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.

Nagano’s 2018 Cherry Blossom Forecast

March 22nd, 2018 by
Category: Information, Seasonal Topics

Ogawa Village’s reddish pink Tachiya cherry blossoms contrast with the snowy peaks of the Japanese Alps.
As the snow slowly melts from the streets and sprouts begin to poke their heads out from under the ground, we’re all beginning to wonder: when will the cherry blossoms come? According to a new forecast announced last Tuesday, it looks like many areas of Japan will be seeing their cherry trees bloom a full ten days earlier than last year.
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Zenkoji’s Lantern Festival — Part of Nagano’s Olympic Heritage

February 13th, 2018 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Last night, we went to Nagano City’s venerable Zenkoji Temple for the last night of the 15th annual Toumyou Matsuri (Lantern Festival).  It is in commemoration of the 1998 Winter Olympics.  The visual artistry was a heart-warming display, which was dearly welcomed with the sub-freezing temperatures!  I’ll let the pictures do the talking:

Snowshoeing Around the Shrines of Togakushi

February 7th, 2018 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

The Zuishinmon Gate marks the entrance to the Okusha’s lane of giant cypress trees.

Togakushi is often overlooked during winter in favor of Jigokudani’s snow monkeys or Hakuba’s ski slopes, but it offers a memorable winter experience you won’t find anywhere else. Walking effortlessly on freshly fallen snow, you can admire the forest’s towering, 400-year-old trees and ancient Shinto shrines—not to mention the precipitous face of Mt. Togakushi itself.

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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.