Suwa Taisha Spiritual Cycling

June 11th, 2019 by
Category: Culture Art, Experience, Outdoor Activities, Report

Suwa Taisha is one of Japan’s oldest sanctuaries, so old that nobody knows when it first came to be. Its origins are object to much speculation and some say the history of the shrine goes back thousands of years. What we do know is that it’s mentioned in the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest written text to date, so well… pretty old.

Suwa Taisha has always had a big influence in the local community, so we got the idea to create a guide tour to the two upper shrines of Homniya and Maemiya which would shed light on the most interesting points of Suwa’s history and culture.
To make it more fun we decided to use bikes!

Here’s a report from this spring:
(Skip to the end of the articles for the tour details)

The meeting point for the tour is the Tourist Information Center at Chino Station, where the tourism bureau has started renting bikes, pedalecs to be precise (*bikes where the pedaling is assisted by a small electrical motor). Get your bike, make a few adjustments and you’re ready to go. The guide will take you through back alleys and less trafficked roads to your first destination. The highlight of the cycling course is the tract along Miyagawa river which is lined with dozens cherry trees and has a great view on the Yatsugatake Mountains.

Before heading for Suwa Taisha shrine, stop by a kanten shop selling agar agar, the local specialty. You can taste raw agar and get a few explanations on how it’s produced. We’ll see more of kanten later on, but for now let’s move to Maemiya.

Suwa Taisha is made up of 4 complexes, two upper shrines on the Eastern side of Lake Suwa and two lower shrines on the Western side. This tour will take you to the upper shrines, Maemiya and Honmiya. Maemiya is considered the most ancient and that is reflected in its eclectic layout which sets no definite boundaries between the shrine spaces, the nature spaces and the human spaces. The prayer hall is positioned uphill at the border of the woods, but no sweat, with the pedalecs getting there will be a piece of cake!

I have a strict no spoiler policy, so I’m not going to give out the juicy bits, but Suwa Taisha is a unique place where the Shinto of modern Japan and the animism of ancient Japan coexist. And there is no better place than Maemiya to show that: massive centenarian trees stands behind every shrine, no matter how small, the chozuya where you wash hands and purify your body is a natural pool of water fed by a mountain stream and the towering wooden pillars erected during the primeval festival of Onbashira protect the shrine.

After uncovering the millenary secrets of Suwa Taisha, we’ll proceed toward Moriya Jinchokan Historical Museum and a quirky teahouse cluster. The museum which contains some of Japan’s oldest scriptures is the first building designed by the local architect Fujimori Terunobu, famous worldwide for his fantastical architecture which seems to melt into the surrounding nature. The teahouses are works by Fujimori as well, the oldest -Takasugi-an (“The too-high teahouse”) has been listed by The Time’s among the world’s 10 most precarious buildings.

 

 

 

 

We’re close to our final stop for the day, but you must be thirsty by now so why don’t we take a break? There is a local café right next to Honmiya run by a local stonemason’s wife with a delightful Japanese garden. The owner will serve some delicious traditional food such as home-made Japanese pickles and colorful agar cakes (you remember agar?) with a nice cup of tea.

Our tour will end at Honmiya, the biggest of Suwa Taisha’s shrines. Wash your hands with fuming hot spring water, admire the detailed carvings decorating the shrine and pay your respect once more to the gods. Then, hop on your bike one last time and follow the guide back to the station while enjoying the scenery.

Tour details
Period: From April to late November
Duration: 3h
No. of participants: Min. 2 persons Max. 6 persons
Price: JPY 5,000 (tax excl.)/ person
Included in the price: Guide, Bike rental, Tea break, Insurance
Access: 1 min on foot from JR Chino station
(*Chino station is 30 min from Matsumoto by special express)
Reservations: https://chinotabi.jp/en/activity/111/

Nagano Day Trip to Obuse and Togakushi

October 4th, 2018 by
Category: Information, Report, Sightseeing

Early autumn colors on Togakushi’s Okusha Shrine trail

Nagano City is surrounded by idyllic, countryside spots with a wealth of culture and nature.
Bountiful fields grow along the Chikuma River, ancient shrines lay in the shadow of great mountains, and sleepy towns embrace historical sites tied to some of Japan’s greatest warrior clans—there is so much to see but often too little time!

Some of Nagano City’s most popular sightseeing spots include National Treasure Zenkoji Temple, the shrines of Togakushi, and the museums and cafes in the charming town of Obuse. It just so happens that a new sightseeing bus visits all of these, making sightseeing around Nagano City easier than ever.
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Planting Rice and Tasting Sake in Hakuba

May 22nd, 2018 by
Category: Events, Information, Report

Rice is Japan’s main staple. It shows up nearly every meal, morning, day and night, and is used in the production of many of Japan’s flavorings, desserts, and drinks. Among Japan’s most famous rice products is, of course, sake, and over the centuries, agriculturalists have bred and refined rice varieties especially for its production.
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Cycling and Cherry Blossoms in Spring: the Alps Azumino Century Ride

April 24th, 2018 by
Category: Events, Information, Outdoor Activities, Report

Taking a break at the Alps Azumino Park aid station

The 10th annual Alps Azumino Century Ride cycling event was held last weekend. Beginning in Azumino and extending as far as the ski resorts of Hakuba, the event course weaved through rice fields, orchards, and the lakes of Omachi. While the course was the same for all participants, there were different lengths available, ranging from 70km to 150km. Somehow, I found myself participating in the race along with one of my coworkers. But at least it was on the “friendlier” 70km tour.
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Cherry Blossoms and the Japanese Alps

April 13th, 2018 by
Category: Information, Report, Seasonal Topics

Nagano’s special springtime scenery: cherry blossoms and snowy mountains

With temperamental weather going back and forth between sunny, summer days and winter flurries, it’s been difficult to get a handle on when Nagano’s cherry blossoms will bloom. This year, the trees have been blooming very quickly, making hanami a much more hectic affair than it should be. Cherry blossoms around Ueda and Matsumoto are already almost gone, and spots that usually bloom in May are on their way to full bloom.

Cherry trees around the Japanese Alps usually bloom in mid to late April, but due to this year’s warm weather, many spots already reached their peak last weekend. Since the weather was clear and sunny yesterday, I took an opportunity to check up on some of them around Ogawa, Omachi, and Azumino.
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New Train Pass for Exploring Karuizawa, Nearby Hot Springs, and More!

March 1st, 2018 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Information, Miscellaneous, Report, Shopping

Click on the image to see the full PDF flyer.


The Shinano Railway Banzai Two-Day pass offers great savings for anyone interested in spending time in the eastern Nagano area. The pass covers the Shinano Railway line between Karuizawa and Yashiro Stations and costs 1,000 yen for adults—already 300 yen cheaper than the one-way fare between the two! The pass is currently going through a trail run from February 1st to March 31st, 2018, but organizers are hoping to turn it into a year-round option.

When using the Banzai pass, you can enjoy eastern Nagano’s fresh foods, wine, and culture. I recently had a chance to explore more of the area, and I’d like to recommend a three-day course between Nagano and Karuizawa:
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Karuizawa’s 19th Annual International Curling Championship

December 20th, 2017 by
Category: Experience, Information, Report

Morozumi, skip of the SC Karuizawa Club, curls the stone as his teammates wait to sweep it.

Curling, called “chess on ice,” is a sport that originated in Scotland. Two teams take turns sliding large stones over a bed of ice, attempting to put their stones closest to the center of the home circle. Teammates have brooms to sweep the ice in front of the stone, affecting the stone’s direction and speed. Beyond the actions of curling the stone and sweeping the ice, curling isn’t particularly athletic, rather a game of prediction and strategy. The only tools at the player’s disposal are their stones, their wits and their brooms.

Both teams discuss the score at the end of a round during the women’s finals.

Curling was recognized as an official sport of the Olympic Games during the 1998 Nagano Olympics, and the curling events took place in Karuizawa. Since then, Karuizawa has held an annual curling championship to commemorate the sport. Last weekend, it held the 19th iteration of its Karuizawa International Curling Championship, where 30 teams in men’s and women’s curling competed for top prizes.

The championship was held at the Karuizawa Ice Park of the Kazakoshi Sports Park, home of the original Olympic curling facility (now used for ice hockey and figure skating).

SC Karuizawa Club team members sweeping the ice in front of the stone.

On Sunday, teams faced off in the championship games. The Men’s finals featured Nagano’s own SC Karuizawa Club team versus the South Korean C. Kim team, and the Women’s finals were between the C. Matsumura team of Nagano and the Fujisawa team of Kitami, Hokkaido. SC Karuizawa took first place in the men’s division with a nail-biting 5-4 victory, and the Fujisawa team defeated C. Matsumura 10-3.

Both the men’s and women’s division champions will represent Japan in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, so look out for them early next year!

Try Curling for Yourself!

The new Karuizawa Ice Park facility, where anyone can enjoy the sport of curling.

Watching curling for the first time, I was at a loss to understand the significance of their plays, but I found the way the teams floated effortlessly across the ice mesmerizing. After the curler released the stone, their teammates would slide beside it, sweeping the ice to affect its speed and direction. To my amazement, the right stroke could make the stone veer to the left or right, passing obstacles or knocking opponents’ stones out of the way.

Members of team C. Kim sweep the stone as it approaches home.

While the skill and strategy of the competing teams were incredibly high, curling itself is a sport that can be enjoyed by anyone. Curling isn’t aerobic and doesn’t require much strength, rather balance and coordination. Adults and children can play together, and special devices are available to assist elderly or disabled individuals in throwing curling stones.

The Karuizawa Ice Park is open to the public year-round and also offers curling lessons for beginners. Curling is another unique way to enjoy the winter season, and a great escape from the heat of summer.

Additional Information

The Karuizawa Ice Park is part of Kazakoshi Park in Northern Karuizawa. The Olympic curling facility is also located here, and monuments are dedicated here to the 1998 Nagano Olympics and 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Ice Park also has a small curling museum where you can learn more about the sport and its history.

If you’d like to learn more about Nagano’s winter activities, check out our blog on five ways to enjoy the snow this winter.

Karuizawa Ice Park

Hours: 9:00 to 22:00
Holidays: Dec. 31, Jan. 1
Operating Period: Year-round
Address: Kazakoshi Park (389-0113 Nagano-ken, Kitasaku-gun, Karuizawa-machi, Oaza Hocchi 1157-6)
Curling Rink Use (price per hour): Adults/800 yen, Children/400 yen
Rentals: Some items require an additional fee
Access: Take the Karuizawa Loop line bus from Naka-Karuizawa or Karuizawa stations and get off at the Kazakoshi Koen bus stop (14 to 25 min.). It’s a short walk from there.

Hakuba Happo One Ski Resort and the 2017 IVSI Congress

March 29th, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Report

Ski instructors from around the world train together during IVSI.

While the slopes are relatively quiet during late March, the Hakuba area welcomed delegations of ski instructors from around the world during the 2017 IVSI Congress (International Federation of Snowsport Instructors) for a week of skiing workshops, demonstrations, and lectures. Held every four years, this was the 13th congress and the second one to be held in Japan (Shigakogen in 1989).
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Exciting new developments in Yudanaka, gateway to the Snow Monkeys

February 12th, 2017 by
Category: Onsens (Hot Springs), Report, Shopping


Yudanaka and Shibu are a pair of onsen resort towns at the base of Shiga Kogen near the Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park (home of the Snow Monkeys).  If you go by train to the snow monkeys, you’ll likely pass through Yudanaka Station.  Yudanaka, as with many resort towns, is struggling with shops and inns closing up due to not having anyone to take over the businesses as the current owners retire.

Nagano’s largest bank has teamed up with an investment fund to create a civic improvement organization called Waku-Waku Yamanouchi.  (“Waku-waku” means to be excited.)  They purchased 4 such businesses, renovated them, and are in the process of reopening them repurposed as guesthouses, a restaurant, an art-themed boutique-ryokan, and a coffee shop.  I recently toured the new shops and certainly found them to be “waku-waku”!

“Madapow” at Madarao Kogen and Tangram

January 27th, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Report, Seasonal Topics

The Northern Nagano valley opens up behind the Madarao Kogen hotel.

The Madarao and Tangram ski resorts sit between Iiyama City and Shinano-machi in Northern Nagano prefecture on opposite faces of Mt. Madarao. They are interconnected and you can ride both resorts in the same day with the 5,000 yen “Mountain Pass.” They resorts are medium-sized with well-rounded courses that suit all levels of skiers and snowboarders. Smooth pistes, moguls, and terrain parks are all available, but these resorts’ specialties are trees and powder, often referred to locally as “Madapow.”
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