Two Days of Driving Around the Roof of Japan

August 16th, 2018 by
Category: Accomodations, Culture Art, Information, Sightseeing

Driving among the clouds
Surrounded by the 3,000-meter-high mountains of the Japanese Alps, Nagano Prefecture is called “the Roof of Japan.” Its gorgeous alpine scenery and breezy highlands attract visitors year-round.

In Central Nagano, several highland areas extend from the base of the Yatsugatake mountains past Lake Suwa towards Matsumoto. Ranging in heights from 1,400 to 2,200 meters, the lofty plains here have panoramic views of the Northern, Central and Southern Alps. They’re the perfect place to escape the summer heat and enjoy a scenic drive. On these roads, you’re at eye level with the clouds—like you’re driving through the sky.

Chino City is at the entrance to these highlands. Starting here, you can enjoy beautiful drives on the Roof of Japan while seeing some of the area’s own unique history. A short two-day trip around the area is a great escape from the city, or as another leg on a longer journey around Japan.

Day 1: Chino and the Merchen Highway

On your first day, take a train to Chino Station and rent a car from one of the many agencies nearby (see car rental agencies in Nagano here). The start of the Venus Line is less than a kilometer from here, and a little farther up the road is the Merchen Highway.

From the station, take the Merchen Highway for about 50 minutes up to Shirakoma Pond.

Shirakoma Pond

Shirakoma Pond seen from the rocks above Takamiishi Lodge
At the top of Mugikusa Pass of Yatsugatake, Shirakoma Pond sits amidst beautiful forests covered in over 400 species of moss. The forest floor, fallen trees and rocks are carpeted in a rich green. It looks like something straight out of Ghibli’s “Princess Mononoke,” and even one of the woods here is named after the film. Its high altitude—2,115 meters above sea level—makes it a cool place to pass the time even during the hottest days of summer.
The paths around the pond are well-maintained and easy to walk.
The walk to the pond is just 15 minutes from the parking lot through mossy forest. You can stroll around the pond in another 40 minutes and stop for a bite or coffee at one several mountain huts on the shore. Several trails radiate out from the pond leading to other campsites. For a great view of the pond from above, taking the 45-minute trek to Takamiishi is highly recommended.
Bioluminescent moss found under a boulder on the way to Takamiishi Lodge
We may not be able to discern many of the different types of moss in the forest, but there are some cool ones that stand out. With moss, what it grows on is often more important than the shape of the plant itself. I saw many different mosses of all shapes growing on the ground, on living and dead trees, and hidden in cracks in rocks. If you’re lucky, you may also be able to see bioluminescent moss as well!

Togariishi Museum of Jomon Archeology

The museum has a large display of Jomon era pottery, figurines, and tools.
Next stop is the the Togariishi Museum of Jomon Archaeology. It is located on the Togariishi settlement where Jomon people lived over 5,000 years ago. At that time, the highland areas around Chino were home to as many as 1,000 unique Jomon settlements. Experts believe that the cooler weather and the abundance of obsidian, a precious commodity, made the Kirigamine Highlands and foothills of Yatsugatake an attractive place to settle.

In front, the Jomon no Venus figurine. In back, Kamen no Megami.
The museum has an extensive collection of Jomon pottery and clay figurines, including the “Jomon no Venus,” a National Treasure and the most exquisitive example of Jomon figurines found to-date.

Models of Jomon dwellings can be seen behind the museum on the Togariishi settlement.
Visitors may be surprised to find many of the organic, coiled patterns of the pottery strangely familiar. While little regard was given to the Jomon period and culture for much of the 20th century, its aesthetics have increasingly influenced Japanese art and pop culture. Comics and video games have paid homage to the shapes of the Jomon figurines and patterns of Jomon pottery, like the most recent installation in the Legend of Zelda franchise.

The Works of Terunobu Fujimori

Takasugi-an Teahouse
For the architecture enthusiast with interest in Japanese design and a sense of humor, Terunobu Fujimori’s buildings are a delight. They incorporate traditional materials that harken back to ancient Japan, even as far back as the Jomon Period, while staying light-hearted. The architect has built several museums and homes, and some of his first works can be seen in Chino City, including the Moriya Shiryokan Musem and several tea houses.

Moriya Shiryokan
The Moriya Shiryokan is a repository, housing documents related to the history of Suwa Taisha, one of Nagano’s most venerable shrines. Entrance to the repository is 100 yen, and it has a few small exhibits inside. For such a small fee, it is worth entering just to see the interior of the building itself, like the stairway that leads to an indoor drawbridge on the second floor.

Left to right: Takasugi-an and Soratobu-bune teahouses
Behind the museum is a small path that weaves through a few small fields up the hill towards a spot of land where Mr. Fujimori’s teahouses lie. They are called Soratobu-bune (Flying Boat), Takasugi-an (Too Tall Teahouse), and Hikusugi-an (Too Small Teahouse). From the names themselves it is easy to see that his creations are not your typical architectural fare.

Spend the Night in Tateshina Onsen

A fast-flowing river cuts straight through the hotel.
Heading back towards the Venus Line and Merchen Highway, stop in Tateshina Onsen to spend the night. There are a number of great hotels and inns here. Tateshina Grand Hotel Taki no Yu is just off the Venus Line and very close to the Kitayatsugatake Ropeway, making it a perfect place to spend the night. Its hot springs, facilities, and buffet meals are the cherry on top.

The Keiryu Rotenburo bath at night, offering views of the river below.
From the sound of the river that runs through the hotel, you can tell that the area is abundant in water. The hotel has several hot springs here to enjoy, whether you’re staying the night or just visiting for the day. There are two outdoor baths, one tiered bath with majestic views of the gorge, and another more intimate space with views of trees and flowers. There are also indoor baths and private baths for families or couples. (See below for day-use hours.)


Its dinner and breakfast buffets include a variety of Japanese and Western options, from roast beef and pizza to sushi and udon. In addition to being able to eat to your heart’s content, you can also choose what you like. Even the fussiest of eaters will be able to find something that they like here, and those adventurous ones can try plenty of Japanese traditional dishes.

Day 2: The Venus Line

The Venus Line connects Nagano’s central highland areas and enjoys amazing panoramic views of the surrounding area. Traveling at altitudes between 1,400 to 2,000 meters, you drive across vistas that seem to float in the clouds. The road cuts through Tateshina Onsen, heading towards Kirigamine Kogen and Lake Shirakaba. Just a 7-minute drive from the hotel is our next stop, the Kita-Yatsugatake Ropeway.

Kita-Yatsugatake Ropeway

The lower ropeway station looks like something pulled straight out of Bavaria
The Kita-Yatsugatake Ropeway travels up the Yatsugatake mountains to a 2,237-meter-high plateau. Beyond the ropeway station is an otherworldly garden of igneous rock and windswept pines surrounded by the peaks of the Yatsugatake mountains. Trails wind through the plateau’s garden and continue to the summits of nearby Mts. Yokodake and Shimakare. Even in the hottest days of summer, the weather here is cool.

The upper ropeway station seen from the Tsuboniwa garden

The forest on the hillside shows the shimakare phenomenon.
Here you can see a phenomenon called shimakare in Japanese, or fir waves in English. Looking at the mountainside, stripes of dead trees cut a swath through the forest. Over many years, these stripes move up the mountain as trees exposed to the wind begin to wither and new trees grow behind them.

Enjoy a refreshing kokemomo (mountain cranberry) juice at the ropeway’s cafe.
Back at the station there’s a café and an observation deck. From the observation deck, you can see all three ranges of the Japanese Alps and the rest of the peaks of Yatsugatake. Have a coffee and a treat like daifuku or soft serve made with mountain cranberries.

The Venus Line

A car drives along the Venus Line away from Lake Shirakaba.
After leaving the Kita-Yatsugatake Ropeway, continue up the mountain towards Lake Shirakaba. The Ikenotaira Hotel and Resort can be found here, offering many activities for families, from small amusement parks to water slides and petting zoos. Those who are just passing through can stop by an overlook just above the lake to enjoy the view.
Lake Shirakaba seen from an observation point on the Venus Line.
Day lilies in the plains of Kirigamine
Next stop is Kirigamine Kogen. In summer, bright yellow day lilies carpet the grasslands and during autumn silver cattails sway gently in the breeze. You can stop at the Chaplin Restaurant to see fields of them up close. Or, head to Yashima Shitsugen and walk along trails through the marshlands with day lilies, irises, thistles and more.

Gun for Sparrow OSAKA PUNCH by Bernhard Luginbühl
At the Matsumoto end of the Venus Line is the Utsukushigara Open-air Art Museum. 350 sculptures dot the grassy hillside, overlooking expansive mountain scenery. Whether the artworks or the natural vistas are more impressive is for you to decide!

Heading Home or Continuing your Journey

After the Utsukushigahara Open-air Art Museum, head towards Matsumoto or Ueda to return your vehicle (see more about car rental agencies in Nagano). You can continue your journey by visiting Matsumoto Castle, or you can head back to Tokyo using the Super Express Azusa from Matsumoto, or the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Ueda.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about the Central Nagano area, see some of the links below.

Related Blog Posts

Highland Trekking in Kirigamine Kogen
Climbing the Yatsugatake Mountains: Mt. Neishi-dake
The Japanese Alps are an Overlooked Gem
Summer Fun Around Lake Suwa

Notes

Back to Text.

Tateshina Grand Hotel Taki No Yu
Day Use Hot Spring

Hours: 13:00 to 21:00
Reception: 3rd Floor Reception Counter
Price: Adults/1,500 yen, Children/800 yen
Face Towel (purchase) 200 yen
Bath towel (rental) 300 yen

The Japanese Alps are an Overlooked Gem

July 17th, 2018 by
Category: Accomodations, Information, Miscellaneous

If you are planning a summer trip to Japan, blocking off time to spend in the Alps is a must!

On a recent two week trip to Japan, my wife and I spent three nights in Nagano prefecture. If your research has gone anything like ours did, very little information online or in travel books is devoted towards this area specifically- besides a mention of the world-class winter sports available during the winter months. As far as the summer, the recommendations are nearly non-existent.

We came to Nagano for a friend’s wedding; knowing little of the area beforehand, we were amazed at the region’s beauty when we first arrived. The green forests and lush mountains, whether set in sunrise or sunset, were striking against the canvas of pinks, purples, yellows, and blues in the sky. We spent much of our time taking in the panoramas of mountains unlike any others we had seen in the past. Aside from the views, we appreciated the mountain life. The slower pace was refreshing after being around the buzz of bustling Kyoto and Tokyo.

Suwa-Shi, Nagano The serene beauty of the lush forested mountains atop smaller towns and roads will take your breath away.

Hoshino Risonare Yatsugatake
Nearly in any direction you looked, glimpses of the multiple mountain ranges were visible.

Kobuchizawa Station, Hokuto
Even the stops at train stations and the interlays of shrines & statues were beautiful.

Hoshino Risonare Yatsugatake
The resort displayed a whimsical appreciation for the seasons with the fun display of colored umbrellas for the rainy season.

We ended up staying at a Risonare Yatsugatake in Yamanashi wine country. This resort was magnificent between phenomenal staff, a plethora of available events/activities, and the quality of the facilities. Whether you want to actually book nights there (which we highly recommend) or just decide to make the day trip, there is plenty to do. The Hoshino resort’s campus holds an array of activities including: shopping, cafes, restaurants, a wave pool, wine tastings, ropes course, horseback riding, bike rentals, arts & crafts, and even a public bath for those staying at the resort. While we were unable to venture out much during our stay, since all the wedding festivities were on campus, we never got bored due to the multitude of options available.

The awe-inspiring sacred mountain continued to warm our hearts and souls at all times of day.

Lastly, the resort and surrounding areas provided ample opportunity to catch glimpses of Fujisan even 75+ miles out. While we only spent slightly more than 48 hours in the Alps (of our 11 day trip), this region now holds some of our fondest memories. We wished we could have done more while there, but now we have even more of a reason to return in the coming months and years.


Bio

My name is Brandon Shell and I currently find refuge amongst the beautiful long leaf pines, lakes, mountains, beaches, and community of North Carolina in the United States. While my wife and I both grew up here, we have always had a passion for changing the trajectory of our families’ legacies through authentic travel experiences. The relationships made while traveling are the most satisfying aspect of our adventures.

We are passionate about leading relationally within our own professions and hobbies all the while blogging our passions on the side. We strive to share with the world how to live intentionally and ethically by seeing daily choices as opportunities for making an impact on communities, both near and far. We document our travels, health, and nutrition choices in a variety of capacities on our blog and on Instagram @wecausewecare. We hope that we can continue to travel for the rest of our lives and leave a legacy that even our grandchildren will one day be proud of!

Social Media:
We Cause We Care on Instagram

Experiencing the Japanese Countryside in Chikuma

November 30th, 2016 by
Category: Accomodations, Culture Art, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities

Tyler shows our group some Showa era graffiti on a local earthern wall.

On a beautiful fall day, I joined a group of foreigners on a cycling tour of Togura Kamiyamada Onsen south of Chikuma City. The area was once home to several mountain castles and a post town so there is a wealth of history in the area. Our guide, local ryokan owner and area expert Tyler, took us along beautiful mountain roads and pointed out interesting relics and features along the way.
Read the rest of this entry »

Nagano’s Quiet Samurai Town

June 21st, 2016 by
Category: Accomodations, Experience, Sightseeing

Matsushiro castle in spring.

Matsushiro was once the domain of the Sanada clan, the samurai family starring in NHK’s newest historical drama, Sanada Maru. The Matsushiro domain covered the largest area of the Shinano province and thrived as a castle town during the Edo period. Now the Matsushiro area is a sleepy, undeveloped town with pristine artifacts of its Samurai history.

A group of us visited Matsushiro recently to learn more about its history and enjoy some cultural activities and local food.

Read the rest of this entry »

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:

Read the rest of this entry »

Japanese-Style Illumination Has Started at Asama Hot Spring, Matsumoto

December 26th, 2014 by
Category: Accomodations, Events, Onsens (Hot Springs)

In Japan, the winter is a season of “illumination”. There are some beautiful illumination spots lighted up by LEDs. In Nagano, Karuizawa, Azumino, and Suzaka’s ​illumination events are famous.

This winter, not large but unique illumination has started at Asama Hot Springs in Matsumoto. It is Japanese taste design lighting in front of Hot Plaza Asama, a day trip hot spring​ facility. You can watch the “healing illumination” while soaking your feet in the free foot hot spring.

Japanese-style illumination of origami cranes and Matsumoto temari balls, made and played in the castle in Edo period.

The lights on trees are designed to twinkle by natural wind, like stars in the sky.

Because of the M 6.7 earthquake that occurred on 22nd November and damaged some portions in Hakuba and Northern Nagano, even hotels in Asama Hot Springs suffered from cancellations, even though Matsumoto is in the center of Nagano Prefecture and didn’t have any direct damage.

Now, there are no problems at all sightseeing spots and ski resorts in Nagano, including transportation.

Kick-off ceremony of illumination

People in Asama Onsen hope this beautiful illumination will overcome the quake.​

Asama Hot Spring is located in a convenient place in Matsumoto, Nagano. It is just a ten minute bus ride from Matsumoto Castle. It also has a very long history, 1,300 years or more and feudal lords of the Castle visited there in the Edo period (17th century).

All the lights are LEDs using small amounts of electricity

The illumination​ is shining 5pm to 0am until April 19.

More than twenty traditional Japanese ryokans in Asama Onsen and the illumination​ are wating for you.

Nagano’s Ryokans Recognized by TripAdvisor.com

January 26th, 2013 by
Category: Accomodations, Information

Tripadvisor.com, which features travel reviews from people around the world, announced their Travelers’ Choice 2013 Awards.

For the B&B / Inns category of the Top 25 that received the award, 7 are from here, Nagano Prefecture. That’s the most of any prefecture — more than even Kyoto! That goes to show the high level of customer service provided by ryokans in Nagano.

The 7 ryokans from Nagano that received the award are:

Biyu no Yado, Shimaya Ryokan and Matsuya from Yamanouchi Town by the snow monkeys,

The venerable Hanaya Ryokan in Bessho Onsen,

Historical Fujioto Ryokan in Tsumago, a post town along the old Nakasendo Road,

Friendly Seifuso in Matsumoto in between the castle and Asama Onsen,

and a certain little inn here in our onsen town, Togura-Kamiyamada.

Of the thousands of inns throughout Japan, 7 of the Top 25 as selected by tripadvisor.com‘s reviewers are in Nagano. So when you think about where to experience a stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan, Nagano Prefecture is a great place to consider.

Tripadvisor.com Travelers’ Choice 2013 Top 25 B&Bs and Inns in Japan

Omachi: Onsen and horseback archery

July 4th, 2012 by
Category: Accomodations, Events, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs)

Lately I have been  ‘researching’ Nagano’s top onsens.  One I went to recently was Omachi Onsen in the foothills of the Japanese Alps, north of Matsumoto and south of Hakuba.

Omachi Onsen is relatively new, having come into existence around the construction of the Kurobe Dam and the Tateyama Alpine Route in 1971. It’s a planned onsen resort with spacious, wooded lots (average hotel lot size is 7000m2) and nice, wide lanes. Perfect for walking or cycling, with a tributary to the Takase River to play in and views of the grand Japanese Alps. Besides being the Nagano gateway to the Alpine Route, Omachi is also convenient to Aoki Lake and Azumino (famous for art museums and wasabi fields).

Omachi Onsen’s 14 hotels offer a wide variety of accommodation. From 11-room boutique-like Azumino Kawasho to massive 170-room Tateyama Prince Hotel. In between is the posh Shoen (part of the Hoshino Resort chain), Ryokan Kashiwa-sou with the charismatic Sachie-san charming the guests, the German Alps-themed Kurobe Kanko Hotel, and more. There is also an onsen bathhouse for daytrippers, Yakushi-no-Yu.

The onsen water originates in Kuzu Onsen, 10km upstream where it comes out of the ground at 66.3C. The water is simple mineral water with low alkalidity and low osmotic pressure.
大町温泉郷Omachi Onsen

I’d like to introduce two of the onsen facilities, the daytrippers bathhouse Yakushi-no-Yu and the ryokan where I stayed this time, Hotel Yamada-ya.

Yakushi-no-Yu is Omachi Onsen’s main bathhouse. I went during an off-peak time on a weekday morning, but there were still plenty of bathers. It’s a popular bathhouse. One of the indoor baths is pure onsen water but the temperature was so low, nobody was bathing in it. Instead, everyone was in the larger indoor bath which is heated and recirculated. The outdoor bath was spacious but would have been more enjoyable if it had a view of the Alps. The outdoor bath made of river rocks is apparently only operating in the summer, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to enjoy it.
薬師の湯Yakushi no Yu

Yakushi no Yu's entrance

Hotel Yamada-ya’s owners provide surprisingly friendly service considering its size (51 rooms). The indoor bath was nice and spacious but I always like outdoor baths more.
大町ホテル山田屋 Omachi Hotel Yamadaya

Hotel Yamada-ya's Inviting Outdoor Bath

During my visit, I had the privelege of meeting the mayor of Omachi. It turns out Ushikoshi-san is an avid archery fan. I promised to put the word out about Omachi’s upcoming horse-back archery event, Yabusame. Officially called the Omachi Nyakuichi-Oji Festival, the main event will take place on Sunday 22-July this year (2012) with a procession to start at Omachi Station around 10am, winding up at Nyakuichi Oji Shrine around 3pm for the childrens’ archery demonstration.
Omachi Yabusame Archery Event (English – translation by Yours Truly)

Access to Omachi is via Route 147 from Matsumoto, or via the JR Oito Line from Matsumoto Station.  There is regular bus service from Shinanoomachi Station to Omachi Onsen and continuing on to Ogisawa, the start of the Tateyama-Kurobe Dam Alpine Route.

Resort Inn “Candytuft” in Karuizawa

December 20th, 2011 by
Category: Accomodations, Cuisine, Information, Report
outside_winter
The appearance of the resort inn “Candytuft” in winter. The antique pink building is charming.
 
dining
You enjoy dinner and breakfast in this spacious dining room with a warm wood-burning stove.

If you want to enjoy Karuizawa, a popular highland resort in Japan, to the full extent, what is the ideal type of accommodation?  I think you will need to find a place which provides comfortable rooms, good access to tourist spots, delicious meals, kind staff, the quiet surroundings and relaxing bathrooms.  Today I’d like to introduce an inn called “Candytuft”, which will surely satisfy those needs I mentioned.

Candytuft is located in the quiet area called Minamigaoka, where there are a lot of trees and holiday homes.  If you walk or cycle around the inn, you will soon find the typical beautiful scenery of Karuizawa.  Yet, it is only 1.9 kilometers from Karuziawa Station and has good access to popular sightseeing spots, including Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza (famous outlet mall) and Karuizawa Prince Snow Resort (skiing and snowboarding facility).  And to the convenience of tourists using trains, the hotel can pick you up at Karuizawa Station as long as you make a pickup reservation in advance.  That would be helpful especially for visitors from overseas.

Other than its location, I would like to talk about the inn itself.  There are ten nicely decorated Western-style rooms, nine of which with a bath and a toilet, one with a toilet, and all with a washbasin.  Aside from a bathroom within a guest room, the inn has two independent family bathrooms, which can be used privately.  You can relax in a bigger bathroom with artificial hot-spring water.  As for meals, you can enjoy tasty Western-style dinner and breakfast in the beautiful dining room with a lovely wood-burning stove.  At the corner of the dining room, you will find a display of premium shochu (Japanese alcoholic drink) bottles.  You can sip these shochu or other alcoholic beverages during your meal or in your room.

 I’m sure you will have a wonderful time if you stay at Candytuft and explore Karuizawa.

twin_room
A twin room with a bath and a toilet. There are 10 guest rooms in European taste.
 
bathroom_1
Guests can also use a family bathroom with artificial hot-spring water.  Have a private relaxing time!  
sake

You can enjoy drinking from a large collection of alcoholic beverages.

 

breakfast

Fresh breakfast is served in a dining room with a view of the beautiful outside scenery.

 

lounge

There are tourist guidebooks in the lounge.

Name of the facility Candytuft
Description of business Accommodation in Western style with a capacity of 23 guests
Address 1143-10, Karuizawa, Karuizawa-machi, Kitasaku-gun, Nagano-ken, 389-0102
TEL / FAX
  • TEL: 0267-41-1350 (Japan country code: 81)
  • FAX: 0267-41-1353 (Japan country code: 81)
E-mail p-candy@alto.ocn.ne.jp
URL
Access
  • Pickup and sending service available with advanced reservation. Please contact the inn.
  • If you walk, it takes 25 minutes from Karuizawa Station (1.9 km).
  • If you take a taxi, it takes 5 minutes from Norh Exit of Karuizawa Station (about JPY1,100).
Operating dates and hours Closed on Dec 31 and Jan 1. Other irregular closure is possible, so please contact the inn. 
Prices JPY8,000 to JPY13,000 per night per person with breakfast (the price varies seasonally).
How to contact Email only
General information of Karuizawa Contact Karuizawa Tourist Information Offices: TEL: 0267-42-5538 (Old Town) / 0267-42-2491 (Karuizawa Station) / 0267-45-6050 (Naka Karuizawa Station). http://karuizawa-kankokyokai.jp/ (Click “English” button.)