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.
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Norikura Nature Walk, Snowshoe-style

March 7th, 2016 by
Category: Accomodations, Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

The Japanese Alps are a treasure trove of natural wonder, and knowledgeable guides at Little Peaks in Norikura are just the ones to  reveal the splendor.  Today I had the pleasure of joining in a magical snowshoeing tour of Norikura.

Here is how the adventure went:

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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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Fruit Harvest and Picking Season

October 5th, 2015 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience


In Nagano, Autumn is a season for beautiful colored leaves, mushrooms in forests, and yummy FRUITS!

Nagano prefecture is the second largest production district of apples and grapes in Japan (the first is Aomori in Tohoku for apples and Yamanashi, the neighboring prefecture, for grapes). So sometimes we refer to our prefecture as “Fruit Kingdom”.

Among those, the fuji apple is popular even outside Japan and I heard one apple is sold for $10 for rich consumers in some of Southeast Asian countries (you can buy it for less than $1 in Nagano).

You can buy and eat various kinds of apples and grapes in farmers’ markets.

And, if you pick apples in orchards and eat them immediately, you would be surprised that the taste of fresh apples is different from the usual ones you eat.
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Golden Week — Nagano Style

May 3rd, 2015 by
Category: Cuisine, Events, Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Happy Golden Week, everyone.

Or is it?  With practically everyone and her brother having the week off, it seems wherever you go there will be crowds, crowds, and still more crowds.

Here in Nagano, the major attractions such as Matsumoto Castle, the Utsukushigahara ridge drive, the resort town of Karuizawa etc. also tend to be jam-packed during peak holidays.  And the many major events taking place in Nagano during Golden Week, such as the hot air balloon festival in Saku, the rape blossom festival in Iiyama and, especially, the once-every-seven-years Gokaicho at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, will likely draw hordes of visitors.

Don’t despair — the prefecture has plenty of off-the-beaten-path places and simple, local events to enjoy in a quiet, Nagano-like fashion.
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Fall Family Fun in Nagano — Chausuyama Zoo & Dino Park

October 19th, 2014 by
Category: Experience, Outdoor Activities

I took our 2 elementary school age kids to the Chausuyama Zoo and Dinosaur Park in Nagano City’s Shinonoi District one recent fine autumn day.

I was reminded how fun it is to climb a dinosaur,

Our daughter Misaki climbing the Chausuyama Dino Park triceratops, with the Zenkoji Plain in the background.

and just how cute the zoo’s lesser pandas are.

One of the Chausuyama Zoo's popular lesser pandas entertaining the audience

Chausuyama makes a great play date destination for families with small kids.

By the way, Chausuyama Zoo’s 2014 edition of its annual Zoo Festival takes place October 18th and 19th. Besides the normal activities such as feeding the giraffes and pony riding, there will also be turtle races (?), naming the baby lesser pandas, and other fun events.

Chausuyama Zoo and Dino Park

For access by train, the “Zoo-guru” bus runs from Shinonoi Station on the JR Shinonoi Line on weekends and holidays through Nov. 3, 2014.

See & Try Miso (soybean paste), Nagano’s Specialty, in Traditonal Miso Brewery

September 15th, 2014 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience

Large (taller than human height) wooden barrels to ferment miso

Old buildings along the approach

I visited Ishii Miso Brewery in Matsumoto. It was founded in 1868 (the end of the Edo era) and is still producing miso by a unique traditional natural method.

Miso, soybean paste, is an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine. We have miso soup every day and sometimes use it for other dishes. Miso is fermented food so it is very healthy.

Ishii's shop and restaurant

Nagano Prefecture is the top producer of miso (46%) in Japan. There are many miso breweries in Nagano and some of them have their own shop.
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Come Get Those Tart Apricots in Chikuma City!

July 4th, 2014 by
Category: Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Fresh apricots are once again in season, and Chikuma City (just south of Nagano City) is Japan’s largest grower of apricots. 

Apricots are once again in season in Chikuma City

Called “anzu” in Japanese, apricots here actually come in an amazing array of varieties, from the tart heritage varieties to newcomers from North America such as the sweeter “harcot” variety. 

Chikuma City’s “Mori” district is known as “Anzu no Sato” (Apricot Village).  On the other side of the Chikuma River, just downriver from onsen town Togura-Kamiyamada, is Kyohoen‘s orchard.   I stopped  by the other day and the owner, Takamatsu-san, was in a great mood as apparently this year is a bumper crop.  The growers are especially thankful, as last year many of the trees were damaged by frost during the blossom season resulting in a decreased yield. 

Besides coming to an orchard and picking (and tasting!) fresh apricots straight from the tree, apricot jam making activities are also available.  The season should continue through mid-July.