Suwa Taisha Spiritual Cycling

June 11th, 2019 by
Category: Culture Art, Experience, Outdoor Activities, Report

Suwa Taisha is one of Japan’s oldest sanctuaries, so old that nobody knows when it first came to be. Its origins are object to much speculation and some say the history of the shrine goes back thousands of years. What we do know is that it’s mentioned in the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest written text to date, so well… pretty old.

Suwa Taisha has always had a big influence in the local community, so we got the idea to create a guide tour to the two upper shrines of Homniya and Maemiya which would shed light on the most interesting points of Suwa’s history and culture.
To make it more fun we decided to use bikes!

Here’s a report from this spring:
(Skip to the end of the articles for the tour details)

The meeting point for the tour is the Tourist Information Center at Chino Station, where the tourism bureau has started renting bikes, pedalecs to be precise (*bikes where the pedaling is assisted by a small electrical motor). Get your bike, make a few adjustments and you’re ready to go. The guide will take you through back alleys and less trafficked roads to your first destination. The highlight of the cycling course is the tract along Miyagawa river which is lined with dozens cherry trees and has a great view on the Yatsugatake Mountains.

Before heading for Suwa Taisha shrine, stop by a kanten shop selling agar agar, the local specialty. You can taste raw agar and get a few explanations on how it’s produced. We’ll see more of kanten later on, but for now let’s move to Maemiya.

Suwa Taisha is made up of 4 complexes, two upper shrines on the Eastern side of Lake Suwa and two lower shrines on the Western side. This tour will take you to the upper shrines, Maemiya and Honmiya. Maemiya is considered the most ancient and that is reflected in its eclectic layout which sets no definite boundaries between the shrine spaces, the nature spaces and the human spaces. The prayer hall is positioned uphill at the border of the woods, but no sweat, with the pedalecs getting there will be a piece of cake!

I have a strict no spoiler policy, so I’m not going to give out the juicy bits, but Suwa Taisha is a unique place where the Shinto of modern Japan and the animism of ancient Japan coexist. And there is no better place than Maemiya to show that: massive centenarian trees stands behind every shrine, no matter how small, the chozuya where you wash hands and purify your body is a natural pool of water fed by a mountain stream and the towering wooden pillars erected during the primeval festival of Onbashira protect the shrine.

After uncovering the millenary secrets of Suwa Taisha, we’ll proceed toward Moriya Jinchokan Historical Museum and a quirky teahouse cluster. The museum which contains some of Japan’s oldest scriptures is the first building designed by the local architect Fujimori Terunobu, famous worldwide for his fantastical architecture which seems to melt into the surrounding nature. The teahouses are works by Fujimori as well, the oldest -Takasugi-an (“The too-high teahouse”) has been listed by The Time’s among the world’s 10 most precarious buildings.

 

 

 

 

We’re close to our final stop for the day, but you must be thirsty by now so why don’t we take a break? There is a local café right next to Honmiya run by a local stonemason’s wife with a delightful Japanese garden. The owner will serve some delicious traditional food such as home-made Japanese pickles and colorful agar cakes (you remember agar?) with a nice cup of tea.

Our tour will end at Honmiya, the biggest of Suwa Taisha’s shrines. Wash your hands with fuming hot spring water, admire the detailed carvings decorating the shrine and pay your respect once more to the gods. Then, hop on your bike one last time and follow the guide back to the station while enjoying the scenery.

Tour details
Period: From April to late November
Duration: 3h
No. of participants: Min. 2 persons Max. 6 persons
Price: JPY 5,000 (tax excl.)/ person
Included in the price: Guide, Bike rental, Tea break, Insurance
Access: 1 min on foot from JR Chino station
(*Chino station is 30 min from Matsumoto by special express)
Reservations: https://chinotabi.jp/en/activity/111/

Icy Gourmet: Frozen Tofu

December 4th, 2018 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Information, Seasonal Topics

Tofu is by far one of the most well-known Japanese foods.
But have you ever heard of Frozen Tofu?

Frozen tofu

Frozen tofu, called “koori-dofu” in Japanese, is a specialty of frosty regions.
Just like its more famous cousin, frozen tofu is made with soy milk which is made to coagulate and solidify by adding bittern to it. For those wondering, bittern is a bitter-tasting solution rich in minerals obtained from seawater. Unlike regular tofu, though, it uses less water and more soy beans, making it richer in proteins.
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Schoolyard Ice Skate

November 22nd, 2018 by
Category: Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Winter is coming…
And we expect another glacial season in Suwa area.
Although Nagano prefecture is widely known as a snow country where you can enjoy fluffy soft snow, this area is a little different, a kingdom of frost with nights as cold as -20 (brr~!).

Schoolyard Ice Skate Rink

Water pipe


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Tasting Sake in the Japanese Countryside

October 25th, 2018 by
Category: Cuisine, Information

A ball of pine hung outside means, “There’s sake here!”

When visiting a foreign culture, you would be amiss not to taste the local cuisine and drink while you’re here. In Japan, that includes lots of delicious dishes like sushi, ramen, tempura, and, of course, sake.

Sake, called Nihonshu in Japanese, is considered by many to be a mysterious beverage. It is often referred to as rice wine in English, but that name doesn’t seem to fit quite right. It doesn’t look like wine, and it doesn’t really taste like wine either. It’s something completely of its own. How do you learn more about it? By drinking it, of course!

Whether you have experience tasting sake or not, you can expand your sake knowledge by tasting it right from the source. Japan’s many sake breweries that have been producing this complex libation for centuries, and can enlighten you on sake’s many styles and flavors, from floral, elegant Daiginjo to the straight-forward and dry Karakuchi.

Nagano has over 80 sake breweries around the prefecture—the second highest number of all prefectures in Japan—where you can taste local flavors slowly perfected over the centuries. Below are breweries and specialty shops where you can try a range of the prefecture’s most delicious sake.
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Discover the local gastronomy: Cook with the local grannies!

August 31st, 2018 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience

Sasahara grannies

My motto is “when traveling, eat like a local”. No tourist menu for me.
And well, if you want to go for the authentic taste, what better way to dive into a new cuisine than to learn from a local grannie.

Sushi, ramen, tempura etc. are great, but if you want to go off the gastronomy beaten track and like a good explorer also discover the cuisine of a small mountain village, then you should try out this experience. Below is a report of this activity from this summer.

The meeting point is Chino station. From here we get a lift to one of the small rural villages that lie at the foot of the Yatsugatake Mountains.

Yatsugatake Mountains

Seeing the scenery unfold and change as we drive up toward the mountains is part of the fun. The landscape around the station is very urban, but it slowly turns into countryside as we reach an elevation of about 1000m. Terraced rice fields flow in succession, like a staircase rising toward the mountains.

Sasahara village

In about 20 min. we reach a small village mostly made up of old folk houses and traditional kura storehouses. The massive body of the Kita-Yatsugatake right above us, on the opposite side the Japanese Alps parade in the distance. Waiting for us at the village community center are two cute grannies who accompany us to one of their homes, a lovely traditional house which faces a Japanese garden.

Kura storehouse detail

First, they tell us about this area and its climate. This is apparently the coldest place in Japan below Hokkaido. In winter the temperature drops way below zero (colder than  -10°), but there is little snow. The locals, unable to do any farming from November to April, thought up a smart way of preserving food by making the best of the severe winter weather. They use a natural freeze-drying technique to turn agar weed into kanten (a firm vegan jelly-like substance) and make frozen daikon and frozen tofu.
Today we are going to use kanten and frozen daikon as ingredients. They call this gastronomy the culture of frost.

 

The culture of frost:
Kanten, Frozen Tofu, Frozen Daikon and Kampyo

We are also going to use kampyo, a dried vegetable that looks like a string of straw (often used in sushi) and as part of the activity we are going to help making next year’s kampyo.

The main ingredient is this huge gourd called yugao. We peel it and cut in wheels. Afterwards, we put it on a special cutting board with a groove running along its length and push it against the knife to get regular long shaves. We hang the shaves to dry in the sun like laundry . This kanpyo will only be ready in a week, so we get some from last year’s as a gift.

Yugao

Kampyo shaving

Next, we start cooking. We are going to make tenyose, a jelly-like cake made with kanten, both savory (with vegetables and pickles) and sweet (with azuki beans); simmered vegetable with yugao and frozen daikon; vegan sushi with kampyo and other vegetables and soup with hand-made miso and mushrooms picked in the satoyama.
The grannies show us what to do while telling us stories about the village and the local food.

Kampyo sushi

Tenyose is eaten for celebrations and kampyo sushi is prepared for a village festival which takes place around this period.

Summer menu example (July-September)
(azuki tenyose, salad tenyose, sake lees pickles, mushroom miso soup, nota mochi (a sort of rice cake with edamame sauce on top)

When everything is ready, we all sit together at the table and eat. The taste is simple but delicious. There are so many foods I have never seen before and so many textures and tastes I have never tried before.

Lunch together

The locals’ life follows the rhythm of nature, so the food culture varies with every season: the “culture of frost” in winter, wild vegetables picking in spring, farming in the summer and preserves in autumn. The menu is always different!
To be able to see the real Japanese countryside and cook together with the locals is priceless.

Tobuki picking (June)

Details:
Period: all year
Access: 20 min from JR Chino station (pick-up from station available)
Time: 3h
Capacity: Min. 2 persons Max. 30 persons
Price: 5,000 yen + tax /1 person
Includes: activity cost, lunch or dinner
*An English-speaking guide is available at an extra cost
Vegetarian and vegan options are available.
Please inform us in advance if you have any allergy or special dietary requirements.

For further information, contact Chino Tabi at ask8@chinotabi.jp

Two Days of Driving Around the Roof of Japan

August 16th, 2018 by
Category: Accomodations, Culture Art, Information, Sightseeing

Driving among the clouds
Surrounded by the 3,000-meter-high mountains of the Japanese Alps, Nagano Prefecture is called “the Roof of Japan.” Its gorgeous alpine scenery and breezy highlands attract visitors year-round.

In Central Nagano, several highland areas extend from the base of the Yatsugatake mountains past Lake Suwa towards Matsumoto. Ranging in heights from 1,400 to 2,200 meters, the lofty plains here have panoramic views of the Northern, Central and Southern Alps. They’re the perfect place to escape the summer heat and enjoy a scenic drive. On these roads, you’re at eye level with the clouds—like you’re driving through the sky.
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The Japanese Alps are an Overlooked Gem

July 17th, 2018 by
Category: Accomodations, Information, Miscellaneous

If you are planning a summer trip to Japan, blocking off time to spend in the Alps is a must!

On a recent two week trip to Japan, my wife and I spent three nights in Nagano prefecture. If your research has gone anything like ours did, very little information online or in travel books is devoted towards this area specifically- besides a mention of the world-class winter sports available during the winter months. As far as the summer, the recommendations are nearly non-existent.

We came to Nagano for a friend’s wedding; knowing little of the area beforehand, we were amazed at the region’s beauty when we first arrived. The green forests and lush mountains, whether set in sunrise or sunset, were striking against the canvas of pinks, purples, yellows, and blues in the sky. We spent much of our time taking in the panoramas of mountains unlike any others we had seen in the past. Aside from the views, we appreciated the mountain life. The slower pace was refreshing after being around the buzz of bustling Kyoto and Tokyo.

Suwa-Shi, Nagano The serene beauty of the lush forested mountains atop smaller towns and roads will take your breath away.

Hoshino Risonare Yatsugatake
Nearly in any direction you looked, glimpses of the multiple mountain ranges were visible.

Kobuchizawa Station, Hokuto
Even the stops at train stations and the interlays of shrines & statues were beautiful.

Hoshino Risonare Yatsugatake
The resort displayed a whimsical appreciation for the seasons with the fun display of colored umbrellas for the rainy season.

We ended up staying at a Risonare Yatsugatake in Yamanashi wine country. This resort was magnificent between phenomenal staff, a plethora of available events/activities, and the quality of the facilities. Whether you want to actually book nights there (which we highly recommend) or just decide to make the day trip, there is plenty to do. The Hoshino resort’s campus holds an array of activities including: shopping, cafes, restaurants, a wave pool, wine tastings, ropes course, horseback riding, bike rentals, arts & crafts, and even a public bath for those staying at the resort. While we were unable to venture out much during our stay, since all the wedding festivities were on campus, we never got bored due to the multitude of options available.

The awe-inspiring sacred mountain continued to warm our hearts and souls at all times of day.

Lastly, the resort and surrounding areas provided ample opportunity to catch glimpses of Fujisan even 75+ miles out. While we only spent slightly more than 48 hours in the Alps (of our 11 day trip), this region now holds some of our fondest memories. We wished we could have done more while there, but now we have even more of a reason to return in the coming months and years.


Bio

My name is Brandon Shell and I currently find refuge amongst the beautiful long leaf pines, lakes, mountains, beaches, and community of North Carolina in the United States. While my wife and I both grew up here, we have always had a passion for changing the trajectory of our families’ legacies through authentic travel experiences. The relationships made while traveling are the most satisfying aspect of our adventures.

We are passionate about leading relationally within our own professions and hobbies all the while blogging our passions on the side. We strive to share with the world how to live intentionally and ethically by seeing daily choices as opportunities for making an impact on communities, both near and far. We document our travels, health, and nutrition choices in a variety of capacities on our blog and on Instagram @wecausewecare. We hope that we can continue to travel for the rest of our lives and leave a legacy that even our grandchildren will one day be proud of!

Social Media:
We Cause We Care on Instagram

Let’s visit a blacksmith’s!

May 23rd, 2018 by
Category: Culture Art, Experience, Information

Samurai’s katana with their lethal beauty have fascinated generations of foreigners. In the collective imagination a Japanese sword is synonym of sharpness and the smiths who forge those blades are shrouded in mysticism and legends.

With the end of the samurai era swords stopped being a part of Japanese life, but the unsurpassed techniques which lay behind their forging keep living in modern blades such as kitchen knives and saws. As a matter of fact, Japanese knives are praised by top-level chefs all over the world for their performance.

Hammering the metal

Mass production may have almost taken over the world of blades, yet some stubborn blacksmiths who keep making their knives the old way still stand. In Chino, the area spreading at the foot of the Northern Yatsugatake Mountains, you can meet one of them.
Sadamasa, a local smith’s specialized in blades used in farming and everyday life, has been in business for about 100 years. In the past as many as 10 artisans used to work here, providing the locals with all the blades they needed from sickles to kitchen knives. Nowadays Yusuke, the owner’s son, is the only one left.

Workshop detail

The first time I stepped into his shop, I felt like I trespassed into another world. It looked stilled in time, as if it had not changed one bit since the early Showa era. The walls and tools blackened by years of forging, the smell of steel and iron, the dim light seeping through the windows to illuminate the work space, everything told the story of years of blade-making.
What if I told you that you too can visit this unique dimension? Or even better, you can witness the smith at work and under his guide forge your own Japanese knife?
From now, that’s possible!

There is an activity that over the course of 2 days (3 hours per day) allow you to unveil the secrets of 100 years of Japanese blacksmithing and bring back home a knife made with your own hands. You want to know more? Okay, follow me…

Forge

From Chino station we walk for about 10 minutes until we reach an old shop with a sign saying “Sadamasa”. To welcome us are Yusuke, the smith, and his father, the owner of the shop. We sit at a table on the back of the shop and Yusuke’s father starts telling us about the history of Sadamasa and how his ancestors opened it many years before. After that, Yusuke takes over and introduces us to that day and the following day’s task. He also explains the features of Japanese knives and what makes them so special.

Metal after first hammering

Once we have acquired more knowledge on the acclaimed blades, we prepare for the tasks at hand and cross the yard at the back of the shop that leads to the workshop. When we open the door, we are catapulted in the world of blade-making. I am stricken by the metallic smell, the blackened walls and the silence, full of promises, while I wait in trepidation.

We pass through the old machineries to reach Yusuke’s favorite work position. There he lights the fire of the forge and while we wait for it to burn stronger, he shows us the metal bars we are going to use, iron with a heart of steel. He then puts the hammer into motion, the old-fashioned pistons breaking the silence, and expertly moves the impossibly-red incandescent metal under its weight forth and back, right and left, over and over again, until the bar has taken the semblance of a blade.

Hammering by hand

The blade, at that point cooled in cold water, is passed to us. We are to complete the forging by hand. We plunge the blade in the burning forge, lay it on the anvil and hit it rhythmically with the hammer to achieve a smooth surface. Unexpectedly, brute force doesn’t help you in this process as iron is extremely sensitive and too much force causes small bumps to form on the surface. Luckily, Yusuke corrects our mistakes and the end result is amazing.

Drawing the edges

The next step is to get rid of the oxide film which has formed on the blade by passing it under a shower of sand dust. When that is done, Yusuke takes the blade once more for the normalization process, which requires the skillful hands of the smith. We then cut the excess metal and model the knife final shape.

Finally, we proceed to the last step (of that day), the tempering!
First, the blade is polished so that during the tempering the heat can propagate all the way to the core. Second, we coat the blade with a thick layer of mud and pass it above the fire to let it dry (this is done to protect the blade). At last, we immerge it inside a hot bubbling substance that looks like magma and conclude by letting it sink into a barrel of oil to rest for several hours.

The job for that day done, we leave (but can’t wait to continue on the following day).

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The next day finally comes and we enter the workshop one last time. The tempered blade is there waiting for us.
During the tempering the steel shrinks, so we start by adjusting the warps with a small hammer; except the warps are really difficult to spot. The same blade which seems perfect when I look at it is found in need of many corrections when Yusuke’s trained eyes inspects it. (Craftsmen have such great abilities!)

After polishing

Putting an edge

 

Sharpening the blade

What comes after is probably the most important process of all: putting an edge to the blade! To avoid overheating the metal, cold water is constantly poured on it during the whole process. There is so much beauty in seeing the steel appear from under the iron, the shinogi (ridge) slowly forming.

At last, we sharpen the edge by grinding it against a wet natural stone. (This too is a very delicate work). The steam rising from the hot blade when it meets the cold wet stone is mesmerizing.

And… it’s done! We have really made a knife with our own hands and it’s glorious. To check the sharpness, we hold a leaf in midair between our fingers and pass the knife through it from above: there is no resistance, as if we’re cutting through air!

The handle applied, we put the knife in a box, say farewell to Yusuke and get ready to leave.
Every time I cook with this knife, I’ll remember this experience.

Putting on the handle

 

Details:
Period: all year
Time: 3h x 2 days (total 6h)
Capacity: Min. 1 person Max. 3 persons
Price: 1 Person Making 1 Knife:  JPY 28,000 (tax excl.)/ person
2 Persons Making 1 Knife: JPY 39,000 (tax excl.)/ group.
Includes: activity cost, 1 kitchen knife, English-speaking guide

 

More information on our website: https://chinotabi.jp/en/activity/26/

To reserve contact us at ask8@chinotabi.jp

The final result

Nagano’s 2018 Cherry Blossom Forecast

March 22nd, 2018 by
Category: Information, Seasonal Topics

See our cherry blossoms article for 2019 here!
Ogawa Village’s reddish pink Tachiya cherry blossoms contrast with the snowy peaks of the Japanese Alps.
As the snow slowly melts from the streets and sprouts begin to poke their heads out from under the ground, we’re all beginning to wonder: when will the cherry blossoms come? According to a new forecast announced last Tuesday, it looks like many areas of Japan will be seeing their cherry trees bloom a full ten days earlier than last year.
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Beautiful Winter Phenomena

January 19th, 2018 by
Category: Information, Seasonal Topics

Nagano’s forests covered in frost.

Winter is at once harsh, unforgiving, and mysteriously beautiful. While snow falls relentlessly on you, your precious baggage and the streets around you, it covers the landscape in pure, unifying white. While the cold seeps through your down jacket and numerous sweaters, it also freezes waterfalls and lakes in time, creating gleaming columns and plates of ice. While the wind burns and turns your face the color of ripe strawberries, it also covers trees in sparkling layers of frost. If you can brave the elements, the wonders of winter far outweigh the cold.

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