Knife Making at Sakaki Katana Museum

July 6th, 2010 by
Category: Culture Art, Events
Visitors making a knife.

Visitors making a knife.

On Sunday, July 4th, the Sakaki Katana Museum held a special knife making event where visitors could learn how to fashion a 210mm carpentry nail into a small knife using ancient samurai sword-making techniques.

Both children and adults alike participated, signing up at the community hall adjacent to the Sakaki Katana Museum in Sakaki.  There were several anvils and a number of hammers which people used to pound the steel nails flat, slowly, one pound at a time, taking on the shape of a knife.  Several katana makers and apprentices were on hand to advise, correct and touch up the knives visitors were making.

Aside from pounding the nails flat on an anvil, the visitors used a grinding machine to sharpen the knives, cleaned the blades, wrapped cord around the unsharpened end to create a grip, and made a sheath out of newspaper.

In the end, what was once a nail turned into a small knife, much like a letter opener, but with a blade probably sharp enough for shaving!  A nice thing to take home at the end of the event, but definitely not something to give to your kids!

The Sakaki Katana Museum, located just up the road from Sakaki Station, features displays of samurai swords (katana) crafted by several different swordmakers, including one foreign-born master.  Almost all of the swords on display are without grips, guards or sheaths, and the blades range in sized from around 25cm to as long as 80cm.

Admission to the museum is 400 yen for adults.

Kamikochi in Nagano’s Rainy Season: The Zen of Mist and Colors of Jumpsuits

July 4th, 2010 by
Category: Events, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities

If you have come to Nagano for hiking during the summer months’ rainy season you are in store for some of the lushest green vegetation and mistiest peaks of the year. So don’t let potentially in climate weather stop you from lacing up your hiking boots.

In late July, fellow Go Nagano Blogger Tom Jones led me and friends around some of Kamikochi National Park’s day trip treasures. Both Saturday and Sunday were spent under light rain showers which meant no crowds, heightened colors, and forests of sound.
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A portrait of Nagano’s Martial Ways at the 3rd Annual Budo Festival

June 24th, 2010 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Onsens (Hot Springs)

The 3rd Annual Omachi Budō Festival:

A bento of Martial Arts

Will Habbington, co-organizer of the Omachi Budo Festival, during this year's Iado session

Will Habington, co-organizer of the Omachi Budo Festival, during this year's Iado session

This past Sunday, William Habington and Tammy Crichton organized the third annual Omachi Budō Festival near Lake Kizakiko. William and Tammy have, respectively, been living in Nagano and practicing budo for over five years. For the last three years, they have organized the Omachi Budō Festival as a sampling of martial arts and a gathering of community. This year, teachers and students volunteered their time to teach classes and do demonstrations in Kendo, Judo, Jodo, Naginata, and Iado.

Tammy Cricheron, co-organizer of the Omachi Budo Festival, during the Naginata sessions

Tammy Crichton, co-organizer of the Omachi Budo Festival, during the Naginata sessions

Taking off Kendo gear after the last session of the day

Taking off Kendo gear after the last session of the day

In popular media, particularly film, Japan’s martial arts can portray an exoticized image of Japan’s castle and samurai guarded history. Today, however, in addition to higher competitive levels, budō thrives in school activities and community past times. Removed from a context of warring necessity, the goal of budō today may seem like heightened athleticism and competition. However, the Japanese Budo Association understands the “study of budō (to) encourage courteous behavior, advance technical proficiency, strengthen the body, and perfect the mind.”

omachibudoweb-7 omachibudoweb-10

According to the Association:

Budō is:


"the Japanese martial ways, (that) have their origins in the age-old martial spirit of Japan. Through centuries of historical and social change, these forms of traditional culture evolved from combat techniques (jutsu) into ways of self-development (do)."

Getting Involved in Nagano Budō

As a tourist visiting Nagano, it is not quite as easy to participate in budō study which Habbington says he usually associates with longer term residents. However, viewing practices or hands on experiences in some of the art can be arranged.


Tyler Lynch , of Uniquely Nagano, is working towards organizing more English language resources for inbound tourists eager to experience different parts of Nagano’s culture. Currently, experiences in ninjistsu are available through Togakushi schools. Contact: omotenashi(at) for more details.

曲水の宴 Kyokusui no utage Poetry and Tea Ceremony at Manns Winery in Komoro City

June 11th, 2010 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Events
My koto teacher, Masaki Hara, in the outdoor tea ceremony area

My koto teacher, Masaki Hara, in the outdoor tea ceremony area

This past Saturday, Manns Winery in Komoro city opened its traditional Japanese garden to tea ceremony and the Heian period poetry game kyoku sui no utage. I was invited by my koto teacher who played the accompanying music for the festivities. But it wasn’t until yesterday that we exchanged notes on the ornate and relatively rare Heian game which can be difficult to fully understand even for locals like my teacher who took part in the ceremony.


For me, with limited Japanese and even less context to Saturday’s events before arriving, wandering into the winery’s expansive green lawn felt like Japanese historical reenactment meets Sunday brunch and polo game. Kimono clad guests shaded themselves with lace parasols and colorful umbrellas while peering into the landscaped lower garden. Below, honorary participants were seated under lacquer red parasols in decadent deep purple and orange robes, gleaning with silver and gold threads. Attendants with long platted hair circled around the camera men, journalists, and participants in a reserved, but constant motion.


Hein period costumes are used in kyoku sui no utage because it is originally a Heian period game for nobles, particularly of the imperial court. Saturday’s version was a combination of formal ceremony for nobles and informal community gathering with tea.

tea_walkingAfter the Heian processional played kyoku sui no utage and received tea, hundreds of guests strolled the garden and struck up conversation. One woman and I discovered that we live in neighboring villages. Later she wrangled her grandson over, one of my elementary school students, to practice his English which was sticky but proudly spot on despite his ice cream lined lips and ruffled energy which comes from summer play.

曲水の宴 Kyoku sui no utage: The Hein Poetry Game:

Heian period robes were worn during the festivities for Kyoku Sui no Utage, a Heian period poetry game.

Heian period robes were worn during the festivities for Kyoku Sui no Utage, a Heian period poetry game.

As the koto music played, announcements were read, and dancers danced, the honorary few, in robes and make-up, wrote wakas, or Japanese poems. Kyoku sui no utage is basically a game where participants compose a poem and use a sprout of bamboo to catch a small saucer of sake floated down stream to them. In this instance, assistants brought the sake to those composing the poems, I assume because they were enacting the role of nobility, but after the formal ceremony finished, all of the guests were invited to partake. Seated on straw mats that felt like lily pads, guests leaned over the garden’s small stream reaching for the multi-colored ducks carrying sake in sip sized red saucers.

Three women try to catch sake floatd down stream to them as part of kyoku sui no utage, the Heian period game

Three women try to catch sake floatd down stream to them as part of kyoku sui no utage, the Heian period game

tea_streamOnce the enacting imperial court and corresponding formality had finished, kyoku sui no utage really felt more like a game. The sweets, drink, and playfully novel objective of catching your sake with  the bamboo stick (which was easily floated by at hands reach) was all pleasantries: a characteristic you might suspect from a 12th century game for nobles. Also, many of Saturday’s poems were simple and sweet without much verbose language or ambiguity. Even my poem, written in bad Japanese, reading “today gave me many good feelings. I love summer. Thank you!” seemed to fit in alongside the other guests’ poetry who also thanked the organizers for the fun day or depicted summer drawings.

野点Nodate Outdoor Tea Ceremony

A lace hankerchief used to guard against spilling the day's bento (lunch) down the kimono front.

A lace hankerchief used to guard against spilling the day's bento (lunch) down the kimono front.

After kyoku sui no utage, guests strolled around the gardens and reserved seats to receive tea. Because only twelve or so people could be served at a time, we experienced a two hour wait for our tea. However, after coffee in the winery restaurant and a bento of oden, rice, and seafoods  (shrimp, scallop, and battered squishy maybe octopus piece), the time passed quickly before we were seated at the nodate outdoor tea ceremony.

nodate-outdoor-teaIn traditional tea ceremony style, every detail of setting, utensils, and decorations were taken into consideration by the host for the guest’s delight and enjoyment. During this event, ikebana, fresh flower arrangements were designed and trimmed for each set of guests seated. A small scroll with seasonally appropriate poetry was hung upon the guest of honor’s red parasol. And the utensils used to prepare the tea were of course chosen for the occasion and displayed after use for the guests to admire as they left.

Sweets are always served before recieving tea. The man in the background is striking up conversation as he is sitting in the honorary guest position.

Sweets are always served before recieving tea. The man in the background is striking up conversation as he is sitting in the honorary guest position.

Before receiving tea, it is customary to eat a small sweet to enhance or balance the green tea which can sometimes be bitter. Saturday’s nodate served a skillfully chosen sweet in the shape of a fish and water, which were both seasonally and setting appropriate as guests were seated to the side of a flowing waterfall and pond.

More traditional tea in the indoor tea house was also served with ikebana flower arrangement, scroll, and delicious flower shaped sweets.

All of this at a winery…in Komoro…in Nagano prefecture…

kimono_pocketIt may seem like an event like this, shrouded in Hein costumes and entrenched in traditional ritual, should take place in Kyoto, Japan’s capital for traditional arts and culture. However, the local and community feel at the winery was all Nagano. The fact that it was held at a winery, a seemingly counterintuitive location for a traditional Japanese ceremony, reflects the creative confluence and contemporary practice of traditional culture in day to day Nagano life. Reporters and ice cream stained elementary schoolers are perfect reminders that traditional arts in Japan are thriving without being romanticized freeze frames unrelated to normal life.

Access to Manns Winery:

384-0043 375
From 9:00 am to 5:00 pm

64th Kamikochi Weston Festival, June 5th-6th

June 1st, 2010 by
Category: Events, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities, Report, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Walter Weston, a British missionary who introduced modern mountain climbing to Japan, first visited Kamikochi in 1891, and returned repeatedly over the course of the 15 years he lived in Japan to escape the summer heat and climb the surrounding peaks. Today, he is commemorated by the annual Weston Festival on the first Sunday of June, preceded by a group hike the day before which traces the original route into Kamikochi up and over the Tokugo Pass from Azumi.


 In an academic paper which Weston presented in 1910 to the Japan Society of London, he declared of the Chubu region “that the neighbourhood is probably one of the richest in Japan for variety and abundance of Alpine plants.” Now a national park, the Japan Alps (Chubu Sangaku) area remains one of Japan’s biodiversity hotspots and well worth a visit before the summer crowds set in.


To join the hike, meet at the Azumi branch of the Matsumoto City office in time for a 6AM departure on 6/5.  For more details on Weston see here.

Fukushi Festival so much fun

May 31st, 2010 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Events, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Had a good family day out, and saw many Yudanaka locals.

Making mochi

From Making mochi-rice to entertaining the crowd that gathered…

Great to see the 1000 or so people that got together to support the Welfare Center’s gala day.

The Welfare center is located just below Yudanaka Station (see map) or see Yama-no-uchi Webpage

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Kamikochi 2010 season

May 25th, 2010 by
Category: Events, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities, Report, Seasonal Topics

Kamikochi, the southern hub of the Japan Alps National Park, opened for the 2010 season on April 27th with Swiss horns and a Lion dance, but the unofficial start line has just been crossed as the spring-like Nirinsou Anemone burst into life across the forest floor. The beds of white flowers takes their name from the twin stalks (Ni meaning two) and can be seen at Tokusawa, a popular extension route to the Myojin trail that takes around 2 hours round-trip from the Bus Terminal.

 To get to Tokusawa, take a bus to Kamikochi then cross over the Azusa River at the centrally-located Kappabashi Bridge. Next, stroll upstream along the boardwalk through the Dakezawa Marsh, which looks murky enough to house a Kappa, the mythical water imp after whom the famous bridge was named. Follow the path upstream for 1 hour to Myojin, stopping off outside the shrine to pay your respects (and a 300Yen entrance fee). Nearby, Kamonji Goya marks the spot where Walter Weston’s Guide, a local hunter by the name of Kamijo Kamonji,  lived from 1880 onwards – you can still see the British Missionary’s original ice axe hanging above the fire-place. Cross over Myojin bridge then head on upstream to Tokusawa (60 mins one way).

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 (  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.

Bicycle Rentals at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen + Family Fun Ride

May 16th, 2010 by
Category: Events, Information, Outdoor Activities

It’s spring time — perfect weather to get out and ride a bike.  And if you have been doing the typical sightseeing and are sick of riding trains and busses, take a break, and take a ride on a bicycle. 

"Green" Rental Cycles at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen

"Green" Rental Cycles at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen

Here in Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, new for this year are rental bicycles available for hire at 5 different ryokans and (soon to be) at the Tourism Center.   Members of the Chikuma Cycling Club rescued several bikes that had been thrown away at area train stations.  We spruced them up and painted them all an “eco” green color and are offering them for use for the day.  Prices are 500 yen per bike, or 200 yen for guests of Togura Kamiyamada Onsen ryokans. 

Rental Bicycles at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen.  The bikes are available at the following 5 inns:

Taki no Yu (Tel 026-275-2120, )

Kamiyamada Hotel (Tel 026-275-1005, )

Fukujuso (Tel 026-275-1071)

Ueda-kan (Tel 026-275-1881,

Kamesei Ryokan (Tel 026-275-1032, *English OK*)

Chikuma Cycling Club riding along the Chikuma River

Chikuma Cycling Club riding along the Chikuma River



Suggested places for cycling include the Chikuma Cycling Road along the Chikuma River.  You can ride south from Togura Kamiyamada past a lavendar field through Sakaki as far as Ueda, or north along the river to the samurai town of Matsushiro.  My kids and I like to ride north to the Inariyama area of Chikuma City and wander the narrow streets amongst the classic earthen walled storehouses.


Exploring the Obasute Masumune sake brewery by bike (above Inariyama)

Exploring the Obasute Masumune sake brewery by bike (above Inariyama)

One other thing to mention is that the Chikuma Cycling Club has a “Citizens’ Cycling” event schedule coming up for at the end of May:

Family Fun Ride to the Sakaki Rose Festival
Saturday May 29th, 2010
Meet at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen Tourism Center at 9am

*Follow the Chikuma Cycling Road along the Chikuma River to Kogai Bridge (rest stop)
*Peddle through Sakaki Town (tour various sites related to Sakaki’s samurai hero, Yoshikiyo Murakami)
*Stop at Lobinia Chocolate Factory’s factory store
*Have lunch at the Sakaki Rose Festival site
*Return via the Chikuma Cycling Road, finish at 2pm.

For those without bicycles, the Togura Kamiyamada Onsen green rental bikes will be available, so come and enjoy this fun event with everyone!

Ombashira, the Holy Pillar, Festival Everywhere

May 6th, 2010 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Information, Seasonal Topics
festival started in my region, Igura

As you may know, there have been the so -called Ombashira Sai, or the Holy Pillars Festivals, around Nagano prefecture.
The festivals are held in many of the shrines named Suwa Shrine.
They are to replace the giant wooden pillars standing within the precinct of each of the shrines, and held every 6 years.
The biggest one held is for the Suwa Taisha Shrine near the Suwa Lake.
However, there are many other Suwa Shrines in Nagano pref., and in my village of five thousands population, there are two Suwa Shrines.
The two held each of their Ombashira Festival on the 3rd and the 4th.
A suitable wood was carefully selected in the woods in the mountains, and after the purifying ceremony , had been cut ,pruned, and been laid on the ground.
It was in the early April, and today on the 3rd May the Holy Pillar is to drag by all the villagers through the village path towards the Suwa Shrine.
Can you see the rope laid on the ground? It is tied to the wood to be dragged.
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