Nagano’s 2018 Cherry Blossom Forecast

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

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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New Train Pass for Exploring Karuizawa, Nearby Hot Springs, and More!

March 1st, 2018 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Information, Miscellaneous, Report, Shopping

Click on the image to see the full PDF flyer.


The Shinano Railway Banzai Two-Day pass offers great savings for anyone interested in spending time in the eastern Nagano area. The pass covers the Shinano Railway line between Karuizawa and Yashiro Stations and costs 1,000 yen for adults—already 300 yen cheaper than the one-way fare between the two! The pass is currently going through a trail run from February 1st to March 31st, 2018, but organizers are hoping to turn it into a year-round option.

When using the Banzai pass, you can enjoy eastern Nagano’s fresh foods, wine, and culture. I recently had a chance to explore more of the area, and I’d like to recommend a three-day course between Nagano and Karuizawa:

Day One

Enjoy the Outdoors and Shopping in Karuizawa



On your first day, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen train* from Tokyo to Karuizawa in about an hour. Right next to the station is Karuizawa Prince, with its 240-store outlet shopping mall, hotel, and ski resort. Try skiing at the resort or head to Karuizawa Garden Farm (15 minutes by taxi) for strawberry-picking. Have lunch at the shopping plaza and spend the afternoon looking for souvenirs and discount brand-name goods. Finally, head over to the recently renovated Karuizawa Prince East hotel for dinner at the Karuizawa Grill. Spend the night in Karuizawa.

Day Two

Ueda Castle and Bessho Onsen


In the morning, head to Karuizawa Station and purchase the Banzai Pass from the Shinano Railway ticket window. From there, take the train to Ueda.

Ueda Castle is just 12 minutes on foot from the station. While the castle’s keep was destroyed long ago, you can see reconstructions of the castle walls and main gate that repelled the Tokugawa army twice. The Omotenashi Squad welcomes visitors to the castle while wearing the regalia of famous Sanada warriors and ninja, and you can take photos with them for a fun memory of your trip.


At nearby Yanagimachi Street, you can see Ueda’s old townscape from its days as a castle town and pick up a snack from one of the bakeries, restaurants, or local brewery. If you’re hungry, stop at Kakurega En for some delicious yakitori slathered with Ueda’s special Oidare sauce.


Bessho Onsen is just 30 minutes from Ueda via the private Bessho Onsen train line*. The area is called the “Kamakura of Shinshu” due to its many beautiful temples and tranquil atmosphere. Among them, Anrakuji temple is home to a Japanese National Treasure—a three-story, eight-sided pagoda, the earliest extant example of its kind in the country. Enjoy the heart of the Japanese countryside from the comfort of a hot spring bath. (See more about spending time in Ueda and Bessho here!)

Tour the Countryside by Bicycle


After soaking in the sights of Bessho, return to Ueda and take the Shinano Railway train to Togura Station. A Showa era hot spring town called Togura Kamiyamada Onsen can be found here. One of the local inn owners is an American who loves Japanese culture and history, and is happy to share his knowledge with international guests. You can take a tour by bicycle and learn about the area’s sites and history while interacting with the locals. After a tough ride, enjoy the healing waters of Togura’s springs and stay at Kamesei Ryokan for the night.

Day Three

Snowshoe through Togakushi’s Sacred Forest


On your last day, take the train from Togura to Nagano Station*. From the station, take the Alpico Togakushi bus* to Togakushi Ski Resort (70 minutes), rent some snowshoes and take a walk to the area’s Okusha Shrine. Stop at the Okushamae Naosuke restaurant for soba, Togakushi’s specialty. Afterwards, take the trail to the shrine and be awed by huge 400-year-old cypress trees and the precipitous face of Mt. Togakushi looming above.

Visit Zenkoji and Experience Buddhism through its Temple Lodges


Get off at the bus at Zenkoji Daimon and head towards Zenkoji Temple. It is Japan’s third largest wooden temple and a national treasure, attracting thousands of pilgrims every year. There are 39 temple lodges around the main temple where pilgrims can spend the night. Some offer workshops as well, like Gyokushoin, where you can make your own bracelet or kaleidoscope. Some also double as restaurants where you can eat Shojin Ryori, Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. You can spend the night and continue your adventure, or take the shinkansen* back to Tokyo in just 90 minutes.

*The Banzai Two-Day Pass only covers travel on the Shinano Railway between Karuizawa and Yashiro stations.

There are many other places that I couldn’t cover here that are well worth a trip. In Toumi and Komoro, there are four different wineries producing a range of delicious wines. Rue de Vin and Villa d’Este Gardenfarm are both about 12 minutes away from Toumi’s Tanaka Station by taxi, and Mann’s Winery is just 10 minutes from Komoro Station. Each winery has its own restaurant where you can taste their wines paired with fresh local cuisine. And like Bessho and Togura Kamiyamada, there are many other hot spring areas to see as well!

Take a look at the Banzai Two-Day Pass brochure for a list of participating stores and more ideas! And if you happen to use the pass, share your photos online using the hashtag #banzai2dayspass.

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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Nagano’s Top Cherry Blossom Spots

March 4th, 2016 by
Category: Events, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

(This was originally posted in 2016, but dates and timetables have been updated for the 2017 season.)

Cherry blossoms and snow make a beautiful pair.

Spring is on its way and that means it’s time to break out those blue tarps, make some rice balls and drink plenty of local beer and sake. It’s cherry blossom viewing time! There are a lot of beautiful spots to enjoy them here in Nagano prefecture, where the mountains add a beautiful touch of white to the spring scenery. Who knew you could see sakura and snow at the same time?

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Winter 2016 Illuminations and Festivals

January 29th, 2016 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Areas of Nagano prefecture are getting ready for a series of festivals in February, and in that spirit I thought I would put together a list of current and upcoming events for the Winter season. Tear yourself away from the ski resorts for a night and visit some of Nagano’s other scenic spots!

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Vermillion and White: Ueda City’s Ikushima Tarushima Shrine in Winter

January 24th, 2011 by
Category: Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

With a fresh covering of snow, Ueda City’s Ikushima Tarushima Shrine’s brilliant vermillion color stands out beautifully with the contrasting white of the snow. The other day, I had an errand to run in Ueda, and on the way back I stopped to see this shrine which is noted for supposedly being the geographic center of Japan (hence its nickname: Japan’s belly button).
ikushima-tarushima-shrine-winter
This shrine is also noted for being the home of Ikushima, the fertility god, and Tarushima, the god of fulfillment. Furthermore, it also supposedly houses all of the souls from throughout Japan. And as if that weren’t enough, its god is supposedly the guardian diety of the entire country. That makes it one noteworthy shrine.

Graceful Arched Bridge

Graceful Arched Bridge

For me, someone not very initiated in Shintoism, the thing that most stands out about this shrine is the destinctive vermillion color accenting the achitecture throughout the complex. And with a touch of contrasting white from the snow, it makes for even more of a photogenic setting.
img_30211
Ikushima Tarushima Shrine is accessible by train from Ueda Station on the local Ueda Dentetsu line. ‘Shimonogo’ is the closest station and has rental cycles available.

This shrine is so cool it has its own website. For info in English, you can check here.

February 3rd, Ikushima Tarushima Shrine, as well at shrines and temples throughout the country, the annual Setsubun bean throwing ceremony will take place. Ceremony starts at 2pm, been throwing at 3:30pm.

Ueda City’s “Can’t Miss” Eateries

December 8th, 2010 by
Category: Cuisine, Shopping

Ueda City, Nagano Prefecture’s third largest city, has a central “downtown” core just up from the main station.  It has narrow cobblestone-like side streets with interesting nooks and crannies that beg to be explored.  Amongst them are two “can’t miss” shops that arguably define Ueda City.

Ueda's venerable "Katana-ya" Soba Shop

Ueda's venerable "Katana-ya" Soba Shop

First is a soba restaurant with a 300-year history, “Katana-ya“. This place has been a restaurant longer than the country of my birth — the United States — has been a country! The very first time I came to Nagano, I was treated to a lunch at this venerable noodle shop; that was my introduction to the famous buckwheat noodles of Nagano. Katana-ya remains popular with the locals to this day, and is known for the large volume of their soba dishes. Come to think of it, that’s probably why my host at the time choose Katana-ya (she probably figured my over-sized body came with an over-sized appetite).

Lining up for Jiman-yaki

Lining up for Jiman-yaki

After shopping in the area, we finished up at Ueda’s main shopping arcade, “Unnomachi”, to buy “Jiman-yaki” pastries at Fuji Ice. While the shop does sell ice cream, their main attraction are their little pastries filled with custard creme or adzuki bean paste.  Their tasty creations tend to attract a line of customers. Apparently the shop had just been featured on TV recently, so the normally long line of people was extra long today, so many customers that the street out front was turning into the shop’s private parking lot.

Anyways, a lot of our tourists stop in Ueda to check out the castle and get a taste of the city’s samurai history. I highly suggest taking a walk around the core shopping area, with a visit to Katana-ya if you’re hungry (really hungry) for soba, and/or joining the line at the pastry shop in Unnojuku.

Ueda Tsumugi Silk Weaving Workshop Details

June 3rd, 2010 by
Category: Culture Art, Experience

Last week, fellow Nagano Inbound Ambassador Tom-san wrote about Silk Weaving in Ueda.  Here are a few more details about this unique opportunity to experience one of Nagano’s traditional crafts.

 

Silk Weaving

In the Ueda Tsumugi Tradition

 

At Koiwai Tsumugi Studio, Ueda City

 

Come sit at a loom at an actual working silk weaving studio and weave your own hand-made creation.  Ueda Tsumugi is a silk weaving tradition with a 300 year history, and is considered one of the top 3 such traditions in all of Japan.  The family-run Koiwai studio maintains this hand weaving tradition to this day, incorporating the fabric into modern items such as neckties, purses and scarves.  The Koiwais would be happy to guide you on a tour of the studio so you can see the entire silk weaving process, from dyeing to spooling, then to the weaving on the handlooms. 

 

And, if you have the time and creativity, you too can choose the thread colors, sit at an actual loom, decide your own pattern, and pass the shuttle back and forth across the weft to make your own personal Ueda Tsumugi weaving.

 

Sericulture was a major industry in rural Japan starting in the middle of the Edo period and peaking in the Meiji era when silk accounted for 60% of Japan’s exports.  Silk production worldwide declined with the Great Depression in the 1930’s.  After a brief comeback post-WWII, Japan’s sericulture gradually disappeared.  In the Shiojiri neighborhood where the Koiwai Tsumugi Studio is located, you can still see many earthen-walled storehouses with their unique raised center ridges – indicating that silk worms had been grown there in the past.  And the Faculty of Textile Science and Technology at Shinshu University’s Ueda campus, celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2010 and one of only 2 such centers in Japan, continues to expand on Ueda’s silk history with futuristic research on fiber science and textile technology.

 

The Ueda Tsumugi silk weaving tradition has its roots in this local sericulture background.  Its unique characteristics are in the coloring (browns derived from apple tree bark and indigo blues) and design (checkered patterns are common).  The fabric is also known for its strength, which derives from the combination of single strands of silk in the weft with the thicker gathered strands (“tsumugi”) in the warp.  Many examples of fabric are on display and available for purchase at the small gift shop at the Koiwai Tsumugi Studio.  You can ask to see their book of patterns that dates back to the Edo period.  Those same patterns are still being made today.  While some are used to make kimonos and in other traditional ways, the Koiwais also use Ueda Tsumugi in making vests, hats and other more western styles, too.

 

Ueda Silk Weaving Workshop

Koiwai Tsumugi Studio offers silk weaving workshops, where even beginners can experience making Ueda Tsumugi on an actual wooden handloom.

*40 Minute Course  Learn basic weaving techniques and make a small place mat, approx. 20x30cm.  2,500 yen.

*60 Minute Course  Using basic weaving techniques, make a larger 30x50cm wall hanging.  4,500 yen.

*Independent Course  Make a weaving to the size that you desire, such as an obi for kimono.  Prices and times are negotiable.

NOTES:  Workshops are available on most days from between 9am and 5pm.  Please contact the Studio for a reservation at least 1 day in advance.  Children from 10 years and older are welcome.  Minimum 1 person.  For groups, there are 3 looms available, so participants can either take turns making individual weavings or team up to make one or more weavings.

 

Gathering at the entrance to Koiwai Tsumugi Studio

Gathering at the entrance to Koiwai Tsumugi Studio

Location / Contact Info

Koiwai Tsumugi Studio

40 Kamishiojiri, Ueda City, Nagano Pref. 386-0042

Tel (0268)22-1927 

E-Mail:  koiwai-tsumugi@po13.ueda.ne.jp

Website: www13.ueda.ne.jp/~koiwai-tsumugi/

Access: 15 minutes by car from Ueda Sugadaira IC on the Shin’etsu Expressway via Ueda Bypass and Route 18; by train, 7 minutes walk from Nishi Ueda Station on the Shinano Railway.

Nearby Points of Interest:  Shiojiri Neighborhood (Narrow streets lined with classic earthen-walled storehouses, in the area surrounding the Koiwai studio); Kutsukake Sake Brewery (historical brewery, tours available by reservation, “Fukumuryo” label, 5 minutes walk from the studio).

Nearby Lodging: Akiwa Kosen Ryokan (5 min. by car; Tel 0268-22-1446), Togura Kamiyamada Onsen (11 min. by train)

Koiwa Weaving Workshop in Ueda

May 31st, 2010 by
Category: Culture Art, Experience, Information, Report

 

After a request from an Australian guest, Ryokan-keeper Tyler Lynch arranged a hands-on tour of the Koiwa Workshop, where traditional Ueda Tsumugi techniques are still in use. As well as learning about the history of silk production, which flourished during the late Edo era, participants were able to take a seat at the craftsman’s loom and weave a souvenir piece of their own. The authentic buildings and warm welcome make this a great day-out for anyone in the Ueda area.

For more information, check out Koiwai’s website.
Silk weaving workshop available most days, but reservations are recommended.  Prices start at 2,500 yen to make a small place mat (30-40 minutes).

Kobayashi-san’s Agricultural Village Idea

May 25th, 2010 by
Category: Accomodations, Experience, Information, Miscellaneous, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing
The number of local people who went out of their way to show us interesting things was amazing!

The number of local people who went out of their way to show us interesting things was amazing!

The train ride earlier helped top off a fun day with Kobayashi-san from Seishun-Agricultural Village in Ueda.

Kobayashi-san understands that solely growing rice & vegetables is not enough in today’s Japan,  so he is leading the way around Ueda with a new idea…

Tourism Farming will allow us to better make use of our downtime – or something along these lines, I never trust my understanding of many conversations we have…

Kobayashi-san told me (and teachers/guides Mike & Jacky from England) so much in a very short time, unfortunately the time between talking and writing this blog means I’ve lost it – sorry:  but do check out www.murada.com & visit him for more info.

Kobayashi-san also has a custom built Eco-study-lodge for rent if you’re interested in local agriculture & staying near Ueda.

This is a must buy for me, I am sure my parents could always holster a '.....' like this, could be useful weeding around kiwifruit vines?
This is a must buy for me, I am sure my parents could always holster a ‘…..’ like this, could be useful weeding around kiwifruit vines?

After visiting several locations Mike & Jacky were keen that their kids would enjoy many of the experiences they were seeing in Nagano

The problems we have are the same everywhere^-^

The problems we have are the same everywhere^-^

Kobayashi-san together with one school was doing some volunteer work in Nepal, as is Mike (and me too…in 1991!!)…

It was a real thrill to meet the calibre of people today!

Mike actually was paid to climb Mount Everest, and met my kiwi hero Edmund Hillary before he died.

The characters today, Kobayashi, Mike, Jacky and Yoda-sensei (& Edmund) – it was an awesome coincidence!!!

and students were so full of energy!!

and students were so full of energy!!

Keep running guys!!^-^

Rain came down heavy on the rice field outside, but was cosy inside the school library^-^

Rain came down heavy on the rice field outside, but was cosy inside the school library^-^