One bright, hot summer morning was the perfect time to escape to the cool of Iiyama’s Nabekura Highlands for some outdoor yoga in a beautiful beech tree (buna) forest.
Taking advantage of the very convenient shuttle bus from Iiyama Station, our little group was in high spirits. It’s a pretty route, through wide open valleys of rice fields with old “samurai hat” houses and their immaculate kitchen gardens. The bus arrives at the Mori no Ie visitor centre in plenty of time to get changed into your yoga things, and get some water. After picking up our yoga mats, which were provided, we followed our instructor down a well-kept forest trail. Birds were singing, butterflies flittered around and we even surprised a little grass snake, sunning himself on the trail. Well, perhaps it was us who were more surprised!
After arranging our mats carefully in the clearing, we were instructed to lay down and breathe the peace of the forest right down into our fingers and toes. Aaah! I felt calmer already, listening to the wind rustling the green leaves overhead, and the little stream burbling behind. Despite one of us being a complete beginner, and the others being pretty rusty, the lesson was gentle, but challenging enough for us to feel a sense of satisfaction. Afterwards, I felt like a whole new person, ready to take on the day. Namaste!
There are a variety of easy, well maintained walking trails around Nabekura and we took the chance to enjoy the buna forest of well established old-growth beech trees a little longer.
While it would be easy to spend the afternoon there, and try the lunch plan at Mori no Ie, which looks delicious and very healthy, we had other plans and so we made our way to the nearby Kosuge area, to try the local soba noodles at Asabanoan restaurant.
Asabanoan is located right at the entrance to the trail that leads to Kosuge’s Okusha temple, a trailhead that looks like it came straight out of a Miyazaki movie, with huge ancient cedar trees lining the time-worn granite steps along a straight line that, if it were followed, leads from the temple itself, to the point where the sun sets exactly behind Myoko Mountain on the summer solstice. The Kosuge area is designated a national cultural heritage property. There’s a lot of history, and perhaps a little magic in this spot. But, more importantly, the morning’s workout had left us ravenously hungry, so we hurried inside to eat big bamboo baskets of chilled soba noodles with wasabi and spring onion dipping sauce and light, crispy tempura vegetables dipped in salt. After eating we added some of the noodle cooking water to our cups of sauce to make a drink known as soba no yu. Delicious, and restored some much needed electrolytes too.
Back to downtown Iiyama, to try our hands at washi paper making. The paper making centre is a little tricky to find at first, tucked behind a community centre off the main temple street. Japanese paper, or washi, has been made in this area for centuries, prized for its bright whiteness, owing to being bleached in the sun and snow. Truly, the culture of Iiyama relies on the deep snows of winter.
Made by hand from the bark of paper mulberry trees, which have been dried on snow banks and then pounded into a pulp, and then mixed with another plant extract that makes a kind of liquid wallpaper paste, giving washi has a unique texture and natural colour. The friendly staff showed us how to dip wooden frames into large tanks to carefully layer up our paper. Then we decorated it with dried flowers, leaves and small pieces of coloured washi. Finally the finished frames were vacuumed dry and suddenly our designs brightened into life. A short spell in the dryer and our creations were ready to take home. At only 210 yen for a postcard sized card, these make great lightweight gifts to put in your hand luggage and take home or could even be posted.
To round off the day, no visit to Iiyama would really be complete without a trip to Patisserie Hirano, the city’s renowned cake shop. Glass displays cases are filled with the most tempting-looking fancy cakes with glistening glazes, swiss rolls filled with flavoured cream and delicate pastries. Most people buy things to take home, or gifts for friends and family, but in the cafe you can also order any of the cakes on display with “drink-bar”; unlimited self-service coffee, tea and juices, or even go for one of their extravagant parfaits, with layers of cream, ice-cream and seasonal fruits.
I really can’t finish up this blog without saying a big thank you to the staff at Iiyama Station’s Shinshu Iiyama Tourism Bureau, who arranged the booking for everything and were really prompt in replying to emails in English and calling me back to answer all my questions. Arigatou and namaste!