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.

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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:

Snowshoeing Around the Shrines of Togakushi

February 7th, 2018 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

The Zuishinmon Gate marks the entrance to the Okusha’s lane of giant cypress trees.

Togakushi is often overlooked during winter in favor of Jigokudani’s snow monkeys or Hakuba’s ski slopes, but it offers a memorable winter experience you won’t find anywhere else. Walking effortlessly on freshly fallen snow, you can admire the forest’s towering, 400-year-old trees and ancient Shinto shrines—not to mention the precipitous face of Mt. Togakushi itself.

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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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Five Unique and Memorable Hot Springs

November 3rd, 2017 by
Category: Information, Onsens (Hot Springs)

You can bathe in some wild and wonderful places around Nagano.

One of Japan’s greatest charms is its natural hot springs and bathing culture. While sitting naked in a bath with a bunch of strangers can be intimidating at first, once you take a dip in an onsen you’ll never feel the same. Unlike a hot tub or Jacuzzi, the water is completely natural and isn’t treated with harsh chemicals; the water leaves your skin feeling smooth, natural minerals revitalize your senses, and the heat warms you from the inside out.

In Nagano, there’s a huge variety of hot springs to choose from. Different springs offer baths of different temperature and mineral composition, which offer various health and beauty benefits. Some facilities are new and shiny while others are made from old wood caked in years of mineral build-up. You could spend years here and not visit them all! Since your time here may be short, I’d like to introduce some particularly memorable and unique hot springs around Nagano to visit.

1. Build your own Hot Spring at Kiriake Onsen

Bring a shovel and dig your own onsen out of the river.


Would you like to be an onsen pioneer and dig up your own bath in the wilderness? Natural spring water wells up from the ground into the Nakatsu River on the border of Nagano and Niigata. There are several hotels along the river that rent out shovels to visitors so they can build their own outdoor baths! You can adjust the temperature to your liking by rearranging rocks around your spot. Let in more river water to cool it down, or block the flow for a steamy +40°C hot tub.

Access

To reach Kiriake Onsen, a car is recommended but it is also possible by public transportation. Take the JR Iiyama line from Nagano Station to Morimiyanohara Station (103 min.), and then take the Minami Echigo Kanko bus bound for Kayama Onsen to Akiyamago Kiriake Onsen (60 min., see timetable). By car, it is 70 minutes via route 117 from the Joshin’etsu Expressway Toyota-Iiyama IC exit.

2. Meet “the One” at Shosenkaku’s Omiai Buro

Take a chance at love at Shosenkaku’s Omiai Buro.

In Shosenkaku’s outdoor hot spring, a small shrine with a window connects the men and women’s outdoor baths. Women can open the window blind and chat with men on the other side. For shy couples, it may be a chance to enjoy the hot spring together, and for singles, a chance to meet the love of their lives! So far, the Omiai window has been responsible for three marriages. Who will be next?

Details and Access

Shosenkaku is south of Nagano City near Imai and Kawanakajima Stations. You can take a 12 min. taxi from Kawanakajima Station, or walk for 30 min. from Imai Station. It is open year-round from 12:00 to 20:00 on weekdays (11:00 to 20:00 on Saturdays and holidays). Entrance fee is 650 yen for adults (250 for children).

3. Relax in Japan’s Highest Outdoor Bath at Honzawa Onsen

Soak in relaxing waters at 2,150m high.


At 2,150m high, this natural outdoor bath is a unique and wild destination. A car will only take you so far; instead, you’ll have to hike on foot for over two hours to reach it. After your hike, you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful view of Yatsugatake’s mountains and a steamy, sulfurous bath to sooth your tired muscles. You can travel up for just the day, or you can spend the night in the Honzawa Onsen lodge and tackle Mt. Akadake, Mt. Iodake, or Mt. Tengu.

Details

The lodge and onsen are open year-round, but winter travel is not recommended unless you have winter climbing experience. A night in the lodge ranges from 8,700 to 11,200 yen, and the outdoor bath is 600 yen. Be aware that there are no changing rooms for the outdoor bath!

Access

From JR Koumi Station, take the Matsubarako line bus to Inagoyu. From there, it’s a 3 hour hike to the hot spring. If you’re traveling by car, park at Honsawa Onsen Iriguchi. From there it’s a 2 hour and 15 minute walk.

4. Bathing with Apples around Nagano

Nakadanaso’s apple bath is an ode to first love.


Among Japan’s 47 prefectures, Nagano takes second place for both apple production and number of hot spring areas (don’t even get us started on all of Nagano’s other “second place” rankings…), so it was only natural that someone eventually combined the two. The colorful floating apples not only please the eye, but fill the bathroom with a sweet, autumnal aroma.

The first place to offer an apple-filled bath is said to be Nakadanaso in Nagano’s Komoro City. The owners filled the hot spring with apples in homage to one of Shimazaki Toson’s poems called “First Love,” a story about a young boy who falls in love with a girl tending her apple orchard. Now, guests can enjoy the apple bath at Nakadanaso between October and May of every year, and other hot springs around the prefecture have followed suit.

Details and Access

Nakadanaso can be reached on foot from Komoro Station in just 15 minutes. The hot spring is open to visitors from 11:30 to 14:00, and costs 1,000 yen for adults (500 for children).

Another option is Toyono’s Ringo no Yu which has apple baths on the 5th, 15th, and 25th of each month (open from 11:00 to 22:00, closed on the 4th Tuesday of every month). Entrance is 410 yen for adults (300 for children). It’s just a 12 min. walk from Toyono Station.

5. Take a Dip with Monkeys at Korakukan?

The monkeys love hanging around the outdoor baths of Korakukan and drinking from the pools.


Jigokudani Yaen Koen is famous for its hot-spring-bathing snow monkeys, but the phenomenon originated at the nearby Korakukan inn. Monkeys occasionally traveled into the valley to warm themselves during the harsh winters, sitting in small pools by the side of the river. Over the years, some of the monkeys became accustomed to the sight of people who were relaxing in the inn’s outdoor baths, eventually taking a dip themselves!

Korakukan is located beside the monkey park and offers great views of the area. Monkeys also treat the inn as a jungle gym and are not shy about hanging around the inn’s baths. After watching monkeys taking a dip at the Snow Monkey park, head to Korakukan and take a dip while monkeys watch you!

Details and Access

Korakukan can be found next to the Snow Monkey Park. The inn’s hot springs are open for visitors from 12:00 to 15:00 and the entrance fee is 600 yen for adults (300 for children). Indoor and outdoor baths are available. There is a women’s only outdoor bath and a mixed bath. Special bathing suits are available to rent for women.

Learn More about Japan’s Hot Springs

A vacation to Nagano wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one of its over 200 hot spring areas. Tourists flock to hot spring resort areas such as Nozawa, Shibu, Shirahone, Bessho, and Hirugami, and there are plenty of hot springs in arm’s reach of ski resorts and hiking trails for outdoor enthusiasts. Before visiting one yourself, or just to brush up on your hot spring knowledge, take a look at our blog on how to enjoy hot springs.

And as always, if you have any questions, feel free to leave us a comment below!

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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48 Hours in Nagano City

August 18th, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Information, Sightseeing

In 1998, Nagano City hosted the Winter Olympic Games and introduced the world to the Japanese Alps, the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, and glorious Japanese powder (or, “japow”). But that isn’t all that the area has to offer. With beautiful Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the heart of Japan’s mountains, Nagano City is a hub of spiritual sites and natural splendor.

Take a model 2-day trip around Nagano City and enjoy another side of Japan!

National Treasure Zenkoji

The main hall of Zenkoji Temple


After arriving in Nagano, walk (or ride the colorful Gururingo bus) from the station to Zenkoji, following the wooden lanterns along Chuo-dori street. Eventually you’ll reach Motozen-machi with its cobbled streets and beautiful temple lodges. After passing through the Niomon and Sannomon gates, you’ll see Zenkoji—one of the largest wooden temples in Japan with over 1400 years of history.
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Japanese Summer Festivals and Fireworks in Nagano

July 21st, 2017 by
Category: Events, Information, Seasonal Topics

An archer in the Nyakuichi Oji Festival in Omachi City.

The vibrant, lively atmosphere of summer festivals is one of the most memorable parts of Japan. The streets are filled with the bright colors of yatai stalls, yukata robes, and paper lanterns, and the sky lights up with brilliant fireworks. Musicians play traditional flute and drum songs as performers entertain festival-goers with dances and theater.

As summer approaches its peak, Nagano gears up for exciting festivals of its own. Enjoy traditional Japanese summer festivals along with events that are unique to Nagano.
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Best Museums and Galleries in Nagano

July 12th, 2017 by
Category: Culture Art, Information, Sightseeing

Zhuge Liang puppet in the Kawamoto Kihachiro Puppet Museum

It’s Japan’s infamous rainy season and that means that unpredictable, sudden squalls are just around every corner. You’ll get soaked, your laundry won’t dry, trains and buses may be delayed, and it can be hard to do anything outdoors on the weekends. When it’s too wet to climb mountains or have picnics, what else is there to do in Nagano?

Cafés, karaoke, and staring at the ceiling are some possible options, but there are also plenty of museums and galleries around the prefecture that feature interesting historical artifacts and beautiful paintings. Spend some of your rainy days brushing up on Japanese history and art in one of Nagano’s many museums.
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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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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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