New Train Pass for Exploring Karuizawa, Nearby Hot Springs, and More!

March 1st, 2018 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Information, Miscellaneous, Report, Shopping

Click on the image to see the full PDF flyer.


The Shinano Railway Banzai Two-Day pass offers great savings for anyone interested in spending time in the eastern Nagano area. The pass covers the Shinano Railway line between Karuizawa and Yashiro Stations and costs 1,000 yen for adults—already 300 yen cheaper than the one-way fare between the two! The pass is currently going through a trail run from February 1st to March 31st, 2018, but organizers are hoping to turn it into a year-round option.

When using the Banzai pass, you can enjoy eastern Nagano’s fresh foods, wine, and culture. I recently had a chance to explore more of the area, and I’d like to recommend a three-day course between Nagano and Karuizawa:

Day One

Enjoy the Outdoors and Shopping in Karuizawa



On your first day, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen train* from Tokyo to Karuizawa in about an hour. Right next to the station is Karuizawa Prince, with its 240-store outlet shopping mall, hotel, and ski resort. Try skiing at the resort or head to Karuizawa Garden Farm (15 minutes by taxi) for strawberry-picking. Have lunch at the shopping plaza and spend the afternoon looking for souvenirs and discount brand-name goods. Finally, head over to the recently renovated Karuizawa Prince East hotel for dinner at the Karuizawa Grill. Spend the night in Karuizawa.

Day Two

Ueda Castle and Bessho Onsen


In the morning, head to Karuizawa Station and purchase the Banzai Pass from the Shinano Railway ticket window. From there, take the train to Ueda.

Ueda Castle is just 12 minutes on foot from the station. While the castle’s keep was destroyed long ago, you can see reconstructions of the castle walls and main gate that repelled the Tokugawa army twice. The Omotenashi Squad welcomes visitors to the castle while wearing the regalia of famous Sanada warriors and ninja, and you can take photos with them for a fun memory of your trip.


At nearby Yanagimachi Street, you can see Ueda’s old townscape from its days as a castle town and pick up a snack from one of the bakeries, restaurants, or local brewery. If you’re hungry, stop at Kakurega En for some delicious yakitori slathered with Ueda’s special Oidare sauce.


Bessho Onsen is just 30 minutes from Ueda via the private Bessho Onsen train line*. The area is called the “Kamakura of Shinshu” due to its many beautiful temples and tranquil atmosphere. Among them, Anrakuji temple is home to a Japanese National Treasure—a three-story, eight-sided pagoda, the earliest extant example of its kind in the country. Enjoy the heart of the Japanese countryside from the comfort of a hot spring bath. (See more about spending time in Ueda and Bessho here!)

Tour the Countryside by Bicycle


After soaking in the sights of Bessho, return to Ueda and take the Shinano Railway train to Togura Station. A Showa era hot spring town called Togura Kamiyamada Onsen can be found here. One of the local inn owners is an American who loves Japanese culture and history, and is happy to share his knowledge with international guests. You can take a tour by bicycle and learn about the area’s sites and history while interacting with the locals. After a tough ride, enjoy the healing waters of Togura’s springs and stay at Kamesei Ryokan for the night.

Day Three

Snowshoe through Togakushi’s Sacred Forest


On your last day, take the train from Togura to Nagano Station*. From the station, take the Alpico Togakushi bus* to Togakushi Ski Resort (70 minutes), rent some snowshoes and take a walk to the area’s Okusha Shrine. Stop at the Okushamae Naosuke restaurant for soba, Togakushi’s specialty. Afterwards, take the trail to the shrine and be awed by huge 400-year-old cypress trees and the precipitous face of Mt. Togakushi looming above.

Visit Zenkoji and Experience Buddhism through its Temple Lodges


Get off at the bus at Zenkoji Daimon and head towards Zenkoji Temple. It is Japan’s third largest wooden temple and a national treasure, attracting thousands of pilgrims every year. There are 39 temple lodges around the main temple where pilgrims can spend the night. Some offer workshops as well, like Gyokushoin, where you can make your own bracelet or kaleidoscope. Some also double as restaurants where you can eat Shojin Ryori, Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. You can spend the night and continue your adventure, or take the shinkansen* back to Tokyo in just 90 minutes.

*The Banzai Two-Day Pass only covers travel on the Shinano Railway between Karuizawa and Yashiro stations.

There are many other places that I couldn’t cover here that are well worth a trip. In Toumi and Komoro, there are four different wineries producing a range of delicious wines. Rue de Vin and Villa d’Este Gardenfarm are both about 12 minutes away from Toumi’s Tanaka Station by taxi, and Mann’s Winery is just 10 minutes from Komoro Station. Each winery has its own restaurant where you can taste their wines paired with fresh local cuisine. And like Bessho and Togura Kamiyamada, there are many other hot spring areas to see as well!

Take a look at the Banzai Two-Day Pass brochure for a list of participating stores and more ideas! And if you happen to use the pass, share your photos online using the hashtag #banzai2dayspass.

Experiencing the Japanese Countryside in Chikuma

November 30th, 2016 by
Category: Accomodations, Culture Art, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities

Tyler shows our group some Showa era graffiti on a local earthern wall.

On a beautiful fall day, I joined a group of foreigners on a cycling tour of Togura Kamiyamada Onsen south of Chikuma City. The area was once home to several mountain castles and a post town so there is a wealth of history in the area. Our guide, local ryokan owner and area expert Tyler, took us along beautiful mountain roads and pointed out interesting relics and features along the way.
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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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Nothing But Flowers

March 14th, 2016 by
Category: Events, Information, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing
Wild white flowers bloom above the green leafy brush of a mountain clearing

Cherry blossoms aren’t the only thing to see in Nagano, whose wide variety of climate and terrain is suitable for all sorts of beautiful flowers and plants. During Spring, fields bloom in dazzling shades of yellow, red, pink and purple as the white-capped Japanese Alps stand majestically in the distance. It’s a great time to visit Nagano’s sightseeing spots and enjoy its natural beauty.

Below are some of Nagano’s best and most beautiful orchards and gardens to visit during the Spring months. See some of Japan’s largest apricot orchards, azalea parks and more!

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Come Get Those Tart Apricots in Chikuma City!

July 4th, 2014 by
Category: Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Fresh apricots are once again in season, and Chikuma City (just south of Nagano City) is Japan’s largest grower of apricots. 

Apricots are once again in season in Chikuma City

Called “anzu” in Japanese, apricots here actually come in an amazing array of varieties, from the tart heritage varieties to newcomers from North America such as the sweeter “harcot” variety. 

Chikuma City’s “Mori” district is known as “Anzu no Sato” (Apricot Village).  On the other side of the Chikuma River, just downriver from onsen town Togura-Kamiyamada, is Kyohoen‘s orchard.   I stopped  by the other day and the owner, Takamatsu-san, was in a great mood as apparently this year is a bumper crop.  The growers are especially thankful, as last year many of the trees were damaged by frost during the blossom season resulting in a decreased yield. 

Besides coming to an orchard and picking (and tasting!) fresh apricots straight from the tree, apricot jam making activities are also available.  The season should continue through mid-July.

Mori “Apricot Village” in Full Bloom

April 12th, 2014 by
Category: Events, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Chikuma City’s Mori neighborhood is known as Japan’s largest producer apricots.  While the fruit’s season isn’t until the end of June, the valley attracts photographers from all over Japan in early to mid-April for the apricot blossoms.  And right now, the trees are in full bloom!

(Photo courtesy of Kiyotaki-san)

Last year, the Emperor and Empress of Japan even came to see Mori’s famous blossoms.  This year, the weather is cooperating with clear blue skies so in addition to the beautiful apricot blossoms, Togakushi, Takatsuma and other snow-covered mountains along the Nagano – Niigata border are providing a picturesque backdrop. 

The 2014 Apricot Blossom Festival will continue until April 18th.  (Access by train from Yashiro Station on the Shinano Railway.)

Fruit Picking Season 2013 in Chikuma City is Here!

June 28th, 2013 by
Category: Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Ever wanted to  taste a tart apricot picked right off the tree?  Curious about how much minute care goes into growing an apple in Japan?  Want to see grapes as they are growing on the vine instead of at a supermarket counter?  Then Chikuma City is the place for you with a plethora of fruit orchards. Practically year-round there is some type of fruit picking that can be enjoyed:

Apricots and Cherries from late June to early July
Grapes from early September to early October
Apples from late September to December
Greenhouse Strawberries from December to early June

The fruit picking season for 2013 is now under way, with sweet, juicy cherries and fresh, tart apricots ready for you to come and pick.

Kamiyamada Cherry Picking 2013
Watashima-san (Kamiyamada’s Yasaka district)
Tel (026)276-1834 (Sorry — Japanese language only.)
Cherry Picking Start: Sunday 23-June
Cherry Picking End: Thursday 04-July
Price: 1500 yen for 30-minutes all-you-can-eat (while picking)
Quantities are limited, but feel free to contact me c/o Kamesei Ryokan tel# 026-275-1032 for help in making arrangements. 

Watashima-san's cherries (taken when I visited in 2012)

Mori and Sarashina Apricot Picking 2013

Here in Chikuma City, the Mori district is known as Japan’s #1 ‘apricot village’. The blossoms in early April are so famous that this year even the emperor and empress came to see them. Mori is a 20-minute drive from the main resort area, onsen town Togura-Kamiyamada. A short 15-minute walk away from the onsen, along the Chikuma River, are the apricot orchards of the Sarashina district. And Kyohoen Apricot Orchards are one of the most modern growers, trying to develop better varieties and using cutting-edge techniques to maximize yield.

This past April our area had some devastating low temperatures that are effecting the apricot trees’ production. But the folks at Kyohoen believe strongly in giving guests  the opportunity to enter the apricot field and pick fruit themselves. This year’s apricot picking schedule is as follows:

Kyohoen Orchard near Togura-Kamiyamada Onsen
Office: 1092-2 Wakamiya, Chikuma City, Nagano
Tel: (026)276-6018 Kaneko-san (limited English)
Apricot Picking Start: Around 24-June (Monday)
Apricot Picking End: Around 05-July (Friday)
Price: 1000 yen per Kilogram (Showa variety)

Our son Kenny eating as he picks at Kyohoen's apricot field this year.

One Month and Counting for the Start of the Mori Apricot Blossom Festival

March 6th, 2013 by
Category: Events, Seasonal Topics

The main Spring event for our onsen town Togura-Kamiyamada and the greater Chikuma City area is the Mori “Apricot Village” Apricot Blossom Festival.  The dates for the 2013 edition have been announced as follows:

58th Annual Mori Apricot Blossom Festival April 6th-21st 2013.
Anzu-no-Sato Sketch Park Light Up will be April 12th-14th from 6-9pm.

Mori "Apricot Village" Apricot Blossom Festival Map for 2013

And, a bit of big news:  Japan’s Emperor is reportedly planning on coming to see the blossoms this year.  Actual date will depend on the timing of the blossoms.  As soon as information is released, we will announce it here on the blog.

So if you’ve been thinking about coming to see Mori’s apricot blossoms, perhaps this is the year to do it — with no less than the Emperor of Japan coming!

Soft pink apricot blossoms in Mori (Scheduled to Bloom Starting April 6th for 2013)

Mori Apricot Village is 12km from our onsen town Togura-Kamiyamada, approx. 25 minutes by car.  Train access is via Yashiro Station on the Shinano Railway line.

Apricot Blossoms in April, Apricot Fruit in June

June 15th, 2012 by
Category: Cuisine, Events, Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Shopping, Sightseeing

The city Togura-Kamiyamada Onsen belongs to, Chikuma-shi, is famous for apricots. The Mori “Anzu no Sato” (Apricot Blossom) district is Japan’s largest grower of apricots. In addition to Mori, the Sarashina district adjacent to our onsen town has a couple of apricot orchards that are getting bigger year by year.

In April, our area is blessed with the soft-white pink color of the apricot blossoms. Then in June, we get to pick the actual apricot fruit. This year’s apricot fruit-related events are as follows:

Come to Chikuma City in late June and early July for Japan's best apricots

*Sarashina Apricot Fair in Togura Station
June 17th (Sunday) and June 18th (Monday), 2012.
09:30~13:00 in front of Togura Station on the Shinano Railway Line.
Local orchardist Kyohoen will be selling their early variety sweet apricots 500 yen for 1kg. Limit 100 units. Last year, they sold out in a little over an hour, so get there early if you want some.
Other local produce and goods will be for sale, as well as specialty bento lunch box sets. The Yuagari dance troupe will perform, also.
Note: The Kyohoen Apricot Orchard in Sarashina transitions to tart ‘Heiwa’ variety from June 27th and sweeter ‘Harcot’ from July 1st. If you would like to try picking apricots yourself (plucking one and eating it right off the tree is an experience that can’t be beat), feel free to contact me and I’d be happy to make arrangements.  The orchard is across the Chikuma River from Togura Station.

*Mori ‘Apricot Village’ Apricot Picking 6/24-7/15
From 800 yen for all-you-can eat apricots + 1kg to take home.

*Mori ‘Apricot Village’ Apricot Jamming 6/27-7/15
9am-4pm. 1600 yen

Access via bus from Yashiro Station on the Shinano Railway.  For info, contact the Chikuma City Tourism Assoc., Tel +81(0)26-276-2241.

Family Fun for Children’s Day: Sarashina no Sato Ancient Experience Park

May 11th, 2012 by
Category: Culture Art, Experience, Information

Did everyone enjoy Childrens Day (May 5th)?  I took our kids for a bicycle ride to the Sarashina no Sato Ancient Experience Park, a 4.2km ride from our onsen town, Togura-Kamiyamada. 

Our kids wearing Jomon-era garb at the recreated prehistoric village

The park is set up to provide a glimpse of what life was like in prehistoric Japan, the Jomon era.  Besides a recreated Jomon village, there is a sort of historical museum.  Not only are there displays and an educational video on Jomon lifestyle, but there are a series of hands-on activities to experience.  Our oldest son tried making fire with sticks of wood, while our #2 son and daughter carved a soapstone into a pendant. 

Trying to make fire by rubbing sticks

Carving a soap stone pendant

 

Chikuma City is also fortunate to have a 1600 year old ancient tomb, the Mori Shogun Tumulus.  It appears in all 6th graders textbooks in Japan.  I’ll have to take our kids for another bike ride to go there next time.