Sunny Saturday on the Nakasendo Trail

February 9th, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Sightseeing

Last weekend, a few of us traveled from the Northern area of Nagano into the Kiso Valley to walk part of the Nakasendo trail. It was one of five major roads used during the Edo era and connected the former capital of Kyoto to the new capital of Edo (now Tokyo). While it may take weeks to travel the whole thing, we just walked between two post towns: Magome and Tsumago.

Saturday was a beautiful day so I’d like to share some of the photographs we took along the way!

The Post Town of Magome.

We started from Magome, which is technically in Gifu prefecture just below the border. It can be reached from Nakatsugawa station via the Magome line bus (about 30 min.). The morning was quiet and cool with a few tourist groups passing in and out of the souvenir and food shops.

Mountains beyond Mountains.

Just above Magome is a wide viewing platform that faces the Ena mountain range. Saturday was the perfect day to visit.

Is he dancing or trying not to slip?

The trail wanders through the woods of the Kiso Valley and occasionally pops out onto quiet roads. Since we were traveling in winter we also had to be careful of the ice and snow! Here Jamie is posing next to some discrete, well-placed bathrooms.

A short rest between post towns.

At one point the woods open up into a small field with a beautiful old Japanese house. The owner greets us warmly and lets us in for tea and snacks. Lots of people stop here on the way between Magome and Tsumago, and it’s a nice chance to chat with other travelers.

Owner of the Teahouse chatting with us about the differences of Japanese & English.

An old wood stove keeps the house warm and smoky, and light filters in through the wooden slots in solid, sharp beams.

Otsumago in the Kiso Valley.

Shortly before Tsumago is another small cluster of buildings with a beautiful view of the mountains. Even more so than Tsumago or Magome, these scattered buildings made me feel like I had stepped back into another time.

Quiet during the winter months.

Finally we reached Tsumago, a long lane of 200-year-old inns and restaurants.

A must-try snack in Kiso.

Soba is one of Kiso’s most popular dishes, but Gohei Mochi is my favorite. The rice is lightly pounded, basted and grilled. The sauce may contain miso, walnuts or egoma seeds depending on the area and has a salty-sweet flavor.

It was almost 3 pm at this point, so we took a cab to Nagiso Station to catch the next train (buses also run between Tsumago and the station). Several of our group headed directly home, but Jamie and I stopped in Kiso Fukushima to catch the Kiso Ice Lantern festival. It’s held during late Jan. to early Feb. of every year, slowly making its way down the Kiso portion of the Nakasendo from north to south.



The river at dusk. Notice the houses which hang precipitously over the stone wall.

The motion blur, granularity and bad composition are all on purpose.

I, like the group of 10 or so other photographers squeezed in front of this picturesque street, tried my best to get a good shot. My wobbly tripod and patience, however, were not up to the challenge.

The ice lanterns are fragile but clean up easily!

Hundreds of lanterns decorated the streets, bridges and riverside of Kiso Fukushima. The warm lights and hot sake (of which Kiso Fukushima’s two makers, Nanawarai and Nakanorisan, are especially delicious) kept the cold at bay. After walking through town and relaxing in the foot bath for awhile, we headed back to the station and made our way to Nagano.

Dog steals the show with killer pose.

For people who are interested in experiencing a lesser known side of Japan and enjoying its beautiful nature, I highly recommend the Kiso Valley and Nakasendo. Come during Spring and Autumn for cherry blossoms or fall foliage, or come in summer or winter to beat the crowds.

The locals are friendly and you’re sure to meet some interesting people along the way!

Additional Information

There are plenty of other blogs and resources about the Nakasendo if you’re interested in learning more. Check out some of these pages below!

A Traveler’s Treasure: Post-Town Tsumago

February 3rd, 2017 by
Category: Accomodations, Cuisine, Culture Art, Shopping, Sightseeing

Tsumago-shuku is one of sixty-nine post towns on the Nakasendō Road in the Kiso Valley which is located in Nagano Prefecture. Connecting Kyoto with Edo (present day Tokyo), this road features many historically important sites, traditional houses, and serene settings.

Photographs depicting what life was like for older generations and other items can be found on display around town. This quiet village in the mountains offers numerous places to explore and walking along the road surrounded by wooden buildings and storehouses gives you a feeling that you’ve traveled back in time.

Hiking the Nakasendō Trail

The area is accessible by train and bus, but you can also travel along the route via a hiking course. You can also purchase a traveler’s staff and receive wood-branded seals at checkpoints and post towns along the way. A baggage transportation service is offered from March 20 to November 30. The service is offered through the Tsumago-shuku Sightseeing Information Center (0264-57-3123), Koshinzuka Hotel (0264-57-3029), and Magome-shuku Sightseeing Information Center (0573-69-2336). Stop off at the post towns to rest and rejuvenate yourself.

Local Cuisine

You’ll find many souvenir shops along the way selling locally made goods and tasty treats including gohei mochi (pounded rice that has been flattened and molded into an oval shape, stuck on a skewer, coated with sauce such as miso, and then grilled.) Nagano Prefecture is known for its buckwheat, so you can enjoy fresh, hand cut buckwheat noodles as well. Sweet amazake (contains little to no alcohol) and nihonshu (sake) can also be found along the route.

Gohei Mochi

 

Explore History

The Tsumago-shuku Sightseeing Information Center offers a variety of information and pamphlets for you to take with you.

Nagiso Museum’s Wakihonjin-Okuya with the traditional fire pit and gardens has preserved the atmosphere of traditional Japanese housing. Feel calm settle over you as you witness the sunlight streaming in above the fire pit and the garden and pond filled with multi-colored carp.

Where to Stay

The area has been preserved through the Protection of Cultural Properties Project, but you will still find people living in the town. You can even stay at one of the residences or Japanese style inns in the town. Please understand that because these accommodations are in older buildings, rooms with private bathrooms are not available, although some places offer private shower stalls. If you access the respective homepages from the following website, you will find that many of the websites offer English: http://www.tumago.jp/stay/index.html.

Access

One point of access to the Tsumago-shuku Area is from Nagiso Station. The bus fare is 300 yen one way. Lockers are available at the Tsumago-shuku bus stop. They require one 100 yen coin, but you will get your money back once you remove your things from the locker.

Bus Information is available in English.

Tsumago Tourist Information Center 0264-57-3123

A Trip through Time: Tanaka Family Museum

December 27th, 2016 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Experience, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

 Preserving a Family Legacy

Entrance to the Tanaka Family Compound

The Tanaka Family Compound, located in Suzaka City, is run by the 12th head of the Tanaka Family which was a family of merchants in Edo-period Japan. Here you will find their family heirlooms on display. The galleries are constantly updated as items are brought out of storage and rotated through. Items include traditional Japanese dolls, clothing, paintings, both Japanese and European style ceramics, and toys imported from overseas. The compound consists of a museum, café, shop, and gardens.

The grandfather of the current head of the family as a boy

Items used in sake making

Imported toy train

Café “Ryusen”

Tachibana Bento

Various other dishes made using local ingredients

Thanks to family heirlooms that were passed down from generation to generation, the family retained recipes of meals that were served over 200 years ago. Dishes at this café have been recreated based on these recipes. The Tachibana Bento is an exquisite example of artistic Japanese cuisine (Reservations should be made 5 days in advance). You can enjoy a variety of dishes as well as green tea and coffee or sweets while taking in the view of the traditional Japanese garden.

Japanese Garden

 

Each season features a distinct atmosphere with various colors. Enjoy cherry blossoms in the spring, morning glories in the summer, red and yellow autumn leaves in the fall, and white snow with glimpses of vibrant red berries in the winter. Visit the website’s four season gallery here!

Autumn Colors in Nagano’s Golden Season

October 24th, 2016 by
Category: Information, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Beatiful autumn colors from Togakushi over the weekend.

While some of the mountaintops are already experiencing a spell of winter, Nagano’s valleys are finally enjoying the sights of autumn. Red, yellow and golden hues are descending from the highlands and a cool wind is blowing through the valleys.
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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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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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Nagano’s Quiet Samurai Town

June 21st, 2016 by
Category: Accomodations, Experience, Sightseeing

Matsushiro castle in spring.

Matsushiro was once the domain of the Sanada clan, the samurai family starring in NHK’s newest historical drama, Sanada Maru. The Matsushiro domain covered the largest area of the Shinano province and thrived as a castle town during the Edo period. Now the Matsushiro area is a sleepy, undeveloped town with pristine artifacts of its Samurai history.

A group of us visited Matsushiro recently to learn more about its history and enjoy some cultural activities and local food.

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Summer Fun Around Lake Suwa

May 27th, 2016 by
Category: Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

A view of the lake from the rooftop of the Clasuwa restaurant.

In a land-locked prefecture, the Suwa area is surprisingly blessed with water. The surface of lake Suwa offers beautiful, reflective views of the surrounding mountains and sky. Hot springs bubble up from the grounds of Kami and Shimosuwa and feed over 150 public bathing facilities in the area. And, fresh water from the highlands helps brew Suwa’s many award-winning rice wines.

Visitors to the area have been increasing in advent of the 2016 Onbashira festival, so I thought I’d take a closer look at Suwa’s activities and sights.

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Mystical Togakushi in transition from winter to spring

May 11th, 2016 by
Category: Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Togakushi is special any time of year, but this transitional period, after winter has departed and before the trees have grown their leaves in the spring, is magical.  The creamy white flowers of the mizubasho plants (known in English very un-romantically as skunk cabbage) serve as a reminder of the recently melted snow, while the cacophony of ground plants are a harbinger of vernal green.

Mizubasho, aka “skunk cabbage”

My wife and I made a post-Golden Week day trip to Togakushi.  We started off at Yamaguchi-ya for some soba noodles.  Located near Chu-sha (Togakushi’s Middle Shrine), this restaurant’s eating area provides a spectacular view of the Togakushi Mountain Range.  Today, unfortunately, the mountain was hiding behind clouds, fitting in a way since the peak has traditionally been home to hermit monks hiding in its depths.  Even without the normal scenery, the noodles were still fantastic.  There is just something different about noodles made with local buckwheat and Togakushi’s clear mountain water.  The fresh mountain air seems to add to the experience, too.

Soba noodles at Yamaguchi-ya featuring Togakushi-grown buckwheat.

 

After our late lunch, we were treated to a guided tour of the Togakushi Ninpo Center, one of two ninja-related sites in Togakushi, by a real-life Togakure-ryu ninja.

Entrance to the Togakushi Ninpo Center

Technically called Togakushi Minzoku-kan (戸隠民俗館 The Museum of Togakushi Folklore) inside a recently re-thatched schoolhouse displaying traditional local tools, clothing, etc.

Lots of stories inside this old schoolhouse-turned-folklore museum.

Hemp weaving used to be Togakushi’s main enterprise. Now it’s outlawed due to its byproduct – marijuana.

as well as Togakure-ryu Ninpo Shiryo-kan (戸隠流忍法資料館 The Museum of Togakure School of Ninpo [Ninja Arts]), a ninja museum, ninja fun house, and shuriken throwing range.  As is common in Togakushi, not everything is what it seems.  Several of the tools displayed as artifacts in the folklore museum can be used as weapons by ninja.  Conversely, the items displayed in the ninja museum used for making poisons would also have been used by the hermit monks to make medicines.  When you go, take the time to look at each object and imagine what its uses were.

Farm tool that can double as a weapon — popular among the Togakure-ryu ninjas

Even the ‘kunoichi’ (female ninjas) had tricks up their sleeves, or, hidden in their brooms.

By the way, the ninja fun house and athletic activities are enjoyable even for adults — my wife and I can attest to that.

Wind your way through the mazes and trap doors of the fun house to this crazy room.

No trip to Togakushi would be complete without visiting Oku-sha, Togakushi’s Inner Shrine.  The trail to the shrine is lined partway through by ancient cedar trees.  This time, we skipped that landmark, and rambled the boardwalks through the forest preserve (戸隠森林植物園 Togakushi Shinrin Shokubutsuen).

Boardwalk over the mizubasho marsh

The previously mentioned mizubasho flowers were in full bloom, but the majority of visitors were there for something else — bird watching.  Before the trees grow their leaves is when the forest’s birds are the most visible.  Our guide wasn’t looking up at the trees, though, but at the various plants sprouting up through the marsh down below.  He showed how similarly-looking plants could have drastically different effects if eaten.

On the left: Alpine leek (Allium victorialis). The Japanese name is Gyouja-ninniku 行者にんにく, which loosely translates ‘hermit garlic’, as the mountain hermits used to eat the shoots as an energy snack. On the right: V.album var.grandiflorum (geranium molle?), in Japanese Baikeisou 梅恵草, which is poisonous. Their shoots look almost identical.

At the top: Anemone flaccida (wind flower, nirinso 二輪草), which is edible and puts out pretty little white flowers.
The serrated-leaf plant at the bottom: monkshood (Aconitum, “torikabuto” トリカブト), which is, err, not edible.

And he explained that the English name for mizubasho makes sense — the flowers have a skunk-like disagreeable aroma.  Apparently bears do eat the flowers to regulate their stomachs after coming out of hibernation, but otherwise they are not attractive for eating.  Fortunately that leaves lots of beautiful flowers to enjoy viewing.

Everything in Togakushi seems to have a mysterious story behind it.  Come discover for yourself!  (It’s a convenient 1 hour bus up from Nagano Station, with 12 runs a day during the green season.)

Snowshoe hiking in Beautiful Norikura Kogen

March 21st, 2016 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Sightseeing

Recently I got to meet Tyler in beautiful Norikura Kogen to go for a snowshoe hike. You can read Tyler’s blog here and since he wrote about access and lots of other environmental details I will let you read about that in his post.

The day we went for our snowshoe hike was just after a few days of sunny warm weather and a bit of rain so it was not the best condition but still a fun way to spend the morning. My friends at Little Peaks guided us that day on a course that I always recommend to people looking for a nice half day hike. (Norikura Kanko Center >> Zengoro Falls >> Ushidome Pond.)

I hope you enjoy the photos and comments below.

Matsu from Little Peaks getting us setup at the trail head.

Hiking to Zengoro Falls from Norikura Kanko Center

Approaching one of the bridges leading to Zengoro Falls

There is a nice view from the observation point above Zengoro Falls.

Almost there

Tyler makes Zengoro Falls look small

Enjoying the view

Snowshoeing in Norikura Kogen

A view of Zengoro Falls from the trail

A view from Ushidome Pond of some pretty light hitting Mt. Norikura

This is from a different day after some heavy rain at Zengoro Falls.

I wanted to share this photo because it shoes how beautiful Zengoro Falls is when it's fully frozen. (Late Jan.)

When the falls freeze over some come out for ice climbing.