“Arena” Bathhouse at Nozawa Onsen Grand Re-Opening

December 12th, 2013 by
Category: Onsens (Hot Springs), Report
Nozawa Onsen’s bathhouse “Arena” is celebrating it’s Grand Re-Opening today, 12-December 2013.
In addition to the original mens and womens onsen baths and saunas, the renovated Arena now features a new style of onsen bathing — brand new outdoor baths for soaking while wearing bathing suits. 
Arena also has a “Relax Room” for unwinding after a soak, as well as restaurant facilities. 
And coming Summer 2014:
*A waterfall pool next to the new outdoor baths
*A kiddy pool
*A new garden featuring native trees and plants.
More pictures and map on the Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort website (in Japanese)
http://www.nozawaski.com/winter/facilities/arena.php

Jigokudani Snow Monkeys now with Snow!

December 12th, 2013 by
Category: Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

The world-famous “Snow Monkeys” of the Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park are cute any time of the year soaking in their onsen bath. But it’s when it snows is when they are truly in their most photogenic element. And that area has started to get their winter snow fall, so now is your chance!

Winter bus schedules are now in effect, so I updated the train and bus matrix to get you from Nagano Station (and by extension, onsen town Togura-Kamiyamada) to the monkey park trailhead, Kanbayashi, and back for an easy day trip.  (Note: This is just a partial schedule.  Check at the Information Center at Nagano Station for full train and bus schedules.)

We just had a visitor from Sydney, Australia make the trip. He said he ‘only’ took about 200 pictures of the monkeys. The snow made for a dramatic backdrop, especially on the walk from Kanbayashi through the beautiful evergreen forest.

Classic Volcano Climb: Eastern Nagano’s Mt. Asama

July 24th, 2013 by
Category: Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities

At 2568m, Mt. Asama is the largest mountain in eastern Nagano. The active volcano towers over Komoro and Karuizawa, frequently sending up plumes of volcanic ash and smoke. The Nagano Shinkansen is named after Mt. Asama, and riders of the bullet train get a front seat view of the awe-inspiring mountain.

But what does the world look like from the top of Mt. Asama? And can you see into the volcanic crater? I had always been curious, so on a recent day when our oldest son had a day off from middle school, we decided to make an ascent of the volcano.

Author and his son at the top of Mt. Asama's Maekake Crater

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Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada News: Taiko Concerts, New Cycling Tour and Free Onsen Baths

April 28th, 2013 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities

This year onsen town Togura-Kamiyamada is celebrating its birthday.  The Togura side is 120 years old, and the Kamiyamada side 110 years.  On April 21st, we celebrated with an event that included a performance by our town’s geisha guild and lion dance troupe as well as free pottery and stained glass making lessons.  And on the 26th of each month from April to September, 2013, all of the inns and hotels will be offering free onsen baths.  Register at the Tourism Hall (tel 026-276-1056)  from 12:30, and enjoy onsen-hopping until 3pm. 

Togura Kamiyamada Onsen's Anniversary Celebration

Also coming up is a taiko drum concert series by our local troupe, Kamuruki-daiko.  They will perform at the main stage by the Kara-Koro onsen footbath in the park in the middle of town.  The energetic performances will take place most Saturday nights in June and September (specifically June 8th, 15th, 22nd and 29th, and September 7th, 14th, 21st and 28th).  The concerts will start at 8:30pm and last approximately 30 minutes, with a chance at the end for people from the audience to come up on stage and try drumming with the group.  Kids will especially love it.

Taiko Drum Concert Series June and September 2013

One other exciting item is starting in May, guided cycling tours of the onsen town will be offered every Saturday morning.  The tours will start at the Kara-Koro onsen footbath at 10:30 am and will last approximately 1-1/2 hours.   ‘Mama-chari’ rental cycles will be provided.  The tour will cover everything from Designated National Cultural Treasures to hidden secrets and will take in the beautiful scenery of the Chikuma River and the surrounding mountains. The tour will also include a footbath stop and each participant will get a manju sweet to eat.  The tour will be led by an English-speaking guide for your full enjoyment.
Tours will take place every Saturday morning from May through November.
Price is 1200 yen, including cost of the rental cycle, insurance, and the manju sweet.
Maximum 8 people per tour, so reserve early!
To reserve, contact the Chikuma City Tourism Association.

Guided Cycling Tours of Togura-Kamiyamada Onsen Every Saturday Starting in May

New English Guides for Northern Nagano

March 12th, 2013 by
Category: Information, Onsens (Hot Springs)

Two towns in northern Nagano Prefecture have recently produced English-language brochures: Suzaka City and Takayama Town.

Suzaka’s brochure promotes the ‘kura’ earthen-walled storehouse district and Tanaka Honke Museum in the town’s center as well as the city’s natural attractions of the Yonago twin waterfalls and the Minenohara ski resort.

Takayama’s features the town’s many onsens, spectacular waterfalls and distinctive singular cherry trees.

Komiyama-san, the designer of the two new brochures, came by Kamesei Ryokan to show them to me.  Overall, they are very useful. One reason is that the English text isn’t simply a translation from Japanese, but a local American living in Suzaka wrote it all in native English.

Suzaka City recently saw “Guesthouse Kura” open, so English-speaking backpackers now have a place to stay. And also in Suzaka is Horakuan Temple whose monk is a German lady that offers zazen meditation as well as Buddhist studying and counseling in English and German.

Nagano’s tourism is becoming more and more international!

須坂市 Suzaka City

高山村 Takayama Village

Guesthouse 蔵 Kura

豊樂庵 Horakuan Temple

New English Guide Book to Nagano Onsens

February 28th, 2013 by
Category: Information, Onsens (Hot Springs)

Nagano Prefecture is a mecca for onsens (hot springs). It has the most day-use onsens of any prefecture in Japan. For everybody in Japan, that is a well-known fact, and there are numerous guide books and websites providing ample information on Nagano onsens … in Japanese.

But Nagano’s onsens could very well be popular with visitors from overseas, too. It’s just that there is hardly any information out there in foreign languages.

Peter Ninnes, an Australian residing near Togura-Kamiyamada Onsen, has set out to fix that. He just published the “Nagano Onsen Guide: The Top 100 Day-Use Hot Springs”, an English guide book to Nagano’s many fantastic onsens.

New Guide Book on Nagano Onsens by Peter Ninnes

I assisted Peter in some of his field research and it really opened my eyes to just how many amazing onsens Nagano has. Peter visited over 140 onsens and personally bathed, err, tested every one. Based on a criteria of things like ambience, presence of minerals in the hot spring water, variety of baths and presence of ugly power lines, he came up with a list of the Top 100. As a bonus, he also listed 5 ryokans that don’t allow day-use but would make for a special place to spend the night.

Peter added careful directions to reach each onsen (Japan’s roads are notoriously confusing, and some of the onsens are located in really out-of-the-way places). In addition, he provided details for every onsen on everything from a breakdown of the mineral content to whether or not there are coin lockers. And the book features 100 full color pictures.

I fully believe that Nagano’s onsens are a critical tool to attract foreigners into coming to visit, and Peter’s new book will hopefully be the perfect accessory.

Available for purchase via the internet (createspace) and/or on amazon.com

Ski Mecca Nagano — Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort

February 6th, 2013 by
Category: Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Our kids had a day off from school the other day.
The weather was postcard-perfect.
Lots of work to do, but….

When in Nagano during the winter, you just gotta go skiing.

So the kids and piled in the car, and went up to Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort. Our son Andy wanted to try the 39-degree “Wall”, and I was looking forward to a soak in Nozawa’s onsen after skiing.

Family Fun at the Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort

While Andy tackled the Wall and the rest of Nozawa’s courses, I taught #2 son Kenny and our daughter Misaki how to ski at the Kids Park at the bottom. Andy was excited to have seen the ocean from the peak, and had a blast exploring all the various runs. Meanwhile, especially Misaki got hooked on skiing and wants to try it again.

After skiing at Nozawa, it’s against the rules not to take a soak in an onsen bath.

There are 13 “Soto-Yu” public bathhouses in Nozawa where locals and visitors alike are welcome to go and take baths for free (donations accepted). Locals take turns cleaning and maintaining the facilities, and the bathhouses act as gathering spots to chit-chat and catch up on things.

One of those bathhouses is Oyu. The stately elegant wood construction with the raised center roof to let the steam out is the classic “Yu-ya” (bathhouse) style. This is onsen culture at its finest.

Nozawa Oyu -- the granddaddy of Nozawa Onsen's public bathhouses

It had been years since I’d bathed at Oyu. So on this ski trip to Nozawa Onsen, the kids and I took the time (and followed the rule) to take a bath there.

Warning: Nozawa’s hot springs are scalding hot! Oyu is divided into mens and womens sides, and further divided into “Atsu-yu” (hot water) and “Nuru-yu” (moderate water). But even the nuru-yu was painfully hot (around 43 deg C), so we and the other guests added tapwater, and I used the wooden plank to stir up the bath, bringing the temperature down to a more enjoyable 40 degress C.

Dip carefully

The onsen water has a rich sulfur content. The strong smell makes bathing here a fantastic multi-sensation experience.

Nozawa Onsen — amazing skiing and amazing hot springs. Check it out!

Omachi: Onsen and horseback archery

July 4th, 2012 by
Category: Accomodations, Events, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs)

Lately I have been  ‘researching’ Nagano’s top onsens.  One I went to recently was Omachi Onsen in the foothills of the Japanese Alps, north of Matsumoto and south of Hakuba.

Omachi Onsen is relatively new, having come into existence around the construction of the Kurobe Dam and the Tateyama Alpine Route in 1971. It’s a planned onsen resort with spacious, wooded lots (average hotel lot size is 7000m2) and nice, wide lanes. Perfect for walking or cycling, with a tributary to the Takase River to play in and views of the grand Japanese Alps. Besides being the Nagano gateway to the Alpine Route, Omachi is also convenient to Aoki Lake and Azumino (famous for art museums and wasabi fields).

Omachi Onsen’s 14 hotels offer a wide variety of accommodation. From 11-room boutique-like Azumino Kawasho to massive 170-room Tateyama Prince Hotel. In between is the posh Shoen (part of the Hoshino Resort chain), Ryokan Kashiwa-sou with the charismatic Sachie-san charming the guests, the German Alps-themed Kurobe Kanko Hotel, and more. There is also an onsen bathhouse for daytrippers, Yakushi-no-Yu.

The onsen water originates in Kuzu Onsen, 10km upstream where it comes out of the ground at 66.3C. The water is simple mineral water with low alkalidity and low osmotic pressure.
大町温泉郷Omachi Onsen

I’d like to introduce two of the onsen facilities, the daytrippers bathhouse Yakushi-no-Yu and the ryokan where I stayed this time, Hotel Yamada-ya.

Yakushi-no-Yu is Omachi Onsen’s main bathhouse. I went during an off-peak time on a weekday morning, but there were still plenty of bathers. It’s a popular bathhouse. One of the indoor baths is pure onsen water but the temperature was so low, nobody was bathing in it. Instead, everyone was in the larger indoor bath which is heated and recirculated. The outdoor bath was spacious but would have been more enjoyable if it had a view of the Alps. The outdoor bath made of river rocks is apparently only operating in the summer, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to enjoy it.
薬師の湯Yakushi no Yu

Yakushi no Yu's entrance

Hotel Yamada-ya’s owners provide surprisingly friendly service considering its size (51 rooms). The indoor bath was nice and spacious but I always like outdoor baths more.
大町ホテル山田屋 Omachi Hotel Yamadaya

Hotel Yamada-ya's Inviting Outdoor Bath

During my visit, I had the privelege of meeting the mayor of Omachi. It turns out Ushikoshi-san is an avid archery fan. I promised to put the word out about Omachi’s upcoming horse-back archery event, Yabusame. Officially called the Omachi Nyakuichi-Oji Festival, the main event will take place on Sunday 22-July this year (2012) with a procession to start at Omachi Station around 10am, winding up at Nyakuichi Oji Shrine around 3pm for the childrens’ archery demonstration.
Omachi Yabusame Archery Event (English – translation by Yours Truly)

Access to Omachi is via Route 147 from Matsumoto, or via the JR Oito Line from Matsumoto Station.  There is regular bus service from Shinanoomachi Station to Omachi Onsen and continuing on to Ogisawa, the start of the Tateyama-Kurobe Dam Alpine Route.

Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada’s Summer Festivals 2012

June 15th, 2012 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Our onsen town Togura-Kamiyamada’s 2 biggest events are coming up: the Kamiyamada Onsen Summer Festival and the Chikuma River Fireworks. The 2012 Dates for the two are as follows.  (Note:  Access is via Togura Station on the Shinano Railway line.)

Kamiyamada Onsen Summer Festival 2012: July 14-15
Saturday is more for us locals, with neighborhood parades and official ceremonies including the Geta Offering run by us members of the ryokan junior association.
Sunday is more for tourists, with a massive 50-person shi-shi lion and omikoshi shrines carried by groups of sweaty guys and gals, with the backdrop of a taiko drum performance and a fireworks display launched from the mountain behind town. You will never see so much intense energy in one spot anywhere else in Japan.

That's me with one of the "O-Mikoshi" parade shrines at last year's festival

Chikuma River Fireworks Display 2012: August 7th.
Northern Nagano’s largest fireworks show take place above the picturesque Chikuma River. Get up close for an awe-inspiring view as the brilliant flashes reflect off the surface of the river and the ‘boom’ of the explosions bounce off the surrounding mountains.

Fireworks over the Chikuma River