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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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.

New Train Pass for Exploring Karuizawa, Nearby Hot Springs, and More!

March 1st, 2018 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Information, Miscellaneous, Report, Shopping

Click on the image to see the full PDF flyer.


The Shinano Railway Banzai Two-Day pass offers great savings for anyone interested in spending time in the eastern Nagano area. The pass covers the Shinano Railway line between Karuizawa and Yashiro Stations and costs 1,000 yen for adults—already 300 yen cheaper than the one-way fare between the two! The pass is currently going through a trail run from February 1st to March 31st, 2018, but organizers are hoping to turn it into a year-round option.

When using the Banzai pass, you can enjoy eastern Nagano’s fresh foods, wine, and culture. I recently had a chance to explore more of the area, and I’d like to recommend a three-day course between Nagano and Karuizawa:

Day One

Enjoy the Outdoors and Shopping in Karuizawa



On your first day, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen train* from Tokyo to Karuizawa in about an hour. Right next to the station is Karuizawa Prince, with its 240-store outlet shopping mall, hotel, and ski resort. Try skiing at the resort or head to Karuizawa Garden Farm (15 minutes by taxi) for strawberry-picking. Have lunch at the shopping plaza and spend the afternoon looking for souvenirs and discount brand-name goods. Finally, head over to the recently renovated Karuizawa Prince East hotel for dinner at the Karuizawa Grill. Spend the night in Karuizawa.

Day Two

Ueda Castle and Bessho Onsen


In the morning, head to Karuizawa Station and purchase the Banzai Pass from the Shinano Railway ticket window. From there, take the train to Ueda.

Ueda Castle is just 12 minutes on foot from the station. While the castle’s keep was destroyed long ago, you can see reconstructions of the castle walls and main gate that repelled the Tokugawa army twice. The Omotenashi Squad welcomes visitors to the castle while wearing the regalia of famous Sanada warriors and ninja, and you can take photos with them for a fun memory of your trip.


At nearby Yanagimachi Street, you can see Ueda’s old townscape from its days as a castle town and pick up a snack from one of the bakeries, restaurants, or local brewery. If you’re hungry, stop at Kakurega En for some delicious yakitori slathered with Ueda’s special Oidare sauce.


Bessho Onsen is just 30 minutes from Ueda via the private Bessho Onsen train line*. The area is called the “Kamakura of Shinshu” due to its many beautiful temples and tranquil atmosphere. Among them, Anrakuji temple is home to a Japanese National Treasure—a three-story, eight-sided pagoda, the earliest extant example of its kind in the country. Enjoy the heart of the Japanese countryside from the comfort of a hot spring bath. (See more about spending time in Ueda and Bessho here!)

Tour the Countryside by Bicycle


After soaking in the sights of Bessho, return to Ueda and take the Shinano Railway train to Togura Station. A Showa era hot spring town called Togura Kamiyamada Onsen can be found here. One of the local inn owners is an American who loves Japanese culture and history, and is happy to share his knowledge with international guests. You can take a tour by bicycle and learn about the area’s sites and history while interacting with the locals. After a tough ride, enjoy the healing waters of Togura’s springs and stay at Kamesei Ryokan for the night.

Day Three

Snowshoe through Togakushi’s Sacred Forest


On your last day, take the train from Togura to Nagano Station*. From the station, take the Alpico Togakushi bus* to Togakushi Ski Resort (70 minutes), rent some snowshoes and take a walk to the area’s Okusha Shrine. Stop at the Okushamae Naosuke restaurant for soba, Togakushi’s specialty. Afterwards, take the trail to the shrine and be awed by huge 400-year-old cypress trees and the precipitous face of Mt. Togakushi looming above.

Visit Zenkoji and Experience Buddhism through its Temple Lodges


Get off at the bus at Zenkoji Daimon and head towards Zenkoji Temple. It is Japan’s third largest wooden temple and a national treasure, attracting thousands of pilgrims every year. There are 39 temple lodges around the main temple where pilgrims can spend the night. Some offer workshops as well, like Gyokushoin, where you can make your own bracelet or kaleidoscope. Some also double as restaurants where you can eat Shojin Ryori, Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. You can spend the night and continue your adventure, or take the shinkansen* back to Tokyo in just 90 minutes.

*The Banzai Two-Day Pass only covers travel on the Shinano Railway between Karuizawa and Yashiro stations.

There are many other places that I couldn’t cover here that are well worth a trip. In Toumi and Komoro, there are four different wineries producing a range of delicious wines. Rue de Vin and Villa d’Este Gardenfarm are both about 12 minutes away from Toumi’s Tanaka Station by taxi, and Mann’s Winery is just 10 minutes from Komoro Station. Each winery has its own restaurant where you can taste their wines paired with fresh local cuisine. And like Bessho and Togura Kamiyamada, there are many other hot spring areas to see as well!

Take a look at the Banzai Two-Day Pass brochure for a list of participating stores and more ideas! And if you happen to use the pass, share your photos online using the hashtag #banzai2dayspass.

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.

First we visited the town’s military academy, the Bunbu Gakko. Established in 1855, it educated young men in the Matsushiro Clan until the Meiji Restoration. The gravel campus is home to seven main buildings in which students were instructed in literature, military strategy, western medicine, and a variety of martial arts. We stepped into the school’s spear-training hall and watched a performance of Iaido, a type of swordsmanship turned art form. Unlike Kendo or other sword disciplines, Iaido doesn’t have opponents or duels—which is for the best, because in Iaido, the swords are real.

The Iaido master demonstrates several powerful strikes with his sword.

We picked up some wooden ones and followed the master’s instructions, learning several of the movements he showed us in his performance. We learned a downward cut, an upward block, the correct way to sheathe the sword, as well as a swing designed to shake blood of the blade. Despite the gruesome history of swordsmanship, the movements involved are incredibly elegant.

After our training in the dojo, we made our way to another relic of Matsushiro’s past: Teramachi Shoka, a beautifully restored merchant house that operated during the Edo Period. The complex’s warm, earthern walls surround a courtyard with pond and manicured pine trees. The dark, shingled roof is crowned with the merchant family’s crest. After crossing the threshold, we were whisked into the main lounge, a series of traditional Japanese tatami rooms separated by shoji sliding doors. Each room was set up with different activities: in one, a bright-red floor mat covered in large paper fans; in another, small looms arranged with colorful string; and in the last, several sets of paper samurai armor.

Trying on a set of paper samurai armor.

Posing with Asahi-san, one of Matsushiro’s history-loving samurai.

We took turns trying on armor, making colorful braids, and playing a surprisingly entertaining fan-throwing game. Each harkened back to Matsushiro’s history as a castle town. The armor was made by local history enthusiasts in the style of samurai from the Sanada family, each piece emblazoned with the rokumonsen crest (two rows of three coins, representing the fare needed to cross into the afterlife). The braids, called Sanada Himo, were used to tie together pieces of armor, secure sheathed swords, and carry heavy loads. They were named after the Sanada due to a rumor that members of the family who found themselves on the wrong side of the Tokugawa spent their later years making such braids to earn a living. Finally, the fan-throwing game Tosenkyo, while not directly related to the Sanada, was a popular pastime during the Edo and early Meiji throughout Japan. Despite being terrible at fan-throwing, I thought the game was great fun, and some of the other guests even bought sets to play it at home!

Learning how to make Sanada Himo braids using a small handloom.

My intense concentration while playing Tosenkyo doesn’t pay off.

Our last, but not least, stop for the evening was Nagano City’s lantern festival. The street to Zenkoji was packed with visitors admiring the colorful paper lanterns designed by local students and craftsmen. Some of the designs featured popular characters or sightseeing spots in Nagano, while others were simpler motifs featuring cherry blossoms and flowers. The temple itself was illuminated in the five colors of the Olympic Games, changing slowly over the course of the evening. With free sake, music, and beautiful sights, the festival was a great way to enjoy a winter night.

Zenkoji illuminated in red.

A prize-winning design featuring intricate floral motifs and a dog.

Huge crowds weaved through the rows of lanterns covering Chuo Doori.

You May Also Like

Thanks for reading! If you are interested in Matsushiro’s history, the Nagano Lantern Festival, or other similar events, you may want to check some of the links below:

Snowshoeing Around the Shrines of Togakushi

February 7th, 2018 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

The Zuishinmon Gate marks the entrance to the Okusha’s lane of giant cypress trees.

Togakushi is often overlooked during winter in favor of Jigokudani’s snow monkeys or Hakuba’s ski slopes, but it offers a memorable winter experience you won’t find anywhere else. Walking effortlessly on freshly fallen snow, you can admire the forest’s towering, 400-year-old trees and ancient Shinto shrines—not to mention the precipitous face of Mt. Togakushi itself.

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Beautiful Winter Phenomena

January 19th, 2018 by
Category: Information, Seasonal Topics

Nagano’s forests covered in frost.

Winter is at once harsh, unforgiving, and mysteriously beautiful. While snow falls relentlessly on you, your precious baggage and the streets around you, it covers the landscape in pure, unifying white. While the cold seeps through your down jacket and numerous sweaters, it also freezes waterfalls and lakes in time, creating gleaming columns and plates of ice. While the wind burns and turns your face the color of ripe strawberries, it also covers trees in sparkling layers of frost. If you can brave the elements, the wonders of winter far outweigh the cold.

You can see winter’s charm all around Nagano, from beautiful snowy plains and white-capped mountains to frozen lakes and waterfalls. But there are some unique phenomena that are especially captivating during these chilly months.

Snow Monsters in Shigakogen

Trees in Shigakogen’s heights are buffeted by snow and wind, becoming towering, white beasts.


There are many legends of abominable snowmen, yeti, and other creatures ready to gobble up unsuspecting skiers and hikers during winter. Luckily, Japan’s snow monsters pose no such threat.

In Shigakogen’s Mt. Yokoteyama area, the tallest part of the highlands at 2,307 meters high, trees are swallowed up by mounds of snow and become amorphous, white monsters. Herds of them sit motionlessly on the mountain. Waiting for what? We do not know. You can view them from the mountaintop’s crumpet café, which sells delicious baked goods and coffee to warm up with while enjoying the scenery, or ski by them on your way down the mountain.

Utsukushigahara Highland’s Diamond Dust

Tiny snow crystals sparkle like diamonds in the morning sunlight.


Central Nagano faces the brunt of winter’s cruelty, regularly faced with subzero temperatures that freeze lakes, water pipes, and even your shampoo. But these frigid temps give rise to a fantastic sight called “Diamond Dust.” On very calm, cold mornings—around -15 degrees Celsius—the air is filled with millions of tiny snow crystals, which sparkle like diamonds when hit with the morning sun’s rays.

One of the best places to see this phenomenon is in the Utsukushigahara Highlands. Access to the highlands is very difficult during winter, but if you stay at Utsukushigahara’s Ougatou Hotel, you can enjoy this and other winter experiences first-hand.

The Omiwatari Lake Crossing

Lake Suwa’s Omiwatari is a rare phenomenon where ridges of jagged ice appear above the lake.


Lake Suwa in central Nagano has been a center of Shinto faith for over a millennia, being home of the shrines of Suwa Taisha (internationally known for their once-in-seven-year Onbashira Festival). Possibly due to the spiritual nature of this location, the lake has experienced a phenomenon called “Omiwatari” (roughly translated: the God’s crossing) for hundreds of years. When the lake freezes, sheets of ice expand and contract with changing temperatures, eventually cracking and forming a long, continuous ridge across the lake, usually between 30 centimeters and 1 meter in height.

Omiwatari usually occurs in late January or early February, but due to climate change there have been many years recently where it has not occurred. The last year in which the Omiwatari was seen was in 2013. Will it return in 2018?

Share your Favorite Winter Scenes of Nagano!

Did you have a chance to see some of these beautiful spectacles while traveling in Nagano? Share them with us on Instagram of Facebook with the hashtag #gonagano. If you have any other beautiful sights that we haven’t included, please let us know in the comments.

And if you enjoyed this topic, take a look at an earlier blog about five ways to enjoy the snow in Nagano.

New Years Bonfire Tradition: Suzaka’s “Dondo-Yaki”

December 29th, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Events, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

After New Years, neighborhoods traditionally gathered the spent bamboo, dharma dolls and other decorations, piled them up and held a bonfire for an event called “Dondo-Yaki”.  While this tradition is becoming less common in urban areas, many communities in Nagano continue to put on “Dondo-Yaki”, usually around the holiday weekend at the beginning of January.

Suzaka Town’s “Dondo-Yaki” for 2018 will take place on Monday 08-Jan (“Coming of Age Day” national holiday) on the grounds of Suzaka Elementary School.  The bonfire will be lit at 5pm.  Participation is free.

It is said that if you eat mochi (sticky rice) roasted over the “Dondo-Yaki” bonfire, you will have good health for the year.  Many participants bring their own mochi rolled up in colorful balls and stuck to a branch for roasting over the coals.

Suzaka’s Guesthouse KURA can provide more details.  On Sunday, they will make mochi and prepare to roast it at the bonfire, so guests can enjoy a full “Dondo-Yaki” weekend.

Nagano’s Hidden Ski Resorts

December 22nd, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities

Excellent glades and powder at one of Nagano’s hidden ski resorts: Madarao Kogen.

If you’ve ever considered a ski trip to Nagano, chances are you’ve heard of Hakuba Valley and Nozawa Onsen. But what about the others? While there’s certainly a lot of fun to be had at some of the more popular resorts, the recent spike in tourism has led to crowded lifts. Besides, you never know what you’ll find if you trek off the beaten path. If you’re thinking of making a trip to the land of the rising sun, here are a few lesser known resorts you need to visit.

Madarao Kogen: King of the Glades

Madarao Kogen Ski Resort offers ski runs that suit people of all levels.

Overview

Madarao is a mid-sized, lesser known (to foreigners, at least) resort that provides a unique and authentic experience of Japan’s famous ski scene. Here you’ll find the same fluffy powder that Japan is known for, but without the crowds and lines to hold you back. With 30 runs, 15 lifts, and a vertical drop of 440m, you’ll have no problem spending a day or two (or even seven) exploring the incredible terrain.

Unique to Japanese resorts, 60% of the runs are ungroomed, making way for some of the best off-piste skiing in the country. Whether you’re addicted to the glades or just looking for some fresh terrain to make your mark, Madarao has you covered. With that being said, Madarao is considered one of the best places in Japan to sate your needs for tree-skiing.

Both Madarao and adjacent Tangram have plentiful, ungroomed tree runs.

Not only is tree-skiing allowed in Madarao, it is actively promoted. The resort was the first one in Japan to clear trees to create designated glades. The tree lines are wide to accommodate skiers and snowboarders of all levels. There are also a few shots of steep tree slopes for the adrenaline junkies.

The resort opens on the 16th December 2017 and is expected to close on the 1st April 2018.

Places to eat

Once it’s time to refuel after a day on the slopes, your options are as diverse as they are abundant. The area boasts some of the most amazing cuisine we’ve ever had; here are some of our favorites.

Honda: Specializes in Unagi/Grilled Eel dishes.
Address: 1117 Iiyama, Iiyama 389-2253, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-62-2213

Jazzy: A classic Jazz themed restaurant with western and Japanese dishes
Address: 1101-78 Madaraokogen, Iiyama 389-2257, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-64-3767

Restaurant Rudolf: Mouthwatering pizza and pasta right on the Madarao Slopes
Address: 1101-152 Madaraokogen, Iiyama 389-2257, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-64-3153

If you’re willing to explore, the local town of Iiyama is a 10 minute drive or a 35 minute bus away from Madarao resort. Iiyama provides more dining options than the resort, and it’s also a great destination to visit local temples and enjoy other cultural activities.

Rate

Lift Tickets (One Day): 4,500 yen for adults, 1,500 yen for children

Add 500 yen per day for the Mountain Pass to access neighboring resort of Tangram Ski Circus (you can ski/board through the top areas of Madarao).

Location / Access

Located between Myoko Kogen and Nozawa Onsen, the mountain is roughly 170km from Toyama Airport and 100km from Matsumoto Airport. You can travel from the mountain to Nozawa using the No-To-Mar Bus, which usually takes about an hour each way.

By Bus: If you’re coming from Narita Airport in Tokyo, Japan Ski Bus takes about 5-6 hours, costing 8,500 yen one way or 15,000 yen for a return trip. This is your only option if you arrived in Narita at night, unless you’re planning on staying overnight in Tokyo.

By Train: A faster option (4 hours total) is the Narita express train to Tokyo Station and then the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Iiyama, followed by bus service to Madarao Ski Resort.

Ryuoo Ski Park: Dragon King!

On a powder day, Ryuoo’s steep kiotoshi courses can’t be beat.

Overview

Ryuoo has some of Japan’s richest snowboarding history as it was one of the first resorts in the country to allow it, though skiers will love it here too. The resort is family friendly and features an adventure park where non-skiers and boarders can enjoy other snow activities such as tubing, sledding and tobogganing.

The mountain has one of the largest vertical drops in Nagano at 1,080m, and it features one of Japan’s longest ungroomed runs; the 1.4km Kiotoshi Course (you’ll need a helmet if you intend to tackle this course!) Kiotoshi is serviced by a 166 person capacity ropeway, one of the world’s biggest gondolas. At the top of the ropeway, visitors can take in the spectacular view from the Sky Terrace atop the Kiotoshi section. Despite only having 15 runs, the resort is separated into three sections:

  • The Valley contains beginner and green runs.
  • The middle ‘Kiotoshi’ section is best suited for intermediate and advanced riders. This area is the main draw for those seeking powder, but you’ll also find many steep ungroomed runs and a variety of glades to enjoy.
  • The top section is the Sky land area which is accessed via a chairlift from top of the Ropeway to the summit of Mt Ryuo (1,930m above sea level). The area can be enjoyed by confident beginners and intermediate riders. Expect softer and drier snow than the lower valley area, but make sure to close all your vents and rug up as it gets much colder at the higher altitude.

Ryuoo Ski Park’s adventure park has sledding, snow rafting, and snow buggy rides.

The resort also has two terrain parks; Dragon Park is their more advanced park, complete with rails, boxes, kickers and walls. Those who are new to park skiing can visit the Cherry Park for smaller features and a more gradual incline. The park opens on the 23 November 2017 and closes on 06 May 2018. Just make sure to check the snow conditions as some of the steeper runs are closed during early season due to lack of snow coverage.

The resort is a great day trip from Shiga Kogen or Nozawa Onsen, but there’s also plenty to see and do nearby.

Where to stay & eat

There a number of hotels around the Ryuoo Ski Park providing ski-in/ski-out experience such as Ryuo Park Hotel and Hotel North Shiga. Alternatively, you can stay in local town Yudanaka or try the authentic Ryokans (traditional inns) in Shibu Onsen. When you get hungry, check out a few of our favorite spots to grab a quick bite:

Enza Cafe: A popular restaurant located near the Snow Monkey park, serving a mix of Japanese and western dishes
Address: 1421-1 Hirao Kamibayashi, Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun 381-0401, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-38-1736

Japanese Dining GOEN: Conveniently located near the Yudanaka Station, you’ll find delicious Japanese cuisine including sushi and sake!
Address: 3227-1 Hirao, Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun 381-0401, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-38-0550

HAKKO beerbar & restaurant: A mix of traditional wooden design with a modern touch. This restaurant provides a great environment to enjoy some locally brewed beer with Japanese-Western Fusion cuisines.
Address: 381-0401, 3010 Hirao, Yamanouchi, Shimotakai District, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-38-8500

Rate

Lift Tickets (One Day): 4,600 yen for adults, 3,000 yen for children

Location / Access

The mountain is located about 300km from Tokyo and sits about 25 minutes drive outside a small town called Nakano.

By Train: Take the Shinkansen from Tokyo station to Nagano city (90 minutes). Change at Nagano and take the Nagano Dentetsu Line to Yudanaka Station (50 minutes). From Yudanaka Station, take the Ryuoo shuttle bus or taxi to Ryuoo Ski Park, 7 km away.

Togari Onsen – Nozawa Onsen’s quiet little brother

Togari is in Iiyama, just across from Nozawa Onsen ski resort, and enjoys similar powder without all the lines.

If you are staying a few days in the Iiyama and Nagano region, make a day trip to Togari Onsen to experience the famous Nagano powder without the crowd. Togari Onsen is Nozawa Onsen’s more laid back, less crowded younger brother. The mountain is great for those looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of it’s more internationally well-known neighbor, while still taking advantage of the region’s notorious fluffy powder. Not to mention the more than reasonable prices.

The resort is smaller than Nozawa with 18 runs, 650 meters of vertical and 7 lifts including 4 quad chairs. Togari is beginner friendly, home to many low angled and groomed runs, so intermediate skiers will find the entire mountain accessible without fear of getting stuck in steep and unmanageable terrain. The only drawback, however, is that there aren’t many steep, heart sinking runs for highly skilled skiers and snowboarders. With that being said, ungroomed runs in the upper side of the mountain provide a great opportunity to experience the famous Nagano Powder. Those who want to experience the best powder Togari has to offer can try the private back country guiding service, which we highly recommend.

Togari Onsen, as the name suggests, also has a number of rejuvenating hot springs.

Where to stay & eat

If you want more of a resort feel, there is a small resort-style hotel near the bottom of the slopes called Alpen Plaza. However, if you’re looking for a more authentic experience, there are many Ryokans in the town of Togari. If you’re in the area, here are a few eateries you’ve got to try:

Grilled Chicken Hashiba: Authentic Japanese cuisine, specializing in chicken
Address: 6792 Toyoda, Iiyama 389-2411, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-65-2666

Cafe & Bar & Music Ambis: Great live music and a wide selection of drinks
Address: 6796 Toyota, Iiyama 389-2411, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 50-1492-2910

Penticton: Their claim to fame is yaki-curry in a big bowl with melted cheese
Address: 6543-1 Toyoda, Iiyama, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-65-4611

Rate

Lift Tickets (One Day): 4,200 yen for adults, 2,800 yen for JHS students, and 1,500 yen for younger children

Location / Access

Togari Onsen is located just over 40km northeast of Nagano, featuring two base areas about 1km apart. Pegasus side is on the southwest, while the northern base is called Orion. Two onsens (hot springs) sit at the base of the mountain; Akatsuki on the Pegasus slope and Nozomi on the Orion Slope. Known for their landscaping, Nozomi’s outdoor views shouldn’t be missed.

By Train: From Tokyo Station take the Shinkansen to Iiyama, followed by bus service to Togari Onsen

By Bus: JP Mountain also provides an over-night shuttle service to the resort from Shinjuku Station (leaves at 23:00 Shinjuku) for 10,000 yen.


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Karuizawa’s 19th Annual International Curling Championship

December 20th, 2017 by
Category: Experience, Information, Report

Morozumi, skip of the SC Karuizawa Club, curls the stone as his teammates wait to sweep it.

Curling, called “chess on ice,” is a sport that originated in Scotland. Two teams take turns sliding large stones over a bed of ice, attempting to put their stones closest to the center of the home circle. Teammates have brooms to sweep the ice in front of the stone, affecting the stone’s direction and speed. Beyond the actions of curling the stone and sweeping the ice, curling isn’t particularly athletic, rather a game of prediction and strategy. The only tools at the player’s disposal are their stones, their wits and their brooms.

Both teams discuss the score at the end of a round during the women’s finals.

Curling was recognized as an official sport of the Olympic Games during the 1998 Nagano Olympics, and the curling events took place in Karuizawa. Since then, Karuizawa has held an annual curling championship to commemorate the sport. Last weekend, it held the 19th iteration of its Karuizawa International Curling Championship, where 30 teams in men’s and women’s curling competed for top prizes.

The championship was held at the Karuizawa Ice Park of the Kazakoshi Sports Park, home of the original Olympic curling facility (now used for ice hockey and figure skating).

SC Karuizawa Club team members sweeping the ice in front of the stone.

On Sunday, teams faced off in the championship games. The Men’s finals featured Nagano’s own SC Karuizawa Club team versus the South Korean C. Kim team, and the Women’s finals were between the C. Matsumura team of Nagano and the Fujisawa team of Kitami, Hokkaido. SC Karuizawa took first place in the men’s division with a nail-biting 5-4 victory, and the Fujisawa team defeated C. Matsumura 10-3.

Both the men’s and women’s division champions will represent Japan in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, so look out for them early next year!

Try Curling for Yourself!

The new Karuizawa Ice Park facility, where anyone can enjoy the sport of curling.

Watching curling for the first time, I was at a loss to understand the significance of their plays, but I found the way the teams floated effortlessly across the ice mesmerizing. After the curler released the stone, their teammates would slide beside it, sweeping the ice to affect its speed and direction. To my amazement, the right stroke could make the stone veer to the left or right, passing obstacles or knocking opponents’ stones out of the way.

Members of team C. Kim sweep the stone as it approaches home.

While the skill and strategy of the competing teams were incredibly high, curling itself is a sport that can be enjoyed by anyone. Curling isn’t aerobic and doesn’t require much strength, rather balance and coordination. Adults and children can play together, and special devices are available to assist elderly or disabled individuals in throwing curling stones.

The Karuizawa Ice Park is open to the public year-round and also offers curling lessons for beginners. Curling is another unique way to enjoy the winter season, and a great escape from the heat of summer.

Additional Information

The Karuizawa Ice Park is part of Kazakoshi Park in Northern Karuizawa. The Olympic curling facility is also located here, and monuments are dedicated here to the 1998 Nagano Olympics and 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Ice Park also has a small curling museum where you can learn more about the sport and its history.

If you’d like to learn more about Nagano’s winter activities, check out our blog on five ways to enjoy the snow this winter.

Karuizawa Ice Park

Hours: 9:00 to 22:00
Holidays: Dec. 31, Jan. 1
Operating Period: Year-round
Address: Kazakoshi Park (389-0113 Nagano-ken, Kitasaku-gun, Karuizawa-machi, Oaza Hocchi 1157-6)
Curling Rink Use (price per hour): Adults/800 yen, Children/400 yen
Rentals: Some items require an additional fee
Access: Take the Karuizawa Loop line bus from Naka-Karuizawa or Karuizawa stations and get off at the Kazakoshi Koen bus stop (14 to 25 min.). It’s a short walk from there.