Meet Japan’s Emperors (and General MacArthur)

November 4th, 2017 by
Category: Culture Art, Information, Sightseeing

Curious about Japanese emperors? The Japan History Museum on the hill behind our Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada has a permanent display of portraits of all the emperors and empresses dating back to mythological times.
The museum will be open until the end of November and the again in the spring. Entrance is 500 yen.
The museum’s temporary display features the history of Daihongan, one of the two Buddhist sects that manage Zenkoji Temple. Kanon-ji, he temple neighboring the museum, is a branch of Zenkoji under the Daihongan sect

 

Five Unique and Memorable Hot Springs

November 3rd, 2017 by
Category: Information, Onsens (Hot Springs)

You can bathe in some wild and wonderful places around Nagano.

One of Japan’s greatest charms is its natural hot springs and bathing culture. While sitting naked in a bath with a bunch of strangers can be intimidating at first, once you take a dip in an onsen you’ll never feel the same. Unlike a hot tub or Jacuzzi, the water is completely natural and isn’t treated with harsh chemicals; the water leaves your skin feeling smooth, natural minerals revitalize your senses, and the heat warms you from the inside out.

In Nagano, there’s a huge variety of hot springs to choose from. Different springs offer baths of different temperature and mineral composition, which offer various health and beauty benefits. Some facilities are new and shiny while others are made from old wood caked in years of mineral build-up. You could spend years here and not visit them all! Since your time here may be short, I’d like to introduce some particularly memorable and unique hot springs around Nagano to visit.

1. Build your own Hot Spring at Kiriake Onsen

Bring a shovel and dig your own onsen out of the river.


Would you like to be an onsen pioneer and dig up your own bath in the wilderness? Natural spring water wells up from the ground into the Nakatsu River on the border of Nagano and Niigata. There are several hotels along the river that rent out shovels to visitors so they can build their own outdoor baths! You can adjust the temperature to your liking by rearranging rocks around your spot. Let in more river water to cool it down, or block the flow for a steamy +40°C hot tub.

Access

To reach Kiriake Onsen, a car is recommended but it is also possible by public transportation. Take the JR Iiyama line from Nagano Station to Morimiyanohara Station (103 min.), and then take the Minami Echigo Kanko bus bound for Kayama Onsen to Akiyamago Kiriake Onsen (60 min., see timetable). By car, it is 70 minutes via route 117 from the Joshin’etsu Expressway Toyota-Iiyama IC exit.

2. Meet “the One” at Shosenkaku’s Omiai Buro

Take a chance at love at Shosenkaku’s Omiai Buro.

In Shosenkaku’s outdoor hot spring, a small shrine with a window connects the men and women’s outdoor baths. Women can open the window blind and chat with men on the other side. For shy couples, it may be a chance to enjoy the hot spring together, and for singles, a chance to meet the love of their lives! So far, the Omiai window has been responsible for three marriages. Who will be next?

Details and Access

Shosenkaku is south of Nagano City near Imai and Kawanakajima Stations. You can take a 12 min. taxi from Kawanakajima Station, or walk for 30 min. from Imai Station. It is open year-round from 12:00 to 20:00 on weekdays (11:00 to 20:00 on Saturdays and holidays). Entrance fee is 650 yen for adults (250 for children).

3. Relax in Japan’s Highest Outdoor Bath at Honzawa Onsen

Soak in relaxing waters at 2,150m high.


At 2,150m high, this natural outdoor bath is a unique and wild destination. A car will only take you so far; instead, you’ll have to hike on foot for over two hours to reach it. After your hike, you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful view of Yatsugatake’s mountains and a steamy, sulfurous bath to sooth your tired muscles. You can travel up for just the day, or you can spend the night in the Honzawa Onsen lodge and tackle Mt. Akadake, Mt. Iodake, or Mt. Tengu.

Details

The lodge and onsen are open year-round, but winter travel is not recommended unless you have winter climbing experience. A night in the lodge ranges from 8,700 to 11,200 yen, and the outdoor bath is 600 yen. Be aware that there are no changing rooms for the outdoor bath!

Access

From JR Koumi Station, take the Matsubarako line bus to Inagoyu. From there, it’s a 3 hour hike to the hot spring. If you’re traveling by car, park at Honsawa Onsen Iriguchi. From there it’s a 2 hour and 15 minute walk.

4. Bathing with Apples around Nagano

Nakadanaso’s apple bath is an ode to first love.


Among Japan’s 47 prefectures, Nagano takes second place for both apple production and number of hot spring areas (don’t even get us started on all of Nagano’s other “second place” rankings…), so it was only natural that someone eventually combined the two. The colorful floating apples not only please the eye, but fill the bathroom with a sweet, autumnal aroma.

The first place to offer an apple-filled bath is said to be Nakadanaso in Nagano’s Komoro City. The owners filled the hot spring with apples in homage to one of Shimazaki Toson’s poems called “First Love,” a story about a young boy who falls in love with a girl tending her apple orchard. Now, guests can enjoy the apple bath at Nakadanaso between October and May of every year, and other hot springs around the prefecture have followed suit.

Details and Access

Nakadanaso can be reached on foot from Komoro Station in just 15 minutes. The hot spring is open to visitors from 11:30 to 14:00, and costs 1,000 yen for adults (500 for children).

Another option is Toyono’s Ringo no Yu which has apple baths on the 5th, 15th, and 25th of each month (open from 11:00 to 22:00, closed on the 4th Tuesday of every month). Entrance is 410 yen for adults (300 for children). It’s just a 12 min. walk from Toyono Station.

5. Take a Dip with Monkeys at Korakukan?

The monkeys love hanging around the outdoor baths of Korakukan and drinking from the pools.


Jigokudani Yaen Koen is famous for its hot-spring-bathing snow monkeys, but the phenomenon originated at the nearby Korakukan inn. Monkeys occasionally traveled into the valley to warm themselves during the harsh winters, sitting in small pools by the side of the river. Over the years, some of the monkeys became accustomed to the sight of people who were relaxing in the inn’s outdoor baths, eventually taking a dip themselves!

Korakukan is located beside the monkey park and offers great views of the area. Monkeys also treat the inn as a jungle gym and are not shy about hanging around the inn’s baths. After watching monkeys taking a dip at the Snow Monkey park, head to Korakukan and take a dip while monkeys watch you!

Details and Access

Korakukan can be found next to the Snow Monkey Park. The inn’s hot springs are open for visitors from 12:00 to 15:00 and the entrance fee is 600 yen for adults (300 for children). Indoor and outdoor baths are available. There is a women’s only outdoor bath and a mixed bath. Special bathing suits are available to rent for women.

Learn More about Japan’s Hot Springs

A vacation to Nagano wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one of its over 200 hot spring areas. Tourists flock to hot spring resort areas such as Nozawa, Shibu, Shirahone, Bessho, and Hirugami, and there are plenty of hot springs in arm’s reach of ski resorts and hiking trails for outdoor enthusiasts. Before visiting one yourself, or just to brush up on your hot spring knowledge, take a look at our blog on how to enjoy hot springs.

And as always, if you have any questions, feel free to leave us a comment below!

The Sanada Jumangoku Festival

October 11th, 2017 by
Category: Events, Information, Sightseeing

Several of the parade’s participants pose for a morning photograph.

On Sunday, Matsushiro celebrated their annual Sanada Jumangoku festival. Taiko performances, artillery displays, and traditional dances were held at the castle before a procession of Sanada clan warriors paraded through the gates. History lovers from around Japan came to participate in the event, bringing beautifully crafted suits of paper armor with them.
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Happy Harvest Moon, From Nagano’s Top-2 Moon-Viewing Spots

October 6th, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

The Harvest Moon is spectacular to see from anywhere in the world, but Nagano Prefecture has 2 locations that are particularly famous for viewing the moon:  Matsumoto Castle and the Obasute terraced rice fields in Chikuma City.

Matsumoto Castle has a ‘tsukimi-yagura’ (moon-viewing tower), from where you can see the moons three-fold:  one in the sky, one reflected in the moat, and one reflected in … well, any guesses where?

 

(Picture courtesy of Keener-san)

 

At the Obasute rice fields, the number of moons you can see doesn’t stop at 3.  The terraces are known as “Tagoto-no-Tsuki” meaning the moon reflects in the individual rice fields.  I think you need some of the local sake in order to see that properly.  (Oh, there’s a hint for the answer to my question!)

亀清旅館さんの写真 亀清旅館さんの写真 亀清旅館さんの写真

Picking Grapes in Early Autumn

October 4th, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

One of Nagano’s original grape varieties, Nagano Purple!

One of the joys of early autumn is harvest season, when fruit hangs low on the tree and is ripe for picking. During September and early October, you can pick grapes in vineyards throughout Nagano.

There are a wide variety of grapes to choose from. You’ll be surprised by the different flavors of Delaware, Niagara, and Steuben grapes, as well as the monstrous size of Kyoho and Nagano Purple. Don’t forget fan favorites like Shine Muscat!
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Destination Mt Hakuba

September 13th, 2017 by
Category: Information
Hakuba

The top of Shirouma Dake

There is lots to explore in Hakuba. The stand out spot when you are in the valley is obviously the tallest peak of Shirouma Dake or to translate that, Mt. Hakuba or again White Horse mountain. I had climbed it previously from the Daisekkei ice field but this time we were taking an alternative route via Tsugaike and staying the night in the lodge. Studying the weather and assessing all the models we decided upon the weekend of the 3/4 September 2017. It looked to be a sunny and relatively low wind weekend. True to Hakuba’s form of micro climate we found ourselves locked into some low cloud however there were plenty of times it cleared enough to get the camera out.

Hakuba

The gondola and ropeway will take you half way up to 1900 meters

We started off at the Tsugaike gondola and then a 300 meter walk to the ropeway. That takes us up to the starting point. (turn right just before the Park Entrance Hut). It is a pleasant start through high sassa grass forests up to the swampy flats of Tengu para. The next part of the climb up to Norikura Dake involves a bit of bouldering. You’ll likely see some snow up here with a small 50 meter traverse which may be icy. They do have a rope to assist you. At the top of Norikura you will have a chance to see some raicho birds. You may see there head pop up occasionally. It is difficult at this time of year to get a good photo but you may be lucky.  From here it is a bit of rock hopping down to Hakuba Oike (pond). As we strolled into the basin we were able to get a great view of the pond before we were socked in with a think cloud. There is a lodge at the pond for a toilet break and a bite to eat. We brought our own food so we sat down outside and had some lunch here. It took us close to 3 hours to get to this point.

Hakuba

The Tengu para swampy marshland

Hakuba

Still some snow on Norikura Dake

Hakuba

A bit of bouldering to get you through this section

 

Hakuba

Hakuba pond with the hut in the background

The next stage of the trip is on a stony trail traversing along the side of the mountains with ridges and saddles. At this stage we were still hidden in the clouds. It was beautiful in it’s own respect however I could imagine how spectacular the scenery would have been on a clear day. The terrain doesn’t change much from here except for a few steeper sections as we made our way along the peaks that I laud from the village daily. The biggest threat would probably be the wind through the saddles which I could imagine being quite fierce on its day.  As we climbed higher we eventually punched through the cloud to an absolutely stunning vista. It was worth the wait and the cloud below us has now become a bonus. This stage is about 3-4 hours to the top peak of Shirouma sitting at 2932 meters above sea level

Hakuba

Rocky fields along the way

Hakuba

You can see where the inspiration for the traditional Japanese garden has come from

Hakuba hikes

Getting on top of the clouds. It was so nice to feel the sun.

Hakuba

Watch your step. It gets steep in sections

 

Hakuba

Getting closer to the peak

Hakuba

We made it. Top of the peak with a sea of cloud

Continuing on just down about 15 minutes from the peak is the lodge. This place sleeps 800+ people but on a busy weekend during peak season they will never turn any one away so be prepared for minimal space. We chose a quiet weekend just out of peak so we were able to get a private room. Nothing fancy here other than a warm futon for the night which after a big hike is all you need (maybe a pillow and a pair of ear plugs too if you are a light sleeper). The restaurant is beautifully built and offers amazing sunset views out of the cold. Sitting up so high in the mountains in a nice comfortable restaurant and being able to order a beer and some warm food makes this a dream hiking destination. The lodge offers a basic dinner and breakfast  deal with accommodation as an extra or you can purchase dinner separately at the restaurant which is what we did.

Hakuba

A beautiful sunset too from high in the mountains

Hakuba

Sitting back on the top of the mountains with beer and edamame. Life is good.

After a big hike and a few beers and a feed it was time to catch some zzzzs. We were woken up abruptly for the first breakfast call at around 5 o’clock. Seems people are really keen to get moving early. A perfect clear morning gives us the views we were dreaming of.

Hakuba

The view from my bedroom window in the morning. That’s a great way to get you moving.

Hakuba

Looking back up to the peak in the morning

There are a couple of different routes from this point with more lodges along the way if you want to stay more nights. We have chose to make our way down and back to Hakuba via the Daisekkei ice field down to Sarukura. Before you leave be sure to hire some crampons for the ice down lower (700 yen) The hike is a steep decline and walking poles are recommended. Lots of twists and turns and every step takes concentration. Don’t forget to stop and look back at the magnificent rugged mountain scenery. Even though it is all down hill, it is a bit of a challenge. As we were making our way down on a perfect clear morning we could see below a thick cloud charge up the valley and just stop right over the ice. It was another natural change that just added to the trip.  It will take a bit over hour to reach the icefield. The trail carers assess the icefield regularly to make sure the routes are safe however you will see one of the major threats is being hit by rocks that have been naturally released and sent down the steep mountain sides. There are numerous boulders scattered around so stay aware. You will hear the smaller rockfalls too as you make your way down. It is not really a marked trail here for most of the way however you can basically pick where everyone else has been walking. They may put some coloured markings down or a rope in some areas to show where to go. Once you are off the ice there is a little bit of scrambling but mostly steps down to the next hut where you can relax and buy a drink. The next 45+ minutes is an easy hike back to the Sarukura hut where you can hand in your crampons and get a snack. They have buses running from here to the village at some times during the year. Either that or arrange a pick up with your hotel or you can ask them to call you a taxi.

Hakuba

A perfect morning to begin the hike down

 

Hakuba

Pick your way carefully. Natures stairs

 

Hakuba

The start of the icefied just below.

 

Hakuba

and then just like that the cloud rolled up the valley

A couple of highlights for me. I hiked with my 7 year old daughter. This was an amazing bonding experience that I will always remember. I knew she was capable physically however there is the mental aspect of a long climb. She passed with flying colours. This is not a climb for every kid. Once you get up past the lake it is just as difficult to go back as it is to go forward and that would be hard to explain to a child who is in melt down. Keep them going with plenty of positive reinforcement but ensure to do some smaller hikes prior to tackling something like this (and take plenty of snacks :) .  The other thing for me was producing my first Brocken Spectre which is a rainbow halo created from the sun behind you and reflecting your shadow on the clouds below.  It gives a stunning effect and something I have always wanted to see.

Hakuba

Brocken Spectre. That’s my shadow with a rainbow.

What to take.

Good hiking boots,  food, snacks, water, raincoat, extra warm clothes, gloves, walking poles, sunscreen, cash (no card facilities), camera, first aid kit,  crampons (can be hired), pillow, torch, phone,  plastic bags for rubbish, sunglasses

Tips

Temperatures can get down to zero even in the summer time so be prepared.  Leave early and give yourself plenty of time to get to your destination.

The hiking in the Japanese alps is as good as anywhere in the world. Come and explore this beautiful part of Japan on your next visit. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me at tony@whitehorse-hakuba.com

Climbing Mt. Tsubakuro

September 1st, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities

The final stretch of trail to the peak of Mt. Tsubakuro is incredibly picturesque.

Mt. Tsubakuro (2,763m) is a very popular destination in the Northern Japanese Alps due to its unique appearance and beautiful alpine flora. Its well-maintained trails, convenient rest areas and lodges, and beautiful scenery make it a must-hike spot in Nagano.

The trailhead begins from Nakabusa Onsen at an altitude of 1,462m. The trail continues through the forest for a majority of the climb before breaking through the tree line for the last hour or so. Rest areas are spaced evenly throughout the hike, with four bench areas in the woods followed by the Kassen-goya hut and the Enzanso mountain lodge above the tree line. From the lodge, the peak is approximately 40 minutes.
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48 Hours in Nagano City

August 18th, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Information, Sightseeing

In 1998, Nagano City hosted the Winter Olympic Games and introduced the world to the Japanese Alps, the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, and glorious Japanese powder (or, “japow”). But that isn’t all that the area has to offer. With beautiful Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the heart of Japan’s mountains, Nagano City is a hub of spiritual sites and natural splendor.

Take a model 2-day trip around Nagano City and enjoy another side of Japan!

National Treasure Zenkoji

The main hall of Zenkoji Temple


After arriving in Nagano, walk (or ride the colorful Gururingo bus) from the station to Zenkoji, following the wooden lanterns along Chuo-dori street. Eventually you’ll reach Motozen-machi with its cobbled streets and beautiful temple lodges. After passing through the Niomon and Sannomon gates, you’ll see Zenkoji—one of the largest wooden temples in Japan with over 1400 years of history.
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Namaste, Iiyama!

July 23rd, 2017 by
Category: Information

One bright, hot summer morning was the perfect time to escape to the cool of Iiyama’s Nabekura Highlands for some outdoor yoga in a beautiful beech tree (buna) forest.

Wide open vistas of green rice paddies

Taking advantage of the very convenient shuttle bus from Iiyama Station, our little group was in high spirits. It’s a pretty route, through wide open valleys of rice fields with old “samurai hat” houses and their immaculate kitchen gardens. The bus arrives at the Mori no Ie visitor centre in plenty of time to get changed into your yoga things, and get some water. After picking up our yoga mats, which were provided, we followed our instructor down a well-kept forest trail. Birds were singing, butterflies flittered around and we even surprised a little grass snake, sunning himself on the trail. Well, perhaps it was us who were more surprised!
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