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.

Picking Grapes in Early Autumn

October 4th, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

One of Nagano’s original grape varieties, Nagano Purple!

One of the joys of early autumn is harvest season, when fruit hangs low on the tree and is ripe for picking. During September and early October, you can pick grapes in vineyards throughout Nagano.

There are a wide variety of grapes to choose from. You’ll be surprised by the different flavors of Delaware, Niagara, and Steuben grapes, as well as the monstrous size of Kyoho and Nagano Purple. Don’t forget fan favorites like Shine Muscat!
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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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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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