Secret river-onsen: Kiriake

September 28th, 2010 by
Category: Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Onsen water coming up out of a river bed?
You take a shovel to make your own bath?
And you adjust the water temperature by mixing in river water?

Sounds like something out of an onsen legend. But it’s not just a myth — it actually exists: Kiriake Onsen in the northern corner of Nagano Prefecture near the borders with Niigata and Gunma Prefectures.

Relaxing in the Kiriake river-onsen

Relaxing in the Kiriake river-onsen

You park your car at the lone ryokan, Yusenkaku, grab a shovel, cross the suspension bridge, walk down to the river, take care to avoid the onsen hot spots (the onsen temperature is supposedly a toe-tingling 57 deg C), find an area where the temperature is to your liking and move the rocks around until you have your own little onsen pool.

The other day, after we visited the snow monkeys, our family and some friends drove up and through Shiga Kogen and Oku-Shiga Kogen along the windy mountain road to Kiriake (approx. 45km and 2hours from Shibu-Yudanaka Onsen area).

Actually, I’d come here about 17 years ago. Back then, the road to Kiriake was a bumpy gravel one. It’s been paved since then, which may be the reason it’s lost some of it’s ‘hidden’ charm. Judging by the number of celebrity signatures, and by how many other people were there that day, the secret is out.

I had always wanted to have our kids experience this onsen-in-the-middle-of-a-river where you build a bath yourself. Plus, I was needing a relaxing break from the summer holiday rush. For me, this combination of natural setting and onsen is perfectly sublime.

Kiriake Onsen:
You do actually use a shovel to make your own bath.
The onsen water does actually bubble up right in the middle of the river.
You do actually adjust the temperature yourself by mixing in river water.
And, being that it’s an all-natural phenomenom, the onsen keeps bubbling up in different spots. First over there, then over here, then, Ooh la la!, right here!

Onsen water bubbling up

Onsen water bubbling up

Grab a shovel...

Grab a shovel...


...Cross the bridge...

...Cross the bridge...

...and dig your own onsen bath

...and dig your own onsen bath





Although Kiriake is enjoyable any time of the year, being that it is located in the Akiyama (“autumn mountain”) District, it’s is probably at its prettiest when the fall leaves are in color. It’s location is very inconvenient, but that makes finding it that much more enjoyable. There really isn’t any bus access, so a car is highly recommended.  Or, if you book a stay at Yusenkaku, they provided limited pick-up service.

Click here for the Kiriake Onsen / Yusenkaku Ryokan website.

Cheap Highway Busses from Tokyo to Nagano

September 21st, 2010 by
Category: Information, Miscellaneous, Onsens (Hot Springs), Sightseeing

Highway bus company “Harvest” offers 2 services from Tokyo to Nagano Prefecture and beginning October 1st, 2010, will start two more routes, including a new run from Shinjuku to Togura Kamiyamada Onsen.  The round-trip prices are as low as 3,800 yen. 


If you’ve been wanting to take a relaxing trip to an onsen but the cost of getting there has been too much, now is your chance!  The poor economy and worsening exchange rates has put a crunch on peoples’ travel budgets.  With a round trip price of only 3,800 yen, making a trip to Nagano has become a lot more affordable.  Take advantage of this opportunity to leave Tokyo’s hustle and bustle (not to mention concrete) and come out to Japan’s countryside for a rejuvinating stay at an onsen ryokan.

Harvest Tour highway bus, Nagano Routes

Route 1 to Nagano City with stops at Tomi City and Saku City

Route 2 to Tateshina, Shirakaba Lake and Kuruma-yama

Route 3 to Yatsugatake

Route 4 to Kamiyamada Onsen (details as follows)

Shinjuku – Kamiyamada run

Departs Shinjuku West Exit 10:00am
Arrives Kamiyamada in front of the footbath  1:25pm

Departs Kamiyamada in front of the footbath  1:35pm
Arrives Shinjuku West Exit 6:50pm

One-Way Price:  1,900 yen weekdays, 2,400 yen weekends

Term:  October 1st to November 30th, 2010.  Scheduled to change from Shinjuku to Tokyo Station for December.

Reservations:  Tel 03-3266-5959
Or try their website here.

Note:  We’re coming up on the popular fall foliage season so make your reservations early.

Visiting Kamikochi and Norikura Hot Spring by the New 2-day Bus/train Pass

August 14th, 2010 by
Category: Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Sightseeing


On August 7, I visited Kamikochi and Norikura Hot Spring using the new 2-day bus/train pass with my family.
We have had an incredibly hot summer this year in Japan and it was 35 degree C (95 deg F) downtown that day, but in Kamikochi and Norikura, (altitude is 1500 meters), it was 25 deg C (77 deg F).

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New Gourmet Guide and Walking Map for Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada

July 23rd, 2010 by
Category: Accomodations, Cuisine, Culture Art, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Shopping, Sightseeing

Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada has a new Gourmet Guide and Walking Map in English.  20 different restaurants representing a wide variety of budgets and cuisine are listed, with full color pictures and helpful descriptions, along with 7 of their menu items translated into English for you.  There are also indications showing which restaurants accept credit cards, are no-smoking, have vegetarian menus, and provide western-style sitting.

The New Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada Gourmet Guide and Walking Map

The New Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada Gourmet Guide and Walking Map

The map side features descriptions of 21 shops and businesses, giving guests an idea of places to check out when they visit our onsen town.   The map shows locations for a coin laundry, convenience stores with ATM’s, a pharmacist and medical clinic as well as a church with service in English, so guests from overseas will know their various needs are covered.  As travellers from abroad often like to walk and enjoy the outdoors, the map mentions walking times and distances between major points and shows where rental bicycles are available.

So on your trip to Togura Kamiyamada, stop in at the Visit Japan Information Center aka Kamesei Ryokan ( and we will be glad to give you your own personal copy of the new Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada Gourmet Guide and Walking Map.

Unique Souvenirs from Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada

July 9th, 2010 by
Category: Onsens (Hot Springs), Shopping

When travelling abroad, it’s tempting to buy some souvenirs for the folks back home, or for yourself as a momento from your trip.   But finding the right item can be tricky.  You want something made locally rather than mass produced in some other country.   And you want something compact so as not to take up room in your pack.  Well, here in Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, we are fortunate to have 4 local shops producing some pretty unique items.  Guests to our onsen town can enjoy shopping for these 4 locally-made items:

Manju, Miso, Kanroni and Pottery:  Togura Kamiyamada Onsen's Unique Souvenirs

Manju, Miso, Kanroni and Pottery: Togura Kamiyamada Onsen's Unique Souvenirs

Sasasuzu Manju with the Rokumonsen Mark
You can find manju pastries with the purple adzuki bean paste inside at pretty much any onsen town, but you can only find manju with the Rokumonsen mark of the local Sanada samurai family at Sasasuzu here in Togura Kamiyamada Onsen. You can also try your hand at branding the manju yourself with a hot branding iron. Baked freshly every day, so they are extra delicious. On Ginza Dori. Tel(026)275-1228.

Shimaya Kanroni Marinated River Fish
Nagano Prefecture doesn’t have an ocean, so river fish are an important part of the local cuisine. Shimaya takes ayu, the main fish from the Chikuma River, as well as wakasagi and haya, two other local types of river fish, and marinates them in a sweet sauce “kanroni” style. You can see how the kanroni process is done when visiting their shop, as well as try a sample of some of their creations. They are constantly making new batches, so if you’re lucky you can try some just-made kanroni, too. The kanroni is available for sale in take-home vacuum packs. On Ginza Dori. Tel(026)275-1175.

Nakajima Miso’s “Homare” Label Shinshu Miso.
Shinshu, the classic name for Nagano, is one of Japan’s major producers of soybeans. So the prefecture has naturally become known for the quality of its miso paste, Shinshu Miso. Here in Togura Kamiyamada, we have our own maker of Shinshu Miso, Nakajima Miso. In their showroom and shop at the front of their factory, you can sample the different types of miso they make, as well as see some of the antique tools frpm their trade that they have on display. Be sure to try the shoyu mame, a local variety of processed soybeans. On Ginza Dori. Tel(026)275-1069.

Sarashina-Yaki Pottery at Takaraya
Our local pottery style, sarashina-yaki, has a distinct blue color resulting from the ash of applewood from the local orchards. Takaraya is a small, chic shop displaying lots of the beautiful sarashina-yaki pottery as well as Ueda Shishi lion wood carvings and wood block prints by local artist Mori Bakuro. At the western entrance of Ginza Dori. Tel(026)275-0778. Hours from 8am to 7pm.

So if you’re hunting for some souvenirs from your trip to Japan, items that you can only find here, come to Togura Kamiyamada Onsen and enjoy our unique shops. 

ACCESS:  Togura Station on the Shinano Railway line.  For information on Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, see

Kamikochi in Nagano’s Rainy Season: The Zen of Mist and Colors of Jumpsuits

July 4th, 2010 by
Category: Events, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities

If you have come to Nagano for hiking during the summer months’ rainy season you are in store for some of the lushest green vegetation and mistiest peaks of the year. So don’t let potentially in climate weather stop you from lacing up your hiking boots.

In late July, fellow Go Nagano Blogger Tom Jones led me and friends around some of Kamikochi National Park’s day trip treasures. Both Saturday and Sunday were spent under light rain showers which meant no crowds, heightened colors, and forests of sound.
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A portrait of Nagano’s Martial Ways at the 3rd Annual Budo Festival

June 24th, 2010 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Onsens (Hot Springs)

The 3rd Annual Omachi Budō Festival:

A bento of Martial Arts

Will Habbington, co-organizer of the Omachi Budo Festival, during this year's Iado session

Will Habington, co-organizer of the Omachi Budo Festival, during this year's Iado session

This past Sunday, William Habington and Tammy Crichton organized the third annual Omachi Budō Festival near Lake Kizakiko. William and Tammy have, respectively, been living in Nagano and practicing budo for over five years. For the last three years, they have organized the Omachi Budō Festival as a sampling of martial arts and a gathering of community. This year, teachers and students volunteered their time to teach classes and do demonstrations in Kendo, Judo, Jodo, Naginata, and Iado.

Tammy Cricheron, co-organizer of the Omachi Budo Festival, during the Naginata sessions

Tammy Crichton, co-organizer of the Omachi Budo Festival, during the Naginata sessions

Taking off Kendo gear after the last session of the day

Taking off Kendo gear after the last session of the day

In popular media, particularly film, Japan’s martial arts can portray an exoticized image of Japan’s castle and samurai guarded history. Today, however, in addition to higher competitive levels, budō thrives in school activities and community past times. Removed from a context of warring necessity, the goal of budō today may seem like heightened athleticism and competition. However, the Japanese Budo Association understands the “study of budō (to) encourage courteous behavior, advance technical proficiency, strengthen the body, and perfect the mind.”

omachibudoweb-7 omachibudoweb-10

According to the Association:

Budō is:


"the Japanese martial ways, (that) have their origins in the age-old martial spirit of Japan. Through centuries of historical and social change, these forms of traditional culture evolved from combat techniques (jutsu) into ways of self-development (do)."

Getting Involved in Nagano Budō

As a tourist visiting Nagano, it is not quite as easy to participate in budō study which Habbington says he usually associates with longer term residents. However, viewing practices or hands on experiences in some of the art can be arranged.


Tyler Lynch , of Uniquely Nagano, is working towards organizing more English language resources for inbound tourists eager to experience different parts of Nagano’s culture. Currently, experiences in ninjistsu are available through Togakushi schools. Contact: omotenashi(at) for more details.

The High Art of Nagano’s Yashouma Offering

May 26th, 2010 by
Category: Cuisine, Onsens (Hot Springs), Seasonal Topics

If you ask most Japanese people about yashouma you will probably receive a resounding “ehhh??” and quizzical look. The Shinshu specialty is not even unanimously known within Nagano, its home prefecture. However, the rice flour (komenko) treat is a fascinating imbalance between ornate, neon design and plain mochi (rice cake) flavor.

From Yashoumaizo “It’s so delicious!”…in a way

yashouma_packingOne story surrounding the name’s origin comes from yashoumaizo which means “it’s so delicious!” However, as yashouma is seemingly flavorless, it brings to light a scope of flavor which includes plain like a color scale that may include white. Also, flavor, particularly in traditional Japanese cuisine, is highly influenced by presentation, colors, and season, aspects of which yashouma excel. Traditionally, as an offering (osonae) to the Buddha Oshakasam, yashouma’s design, skillfully inlaid in the center of the hockey puck shaped mochi, has always taken precedent over the taste.

An offering to Oshakasama

yashouma_happyToday, in honor of Oshakasama’s annual return from the afterworld (ohigan), yashouma is made and eaten every year on March 15h, the day the Buddha Oshakasama died. In Oshakasama’s honor, Yashouma is most popular in February and March, but it is available all year long.
Sakakita village, North of Matsumoto City in Nagano prefecture, is famous locally for yashouma. Despite hours of watching Yashouma made in Sakakita, and even participating, my surprise never lessens each time the final picture is revealed. This could more likely reflect my intellect than the nature of yashouma- but regardless, for me yashouma borders on a mini culinary and artistic miracle.
I am also not the only one foreign to yashouma’s inner workings. Sakakita’s annual demonstration attracts paparazzi like attention from locals much more attuned to Japanese cuisne. At Sakakita’s weekend demo, cell phones and cameras snap photos of the different steps while pens and pencils fervently take notes amidst nods of discussion and comprehension over the hour long process necessary to make one roll.

The art and mystery of making Yashouma

yashouma_colorsYashouma could be considered a ceramic art just as much as a culinary trade because the intricate process required to construct the inlaid picture is comparable to clay work. The design is made by rolling snake like strands of mochi and stacking them to make a composite picture. The dough and taste of yashouma is not like the round white mochi balls common at New Years because it is based from flour (komenoko) instead of pure rice.
To make the mochi-like material, sugar, salt, and rice flour are mixed with boiling water and then steamed. After kneading the dough, coloring is added resulting in what looks like edible primary colored clay. The colored mochi are mixed and matched as desired to make the softer pinks of cherry blossoms or greens of leaves for the central picture which is usually a representation of spring.

Where to get Yashouma in Nagano?

yashouma_rollcutYashouma is a local specialty and can be difficult to find in restaurants or shops outside of Nagano prefecture. Within Nagano, Sakai and Chikuhoku (about 30 minutes North of Matsumoto city) sell locally made yashouma.
Chikuhoku Access (JR Stops: Nishijo, Sakakita, Hijirikogen; I.C. Exit: Omi)

Preparing after purchase

yashouma_heartsTo prepare yashouma after purchasing it just add a little bit of soy sauce and sugar after heating it up on the stove.

Kamesei ryokan, Kamiyamada Onsen

March 9th, 2010 by
Category: Accomodations, Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Report, Sightseeing

Kamesei Ryokan 100303_09330001
Kamesei ryokan                       open air bath made by Tyler and big wooden turtle

Last week I was passing  Kamiyamada Onsen and decided to take bath in Kamesei ryokan.

I had 2 reasons:
– it’s only one ryokan in Nagano which runs foreigner  (Tyler, born in Seattle) together
with his wife and her mother
– it’s only one ryokan in Nagano with open air bath made by foreigner (Tyler)

After soaking and special feeling in Tayler’s open air bath, relaxing on old massage chair I noticed interesting things and decided to stay over night.

Not just because warm hospitality of the staff, beautiful old Japanese building with many gardens, Onsen with great smell, beautiful room with new tatami mats, very foreigner welcoming  atmosphere, Seattle cookie in the room and very reasonable rates,
but also because I  like that Tayler:
– keep the old Japanese beauty of ryokan
– brings a bit of western “smell”
– try to promote local art in the ryokan
– does a LOT not just for Kamesei ryokan abut also Kamiyamada Onsen and whole Nagano  prefecture.

100303_09270001 local art in guest rooms                               Signs in front of Kamesei ryokan

“Kame” means “turtle” so you can find signs of turtle in many ways and many places around the ryokan

100303_09310001 100303_09360001