A Trip through Time: Tanaka Family Museum

December 27th, 2016 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Experience, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

 Preserving a Family Legacy

Entrance to the Tanaka Family Compound

The Tanaka Family Compound, located in Suzaka City, is run by the 12th head of the Tanaka Family which was a family of merchants in Edo-period Japan. Here you will find their family heirlooms on display. The galleries are constantly updated as items are brought out of storage and rotated through. Items include traditional Japanese dolls, clothing, paintings, both Japanese and European style ceramics, and toys imported from overseas. The compound consists of a museum, café, shop, and gardens.

The grandfather of the current head of the family as a boy

Items used in sake making

Imported toy train

Café “Ryusen”

Tachibana Bento

Various other dishes made using local ingredients

Thanks to family heirlooms that were passed down from generation to generation, the family retained recipes of meals that were served over 200 years ago. Dishes at this café have been recreated based on these recipes. The Tachibana Bento is an exquisite example of artistic Japanese cuisine (Reservations should be made 5 days in advance). You can enjoy a variety of dishes as well as green tea and coffee or sweets while taking in the view of the traditional Japanese garden.

Japanese Garden

 

Each season features a distinct atmosphere with various colors. Enjoy cherry blossoms in the spring, morning glories in the summer, red and yellow autumn leaves in the fall, and white snow with glimpses of vibrant red berries in the winter. Visit the website’s four season gallery here!

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.

From small stone dosojin carvings used to ward off bandits to legacies of the region’s districts and landscape features, Tyler pointed out interesting aspects of history that we would have never noticed on our own. As a lover of traditional Japanese architecture himself, he told us about the significance of different design features, from thatched roofs to decorative tile crowns on various buildings. And occasionally there were some heart-warming discoveries as well, like the preserved lovers’ carvings on old, earthern walls.

The temple gate of Chishiki-ji is made entirely without metal fastenings. Fasten-ating!

Tyler recounts the history of Chishiki-ji temple in Chikuma.

Along the route there were expansive views of the Chikuma valley and surrounding mountains. While past their peak, the autumn leaves still burned vividly and brightly around us and cattails swung in the breeze. As we passed farmers tending their fields they greeted us warmly and occasionally we stopped to chit chat. Groups of school children shouted “Hello!” as we cycled on. It was a much closer inspection of the countryside than I’ve had in most of my time here.

We tasted one of these delicious sun fuji apples from Crown Orchard along the way.

Lovely views from the Crown apple orchard.

After 2 hours touring around the area we were starting to get cold, so headed back to Tyler’s inn, Kamesei Ryokan, to take a dip in the hot springs.

An Evening Geisha Performance

Togura Kamiyamada Onsen is also home to practicing Geisha performers. They usually work at larger banquets, but Tyler sometimes arranges them to visit for 30-minute performances in his own ryokan. Unlike seeing geisha in Kyoto, here it is an interactive experience, playing games and learning dances from them! They danced and sang several songs. One of them, called “Kawanakajima,” was about the great battle between Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen that happened here. As they danced, their bright fans slashed through the air like swords.

The geisha perform the song and dance “Kawanakajima.”

We learned a coal miner’s dance, and while our hostesses explained it very well in English, the timing and coordination are not as easy as you might expect. After a few revolutions around the table, they kindly told us how good we all were at it (despite actually being quite uncoordinated and clumsy). Finally, we played a simple drinking game against the geisha. As it turns out, they are very, very good at this game and none of us stood a chance against them. They would then hand the loser a glass of beer, and we all cheered in rhythm as they drank it down.

But actually, Tyler himself is a seasoned veteran of the game. Here he upsets the champion in a practice round.

I make my drinking game debut with another guest (and won!)

Additional Information

Cycling through the countryside is one of the best ways to see it up close and personal. Having a local guide to point out interesting features and history makes it even better. For an unforgettable experience of rural Japan, consider visiting Togura Kamiyamada Onsen.

Access:
From Nagano Station, take the Shinano line train to Togura station (about 25 minutes). From there, buses run regularly to Kamiyamada Onsen, or you can walk there yourself in 25 minutes.
(Click here to browse the timetable in Japanese. It’s unnecessarily complicated so I apologize in advance.)

Related Links:

Experience Apple Picking and Farmer House Life with Pick-Up Service Starts in Matsumoto

October 30th, 2016 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience


Autumn is the season for beautiful colored foliage, mushrooms in the forests in Nagano Prefecture, and, of course, you can’t forget the harvesting of yummy FRUITS! This is one of Nagano’s specialty!

This year, a young farming couple (with a baby) who moved from Tokyo to Matsumoto started an apple picking experience on Oct 11. If you make a reservation the same morning, they can even arrange to a pick-up just west of Matsumoto Castle.

Mr. Kawabe was a computer engineer working for an electric maker in Tokyo. He heard his wife’s grandpa is farming an apple orchard in Nagano, but thinking retirement and felling apple trees gradually. He felt pity and when the young couple have their baby, they had a fear of Tokyo life after the 3.11 earthquake. After dithering, the husband decided to throw away his career and restart as a farmer from the beginning.

They live in a traditional farm house near Alps Park, so the experience is not only of picking fresh apples in their orchard, but also sitting in their tatami room, having Japanese tea and various autumn food, and touring around their Japanese-style house if you want.

The fee of ¥3000 includes all-you-can-eat picked apples and carry-out of two.

You can book the service from the reservation form on their English website. Tour times are two hours in length, from 13:30 to 15:30 daily. They are closed on Sundays. Reservations are required by noon of the day (preferably by the previous day). The season continues until November 21 (was 30, but apples will be finished earlier than expected).
See the following flyer for the details.

For information about other orchards (without pick-up service) and more info about fruits including grapes, see my previous article.

New Kimono & Ninja Cosplay/Rental Shop near Matsumoto Castle

July 18th, 2016 by
Category: Culture Art, Experience

A local beautician opened a fantastic shop of kimono (traditional Japanese clothes) and a ninja costume wearing & rental service on July 5th.

It is located close to the street toward the entrance of the Matsumoto Castle and you don’t need a reservation in advance if you are not from a large group.
So, why don’t you look into the shop? If you find your favorite costume from various kinds of them, use the wearing & rental service, walk to the castle (just 5 min) and take perfect photos with the castle in the background with your camera or cell phone.

The rental fees start at 3,500 yen (for 2 hours).

Ninja costume (ninja actually existed in Matsumoto in the 19th century)

And, if you wear a kimono around town, you can advantage of special discounts offered at times during the summer.

One is of these is the “Nakamachi Street Yukata Festival.” During July 1 and 18, visitors wearing kimono or yukata can get special service in 29 restaurants, cafes, izakaya (Japanese pubs) and bars.

Another is free admission to the Matsumoto Castle for visitors wearing kimono between August 6 and 16.

See this page for the details.

A professional dresses you in your favorite kimono or ninja wear in about only 15 mins.

Then you can choose an obi (band), zori (sandals), and a bag.

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.

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Summer Fun Around Lake Suwa

May 27th, 2016 by
Category: Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

A view of the lake from the rooftop of the Clasuwa restaurant.

In a land-locked prefecture, the Suwa area is surprisingly blessed with water. The surface of lake Suwa offers beautiful, reflective views of the surrounding mountains and sky. Hot springs bubble up from the grounds of Kami and Shimosuwa and feed over 150 public bathing facilities in the area. And, fresh water from the highlands helps brew Suwa’s many award-winning rice wines.

Visitors to the area have been increasing in advent of the 2016 Onbashira festival, so I thought I’d take a closer look at Suwa’s activities and sights.

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Mystical Togakushi in transition from winter to spring

May 11th, 2016 by
Category: Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Togakushi is special any time of year, but this transitional period, after winter has departed and before the trees have grown their leaves in the spring, is magical.  The creamy white flowers of the mizubasho plants (known in English very un-romantically as skunk cabbage) serve as a reminder of the recently melted snow, while the cacophony of ground plants are a harbinger of vernal green.

Mizubasho, aka “skunk cabbage”

My wife and I made a post-Golden Week day trip to Togakushi.  We started off at Yamaguchi-ya for some soba noodles.  Located near Chu-sha (Togakushi’s Middle Shrine), this restaurant’s eating area provides a spectacular view of the Togakushi Mountain Range.  Today, unfortunately, the mountain was hiding behind clouds, fitting in a way since the peak has traditionally been home to hermit monks hiding in its depths.  Even without the normal scenery, the noodles were still fantastic.  There is just something different about noodles made with local buckwheat and Togakushi’s clear mountain water.  The fresh mountain air seems to add to the experience, too.

Soba noodles at Yamaguchi-ya featuring Togakushi-grown buckwheat.

 

After our late lunch, we were treated to a guided tour of the Togakushi Ninpo Center, one of two ninja-related sites in Togakushi, by a real-life Togakure-ryu ninja.

Entrance to the Togakushi Ninpo Center

Technically called Togakushi Minzoku-kan (戸隠民俗館 The Museum of Togakushi Folklore) inside a recently re-thatched schoolhouse displaying traditional local tools, clothing, etc.

Lots of stories inside this old schoolhouse-turned-folklore museum.

Hemp weaving used to be Togakushi’s main enterprise. Now it’s outlawed due to its byproduct – marijuana.

as well as Togakure-ryu Ninpo Shiryo-kan (戸隠流忍法資料館 The Museum of Togakure School of Ninpo [Ninja Arts]), a ninja museum, ninja fun house, and shuriken throwing range.  As is common in Togakushi, not everything is what it seems.  Several of the tools displayed as artifacts in the folklore museum can be used as weapons by ninja.  Conversely, the items displayed in the ninja museum used for making poisons would also have been used by the hermit monks to make medicines.  When you go, take the time to look at each object and imagine what its uses were.

Farm tool that can double as a weapon — popular among the Togakure-ryu ninjas

Even the ‘kunoichi’ (female ninjas) had tricks up their sleeves, or, hidden in their brooms.

By the way, the ninja fun house and athletic activities are enjoyable even for adults — my wife and I can attest to that.

Wind your way through the mazes and trap doors of the fun house to this crazy room.

No trip to Togakushi would be complete without visiting Oku-sha, Togakushi’s Inner Shrine.  The trail to the shrine is lined partway through by ancient cedar trees.  This time, we skipped that landmark, and rambled the boardwalks through the forest preserve (戸隠森林植物園 Togakushi Shinrin Shokubutsuen).

Boardwalk over the mizubasho marsh

The previously mentioned mizubasho flowers were in full bloom, but the majority of visitors were there for something else — bird watching.  Before the trees grow their leaves is when the forest’s birds are the most visible.  Our guide wasn’t looking up at the trees, though, but at the various plants sprouting up through the marsh down below.  He showed how similarly-looking plants could have drastically different effects if eaten.

On the left: Alpine leek (Allium victorialis). The Japanese name is Gyouja-ninniku 行者にんにく, which loosely translates ‘hermit garlic’, as the mountain hermits used to eat the shoots as an energy snack. On the right: V.album var.grandiflorum (geranium molle?), in Japanese Baikeisou 梅恵草, which is poisonous. Their shoots look almost identical.

At the top: Anemone flaccida (wind flower, nirinso 二輪草), which is edible and puts out pretty little white flowers.
The serrated-leaf plant at the bottom: monkshood (Aconitum, “torikabuto” トリカブト), which is, err, not edible.

And he explained that the English name for mizubasho makes sense — the flowers have a skunk-like disagreeable aroma.  Apparently bears do eat the flowers to regulate their stomachs after coming out of hibernation, but otherwise they are not attractive for eating.  Fortunately that leaves lots of beautiful flowers to enjoy viewing.

Everything in Togakushi seems to have a mysterious story behind it.  Come discover for yourself!  (It’s a convenient 1 hour bus up from Nagano Station, with 12 runs a day during the green season.)

How to Make your Own Oyaki

February 4th, 2016 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Information

An oyaki bun cooks on a large pan over an open fire.

Oyaki are traditionally cooked over an Irori hearth.

Oyaki are one of Nagano’s traditional foods and most delicious snacks. Like Soba, they have been an important part of local cuisine for thousands of years. In rice-scarce Nagano, these flour buns filled with pickles and veggies were an important source of carbs and protein. Now, they’re healthy and delicious snacks that can be found in specialty shops and food stalls throughout Nagano prefecture.

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Late Autumn Harvest in Nagano

November 27th, 2015 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics
A hearty seven mushroom stew.

Delicious stew with freshly picked mushrooms.

 

Winter is almost upon us. The temperatures have dropped and the tops of the mountains are turning white with frost and early snow. But autumn hasn’t ended just yet, and there are still delicious foods to harvest before the snow swallows it all up. On Wednesday, I joined some travelers from Singapore to go mushroom and apple-picking. We spent the day in Nozawa Onsen and Yamanouchi enjoying the last, but not least, of autumn’s bounty.

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