Shimotsuki — The festival where gods gather to bathe.

December 20th, 2018 by
Category: Events, Experience, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Deep in the foothills of the Southern Japanese Alps, you’ll find the tiny hamlet of around 100 souls called Shimoguri no Sato.   Or maybe you won’t, as Shimoguri is considered a ‘hidden village’.  Perched precariously on a steep hill, the area is also known as the “Tyrol of Japan”, although “Japan’s Machu Picchu” may be more applicable.  Not short of nicknames, Shimoguri is also thought to be a ‘tenku’ (天空) for the way it seemingly floats above the clouds.

Matchu Picchu-like Shimoguri no Sato (Photo courtesy of Katsumasa Furusawa)

Due to its harsh geography with its hillside location averaging a steep 38 degree slope ranging from 800 to 1100 meters above sea level, practically the only thing that can be grown is potato.  And the elderly farmers, mostly by hand, produce a variety called shimoguri, named after their land.

Many moons ago, I helped with the text for Nagano Prefecture’s official “Go-Nagano” website.  I tried to do as much research as possible for each entry including physically visiting many of the sites.  Due to its remote location, I never made it to Shimoguri.  But I have been enchanted by it’s storybook-like setting ever since writing the Shimoguri entry.

However, I recently finally got the chance to visit.  A colleague of mine had spent time there on many occasions including for the mystical Shimotsuki Festival.  10 shrines in the Toyama District hold the ceremony every December, including Shimoguri’s Gojusha Daimyoujin Shrine where it takes place annually on December 13th.  The highlight of the festival is a ritual where water is splashed from a boiling cauldron with a bare hand.  I was to find out that the festival, a nationally designated Important Intangible Cultural Property, is much more complex than just that ritual.

After what seemed like an endless drive into the deep unknown, we finally arrived at Shimoguri around 10pm.  After tea at the house of an acquaintance of my colleague, we headed up to the shrine reaching there just past 11pm to find the evening’s events just getting underway.  We passed through the brand new stone torii gate and slid open the door to the main hall and ducked in.

A bonfire was burning in the center, heating two cauldrons of water.  Visitors give a little donation and then stand along the edge of the crowded hall craning to get a look through the smoke at the various dances and proceedings centered on the fire.

Names of the people who donated.

The main theme of the Shimotsuki Festival is gods come from all across to Japan to have a bath, hence the afore-mentioned splashing of the boiling water.  If that sounds familiar, you may have seen “Spirited Away”.  The animator, Hayao Miyazaki, got his inspiration from Shimoguri’s festival.

One after another, different gods and characters dance around the fire in a hypnotic rhythm, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs, often in groups of 8.

Preparing the bonfire

When we first arrived, 8 people slowly circled around the fire with a ‘sensu’ fan in one hand and ‘suzu’ bell in the other other.

Then they switched to a katana sword and continued their mesmerizing movements.

Various gods represented by people wearing unique masks then took their turns.

Some interacted with the people watching, such as the ‘mother’ god carrying a ‘baby’ that some tried to touch for good fortune.

A couple red foxes performed an intricate dance.

At one point, a real 3-year old child battled a dragon.

Punctuating the festivities were some younger participants whose dance grew wilder, culminating in what can only be described as stage diving but without the stage.

At intervals, the bonfire was built up and the flute and taiko music reached a crescendo

for the men wearing tengu masks

to perform the ritual of splashing the boiling water with their bare hands.

I took a direct hit a couple of times and the water was painfully hot — I can’t imagine the courage it took to stick their hands in the scalding hot water.

We wound up leaving around 3:30 in the morning with still a few more gods to come.  The locals apparently end things with a banquet at 4am.  Their stamina is incredible!  And it all the more amazing considering one other nickname for Shimoguri — ‘genkai shuraku’, literally, a hamlet faced with extinction.  Currently there are only 6 school-aged children in Shimoguri and in all likelihood they will move away for high school and not come back.

In some ways, Shimoguri and its Shimotsuki Festival have a primordial, almost timeless feel.  But time is not working in Shimoguri’s favor.  The village and its festival need to be treasured now.

What’s Happening in Hakuba for the 2018/19 Season

December 13th, 2018 by
Category: Events, Outdoor Activities

The Ski Season is upon us! While the snow accumulation has been limited thus far this year, The Hakuba Valley season will officially begin this weekend with Goryu opening the Sky 4 chair lift on Saturday. Happo-One will open the gondola but only for sight-seeing. The rest of the resorts will open for business as soon as there is enough snow, which hopefully will be before the Christmas season. Despite the slow start, there is much to look forward to this year in Hakuba. Here are the best events for the 2018/19 season.

First Base Party (January 11th)

Tom Tilley (Triple J presenter and client liaison member) and Hugo Gruzman’s (1/2 of the Flight Facilities duo) are taking a giant powder-packed leap into the pristine Japanese Alps with their “Vintage Après Soiree” First Base party in January 2019!

The First Base parties have become a mainstay during the Australian winter seasons and now the group will visit Japan. The duo frequently enlists great artists to perform with and some recent notable names include Hayden James, Confidence Man, Touch Sensitive, CC:DISCO and more.

46501750_2306396196099676_1293907568489398272_o-2

 

The Free Ride World Tour (January 19-26)

The Free Ride World Tour will come to Hakuba for a second straight year. The Free Ride World Tour is the worldwide circuit of freeride snowboarding and skiing with the best riders in the world competing on five of the most challenging alpine faces in some of the world’s most famous resorts. Happo-One will host the event and with it lots of festivities for free ride fans.

Free Ride World Tour (January 19 – January 26)

 

Burton Qualifiers Jan 26th

The Burton Qualifiers is the premiere amateur snowboard contest series offering local riders of all ability levels and ages the chance to come together for a fun day of riding, cash prizes and the opportunity to go all the way to the finals! Now in its fourth season, the FREE Burton Qualifiers series continues to grow with the addition of two new international stops and a huge increase in the already record prize purse with $30,000 in cash on the line.

Fire Festival February 22nd

The annual Happo Fire Festival will be held on February 22nd and will feature torch wielding ski performances, bonfires, raffles, and lots of FREE sake. This is a great way to take in some Japanese culture during your ski holiday.

Happo Fire Festival, February 22nd

Momiji-Lake: red maple leaf tunnel

November 4th, 2018 by
Category: Events, Information, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Are you looking for a new red leaf spot in Nagano?Then you should come check out Minowa town!

The best time to visit is around mid Oct to Early Nov.

Location on google map: https://goo.gl/maps/YWJW9JFN25J2

This place is called “momiji no tunnel.” A lot of tourists and locals come to visit during this time of year. In the evening, the maple trees are lit up and they look really fantastic.

Before the tunnel, you drive around Lake momiji (momiji ko) after seeing the Minowa Dam. The maple trees around the lake are also beautiful!

 

On November 3rd, there is an festival of Momiji Lake at the event square of Minowa town. There are lots of food stalls and some fun activities to take part in. Also, a walking event is held in the morning so you can walk 8km around the whole lake and enjoy the autumn colors at a relaxed pace.

For more info, please visit Minowa town tourism association.

https://www.town-minowa.jp/ (in Japanese)

Summer in Nagano Means ‘Hanabi’ (Fireworks)!

August 10th, 2018 by
Category: Events, Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Cities and towns throughout Nagano put on fireworks displays in summer.  It’s a great excuse to wear a colorful yukata (summer kimono) and enjoy the relatively cool evening ambience.  The grand-daddy is the Lake Suwa Hanabi festival, held every year on 15-August.  It boasts over 40,000 fireworks reflecting in the lake surface.  Then in early September, a separate display featuring a competition of Hanabi-shi (professional pyrotechnics) takes place.  For details, see the official website.

Below is a picture of this year’s Chikuma River Fireworks Festival at Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada.  It’s about the 1/4th the size of Lake Suwa’s, but is an area favorite because the viewing are is so close to the action and the sound reverbrates off the surrounding hillsides, making for a very dynamic display.  The grand-finale includes a cascading ‘Niagara’ of fireworks along the upriver bridge (to the right in the picture).  It is held every year on the 7th of August.  (Photo is actually by my son, Andy, taken from the Kannon-ji Temple on the castle hill behind town.)

Planting Rice and Tasting Sake in Hakuba

May 22nd, 2018 by
Category: Events, Information, Report

Rice is Japan’s main staple. It shows up nearly every meal, morning, day and night, and is used in the production of many of Japan’s flavorings, desserts, and drinks. Among Japan’s most famous rice products is, of course, sake, and over the centuries, agriculturalists have bred and refined rice varieties especially for its production.
Read the rest of this entry »

Spring Flowers in the Japanese Countryside: the Iiyama Nanohana Festival

May 2nd, 2018 by
Category: Events, Information, Seasonal Topics

The flowers grow high enough to make a veritable maze of yellow.


As the cherry blossoms fade away, other flowers take the spotlight around Nagano. In Iiyama, nanohana blossoms cover the fields along the Chikuma River, turning everything a sunny yellow.

The annual Nanohana Festival is held during the latter part of Golden Week, this year from May 3rd to 5th, during which there are musical and dance performances and plenty of activities to enjoy. It all takes place at the Nanohana Park in Iiyama City on the far side of the Chikuma River. The park is located on a small hill and has great views of the surrounding countryside. The Sekida mountains were mostly bare of snow this year, but as the clouds cleared we could see the brilliant white visage of Mt. Myoko in the distance.
Read the rest of this entry »

Cycling and Cherry Blossoms in Spring: the Alps Azumino Century Ride

April 24th, 2018 by
Category: Events, Information, Outdoor Activities, Report

Taking a break at the Alps Azumino Park aid station

The 10th annual Alps Azumino Century Ride cycling event was held last weekend. Beginning in Azumino and extending as far as the ski resorts of Hakuba, the event course weaved through rice fields, orchards, and the lakes of Omachi. While the course was the same for all participants, there were different lengths available, ranging from 70km to 150km. Somehow, I found myself participating in the race along with one of my coworkers. But at least it was on the “friendlier” 70km tour.
Read the rest of this entry »

Escaping the Slopes for a tour of Japan’s Samurai Past

February 15th, 2018 by
Category: Events, Experience, Information, Sightseeing

Matsushiro’s white plaster walls and thatch roofs are reminiscent of a former Japan.

During Nagano’s Lantern Festival, I visited Matsushiro with a group of tourists from Hakuba to enjoy some of the area’s traditional activities. We walked through the streets of this quiet castle town to learn more about its samurai past.
Read the rest of this entry »

Zenkoji’s Lantern Festival — Part of Nagano’s Olympic Heritage

February 13th, 2018 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Last night, we went to Nagano City’s venerable Zenkoji Temple for the last night of the 15th annual Toumyou Matsuri (Lantern Festival).  It is in commemoration of the 1998 Winter Olympics.  The visual artistry was a heart-warming display, which was dearly welcomed with the sub-freezing temperatures!  I’ll let the pictures do the talking:

New Years Bonfire Tradition: Suzaka’s “Dondo-Yaki”

December 29th, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Events, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

After New Years, neighborhoods traditionally gathered the spent bamboo, dharma dolls and other decorations, piled them up and held a bonfire for an event called “Dondo-Yaki”.  While this tradition is becoming less common in urban areas, many communities in Nagano continue to put on “Dondo-Yaki”, usually around the holiday weekend at the beginning of January.

Suzaka Town’s “Dondo-Yaki” for 2018 will take place on Monday 08-Jan (“Coming of Age Day” national holiday) on the grounds of Suzaka Elementary School.  The bonfire will be lit at 5pm.  Participation is free.

It is said that if you eat mochi (sticky rice) roasted over the “Dondo-Yaki” bonfire, you will have good health for the year.  Many participants bring their own mochi rolled up in colorful balls and stuck to a branch for roasting over the coals.

Suzaka’s Guesthouse KURA can provide more details.  On Sunday, they will make mochi and prepare to roast it at the bonfire, so guests can enjoy a full “Dondo-Yaki” weekend.