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.
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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.

First we visited the town’s military academy, the Bunbu Gakko. Established in 1855, it educated young men in the Matsushiro Clan until the Meiji Restoration. The gravel campus is home to seven main buildings in which students were instructed in literature, military strategy, western medicine, and a variety of martial arts. We stepped into the school’s spear-training hall and watched a performance of Iaido, a type of swordsmanship turned art form. Unlike Kendo or other sword disciplines, Iaido doesn’t have opponents or duels—which is for the best, because in Iaido, the swords are real.

The Iaido master demonstrates several powerful strikes with his sword.

We picked up some wooden ones and followed the master’s instructions, learning several of the movements he showed us in his performance. We learned a downward cut, an upward block, the correct way to sheathe the sword, as well as a swing designed to shake blood of the blade. Despite the gruesome history of swordsmanship, the movements involved are incredibly elegant.

After our training in the dojo, we made our way to another relic of Matsushiro’s past: Teramachi Shoka, a beautifully restored merchant house that operated during the Edo Period. The complex’s warm, earthern walls surround a courtyard with pond and manicured pine trees. The dark, shingled roof is crowned with the merchant family’s crest. After crossing the threshold, we were whisked into the main lounge, a series of traditional Japanese tatami rooms separated by shoji sliding doors. Each room was set up with different activities: in one, a bright-red floor mat covered in large paper fans; in another, small looms arranged with colorful string; and in the last, several sets of paper samurai armor.

Trying on a set of paper samurai armor.

Posing with Asahi-san, one of Matsushiro’s history-loving samurai.

We took turns trying on armor, making colorful braids, and playing a surprisingly entertaining fan-throwing game. Each harkened back to Matsushiro’s history as a castle town. The armor was made by local history enthusiasts in the style of samurai from the Sanada family, each piece emblazoned with the rokumonsen crest (two rows of three coins, representing the fare needed to cross into the afterlife). The braids, called Sanada Himo, were used to tie together pieces of armor, secure sheathed swords, and carry heavy loads. They were named after the Sanada due to a rumor that members of the family who found themselves on the wrong side of the Tokugawa spent their later years making such braids to earn a living. Finally, the fan-throwing game Tosenkyo, while not directly related to the Sanada, was a popular pastime during the Edo and early Meiji throughout Japan. Despite being terrible at fan-throwing, I thought the game was great fun, and some of the other guests even bought sets to play it at home!

Learning how to make Sanada Himo braids using a small handloom.

My intense concentration while playing Tosenkyo doesn’t pay off.

Our last, but not least, stop for the evening was Nagano City’s lantern festival. The street to Zenkoji was packed with visitors admiring the colorful paper lanterns designed by local students and craftsmen. Some of the designs featured popular characters or sightseeing spots in Nagano, while others were simpler motifs featuring cherry blossoms and flowers. The temple itself was illuminated in the five colors of the Olympic Games, changing slowly over the course of the evening. With free sake, music, and beautiful sights, the festival was a great way to enjoy a winter night.

Zenkoji illuminated in red.

A prize-winning design featuring intricate floral motifs and a dog.

Huge crowds weaved through the rows of lanterns covering Chuo Doori.

You May Also Like

Thanks for reading! If you are interested in Matsushiro’s history, the Nagano Lantern Festival, or other similar events, you may want to check some of the links below:

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.

The Sanada Jumangoku Festival

October 11th, 2017 by
Category: Events, Information, Sightseeing

Several of the parade’s participants pose for a morning photograph.

On Sunday, Matsushiro celebrated their annual Sanada Jumangoku festival. Taiko performances, artillery displays, and traditional dances were held at the castle before a procession of Sanada clan warriors paraded through the gates. History lovers from around Japan came to participate in the event, bringing beautifully crafted suits of paper armor with them.
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Visitors From All Over the World Experience Japanese Culture in Matsumoto

October 3rd, 2017 by
Category: Events, Experience

Last month, Nakamachi Street in Matsumoto put on a lively, hands-on “Japanese Culture Experience” event where visitors could try all sorts of traditional Japanese crafts and activities. Over 150 international tourists and foreign residents came over the course of the two-day event making Nakamachi one lively place to be!

The main event venue: Nakamachi’s Kurassic-kan

To add to the atmosphere, the main activities were held at the beautiful Kurassic-kan, a former sake brewery that was turned into community center. Here, visitors eagerly learned how to fold origami into intricate shapes, write their names in Japanese characters using calligraphy brushes, and enjoyed the grace of the Japanese tea ceremony. Outside in Kurassic-kan’s plaza, Matsumoto’s resident ninja taught kids how to shoot down imaginary enemies with ninja blowgun darts and the city’s one-and-only rickshaw puller offered people shorts rides and photos on his rickshaw.

Learning the traditional tea ceremony

Writing Japanese characters with a brush and ink

Taking a ride around Matsumoto on the rickshaw

Matsumoto’s resident ninja

Visitors also got to try wearing yukata/kimono (thanks to Matsumoto’s Hanakomichi kimono rental service), bang out thundering drum beats with the big taiko drums set up outside, play with all kinds of old-fashioned toys like stilts and kendama, and even taste Nakamachi’s specially brewed sake!

That’s still not all — several shops in Nakamachi had their own activities like trying on geta (a traditional Japanese form of footwear), local food and drink tastings, and trying out the shamisen. One shop taught people how to play a traditional geisha game called konpira fune-fune which is a simple yet challenging concentration game where players must tap a saucer and pillow in the correct pattern along to the beat of shamisen music.

The konpira fune-fune game in front of the Itoya shop

Giving the “take-uma,” a.k.a. stilts, a try

Personally, I went to the event on both days, and even though I’ve been living in Japan for a few years now, I still got to try many new things: Kimono, rickshaw rides, geisha games, ninja blowguns… But, although all the activities were engaging and fun, perhaps the best part was meeting new people from all over the world and interacting with the Matsumoto locals! I met a cyclist from Andorra (that tiny country between Spain and France) who had bike all the way from Aomori, a photographer from India, tourists from Egypt, and a researcher from England.

In the end, the whole event became more than just an event about sharing Japanese culture — it was a great international culture exchange opportunity for everyone! Let’s just hope we see more events like this in Matsumoto and other places in Nagano in future 🙂 Thank you Nakamachi!

Nagano’s Apple Season Has Officially Started

September 30th, 2017 by
Category: Events, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Apple season has officially started here in Nagano Prefecture.  Deep-red ‘akibae’ and shiny-yellow ‘Shinano gold’, tangy ‘Shinano sweet’ and tangy classics like ‘kogyoku’, these early-season varieties will continue through October before transitioning to fuji’s in November.

Tobita-san from Crown Farm dropped off some first-pick apples for us.  His orchard is only 5 minutes by car (15 minutes by bicycle) from Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada. They offer all-you-can-eat picking, as well as tasting.


Nothing beats the sweetness of a freshly-picked Nagano apple.

Typhoon Talim Passed, Now Back to Autumn: Cosmos Flowers in Saku

September 18th, 2017 by
Category: Events, Seasonal Topics

Nagano’s mountains kept us mostly safe from Typhoon Talim — now it’s back to enjoying Autumn.

Cosmos (the flower) Festival in Saku City on the eastern edge of Nagano.
Route 254 is lined with cosmos flowers for several kilometers.
The festival runs through 20-September and features music, fresh-picked grapes, yummy crepes and … colorful cosmos blossoms.
By the way, the ‘kanji’ for cosmos is 秋桜, “Autumn Sakura (cherry blossoms)”.

Cosmos Flowers Lining the Cosmos Highway (Route 254)

Hands-on Japanese Culture Experience Event in Matsumoto (Sep. 6 & 23)

August 29th, 2017 by
Category: Events, Experience


Visit the Nakamachi in downtown Matsumoto on September 6 or 23 for a fun Japanese culture experience for the whole family! This event features several hands-on Japanese arts and crafts activities such as Japanese calligraphy, traditional tea ceremony, and origami; as well as other interactive activities like sake tasting, kimono rental, and rickshaw rides. Most activities are free and you will receive a free souvenir for participating. As a bonus, several of the shops around Nakamachi will also be offering different cultural activities or games. See below for an overview of the event program and where you can get the official details, event flyer, or see the event on Facebook!

Event Details

Place: Kurassic-kan in Nakamachi, Matsumoto
Date & Time: Sep. 6 and Sep. 23, 10 am – 4 pm (times for activities at the shops differ. Check the event flyer or webpage)
Event webpage: http://nakamachi-street.com/en/experiencedays/
Event on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/1607791399271217/
* Local high school students, local guides, and volunteers will also be present to help with translation and interpretation.

Get the official PDF flyer here which includes a map and all activity details:

Click to download the full event flyer (PDF)

List of main activities at the Kurassic-kan:

  • Origami folding
  • Japanese calligraphy
  • Japanese Tea Ceremony (traditional way of making matcha green tea)
  • Japanese folding fan decorating
  • Play with old-fashioned and traditional Japanese toys
  • Sake tasting with Nakamachi’s original-brand sake
  • Kimono (yukata) and ninja costume rental (paid activity)
  • Rickshaw rides around Nakamachi (paid activity, discount with kimono rental)
  • Ninja blowgun activity (paid activity, free with ninja costume rental)

List of shops offering activities around Nakamachi:

  • Geiyukan: Try plaing the shamisen, a traditional Japanese music instrument.
  • Kuriya: Make fresh wasabi from real wasabi root.
  • Senri: Japanese wine, sake, amazake, and juice tasting
  • Yamahei: Introduction of some Japanese local foods
  • Yaguchi: Try wearing geta, a traditional form of Japanese footwear.
  • Ihara: Chopsticks and beans game
  • Itoya: Play the konpira fune-fune game, a traditional game played at geisha banquets, and other activities.
  • Okinado Kura Branch: Try playing the Japanese taiko drum. Also, exhibit of traditional tools used for making Japanese confections/sweets
  • Temariya: Free Japanese tea

Japanese Summer Festivals and Fireworks in Nagano

July 21st, 2017 by
Category: Events, Information, Seasonal Topics

An archer in the Nyakuichi Oji Festival in Omachi City.

The vibrant, lively atmosphere of summer festivals is one of the most memorable parts of Japan. The streets are filled with the bright colors of yatai stalls, yukata robes, and paper lanterns, and the sky lights up with brilliant fireworks. Musicians play traditional flute and drum songs as performers entertain festival-goers with dances and theater.

As summer approaches its peak, Nagano gears up for exciting festivals of its own. Enjoy traditional Japanese summer festivals along with events that are unique to Nagano.
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