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.

More On Cherry Blossoms

Nagano’s 2018 Cherry Blossom Forecast
Go! Nagano Bloom Watch Page

Our first stop was Ogawa Village. Located between Nagano City, Hakuba, and Omachi, it is a place that most people who travel to Nagano will have passed through at some point without knowing it. In winter, it’s just another small hamlet on the side of the road, but in spring, it becomes one of Japan’s most beautiful villages.

Cherry trees of all kinds dot the hillside along Ogawa Village. There are the popular Somei Yoshino cherries, weeping cherries, and mountain cherries as well. The subtle palette of creams and pinks contrasts beautifully with the fresh greenery around it.

The Nitanda no Sakura cherry blossoms in Ogawa Village

The most impressive section of Ogawa’s spring display is in Nitanda. The cherry trees here, called Nitanda no Sakura, almost completely cover the hillside. While they may have been planted by man, the cherry trees seem wild, growing by their own accord. Rather than a common tourist attraction, Nitanda no Sakura is a countryside fairy tale. At the foot of the hill, farmers till their fields and grocers stock fresh produce, almost oblivious to the magnificent display above.

Petals were falling off the trees, covering the road below in pink

The cherry blossoms were already falling when we visited yesterday, but the sight is still impressive when seen from afar. The view should hold through the weekend at least.

Ogawa’s famous oyaki shop: Ogawa no Sho

Ogawa is also known for its delicious oyaki. After visiting the cherry blossoms, we made a quick pit stop at Ogawa no Sho. The shop specializes in char-grilled oyaki, which they fry on a pan before burying them in ash by the fireside to finish. Popular flavors include nozawana, sweet azuki bean, or eggplant with miso, but during this time of year you can also find oyaki filled with delicious mountain vegetables. We had fukimiso (butterbur sprout in English).

Char-grilled oyaki in front of an irori hearth

After Ogawa, we drove to Omachi City about 40 minutes away. Our desination was Omachi Park, on the hillside outside of town. Despite being a weekday, there were quite a few people enjoying hanami in the park, as well as a couple of food stalls already set up and selling food. The park was quite small, but sometimes big things come in small packages. As the sky cleared up, we saw amazing views of the 3,000-meter-high peaks of Japanese Alps in front of us.

The platform below the park offers uninterrupted views of the snowy alps.

According to the local news, the park reached full bloom yesterday, but there were still quite a few buds that hadn’t bloomed when we visited. The park’s blossoms should be at their peak this weekend and into next week as well.

A view of Omachi Park from below

Omachi Park’s cherry blossoms were on the cusp of full bloom yesterday

For the last leg of our journey, we drove another 40 minutes south to Mt. Hikarujo in Azumino. About three-quarters of the way there, we could see the trail of cherry trees rising up the mountain like a white dragon.

The cherry trees follow the hiking trail up the mountain.

The cherry trees are planted along a hiking trail to the top of the mountain, which takes about 40 minutes to walk up. Lights are strung up along the trail to illuminate it and the blossoms at night.

The path up Mt. Hikarujo is full of views like this

The trees by the trailhead had already lost half of their petals, but we could see fuller trees on the trail up above. As we climbed up, the cherry blossoms grew progressively thicker. The whole way up we were treated to amazing views of the Japanese Alps, and there were plenty of great photo spots for shooting the mountains and cherry blossoms together. After our 40-minute hike, we reached the park at the top of the mountain, covered in full-bloom cherry trees.

Cherry blossoms at the park atop Mt. Hikarujo

A clever, transparent sign which shows the name of each mountain along the Japanese Alps.

Cherry trees along the descent from Mt. Hikarujo

Peeking at the alps from between many branchs and blossoms

A little higher up was a small shrine with cherry trees still budding, so it looks like Mt. Hikarujo still has plenty of sakura left to offer next week.

How to Get There

Omachi Park (Omachi City): By train/bus, a 25-minute walk from JR Oito line Shinano Omachi Station, or a 5-minute taxi. By car: a 40-minute drive from the Azumino IC exit. Parking is available at the park.

Nitanda cherry blossoms (Ogawa Village): By train/bus, A 50-minute bus ride on the Shinmachi Takafu line bus (get off at Takafu bus stop), then a 20-minute walk to trees or 15 minutes to viewpoint. By car, a 45-minute drive from the Nagano IC. Park at the Bikkurando Gymnasium. There is also a viewpoint along Route 31.

Mt. Hikarujo (Azumino City): By train/bus, a 35-minute walk or 10-minute taxi from JR Tazawa Station. By car, a 7-minute drive from the Azumino IC exit. There is a parking lot beside the trailhead. See location here.

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:

Day One

Enjoy the Outdoors and Shopping in Karuizawa



On your first day, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen train* from Tokyo to Karuizawa in about an hour. Right next to the station is Karuizawa Prince, with its 240-store outlet shopping mall, hotel, and ski resort. Try skiing at the resort or head to Karuizawa Garden Farm (15 minutes by taxi) for strawberry-picking. Have lunch at the shopping plaza and spend the afternoon looking for souvenirs and discount brand-name goods. Finally, head over to the recently renovated Karuizawa Prince East hotel for dinner at the Karuizawa Grill. Spend the night in Karuizawa.

Day Two

Ueda Castle and Bessho Onsen


In the morning, head to Karuizawa Station and purchase the Banzai Pass from the Shinano Railway ticket window. From there, take the train to Ueda.

Ueda Castle is just 12 minutes on foot from the station. While the castle’s keep was destroyed long ago, you can see reconstructions of the castle walls and main gate that repelled the Tokugawa army twice. The Omotenashi Squad welcomes visitors to the castle while wearing the regalia of famous Sanada warriors and ninja, and you can take photos with them for a fun memory of your trip.


At nearby Yanagimachi Street, you can see Ueda’s old townscape from its days as a castle town and pick up a snack from one of the bakeries, restaurants, or local brewery. If you’re hungry, stop at Kakurega En for some delicious yakitori slathered with Ueda’s special Oidare sauce.


Bessho Onsen is just 30 minutes from Ueda via the private Bessho Onsen train line*. The area is called the “Kamakura of Shinshu” due to its many beautiful temples and tranquil atmosphere. Among them, Anrakuji temple is home to a Japanese National Treasure—a three-story, eight-sided pagoda, the earliest extant example of its kind in the country. Enjoy the heart of the Japanese countryside from the comfort of a hot spring bath. (See more about spending time in Ueda and Bessho here!)

Tour the Countryside by Bicycle


After soaking in the sights of Bessho, return to Ueda and take the Shinano Railway train to Togura Station. A Showa era hot spring town called Togura Kamiyamada Onsen can be found here. One of the local inn owners is an American who loves Japanese culture and history, and is happy to share his knowledge with international guests. You can take a tour by bicycle and learn about the area’s sites and history while interacting with the locals. After a tough ride, enjoy the healing waters of Togura’s springs and stay at Kamesei Ryokan for the night.

Day Three

Snowshoe through Togakushi’s Sacred Forest


On your last day, take the train from Togura to Nagano Station*. From the station, take the Alpico Togakushi bus* to Togakushi Ski Resort (70 minutes), rent some snowshoes and take a walk to the area’s Okusha Shrine. Stop at the Okushamae Naosuke restaurant for soba, Togakushi’s specialty. Afterwards, take the trail to the shrine and be awed by huge 400-year-old cypress trees and the precipitous face of Mt. Togakushi looming above.

Visit Zenkoji and Experience Buddhism through its Temple Lodges


Get off at the bus at Zenkoji Daimon and head towards Zenkoji Temple. It is Japan’s third largest wooden temple and a national treasure, attracting thousands of pilgrims every year. There are 39 temple lodges around the main temple where pilgrims can spend the night. Some offer workshops as well, like Gyokushoin, where you can make your own bracelet or kaleidoscope. Some also double as restaurants where you can eat Shojin Ryori, Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. You can spend the night and continue your adventure, or take the shinkansen* back to Tokyo in just 90 minutes.

*The Banzai Two-Day Pass only covers travel on the Shinano Railway between Karuizawa and Yashiro stations.

There are many other places that I couldn’t cover here that are well worth a trip. In Toumi and Komoro, there are four different wineries producing a range of delicious wines. Rue de Vin and Villa d’Este Gardenfarm are both about 12 minutes away from Toumi’s Tanaka Station by taxi, and Mann’s Winery is just 10 minutes from Komoro Station. Each winery has its own restaurant where you can taste their wines paired with fresh local cuisine. And like Bessho and Togura Kamiyamada, there are many other hot spring areas to see as well!

Take a look at the Banzai Two-Day Pass brochure for a list of participating stores and more ideas! And if you happen to use the pass, share your photos online using the hashtag #banzai2dayspass.

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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The Night View Train to Obasute

September 28th, 2016 by
Category: Events, Information, Report, Sightseeing

The front of the Night View Obasute train.

Perched several hundred meters above Chikuma City is Obasute Station which boasts beautiful scenery of the Nagano valley. The Shinano line passes through this area on its way between Nagano and Matsumoto cities, and is considered one of Japan’s three best train line views.

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Impressions of the Onbashira Festival

July 13th, 2016 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Report

Locals watch as the first pillar is lifted into place at the Harumiya shrine.

The Onbashira festival is finally at an end. After months of preparation and twelve long days of labor, the sixteen onbashira pillars have reached their resting places at the corners of the four shrines of Suwa Taisha.

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Highland Trekking in Kirigamine Kogen

July 6th, 2016 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Report, Sightseeing

Our guide Uchino-san points out distant blue mountains.

On Saturday we set out for a tour of Kirigamine Kogen, one of Nagano’s central highland areas connected by the Venus Line[1]. The name Kirigamine means “the misty peak,” because the warm airs of Suwa regularly rise up here and condense into fog. On clear days, however, you can enjoy an amazing view from the top of Kurumayama, the tallest point of the Kirigamine area.

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