How to get to the Snow Monkeys this Winter

December 8th, 2010 by
Category: Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

As the famed “Snow Monkeys” of the Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park are starting to get their namesake snow this winter, it’s time to take a look at how to actually make the trek to go see them.

Nagano Dentetsu, the main source of public transportation up to the Jigokudani snow monkeys, annonced their new winter schedule, with the changes effective 04-December 2010.

Getting to the monkey park from Nagano Station can be confusing — do you take a bus or train? And if you go by train, how do you get to the park from the end of the line, Yudanaka Station? As many of our guests here at Kamesei Ryokan make day trips to see the snow monkeys, I made a graph that matches up the trains from our local Togura Station to the busses and trains from Nagano Station.  Here’s the graph.  Just ignore the Togura parts if you’re originating from Nagano Station.  And please note that these are just sample times based around going up in the morning and coming back down in the afternoon.  There are other busses and trains at earlier and later times.
snow-monkey1

From Nagano Station
Basically there are three options to get from Nagano Station to the snow monkey park:

1. Express Bus to Kanbayashi (1300 yen)
NagaDen Bus operates 8+ busses a day during the winter from Nagano Station’s East Exit up to the ski fields at Shiga Kogen. They stop at Kanbayashi Onsen (“Kanbayashi Onsen Guchi” stop) which is in the vicinity of the Kanbayashi trailhead. From there it is a 30 minute, mostly flat ‘promenade’ through a beautiful cedar forest.

2. Train to Yudanaka (1,130~1,230 yen)
Nagano Dentetsu provides train service to Yudanaka and Shibu, a pair of classic onsen towns. Service is more frequent than the above-mentioned express busses, and you can choose between local trains (1,130 yen, approx. 1 hour 15 min.) and express trains (add’l 100 yen, as fast as 45 minutes).
NOTE: From Yudanaka Station to the monkey park, you can choose from the following:
A. Local Bus (210 yen)
Roughly matching up with the train arrivals, local busses connect Yudanaka Station to the Kanbayashi trailhead in a quick 7 minutes.
B. “Holiday Shuttle” (800 yen)
Shibu Onsen provides a “Holiday Shuttle” bus from Yudanaka Station directly to the Jigokudani Parking Lot. It is closer to the monkey park entrance than Kanbayashi (15 minutes walk vs. 30 minutes), but is a lot steeper of a walk. Reservations Recommended (tel# 0269-33-3600). The Shuttle runs on Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays from December to March, with 6 runs each direction per day.

3. Chuo Taxi (from 2,722 yen per person round trip)
Chuo Taxi is offering a new, hassle-free taxi trip to the snow monkey park from Nagano Station. The cost is 17,000 yen for a regular taxi (4~5 people) or 24,500 yen for a jumbo taxi (~9 people) including transportation to Kanbayashi and back, and stand-by time so you can enjoy the monkeys for an hour. Call 026-282-7777 for reservations.

Finally, two last pieces of advice:  Make sure you have proper footwear (the trail can be slippery and slidey in the winter), and make sure to charge you

Cheap Highway Busses from Tokyo to Nagano

September 21st, 2010 by
Category: Information, Miscellaneous, Onsens (Hot Springs), Sightseeing

Highway bus company “Harvest” offers 2 services from Tokyo to Nagano Prefecture and beginning October 1st, 2010, will start two more routes, including a new run from Shinjuku to Togura Kamiyamada Onsen.  The round-trip prices are as low as 3,800 yen. 

harvest-bus

If you’ve been wanting to take a relaxing trip to an onsen but the cost of getting there has been too much, now is your chance!  The poor economy and worsening exchange rates has put a crunch on peoples’ travel budgets.  With a round trip price of only 3,800 yen, making a trip to Nagano has become a lot more affordable.  Take advantage of this opportunity to leave Tokyo’s hustle and bustle (not to mention concrete) and come out to Japan’s countryside for a rejuvinating stay at an onsen ryokan.

Harvest Tour highway bus, Nagano Routes

Route 1 to Nagano City with stops at Tomi City and Saku City

Route 2 to Tateshina, Shirakaba Lake and Kuruma-yama

Route 3 to Yatsugatake

Route 4 to Kamiyamada Onsen (details as follows)

Shinjuku – Kamiyamada run

Outbound
Departs Shinjuku West Exit 10:00am
Arrives Kamiyamada in front of the footbath  1:25pm

Inbound
Departs Kamiyamada in front of the footbath  1:35pm
Arrives Shinjuku West Exit 6:50pm

One-Way Price:  1,900 yen weekdays, 2,400 yen weekends

Term:  October 1st to November 30th, 2010.  Scheduled to change from Shinjuku to Tokyo Station for December.

Reservations:  Tel 03-3266-5959
Or try their website here.

Note:  We’re coming up on the popular fall foliage season so make your reservations early.

Kamiyamada’s quaint Fall Festival to be held on September 26th

August 17th, 2010 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Experience

Kamiyamada Onsen is overlooked by the centuries-old Habeshina Shrine. Every year, the shrine holds an Autumn Festival that usually takes place on the autumnal equinox, 23-Sept. However, this year the Fall Festival has been moved to the weekend and will be held on Sunday 26-September.

The Okagura lion dance troupe members

The Okagura lion dance troupe members

Habeshina Shrine’s Fall Festival is a unique opportunity to see a small local festival here in the Japanese countryside. It is a time for the locals to give thanks for the harvest and enjoy some traditional fun. The day’s schedule varies by year, but is generally something like this:

8am: Opening banquet at a nearby community center
10am: Ceremonial Procession departs the center.
12noon: Procession arrives at Habeshina Shrine
1pm: Adults sumo
2pm~: Kids sumo
Evening: Karaoke contest
8pm: Ending ceremony featuring an “okagura” shi-shi lion dance

Kids Sumo -- fun to watch!

Kids Sumo -- fun to watch!

The kids sumo is very entertaining to watch, and for the adults sumo, often times there are not enough participants. I have twice had the dubious honor of joining their ranks. You drink your way through the 8am banquet, parade around town in your ‘fundoshi’ g-string, then when your name is called, enter the ring and hope your opponent had more sake than you did.

Adults sumo -- not as easy as it looks!

Adults sumo -- not as easy as it looks!

(If you, too, are interested in being a sumo wrestler for a day, contact me here at Kamesei Ryokan and I can see about getting you an invitation.)

There are a few food and toys booths set up for the festival, and a lot of drinking goes on (sake is an important part of Japanese ‘matsuri’). After it gets dark, at some point the sounds of the shi-shi flutes and taiko drums can be heard, as the okagura lion dance troupe finishes up its tour of the town and arrives back at the shrine. The elders gather in front of the shrine’s main building holding ‘chochin’ lanterns, and the lion dance takes place in the center.

The lion dance by lantern-light is a pretty powerful experience. I was really moved by it when I first saw it right after moving here. Later, when the the leader of the troupe invited me to join, I was honored to accept. I’ll be there this year trying to keep up with the other flutists.

Habeshina Shrine is located on the southeastern edge of Togura Kamiyamada Onsen.  Follow Koen-Dori street past Joyama-dori up the hill and you’ll see the ‘torii’ arch on the right.

New Gourmet Guide and Walking Map for Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada

July 23rd, 2010 by
Category: Accomodations, Cuisine, Culture Art, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Shopping, Sightseeing

Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada has a new Gourmet Guide and Walking Map in English.  20 different restaurants representing a wide variety of budgets and cuisine are listed, with full color pictures and helpful descriptions, along with 7 of their menu items translated into English for you.  There are also indications showing which restaurants accept credit cards, are no-smoking, have vegetarian menus, and provide western-style sitting.

The New Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada Gourmet Guide and Walking Map

The New Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada Gourmet Guide and Walking Map

The map side features descriptions of 21 shops and businesses, giving guests an idea of places to check out when they visit our onsen town.   The map shows locations for a coin laundry, convenience stores with ATM’s, a pharmacist and medical clinic as well as a church with service in English, so guests from overseas will know their various needs are covered.  As travellers from abroad often like to walk and enjoy the outdoors, the map mentions walking times and distances between major points and shows where rental bicycles are available.

So on your trip to Togura Kamiyamada, stop in at the Visit Japan Information Center aka Kamesei Ryokan (www.kamesei.jp) and we will be glad to give you your own personal copy of the new Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada Gourmet Guide and Walking Map.

Summer Entertainment at Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada’s Noh Theater

July 9th, 2010 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

In the center of Togura Kamiyamada Onsen is a small little park with a really long name: “Mizu to Midori to Uruoi Koen” which roughly means “Water and Nature and Moisture Park”. In the middle is a cute koi pond with a stone bridge to the island with its shrine to the water god. You can weave in and out of the tall trees as you walk around the pond, then take a rest at the wooden gazebo. And since this park isn’t in any old town, it’s in Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada, there is a spot to drink the onsen water (the minerals are good for your health!) as well as the new Kara-Koro Footbath, to soak your feet in the soothing onsen. The biggest feature of the park is across from the grassy lawn — the impressively huge, wooden Noh theater.

Togura Kamiyamada Onsen's Noh Theater Stage

Togura Kamiyamada Onsen's Noh Theater Stage

It gets used for events throughout the year, such as the Halloween Party. And now, this summer it will see some action twice a week. The Bijoren ladies is a group of traditional Japanese dancers (“Buyo”).  They have been praciticing every Sunday night, and for the summer they will move their practice to the Noh stage so that anyone and everyone can enjoy watching.  Practices start around 7:30pm.

Kamiyamada's Bijoren dancers

Kamiyamada's Bijoren dancers

Also, every Wednesday night, the Kamiyamada Kagura Preservation Group will hold their lion dance practice at the stage starting at 8pm.  The lion dance troupe Wednesday night sessins are low-key practices, not full performances, so you can interact up close and personally with the members.  They typically held their practices at an area community center, but this summer and through October, they will be helping to liven up the onsen town by bringing their traditional arts to the Noh Stage. Come and check it out!

Kamiyamada's Okagura group performing on Stage

Kamiyamada's Okagura group performing on Stage

Access:  Togura Station on the Shinano Railway line.  For more information on Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, check out www.onsentown.net.


Unique Souvenirs from Onsen Town Togura Kamiyamada

July 9th, 2010 by
Category: Onsens (Hot Springs), Shopping

When travelling abroad, it’s tempting to buy some souvenirs for the folks back home, or for yourself as a momento from your trip.   But finding the right item can be tricky.  You want something made locally rather than mass produced in some other country.   And you want something compact so as not to take up room in your pack.  Well, here in Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, we are fortunate to have 4 local shops producing some pretty unique items.  Guests to our onsen town can enjoy shopping for these 4 locally-made items:

Manju, Miso, Kanroni and Pottery:  Togura Kamiyamada Onsen's Unique Souvenirs

Manju, Miso, Kanroni and Pottery: Togura Kamiyamada Onsen's Unique Souvenirs

Sasasuzu Manju with the Rokumonsen Mark
You can find manju pastries with the purple adzuki bean paste inside at pretty much any onsen town, but you can only find manju with the Rokumonsen mark of the local Sanada samurai family at Sasasuzu here in Togura Kamiyamada Onsen. You can also try your hand at branding the manju yourself with a hot branding iron. Baked freshly every day, so they are extra delicious. On Ginza Dori. Tel(026)275-1228.

Shimaya Kanroni Marinated River Fish
Nagano Prefecture doesn’t have an ocean, so river fish are an important part of the local cuisine. Shimaya takes ayu, the main fish from the Chikuma River, as well as wakasagi and haya, two other local types of river fish, and marinates them in a sweet sauce “kanroni” style. You can see how the kanroni process is done when visiting their shop, as well as try a sample of some of their creations. They are constantly making new batches, so if you’re lucky you can try some just-made kanroni, too. The kanroni is available for sale in take-home vacuum packs. On Ginza Dori. Tel(026)275-1175.

Nakajima Miso’s “Homare” Label Shinshu Miso.
Shinshu, the classic name for Nagano, is one of Japan’s major producers of soybeans. So the prefecture has naturally become known for the quality of its miso paste, Shinshu Miso. Here in Togura Kamiyamada, we have our own maker of Shinshu Miso, Nakajima Miso. In their showroom and shop at the front of their factory, you can sample the different types of miso they make, as well as see some of the antique tools frpm their trade that they have on display. Be sure to try the shoyu mame, a local variety of processed soybeans. On Ginza Dori. Tel(026)275-1069.

Sarashina-Yaki Pottery at Takaraya
Our local pottery style, sarashina-yaki, has a distinct blue color resulting from the ash of applewood from the local orchards. Takaraya is a small, chic shop displaying lots of the beautiful sarashina-yaki pottery as well as Ueda Shishi lion wood carvings and wood block prints by local artist Mori Bakuro. At the western entrance of Ginza Dori. Tel(026)275-0778. Hours from 8am to 7pm.

So if you’re hunting for some souvenirs from your trip to Japan, items that you can only find here, come to Togura Kamiyamada Onsen and enjoy our unique shops. 

ACCESS:  Togura Station on the Shinano Railway line.  For information on Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, see www.onsentown.net.

Bicycle Rentals at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen + Family Fun Ride

May 16th, 2010 by
Category: Events, Information, Outdoor Activities

It’s spring time — perfect weather to get out and ride a bike.  And if you have been doing the typical sightseeing and are sick of riding trains and busses, take a break, and take a ride on a bicycle. 

"Green" Rental Cycles at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen

"Green" Rental Cycles at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen

Here in Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, new for this year are rental bicycles available for hire at 5 different ryokans and (soon to be) at the Tourism Center.   Members of the Chikuma Cycling Club rescued several bikes that had been thrown away at area train stations.  We spruced them up and painted them all an “eco” green color and are offering them for use for the day.  Prices are 500 yen per bike, or 200 yen for guests of Togura Kamiyamada Onsen ryokans. 

Rental Bicycles at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen.  The bikes are available at the following 5 inns:

Taki no Yu (Tel 026-275-2120, www.takinoyu.net )

Kamiyamada Hotel (Tel 026-275-1005,  www.kamiyamada.com )

Fukujuso (Tel 026-275-1071)

Ueda-kan (Tel 026-275-1881, www.uedakan.com)

Kamesei Ryokan (Tel 026-275-1032, www.kamesei.jp *English OK*)

Chikuma Cycling Club riding along the Chikuma River

Chikuma Cycling Club riding along the Chikuma River

 

 

Suggested places for cycling include the Chikuma Cycling Road along the Chikuma River.  You can ride south from Togura Kamiyamada past a lavendar field through Sakaki as far as Ueda, or north along the river to the samurai town of Matsushiro.  My kids and I like to ride north to the Inariyama area of Chikuma City and wander the narrow streets amongst the classic earthen walled storehouses.

 

Exploring the Obasute Masumune sake brewery by bike (above Inariyama)

Exploring the Obasute Masumune sake brewery by bike (above Inariyama)

One other thing to mention is that the Chikuma Cycling Club has a “Citizens’ Cycling” event schedule coming up for at the end of May:

Family Fun Ride to the Sakaki Rose Festival
Saturday May 29th, 2010
Meet at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen Tourism Center at 9am

Route:
*Follow the Chikuma Cycling Road along the Chikuma River to Kogai Bridge (rest stop)
*Peddle through Sakaki Town (tour various sites related to Sakaki’s samurai hero, Yoshikiyo Murakami)
*Stop at Lobinia Chocolate Factory’s factory store
*Have lunch at the Sakaki Rose Festival site
*Return via the Chikuma Cycling Road, finish at 2pm.

For those without bicycles, the Togura Kamiyamada Onsen green rental bikes will be available, so come and enjoy this fun event with everyone!

Mori “Apricot Village” Apricot Blossom Festival Update #2

April 6th, 2010 by
Category: Seasonal Topics

Chikuma City’s signature event, the Apricot Festival in Mori’s “Apricot Village” officially started on April 2nd.  But how about the apricot blossoms?  Have they showed up on time for their own party?  Some of our guests that went on the 2nd came back disappointed, saying that the trees weren’t in bloom yet.  However, our town’s Tourism Association website said as of the 5th that the blossoms were at 20% (whatever that means!). 

Last evening, I went to see with my own eyes how Mori’s famous apricot trees were doing.  And the result?

Some of Mori's apricot trees already in full bloom

Some of Mori's apricot trees already in full bloom

Mixed, but worth seeing!

This tree's blossoms at 20%?

This tree's blossoms at 20%?

The majority of the trees, especially in the upper reaches of the valley, were still just in bud stage.  However, several of the trees, especially ones in sunnier spots, were already in full bloom.  So I would say it is definitely worth seeing now.  And with today’s nice weather (the high temperature is predicted to be 63F), more and more of the trees will start to bloom. 

For me, the real draw for Mori’s apricot festival is the quiet, pastoral setting of the valley.  It has a quaint, rural feel to it that is especially enhanced this time of year with the soft pink, delicate apricot blossoms.  And, of course, don’t miss the apricot ice cream!

New this year is a connector bus from Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, leaving every morning at 8:50am.  So if you stay the night at one of the onsen ryokans, you’ll have easy access to the apricot blossoms the next day. 

The Togura Kamiyamada Onsen to Mori's Apricot Village Connector Bus

The Togura Kamiyamada Onsen to Mori's Apricot Village Connector Bus

So don’t pass up this chance to see Japan’s largest number of apricot trees in bloom at Mori’s “Apricot Village”.

Mori’s Apricot Festival will run through April 16th.  Updated information on the Chikuma City Tourism Assoc. website (in Japanese only).

Mori “Apricot Village” Flower Update #1: Starting to Bud

March 22nd, 2010 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Every year around this time, we here in Chikuma City get excited about the apricot blossoms in Mori “Apricot Village”. We also get nervous about when exactly the flowers will bloom. Saturday I went to check out the progress in person — the buds were starting to form. With the weather forecasted to be a little irregular — warm, cold, warm, and cold again — for the next week, I have a feeling the blossoms will be according to the official festival dates: 02-April thru 16-April. Will keep you posted here! Also, Live Camera at the Chikuma City Tourism Assoc. website.

Mori's "Apricot Village" trees starting to bud

Mori's "Apricot Village" trees starting to bud

Mori “Apricot Village” is approx. 30 minutes by car from Togura Kamiyamada Onsen. There are shuttle busses from Yashiro Station during the Festival period.
New this year is a special connector bus from Kamiyamada Onsen to Yashiro Station, departing 8:50am. 500 yen one way.

Nagano’s January Fire Festivals

January 26th, 2010 by
Category: Events, Information, Seasonal Topics

‘Tis a bit late, but Nagano is home to a few wintertime fire-related festivals and I thought our Ambassador blog would be re-miss not to mention them.  The most famous one is Nozawa Onsen’s Dosojin Festival.  I was fortunate to be able to go last year.  If you are in Nagano on the 15th of January, you MUST go see this festival, one of the top 3 fire festivals in all of Japan.

 

No photo of Nozawa's fire festival can do it justice -- go see it in person!

No photo of Nozawa's fire festival can do it justice -- go see it in person!

Another fire-related event is called “Don-do Yaki” and is held in various communities throughout the prefecture, usually on or around the Coming of Age Day holiday weekend.  The event is called different things and takes different shapes depending on the particular area. Here in Kamiyamada Onsen, each neighborhood collects the dharma dolls from the previous year as well as the New Years decorations. The mish-mash is taken down to a grassy stretch along the banks of the Chikuma River and piled up into a massive mound. Then around 3pm, everyone gathers and the mound is lit with fire and voila! a huge bonfire.

Kamiyamada's Dondo-Yaki bonfire

Kamiyamada's Dondo-Yaki bonfire

These don-don yaki fires (“don-do” refers to the popping sound of the burning bamboo) don’t compare with Nozawa Onsen’s Dosojin fire festival, but it’s pretty spectacular nonetheless, especially with the dramatic backdrop of the Chikuma River and the surrounding mountains.
Then after the fire dies down, everyone digs out some of the hot coals, and commences to cook mochi sticky rice and heat up sake’. One guy every year grills river fish over the coals. In the past, I always enjoyed getting treated to some hot mochi, a sip (or two!) of sake, and the hot-off-the-grill fish, in what had seemed like an impromptu little festival. 

post bonfire mochi bbq

post bonfire mochi bbq

So if you’re in Nagano during the mid-January holiday weekend, now you’ll know what all the bonfires are about!