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:

Zenkoji’s Lantern Festival — Part of Nagano’s Olympic Heritage

February 13th, 2018 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Last night, we went to Nagano City’s venerable Zenkoji Temple for the last night of the 15th annual Toumyou Matsuri (Lantern Festival).  It is in commemoration of the 1998 Winter Olympics.  The visual artistry was a heart-warming display, which was dearly welcomed with the sub-freezing temperatures!  I’ll let the pictures do the talking:

48 Hours in Nagano City

August 18th, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Information, Sightseeing

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

The main hall of Zenkoji Temple


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.
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!
Read the rest of this entry »

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!

Read the rest of this entry »

Zenkoji Hana Kairo Flower Festival 善光寺花回廊

April 25th, 2014 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Come out to Nagano City and see the flower canvases and tapestry gardens! These works of art are created using flower petals. Various ‘flowers’ are waiting to meet you!

Date: May 3rd (Sat)-May 5th (Sun) 2014

Place: Nagano-City, Chuo-dori (Shinden-cho, from Toigo-machi to Nishigo-machi, Higashigo-machi to Daimon-machi), Gondo Arcade and Gondo Plaza, Tokyu Dept Store

Zenkoji Temple Lit Up Like a Votive Candle?

February 8th, 2013 by
Category: Events, Information, Seasonal Topics

The venerable Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City will once again hold its Toumyou Festival. “Toumyou” refers to votive candles people leave at temples and shrines. For this festival, the main hall and one of the entrance arches are colorfully illuminated in a wish for world peace.

Zenkoji Temple Lit Up in Olympic Colors for the Annual Toumyou Festival

The festival is held in the very coldest middle of winter, and the dates for 2013 are from Saturday 09-Feb to Sunday 17-Feb.  The colors for the main illumination are the 5 Olympic colors, in honor of the ’98 Nagano Winter Olympics. In addition to the illumination, during the festival various temple lodging ‘shukubo’ will host special tea functions, numerous lanterns will be displayed (including some made by celebrity artists), shops and restaurants along the main approach to Zenkoji will offer special deals, a live concert will be held, and there will be a stamp rally and other contests. Information can be found in the official guidebook.

Official Guidebook for the 2013 Toumyou Festival

Legends of Zenkouji Temple – the Devoted Raccoon Dog

December 16th, 2012 by
Category: Culture Art, Information

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).

The raccoon dog story on the roadside south of Zenkouji Temple

Next to the sign is a small sculpture of the raccoon dog and the monk.

Sculpture of the devoted 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.

Mujina Lantern at Zenkouji Temple

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.)

Mecca of Japanese Pilgrimage — Zenko-ji Temple

May 12th, 2012 by
Category: Culture Art, Experience, Sightseeing
Main Hall of Zenko-ji Temple (National Treasure)

Main Hall of Zenko-ji Temple (National Treasure)

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.

Bell Tower of Zenko-ji Temple

Bell Tower of Zenko-ji Temple

Nio-mon (Deva King Gate)

Nio-mon (Deva King Gate)

 

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.