The Japanese Alps are an Overlooked Gem

July 17th, 2018 by
Category: Accomodations, Information, Miscellaneous

If you are planning a summer trip to Japan, blocking off time to spend in the Alps is a must!

On a recent two week trip to Japan, my wife and I spent three nights in Nagano prefecture. If your research has gone anything like ours did, very little information online or in travel books is devoted towards this area specifically- besides a mention of the world-class winter sports available during the winter months. As far as the summer, the recommendations are nearly non-existent.

We came to Nagano for a friend’s wedding; knowing little of the area beforehand, we were amazed at the region’s beauty when we first arrived. The green forests and lush mountains, whether set in sunrise or sunset, were striking against the canvas of pinks, purples, yellows, and blues in the sky. We spent much of our time taking in the panoramas of mountains unlike any others we had seen in the past. Aside from the views, we appreciated the mountain life. The slower pace was refreshing after being around the buzz of bustling Kyoto and Tokyo.

Suwa-Shi, Nagano The serene beauty of the lush forested mountains atop smaller towns and roads will take your breath away.

Hoshino Risonare Yatsugatake
Nearly in any direction you looked, glimpses of the multiple mountain ranges were visible.

Kobuchizawa Station, Hokuto
Even the stops at train stations and the interlays of shrines & statues were beautiful.

Hoshino Risonare Yatsugatake
The resort displayed a whimsical appreciation for the seasons with the fun display of colored umbrellas for the rainy season.

We ended up staying at a Risonare Yatsugatake in Yamanashi wine country. This resort was magnificent between phenomenal staff, a plethora of available events/activities, and the quality of the facilities. Whether you want to actually book nights there (which we highly recommend) or just decide to make the day trip, there is plenty to do. The Hoshino resort’s campus holds an array of activities including: shopping, cafes, restaurants, a wave pool, wine tastings, ropes course, horseback riding, bike rentals, arts & crafts, and even a public bath for those staying at the resort. While we were unable to venture out much during our stay, since all the wedding festivities were on campus, we never got bored due to the multitude of options available.

The awe-inspiring sacred mountain continued to warm our hearts and souls at all times of day.

Lastly, the resort and surrounding areas provided ample opportunity to catch glimpses of Fujisan even 75+ miles out. While we only spent slightly more than 48 hours in the Alps (of our 11 day trip), this region now holds some of our fondest memories. We wished we could have done more while there, but now we have even more of a reason to return in the coming months and years.


Bio

My name is Brandon Shell and I currently find refuge amongst the beautiful long leaf pines, lakes, mountains, beaches, and community of North Carolina in the United States. While my wife and I both grew up here, we have always had a passion for changing the trajectory of our families’ legacies through authentic travel experiences. The relationships made while traveling are the most satisfying aspect of our adventures.

We are passionate about leading relationally within our own professions and hobbies all the while blogging our passions on the side. We strive to share with the world how to live intentionally and ethically by seeing daily choices as opportunities for making an impact on communities, both near and far. We document our travels, health, and nutrition choices in a variety of capacities on our blog and on Instagram @wecausewecare. We hope that we can continue to travel for the rest of our lives and leave a legacy that even our grandchildren will one day be proud of!

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Renting a Car in Japan

July 9th, 2018 by
Category: Information

Japan’s countryside is full of charm and wonder. But for many travelers, some of its sights are just out of reach! From beautiful mountain roads, hidden hot springs, and idyllic terraced rice fields, there are some spots that you just can’t get to without a car. But, renting a car is easier than ever. Figure out what you need to bring, what you should look out for, and where to go when renting a car in Japan.

Places to Drive in Nagano

Nagano by Car
Hot Springs and Waterfalls in Matsukawa Gorge
Seven Ways to Enjoy the Kiso Valley this Summer

What do you need?

©Tony Webster (CC BY 2.0)
In order to rent a car in Japan, you’ll need a valid driver’s license. For most international tourists, that means applying for an international driver’s permit in your home country before your visit. If you happen to be from one of the following countries, you can use your home country’s driver’s license with an official Japanese translation: Germany, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Slovenia, Moneco, or Taiwan.

You’ll also need to present your passport. It should have an immigration stamp with your date of entry into Japan.

Where should I rent my vehicle?

©TTTNIS (CC0 1.0)
Rental agencies that accept international driving permits include Toyota, Nissan, Nippon, Orix, and JR Rent-A-Car (among others). You can find counters for many of these agencies when you arrive at the airport. For most people, it is easier to travel by train out of the city and pick up a car once they’ve arrived in their countryside destination.

You’ll find many of these agencies near Nagano’s major train stations. You can see a map of their locations around the prefecture here.

Pick the most conveniently located store for your trip and place a reservation on their website. Pick your favorite style of car and any options (such as GPS, ETC card, snow chains), as well as your return location (some agencies, such as Toyota, offer free one-way rentals within Nagano prefecture). Once your reservation is complete, head to your pick-up location and get driving!

Things to Look Out For

©Laichuan Yinfu (CC BY-SA 3.0)
For some, driving around Japan may be intimidating. Complicated highways, confusing signs, and inclement winter weather can make driving a daunting task in a foreign country. But, if you keep the following in mind, driving in Japan isn’t so different to anywhere else. Take it slow and enjoy the scenery as you drive around the countryside.

Driving on the Left

Many travelers will have to get used to driving on the “wrong” side of the road. Consequently, the driver’s seat also changes places and the windshield wiper and blinker controls are reversed. As long as you check which way cars are going before you pull out onto the road, you’ll be fine!

No Turns on Red

Unless a red light is accompanied by a green arrow in the direction you wish to go, there’s no turning on red.

No Drinking and Driving

Japan has a zero tolerance policy for drinking and driving. A BAC over 0% is against the law. Also, any passengers in the drunk driver’s vehicle may be penalized as well for abetting their behavior.

Snowy/Icy Roads in Winter

Japan can get pretty snowy and icy during winter. And many people are surprised when they find out that Japanese roads aren’t cleared quite as a well as roads in their home country. If you plan to drive during winter in Japan, winter tires or snow chains are a must—you won’t even be allowed on the highways without them! 4WD is also recommended.

Narrow Roads

Japan is an old country. Some of its roads have stayed the same for hundreds of years, back before cars existed. These roads are wide enough for people, carts, or horses, but not necessarily for two-way car traffic. If possible, skip the hummer and pick up a compact car instead. There will be times when you’ll have to yield to another car and pull off to the side of the road to let them through.

Roadside Hazards

Many of Japan’s roadways are flanked by gutters. Sometimes they’re covered, sometimes they’re not. They’re easy to miss to regardless, and many a foreigner has accidentally driven into them. are open drains on the side of many roads in Japan. During winter, they may be hidden under the snow, waiting for their next victim…

Seven Ways to Enjoy the Kiso Valley this Summer

June 22nd, 2018 by
Category: Information

The Kiso Valley is one of Nagano’s hidden gems, sandwiched between the Central Alps and Mt. Ontake. Surrounded by these near three-thousand-meter peaks, it is characterized by its steep slopes and gorges which are covered in dense forest. The emerald greenery of the canopies and crystal-clear waters are a refreshing sight, especially during hot summers.

For centuries, passing through Kiso was one of the main ways to travel between Kyoto and Edo during the Edo Period. Called the Nakasendo, this route stretched from the Sanjo Ohashi bridge in Kyoto to the Nihonbashi bridge in Edo. Along the way were 69 post towns, some of which have been impeccably preserved. Here, visitors can see the Japanese countryside as travelers, merchants, and samurai would have seen it hundreds of years ago.

Enjoy the natural beauty and historical sites of the Kiso Valley that have been protected by its steep mountains. Here are some of the best places to visit in Kiso this summer!
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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: 24,000 yen/1 person
25,000 yen/2 persons sharing 1 knife
Includes: activity cost, 1 kitchen knife, English-speaking guide

 

 

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

The final result

Planting Rice and Tasting Sake in Hakuba

May 22nd, 2018 by
Category: Events, Information, Report

Rice is Japan’s main staple. It shows up nearly every meal, morning, day and night, and is used in the production of many of Japan’s flavorings, desserts, and drinks. Among Japan’s most famous rice products is, of course, sake, and over the centuries, agriculturalists have bred and refined rice varieties especially for its production.
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Where to See Flowering Fields in Nagano

May 18th, 2018 by
Category: Information

With summer quickly approaching, colorful flowers will soon be carpeting Nagano’s fields and hillsides. Cherry blossoms disappeared in a flash this year, and Iiyama’s Nanohana flowers come almost a week earlier than expected, but there are still plenty of other flowers to enjoy in the coming months.

Around Nagano’s ski resorts and historic sites, you can see wisteria, lavender, lilies and more. In the mountains, beautiful alpine flowers bloom throughout the summer season. Among myriad beautiful gardens and landscapes, we’ve chosen some of the most picturesque, accessible locations below.
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Spring Flowers in the Japanese Countryside: the Iiyama Nanohana Festival

May 2nd, 2018 by
Category: Events, Information, Seasonal Topics

The flowers grow high enough to make a veritable maze of yellow.


As the cherry blossoms fade away, other flowers take the spotlight around Nagano. In Iiyama, nanohana blossoms cover the fields along the Chikuma River, turning everything a sunny yellow.

The annual Nanohana Festival is held during the latter part of Golden Week, this year from May 3rd to 5th, during which there are musical and dance performances and plenty of activities to enjoy. It all takes place at the Nanohana Park in Iiyama City on the far side of the Chikuma River. The park is located on a small hill and has great views of the surrounding countryside. The Sekida mountains were mostly bare of snow this year, but as the clouds cleared we could see the brilliant white visage of Mt. Myoko in the distance.
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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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Cherry Blossoms and the Japanese Alps

April 13th, 2018 by
Category: Information, Report, Seasonal Topics

Nagano’s special springtime scenery: cherry blossoms and snowy mountains

With temperamental weather going back and forth between sunny, summer days and winter flurries, it’s been difficult to get a handle on when Nagano’s cherry blossoms will bloom. This year, the trees have been blooming very quickly, making hanami a much more hectic affair than it should be. Cherry blossoms around Ueda and Matsumoto are already almost gone, and spots that usually bloom in May are on their way to full bloom.

Cherry trees around the Japanese Alps usually bloom in mid to late April, but due to this year’s warm weather, many spots already reached their peak last weekend. Since the weather was clear and sunny yesterday, I took an opportunity to check up on some of them around Ogawa, Omachi, and Azumino.

More On Cherry Blossoms

Nagano’s 2018 Cherry Blossom Forecast
Go! Nagano Bloom Watch Page

Our first stop was Ogawa Village. Located between Nagano City, Hakuba, and Omachi, it is a place that most people who travel to Nagano will have passed through at some point without knowing it. In winter, it’s just another small hamlet on the side of the road, but in spring, it becomes one of Japan’s most beautiful villages.

Cherry trees of all kinds dot the hillside along Ogawa Village. There are the popular Somei Yoshino cherries, weeping cherries, and mountain cherries as well. The subtle palette of creams and pinks contrasts beautifully with the fresh greenery around it.

The Nitanda no Sakura cherry blossoms in Ogawa Village

The most impressive section of Ogawa’s spring display is in Nitanda. The cherry trees here, called Nitanda no Sakura, almost completely cover the hillside. While they may have been planted by man, the cherry trees seem wild, growing by their own accord. Rather than a common tourist attraction, Nitanda no Sakura is a countryside fairy tale. At the foot of the hill, farmers till their fields and grocers stock fresh produce, almost oblivious to the magnificent display above.

Petals were falling off the trees, covering the road below in pink

The cherry blossoms were already falling when we visited yesterday, but the sight is still impressive when seen from afar. The view should hold through the weekend at least.

Ogawa’s famous oyaki shop: Ogawa no Sho

Ogawa is also known for its delicious oyaki. After visiting the cherry blossoms, we made a quick pit stop at Ogawa no Sho. The shop specializes in char-grilled oyaki, which they fry on a pan before burying them in ash by the fireside to finish. Popular flavors include nozawana, sweet azuki bean, or eggplant with miso, but during this time of year you can also find oyaki filled with delicious mountain vegetables. We had fukimiso (butterbur sprout in English).

Char-grilled oyaki in front of an irori hearth

After Ogawa, we drove to Omachi City about 40 minutes away. Our desination was Omachi Park, on the hillside outside of town. Despite being a weekday, there were quite a few people enjoying hanami in the park, as well as a couple of food stalls already set up and selling food. The park was quite small, but sometimes big things come in small packages. As the sky cleared up, we saw amazing views of the 3,000-meter-high peaks of Japanese Alps in front of us.

The platform below the park offers uninterrupted views of the snowy alps.

According to the local news, the park reached full bloom yesterday, but there were still quite a few buds that hadn’t bloomed when we visited. The park’s blossoms should be at their peak this weekend and into next week as well.

A view of Omachi Park from below

Omachi Park’s cherry blossoms were on the cusp of full bloom yesterday

For the last leg of our journey, we drove another 40 minutes south to Mt. Hikarujo in Azumino. About three-quarters of the way there, we could see the trail of cherry trees rising up the mountain like a white dragon.

The cherry trees follow the hiking trail up the mountain.

The cherry trees are planted along a hiking trail to the top of the mountain, which takes about 40 minutes to walk up. Lights are strung up along the trail to illuminate it and the blossoms at night.

The path up Mt. Hikarujo is full of views like this

The trees by the trailhead had already lost half of their petals, but we could see fuller trees on the trail up above. As we climbed up, the cherry blossoms grew progressively thicker. The whole way up we were treated to amazing views of the Japanese Alps, and there were plenty of great photo spots for shooting the mountains and cherry blossoms together. After our 40-minute hike, we reached the park at the top of the mountain, covered in full-bloom cherry trees.

Cherry blossoms at the park atop Mt. Hikarujo

A clever, transparent sign which shows the name of each mountain along the Japanese Alps.

Cherry trees along the descent from Mt. Hikarujo

Peeking at the alps from between many branchs and blossoms

A little higher up was a small shrine with cherry trees still budding, so it looks like Mt. Hikarujo still has plenty of sakura left to offer next week.

How to Get There

Omachi Park (Omachi City): By train/bus, a 25-minute walk from JR Oito line Shinano Omachi Station, or a 5-minute taxi. By car: a 40-minute drive from the Azumino IC exit. Parking is available at the park.

Nitanda cherry blossoms (Ogawa Village): By train/bus, A 50-minute bus ride on the Shinmachi Takafu line bus (get off at Takafu bus stop), then a 20-minute walk to trees or 15 minutes to viewpoint. By car, a 45-minute drive from the Nagano IC. Park at the Bikkurando Gymnasium. There is also a viewpoint along Route 31.

Mt. Hikarujo (Azumino City): By train/bus, a 35-minute walk or 10-minute taxi from JR Tazawa Station. By car, a 7-minute drive from the Azumino IC exit. There is a parking lot beside the trailhead. See location here.

Nagano’s 2018 Cherry Blossom Forecast

March 22nd, 2018 by
Category: Information, Seasonal Topics

Ogawa Village’s reddish pink Tachiya cherry blossoms contrast with the snowy peaks of the Japanese Alps.
As the snow slowly melts from the streets and sprouts begin to poke their heads out from under the ground, we’re all beginning to wonder: when will the cherry blossoms come? According to a new forecast announced last Tuesday, it looks like many areas of Japan will be seeing their cherry trees bloom a full ten days earlier than last year.
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