Beautiful Winter Phenomena

January 19th, 2018 by
Category: Information, Seasonal Topics

Nagano’s forests covered in frost.

Winter is at once harsh, unforgiving, and mysteriously beautiful. While snow falls relentlessly on you, your precious baggage and the streets around you, it covers the landscape in pure, unifying white. While the cold seeps through your down jacket and numerous sweaters, it also freezes waterfalls and lakes in time, creating gleaming columns and plates of ice. While the wind burns and turns your face the color of ripe strawberries, it also covers trees in sparkling layers of frost. If you can brave the elements, the wonders of winter far outweigh the cold.

You can see winter’s charm all around Nagano, from beautiful snowy plains and white-capped mountains to frozen lakes and waterfalls. But there are some unique phenomena that are especially captivating during these chilly months.

Snow Monsters in Shigakogen

Trees in Shigakogen’s heights are buffeted by snow and wind, becoming towering, white beasts.


There are many legends of abominable snowmen, yeti, and other creatures ready to gobble up unsuspecting skiers and hikers during winter. Luckily, Japan’s snow monsters pose no such threat.

In Shigakogen’s Mt. Yokoteyama area, the tallest part of the highlands at 2,307 meters high, trees are swallowed up by mounds of snow and become amorphous, white monsters. Herds of them sit motionlessly on the mountain. Waiting for what? We do not know. You can view them from the mountaintop’s crumpet café, which sells delicious baked goods and coffee to warm up with while enjoying the scenery, or ski by them on your way down the mountain.

Utsukushigahara Highland’s Diamond Dust

Tiny snow crystals sparkle like diamonds in the morning sunlight.


Central Nagano faces the brunt of winter’s cruelty, regularly faced with subzero temperatures that freeze lakes, water pipes, and even your shampoo. But these frigid temps give rise to a fantastic sight called “Diamond Dust.” On very calm, cold mornings—around -15 degrees Celsius—the air is filled with millions of tiny snow crystals, which sparkle like diamonds when hit with the morning sun’s rays.

One of the best places to see this phenomenon is in the Utsukushigahara Highlands. Access to the highlands is very difficult during winter, but if you stay at Utsukushigahara’s Ougatou Hotel, you can enjoy this and other winter experiences first-hand.

The Omiwatari Lake Crossing

Lake Suwa’s Omiwatari is a rare phenomenon where ridges of jagged ice appear above the lake.


Lake Suwa in central Nagano has been a center of Shinto faith for over a millennia, being home of the shrines of Suwa Taisha (internationally known for their once-in-seven-year Onbashira Festival). Possibly due to the spiritual nature of this location, the lake has experienced a phenomenon called “Omiwatari” (roughly translated: the God’s crossing) for hundreds of years. When the lake freezes, sheets of ice expand and contract with changing temperatures, eventually cracking and forming a long, continuous ridge across the lake, usually between 30 centimeters and 1 meter in height.

Omiwatari usually occurs in late January or early February, but due to climate change there have been many years recently where it has not occurred. The last year in which the Omiwatari was seen was in 2013. Will it return in 2018?

Share your Favorite Winter Scenes of Nagano!

Did you have a chance to see some of these beautiful spectacles while traveling in Nagano? Share them with us on Instagram of Facebook with the hashtag #gonagano. If you have any other beautiful sights that we haven’t included, please let us know in the comments.

And if you enjoyed this topic, take a look at an earlier blog about five ways to enjoy the snow in Nagano.

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.

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.

Typhoon Talim Passed, Now Back to Autumn: Cosmos Flowers in Saku

September 18th, 2017 by
Category: Events, Seasonal Topics

Nagano’s mountains kept us mostly safe from Typhoon Talim — now it’s back to enjoying Autumn.

Cosmos (the flower) Festival in Saku City on the eastern edge of Nagano.
Route 254 is lined with cosmos flowers for several kilometers.
The festival runs through 20-September and features music, fresh-picked grapes, yummy crepes and … colorful cosmos blossoms.
By the way, the ‘kanji’ for cosmos is 秋桜, “Autumn Sakura (cherry blossoms)”.

Cosmos Flowers Lining the Cosmos Highway (Route 254)

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.

Japanese Summer Festivals and Fireworks in Nagano

July 21st, 2017 by
Category: Events, Information, Seasonal Topics

An archer in the Nyakuichi Oji Festival in Omachi City.

The vibrant, lively atmosphere of summer festivals is one of the most memorable parts of Japan. The streets are filled with the bright colors of yatai stalls, yukata robes, and paper lanterns, and the sky lights up with brilliant fireworks. Musicians play traditional flute and drum songs as performers entertain festival-goers with dances and theater.

As summer approaches its peak, Nagano gears up for exciting festivals of its own. Enjoy traditional Japanese summer festivals along with events that are unique to Nagano.
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Rafting with Cherry Blossoms in Spring

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

Last week at the height of cherry blossom season, we headed down to Azumino to enjoy some early spring rafting! The combination of fast currents, snow-capped mountains, and blooming cherry trees are perfect for an exciting and scenic day on the water.
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