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.
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The Sanada Jumangoku Festival

October 11th, 2017 by
Category: Events, Information, Sightseeing

Several of the parade’s participants pose for a morning photograph.

On Sunday, Matsushiro celebrated their annual Sanada Jumangoku festival. Taiko performances, artillery displays, and traditional dances were held at the castle before a procession of Sanada clan warriors paraded through the gates. History lovers from around Japan came to participate in the event, bringing beautifully crafted suits of paper armor with them.
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Nagano city in full bloom!

April 20th, 2012 by
Category: Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

somei yoshino in Matsushiro castle, Nagano city


Flowers, Flowers!
The height of spring has finally come here in Nagano city, Nagano, Japan!

The cherries are blossoming late this year by a week or two throughout Japan. It was just last week when I saw so many tourists on sightseeing tour buses (featuring sakura blossom viewing) greatly disappointed to find the cherry blossoms still in bud.

In and around the city of Nagano, which is well-known as the host city of the Nagano Winter Olympic Games 1998, almost every kind of spring blossoms and flowers are in all glory. Sakura, or cherry blossoms, apricot, magnolia, dandelion, shepherd’s purse flower all come into bloom!
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Matsushiro’s Mysterious Side

July 23rd, 2011 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities

Nagano City’s Matsushiro area is known as a samurai town with several Edo-era temples and samurai estates open for viewing.  There’s also a recently restored castle, one of Nagano’s first school houses, a cool onsen with rust-colored water (high iron content), and a WWII-era underground headquarters complex, all within an easy bike ride from Matsushiro Station.  (Free ‘rental’ bikes available there;  NOTE:  the station is on the Nagaden Yashiro Line which is scheduled to be terminated later in 2011.  Regular bus service from Nagano Station also available.)

Minakami Mountain (with Otokogi Ramen in the foreground)

Minakami Mountain (with Otokogi Ramen in the foreground)

Besides the samurai and historical sides, Matsushiro has a mysterious side as well.  On the outskirts of town is a stand-alone mountain called Minakami-yama.  It was recently featured in the anime ‘Occult Accademy’.  But even before it’s anime stardom, it had been rumored to be a type of power vortex.  With it’s pyramid-like shape and unusual geological composition, some people say it was moved here by UFO’s. 

The family and I took a drive to check it out — and look for UFO’s.  After winding up the road through a thick forest, the top flattens out to a small plateau with a handful of houses and rice fields and even a golf course.  Minakami-jinja, the cool shrine at the top, dates back to the 15th/16th centuries and the building features a fascinating carved wood decoration at the entrance. 

Ancient Minakami Shrine

Ancient Minakami Shrine

Close-up of the woodcarving detail

Close-up of the woodcarving detail

We didn’t spot any UFO’s while there, but we did catch a glimpse of some of the salamenders growing in the marshy ponds near the shrine.  These salamenders normally grow in marshes at much higher elevations, not down here at the Zenkoji Plain.  All part of the mystery of Minakami-yama.

Mysterious Marsh

Mysterious Marsh

Access:  Prefectural Route #35 from Matsushiro.  Or Hirabayashi bus stop (30 minute walk to the top from there).

Recommended Nearby Restaurants:  ‘Otokogi Ramen’ on Rt. #35 at the base, one of the many soba shops in Matsushiro central, or the charming ‘Koen no Bench’ Italian restaurant (tel 026-278-7411) 10 minutes away by car.

Charming Koen no Bench restaurant

Charming Koen no Bench restaurant

Recommended Nearby Onsens:  Matsushiro-sou (rusty water, modern facilities, tel 026-278-2596), Ichiyou-kan (rusty water, rustic facilities, mixed bathing outdoor bath, tel 026-278-2016),  or Omuro Onsen (salty water, wood beam construction, outdoor baths overlook the Zenkoji Plain, tel 026-278-5687)

Matsushiro Day Trip

December 7th, 2010 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Report, Sightseeing

   Matsushiro is one of Nagano’s hidden gems, located in the south part of Nagano city conveniently close to the Interchange. This historic castle town has a wealth of cultural and historical assets ranging from vintage samurai residences to WWII tunnels. The area is also famous for its beautiful blue folk ceramics, known as Matsushiro-yaki.

   This castle town ‘built from 100,000 stones,’ was the domain of the Sanada family, a samurai clan which ruled for 250 years from 1622 until just after the collapse of the Tokguawa Bakufu in 1868. We visited last Saturday, and lucked out with the weather but not with the rentacycles – apparently they go into hibernation from December.


   First we visited the museum where many of the Sanada family treasures are on public view, including samurai armour, swords and calligraphy. Then we visited the Samurai residence, built for his mother by the 9th generation lord. The tatami rooms and sliding doors still carry the vestiges of a bygone era and it wasn’t hard to imagine Lord Sanada taking his tea looking out over the carefully landscaped garden.

   Next we stopped off at the Bunbu Gakko, a set of original classrooms dating back to 1855 where martial arts skills as well as brains were once honed at the school. Lessons on the curriculum included Kendo and Jujutsu, as well as Chinese studies and Dutch (the official language for communicating with aliens at the time!). The halls are still used today for Kendo and Kyudo tournaments.







   Last stop before lunch was the WWII tunnels, an impressive network of about 13,100 meters of underground tunnel which was blasted out of the rock towards the end of the war by conscripted Korean laborers. The Bushido ethic of the time made it impossible for some sections of the Imperial Japanese Army to contemplate surrender, and the Underground Headquarters were part of a desperate plan to evacuate key institutions, including the imperial family, government, and military HQ, in the face of the imminent American invasion.



   Next stop was a local lunch of nagaimo, a Matsushiro specialty which turned out to be a type of yam, mashed into paste. Matsushiro is a major nagaimo growing area, as the sandy soil along the Chikuma River is perfect for growing them. Then we headed on to the day’s main attraction…a Kimono experience! The Ecole de Matsushiro Club offers lessons in a range of Japanese traditional arts such as tea ceremony, flower arrangement and traditional musical instruments and we had timed it just right for a Kimono workshop complete with Origami lesson!






Finally, it was time for the last stop of the day, at Matsushiro Onsen, a luxury hot spring resort which used natural spa waters to heat the bath. The high iron and salt content turns the water a muddy-brown colour and makes for a memorable Onsen experience.

Enjoying Singular Cherry Trees in Shinshu Takayama Village

April 21st, 2010 by
Category: Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

This time of year, many of our guests stay here at our inn as they drive around Nagano enjoying the flowering trees.  First the apricot blossoms in nearby Mori’s “Apricot Village”, and lately, the cherry blossoms.  Most come to see the cherry trees at Ueda Castle, or our local spots such as the Tengu Park above Togura Station, or even Chuo Park behind our inn here in Togura Kamiyamada Onsen.  However, lately, a few guest mentioned they are on crusades to see “Ippon sakura”, or singular cherry trees. 

When I did the translating work for Nagano Prefecture’s official foreign language tourism site, there was a passage on these singular cherry trees in southern Nagano.
To be honest, while writing the description in English, I was wondering what the attraction would be in seeing just one, individual tree blooming.

One of our guests, Komoriya-san, gave me a list of “Ippon sakura” in northern and eastern Nagano.  I had a bit of extra time on Sunday, so I took our kids to check out one of them in Matsushiro, the weeping willow type sakura tree at Myotoku-ji temple.  Seeing the hundreds-of-years old tree made me understand the majesty of the blossoms on such an ancient tree.

Myotoku-ji's ancient cherry tree (Matsushiro)

Myotoku-ji's ancient cherry tree (Matsushiro)

Komoriyama-san explained the 3 main reasons for “Ippon Sakura”.  One is that many are located at a temple.  More specifically, by the graveyard of a temple.  People plant them so their ancestors can enjoy the annual cherry blossom show.  Another is that the trees are located in the middle of a rice field area.  The blossoms come on around the same time as the fields need to be prepared for planting.  So farmers judge the rice planting timing around when the tree’s flowers bloom.  Finally (and this one is a bit harder to believe), some famous samurai plant trees when they cross over a mountain pass.  Then whenever they go over the pass again, they can tie their horses up to the tree.  Hmmm.

Anyways, here is Komoriyama-san’s list of suggested “Ippon Sakura” in Northern and Eastern Nagano:

Nagano City / Suzaka
(trees bloom 6-7 days later than Togura Kamiyamada.  2010’s peak should be 18-April)
*Myotoku-ji’s shidare (Matsushiro, Pref. Rt. 35)
*Enmei-ji’s shidare (Pref. Rt. 34 before Hoshina Elem. School)
*Endai-ji’s shidare (Omuro)
*Benten-sama’s shidare (Suzaka, below Yonago Fudo Shrine)

Takayama Village (10 days later than Togura Kamiyamada)
*Mizunaka’s shidare (Pref. Rt. 54 in town)
*Kurobe’s edohigan (near the Issa Hall in town)
*Tsuboi’s shidare (Pref. Rt. 54 on the way to Nakano)

Ueda/Tateshina/Saku (6-7 days later than Togura Kamiyamada)
*Daien-ji’s shidare (Ueda’s Shioda Plain, Pref. Rt. 65)
*Nagahisaho’s shidare (Nagawa Town, Matsuo Shrine)
*Muryou-ji’s shidare (Saku City, Motoima Post Town, Rt. 142)
*Fukuo-ji’s shidare (Saku City, south of above)
*Gohongi’s sakiwake (Saku City, Hot Park Asashina Rest Area, Rt. 142)

Another view of the Myotoku-ji tree

Another view of the Myotoku-ji tree

Shidare: Prunus pendula f. pendula (weeping willow type)
Edo Higan: Prunus pendula (similar to above but an older variety?)
Sakiwake: ??? (pinkish and white blossoms on the same tree?)