Innkeeper’s Recommendation: Geisha Drag Show

November 19th, 2009 by
Category: Culture Art
Recently we had some guests here at our inn that had come to Togura Kamiyamada Onsen to see the Taishu-engeki (“theater for the masses”) show at Taishokan. That reminded me — this month’s act is supposed to be a very popular one. One of these days, Kamesei’s proprietress and I have to go check it out!
Taishokan's theater poster for November

Taishokan's theater poster for November

A few years ago, the last strip show theater in town threw in the towel (pardon the pun), and started Taishu-engeki theater.  It’s basically like kabuki for the common people.  The show features beautiful dancing, beautiful kimonos — it’s just the hairy legs make for quite a combination. It’s basically like a geisha drag show, with several dance routines set to everything from traditional songs to worldbeat.
One of the solo dances

One of the solo dances

The time I went, there was a geisha-yakuza themed 1-act play, too. Very entertaining.
Swashbuckling yakuza and geisha

Swashbuckling yakuza and geisha

I particularly like to recommend the show to our guests from Australia, home of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”.   But people from all over the world tend to enjoy the color and artistry of the dancing and kimonos.  It’s not often you get a chance to see this type of traditional dancing in Japan, and where better than Taishokan here in Togura Kamiyamada Onsen.
Note:  2 shows daily at 1pm and 7pm.  Tickets are 1700 yen per person (discount tickets available here at Kamesei Ryokan).  Location is in Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, approx. 2km from Togura Station on the local Shinano Railway Line.  Click here for Taishokan’s website.
The actors (actresses?) lined up to greet the guests at Taishokan's entrance

The actors (actresses?) lined up to greet the guests at Taishokan's entrance

Hiking Kamuriki-yama (with the kids)

September 21st, 2009 by
Category: Outdoor Activities
View looking north from the summit of Kamuriki-yama in Chikuma City

View looking north from the summit of Kamuriki-yama in Chikuma City

Stand almost anywhere in Chikuma and look to the south and you will see Kamuriki-yama towering over everything else.  I took the kids for a hike up there this past weekend and we had a wonderful time.

When seen from below, Kamuriki-yama looks like it would involve a long, arduous climb to its summit, but the good news is that you can drive a little road to just below the peak and walk from there.  It is actually one of the easiest hikes you can find around here — so much so that even my two-year-old was able to walk up on her own with very little help from me.

There are two courses you can hike to get to the top of this mountain.  I took the easier route and will describe that.  If you want to know about the other one, all I know is that the other route is longer, steeper and less maintained.  There, I’m done with that.

So, here’s how we went up.  We started by driving up the mountain from Kamiyamada Onsen.  When you are in this hot spring village, look up on the mountain and you will see a temple perched on top.  (They light up this place of worship every night as if it were Christmas or something).  Drive up the very steep access road to this temple and keep going.  You’ll soon pass Arata-jo Castle.  Keep going up and up and up.  After about 10 minutes of this winding ascent, you’ll come to a fork in the road with one street veering off to the left and another one turning sharply right.  Take the right fork here.  Drive less than a minute and you will see a large, dirt parking lot on the right.

Hiking the trail up Kamuriki-yama in Chikuma City.

Hiking the trail up Kamuriki-yama in Chikuma City.

From the parking lot, you will see a gravel kei-truck road heading uphill.  Walk this road to it’s end (about 10-15 minutes for us) and from there, continue on up to the top along a very well-maintained hiking trail.  The trail is steep in some areas, but shouldn’t be a problem if you are wearing shoes with a good tread on them.  The trail has sections of well-built steps to make climbing easier — and these steps are not made for giants either!  About halfway up the trail, you will reach the ridgeline and there will be a fork.  Take the right fork, which leads to the summit of Kamuriki-yama (There is a sign here pointing the way, but it is in kanji).  After a little while, you’ll come to a clearing on the side of the mountain that gives a nice westerly view of the North Alps.  There is a bench and a diagram board here in English and Japanese identifying which peaks you can see off in the distance.

After you enjoy the view here, it’s only a few more minutes to the top.  There you’ll be treated to a nice grassy area — spotted with some wild flowers, a Shinto shrine housed in a small concrete bunker, and some gorgeous views of the Chikuma River valley.  The best view is to the south, where you can see all the way up the valley to Komoro and Saku.  Spread out a blanket here and have a picnic.  It is fantastic!

When you are done, head back down the way you came.  And stop at the viewpoint below the summit for one more look at the North Alps.

Grape U-Picking has started in Kamiyamada

September 4th, 2009 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Kamiyamada’s Grape Season started today. One thing I really like about living here is the parade of fruits we get to enjoy. Apricots in June from nearby Mori, Kawanakajima’s famous peaches in July and August, grapes in September, Kogyoku and other early apples in October, and fuji apples in November. And we are blessed with numerous grape and apple orchards within a 5 minute drive of our inn here at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen. That means we get to talk with the growers directly, and hear all about how this year’s heavier-than-usual rain affected the harvest, new varieties, how the inoshishi wild boars are becoming more of a pest, and all kinds of things. Through talking with the growers, you get a sense of connection with the Earth.

Grower Ken-san checking out this year's grape crop

Grower Ken-san checking out this year's grape crop

Kamiyamada got hit by a hail storm in the early growing season. Yesterday I went to the Nakajima Orchard and saw firsthand how the tsugaru summer apples and the grapes were damaged by the hail. The damage is strictly cosmetic, and doesn’t affect thet taste at all (which, by the way, is fantastic!).

Kamiyamda U-Pick Grape Info:

Nakajima Orchard

Nakajima Orchard's Sign

Nakajima Orchard's Sign

Arayama area
Tel (090)4461-4091 (Ken-san)
Hours: 9am – 5pm (Call ahead)
Varieties: Kohyo (purple), Ouka (green), Shinano Smile (red)
Season: 03-Sept. to 27-Sept.
Orchard Entrance Fee: 1000 yen (incl. 1kg grapes to take with you) OR U-Pick 750 yen per kg (less for hail damage grapes)

Crown Orchard
Tel/Fax (026)275-0929; cell (090)9357-9565 Fujita-san
Varieties/Season: Kohyo (mid-Sept. ’til early-Oct.), Shinano Smile (late Sept. ’til mid-Oct.)
Orchard Entrance Fee: 500 yen (incl. 1 bunch of grapes to take with you)
Note: Crown Orchard uses minimal pesticides and practices organic growing methods.
Note: English and German spoken

'Ouka', 'Shinano Smile' and 'Kyoho' Grapes

'Ouka', 'Shinano Smile' and 'Kyoho' Grapes

Come and get in touch with nature by picking grapes in Kamiyamada!

Oshibori Udon at Kohaku — Togura Kamiyada Onsen’s Specialty Food

August 30th, 2009 by
Category: Cuisine, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs)

Whenever friends come from out of the Prefecture or from far away, we want to treat them to a meal that they can’t get anywhere else. Nagano Prefecture as a whole is known for buckwheat soba noodles, but Togura Kamiyamada Onsen has its own specialty: a spicy udon dish called Oshibori Udon.

Oshibori Udon

Oshibori Udon

Lately, Oshibori Udon has been gaining in popularity so restaurants in Ueda and Nagano City and other surrounding areas are starting to offer it. But it originated from here, because this area is the only place where you can grow properly spicy “nezumi” daikon radish. It’s a stubby white radish with a little tail that makes it look like a “nezumi” (mouse). People often ask if the soil around here is so good as to make this special daikon. However, it’s actually because the soil here is so poor that we get such spicy radishes — the radish’s growth is constricted so the spiciness gets extra concentrated!

To make Oshibori Udon, you grate the nezumi radish and press out (“shibori”) the juice, then mix in sweet Shinshu Miso (if not, it becomes too spicy to eat); finally you dip the udon in it and eat. This is Oshibori Udon. Typically it’s known as a midnight snack after a night of drinking, because it is gentle on the stomach. But it’s a very healthy food, and is gaining in popularity for lunch and regular dinner, too.
Here in Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, there are several restaurants that specialize in Oshibori Udon. One of those has been listed in the Zagat Nagano Guide: Kohaku. Kohaku is hidden in the middle of the narrow, windy streets of Kamiyamada Onsen’s bar district. The interior features tables with irori hearths and other antiques, giving it a feel of a traditional old farmer’s house. The people running Kohaku have been working with nezumi daikon for long enough that they know where to get the spiciest ones.

Entrance to Kohaku

Entrance to Kohaku

So if you come to Togura Kamiyamada, after your soak in the onsen, try out the spicy udon at Kohaku!

Kohaku
1-44-4 Kamiyamada Onsen, Chikuma City
Tel(026)276-2787
Open from 18:00~23:30(L.O.) on Mondays thru Saturdays,
and 1:00~22:30(L.O.) on Sundays.
Closed the 1st and 3rd Wednesdays.
Also open for lunch from May to October, 11:30~13:30 (L.O.)
Details: Related Home Page (Japanese Only)

Enjoying spicy udon with fellow Ambassador, Ono-san

Enjoying spicy udon with fellow Ambassador, Ono-san

The Apricot Harvest in Chikuma

July 3rd, 2009 by
Category: Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics
Apricots on trees in Mori, Anzu no Sato

Apricots on trees in Mori, Anzu no Sato

Well, it is that time of the year again — the Apricot Harvest in Anzu no Sato!  Every year, around mid-June to mid-July, the apricot trees in Chikuma City’s Anzu no Sato are covered in orange, ripened apricots to be picked, packaged and sent out to supermarkets.

The families involved spend about two to three weeks picking the fruits all day long and go into the late evening (sometimes as late as 2 am!) sorting and packaging them for shipment to markets.

And with a lot of families in the area, finding people to help with the picking is a real challenge, especially during the weekdays.  But from what I am told, people in Anzu no Sato would probably welcome the help with the picking.  If you want to find out about picking apricots yourself, go to the Anzu no Sato Mori Tourism Center in Mori and ask.

To get there, drive along the Anzu Kaido road from central Chikuma City.  Veer right at the small Eneos station and then bear right again at the Suzuki motor shop.  After passing the Mori post office, the road will stop at a T-intersection.  Turn right and you’ll see the Tourism Center on the right, across from the small river running alongside the road.

Good luck!

Togura’s Tengu

June 9th, 2009 by
Category: Culture Art, Outdoor Activities

Above Togura Station (on the local Shinano Railroad line, approx. 25 min. from Nagano Station), is Togurajuku Kitty Park.  The locals call it Tengu Koen (park), because of the huge Tengu statue at the top.  (For those of you who don’t know, a Tengu is a mythological goblin with supernatural powers.)

060809-sunset-tengu

Last night I took some guests up to the Tengu Park above Togura Station, right at sunset. The soft light of the setting sun created a surreal scene of the Chikuma River and the surrounding mountains — it was strikingly beautiful. The huge Tengu statue was even more impressive than normal lit up by the setting sun.
One of the guests asked why the Tengu is holding a leaf. I was embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know. I did some research when I got back, and found out the Tengu uses the leaf to control the wind. Apparently they can create hurricanes with it.

tengu
There’s a really good description about Tengu on the Obakemono Project website. I was surprised to learn just how complex the mystical legends are about the Tengu. Besides the supernatural power to control the wind, I was fascinated to learn that the evolution of the Tengu is related to the conflict between Buddhism that was imported from China and Japan’s domestic, animistic Shinto religion. There’s also an interesting explanation on the background to the pom-pom’s on his coat, as well as mention that it was the Tengu that taught the ninjas their art. Maybe Togura’s Tengu was the one who taught the Togakure ninjas of Togakushi Mountain above Nagano City.

Now I’ll have much more appreciation of our Tengu the next time I see him above Togura Station!

Celebrating Zenkoji’s Gokaicho

May 5th, 2009 by
Category: Events, Information

What is the proper way to venerate Zenkoji Temple’s once-every-seven-years Gokaicho event? Asahi Beer seems to think it’s marketing gimmick, as they have slapped a big Gokaicho emblem on their beer bottles.

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Here are some other Gokaicho related events — perhaps not as fun as beer but likely to be much more memorable.

Wind of Tibet Festival
@ Saihouji Temple, Zenkoji
Tibetan Buddhist monks have their own way of celebrating Gokaicho, with traditional dancing, a colorful mancala, even a Rakugo demonstration (in Japanese, nominal fee). From May 7th to 11th. More info here.
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“Zenkoji Earthquake and Inariyama” Lecture
@ Kurashikan in Inariyama, Chikuma City
During the Gokaicho event 162 years ago, as many pilgrims were passing through to Zenkoji, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake hit. In Inariyama, one of the closest post towns to Zenkoji on the feudal Zenkoji Road, 182 villagers and 121 travellers lost their lives. At this lecture, there will be a talk about the effect of the earthquake on the town (in Japanese, but with explanatory visuals).
09-May (Sat.)  Cost is 200 yen; Contact is Takamura-san, 090-9666-0852 or feel free to contact us here at Kamesei.

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“Zenkoji Faith: Pilgrims and Devotions” Exhibit
@ Nagano Prefectural Museum of History, Mori, Chikuma City
Zenkoji Temple is open to all believers and its immense scale it testament to the faith and devotion of its supporters, many who make a pilgrimage at least once in their life. The prefecture’s official history museum takes this opportunity to make a chronology of that faith. If you ever wondered what all the buzz is about Zenkoji and Gokaicho, this is a great place to find out.  Through 06-June.
More info here (in Japanese).

Hiking in the Togura-Kamiyamada Onsen area: Iwaido Mountain

April 29th, 2009 by
Category: Outdoor Activities
Iwaido-san as seen from Kamiyamada

Iwaido-san as seen from Kamiyamada

 

Chikuma River Valley as seen from the top of Iwaido-san

Chikuma River Valley as seen from the top of Iwaido-san

 

In between Kamiyamada and neighboring Sakaki Town is 793 meter tall Iwaido Mountain. It has an almost perfect pyramid shape, just like a “omusubi” (rice ball), and is nicknamed “Omusubi-yama”. Today being Showa Day, a national holiday, I took our sons and hiked up to the top.
On the way up, we saw several wild mountain cherry trees in bloom, and there were lots of “sansai” wild mountain vegetables at the top. Besides great views of the Chikuma River valley below, there was also the remains of a signal fire station from the Warring States Era.   That’s what I like about Nagano — spectacular nature combined with fascinating history.

Eating "omusubi" rice balls at the top of "omusubi-yama"

Eating "omusubi" rice balls at the top of "omusubi-yama"

We can see Omusubi-yama from our inn’s second floor rooms, but this was the first time from me to see our inn from the mountain!

Can you see Kamesei?
Can you see Kamesei?

Access With a 4WD vehicle, you can drive to within 1km (30 min.) of the top via the fire road on the Kamiyamada side. If not, start hiking from Shonai Shrine, Kamiyamada. Closest Bus Stop: Chikaraishi 4-Kumi Shukaisho.

Kappa, Ninjas, Tsukeba and Oni — 2009 Starting Dates

April 23rd, 2009 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Now that spring is coming to Nagano, bears aren’t the only creatures that waking up after their winter hibernation.  Here is a list of several areas and their creatures that are starting their 2009 seasons:

Kappa (Kamikochi)
The Kappa (water sprites) of Kamikochi officially come out of their hibernation on the 27th of April every year. This year, the snowfall in the Alps has been less than average, and the road to Kamikochi is already snow-free. Kamikochi will hold its 41st annual official “Opening of the Mountains” festival, complete with Swiss horns, on Monday the 27th.

Click here for info on Kamikochi

River Fish (Tsukeba Fish Shacks)
Even people with the strongest aversion to river fish should be able to appreciate eating just-caught fish served in a Tsukeba river shack along the shores of the Chikuma River. Togura Kamiyamada Onsen’s main Tsukeba, “Shomura”, opened for business this season on the 20th of April, and serves “haya” and “ayu” prepared in various ways in their multi-course meal (prices 2000~3000 yen per person). Shomura will be open from 10am to 10pm until mid summer. You can make reservations through local ryokans (including Kamesei, tel 026-275-1032, English OK).

 Shomura Tsukeba Tel (080)5109-8901

Ninjas (Togakushi)
Togakushi’s ninjas came out of their winter hibernation on the 18th of April. That’s when the Togakushi Ninja Center opened for business for the year. At the Center, there is a ninja artifacts hall, a shuriken range, and a ninja fun house, where you go through the building finding the secret doors from room to room.

Ninja Center Tel(026)254-2395
ninja

Oni (Oni Oshi Dashi)
An Oni is a Japanese ogre. On the flanks of Mt. Asama is an area that looks like a bunch of volcanic matter was pushed out of the mountain by an oni, hence the park’s name, “Oni Oshi Dashi”. It is a fascinating example of geological forces at work. The park has been open since March — apparently that’s when the oni hibernation ended.
Easy access from Karuizawa.

Click here for the Oni Oshi Dashi website

Another Apricot Season Comes to a Close

April 13th, 2009 by
Category: Events, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing
Photographers lined up to get that last good shot of the apricots, 2009

Photographers lined up to get that last good shot of the apricots, 2009

Well, it happens every year.  Just as there is a rolling wave of cherry blossom viewing from southern Japan to the north, there is a much shorter wave of apricot blossoms in Mori, Anzu no Sato.  Every year, the apricot blossoms at the lower elevations near the entrance of the valley bloom earliest, with those at the top of the valley showing their flowers last.

I just went up there and, aside from the trees at the highest point of the valley up by Daikoji temple, all the blossoms are fallen off, and leaves are starting to spout. in their place.  If you are planning on going up to Anzu no Sato this week, you might get lucky and see some apricot blossoms further up the mountain, but the season is pretty much over this year.

But when the Apricots blossoms are gone, the cherry blossoms are in full glory.  There is a small buddhist temple in Mori named Kanryu-ji, that is surrounded by some beautiful cherry trees which are now in full bloom.  This temple is a hidden delight to foreign visitors, because it features a thatched roof — something that becomes more and more rare to see in Japan every year.

But getting there is a bit of a challenge.  Ask around and people will point the way up the hill.  And once you are there, you’ll find a long, steep stairway to climb up.  Be prepared for some exercise!