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.
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
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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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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The Onbashira festival is finally at an end. After months of preparation and twelve long days of labor, the sixteen onbashira pillars have reached their resting places at the corners of the four shrines of Suwa Taisha.
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.
In a land-locked prefecture, the Suwa area is surprisingly blessed with water. The surface of lake Suwa offers beautiful, reflective views of the surrounding mountains and sky. Hot springs bubble up from the grounds of Kami and Shimosuwa and feed over 150 public bathing facilities in the area. And, fresh water from the highlands helps brew Suwa’s many award-winning rice wines.
Visitors to the area have been increasing in advent of the 2016 Onbashira festival, so I thought I’d take a closer look at Suwa’s activities and sights.
Hatsumode literally means ‘ the first visit to a shrine or a temple’, and this year we visited the Ikushima Tarushima Shrine in Ueda city.
My fellow blogger, Tyler-san has written about the shrine with a perfect explanation
so I will save the details on the shrine, but instead of the serene and quiet atmosphere of the shrine which Tyler-san depicted, the shrine on new year’s holiday was very festive and crowded.
There was a long queue to cross the vermillion bridge which locates in the center of the shrine and leads to the main hall.
Zenkouji Temple in Nagano City has many legends associated with it. On the east side of the road leading to Zenkouji, just south of the Nioumon Gate and outside one of the pilgrim lodges, is a small statue and sign about a devoted raccoon dog (mujina in Japanese).
Next to the sign is a small sculpture of the raccoon dog and the monk.
The lantern itself is still in the grounds of Zenkouji Temple. Look for it about 20m west of the southwest corner of the main hall.
There is another, longer version of this story. A raccoon dog’s parents had died tragically, so the raccoon disguised itself as a human and travelled to Zenkouji. He wanted to dedicate a lantern to comfort his parents’ souls. He checked into the pilgrim’s lodge, and organized the construction of the lantern. After it was completed, he was relaxing in the bath when the landlord discovered he was a raccoon. He ran away. A while later, a samurai came to Zenkouji. Late that night, he went to pray at the temple. Near the lantern, he saw an apparition which was following him. He drew his sword and fought the ghost, and in the battle, he accidentally struck the lantern. Next day, the samurai went back to the temple and saw a scar on the lantern, from which blood had oozed. The lantern photo above shows a diagonal mark on the square stone above the vertical writing. Maybe that is the sword mark? The samurai left town and headed north. While travelling through the deep forest in the mountains, he was buried alive by a sandstorm, and died. Why? Because three years earlier he had needlessly killed the raccoon dog’s parents while travelling over a mountain pass. (Thanks to Miyairi-san for help with the translation.)
Nagano, widely known as the host city of the Winter Olympics in 1998, has always been a Buddhist mecca for Japanese pilgrims since ancient times. This renowned temple, Zenkoji, has a history of 1,400 years and has grand 300 year-old Main Hall (believed to be one of the three largest historical Buddist temple buildings in Japan) designated as a National Treasure complementing its natural environs.
Walking through the pitch-black passageway underneath the altar of the sacred main image of Zenkoji (Amitabha), and touching the ‘Key to Paradise’, will give you a deep insight into what Buddhism has meant to the Japanese people.
Here, with an advance reservations and according to the number of your party, you can experience traditional Japanse culture such as Kimono, Tea Ceremony, and Zazen. Traditional Buddhist Meals are also available.
Nagano is only 85 min from Tokyo by Shinkansen. Come visit us.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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)