田の原通行開始 Ta-no-Hara opens

April 24th, 2009 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Sightseeing
View of Mt. Ontake from Ta-no-Hara Nature Park

View of Mt. Ontake from Ta-no-Hara Nature Park

Spring is well on its way, even in Otaki.  Though the nights are still chilly, sun-drenched days are coaxing buds from the mountain’s trees.  Still no green, however.  Patience is a virtue deep in the mountains.

With the coming of spring comes the opening of the road leading to Otaki Village’s Ta-no-Hara 田の原 nature park.  The park sits at Mt. Ontake’s seventh stage (of ten) at around 2,500 meters.  The park provides great access to the mountain, which can be climbed in a day.

Snow at the Ta-no-Hara parking lot

Snow at the Ta-no-Hara parking lot

A word of caution, there is still a lot of snow at Ta-no-Hara.  Care should be taken by drivers especially in the morning and evening when the road can still freeze over.  Of course, care should also be taken by anyone climbing Mt. Ontake in this season.  Proper gear is essential.

The road leading to Ta-no-Hara will open from tomorrow, Saturday, April 25th.  It’s a beautiful season to visit Otaki and Mt. Ontake.  Come, and enjoy!!

Kappa, Ninjas, Tsukeba and Oni — 2009 Starting Dates

April 23rd, 2009 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Now that spring is coming to Nagano, bears aren’t the only creatures that waking up after their winter hibernation.  Here is a list of several areas and their creatures that are starting their 2009 seasons:

Kappa (Kamikochi)
The Kappa (water sprites) of Kamikochi officially come out of their hibernation on the 27th of April every year. This year, the snowfall in the Alps has been less than average, and the road to Kamikochi is already snow-free. Kamikochi will hold its 41st annual official “Opening of the Mountains” festival, complete with Swiss horns, on Monday the 27th.

Click here for info on Kamikochi

River Fish (Tsukeba Fish Shacks)
Even people with the strongest aversion to river fish should be able to appreciate eating just-caught fish served in a Tsukeba river shack along the shores of the Chikuma River. Togura Kamiyamada Onsen’s main Tsukeba, “Shomura”, opened for business this season on the 20th of April, and serves “haya” and “ayu” prepared in various ways in their multi-course meal (prices 2000~3000 yen per person). Shomura will be open from 10am to 10pm until mid summer. You can make reservations through local ryokans (including Kamesei, tel 026-275-1032, English OK).

 Shomura Tsukeba Tel (080)5109-8901

Ninjas (Togakushi)
Togakushi’s ninjas came out of their winter hibernation on the 18th of April. That’s when the Togakushi Ninja Center opened for business for the year. At the Center, there is a ninja artifacts hall, a shuriken range, and a ninja fun house, where you go through the building finding the secret doors from room to room.

Ninja Center Tel(026)254-2395

Oni (Oni Oshi Dashi)
An Oni is a Japanese ogre. On the flanks of Mt. Asama is an area that looks like a bunch of volcanic matter was pushed out of the mountain by an oni, hence the park’s name, “Oni Oshi Dashi”. It is a fascinating example of geological forces at work. The park has been open since March — apparently that’s when the oni hibernation ended.
Easy access from Karuizawa.

Click here for the Oni Oshi Dashi website

Another Apricot Season Comes to a Close

April 13th, 2009 by
Category: Events, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing
Photographers lined up to get that last good shot of the apricots, 2009

Photographers lined up to get that last good shot of the apricots, 2009

Well, it happens every year.  Just as there is a rolling wave of cherry blossom viewing from southern Japan to the north, there is a much shorter wave of apricot blossoms in Mori, Anzu no Sato.  Every year, the apricot blossoms at the lower elevations near the entrance of the valley bloom earliest, with those at the top of the valley showing their flowers last.

I just went up there and, aside from the trees at the highest point of the valley up by Daikoji temple, all the blossoms are fallen off, and leaves are starting to spout. in their place.  If you are planning on going up to Anzu no Sato this week, you might get lucky and see some apricot blossoms further up the mountain, but the season is pretty much over this year.

But when the Apricots blossoms are gone, the cherry blossoms are in full glory.  There is a small buddhist temple in Mori named Kanryu-ji, that is surrounded by some beautiful cherry trees which are now in full bloom.  This temple is a hidden delight to foreign visitors, because it features a thatched roof — something that becomes more and more rare to see in Japan every year.

But getting there is a bit of a challenge.  Ask around and people will point the way up the hill.  And once you are there, you’ll find a long, steep stairway to climb up.  Be prepared for some exercise!

Mitsuba-tsutsuji (azalea) in Nagiso town

April 12th, 2009 by
Category: Cuisine, Events, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics
Grand view from Tenpaku Park in spring with the Japanese Chuo Alps for a background


Although most part in Nagano, ‘sakura’ (cheery blossoms) are already at their best and or past their prime, we will be having a grand show of  ‘tsutsuji’  (azaleas) everywhere across the prefecture.

I went to one of the most renowned place featuring a large colony of  ‘mitsubatsutsuji’  in Nagiso town, widely known of its old post town from the Edo Period, ‘Tsumago’.

The colony is in huge Tempaku Park at the foot of the mountains. A festival ‘ Mitsuba-tsutsuji Matsuri’ is being held till Sunday, Apr. 19th.

Gohei-mochi (pounded rice on a wooden stick with miso-based sauce) being sold at the tent by the parking in the park run by Nagiso-machi Tourism Association was the most delicious of its kind I have ever had!  Dipped in the sauce and grilled for minutes until it begins to brown and smells — how savory! The pickles served for free were also great!  — Sorry that was me who ate nearly ten pieces of them. A bit of walking up and down around the park eating this local cuisine would be a previlage for those who visit there at this time of the year.

Just around 15-min walk from JR Nagiso sta.


Matsumoto and Asama Onsen Attractions

April 10th, 2009 by
Category: Cuisine, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Sightseeing

I had to go into Matsumoto for a meeting at Asama Onsen. It was a lunch meeting, and I was treated to Matsumoto’s specialty, “sanzoku-yaki” (see below). We also stopped by the bicycle specialty shop there (also see below). After the meeting, I scooted over to Matsumoto Castle. A guest the previous day had said the castle’s cherry blossoms were starting to bloom. Plus the sky was clear, and the Alps still had snow, so I figured it would be a beautiful sight.
Read the rest of this entry »

Video! A Short Walk Around Anzu no Sato

April 8th, 2009 by
Category: Events, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics
Apricot blossoms in Mori, April 2009

Apricot blossoms in Mori, April 2009

Yup, I am posting yet another update about the apricot blossoms in Mori, Anzu no Sato.  I took a trip up there after a lesson today and strolled around for about twenty minutes taking photos and, yes, video of what I saw.  It was a clear blue sky and the North Alps in Hakuba could be seen clearly across the valley below.

The weather today was great, with lots of sun and very little wind, and there were harldy any visitors.  The entire area is a madhouse on weekends, so if you are able to visit, a weekday would more likely result in having the place to yourself.

Video is here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbfcWsyIxW8

Mountain medicine

April 7th, 2009 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities
The gods of Mt. Ontake

The gods of Mt. Ontake

A March 31st article in the Shinano Mainichi Shinbun 信濃毎日新聞 introduces a plan to create a hyakusou-no-mori 百草の森 in Otaki village.  The project is a joint venture between the Otaki village government and the “Nagoya Citizens Ontake Vacation Village” (Nagoya-shimin-kyuka-mura 名古屋市民おんたけ休暇村), which is located in Otaki.

Hyakusou is a traditional herbal medicine with a history stretching back to the Edo Period (1603-1867).  The medicine was first developed by mountain ascetics who were devoted to, and did religious practice on, Mt. Ontake (御嶽山), Japan’s second highest volcano and long an object of reverence in Japan.  Hyakusou, which literally means “one hundred plants” was first given to villagers in Otaki by the ascetic Fukan-gyouja (普観行者) after they assisted him in “opening” Mt. Ontake for religious practice.  Read the rest of this entry »

Anzu no Sato, We’ve Got Blossoms!

April 6th, 2009 by
Category: Events, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics
Apricot Blossoms in Anzu no Sato (Doguchi), April 6, 2009

Apricot Blossoms in Anzu no Sato (Doguchi), April 6, 2009

This is now my third post on the topic, and though I have reported on the coming blossoms, and then the snow, and then, well, maybe some flowers, followed by snow again, I am pleased to say that the apricot blossoms are now looking great and the tourists are coming to the area to enjoy their beauty.

My wife, Tomomi, took the kids up to her mother’s house in Mori today and came back telling me that the apricot blossoms are mankai, or full bloom, in the lower elevations of the valley.  At her mother’s house, which is further up the hill, the blossoms are about half in bloom (go-bu-zaki), while the upper areas are about one-third in bloom (san-bu-zaki).

While there are plenty of nice blossoms to see in the lower valley, the best spots are uphill, around the area of the Uwadaira tembo-dai, or the Uwadaira Viewpoint.  This area has hundreds if not thousands of apricot trees all bunched together, with lots of farm truck roads — both paved and unpaved — that you can walk on.  And on a clear day, you can see the Alps in Hakuba to the west.

Because of the higher elevation here, this coming weekend, April 11-12 will likely be the point at which the upper apricot trees are in full bloom.  If the weather is nice, come on up and see it for yourself.  As cliché as this may sound, the valley in full bloom looks as if someone stroked the treetops with a giant brush of pink.

The Apricot Blossoms are coming! — UPDATE

March 21st, 2009 by
Category: Events, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing
Anzu no Sato Apricot Blossoms starting to show.

Anzu no Sato Apricot Blossoms starting to show.


I just went up to Anzu no Sato to teach an English lesson, and I was delighted to see that the apricot blossoms are starting to show.  It looks like the couple of warm days we have been experiencing here are leading to a slightly earlier-than-usual blooming.

Anzu no Sato, a popular spot for o-hanami, or “blossom viewing”, is located in Chikuma, just south of Nagano City, and is jam-packed with tourists during the first and second weekends of April, when the whole area seems to turn pink with beautiful apricot flowers.  And now that the flowers are already showing, you may be able to get your first good sight of the blossoms next weekend, March 28-29.

Apricot Trees in Mori.

Apricot Trees in Mori (photo taken in 2007)

Anzu no Sato, which means “apricot village”, is really a collection of villages — Mori, Kurashina, Ikegaya and Doguchi — where residents have been raising apricots for centuries.  Most visitors go to Mori and Kurashina, as these two areas have the highest concentrations of apricot trees.  Be sure to go to the viewpoint at Uwadaira (I have also heard it called “Kamidaira”), located way up the slope in Mori.  This viewpoint offers a beautiful vista of the entire valley that is Mori.  And while you are there, be sure to get some apricot soft-serve ice cream!

You can get there by train, on the Shinano Railway, and the nearest stations are Yashiro and Yashiro Koko Mae.  They are a 30+ minute walk from the apricot groves, so either take a taxi or bus from there.  You can also drive, but expect traffic if you do.  There is plenty of parking available (for a fee).

Feel free to walk around and take lots of photos, but remember that the apricot groves are almost entirely private property.  Do not go off the streets or walking paths into the groves.  Enjoy your visit!  Hopefully the weather will be good and you’ll get a nice view of the North Alps as a bonus!

UPDATE (March 27, 2009):

SNOW!?!?  Yes, I woke this morning in Chikuma City to see about 3-4 cm of snow all over the place.  So much for an early blossom viewing season.  Looks like Mariko was right!

Something I learned when I first came to Nagano was the old saying San Kan Shi On, which means “Three days of cold, four days of warm”.  It is a weather pattern that happens here every spring.  We will have a few warm days followed by a few cold ones and the pattern will repeat, gradually getting warmer until finally after Golden Week, the weather seems to be warm all the time.

So, this weekend probably is not a good time to go to Anzu no Sato.  Perhaps next weekend.  Sigh…