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.

You May Also Like

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:

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.
Read the rest of this entry »

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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The Night View Train to Obasute

September 28th, 2016 by
Category: Events, Information, Report, Sightseeing

The front of the Night View Obasute train.

Perched several hundred meters above Chikuma City is Obasute Station which boasts beautiful scenery of the Nagano valley. The Shinano line passes through this area on its way between Nagano and Matsumoto cities, and is considered one of Japan’s three best train line views.

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Impressions of the Onbashira Festival

July 13th, 2016 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Report

Locals watch as the first pillar is lifted into place at the Harumiya shrine.

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.

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Special Multilingual Promotion for Matsumoto Taiko Drum Festival (July 30-31) and Iida Puppet Festival (August 4-7)

July 28th, 2011 by
Category: Events, Information

Leaflet of Taiko Drum Festival

Taiko Drum Festival at Matsumoto Castle will be held this weekend (July 30, 31) and Iida Puppet Festival will be held next week (August 4-7).
Taiko Drum festival is very popular among local foreign regidents and Iida Puppet Festival is now a large international puppet event (400 shows will be performed at 120 venues and 40,000 attendants will enjoy them!).

We made multilingual (English, French, Korean, Chinese, Thai) leaflets of the two events this year. You can get it in TICs, some hotels, and Narita Airport. Otherwise, you can download PDF files.
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Three Spring Events at Onsen Town Togura-Kamiyamada

April 12th, 2011 by
Category: Events, Onsens (Hot Springs)

One old tradition, one new one, and one borrowed from overseas:  ’tis springtime in Togura Kamiyamada Onsen.  Three upcoming events for your consideration:

Chishiki-Ji Temple Spring Festival

Sunday 17-April 10am-Noon, Chishiki-Ji, Kamiyamada, Chikuma City

Chishi-ji Temple with its moss-covered thatched roof

Chishi-ji Temple with its moss-covered thatched roof

A simple, local festival featuring the airing-out of the temple’s ancient scrolls.  Several monks give a solemn chant as, along with local dignitaries, they ceremonially air-out the Buddhist scrolls.  This is the one time of the year that the sacred 11-Faced Goddess image is openly displayed for public viewing.   A sishi-lion dance performance by the Kamiyamada Okagura Preservation troupe will also take place (with Yours Truly on the flute).

Chishiki-Ji Temple, on Nagano Prefectural Route 55 approximately 2km (25 min. walk) from Togura Kamiyamada Onsen.  Nearest train station is Togura Station on the Shinano Railway Line.  


6th Annual Easter Egg Festival in Togura Kamiyamada Onsen

Sunday April 24th 1:30-3:30pm at the Togura Kamiyamada Onsen fountain park along the Chikuma River

Easter's Coming!

If you would like to see 100 kids’ smiling faces, and perhaps share a bit of Western culture, come check out Togura Kamiyamada Onsen’s Easter Egg Festival.  It’s held at the fountain park in front of the onsen town on the bank of the Chikuma River.  There will be a massive, 1000-egg hunt as well as games, egg coloring, egg omelets (courtesy of the ryokan chefs), horse buggy rides, and free onsen bath passes (courtesy of the Togura Kamiyamada Ryokan Association).    

To RSVP, contact the Chikuma Int’l Exchange Assoc. tel/fax 026-274-3150,  Access:  20 minute walk from Togura Station on the Shinano Railway Line.


30th Annual Pulled by an Ox to Zenkoji Walk

Thursday May 5th, Starts 7:30am from the Togura Kamiyamada Onsen fountain park along the Chikuma River

That's me from last year's Zenkoji walk

That's me from last year's Zenkoji walk

In commemmoration of the legend about an old lady getting pulled to the esteemed Zenkoji Tempe in Nagano City, our onsen holds an annual 30km walk from Togura Kamiyamada to Zenkoji.  Many participants dress in feudal-era pilgrim outfits for the walk, complete with straw sandals.  While you can wear your sneakers instead, you do have to RSVP by April 20th to the Chikuma City Tourism Bureau.

Omi-juku: One of Nagano’s lesser-known Edo-era post towns

October 26th, 2010 by
Category: Culture Art, Sightseeing

Nagano Prefecture has its share of ‘shukuba’ post towns along the various ‘kaido’ roads that led to feudal Edo.  Tsumago in southern Nagano and Unno-juku in eastern Nagano are two of the most well-restored, and hence popular with tourists. 

One of the residences in Omi-juku

One of the residences in Omi-juku

Today I visited a lesser-known post town, Omi-juku, which lies on the old Zenkoji Kaido that connects Matsumoto and Nagano City.  It is located in the village that bears its name, tiny, sleepy Omi village, population of a tad over 3,000 souls.  Just up from Hijiri Kogen Station (JR Shinonoi Line) which is located pretty much in the center of the village is Omi-juku, a stretch of road with many buildings dating to the Edo period.

You won’t find Omi-juku on many tourist maps.  But it is just that sense of non-touristy-ness that makes it so appealing.  It isn’t a well-preserved history museum — it’s real houses lived in by real people, peole that put up with the lack of modern conveniences and lovingly use and maintain the original buildings. 

It’s also surprisingly convenient by either car (just 2-3 minutes from the Omi IC on the Nagano Expressway) or a simple 5-6 minute walk up from Hijiri Kogen station.  So if you have the time and inkling to explore one of Nagano’s lesser-known ‘kaido’ treasures, Omi-juku would make an excellent choice.

Click here for Omi Village’s web page on Omi-juku (in Japanese)

Taking the Tanaka Honke Museum’s Appeal Overseas

July 15th, 2010 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Experience

The Nagano Inbound Summit team members and I held our 3rd in a series of “Unique Nagano” cultural activities “monitor tours” today.  12 of us toured the Tanaka Honke museum in Suzaka, highlighted by not just eating, but experiencing their bento lunch recreated from a 300 year old menu. 

Entrance to Tanaka Honke museum

Entrance to Tanaka Honke museum

The Tanaka Honke museum is a unique place.  It is the residence of Suzaka City’s Edo-era merchant family.  The buildings and gardens will please lovers of Japanese traditional architecture and formal gardens.  Besides, that, the museum’s artifacts give you a glimpse into the lifestyle of  this wealthy merchant family.  Some samples of the fascinating stories we gleamed from curator Tanaka-san’s explanation:

The "Autumn Garden"

The "Autumn Garden"

*What was the 2nd storehouse originally used for?  (Hint: the ceiling was stained a pitch black.)
Answer:  sake making (smoke from cooking the sake rice blackened the
*What was the room next to the vegetable garden for?  (Hint: There is a channel with water running down the middle.)  Answer:  Mill room (there used to be a water wheel there.)
*In the tea items display, there was a bowl painted with a design of an elephant surrounded by monks.  If you see it, try to guess how many monks are there.
*There was a lidded bowl amongst the tea display.  It’s exterior was completely black exterior, but open the lid and the inside was decoreted with and autumn color leaves.
*The dolls in the antique toy display had caucausian, not Japanese features.  Why?  Because they were for export to Western countries.  In the past, toy export was as big an industry as car export is today. 

Cool architecture

Cool architecture

So what did us foreigners think of the esteemed Tanaka Honke museum?  Here are our results.

*760 year old tea items
*antique toys
*the Bento (more on this later)
*tools used to move the garden stones
*300 y.o. pines
*mill room
*sitting room
*sake making room
*plum juice

*Lack of English explanation

*audio guide in English

For us, the main draw besides the buildings, gardens and museum displays, was the bento lunch.  The museum painstakingly recreated the lunch from a 300 year old menu discovered in the premises.  It is a fabulous chance to see what a wealthy merchant in mountainous Nagano ate during the Edo period.  The bento was full of suprises, like mozuki seaweed — that must have been a delicacy, as it would have had to have been carried by horse up from the Sea of Japan, and salmon that had also been carried up from the ocean, where it would have been caught before the long trip up the rivers as opposed to salmon caught in the nearby Chikuma river that had already depleted their stored fat by climbing up the river.   So many amazing stories, that really took us back to the Edo period.  All while enjoying the beautiful formal garden and the classic construction of the buildings. 

Enjoying the 300 year old bento lunch

Enjoying the 300 year old bento lunch

More than a museum that serves a 300 year old bento, we felt the Tanaka Honke would be best considered as featuring the bento and also offering a tour of the museum.  It would be a great addition to a trip to Nagano, for example to see the snow monkeys.

Tanaka Honke Museum is located in Suzaka, the city renowned for its earthen walled storehouses, just to the east of Nagano City.  The 300 year old bento is 4000 yen (reservations required), museum admission is 700 yen.  Hours are 9am-5pm (shorter in winter), closed most Tuesdays (days of operation are shown on their website).  For more, see

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!