Planting Rice and Tasting Sake in Hakuba

May 22nd, 2018 by
Category: Events, Information, Report

Rice is Japan’s main staple. It shows up nearly every meal, morning, day and night, and is used in the production of many of Japan’s flavorings, desserts, and drinks. Among Japan’s most famous rice products is, of course, sake, and over the centuries, agriculturalists have bred and refined rice varieties especially for its production.
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Escaping the Slopes for a tour of Japan’s Samurai Past

February 15th, 2018 by
Category: Events, Experience, Information, Sightseeing

Matsushiro’s white plaster walls and thatch roofs are reminiscent of a former Japan.

During Nagano’s Lantern Festival, I visited Matsushiro with a group of tourists from Hakuba to enjoy some of the area’s traditional activities. We walked through the streets of this quiet castle town to learn more about its samurai past.

First we visited the town’s military academy, the Bunbu Gakko. Established in 1855, it educated young men in the Matsushiro Clan until the Meiji Restoration. The gravel campus is home to seven main buildings in which students were instructed in literature, military strategy, western medicine, and a variety of martial arts. We stepped into the school’s spear-training hall and watched a performance of Iaido, a type of swordsmanship turned art form. Unlike Kendo or other sword disciplines, Iaido doesn’t have opponents or duels—which is for the best, because in Iaido, the swords are real.

The Iaido master demonstrates several powerful strikes with his sword.

We picked up some wooden ones and followed the master’s instructions, learning several of the movements he showed us in his performance. We learned a downward cut, an upward block, the correct way to sheathe the sword, as well as a swing designed to shake blood of the blade. Despite the gruesome history of swordsmanship, the movements involved are incredibly elegant.

After our training in the dojo, we made our way to another relic of Matsushiro’s past: Teramachi Shoka, a beautifully restored merchant house that operated during the Edo Period. The complex’s warm, earthern walls surround a courtyard with pond and manicured pine trees. The dark, shingled roof is crowned with the merchant family’s crest. After crossing the threshold, we were whisked into the main lounge, a series of traditional Japanese tatami rooms separated by shoji sliding doors. Each room was set up with different activities: in one, a bright-red floor mat covered in large paper fans; in another, small looms arranged with colorful string; and in the last, several sets of paper samurai armor.

Trying on a set of paper samurai armor.

Posing with Asahi-san, one of Matsushiro’s history-loving samurai.

We took turns trying on armor, making colorful braids, and playing a surprisingly entertaining fan-throwing game. Each harkened back to Matsushiro’s history as a castle town. The armor was made by local history enthusiasts in the style of samurai from the Sanada family, each piece emblazoned with the rokumonsen crest (two rows of three coins, representing the fare needed to cross into the afterlife). The braids, called Sanada Himo, were used to tie together pieces of armor, secure sheathed swords, and carry heavy loads. They were named after the Sanada due to a rumor that members of the family who found themselves on the wrong side of the Tokugawa spent their later years making such braids to earn a living. Finally, the fan-throwing game Tosenkyo, while not directly related to the Sanada, was a popular pastime during the Edo and early Meiji throughout Japan. Despite being terrible at fan-throwing, I thought the game was great fun, and some of the other guests even bought sets to play it at home!

Learning how to make Sanada Himo braids using a small handloom.

My intense concentration while playing Tosenkyo doesn’t pay off.

Our last, but not least, stop for the evening was Nagano City’s lantern festival. The street to Zenkoji was packed with visitors admiring the colorful paper lanterns designed by local students and craftsmen. Some of the designs featured popular characters or sightseeing spots in Nagano, while others were simpler motifs featuring cherry blossoms and flowers. The temple itself was illuminated in the five colors of the Olympic Games, changing slowly over the course of the evening. With free sake, music, and beautiful sights, the festival was a great way to enjoy a winter night.

Zenkoji illuminated in red.

A prize-winning design featuring intricate floral motifs and a dog.

Huge crowds weaved through the rows of lanterns covering Chuo Doori.

You May Also Like

Thanks for reading! If you are interested in Matsushiro’s history, the Nagano Lantern Festival, or other similar events, you may want to check some of the links below:

Five Ways to Enjoy the Snow

December 1st, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Winter is a wonderful playground.

The winters in Nagano, while cold, are picturesque. The mountains and valleys are covered in a carpet of snow, trees are frosted with ice, and fine diamond dust shimmers in the air. Japanese macaques warm themselves in steamy hot springs and solitary kamoshika (Japanese Serow) plow through the snowy woods foraging for food.

Most travelers flock to Nagano this time of year to enjoy its plentiful powder snow on the ski slopes, but there are plenty of activities for those interested in connecting with nature and playing in snow. See a new side of Nagano while snowshoeing through the woods or enjoy an exhilarating ride on a snowmobile. See our recommended winter activities below!
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Hands-on Japanese Culture Experience Event in Matsumoto (Sep. 6 & 23)

August 29th, 2017 by
Category: Events, Experience


Visit the Nakamachi in downtown Matsumoto on September 6 or 23 for a fun Japanese culture experience for the whole family! This event features several hands-on Japanese arts and crafts activities such as Japanese calligraphy, traditional tea ceremony, and origami; as well as other interactive activities like sake tasting, kimono rental, and rickshaw rides. Most activities are free and you will receive a free souvenir for participating. As a bonus, several of the shops around Nakamachi will also be offering different cultural activities or games. See below for an overview of the event program and where you can get the official details, event flyer, or see the event on Facebook!

Event Details

Place: Kurassic-kan in Nakamachi, Matsumoto
Date & Time: Sep. 6 and Sep. 23, 10 am – 4 pm (times for activities at the shops differ. Check the event flyer or webpage)
Event webpage: http://nakamachi-street.com/en/experiencedays/
Event on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/1607791399271217/
* Local high school students, local guides, and volunteers will also be present to help with translation and interpretation.

Get the official PDF flyer here which includes a map and all activity details:

Click to download the full event flyer (PDF)

List of main activities at the Kurassic-kan:

  • Origami folding
  • Japanese calligraphy
  • Japanese Tea Ceremony (traditional way of making matcha green tea)
  • Japanese folding fan decorating
  • Play with old-fashioned and traditional Japanese toys
  • Sake tasting with Nakamachi’s original-brand sake
  • Kimono (yukata) and ninja costume rental (paid activity)
  • Rickshaw rides around Nakamachi (paid activity, discount with kimono rental)
  • Ninja blowgun activity (paid activity, free with ninja costume rental)

List of shops offering activities around Nakamachi:

  • Geiyukan: Try plaing the shamisen, a traditional Japanese music instrument.
  • Kuriya: Make fresh wasabi from real wasabi root.
  • Senri: Japanese wine, sake, amazake, and juice tasting
  • Yamahei: Introduction of some Japanese local foods
  • Yaguchi: Try wearing geta, a traditional form of Japanese footwear.
  • Ihara: Chopsticks and beans game
  • Itoya: Play the konpira fune-fune game, a traditional game played at geisha banquets, and other activities.
  • Okinado Kura Branch: Try playing the Japanese taiko drum. Also, exhibit of traditional tools used for making Japanese confections/sweets
  • Temariya: Free Japanese tea

Rafting with Cherry Blossoms in Spring

May 1st, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Last week at the height of cherry blossom season, we headed down to Azumino to enjoy some early spring rafting! The combination of fast currents, snow-capped mountains, and blooming cherry trees are perfect for an exciting and scenic day on the water.
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Soba-Making Lessons in Nagano

March 10th, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Information

Make your own delicious soba in Nagano!

Soba noodles can be eaten throughout Japan but they are especially famous in Nagano. With abundant buckwheat and fresh water from the mountains, Nagano’s artisans make simple yet incredibly aromatic soba. After a plate or two or three, you find yourself hooked on this deceptively delicious dish.

And while it’s not necessarily true that the soba you make yourself is more delicious—let’s be honest, our crudely cut soba noodles pale in comparison to a soba master’s—the experience is a whole lot of fun and makes for a great memory. There are a number of places throughout the prefecture where you can try making soba for yourself and learn to appreciate soba made by the professionals.
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“Madapow” at Madarao Kogen and Tangram

January 27th, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Report, Seasonal Topics

The Northern Nagano valley opens up behind the Madarao Kogen hotel.

The Madarao and Tangram ski resorts sit between Iiyama City and Shinano-machi in Northern Nagano prefecture on opposite faces of Mt. Madarao. They are interconnected and you can ride both resorts in the same day with the 5,000 yen “Mountain Pass.” They resorts are medium-sized with well-rounded courses that suit all levels of skiers and snowboarders. Smooth pistes, moguls, and terrain parks are all available, but these resorts’ specialties are trees and powder, often referred to locally as “Madapow.”
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5 Great Winter Festivals in Nagano

December 9th, 2016 by
Category: Events, Information, Seasonal Topics

Enjoy fire festivals, illuminations and more in this winter wonderland.

Winter is here. Snow is falling steadily up in the mountains and people around Nagano are bringing out their kotatsu tables, kerosene heaters and nabe pots. Once again, it’s that time of year for skiing, hot springs and great winter festivals. Why stay inside when you could warm up in front of a magnificent fire festival or in the company of Japan’s many spirits?

Make some wonderful memories this winter with some of the festivals below!
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Summer Mountain Biking in Nagano

August 19th, 2016 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Suzushii naaa!

When I tell people that I live in Nagano, they always respond with an envious, “Suzushii naaaaa (How Refreshing)!” But while they’re imagining all of the grassy highland fields gently undulating in the cool breeze, I’m sitting in my apartment in Nagano city sweating profusely on my couch. I’ve been doing my best recently to get out of the city and into the cooler parts of Nagano, and this weekend I visited Hakuba for some outdoor adventures.
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Enjoying Onsen Hot Springs in Nagano

June 10th, 2016 by
Category: Onsens (Hot Springs)

An outdoor bath with beautiful views of the Yatsugatake mountain range in Komi city[1].

Japan is one of the most volcanically active countries in the world, blessing it with thousands of naturally heated mineral springs. These hot springs, or Onsen, have served an important role in Japanese daily life for hundreds of years. Locals came to the baths to cleanse themselves and socialize, and others came from far and wide to soak in springs that would cure their ills. Now, soaking in hot springs is an popular pastime attracting visitors from around the world.
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