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.

From small stone dosojin carvings used to ward off bandits to legacies of the region’s districts and landscape features, Tyler pointed out interesting aspects of history that we would have never noticed on our own. As a lover of traditional Japanese architecture himself, he told us about the significance of different design features, from thatched roofs to decorative tile crowns on various buildings. And occasionally there were some heart-warming discoveries as well, like the preserved lovers’ carvings on old, earthern walls.

The temple gate of Chishiki-ji is made entirely without metal fastenings. Fasten-ating!

Tyler recounts the history of Chishiki-ji temple in Chikuma.

Along the route there were expansive views of the Chikuma valley and surrounding mountains. While past their peak, the autumn leaves still burned vividly and brightly around us and cattails swung in the breeze. As we passed farmers tending their fields they greeted us warmly and occasionally we stopped to chit chat. Groups of school children shouted “Hello!” as we cycled on. It was a much closer inspection of the countryside than I’ve had in most of my time here.

We tasted one of these delicious sun fuji apples from Crown Orchard along the way.

Lovely views from the Crown apple orchard.

After 2 hours touring around the area we were starting to get cold, so headed back to Tyler’s inn, Kamesei Ryokan, to take a dip in the hot springs.

An Evening Geisha Performance

Togura Kamiyamada Onsen is also home to practicing Geisha performers. They usually work at larger banquets, but Tyler sometimes arranges them to visit for 30-minute performances in his own ryokan. Unlike seeing geisha in Kyoto, here it is an interactive experience, playing games and learning dances from them! They danced and sang several songs. One of them, called “Kawanakajima,” was about the great battle between Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen that happened here. As they danced, their bright fans slashed through the air like swords.

The geisha perform the song and dance “Kawanakajima.”

We learned a coal miner’s dance, and while our hostesses explained it very well in English, the timing and coordination are not as easy as you might expect. After a few revolutions around the table, they kindly told us how good we all were at it (despite actually being quite uncoordinated and clumsy). Finally, we played a simple drinking game against the geisha. As it turns out, they are very, very good at this game and none of us stood a chance against them. They would then hand the loser a glass of beer, and we all cheered in rhythm as they drank it down.

But actually, Tyler himself is a seasoned veteran of the game. Here he upsets the champion in a practice round.

I make my drinking game debut with another guest (and won!)

Additional Information

Cycling through the countryside is one of the best ways to see it up close and personal. Having a local guide to point out interesting features and history makes it even better. For an unforgettable experience of rural Japan, consider visiting Togura Kamiyamada Onsen.

Access:
From Nagano Station, take the Shinano line train to Togura station (about 25 minutes). From there, buses run regularly to Kamiyamada Onsen, or you can walk there yourself in 25 minutes.
(Click here to browse the timetable in Japanese. It’s unnecessarily complicated so I apologize in advance.)

Related Links:

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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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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Late Autumn Harvest in Nagano

November 27th, 2015 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics
A hearty seven mushroom stew.

Delicious stew with freshly picked mushrooms.

 

Winter is almost upon us. The temperatures have dropped and the tops of the mountains are turning white with frost and early snow. But autumn hasn’t ended just yet, and there are still delicious foods to harvest before the snow swallows it all up. On Wednesday, I joined some travelers from Singapore to go mushroom and apple-picking. We spent the day in Nozawa Onsen and Yamanouchi enjoying the last, but not least, of autumn’s bounty.

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Fruit Harvest and Picking Season

October 5th, 2015 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience


In Nagano, Autumn is a season for beautiful colored leaves, mushrooms in forests, and yummy FRUITS!

Nagano prefecture is the second largest production district of apples and grapes in Japan (the first is Aomori in Tohoku for apples and Yamanashi, the neighboring prefecture, for grapes). So sometimes we refer to our prefecture as “Fruit Kingdom”.

Among those, the fuji apple is popular even outside Japan and I heard one apple is sold for $10 for rich consumers in some of Southeast Asian countries (you can buy it for less than $1 in Nagano).

You can buy and eat various kinds of apples and grapes in farmers’ markets.

And, if you pick apples in orchards and eat them immediately, you would be surprised that the taste of fresh apples is different from the usual ones you eat.
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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.

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.

Apple Season is here!

October 27th, 2011 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

It’s fall, which means apple season here in Nagano.  Depending on where you are from, visiting an apple orchard may not be high on your list for your Japan itinerary.  However, not only do apples taste their best when eaten freshly picked right of the tree, but Japan has varieties you may have never seen before, and the attention to details that the orchardists give to their fruit will amaze you.

tart kogyoku apples
tart kogyoku apples

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Kawanakajima’s Juicy Peaches are In Season

August 9th, 2009 by
Category: Cuisine, Seasonal Topics

Our Uncle Kitajima recently brought us a bunch of juicy peaches from his orchard. We gave some to our weekend guests, and I also diced them and put them on top of the ice cream I served to the children guests. The fresh peaches were a hit!

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This summer has had an unusually high amount of rain.  According to Kitajima-san, all of the rain this year means the peaches are extra juicy, which I love! However, the sugar content is diluted so the peaches aren’t as sweet as they normally are. They tasted delicious to me, though.
Kitajima-san also explained how the peach season works with the different varieties.
‘Akatsuki’ and ‘Kawanakajima Hakuhou’ run from the 1st of August to the 10th. Then ‘Natsuko’ and ‘Kawanakajima Hakutou’ kick in until O-Bon (mid-August). After that, it’s ‘Shirane Hakutou’ through late September.
You’ll see fresh Kawanakajima peaches at area fruit stands throughout northern Nagano — pick up some for a delicious, juicy souvenir!