okusha, but the roads are completely clear.
*The creamy white mizubasho flowers in the Togakushi Forest Reserve look like they’ll blossom a week early this year, around the end of April.
*The two ninja sites have announced their opening dates for 2013: Togakushi Ninpo Center will open on Friday April 19th and the Togakushi Chibikko Kids Ninja Park will start up again on Saturday April 27th.

Togakushi's Towering Cedar Trees Lining the Way to Okusha Inner Shrine

Nagano Prefecture as a whole is blessed with so much beautiful natural scenery, but within Nagano, Togakushi is special. The massive cedar trees lining the path to Okusha really impart a sense of the power of nature. Lately those famous trees are experiencing a boom of sorts as they have become known as a ‘power spot’ in Japan. But take one step off the path and into the Togakushi Forest Preserve, and you’ll have all that peaceful nature to yourself. The snowy white flowers of the unfortunately named skunk cabbage are especially delightful. And be sure not to miss Kagami-ike, aka ‘Mirror Pond’ which perfectly reflects the grand Togakushi Mountain peaks.

Serene Path through Togakushi's Forest Preserve

In addition to all the natural beauty, Togakushi is home to some of the best soba noodles in Nagano Prefecture, which itself is Japan’s soba mecca. Besides being a prime growing area for buckwheat, there is just something different about the noodles made here in the refreshingly clean mountain air using the crystal clear mountain spring water.

And, don’t forget the Togakushi ninjas. This is the home of the Togakure-do school of ninjutsu, and there are 2 locations to get a feel for what Togakure-do ninjutsu is like. They are the Togakushi Ninpo Center and the Togakushi Chibikko Kids Ninja Park.

Ninja Fun at Togakushi Ninpo Center

Togakushi is so much more than just nature, soba and ninjas. There’s the spiritual tradition (Chusha, the ‘Middle Shrine’, is especially rich in mysticism), bamboo ware and so much more. This green season, come and check and experience Togakushi yourself. For places to stay, there are some facilities in Togakushi (including ryokans and a Youth Hostel), and/or there are onsen resort towns nearby, including Togura-Kamiyamada.

戸隠高原 Togakushi

山口屋そば Soba Restaurant Yamaguchi-ya

Bus Schedule for Daytrips to Togakushi (With train connections for Togura-Kamiyamada Onsen)

New English Guides for Northern Nagano

March 12th, 2013 by
Category: Information, Onsens (Hot Springs)

Two towns in northern Nagano Prefecture have recently produced English-language brochures: Suzaka City and Takayama Town.

Suzaka’s brochure promotes the ‘kura’ earthen-walled storehouse district and Tanaka Honke Museum in the town’s center as well as the city’s natural attractions of the Yonago twin waterfalls and the Minenohara ski resort.

Takayama’s features the town’s many onsens, spectacular waterfalls and distinctive singular cherry trees.

Komiyama-san, the designer of the two new brochures, came by Kamesei Ryokan to show them to me.  Overall, they are very useful. One reason is that the English text isn’t simply a translation from Japanese, but a local American living in Suzaka wrote it all in native English.

Suzaka City recently saw “Guesthouse Kura” open, so English-speaking backpackers now have a place to stay. And also in Suzaka is Horakuan Temple whose monk is a German lady that offers zazen meditation as well as Buddhist studying and counseling in English and German.

Nagano’s tourism is becoming more and more international!

須坂市 Suzaka City

高山村 Takayama Village

Guesthouse 蔵 Kura

豊樂庵 Horakuan Temple

One Month and Counting for the Start of the Mori Apricot Blossom Festival

March 6th, 2013 by
Category: Events, Seasonal Topics

The main Spring event for our onsen town Togura-Kamiyamada and the greater Chikuma City area is the Mori “Apricot Village” Apricot Blossom Festival.  The dates for the 2013 edition have been announced as follows:

58th Annual Mori Apricot Blossom Festival April 6th-21st 2013.
Anzu-no-Sato Sketch Park Light Up will be April 12th-14th from 6-9pm.

Mori "Apricot Village" Apricot Blossom Festival Map for 2013

And, a bit of big news:  Japan’s Emperor is reportedly planning on coming to see the blossoms this year.  Actual date will depend on the timing of the blossoms.  As soon as information is released, we will announce it here on the blog.

So if you’ve been thinking about coming to see Mori’s apricot blossoms, perhaps this is the year to do it — with no less than the Emperor of Japan coming!

Soft pink apricot blossoms in Mori (Scheduled to Bloom Starting April 6th for 2013)

Mori Apricot Village is 12km from our onsen town Togura-Kamiyamada, approx. 25 minutes by car.  Train access is via Yashiro Station on the Shinano Railway line.

New English Guide Book to Nagano Onsens

February 28th, 2013 by
Category: Information, Onsens (Hot Springs)

Nagano Prefecture is a mecca for onsens (hot springs). It has the most day-use onsens of any prefecture in Japan. For everybody in Japan, that is a well-known fact, and there are numerous guide books and websites providing ample information on Nagano onsens … in Japanese.

But Nagano’s onsens could very well be popular with visitors from overseas, too. It’s just that there is hardly any information out there in foreign languages.

Peter Ninnes, an Australian residing near Togura-Kamiyamada Onsen, has set out to fix that. He just published the “Nagano Onsen Guide: The Top 100 Day-Use Hot Springs”, an English guide book to Nagano’s many fantastic onsens.

New Guide Book on Nagano Onsens by Peter Ninnes

I assisted Peter in some of his field research and it really opened my eyes to just how many amazing onsens Nagano has. Peter visited over 140 onsens and personally bathed, err, tested every one. Based on a criteria of things like ambience, presence of minerals in the hot spring water, variety of baths and presence of ugly power lines, he came up with a list of the Top 100. As a bonus, he also listed 5 ryokans that don’t allow day-use but would make for a special place to spend the night.

Peter added careful directions to reach each onsen (Japan’s roads are notoriously confusing, and some of the onsens are located in really out-of-the-way places). In addition, he provided details for every onsen on everything from a breakdown of the mineral content to whether or not there are coin lockers. And the book features 100 full color pictures.

I fully believe that Nagano’s onsens are a critical tool to attract foreigners into coming to visit, and Peter’s new book will hopefully be the perfect accessory.

Available for purchase via the internet (createspace) and/or on amazon.com

Zenkoji Temple Lit Up Like a Votive Candle?

February 8th, 2013 by
Category: Events, Information, Seasonal Topics

The venerable Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City will once again hold its Toumyou Festival. “Toumyou” refers to votive candles people leave at temples and shrines. For this festival, the main hall and one of the entrance arches are colorfully illuminated in a wish for world peace.

Zenkoji Temple Lit Up in Olympic Colors for the Annual Toumyou Festival

The festival is held in the very coldest middle of winter, and the dates for 2013 are from Saturday 09-Feb to Sunday 17-Feb.  The colors for the main illumination are the 5 Olympic colors, in honor of the ’98 Nagano Winter Olympics. In addition to the illumination, during the festival various temple lodging ‘shukubo’ will host special tea functions, numerous lanterns will be displayed (including some made by celebrity artists), shops and restaurants along the main approach to Zenkoji will offer special deals, a live concert will be held, and there will be a stamp rally and other contests. Information can be found in the official guidebook.

Official Guidebook for the 2013 Toumyou Festival

Ski Mecca Nagano — Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort

February 6th, 2013 by
Category: Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Our kids had a day off from school the other day.
The weather was postcard-perfect.
Lots of work to do, but….

When in Nagano during the winter, you just gotta go skiing.

So the kids and piled in the car, and went up to Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort. Our son Andy wanted to try the 39-degree “Wall”, and I was looking forward to a soak in Nozawa’s onsen after skiing.

Family Fun at the Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort

While Andy tackled the Wall and the rest of Nozawa’s courses, I taught #2 son Kenny and our daughter Misaki how to ski at the Kids Park at the bottom. Andy was excited to have seen the ocean from the peak, and had a blast exploring all the various runs. Meanwhile, especially Misaki got hooked on skiing and wants to try it again.

After skiing at Nozawa, it’s against the rules not to take a soak in an onsen bath.

There are 13 “Soto-Yu” public bathhouses in Nozawa where locals and visitors alike are welcome to go and take baths for free (donations accepted). Locals take turns cleaning and maintaining the facilities, and the bathhouses act as gathering spots to chit-chat and catch up on things.

One of those bathhouses is Oyu. The stately elegant wood construction with the raised center roof to let the steam out is the classic “Yu-ya” (bathhouse) style. This is onsen culture at its finest.

Nozawa Oyu -- the granddaddy of Nozawa Onsen's public bathhouses

It had been years since I’d bathed at Oyu. So on this ski trip to Nozawa Onsen, the kids and I took the time (and followed the rule) to take a bath there.

Warning: Nozawa’s hot springs are scalding hot! Oyu is divided into mens and womens sides, and further divided into “Atsu-yu” (hot water) and “Nuru-yu” (moderate water). But even the nuru-yu was painfully hot (around 43 deg C), so we and the other guests added tapwater, and I used the wooden plank to stir up the bath, bringing the temperature down to a more enjoyable 40 degress C.

Dip carefully

The onsen water has a rich sulfur content. The strong smell makes bathing here a fantastic multi-sensation experience.

Nozawa Onsen — amazing skiing and amazing hot springs. Check it out!