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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Five Ways to Enjoy the Snow

December 1st, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Winter is a wonderful playground.

The winters in Nagano, while cold, are picturesque. The mountains and valleys are covered in a carpet of snow, trees are frosted with ice, and fine diamond dust shimmers in the air. Japanese macaques warm themselves in steamy hot springs and solitary kamoshika (Japanese Serow) plow through the snowy woods foraging for food.

Most travelers flock to Nagano this time of year to enjoy its plentiful powder snow on the ski slopes, but there are plenty of activities for those interested in connecting with nature and playing in snow. See a new side of Nagano while snowshoeing through the woods or enjoy an exhilarating ride on a snowmobile. See our recommended winter activities below!
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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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Nagano’s Apple Season Has Officially Started

September 30th, 2017 by
Category: Events, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Apple season has officially started here in Nagano Prefecture.  Deep-red ‘akibae’ and shiny-yellow ‘Shinano gold’, tangy ‘Shinano sweet’ and tangy classics like ‘kogyoku’, these early-season varieties will continue through October before transitioning to fuji’s in November.

Tobita-san from Crown Farm dropped off some first-pick apples for us.  His orchard is only 5 minutes by car (15 minutes by bicycle) from Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada. They offer all-you-can-eat picking, as well as tasting.


Nothing beats the sweetness of a freshly-picked Nagano apple.

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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A Summer’s Day of Sup at Iiyama’s Lake Hokuryuko

July 23rd, 2017 by
Category: Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Lake Hokuryuko is located in the northern part of Iiyama City. You can get a bus up there from Iiyama Station. I reckon strong cyclists could ride up to it in less than an hour from Iiyama station too. It is famous for being heart-shaped, but honestly, I couldn’t really notice from the shore. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of things to love about it.

A local outfitter rents kayaks and SUP (stand-up paddle) boards there. You can get lessons and guides as well. I am pretty confident in a kayak, but I had yet to try SUP so I thought I would give it a go. We had five in our group, so we could try the super SUP. It is massive! Apparently it can hold eight people, but we only had six on it including our guide. It is a really fun experience. I feel there aren’t many things nowadays, as an adult, which give you that same excitement and joy that you felt as a kid. Super SUP is sure to make you laugh and scream like you were six again. It’s not that hard to do, but it is just such a foreign feeling. Everyone’s little movements affect everyone else. There is no real sense of fear; the worst that could happen is that you fall in the lake, but we are all in life jackets anyway, so no danger. But there’s something about it, perhaps just the ridiculousness of the whole thing, which really brought a smile to my face.

There was another group doing super SUP too. We raced, chased, and rammed each other across the lake. You never get going that fast and it takes a lot of effort and communication to maneuver that thing, so it is pretty funny trying to manage all that without falling down.

You don’t, of course, have to paddle the thing like a maniac. With just five people on it, there’s plenty of space for everyone to sit with your legs in the water or even lie down to work on your tan.

Once we got our super SUP legs stable, we took a crack at normal SUP. It is about the size of a longboard surfboard. Standing on super SUP is a little tricky, but standing on SUP is hard. It is much more responsive and much less forgiving. I got the hang of it pretty quickly, but I was by no means good. Unlike kayaking, where you have a double-sided paddle, you only have a single paddle for SUP. This means that you have to keep switching sides every few strokes, if you want to have any semblance of going straight. Our guide could somehow paddle on just one side and go straight, but I couldn’t at all.

Again, something cool about SUP is that it is entirely up to you how you would like to experience it. If you want to take it easy, it feels perfectly stable from a seated or kneeling position. You can leisurely float about and relax on the lake. Or if you are feeling lively and want a thrill, you can try paddling as fast as you can, try different stance positions, and try to turn as sharply as you can. You can even challenge another SUPer to a match of SUP sumo!

To wrap this up, in my opinion, SUP is much more comfortable than other paddle sports, simply because you don’t have a “seat.” This may seem counter intuitive, but most of the water crafts that I’ve been in are kind of cramped, have very limited seating or position options, and are just not comfortable. But SUP is very free. You can sit or lie any way you wish.

Lake Hokuryuko also has camping, a café, and a rather nice looking hotel and restaurant with onsen hot springs boasting great views of the lake and the Chikuma river valley. In closing, Lake Hokuryu is a great place to spend a summer’s half-day or even a few days if you want to explore hiking around Kosuge as well. Definitely consider it if you are taking a trip out to Iiyama City or Nozawa Onsen Village.

Summer in Nagano: SUP on a Mountain Lake

July 20th, 2017 by
Category: Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities

Iiyama’s heart-shaped Hokuryu Lake is hidden in a valley on mystical Kosuge Mountain.  Not fed by any rivers or streams, the pristine lake is filled only with snow melt run-off and natural springs.

Romantic heart-shaped Hokuryu Lake

Recently my daughter and I had the opportunity to appreciate the lake doing SUP.

Stand-Up Paddling, a combination of surfboarding and canoeing, is a relatively new sport but it is gaining in popularity and is scheduled to make it’s Olympic debut at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.  Despite it being our first time, thanks to some skillful coaching by Powerdrive R117‘s charismatic owner, Gyaruman, we got the hang of SUP surprisingly quickly.  Soon we were skimming across Hokuryu Lake and enjoying the mountain scenery.  As we got more comfortable with the paddling, we tried a few rounds of SUP Sumo.  Losing was actually rewarding as it meant falling into the lake for a refreshingly cool splash.

Nagano is blessed with many scenic mountain lakes, and SUP is a perfect way to appreciate their natural beauty.  Friendly outfitters make it easy to enjoy even for beginners.  Besides Gyaruman and Powerdrive R117 at Hokuryu Lake in Iiyama, other popular alternatives include Evergreen Outdoor Center / Hakuba’s Lake Aoki and Sunday Planning / Nojiri Lake in northern Nagano.

Polynesian demigod? No, charming Gyaruman the SUP pro.