Gorgeous Gorge of Takase

December 21st, 2018 by
Category: Experience, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Looking to do some annual leaf peeping in fall? With a pile of leafy spots vying for attention, Takase Valley with its postcard-perfect photos is up there with Nagano’s best.

The remnants of autumn mixed with the coming winter chill  filled the air in Takase Valley, making it the perfect place to hike in October.

In a last attempt to catch the leftover of the year’s fall foliage, I drove to Nanakura Dam in Omachi, the gateway to Takase Valley, Takase Dam, and Mt. Kitakuzudake (2,551m). Omachi is two hours west of Nagano city and sits 700m above sea level against the 3000m-high peaks of Hida Mountains.

I parked at the free parking lot, zipped up my down jacket and laced up my waterproof boots. Walking past the dozens of taxis queuing, I entered Nanakura Hot Springs where avid hikers were getting their last minute snacks and coffee before heading up to Takase Dam, the base of two trails.

Nanakura Hot Springs (left) is the spot to soothe muscles especially after a hike. It is open from 8am to 7:30pm and costs 650 yen for adults, 300 yen for children. It is closed in winter, December to April. Photo Courtesy of Kahori Doi.

Hoping to carpool a taxi – the only vehicles allowed to go up to the valley – and split the ¥2,200 for the one-way ride, I hung around at the taxi stand for several minutes but to no avail.

“It takes an hour to reach the dam on foot but with a taxi, only 15 minutes,” said the female taxi driver / tour guide as we leisurely snaked our way up via narrow roads and tunnels while I listened to her anecdotes about the area. Just before zigzagging to the top, I was treated to the magnificent sight of the 125m-high rockfill dam.

If you hike on a clear day, walk up the side stairs of the Fudo Tunnel entrance to see the peak of Mt. Yari, the 5th highest mountain in Japan.

My chatty taxi driver and I arrived at the base where two hiking trails begin. Before parting ways, she said to me, “The last taxi is at 4:40pm so don’t miss it!”

The usual route, Nigorisawa trail, is via Fudo Tunnel, a 30-minute hike (3km) through the forest filled with red leaves, and after crossing Fudosawa suspension bridge, you’ll reach the base of Nigorisawa waterfalls. Not wanting to do the touristy route, I opted for the Yumata Onsen (hot spring) trail which starts at the opposite end of Fudo Tunnel.

Passing clouds over the peaks create a stage for light to dance on the river’s surface. Silent as the leaves, wide as the space, Takase is a hiker’s dream valley.

After emerging from the one kilometre unlit tunnel, the sunlight rewarded me with a view that was equally breath-taking and surreal, as not a single hiker could be seen. Perfect. My own private planet in a season when many people head to the forest to “hunt” for autumn leaves. I’ve been to many, more than I could count with fingers and toes, but a handful deserve a worthy mention like Takase Valley.

Put the boots away as the trainers will do the job on the flat paths covered with crisp golden leaves.

 

After one and a half hour, I took a breather here at my favourite part of the trail. The therapeutic effect of sitting still with nature can’t be overstated enough.

 

Bid farewell to this panoramic scenery before you venture to the next chapter filled with more tunnels and bridges. Note, going off trail here is not permitted. Photo Courtesy of Kahori Doi..

 

Don’t lose your grip nor balance when you cross the bridge as the two wires had snapped from the recent storm (#25). Photo Courtesy of Kahori Doi.

 

After 30 minutes from the bridge, walk along the river bank and look out for the mound designated as a natural monument, Funtokyu, which was formed by the rich mineral deposit of the surrounding hot springs. Photo Courtesy of Kahori Doi.

 

I finally reached Yumata Onsen after three hours. Due to the underground pockets of hot springs mixing with the cold water, the temperature fluctuates so you can’t cross the river. Photo Courtesy of Kahori Doi.

Some daring hikers dig up a small hole along the riverbank and create a makeshift outdoor hot spring! But beware of the scalding water. If you get injured, it’s a three-hour hike back to the base!

A careful inspection of the moss along the bank suggests high sulfur content. Photo Courtesy of Kahori Doi.

Yumata Onsen is the final spot for hikers doing a day trip and for those wishing to continue on, it serves as a climbing base for the Uraginza route connecting to the Japan Alps and Mt. Yari.

If you miss the last taxi at 4:40p.m. you can still walk back but as the taxi driver said, it’ll take 90 minutes. The moon, I hear, has guided many hikers back. Photo Courtesy of Kahori Doi.

After witnessing the sights and sounds of Yumata Onsen, I made the long hike back to the base via the same route – double the trip, double the fun.

At the taxi stand, I spotted the silhouette of a lone hiker emerging from the tunnel. Sharing a taxi is easier to do when going back to Nanakura dam.

The magnificent autumn spectacle closed for the season on Sunday November 4th and will re-open in April, ready to welcome once again energetic hikers. The best time to view the luscious greenery is around May and June and for the autumn foliage, around mid October.

On the way to Takase Valley, stop by at Omachi Dam to catch the fall foliage sprawled against the emerald green waters of Lake Ryujin, “Dragon God Lake”. Japan’s second highest dam was built after a flood in August 1969.

Tips:
The Last taxi departs at 4:40pm so plan your hiking well. If you miss it, you can ring Alps Daiichi Kotsu on +81 261-22-2121 or Alpico Taxi on +81 261-23-2323. Click here for access information.

A tour for ¥4800 is available which will showcase the best views of Takase and the surrounding area. Apply by phone 050-3775-4727 (Opening Hours 10am – 6pm).

For more info, visit Takase Gorge – Omachi Tourism Guide

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.

Icy Gourmet: Frozen Tofu

December 4th, 2018 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Information, Seasonal Topics

Tofu is by far one of the most well-known Japanese foods.
But have you ever heard of Frozen Tofu?

Frozen tofu

Frozen tofu, called “koori-dofu” in Japanese, is a specialty of frosty regions.
Just like its more famous cousin, frozen tofu is made with soy milk which is made to coagulate and solidify by adding bittern to it. For those wondering, bittern is a bitter-tasting solution rich in minerals obtained from seawater. Unlike regular tofu, though, it uses less water and more soy beans, making it richer in proteins.
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Schoolyard Ice Skate

November 22nd, 2018 by
Category: Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Winter is coming…
And we expect another glacial season in Suwa area.
Although Nagano prefecture is widely known as a snow country where you can enjoy fluffy soft snow, this area is a little different, a kingdom of frost with nights as cold as -20 (brr~!).

Schoolyard Ice Skate Rink

Water pipe


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The ultimate soba experience

October 28th, 2018 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience

Distilled in one plate of noodles an unwavering commitment to quality.

The master

Meet a soba master who embodies the philosophy of  “from field to table”. In order to achieve top quality with his soba, he has mastered the whole production process from farming to cooking. Who better to introduce you to soba tradition in Nagano?
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New English Booking Site for Cultural Experiences in Matsumoto

October 4th, 2018 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Experience, Outdoor Activities

 

What is there to do besides visit the castle? Plenty! It is now easier to find and book Japanese cultural experiences in Matsumoto. The new Matsumoto Experience website was made by locals and introduces hands-on activities in the city and surrounding area. All activities on the site have been tried by foreign residents of Matsumoto. The website is offered in English and provides a direct booking form. Whether this is your first visit to Japan or you live here, you could discover something new to try. The wide variety of activities will satisfy interests in traditional clothing, food, music, or the outdoors. Visit https://matsumotoexp.com/.

Current activities include:
Kimono & Yukata Rental
Samurai Sword Fighting
Taiko Drumming
Miso Brewery Tour and Lunch
Soba Noodle Making
River Cruising by Raft

Bookings are handled by the Experience Information Center in Shinmai Media Garden between Matsumoto Station and the Castle. Feel free to pop in if you are in the area and want to see what is available. You can also find Matsumoto Experience on Facebook @matsumotoexp and Twitter @MatsumotoExper1.

Experience Information Center
Address:
Shinmai Media Garden
2-20-2 Chuo
Matsumoto, Nagano
390-8585 Japan
Tel. 090-3065-7654
Contact form
Hours:
9:00–20:00
Open Wed, Thu, and Fri
* Open Wed–Sun from Oct. 9 through Feb.

Matsumoto is accessible by direct express train from Tokyo, Nagoya, and Nagano City. See the Visit Matsumoto Access page for a comprehensive list of ways to access Matsumoto.

Discover the local gastronomy: Cook with the local grannies!

August 31st, 2018 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience

Sasahara grannies

My motto is “when traveling, eat like a local”. No tourist menu for me.
And well, if you want to go for the authentic taste, what better way to dive into a new cuisine than to learn from a local grannie.

Sushi, ramen, tempura etc. are great, but if you want to go off the gastronomy beaten track and like a good explorer also discover the cuisine of a small mountain village, then you should try out this experience. Below is a report of this activity from this summer.

The meeting point is Chino station. From here we get a lift to one of the small rural villages that lie at the foot of the Yatsugatake Mountains.

Yatsugatake Mountains

Seeing the scenery unfold and change as we drive up toward the mountains is part of the fun. The landscape around the station is very urban, but it slowly turns into countryside as we reach an elevation of about 1000m. Terraced rice fields flow in succession, like a staircase rising toward the mountains.

Sasahara village

In about 20 min. we reach a small village mostly made up of old folk houses and traditional kura storehouses. The massive body of the Kita-Yatsugatake right above us, on the opposite side the Japanese Alps parade in the distance. Waiting for us at the village community center are two cute grannies who accompany us to one of their homes, a lovely traditional house which faces a Japanese garden.

Kura storehouse detail

First, they tell us about this area and its climate. This is apparently the coldest place in Japan below Hokkaido. In winter the temperature drops way below zero (colder than  -10°), but there is little snow. The locals, unable to do any farming from November to April, thought up a smart way of preserving food by making the best of the severe winter weather. They use a natural freeze-drying technique to turn agar weed into kanten (a firm vegan jelly-like substance) and make frozen daikon and frozen tofu.
Today we are going to use kanten and frozen daikon as ingredients. They call this gastronomy the culture of frost.

 

The culture of frost:
Kanten, Frozen Tofu, Frozen Daikon and Kampyo

We are also going to use kampyo, a dried vegetable that looks like a string of straw (often used in sushi) and as part of the activity we are going to help making next year’s kampyo.

The main ingredient is this huge gourd called yugao. We peel it and cut in wheels. Afterwards, we put it on a special cutting board with a groove running along its length and push it against the knife to get regular long shaves. We hang the shaves to dry in the sun like laundry . This kanpyo will only be ready in a week, so we get some from last year’s as a gift.

Yugao

Kampyo shaving

Next, we start cooking. We are going to make tenyose, a jelly-like cake made with kanten, both savory (with vegetables and pickles) and sweet (with azuki beans); simmered vegetable with yugao and frozen daikon; vegan sushi with kampyo and other vegetables and soup with hand-made miso and mushrooms picked in the satoyama.
The grannies show us what to do while telling us stories about the village and the local food.

Kampyo sushi

Tenyose is eaten for celebrations and kampyo sushi is prepared for a village festival which takes place around this period.

Summer menu example (July-September)
(azuki tenyose, salad tenyose, sake lees pickles, mushroom miso soup, nota mochi (a sort of rice cake with edamame sauce on top)

When everything is ready, we all sit together at the table and eat. The taste is simple but delicious. There are so many foods I have never seen before and so many textures and tastes I have never tried before.

Lunch together

The locals’ life follows the rhythm of nature, so the food culture varies with every season: the “culture of frost” in winter, wild vegetables picking in spring, farming in the summer and preserves in autumn. The menu is always different!
To be able to see the real Japanese countryside and cook together with the locals is priceless.

Tobuki picking (June)

Details:
Period: all year
Access: 20 min from JR Chino station (pick-up from station available)
Time: 3h
Capacity: Min. 2 persons Max. 30 persons
Price: 5,000 yen + tax /1 person
Includes: activity cost, lunch or dinner
*An English-speaking guide is available at an extra cost
Vegetarian and vegan options are available.
Please inform us in advance if you have any allergy or special dietary requirements.

For further information, contact Chino Tabi at ask8@chinotabi.jp

Let’s visit a blacksmith’s!

May 23rd, 2018 by
Category: Culture Art, Experience, Information

Samurai’s katana with their lethal beauty have fascinated generations of foreigners. In the collective imagination a Japanese sword is synonym of sharpness and the smiths who forge those blades are shrouded in mysticism and legends.

With the end of the samurai era swords stopped being a part of Japanese life, but the unsurpassed techniques which lay behind their forging keep living in modern blades such as kitchen knives and saws. As a matter of fact, Japanese knives are praised by top-level chefs all over the world for their performance.

Hammering the metal

Mass production may have almost taken over the world of blades, yet some stubborn blacksmiths who keep making their knives the old way still stand. In Chino, the area spreading at the foot of the Northern Yatsugatake Mountains, you can meet one of them.
Sadamasa, a local smith’s specialized in blades used in farming and everyday life, has been in business for about 100 years. In the past as many as 10 artisans used to work here, providing the locals with all the blades they needed from sickles to kitchen knives. Nowadays Yusuke, the owner’s son, is the only one left.

Workshop detail

The first time I stepped into his shop, I felt like I trespassed into another world. It looked stilled in time, as if it had not changed one bit since the early Showa era. The walls and tools blackened by years of forging, the smell of steel and iron, the dim light seeping through the windows to illuminate the work space, everything told the story of years of blade-making.
What if I told you that you too can visit this unique dimension? Or even better, you can witness the smith at work and under his guide forge your own Japanese knife?
From now, that’s possible!

There is an activity that over the course of 2 days (3 hours per day) allow you to unveil the secrets of 100 years of Japanese blacksmithing and bring back home a knife made with your own hands. You want to know more? Okay, follow me…

Forge

From Chino station we walk for about 10 minutes until we reach an old shop with a sign saying “Sadamasa”. To welcome us are Yusuke, the smith, and his father, the owner of the shop. We sit at a table on the back of the shop and Yusuke’s father starts telling us about the history of Sadamasa and how his ancestors opened it many years before. After that, Yusuke takes over and introduces us to that day and the following day’s task. He also explains the features of Japanese knives and what makes them so special.

Metal after first hammering

Once we have acquired more knowledge on the acclaimed blades, we prepare for the tasks at hand and cross the yard at the back of the shop that leads to the workshop. When we open the door, we are catapulted in the world of blade-making. I am stricken by the metallic smell, the blackened walls and the silence, full of promises, while I wait in trepidation.

We pass through the old machineries to reach Yusuke’s favorite work position. There he lights the fire of the forge and while we wait for it to burn stronger, he shows us the metal bars we are going to use, iron with a heart of steel. He then puts the hammer into motion, the old-fashioned pistons breaking the silence, and expertly moves the impossibly-red incandescent metal under its weight forth and back, right and left, over and over again, until the bar has taken the semblance of a blade.

Hammering by hand

The blade, at that point cooled in cold water, is passed to us. We are to complete the forging by hand. We plunge the blade in the burning forge, lay it on the anvil and hit it rhythmically with the hammer to achieve a smooth surface. Unexpectedly, brute force doesn’t help you in this process as iron is extremely sensitive and too much force causes small bumps to form on the surface. Luckily, Yusuke corrects our mistakes and the end result is amazing.

Drawing the edges

The next step is to get rid of the oxide film which has formed on the blade by passing it under a shower of sand dust. When that is done, Yusuke takes the blade once more for the normalization process, which requires the skillful hands of the smith. We then cut the excess metal and model the knife final shape.

Finally, we proceed to the last step (of that day), the tempering!
First, the blade is polished so that during the tempering the heat can propagate all the way to the core. Second, we coat the blade with a thick layer of mud and pass it above the fire to let it dry (this is done to protect the blade). At last, we immerge it inside a hot bubbling substance that looks like magma and conclude by letting it sink into a barrel of oil to rest for several hours.

The job for that day done, we leave (but can’t wait to continue on the following day).

———————————————————————————————————–

The next day finally comes and we enter the workshop one last time. The tempered blade is there waiting for us.
During the tempering the steel shrinks, so we start by adjusting the warps with a small hammer; except the warps are really difficult to spot. The same blade which seems perfect when I look at it is found in need of many corrections when Yusuke’s trained eyes inspects it. (Craftsmen have such great abilities!)

After polishing

Putting an edge

 

Sharpening the blade

What comes after is probably the most important process of all: putting an edge to the blade! To avoid overheating the metal, cold water is constantly poured on it during the whole process. There is so much beauty in seeing the steel appear from under the iron, the shinogi (ridge) slowly forming.

At last, we sharpen the edge by grinding it against a wet natural stone. (This too is a very delicate work). The steam rising from the hot blade when it meets the cold wet stone is mesmerizing.

And… it’s done! We have really made a knife with our own hands and it’s glorious. To check the sharpness, we hold a leaf in midair between our fingers and pass the knife through it from above: there is no resistance, as if we’re cutting through air!

The handle applied, we put the knife in a box, say farewell to Yusuke and get ready to leave.
Every time I cook with this knife, I’ll remember this experience.

Putting on the handle

 

Details:
Period: all year
Time: 3h x 2 days (total 6h)
Capacity: Min. 1 person Max. 3 persons
Price: 1 Person Making 1 Knife:  JPY 28,000 (tax excl.)/ person
2 Persons Making 1 Knife: JPY 39,000 (tax excl.)/ group.
Includes: activity cost, 1 kitchen knife, English-speaking guide

 

 

For further information, contact Chino Tabi at ask8@chinotabi.jp

The final result

Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada’s Newest English Map and How To Videos

March 18th, 2018 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Sightseeing

Nagano’s Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada now has its 3rd generation Walking Map & Restaurant Guide as well as 4 PR videos.

The new Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada “How To” video series,

Video 1: How to Enjoy an Onsen Town 

Showcasing several of Togura-Kamiymada’s unique shops as well as a feature on Zukudashi Eco Tours.  Come wear a yukata robe, slip on the wooden geta slippers, and explore our onsen town!

Video 2: How to Enjoy Local Food

Shows how to order (and eat) at some quintessential types of Japanese restaurants, like soba noodles, yakitori, izakaya and even ‘horumon’ (not for the faint of heart). Plus a local Nagano favorite, oyaki dumplings and the video has a feature on Togura-Kamiyamada’s legendary Kohaku including an interview with Susa-san about our area’s signature ‘oshibori udon’ noodles.

Video 3: How to Stay at a Ryokan

Curious about staying at a traditional ryokan while visiting Japan, but not sure what to do during your stay?  From the kaiseki-style dinner, soaking in the onsen bath, and your futon spread out on the straw tatami mat, this video explains how to make the most of your ryokan experience.  It also shows many of the great inns here in Togura-Kamiyamada.  Don’t miss the seeing one of our town’s geisha, Takeshi, showing the proper way to wear a yukata robe.

Video 4: How to Bathe in an Onsen 

When in Japan, one of the can’t miss experiences is taking an onsen bath. But the process can be a bit intimidating. (Yes — as local onsen expert Tonegawa-san explains in the video, you have to be naked.) Learn these simple tips of onsen etiquette and bath like a native. The video also explains the unique characteristics of Togura-Kamiymada’s hot spring mineral water (beware bathing with silver jewelry!), featuring a special interview with Goro-san, president of the Kamiyamada Onsen Company.

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.
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