Ninjas and Skunk Cabbage Awake: Togakushi Transitioning into the Green Season

April 18th, 2013 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Located on a perch at the foot of Togakushi Mountain high above the venerable Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City is Togakushi Kogen. Signs of spring are starting to appear throughout Togakushi as it transitions out of winter and into the green season. As the snow melts, the ‘mizubasho’ skunk cabbage and the Togakushi ninjas are coming out of hibernation. Even the bus from Nagano Station has switched destinations from the ski area to the entrance to the fabled Okusha (Inner Shrine). (See the updated Transportation Guide) And for people coming by car, it is only 60 minutes from our onsen town Togura-Kamiyamada to the entrance to Okusha when using the Expressway.

According to my Togukashi ninja connection, Yamaguchi-san of soba restaurant “Yamaguchiya”,

*Snow still remains along the approach to Okusha, but the roads are completely clear.
*The creamy white mizubasho flowers in the Togakushi Forest Reserve look like they’ll blossom a week early this year, around the end of April.
*The two ninja sites have announced their opening dates for 2013: Togakushi Ninpo Center will open on Friday April 19th and the Togakushi Chibikko Kids Ninja Park will start up again on Saturday April 27th.

Togakushi's Towering Cedar Trees Lining the Way to Okusha Inner Shrine

Nagano Prefecture as a whole is blessed with so much beautiful natural scenery, but within Nagano, Togakushi is special. The massive cedar trees lining the path to Okusha really impart a sense of the power of nature. Lately those famous trees are experiencing a boom of sorts as they have become known as a ‘power spot’ in Japan. But take one step off the path and into the Togakushi Forest Preserve, and you’ll have all that peaceful nature to yourself. The snowy white flowers of the unfortunately named skunk cabbage are especially delightful. And be sure not to miss Kagami-ike, aka ‘Mirror Pond’ which perfectly reflects the grand Togakushi Mountain peaks.

Serene Path through Togakushi's Forest Preserve

In addition to all the natural beauty, Togakushi is home to some of the best soba noodles in Nagano Prefecture, which itself is Japan’s soba mecca. Besides being a prime growing area for buckwheat, there is just something different about the noodles made here in the refreshingly clean mountain air using the crystal clear mountain spring water.

And, don’t forget the Togakushi ninjas. This is the home of the Togakure-do school of ninjutsu, and there are 2 locations to get a feel for what Togakure-do ninjutsu is like. They are the Togakushi Ninpo Center and the Togakushi Chibikko Kids Ninja Park.

Ninja Fun at Togakushi Ninpo Center

Togakushi is so much more than just nature, soba and ninjas. There’s the spiritual tradition (Chusha, the ‘Middle Shrine’, is especially rich in mysticism), bamboo ware and so much more. This green season, come and check and experience Togakushi yourself. For places to stay, there are some facilities in Togakushi (including ryokans and a Youth Hostel), and/or there are onsen resort towns nearby, including Togura-Kamiyamada.

戸隠高原 Togakushi

山口屋そば Soba Restaurant Yamaguchi-ya

Bus Schedule for Daytrips to Togakushi (With train connections for Togura-Kamiyamada Onsen)

Secret river-onsen: Kiriake

September 28th, 2010 by
Category: Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Onsen water coming up out of a river bed?
You take a shovel to make your own bath?
And you adjust the water temperature by mixing in river water?

Sounds like something out of an onsen legend. But it’s not just a myth — it actually exists: Kiriake Onsen in the northern corner of Nagano Prefecture near the borders with Niigata and Gunma Prefectures.

Relaxing in the Kiriake river-onsen

Relaxing in the Kiriake river-onsen

You park your car at the lone ryokan, Yusenkaku, grab a shovel, cross the suspension bridge, walk down to the river, take care to avoid the onsen hot spots (the onsen temperature is supposedly a toe-tingling 57 deg C), find an area where the temperature is to your liking and move the rocks around until you have your own little onsen pool.

The other day, after we visited the snow monkeys, our family and some friends drove up and through Shiga Kogen and Oku-Shiga Kogen along the windy mountain road to Kiriake (approx. 45km and 2hours from Shibu-Yudanaka Onsen area).

Actually, I’d come here about 17 years ago. Back then, the road to Kiriake was a bumpy gravel one. It’s been paved since then, which may be the reason it’s lost some of it’s ‘hidden’ charm. Judging by the number of celebrity signatures, and by how many other people were there that day, the secret is out.

I had always wanted to have our kids experience this onsen-in-the-middle-of-a-river where you build a bath yourself. Plus, I was needing a relaxing break from the summer holiday rush. For me, this combination of natural setting and onsen is perfectly sublime.

Kiriake Onsen:
You do actually use a shovel to make your own bath.
The onsen water does actually bubble up right in the middle of the river.
You do actually adjust the temperature yourself by mixing in river water.
And, being that it’s an all-natural phenomenom, the onsen keeps bubbling up in different spots. First over there, then over here, then, Ooh la la!, right here!

Onsen water bubbling up

Onsen water bubbling up

Grab a shovel...

Grab a shovel...


...Cross the bridge...

...Cross the bridge...

...and dig your own onsen bath

...and dig your own onsen bath





Although Kiriake is enjoyable any time of the year, being that it is located in the Akiyama (“autumn mountain”) District, it’s is probably at its prettiest when the fall leaves are in color. It’s location is very inconvenient, but that makes finding it that much more enjoyable. There really isn’t any bus access, so a car is highly recommended.  Or, if you book a stay at Yusenkaku, they provided limited pick-up service.

Click here for the Kiriake Onsen / Yusenkaku Ryokan website.

winter, 1st movement

October 20th, 2009 by
Category: Seasonal Topics

miura-040In Otaki we are seeing in the landscape the first bitter-sweet notes of winter.  During a hike in the back part of the Otaki Valley I caught a glimpse of Mt. Ontake 御嶽山 in white.  The previous night it had been dusted with the first snow of the season.  The mountain huts have closed for the season, but with the proper equipment and a bit of experience you can still climb the mountain.

Down in the valley the leaves are well into their yearly display of color.  Yellows and reds mix with the greens of pines to create variegated slopes that dazzle tmiura-074he eye.  I’m guessing the peak will be this weekend.

Now, not only the nights, but the days too, are cold.  A trip to the hot spring tastes even sweeter now, and delicious “nabe” 鍋 (pots of hot soup with meat and vegetables) have become a staple.

Winter in the mountains can be tough, but what joys it brings.

Fall on Mt. Ontake

October 5th, 2009 by
Category: Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

_ontake-051_The above is the view from the summit of Mt. Ontake looking towards the northwest; Mt. Norikura and Kamikochi lay in the dista_ontake-140_2nce.

Fall is perhaps the best time to climb Mt. Ontake.  The hillsides begin to turn a dazzling array of colors, and the weather tends to be stable.  Clear skies offer other-worldly views of the North, Central, and South Japanese Alps, as well as Mt. Fuji, Yatsu-ga-dake and beyond.

Staying in a mountain hut at the summit is an extra treat.  The cost is reasonable (about 9,000 yen with dinner and breakfast included) and the accomodations nicer than one might think.  Step outside on a clear night and it looks as if you could run your fingers through the Milky Way.  The lights of Nagoya are also visible at night and seem close enough to step into.

The mountain huts are beginning to shut down for the season and the snows will be coming soon, so come while you still have the chance.  The long weekend (October 10-12) may be the best opportunity to climb before the snows come.


When we truly enter the mountains,
birds, bugs, beasts and blossoms
radiate supernatural excellence
and take great delight in our presence.


Buses to Ta-no-hara 田の原 (where the Otaki route begins) run from Kisofukushima station 木曽福島駅.  The cost is 1,500 yen one way.  Extra days have been added for the fall.  Find the complete schedule here.

Web page and phone number for the mountain hut at the summit of Mt. Ontake (ken-ga-mine 剣ヶ峰) here.

Give them a call, they’ll keep a room warm for you._ontake-129_

Bonsai expert in Nagano

September 11th, 2009 by
Category: Culture Art, Shopping
Just on the outskirts of Nagano city, in the city named Suzaka is this Bonsai shop.
It looks nothing more than an ordinary Bonsai place
we have here and there in Nagano or in Japan.
But!… The owner of this Bonsai shop is something special.
She is the only female Bonsai art teacher certified by the Japan Bonsai Association.

Ms Chiyako Yamamoto is a vivacious woman like her works.
Her family has raised Bonsai for more than 100 years and she is the fourth generation.
This is a page from a Bonsai book.
This is her work that won the first award in the Bonsai contest in Japan.

If you find Bonsai too expensive or somewhat too much, try this!
It is the combination of young cheaper Bonsai trees with some other objects.
My photos are not good, but they are actually much better and lovely.
Here is a quiz from her:
You see three tiny Bonsai trees in pots in the photo above.
They are all the same kind of tree, pine, but their sizes differ a little
as well as the sizes of their pots.
One of the following photos shows the process
how young trees are grown into bonsai by skillful bonsai artists.
Which do you think is the proper order?


Answer: B ( bonsai trees are meant to be grown smaller!)

It is fall now in Nagano, and the harvest season is coming soon!
I saw a nice old couple working on a vegetable field.
Apples grow and grow — still literally green!
Rice is almost ready to be harvested.
You can see the roofs of M-WAVE, the speed skating arena from the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
Crape myrtles in their full bloom!

Update: The Shouzan-en Bonsai Garden has created their own English webpage! For more information, please see their website:

Blue skies

August 30th, 2009 by
Category: Sightseeing

ontakepicnic-0201Last week my wife and I went for a picnic to Otaki’s ski hill, Ontake 2240,located on southeastern flank of Ontake-san. The  “2240”  in the name refers to the elevation at the top of the ski hill.  This elevation is accessible by car, which is a rarity in Japan.   At this height, the views of the north, central, and south alps are incredible.

Now that we’re exiting summer and on our way to fall the weather is stable and so there are plenty of blue skies.

Come on down to Kiso and enjoy!!