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Mount Yakedake – Hiking an Active Volcano

Hiking toward Mount Yake's gas plumes.

Hiking toward Mount Yake’s gas plumes.

This last weekend, I enjoyed a hike to the top of an active volcano on the edge of Matsumoto’s mountain region. Mount Yakedake (Yakedake = Burning Mountain) can be most easily be accessed from one of two approaches; Kamikochi, which can be reached by bus, and Nakanoyu, which can be reached by car or taxi.

I was lucky enough to catch a ride in my friend’s car so we took the Nakanoyu approach. To find the trailhead, drive up the road a few minutes past Nakanoyu Onsen Ryokan. You’ll know when you find it because there will be other cars parked on the side of the road. Although we left Matsumoto before 5:00 in the morning, we grabbed the last parking spot immediately in front of the trailhead. At the trailhead, you’ll also likely find warning signs explaining the current dangers of the volcano.

Sign explaining the volcanic activity on the mountain just a week earlier.

Sign explaining the volcanic activity on the mountain just a week earlier.

The start of the hike reminded me of hiking back home in Seattle. The mountainous trail, greenery everywhere, the tall trees, and the light rain made me feel comfortable and confident. You’ll find moss-covered logs with new plants sprouting out of them, tangle roots holding pools of water, and bursts of color amongst the sea of green.

Plants growing out of a dying tree.

Plants growing out of a dying tree.

 

Orange fungus growing on a dying tree.

Orange fungus growing on a dying tree.

 

Don't eat strange berries unless you know what you're doing.

Don’t eat strange berries unless you know what you’re doing.

 

Purple Flowers growing in a clearing.

Purple flowers growing in a clearing.

 

These wooden paths keep you out of the mud... some of the time.

These wooden paths keep you out of the mud… some of the time.

 

Be careful of the puddles collecting in the tree roots!

Be careful of the puddles collecting in the tree roots!

Even with the rain and the clouds obstructing the view, it was a beautiful and enchanting hike.

Now and then, the rain slowed and we could see farther up the mountain.

Now and then, the rain slowed and we could see farther up the mountain.

 

Eventually, we made it above the rain.

Eventually, we made it above the rain.

After a couple of hours of hiking, the clouds finally disbursed and we enjoyed the full view Mt. Yakedake had to offer. Looking up, we could see the poisonous gases billowing from vents in the rock. A fast hiker could make it from the trailhead to the top in around 2~3 hours. My hiking buddy and I took our time and finally reached the peak in around 4 hours.

The hiking trail goes past vents spewing poisonous gases. Don't get too close!

The hiking trail goes past vents spewing poisonous gases. Don’t get too close!

 

The trail follows a catwalk toward the gas vents.

The trail follows a catwalk toward the gas vents.

We rested, ate, and took photos at the peak. The weather occasionally offered us amazing some amazing photo opportunities. From the top, you can look down on the large gas vents, a beautiful lake in the center of the volcano’s crater, and the many surrounding mountains and valleys. The constant plumes of gases rising into the air nearby reminds you of the many warnings to be cautious of any activity that feels out of place. All the signs tell you to evacuate immediately if there is any activity you feel is unsafe or abnormal. Apparently, the billowing gas plumes are normal!

We finally reached the top of Mount Yake!

We finally reached the top of Mount Yakedake!

 

Great view of the the vents from above.

Great view of the the vents from above. Can you spot the tiny hiker?

 

A cloudy view of the crater's lake from the peak.

A cloudy view of the crater’s lake from the peak.

 

Great views of the valleys bellow.

Great views of the valleys below.

 

I wasn't brave enough to climb on these precarious rocks.

I wasn’t brave enough to climb on these precarious rocks.

 

There are plenty of great photo opportunities without taking risks.

There are plenty of great photo opportunities without taking risks.

We stayed at the peak for over an hour before heading back down. I noticed steaming vents on the actual trail where we climbed down to the walking path. I recommend not breathing the gases coming from these small vents!

Be careful of the little gas vents on the final climb to the peak!

Be careful of the little gas vents on the final climb to the peak!

The skies had cleared up considerably for our hike down the mountain. We took a small break on a rock to rest and take photos. Lucky for us, this rock was a butterfly magnet! They landed all over our stuff – and on us!

Great views from Butterfly Rock.

Great views from Butterfly Rock.

 

Butterflied were on our bags.

Butterflies landed on our bags.

 

Butterflies even landed on us!

Butterflies even landed on us!

There were plenty of other bugs and animals to spot during the hike. I saw spiders, flies, grasshoppers, birds, and even a snake!

A dragonfly on a branch.

A dragonfly on a branch.

 

Crickets on a moss-covered rock.

Crickets on a moss-covered rock.

 

Fly on a green blade.

Fly on a green blade.

 

A harmless snake winding down the trail.

A harmless snake winding down the trail.

Although this is a relatively simple hike, it is steep. My unconditioned knees were aching on the way down, even with having worn knee braces the entire hike. Yet, I still felt refreshed and satisfied when we reached the car.

We finally made it back to the car!

We finally made it back to the car!

The beauty and power of Mount Yakedake is a memory that will stay with me for a long time. Don’t “blow” your chance to visit this magnificent active volcano! Go check it out!

Beautiful view of the path ahead when you hike Mount Yake.

Beautiful view of the path ahead when you hike Mount Yakedake.

Matsumoto Summer Festivals

One of the things I’ve been enjoying the most since moving to Matsumoto earlier this year are all the great summer festivities in the city, like the Taiko Festival and Matsumoto Bon Bon. There is so much going on that I don’t even have time to do it all! If you’re planning to come to Matsumoto, I think it would even more fun if you coordinate your visit with one of the festivals (of course, there are also festivals in other seasons of the year too!). Here, I want to introduce just a few of these great summer events.

Tenjin Festival

The Tenjin Festival is held in honor of the Tenjin deity, and it is celebrated not just in Matsumoto, but in many places around Japan where there are Shinto shrines dedicated to the Tenjin deity. Osaka’s Tenjin Festival is probably the most famous one of its kind in Japan. In Matsumoto, it is celebrated every year on July 24 & 25 at Fukashi Shrine. Eighteen enormous floats (a kind of traditional portable shrine called dashi or butai) from the different districts of downtown Matsumoto are pulled by hand through the streets, finally gathering at Fukashi Shrine. The Tenjin Festival in Matsumoto has been celebrated since the 1600s in Japan, so it has over 300 hundred years of history! The floats themselves are mostly over 100 years old, as well. Here you can enjoy Japanese street food, see festival-goers in yukata and happi outfits, and get a close look at the amazingly detailed ornaments and carvings on the butai!

Festival Floats lined up at the shrine

Festival Floats lined up at the shrine

Ornament on the front of one of the festival floats

Ornament on the front of one of the festival floats

Pulling one of the floats into the the shrine

Pulling one of the floats into the the shrine

Tenjin Matsuri

Main building of Fukashi Shrine

Main building of Fukashi Shrine

Taiko Festival

The Taiko Festival is a big, 2-day event held right on the doorstep of Matsumoto Castle (admission is free!). Taiko clubs and performers from all over Japan come to perform here, ranging from elementary school student clubs to professional groups. The performers use all kinds of different taiko drums including huge ones that are far bigger than the drummers themselves! Here you can see not only traditional taiko songs from different regions, but also more contemporary artistic performances and impressive show-like performances by the pro-drummers. I have to say though, I think I was most impressed by the amazing elementary school kid who seemed like pros in their own right! If you go, you definitely don’t want to miss the finally, where all of the different taiko clubs come to the stage at once and play together. The day I went it was raining so I couldn’t get any photos, but do check out the video of the finale below.

Matsumoto Bon Bon

Matsumoto Bon Bon, which first started back in 1975, is basically a gigantic line dance that takes place on the streets of downtown Matsumoto. It’s held on the night of the first Saturday of August every year, and more than 20,000 participants take part. Matsumoto Bon Bon is different from the traditional obon dances and requires you to be part of a team to participate as a dancer (teams must be 30 people or more), so you’ll see a lot of teams formed by local companies or schools. Each team has there own “uniforms” ranging from customized T-shirts to more traditional happi (a kind of Japanese festival outfit). Though technically you have to be on a team to participate, you might find a chance to sneak in the line and join dance for a minute or two 😉

On the festival day, pink and white paper lanterns are hung around the city and are lite up when it gets dark. The special “Matsumoto Bon Bon” song is played throughout the city for the entire 4 hours of the festival. Many restaurants and shops along the dance route set up street stalls selling food and drinks, so you can enjoy all kinds of Japanese goodies! Because the Bon Bon dance is such a spectacle, some onlookers even set up their own little “picnic” area with lawn chairs and their own cooler full of drinks and snacks.

Matsumoto Bon Bon

Matsumoto Bon Bon

Dancers trying to stay in sync!

Dancers trying to stay in sync!

Waiting for the festival to start under the lanterns

Waiting for the festival to start under the lanterns

Matsumoto Obon Dance

Matsumoto’s Obon Dance event (Oshiro Bon Odori) lasts the entire three days of Obon (usually Aug. 14 -16) and the great thing is that it takes place right in front of the castle! During the event, a stage is set up at night with a big taiko drum and dancers dressed up in summer yukata. Paper lanterns hang from the stage and cast a soft glow on the participants and onlookers below. Here you can here all sorts of traditional obon dance songs from Matsumoto and nearby areas like Azumino. Each song has its own particular dance and anyone can participate. It’s completely free plus you get to see the night light-up of the castle while you’re dancing! I went this year on the first night – there were people of all ages coming to watch and dance, including lots of foreign visitors.

Matsumoto Summer Fest 2017 – Beer Garden and Live Performances

Matsumoto Summer Fest 2017 is under way! Come out and enjoy a wide selection of food and drinks in the summer air. You’ll find a variety of German and local beers, wine, and dishes which include German sausage, Korean Samgyeopsal-gui, ramen with lobster, chicken tacos, pizza, Indian curry, steak, and more from numerous local restaurants and vendors! There are nearly 30 stalls all with multiple dishes or drinks. Live performances are also taking place on stage, making for a very festive atmosphere.

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I made it just before last order, so I only had time to try assorted sausage, kimbap, and a chicken taco accompanied by Kölsch beer (pictured above), but it was all delicious! I highly recommend going with friends and/or family so that you can share the dishes!

WHEN: August 17 (Thurs.) – August 28 (Mon.)
Weekdays: 5PM – 9PM (Order stop 8:45PM); Sat/Sun: 11AM – 9PM (Order stop 8:45PM)

WHERE: Hanadokei (flower clock) Park 花時計公園 (South side of the Matsumoto PARCO department store)
A six minute walk from Matsumoto Station.
*Seating with tents is available in case it rains.*

COST: Prices on beers range from around ¥600 to ¥1,200 and food items (both single-serving and sharing sizes) start at around ¥400. Coupons that can be used at participating shops and other local businesses are also available in the free Matsumoto Guide Book, and they are valid through November!
Glass system: In order to cover the cost of the glass in the event that it is not returned, a ¥1,000 deposit is required with the purchase of beer. The deposit will be returned to you when you turn in your glass.

 

Official website and Facebook page (Japanese only).

Akanejuku in Gakenoyu Hot Springs – Amazing View of the Japan Alps!

Front entrance to Akanejuku

Front entrance to Akanejuku

Last week I paid a visit to Akanejuku, a traditional Japanese inn/ryokan in Gakenoyu Hot Springs located in the southern part of Matsumoto. Akanejuku sits on the side of the mountains underneath Takabocchi Highlands and overlooks the Japan Alps to the west. With the panoramic outlook of the Japan Alps and city of Shiojiri and Matsumoto below, it probably offers some of the best views you can find from a ryokan in Matsumoto! Akanejuku gets its name from the deep red color (akane in Japanese) of the sunset sky and the panoramic outlook from ryokan is painted in a beautiful rosy hue as the sunsets over the mountains. You can see this breathtaking view from the huge windows in Akanejuku’s cozy lounge and best of all, directly from the hot spring bath!

Akanejuku, main building

Akanejuku, main building

View from Akanejuku's lounge

View from Akanejuku’s lounge

View of the sunset from Akanejuku (photo courtesy of Akanejuku)

View of the sunset from Akanejuku (photo courtesy of Akanejuku)

Besides the amazing scenery, the buildings of Akanejuku themselves are just as impressive. The buildings, some of them over 100 years old, are traditional examples of old-style, Meji Era architecture from around Matsumoto. For example, one distinctive characteristic of such buildings are the three-pronged roof ornaments called suzume odori or suzume odoshi that you’ll find above the entrance of Akanejuku (photo below). On the inside, Akanejuku’s rooms are furnished with traditional wooden folk art furniture and various Japanese antiques like the open hearth (“irori”) in the lobby, paintings, an intricately painted kite, and other crafts.

The "suzume odori" or "suzume odoshi" roof ornament of Akanejuku's main building.

The “suzume odori” or “suzume odoshi” roof ornament of Akanejuku’s main building.

An open hearth in Akanejuku's lobby

An open hearth in Akanejuku’s lobby

Painted kite hanging in the dining hall

Painted kite hanging in the dining hall

Painting of the Japan Alps

Painting of the Japan Alps

Stained glass lamp at Akanejuku's enterance

Stained glass lamp at Akanejuku’s enterance

One of Akanejuku's antiques

One of Akanejuku’s antiques

Of course, a trip to Akanejuku wouldn’t be complete without experiencing the hot spring! The hot spring baths are situated right on the west side of the mountain so you have a phenomenal view of the Japan Alps and the city below. The open-air bath has no walls blocking any part of the view so the sky and mountains stretch out right before your eyes. If you go at sunset, you might be able to see the scenery turn a beautiful deep red. If you go at night, you’ll have an unobstructed view of the starry sky above and sparkling city lights below. Go in the winter or early spring to get the clearest view of the Japan Alps covered in a blanket of snow.

You don’t need to be an overnight guest to enjoy the hot spring at Akanejuku. You can also stop by just for a dip in the bath, which is what I did this time. The indoor bath was constructed from stone tiles and has a lot of space. Since the indoor bath has huge windows, you can still see the panoramic view from there. The outdoor bath is smaller and is partially constructed from wood, but what I really liked about it was the temperature – it’s not as hot as the typical hot spring, so you can take extra time to soak in the water and enjoy the scenery before getting too hot and having to leave. And with the smaller space, I got to have a fun conversation with a couple of the regular visitors to the hot spring.

For day visitors at Akanejuku, the bath is available from 11 am – 7 pm (last entrance at 6 pm) on weekdays and Sunday. Be careful on Saturdays, on days before a holiday, and long holidays like O-bon and New Year’s because the bath is only open to day visitors from 11 am to 2 pm (last entrance at 1 pm). Price is 700 yen for adults.

Open-air bath at Akanejuku

Open-air bath at Akanejuku (photo courtesy of Akanejuku)

Indoor bath with stone tiles

Indoor bath with stone tiles

If you stay to eat at Akanejuku, you get to enjoy a traditional-style Japanese meal with local dishes in a beautifully constructed dining hall with thick, wooden beams and darkly stained wooden folk furniture. I also liked seeing the display of all the homemade fruit liquors made at the ryokan. When you enter the dining hall, make sure you look up to see the amazing wooden beam structure of the roof!

Akanejuku's dining hall

Akanejuku’s dining hall

Homemade liquors on display in the dining hall

Homemade liquors on display in the dining hall

Amazing wooden beam construction of the dining hall's roof.

Amazing wooden beam construction of the dining hall’s roof.

Gakenoyu Hot Springs would be a great place to stay if you’re visiting Matsumoto or even if you’re a resident and want to spend a special day away from home. There are also hiking trails you can access from Gakenoyu Hot Springs to the top of Takabocchi Highlands. Overnight stays at Akanejuku start from 10,000 yen, or there are also options to have the full course dinner (including the hot spring) without staying overnight.

Yamashichi Ryokan and Yamajo Ryokan two other Japanese inns that are nestled in the quite forest around Gakenoyu Hot Springs. Both inns also offer indoor hot spring baths for day trippers. At Yamajo Ryokan, you’ll get a great view of the Japan Alps like at Akanejuku and enjoy easy access to the hiking trails to Takabocchi Highlands and Mt. Hachibuse, while at Yamashichi Ryokan you can also enjoy a more laid back walking trail around the inn and even pay a visit to their farm!

See access information for Gakenoyu Hot Springs on our page here.
Akanjuku’s Japanese website is here.
Yamajo Ryokan’s Japanese website is here.
Yamashichi’s Japanese website is here.

Japanese Culture Experience Days in Nakamachi! Plus a New Nakamachi Guide Map, Website, and Shop Signs in English!

Japanese Culture Experience Days at Kurassic-kan in September

Come to Kurassic-kan on Wednesday, Sept. 6 and Saturday, Sept. 23 between 10:00 and 16:00 to enjoy special Japanese cultural activities, plus get a free gift for participating! Here you can try your hand at various traditional arts, crafts, and other activities (mostly for free!) including:

  • Origami – the art of paper folding where you can create colorful figures out of paper
  • Japanese calligraphy – write your name in Japanese and favorite kanji characters
  • Tea ceremony/Matcha green tea making – experience the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and learn how to make matcha, a special kind of green tea
  • Japanese paper fan decorating – decorate your own folding paper fan just the way you like and keep yourself cool the rest of the summer
  • Traditional Japanese toys – try out old-fashioned Japanese toys like the koma (spinning tops), kendama (a kind of cup and ball game), takeuma (stilts), and more
  • Sake tasting – try a specially brewed sake made just for the Nakamachi area!
  • Kimono wearing/rental – choose from your favorite design and walk around Matsumoto in a kimono (fee required)
  • Rickshaw rides – enjoy a fun ride through Nakamachi on a rickshaw! (fee required)
  • Ninja experience – learn cool ninja skills like how to shoot darts using a blowgun (fee required)

(*Activities may be subject to change)

After participating in the activities, fill out a short survey to get a free gift – a roll of specially designed masking tape decorated in the characteristic “namako-kabe” pattern, which is the black and white crisscross pattern found on the walls of many of the old buildings in Nakamachi.

The name namako-kabe has an interesting origin, coming from the word for “sea slug” (namako) and walls (kabe). If you look closely at actually pattern on the buildings when walking around the town, you’ll notice that the crisscross patterns are made up of rounded, embossed lines that supposedly look like sea slugs, which have a similar cylindrical shape. Although this pattern makes the buildings quite beautiful, it also had practical applications too, as it helped protect them against fire, strong winds, and rain. The namako-kabe masking tape will make a fun souvenir to remind you of your time in Nakamachi!

Namako-kabe walls in Nakamachi

Namako-kabe patterned walls

New Nakamachi guide map, website, and shop signs in English!

Finding your way around Nakamachi Street just got a whole lot easier with Nakamachi’s new guide map, website in English with a shop directory, and soon-to-be-finished shop signs in English that will posted in front of every shop so you will know exactly what kind of place it is.

Nakamachi Guide Map in paper form will be distributed soon, but until then you can download a PDF version here.

Nakamachi English guide map

Nakamachi English Guide Map (click to download the PDF)

Check out the new English version of Nakamachi’s website here to learn more about its history, what events and sights there are to see, and find shops & restaurants with the handy, searchable shop list. You can also download the guide map from the website, too.

English shop signs are also coming soon and will be posted in front of each shop. These signs will let you know what kind of shop or restaurant it is, whether there is Wi-Fi available or not, if credit cards can be used, which restaurants allow or don’t allow smoking, and more. Keep an eye out for them in the upcoming months!

Nakamachi shop sign

Preview of the shop signs being prepared for Nakamachi Street

Sightseeing in Matsumoto Now Easier Via the Town Sneaker!

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Starting this month, the local bus line, the Town Sneaker, is now nearly 3 times as convenient! The number of buses per day has increased from 35 to 103!

Four Main Routes:

NORTH for Matsumoto Castle, the Former Kaichi School

Weekdays: Departs every 30 minutes! Weekends: Departs every 20 minutes!

First bus: 8:30am Last bus: 5:15pm

SOUTH for Aizawa Hospital, Yumehiroba Shonai

Departs every 30 minutes!

First bus: 7:30am Last bus: 6:35pm

EAST for Nakamachi, Agata-no-mori

Departs every 20 minutes!

First bus: 8:40am Last bus: 8:00pm

WEST short course for Marunouchi Hospital & Nagano Prefecture Matsumoto Regional Office, long course for the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum

Departs every 30 minutes!

First bus: 8:10am Last bus: 6:40pm

*Please note that portions of these routes have changed starting August 1*

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Japan Ukiyo-e Museum Access

Added to the Western Route is the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum which holds the world’s largest private collection of ukiyo-e, painted screens, and old books. Be sure to take the bus that runs the full “long course”!

Passes and Ticket Books

  • Town Sneaker One-day Bus Ticket
    At ¥500 for an adult ticket, you get unlimited rides on the Town Sneaker. This ticket also gives you discounts at other locations throughout Matsumoto including Matsumoto Castle and museums.
    Available for purchase on board or at the Matsumoto Bus Terminal
  • MATSUMOTO ONE DAY PASS
    This pass can be used on Matsumoto City’s local bus lines such as the Town Sneaker and also lines running to areas on the outskirts of the city including Matsumoto Airport and both Asama and Utsugushigahara Onsen. This pass also gives you discounts at other locations throughout Matsumoto including Matsumoto Castle and museums.
    Available for purchase at the Matsumoto Bus Terminal
    Adults: ¥800 Children: ¥400
  • “La Coupon”
    13 tickets for the price of 10!
    Available for purchase at the Matsumoto Bus Terminal

★The Matsumoto Bus Terminal is located here. It is open everyday from 6am to 8pm. ★

  • Sightseeing Pass
    A separate Sightseeing Pass that provides access to Matsumoto Castle and the city’s museums is also available for purchase at each of the sites included in the pass. The pass is valid through September 30, 2017, but each site can only be visited once. Further information about the pass is available in both Japanese and English here.
    Adults: ¥800 Children: ¥370

NAGANO NAVI

You can also search for bus routes and times with the app “Nagano Navi”.

Great Places to Get Ice Cream in Matsumoto

Wow, it is HOT in Matsumoto. Luckily, there are plenty of places to get ice cream downtown! I’ve been researching as many ice cream shops as possible for the past several weeks around downtown/central Matsumoto. This list contains the best places I’ve found so far, that is, not just any average, old cone that you can buy anywhere, but ice cream that has a unique, Japanese twist or just really tastes good. I’m sure I’m probably missing some places, so if you know any other good ice cream in Matsumoto, let me know!

Nakamachi Street

Oimo Biyori (おいも日和) – Chunky Roasted Sweet Potato Ice Cream

Oimo Biyori is a shop that specializes in sweets and snacks made from Japanese sweet potatoes, including simple roasted sweet potatoes. If you’ve never had a roasted Japanese sweet potato, it’s basically like eating a soft, melty, creamy, golden, and toasty mouthful of deliciousness. In what I think might be the most genius idea ever, Oimo Biyori decided to mix chunks of these creamy and delicious sweet potatoes into vanilla ice cream and top it with nuts! It was so good that I didn’t want to go to any other ice cream shop for a couple of weeks. Recently, they also started selling three different flavors of Japanese shaved ice as seasonal menu. Oimo Biyori is located on Nakamachi Street (map).

Sweet potato ice cream. It's hard to see, but there are chunks of creamy roasted sweet potato mixed in. Deliciousness!

Sweet potato ice cream. It’s hard to see, but there are chunks of creamy roasted sweet potato mixed in. Deliciousness!

Storefront of Oimo Biyori

Storefront of Oimo Biyori



Cafe Senri – Royal Sweet Vanilla Soft-serve

This cafe (facebook page, japanese) is located near Oimo Biyori on Nakamachi Street (Map). They serve “Royal Sweet Vanilla” soft-serve, originally served at the Minoriya cafe in Karuizawa. The soft serve is so good that it’s apparently been praised by several celebrities including John Lennon! It’s a little more expensive than the other places, but it really is good – silky, high quality ice cream with a nice vanilla flavor, yet not overly sweet. Plus, they serve it in a waffle cone! You can get plain or make a super deluxe ice cream using the many toppings available like real fruit syrups, cookies, and more.

Silky, delicious, and in a waffle cone!

Silky, delicious, and in a waffle cone!

Storefront of Cafe SenRi

Storefront of Cafe Senri



Nakamachi Kura Marche – Gelato Made with Local Ingredients

This shop sells produce and other goodies made in the local area, and for the summer they have a little gelato stand set up where you can get gelato that has been made with local fruits, vegetables, or eggs. They have some really unique flavors so worth checking out. This time their flavors were sweet corn, blueberries & milk, watermelon, edamame, vanilla (with local eggs), Nagano miso caramel (think salt caramel, but with miso). Bonus: they use chocolate cones! Located on the east end of Nakamachi Street (map)

Watermelon and corn gelato in a chocolate cone

Watermelon and corn gelato in a chocolate cone

Shopfront of Nakamachi Kura Marche

Shopfront of Nakamachi Kura Marche

Around the Station

Shinshu Honey (信州蜂蜜本舗) – Honey Soft-serve Ice Cream

Shinshu Honey, right across from the Parco department store (map), sells different varieties of local honey from Nagano. They also use the local honey to make their excellent honey soft-serve ice cream! Of all of the ice cream in this blog post, this soft-serve is the silkiest of them all. Eaten plain, it has a subtle, but nice honey flavor and the ice cream itself feels light and isn’t overly sweet. Of course, it’s great plain, but you can also choose from four different kinds of local honey as a topping, too, which I recommend trying.

Drizzling honey over the ice cream - yum!

Drizzling honey over the ice cream – yum!

The finished cone (already starting to melt because it's so hot...)

The finished cone (already starting to melt because it’s so hot…)

Storefront of Shinshu Honey

Storefront of Shinshu Honey



Kaiundo (開運堂) – Robot Ice Cream

Also near Parco in Japanese sweets shop called Kaiundo (map), you can get soft-serve made and served to you by a robot (oh Japan…). The ice cream itself is basically the kind of general (and quite sweet) soft-serve that you’ll find at most ice cream vendors in Japan, but I have to admit, it’s pretty fun watching the robot arm swirl the soft-serve into the cone and then hand it to you through a little window! The other cool thing about Kaiundo is that they change the flavor of their ice cream every single day, so you can try some unique and rare flavors (when I went it was milk coffee, and the next day it had changed to blueberry). You can choose from a regular (regular cone) and large size (waffle cone) which are mysteriously the same price. I unfortunately didn’t get any photos of this place yet, but it might be fun to check out, especially with kids 😉


Kuraso (倉惣) – Matcha Green Tea Soft-serve

Matcha ice cream is probably one of Japan’s greatest inventions, and if you’re on the look out for some of the best matcha ice cream, then what better place get it than an authentic Japanese teashop! Kuraso, which has been open since 1945, is a specialty shop selling Japanese green tea, tea pots, and matcha. Thankfully for us ice cream lovers, not too long ago they also decided to start serving matcha ice cream, and I must say, it is delicious! I think what makes it so good is that, first and foremost, the base ice cream itself tastes super good on its own, but also because Kuraso actually uses their own matcha powder to make the matcha green tea flavor! You can choose from matcha, milk, or mixed soft-serve flavors. If you’ve had your fill of matcha ice cream already, I also highly recommend the toppings – hojicha (roasted green tea) and genmaicha (toasted rice green tea) –  which are sprinkled over the milk flavored ice cream. You can also get sweet red beans on top of your cone too! Bonus: if you eat inside of the shop, you’ll get a complimentary cup of the shop’s green tea (iced green tea in the summer). Kuraso is located only 5 minutes from Matsumoto Station on the main road (map), just keep an eye out for the big, green ice cream cone standing in front of the shop 😉

Matcha ice cream (right) and milk ice cream with genmaicha topping (left)

Matcha ice cream (right) and milk ice cream with genmaicha topping (left)

Storefront of Kuraso

Storefront of Kuraso



Near (and near-ish) Matsumoto Castle

The Storyhouse Cafe – Chocolate Chip Cookie Ice Cream Sandwich

The Storyhouse Cafe (facebook page) is about 5 minutes by bicycle or 10-15 minute walk from the castle, tucked away in a quiet residential area (map). The cafe, which just recently opened at the time of writing this post, is owned by a friendly American and Japanese husband-wife couple. When I heard they added an ice cream cookie sandwich (a rarity in Japan) to their menu, I just had to go and investigate! The sandwich is made using The Storyhouse Cafe’s homemade, American-style chocolate chip cookies (which are already tasty enough on their own) with vanilla ice cream in between. They are just the right size for when you’re craving some ice cream but don’t want a huge, towering cone of soft-serve. Not to mention, you can get a great cup of high quality coffee at a very good price (another rarity in Japan) to go with your snack! The cafe also makes for a good place to relax after seeing the castle and has a spacious play area for kids.

American-style chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich. Yes please!

American-style chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich. Yes please!



Storefront of The Storyhouse Cafe

Storefront of The Storyhouse Cafe

Inside The Storyhouse Cafe

Inside The Storyhouse Cafe



Ajisai Coffee & Lounge (紫陽花) – Homemade Gelato

The Ajisai cafe is located practically right in front of the main entrance to Matsumoto Castle (map). It’s a classic example of a Japanese-style “western” cafe, but most importantly for this blog post is that they have some good ice cream, in this case gelato! According to their signage, the gelato is homemade in the cafe and when I went to try it out, they had four different flavors available, including milk, matcha green tea, and a chocolatey mocha flavor, which you can get in a single (1 flavor) or double size (2 flavors). Since it was my first time there, I tried the simplest milk flavor. It had everything you want from a serving of gelato – the characteristic texture, nice flavor, and a square cone! I’m definitely planning to go there again to try their other flavors.

Milk flavor gelato from Ajisai

Milk flavor gelato from Ajisai

Storefront of Ajisai Coffee & Lounge

Storefront of Ajisai Coffee & Lounge



Nawate Street

Mono Store – Japanese “Ice Candy”

Ice candy are basically popsicles, and are usually made with different kind of fruits, often with no dairy added. In Japan some popular flavors are sweet red bean, plain milk flavor, and various fruits like strawberry. I’m a big fan of the unique texture of the ice candy and especially the fun Japanese flavors! Today I found that the Mono Store, a cute shop on Nawate Street, sells homemade ice candy during the summer! They’re a great, light snack and very affordable (only 150 yen), plus the ice candy comes in interesting flavors like matcha green tea, red bean, “amao” strawberry, milk, and blood orange. Check it out here (map).

Ice candy sign

Sign advertising ice candy in front of the Mono Store

Red bean ice candy

Red bean ice candy in its super cute hippo packaging!



Hopefully this list of ice cream shops helps you stay cool while you’re walking around Matsumoto this summer! I’ll add more shops as I find them too. If you’re around for a while why not try them all 😉 Enjoy!

Baba Family Residence

Baba’s Family Residence is an immaculately preserved late-Edo period home of wealthy farmers. This estate is tucked into a pocket of farmland, giving the farm a surreal view of green fields and mountains from the front gate of the property. As a lover of history, there was a lot more here than I was expecting!

There isn’t much English information about this residence online. I was able to gather some information from knowledgeable people before my visit. I was also lucky enough to arrange a tour by the property’s curator, which isn’t normally done.

My research brought up a lot of important details for understanding and appreciating the residence that I certainly would have missed if I’d simply gone there after a couple of Google searches.

The Baba Family Residence.

The Baba Family Residence.

 

The Baba family descends from the relative of a vassal who served under the famous Japanese warrior, Takeda Shingen. In one of the front rooms, you can see a painting with Takeda at the top and some of the Baba descendants under him.

Takeda stands at the top of a painting of his descendants.

Takeda stands at the top of a painting of his descendants.

A line of 16 Babas extend from the 16th century through today. It was the 12th Baba, Gizaemon, who built most of the buildings you’ll find when visiting. The 16th and current Baba, Taro, donate much of the property to the city of Matsumoto in 1992. Matsumoto City’s renovation efforts go a long way toward making this such an amazing destination.

There was a surprising number of activities that kept me engaged much longer than I was expecting! Some details could be easy to miss, so let me be your tour guide!

The walkway from the street, leading to the inner-gate.

The walkway from the street, leading to the inner-gate.

Surroundings – Riding my bicycle set a relaxing, peaceful mood for my visit. The 40 minute bike trip from Matsumoto Station to the residence winds through small neighborhoods and patches of farmland. The front of the entrance is opposite wide open fields, making the property really pop. There’s a manicured space between the street and the gate with a path, trees, and flowers.

I parked my bike out front and wandered the front garden area before entering the inner-gate. At 10 in the morning, I was the only visitor. This enhanced the beauty of the experience after my relaxing bicycle ride.

The inner-gate, looking out toward farmland.

The inner-gate, looking out toward farmland.

Inner-Gate – Legend has it that the impressive inner-gate was built to welcome the lord of Takashima Castle, in neighboring Suwa. Being close to the family, the lord was known to visit the property. The family’s wealth when the buildings were constructed in the 1850s and their ongoing friendship with the castle lord certainly make this story plausible.

View of the house through the mouth of the inner-gate.

View of the house through the mouth of the inner-gate.

The Home – After entering the gate, I walked straight to the office to begin my tour of the home. The first room is an open area where you should take your shoes off before continuing deeper into the home. In this area, you’ll already see historic photos, art, and model recreations. Almost all of the home is open for visitors. You’re allowed to explore the Lord’s Entrance, the lord’s room (and lord’s bathroom!), the master baba’s room, common rooms, the kitchen, one of the upstairs areas, and more.

It should be obvious which stairs you are allowed to go up because there will be no ropes or blockades. Upstairs is where the house caretaker lived. I enjoyed looking out over the property from the upper windows. The caretaker had a clear view of everyone coming and going through the front gate. There’s also a beautiful painting of the Baba home on display.

The welcoming kitchen made me hungry.

The welcoming kitchen made me hungry.

The Kitchen – The kitchen has the traditional cooking pit surrounded by mats, a cooking stove, a sink, and lots of photos, displays, and decorations. The pot over the cooking pit is suspended by a really cool device that allows the pod to be easily raised and lowered (I should have taken a picture of it!). The kitchen ceiling is high, using the traditional Japanese method of opening windows or the roof vent to get rid of smoke. This gives the kitchen an open, welcoming feel.

I’ve seen a few of these cooking areas in old Japanese homes, but I found this one particularly welcoming. It made me want to sit and eat with friends in a circle around a pot of delicious food!

The entrance reserved for the visiting lord of Takeshima Castle

The entrance reserved for the visiting lord of Takashima Castle

The Lord’s Entrance – The visiting lord of Takashima Castle didn’t enter through the same door as other visitors. You’ll find the lord’s ornate entrance positioned off the courtyard in line with the inner-gate. The room he entered would be closed off to others when he arrived. In this room, the head Baba and the lord would commune. Directly off of this room, toward the garden, you’ll find the room where the lord slept. This is the room where you’ll find the painting of Takeda and his descendants.

This area made my imagination run wild. It made me think of the first episode of Game of Thrones where King Robert was talking to Lord Stark Winterfell. I kept wondering what kind of political intrigue was discussed behind closed doors. What sorts of real-life historical dramas could have been set in this home?

View of the inner-gate from the Lord's Entrance.

View of the inner-gate from the Lord’s Entrance.

 

The Bathroom – Just off of the lord’s room, you’ll find a bathroom! I’ve visited quite a few old Japanese homes and I’d never seen a bathroom built inside a home! There is a wooden sink, a urinal, and a small room with a hole to squat over. Above the sink, you’ll find holes where water would have been piped down. The sink had a slight slope toward a hole in the wall that drained outside. I hope you’re as excited as I am about this (rudimentary, but highly functional) toilet area! But… maybe it’s just me…

View of the garden from inside the home.

View of the garden from inside the home.

The Garden – The gate to the most beautiful garden on the property is closed off to the public. But, don’t worry! The Garden is in full display from the home itself! The garden has a series of ponds, connected by a small creek. I enjoyed sitting on the edge of the home and soaking up the greenery.

The Storehouse – There’s a storehouse directly behind the home that’s open to the public and that I was pretty excited about. I’ve seen so many of these storehouses along Nakamachi Street in downtown Matsumoto, but I’d never been able to explore one in its original condition! The storehouse was set up to showcase a few artifacts related to the storehouse and the home’s architecture.

In the upstairs of the storehouse, you’ll see photos and luggage of a Baba who had travelled the world as a diplomat in the early 20th century. I love exploring this Baba’s adventures through the photos on display!

Farm equipment on display.

Farm equipment on display.

Farm Equipment Showcase – In the courtyard in front of the home, you’ll find a few other buildings to explore, including one dedicated to showing the Babas’ retired farm equipment. There are saws, sickles, carts, and all sorts contraptions I couldn’t identify. My favorite part were the old photos of the Babas’ fields being worked. These photos reminded me of visiting my ancestors’ farms back in western Washington, USA.

Silk Weaving Machines – Another building off the front courtyard showcases silk weaving equipment. The family raised silkworms in layered beds that you can see on display. You can see the many machines used to process the silk.

Neolithic settlement, dating thousands of years before the Babas.

Neolithic settlement, dating thousands of years before the Babas.

Neolithic Artifacts – The last building off the courtyard was my favorite. This was surprising because I hadn’t read anything about this during my research of the property! Apparently, the Baba Family Residence is on the site of Neolithic community, dating back thousands of years. You can see many artifacts excavated from the area. There are tools, arrowheads, 4,000 year old pots, and lots of photos of the excavated homes. There’s even a model recreation of what the homes looked like at the time.

My favorite artifact was the 3,000 year old stone figure. It’s carved on a flat stone, about the size of a doll. It’s cracked in half, but the carved features are still easy to identify.

Stone Figure on display.

Stone Figure on display.

I knew there would be lots of history at the Baba Family Residence, but the Neolithic artifacts really impressed me! I can’t believe this isn’t promoted more!

Baba family shrine, sitting in front of an 800 year old tree.

Baba family shrine, sitting in front of an 800 year old tree.

Baba Family Shrine – On your way out of the property, there’s still one more stop! The Baba family’s shrine is in the middle of a batch of trees in front of the property. It’s hard to miss because the trees are an island in the middle of flat farmland. The shrine is a traditional shrine with a Shinto gate and a little enclosed shrine building. The key feature is the 800 year old tree directly behind it! The trunk is massive!

Walkway to the office.

Walkway to the office.

Overall, the Baba Family Residence has a lot more to offer than you might expect. There were a few pamphlets in English, but expect to be on your own after paying the entrance fee. Although it has such a small presence online, it has jumped high on my list of places I recommend tourists visit. It’s a great place to explore, relax, and soak up the beauty – especially if the weather is clear enough for a bike ride.

For information on opening times, admission fees, etc., please see the Baba Family Residence page.

Hayashi Castle Ruins Hike in Iriyamabe

We all know the super famous Matsumoto Castle, but did you know that long before Matsumoto Castle was built that there were several castles built on the mountains that surround Matsumoto? (Here you can see a basic map of the major castle locations). Unfortunately, they are mostly in ruins or only barely recognizable by a bump in the earth, but for a couple of the castles you can still see large parts of the stonewalls and climb around on the ruins. I don’t know about you, but I love to explore old ruins like that and imagine what it was like when the castles were actually still in commission!

So, a couple of weeks ago I discovered the Hayashi Castle hiking trail in the Yamabe area where you can not only walk through a beautiful forest trail, but you also get to see the ruins of two castles along the way. The trail only takes 2 to 3 hours to complete so it’s a perfect way to get in some light hiking in the morning or afternoon.

Hayashi Castle ruins

Hayashi Castle ruins (“big castle”)

For just a bit of history, Hayashi Castle actually consists of two separate castles located on two separate, but nearby mountains. They were built sometime around the 15th century by Ogasawara clan which governed the Shinano Province, but it was taken over by Takeda Shingen in the battle of Shiojiri Pass in 1548. There is an excellent overview of the history here for those who want to know more.

There are a couple of entrances to the trail, but the easiest one to find and start at is located right at the base of the mountain at the start of the Iriyamabe area along the Susuki River. It’s marked with a fairly large sign written in Japanese and you’ll find a supply of bamboo hiking sticks that are free to use, as well as a box that contains a map of the trail (assuming they haven’t run out). (I added English translations to the original map to mark the most important points. Click here to see or download)

Bamboo hiking sticks free to borrow! Maps located in the box.

Bamboo hiking sticks free to borrow! Maps located in the box.

Right off the bat, you’ll have to climb up a steep slope for several minutes, but you’ll be rewarded with a great panoramic view of Matsumoto and the Japan Alps along the way. After hiking through a nice pine forest and reaching the top of the mountain, you’ll find the first castle ruins – Hayashi-Ojo (林城(大城), lit. big Hayashi Castle). The basic earthworks and some of the stonewalls are still there, and you’ll find some round stones that have a square carved out of them (I think maybe some kind of post support? See photo).

After that, follow the signs toward Hayashi-Kojo (林小城) and Otsuki (大嵩崎), heading back down the mountain on the other side, where you’ll spot a small “Otsuki Mountain God” shrine before coming out into the small village (called Otsuki). If you check the little altar of the shrine, there will probably be some offerings of snacks and/or sake placed there.

Start of the trail

Start of the trail

In the pine forest

In the pine forest

Nice view of Matsumoto

Nice view of Matsumoto

I think these are old post stones from the castle

Old post stones?

The "mountain god" shrine

The “mountain god” shrine

You’ll walk down the road through the village for a few minutes, keep an eye out for the old metal fire bell that’s hanging from a wooden post along the road. Then look for the sign that points to where the trail continues. Basically you have to turn left into what looks like a road into the fields, but at the foot of the mountain there you’ll see a big fence and gate. This is where the trail continues. It’s okay to open the gate and enter, just make sure you close it properly. Inside the gate and just as you enter the forest, you see one of my favorite spots on the the trail – “Jigoku no Kama” or “Hell’s Cauldron.” This is basically a sinkhole of some sort and on the sign it reads that no one knows if it’s natural or man-made, but apparently a horse got trapped in the sinkhole and died sometime in the past. Or as my colleague theorizes, perhaps it was some kind of trap or protection for guarding the castle!

Walking through the village

Walking through the village

The gate into the mountains

The gate into the mountains

Jigoku no Kama - Hell's Cauldron

Jigoku no Kama – Hell’s Cauldron

After passing Hell’s Cauldron (don’t fall in!), you’ll trek up the second mountain to reach the second castle, Hayashi-kojo (林小城, lit. small Hayashi Castle). This castle is somewhat smaller, but the castles walls and shape are more prominent than the first one. You can see the basic outline/form of the castle and climb around on the top. It wouldn’t be a bad place for a picnic, as you can see a good view of Matsumoto through the trees from the top of the castle. After you’re done frolicking around on the castle, backtrack just a little bit to where there is a split in the trail at the foot of the castle, where there is a sign pointing toward Kotakuji Temple (廣澤寺). Follow the signs toward the temple until you reach the bottom of the mountain on the other side. Once you come out at the bottom (there’s another gate there), you can head back to where you started the trail to grab your bicycle or bus or walk back down the river to the city. (Of course you can optionally visit the temple too, though it’s in the opposite direction).

Hayashi Castle walls at the "small castle"

Hayashi Castle walls at the “small castle”

On top of the "small castle"

On top of the “small castle”

Sign to Kotakuji Temple

Sign to Kotakuji Temple

The rice patties once reaching the bottom of the mountain.

The rice patties once reaching the bottom of the mountain.

Access:
The closest bus stop is Satoyamabe Shutchojo on the Iriyamabe Line. However, the bus runs quite infrequently so you will need to plan well, or even better, use a bicycle. Just ride up the Susuki River until you reach the foot of the mountain. You could even walk from Matsumoto Station in about one hour. There will be a sign marking the start of the trail across the bridge at the edge of the trees. You can also park along the river in some places if you have a car.
See on Google Maps

Trail Map:
I added some English to the original Japanese map to mark the most important spots on the trail. See the PDF below:
Hayashi Castle Ruins Trail Map with English (PDF)

Tour de Utsukushigahara Heights 2017

Tour de Utsukushigahara - Cyclists

Tour de Utsukushigahara is one of the premiere Japanese bicycle races.

Once a year, thousands of people line the streets to watch and compete in the Tour de Utsukushigahara Heights bicycle race! These bicyclists trek the 21.6 km at a 5.9% average incline. That’s a 1,270 meter altitude difference from start to finish! I was lucky enough to watch this premiere Japanese bicycle race this year.

I woke up at 6:30AM on Sunday, June 25, 2017. I was at the starting line by 7:00AM, just north of the Matsumoto Baseball Stadium. With 30 minutes left before the race kicked off, the area was already full of bicyclists, workers, and spectators.

Participants were practicing their warm-up traditions. Some stretched, some were doing warm-up laps, and some spend the whole time reviewing their bicycle and gear. It was almost time! Workers ran around, keeping people off the course and away from technical equipment, as photographers, cyclists, and spectators crowded the starting line to see the start of the race.

The time-card girls flashed the 1 minute card… then the 30 second card. BANG! With the sound of the gun, the first round of cyclists rushed down the street and around the corner!

Tour de Utsukushigahara - 1 Minute

The time-card girl showing the 1 minute card.

Tour de Utsukushigahara - Start

The race begins!

The course makes its way through the bathhouse district and into hillside neighborhoods. From there, the trees take over as the course winds its way up the mountain side. After enjoying the start of the race, I made my way up the hill along the side of the course. Every time a new round of cyclists started the race, the crowds on the side of the road cheered and made loud noises with make-shift shakers and drums. I stopped to take photos of each wave of cyclists. When the last cyclist of a wave finally turned around the corner, disappearing behind buildings, the spectators would quiet down while waiting for the next batch of cyclists to come by.

Tour de Utsukushigahara - Mountain

The mountain looms menacingly.

If you want to participate in the race, the application period is usually from March to May. To just watch, definitely get there early! The road up the mountain is blocked off starting at 6:00AM. It’s possible to walk up the course a fair distance, but I recommend staying in the city/neighborhood areas to do your cheering. Get there by 7:00AM to claim the spot you want.

Tour de Utsukushigahara - Hill

Cyclists pushing uphill.

I was impressed by the size and intensity of the race. I was even more impressed by the men and women – young to old – who pushed themselves to accomplish this amazing feat! Regardless of if you participate, I highly recommend attending the Tour de Utsukushigahara if you ever have the chance! It’s a very inspiring experience!


You can see my videos on Matsumoto (and more!) on my Discovery Makes Knowledge Youtube channel!


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