Summer in the Japanese Alps – Mount Norikura

June 26th, 2019 by
Category: Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Mount Norikura (乗鞍岳 Norikura-dake “Mount Riding Saddle”) 3,026m. (9,928ft.) is the southern-most mountain of the Northern Japanese Alps. It is located on the borders of Gifu and Nagano Prefecture. After Mount Fuji and Mount Ontake, Mount Norikura is the third tallest volcano in Japan. It is also on the 100 Famous Japanese Mountains list and is considered the easiest to climb among the mountains in Japan that are above 3000-meters. It includes 23 peaks, 12 crater lakes, and 8 plains. 

Here are a few photos from my day on the mountain.

The Norikura Skyline road which goes up and over the mountain is the tallest road in Japan. Although it is closed to private vehicles in order to protect the beautiful natural environment, it can be accessed by public transportation (Alpico Bus or Nohi Bus) and bicycles mid-May – October. It is popular among road bikers interested in hill-climb training. You can access Mount Norikura – Tatamidaira from the Gifu side through from the Matsumoto / Nagano side through Norikura Kogen of Hoonoki bus terminal on the Gifu / Takayama side. 

Lots of great Accommodations can be found in Norikura Kogen, Shirahone Onsen, Sawando Onsen, and Kamikochi.

Attractions in this area

• Norikura’s Great Snow Wall
• Tatamidaira
• Hiking
• High Alpine Plantlife

June 14th, 2019 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Nagano Prefecture’s Chikuma City is Japan’s #1 apricot growing region.
The fruit on our apricot tree here at Kamesei Ryokan’s is almost ripe. For 2019, apricot picking season should start around 22-June and continue to early July.


Have you ever had the pleasure of eating a tart, freshly picked apricot? Come to Chikuma City and visit an apricot orchard and experience eating a fresh apricot yourself.  And/or stay at one of the many inns or hotels here in Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada and we’ll gladly arrange an orchard visit for you.

In Japanese, apricot is called “Anzu” (杏).  The heritage varieties are especially tart and are best used for making jam or dried apricots.  But some of the newer varieties such as ‘harcot’ are sweeter and are perfect for eating right off the tree.  Apricots don’t store well, so it’s best to eat them fresh!

Try Shiga Kogen for skiing in the wilderness

February 14th, 2019 by
Category: Seasonal Topics
I recently went skiing with the family appropriately enough to Shiga Kogen’s Ichinose Family Ski Area.
Of all of Nagano’s many ski resorts that I’ve been to, Shiga Kogen gets my vote for being so much out in the wilderness. Since it’s in a national park, development has been kept to a minimum.
For those that look forward to a lively apres ski scene, Hakuba or Nozawa Onsen would probably be better. But if you’re like me and appreciate getting out into nature, I suggest Shiga Kogen.

Gorgeous Gorge of Takase

December 21st, 2018 by
Category: Experience, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Looking to do some annual leaf peeping in fall? With a pile of leafy spots vying for attention, Takase Valley with its postcard-perfect photos is up there with Nagano’s best.

The remnants of autumn mixed with the coming winter chill  filled the air in Takase Valley, making it the perfect place to hike in October.

In a last attempt to catch the leftover of the year’s fall foliage, I drove to Nanakura Dam in Omachi, the gateway to Takase Valley, Takase Dam, and Mt. Kitakuzudake (2,551m). Omachi is two hours west of Nagano city and sits 700m above sea level against the 3000m-high peaks of Hida Mountains.

I parked at the free parking lot, zipped up my down jacket and laced up my waterproof boots. Walking past the dozens of taxis queuing, I entered Nanakura Hot Springs where avid hikers were getting their last minute snacks and coffee before heading up to Takase Dam, the base of two trails.

Nanakura Hot Springs (left) is the spot to soothe muscles especially after a hike. It is open from 8am to 7:30pm and costs 650 yen for adults, 300 yen for children. It is closed in winter, December to April. Photo Courtesy of Kahori Doi.

Hoping to carpool a taxi – the only vehicles allowed to go up to the valley – and split the ¥2,200 for the one-way ride, I hung around at the taxi stand for several minutes but to no avail.

“It takes an hour to reach the dam on foot but with a taxi, only 15 minutes,” said the female taxi driver / tour guide as we leisurely snaked our way up via narrow roads and tunnels while I listened to her anecdotes about the area. Just before zigzagging to the top, I was treated to the magnificent sight of the 125m-high rockfill dam.

If you hike on a clear day, walk up the side stairs of the Fudo Tunnel entrance to see the peak of Mt. Yari, the 5th highest mountain in Japan.

My chatty taxi driver and I arrived at the base where two hiking trails begin. Before parting ways, she said to me, “The last taxi is at 4:40pm so don’t miss it!”

The usual route, Nigorisawa trail, is via Fudo Tunnel, a 30-minute hike (3km) through the forest filled with red leaves, and after crossing Fudosawa suspension bridge, you’ll reach the base of Nigorisawa waterfalls. Not wanting to do the touristy route, I opted for the Yumata Onsen (hot spring) trail which starts at the opposite end of Fudo Tunnel.

Passing clouds over the peaks create a stage for light to dance on the river’s surface. Silent as the leaves, wide as the space, Takase is a hiker’s dream valley.

After emerging from the one kilometre unlit tunnel, the sunlight rewarded me with a view that was equally breath-taking and surreal, as not a single hiker could be seen. Perfect. My own private planet in a season when many people head to the forest to “hunt” for autumn leaves. I’ve been to many, more than I could count with fingers and toes, but a handful deserve a worthy mention like Takase Valley.

Put the boots away as the trainers will do the job on the flat paths covered with crisp golden leaves.

 

After one and a half hour, I took a breather here at my favourite part of the trail. The therapeutic effect of sitting still with nature can’t be overstated enough.

 

Bid farewell to this panoramic scenery before you venture to the next chapter filled with more tunnels and bridges. Note, going off trail here is not permitted. Photo Courtesy of Kahori Doi..

 

Don’t lose your grip nor balance when you cross the bridge as the two wires had snapped from the recent storm (#25). Photo Courtesy of Kahori Doi.

 

After 30 minutes from the bridge, walk along the river bank and look out for the mound designated as a natural monument, Funtokyu, which was formed by the rich mineral deposit of the surrounding hot springs. Photo Courtesy of Kahori Doi.

 

I finally reached Yumata Onsen after three hours. Due to the underground pockets of hot springs mixing with the cold water, the temperature fluctuates so you can’t cross the river. Photo Courtesy of Kahori Doi.

Some daring hikers dig up a small hole along the riverbank and create a makeshift outdoor hot spring! But beware of the scalding water. If you get injured, it’s a three-hour hike back to the base!

A careful inspection of the moss along the bank suggests high sulfur content. Photo Courtesy of Kahori Doi.

Yumata Onsen is the final spot for hikers doing a day trip and for those wishing to continue on, it serves as a climbing base for the Uraginza route connecting to the Japan Alps and Mt. Yari.

If you miss the last taxi at 4:40p.m. you can still walk back but as the taxi driver said, it’ll take 90 minutes. The moon, I hear, has guided many hikers back. Photo Courtesy of Kahori Doi.

After witnessing the sights and sounds of Yumata Onsen, I made the long hike back to the base via the same route – double the trip, double the fun.

At the taxi stand, I spotted the silhouette of a lone hiker emerging from the tunnel. Sharing a taxi is easier to do when going back to Nanakura dam.

The magnificent autumn spectacle closed for the season on Sunday November 4th and will re-open in April, ready to welcome once again energetic hikers. The best time to view the luscious greenery is around May and June and for the autumn foliage, around mid October.

On the way to Takase Valley, stop by at Omachi Dam to catch the fall foliage sprawled against the emerald green waters of Lake Ryujin, “Dragon God Lake”. Japan’s second highest dam was built after a flood in August 1969.

Tips:
The Last taxi departs at 4:40pm so plan your hiking well. If you miss it, you can ring Alps Daiichi Kotsu on +81 261-22-2121 or Alpico Taxi on +81 261-23-2323. Click here for access information.

A tour for ¥4800 is available which will showcase the best views of Takase and the surrounding area. Apply by phone 050-3775-4727 (Opening Hours 10am – 6pm).

For more info, visit Takase Gorge – Omachi Tourism Guide

Shimotsuki — The festival where gods gather to bathe.

December 20th, 2018 by
Category: Events, Experience, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Deep in the foothills of the Southern Japanese Alps, you’ll find the tiny hamlet of around 100 souls called Shimoguri no Sato.   Or maybe you won’t, as Shimoguri is considered a ‘hidden village’.  Perched precariously on a steep hill, the area is also known as the “Tyrol of Japan”, although “Japan’s Machu Picchu” may be more applicable.  Not short of nicknames, Shimoguri is also thought to be a ‘tenku’ (天空) for the way it seemingly floats above the clouds.

Matchu Picchu-like Shimoguri no Sato (Photo courtesy of Katsumasa Furusawa)

Due to its harsh geography with its hillside location averaging a steep 38 degree slope ranging from 800 to 1100 meters above sea level, practically the only thing that can be grown is potato.  And the elderly farmers, mostly by hand, produce a variety called shimoguri, named after their land.

Many moons ago, I helped with the text for Nagano Prefecture’s official “Go-Nagano” website.  I tried to do as much research as possible for each entry including physically visiting many of the sites.  Due to its remote location, I never made it to Shimoguri.  But I have been enchanted by it’s storybook-like setting ever since writing the Shimoguri entry.

However, I recently finally got the chance to visit.  A colleague of mine had spent time there on many occasions including for the mystical Shimotsuki Festival.  10 shrines in the Toyama District hold the ceremony every December, including Shimoguri’s Gojusha Daimyoujin Shrine where it takes place annually on December 13th.  The highlight of the festival is a ritual where water is splashed from a boiling cauldron with a bare hand.  I was to find out that the festival, a nationally designated Important Intangible Cultural Property, is much more complex than just that ritual.

After what seemed like an endless drive into the deep unknown, we finally arrived at Shimoguri around 10pm.  After tea at the house of an acquaintance of my colleague, we headed up to the shrine reaching there just past 11pm to find the evening’s events just getting underway.  We passed through the brand new stone torii gate and slid open the door to the main hall and ducked in.

A bonfire was burning in the center, heating two cauldrons of water.  Visitors give a little donation and then stand along the edge of the crowded hall craning to get a look through the smoke at the various dances and proceedings centered on the fire.

Names of the people who donated.

The main theme of the Shimotsuki Festival is gods come from all across to Japan to have a bath, hence the afore-mentioned splashing of the boiling water.  If that sounds familiar, you may have seen “Spirited Away”.  The animator, Hayao Miyazaki, got his inspiration from Shimoguri’s festival.

One after another, different gods and characters dance around the fire in a hypnotic rhythm, sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs, often in groups of 8.

Preparing the bonfire

When we first arrived, 8 people slowly circled around the fire with a ‘sensu’ fan in one hand and ‘suzu’ bell in the other other.

Then they switched to a katana sword and continued their mesmerizing movements.

Various gods represented by people wearing unique masks then took their turns.

Some interacted with the people watching, such as the ‘mother’ god carrying a ‘baby’ that some tried to touch for good fortune.

A couple red foxes performed an intricate dance.

At one point, a real 3-year old child battled a dragon.

Punctuating the festivities were some younger participants whose dance grew wilder, culminating in what can only be described as stage diving but without the stage.

At intervals, the bonfire was built up and the flute and taiko music reached a crescendo

for the men wearing tengu masks

to perform the ritual of splashing the boiling water with their bare hands.

I took a direct hit a couple of times and the water was painfully hot — I can’t imagine the courage it took to stick their hands in the scalding hot water.

We wound up leaving around 3:30 in the morning with still a few more gods to come.  The locals apparently end things with a banquet at 4am.  Their stamina is incredible!  And it all the more amazing considering one other nickname for Shimoguri — ‘genkai shuraku’, literally, a hamlet faced with extinction.  Currently there are only 6 school-aged children in Shimoguri and in all likelihood they will move away for high school and not come back.

In some ways, Shimoguri and its Shimotsuki Festival have a primordial, almost timeless feel.  But time is not working in Shimoguri’s favor.  The village and its festival need to be treasured now.

Icy Gourmet: Frozen Tofu

December 4th, 2018 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Information, Seasonal Topics

Tofu is by far one of the most well-known Japanese foods.
But have you ever heard of Frozen Tofu?

Frozen tofu

Frozen tofu, called “koori-dofu” in Japanese, is a specialty of frosty regions.
Just like its more famous cousin, frozen tofu is made with soy milk which is made to coagulate and solidify by adding bittern to it. For those wondering, bittern is a bitter-tasting solution rich in minerals obtained from seawater. Unlike regular tofu, though, it uses less water and more soy beans, making it richer in proteins.
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Schoolyard Ice Skate

November 22nd, 2018 by
Category: Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Winter is coming…
And we expect another glacial season in Suwa area.
Although Nagano prefecture is widely known as a snow country where you can enjoy fluffy soft snow, this area is a little different, a kingdom of frost with nights as cold as -20 (brr~!).

Schoolyard Ice Skate Rink

Water pipe


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Momiji-Lake: red maple leaf tunnel

November 4th, 2018 by
Category: Events, Information, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Are you looking for a new red leaf spot in Nagano?Then you should come check out Minowa town!

The best time to visit is around mid Oct to Early Nov.

Location on google map: https://goo.gl/maps/YWJW9JFN25J2

This place is called “momiji no tunnel.” A lot of tourists and locals come to visit during this time of year. In the evening, the maple trees are lit up and they look really fantastic.

Before the tunnel, you drive around Lake momiji (momiji ko) after seeing the Minowa Dam. The maple trees around the lake are also beautiful!

 

On November 3rd, there is an festival of Momiji Lake at the event square of Minowa town. There are lots of food stalls and some fun activities to take part in. Also, a walking event is held in the morning so you can walk 8km around the whole lake and enjoy the autumn colors at a relaxed pace.

For more info, please visit Minowa town tourism association.

https://www.town-minowa.jp/ (in Japanese)

“Akasoba no Sato” Red buckwheat field

September 25th, 2018 by
Category: Information, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Buckwheat flowers are generally known to be white but there is very unusual field of red buckwheat flowers in Minowa town, Kamiina gun, Nagano. It’s called “Aka soba no Sato” in Japanese, and since the field is the biggest in Japan, a lot of TV media and magazines are reporting about this area these days.

 

The history of this red buckwheat started in the 1970’s. A professor of Shinshu University heard about the red buckwheat flower in the Himalayas so he visited and needed to travel 4000 meters high up into the mountains. There he found the field and wanted to bring the beautiful flowers back to Japan. After years and years of breeding he succeeded in making this red buckwheat flower.

 

This place used to be corn, chesnuts, wheat, and buckwheat fields. In 1997, the buckwheat association in Minowa started to sow red buckwheat. Then in 2006, The red buckwheat group started in Kami-furuta district. They have a lot of “Omotenashi” hospitality spirit.

From 15th Sep to 7th Oct they open a seasonal Soba restaurant (Only open during this time of year!) and you can enjoy “Red soba noodles” and also white soba noodles. They are very popular. Watch out though, it’s first come first served!

On 29th and 30th September there is “The Akasoba flower festival.”

You can enjoy soba noodles freshly made in front of you and buy local vegetables and products.

Info:https://www.minowa-town.jp/赤そばの里/

( in Japanese)

Accsess by train: JR Iida line, Ina-matsushima station.

From station, 20mins by taxi.(0265-79-2455 Minowa taxi)

Highway bus stop: Chuo-expressway  Minowa.

From bus stop, 10mins by taxi.(0265-79-2455 Minowa taxi)

Google map:https://goo.gl/maps/ByCFRH1So2N2

Car park: Available nearby (Free of charge)

Arato-jo Fortress overlooking the golden rice fields

September 23rd, 2018 by
Category: Information, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Arato-jo is a mountaintop fortress overlooking the Chikuma River Valley and present-day Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada.  The rice fields down in the valley are in their golden glory, just a couple of weeks away from harvest.  Just one of the beautiful scenes awaiting you if you visit Nagano in the fall.

Info on Arato-jo Fortress:  http://www.onsentown.net/interests/arato-jo-castle  The castle is a 30-minute walk uphill from the onsen town.  The trailhead is reachable by bus from Togura Station on the Shinano Railway line.