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Road Trip!! Special Passes for Tourists

Convenient access to some of Japan’s more remote regions with the following ETC (tolls) discount passes.

Central Nippon Expressway Pass (CEP)

Explore the central area of Japan’s largest island.

Requires:
– Non-Japanese passport if you are a visitor/proof of permanent residence in another country if you are Japanese
– Driver’s license that is valid in Japan  (or International Driving Permit)

Rates
The pass can be purchased for a period of as little as 2 days (5,000 yen) and up to 14 days (16,000 yen). Other optional areas can also be added.

For more information on rates, participating rental companies, routes, and more please visit the Central Nippon Expressway Company website.

*NEW* Japan Expressway Pass (JEP)

The new, expanded special discount ETC pass allows tourists to explore Japan from top to bottom (Hokkaido pass sold separately).

Requires:
– Non-Japanese passport if you are a visitor/proof of permanent residence in another country if you are Japanese
– Driver’s license that is valid in Japan (or International Driving Permit)

Rates
7-day pass: 20,000 yen
14-day pass: 34,000 yen

For more information on participating rental companies, routes, driving tips, and more please visit the national expressway information site DoRaPuRa (E-NEXCO Drive Plaza) website.

Reservations
Reservation must be made through participating rental companies listed on the above websites.

*WINTER DRIVING*

Please note that areas within Nagano Prefecture require winter tires or tires with chains. Your car will be inspected before you are allowed to drive on certain roads. Fortunately, rent-a-car locations in the area typically offer their rentals with winter tires or chains at no extra cost.

In addition, certain mountain passes are also closed during winter months as a result of heavy snowfall.

Old-fashioned Guns Impress at Matsumoto Castle

This past weekend, the 29th Old-fashioned Gun Firing Exhibition was held at Matsumoto Castle! I didn’t get to see the show in person, but thanks to one of the bloggers (Nishimori) from the Japanese web page (see article here), we have a couple of nice photos to share from the event!

Twice a year, Matsumoto Castle hold a special gun show where you can see (and hear!) old-fashioned matchlock guns and muskets fired on the castle grounds. The shows are performed by different old-fashioned gun clubs from Matsumoto and other parts of Japan. It’s not only impressive to observe the guns themselves, but the gun club members dress in traditional samurai armor so you can really imagine what it might have been like to be a soldier at that time.

In formation and... bang!

In formation and… bang! (Photo credit: Nishimori)

The old-fashioned gun clubs posing in front of the castle.

The old-fashioned gun clubs posing in front of the castle. (Photo credit: Nishimori)

Matchlock guns like the ones fired at the exhibition were supposedly used at Matsumoto Castle, which has specially constructed windows that allowed the soldiers to shoot from inside the keep.

Also, if you love to learn about old-style guns like these, then you won’t want to miss the superb matchlock gun museum inside of Matsumoto Castle! Here, there are over 140 matchlocks and other armaments on display (Learn more about the gun exhibit on the Matsumoto Castle website).

If you missed the actual shooting demonstration, you can see it twice a year in the spring (April or May) and in October. (Event info here)

Matchlock guns, some with beautiful designs, in Matsumoto Castle

Matchlock guns, some with beautiful designs, in Matsumoto Castle

Asama Hot Springs Torch Festival: Night of Flames and Fun

“Wear clothes that you don’t mind getting holes burned in” was the advice I got when asking how I should prepare for Asama Hot Springs’ Torch Festival (called “Taimatsu Matsuri” in Japanese). My work colleagues and I had been invited to participate in the festival and when I first imagined what a “torch festival” would be like, I envisioned a procession of people each carrying their own little handheld torch through the town like you see in movies about medieval Europe.

Not even close.

The torches were not small, handheld fire sticks—they were humongous, flaming bundles of straw that weighed hundreds of pounds, were taller than me, and required at least ten people just to drag through the street.

Torch passing under the lantern light arches

Torch getting carried through Asama Hot Springs

Constructed from the straw, these giant torches represent the success of the autumn harvest. Every year in October, several groups ranging from the local kindergartens to the traditional inns in Asama Hot Springs make their own torch, and on the day of the festival, they light them on fire and bring them burning to the local shrine as a kind of offering. Once they arrive at the shrine, the torches are thrown into a huge fire which continues to grow as more of fiery offerings arrive. The fire creates thick plumes of smoke that rise into night sky, which also have an important role to play: the guardian spirit who has watched over the crops and the harvest here on earth “rides” the smoke to return to his home in the heavens.

Our group was to carry the torch for Umenoyu Hot Spring, one of the largest. So to get ready for the ceremony, we donned our festive happi coats, wrapped a towels around our heads (to help keep burning ashes off of our hair), and drug our torch into the road to await the official bringer of the fire.

Lighting of the torch

Lighting of the torch

Once lit, it was time to carry the torch to the shrine, as task requiring a total of one hour and whole lot of strength. Though I say “carry,” I think “drag” is probably a better word. Our torch was so big and heavy that it took six or seven of the young men in our group to surround the body of the torch and support its weight using their backs, while the rest of us grabbed the two attached ropes in order to pull and drag it along the path.

Ready, set, heave!

Ready, set, heave!

To my surprise, as we moved down the street, they continued to douse torch with water, at first almost extinguishing the flame. It didn’t take long to figure out why, however: the longer we heaved smoldering bundle of straw through the streets, the stronger and stronger the fire grew, burning through the core of the torch and causing chunks of fiery straw to rain down onto our heads and back. It quickly became difficult to keep the fire tame, no matter how much water we poured on top. At times the flames grew so tall that they threatened to scorch the lantern lights hanging across the arches above the streets.

Pouring buckets of water on the torch

Pouring buckets of water on the torch

Torch passing under the lantern light arches

Torch passing under the lantern light arches

Chunks of flaming straw falling off the torch

Chunks of flaming straw falling off the torch

Besides all the fire, another one of the fun “highlights,” if you will, of this festival is getting your face smeared with torch soot. Not only the torch carriers themselves, but even most of the spectators (whether they like it or not) end up with a layer of charcoal black “make-up” on their cheeks before the end of the night. My first thought was that it must be some kind of rite of passage that proves you were actually there, but in fact this little “ritual” does have some meaning, as it is said to help protect one’s good health for the next year.

There is no escaping getting black smeared all over your face.

There is no escaping getting black smeared all over your face.

Needless to say, we all had our faces smeared black by the time we reached the bottom of the hill below the shrine. Our last task was to muster our remaining strength, drag our torch up to the big fire, and shove it into the flames (which felt more like an inferno when we got close to it). Luckily, after making it up the hill, we just needed to give our torch a good shove before firefighters clad in spiffy, silver fire-proof suit took over, quickly deconstructing the bundles of straw and tossing them into the fire.

Mission complete—the guardian spirit was now riding home with the help of our torch’s smoke! And for us, it was time to head back and take dip in the hot spring :)

Firefighters burning the torches as they arrive

Firefighters burning the torches as they arrive

Mission complete!

Mission complete!

If you want to see this fiery festival for yourself and maybe get your face rubbed in torch soot, the Torch Festival takes place every year on the night of the second Saturday of October. The best part is that you’ll be right in the center of Asama Hot Springs, one of Japan’s best hot spring towns, with plenty of beautiful ryokan and hot spring hotels to stay at, or for a quick visit, there’s the big public bath, Hot Plaza Asama.

Mame Mame serves up a little known local specialty: Usuyaki

Usuyaki at the Mame Mame cafe

Usuyaki at the Mame Mame cafe

When I started looking into the local foods in Matsumoto, I learned about soba (buckwheat noodles), oyaki (a kind of stuffed dumpling), sanzokuyaki (marinated and deep-fried chicken), and nozawana green pickles. Usuyaki, however, never came up.

So when I spotted Mame Mame (pronounced “mah-may mah-may”), which on its shop windows boldly proclaims to sell “usuyaki, a Matsumoto local food,” it instantly piqued my curiosity. What was this supposed local specialty and why hadn’t I heard of it? So, when I popped into the shop, I took the chance to ask Mr. Maruyama, the Mame Mame’s owner, all about usuyaki.

Mame Mame storefront

Mame Mame storefront

Mr. Maruyama describes usuyaki as “Matsumoto-style pancakes,” though they are quite different from the fluffy, maple syrup-doused breakfast version you might typically think of when hearing the word “pancake.” In Japan, traditionally usuyaki was cooked when rice was scarce and also served as a way to use up leftovers: cooked beans, vegetables, and even steamed rice.

To make usuyaki, leftover scraps of food or cooked vegetables are mixed with flour, water, and sometimes eggs to make a batter, which is then fried in an oiled pan like a pancake. There is no set recipe—just like everyone in the U.S. has their own recipe for the “best” pot of chili, every household here makes their usuyaki different from their neighbors: Some people use eggs and some don’t; some usuyaki are thin and flabby and others are thick and dense.

Usuyaki getting cooked up in the frying pans

Usuyaki getting cooked up in the frying pans

Technically, you can find usuyaki in nearby regions outside of city, but Mr. Maruyama, a native of Yokohama, was inspired by the usuyaki he ate in his wife’s hometown, the Nagawa area of Matsumoto. Here, he told me, the older ladies would whip up usuyaki as a snack to take with them to their farms or to give to children when they came home from school. Although locals would regard these pancakes as nothing more than a humble way to use up leftovers (hence its absence from local food shops and internet searches), Mr. Maruyama found the dish and its endless variety so fascinating that he decided to open a cafe in Matsumoto dedicated to it.

At Mame Mame, Mr. Maruyama offers about eight kinds of usuyaki every day, including sweet and savory flavors. He uses only local, Nagano-produced flour and buckwheat flour as the base for the batter. The fruits, vegetables, and herbs used to create the different flavors are chosen based on what is in season locally—including many ingredients that are grown on Mr. Maruyama’s own farm in Nagawa.

Mr. Maruyama's soba farm

Mr. Maruyama’s soba farm

The traditional usuyaki mix-ins include kabocha squash, sweet potatoes, and hanamame beans; while more unorthodox versions might be flavored with cheese and sausages, or verge on the sweet side with apples and cinnamon, or chocolate and bananas. The batter is fried into thick, round pancakes, then cut into wedges so you can easily try several flavors. The price for one wedge ranges from ¥180 to ¥250.

Wedges of usuyaki on display

Wedges of usuyaki on display

One whole usuyaki pancake fresh from the frying pan!

One whole usuyaki pancake fresh from the frying pan!

For my first taste of usuyaki, I tried the popular “hanamame bean and egoma seed” flavor. Hanamame beans are large, purplish, locally grown beans that are cooked to be slightly sweet. Egoma seeds come from a plant related to the Japanese herb, shiso (also known as perilla or beefsteak plant), and adds a delightful and subtle crackling texture to the usuyaki. The batter was made with fifty percent buckwheat flour which gave batter a wonderfully toasty aroma.

Hanamame beans and egoma seed usuyaki

Hanamame beans and egoma seed usuyaki

You can get usuyaki as a take-out snack, or turn it into a light lunch combo with soup. It makes a great treat to bring for hiking or walking around Matsumoto. On Sundays and holidays, you can also get it for breakfast starting at nine o’clock. Mame Mame has a good assortment of drinks like coffee, tea, local juices, wine, and beer. You can eat at the counter in the shop and there are even outlets with phone chargers available! Shop hours and location are as follows:

Shop Hours

Weekdays & Saturday: 11:00 a.m.–7:00 p.m. (Closed on Wednesdays)
Sunday & holidays: 9:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.
Lunchtime hours: 11:30 a.m.–2:00 p.m.

Location and Map

Mame Mame is located on the east end of the Nakamachi Area, less than a 15-minute walk from the castle and about 10 minutes from the station.

(Photos from Mame Mame’s Facebook page, used with permission)

Matsumoto Soba Festival

The 14th Matsumoto Soba Festival was held at Matsumoto Castle this past three-day weekend October 7 – 9 (Sat – Mon), 2017. Soba, which means buckwheat, is also used to refer to buckwheat noodles. Due to the high altitudes and harsh winters of Nagano Prefecture, soba has long been cultivated as it is a robust crop that can withstand the elements.

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Since the festival was held on the outer edge of Matsumoto Castle, you could also enjoy the view of the historic wooden structure while browsing the various stalls. While the castle is walking distance from JR Matsumoto Station, temporary bicycle and scooter parking was also available at businesses around the castle.
 

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20171008_143011With nearly 20 soba vendors from all over the country, there was a variety of tasty noodles and broths to try. Soba is served both hot and cold.  While Nagano Prefecture is especially famous for its soba, other vendors representing prefectures such as Hokkaido, Fukui, and Fukushima allowed visitors opportunities to savor their spins on the dish.

 

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Soba noodles served cold in a tsuyu broth and topped with grated radish, chopped onions, and bonito flakes.

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Rows of food stalls offered freshly made soba and also dried soba to take home. Local fruits, vegetables, crafts, and more were also being sold, including apples, another Nagano specialty that is now in season. Other food trucks and stalls offered tacos, grilled meats, crepes, and more.

If you missed the festival, fear not, you can still find many local restaurants offering great soba year round!

Peak Autumn Colors in the Mountains of Matsumoto!

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Despite a sudden return to warm weather, autumn leaves have reached their peak in the following areas!

Kamikochi (open until Nov. 15)

View from Taisho Pond (Photo credit: Kamikochi.org)

View from Taisho Pond (Photo credit: Kamikochi.org)


Differing from the typical multi-color autumn foliage, the central area of Kamikochi turns a brilliant gold thanks to the large number of birch trees.

Karasawa area of Kamikochi

Karasawa area of Kamikochi (Photo credit: kamikochi.org)

Karasawa area of Kamikochi (Photo credit: kamikochi.org)


Karasawa is perhaps one of the most famous spots for seeing the fall colors in Nagano. Here the mountains are said to be “on fire” in the autumn. It requires a long hike from central kamikochi and an overnight stay at the Karasawa Hut, but it will be worth ever step. The leaves will fade soon, so now is the time to go! Check out this post on the Kamikochi site for more info and photos.

Norikura Highlands and Mt. Norikuradake

Fall leaves on Mt. Norikuradake (Photo credit: Norikura Highlands tourism website -  norikurakogen.info)

Fall leaves on Mt. Norikuradake (Photo credit: Norikura Highlands tourism website –
norikurakogen.info)


Another famous spot for seeing fall leaves in Nagano! The highlands are easy to access by bus from Matsumoto and there are several laid-back trails to walk. From there you can take another bus up to the summit of Mt. Norikuradake (though, the colors are starting to fade here). See more info on our Norikura page here. Also, see autumn photos of Norikura Highlands and Mt. Norikuradake on the Japanese Norikura tourism website.

Tengu no Taki (Waterfall)

Located in the Nagawa area of Matsumoto, off the beaten path, and a beautiful sight with the waterfall among the colorful leaves! Unfortunately, you need a car (or taxi) to get there. (See map)

Other areas currently good to see now (mid-Oct.)

Will start changing colors soon (end of Oct)

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Awesome October Events in Matsumoto (2017)

Are you in Matsumoto this month? Check out these exciting events and festivals that will give you a chance to experience local food, culture, and crafts!

You can also bookmark these events on your Facebook here on our Facebook event page.

Shinshu Matsumoto Soba Festival

A great festival for foodies where you can try not only soba from all around Japan, but also other kinds of local foods and crafts. The theme of this year’s festival is “slow food, slow life” and there will be over 50 booths.
sobafest

Dates: Saturday, October 7 to Monday, October 9
Time: 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
Location: Matsumoto Castle Park

Hotaka Shrine Boat Festival in Kamikochi

A beautiful ceremony held on the waters of Myojin Pond in Kamikochi.
hotaka

Dates: Sunday, October 8
Time: 11 a.m.–12 p.m.
Location: Myojin Pond/Hotaka Shrine in Kamikochi

Matsumoto Castle Joint Tea Ceremony

A big tea party put on by five different Japanese tea ceremony schools. Enjoy sipping traditional matcha green tea right in front of Matsumoto Castle!
teaparty

Dates: Monday, October 9
Time: 10 a.m.–3 p.m. (Last entry at 2:30 p.m.)
Location: Matsumoto Castle Honmaru Garden (admission into the garden is free)
Cost: 500 yen per person (advanced tickets available: 2,000 yen for five people)

Asama Hot Springs Torch Festival (Taimatsu Matsuri)

An exciting, and perhaps a bit crazy, annual festival that involves bring huge, burning torches to the local Shinto shrine (Misha Shrine). The torches are up to three-meters wide!
taimatsu

Dates: Saturday, October 14
Time: 7 p.m.–9:30 p.m.
Location: Asama Hot Springs

Old-fashioned Gun Firing Exhibition at Matsumoto Castle

See old-style muskets and harquebuses (matchlock guns) loaded and fired by gunmen clad in samurai armor.
oldguns

Date: Sunday, October 15th
Time: 1:30 p.m.–3 p.m.
Location: Matsumoto Castle Honmaru Garden (admission into the garden is free)

Autumn Craft Picnic

A hands-on craft event in Agatanomori Park with craft-making workshops and handmade goods made by Japanese craftsmen and artists.
craftpicnic

Dates: Saturday, October 14 to Sunday, October 15
Time: 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
Location: Agatanomori Park

Tsukimi–A Timeless Tradition of Appreciating the Beauty of the Moon

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Tsukimi means “moon viewing”, and in Japan, gatherings are held to view the harvest moon—often in conjunction with harvest festivals. Tsukimi is officially celebrated on the 15th night of the eighth month according to the lunar calendar.

Matsumoto Castle Tsukimi

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Live music being performed within the castle.

Matsumoto Castle is celebrating tsukimi with live music performances and tea ceremony demonstrations on the castle grounds. The event is being held this week 9/29(Fri)–10/4(Wed) 5:30–8:30 p.m. It is free to enter the castle grounds and ¥500 to view the tea ceremony up close and receive freshly whisked matcha or green tea. Other light snacks are also available for purchase.

Come bask in the radiance of the moon and illuminated castle while listening to traditional music. Instruments include the shamisen and the koto, and the sound of the music floating across the grounds leaves you feeling that you have been transported back in time.

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A flower display exhibiting the Japanese art ikebana and sweets called dango add a sense of festivity to the occasion. 

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Shinto Festival & Traditional Float Display at Yohashira Shrine

Yohashira Shrine, right in the middle of Matsumoto, is holding its annual 3-day Shinto Festival (神道祭) which features fireworks and a display of the city’s traditional wooden “floats” (called butai) along the main road leading to Matsumoto Castle. Today (Oct. 2nd) is the second day of the festival, so if didn’t get a chance to see it yesterday or are just coming into Matsumoto today, you can still go check it out!

Food stalls and festival decorations at Yohashira Shrine

Food stalls and festival decorations at Yohashira Shrine

Each of the butai floats has its own unique, intricate carvings and a kind of traditional Japanese doll sitting under each float’s roof. As for the fireworks, they aren’t your typical big firework show where huge fireworks are shot into the sky — instead, you can see a special kind of “Niagara” display that make the river look like it’s been set ablaze in colorful line of fire.

Niagara fireworks

Niagara fireworks

One of the butai floats

One of the butai floats

Besides the butai display and fireworks, there will be a Shinto ceremony in the afternoon and live music throughout the late afternoon and evening. And, if you really want to enjoy atmosphere of a typical Japanese festival, go check out the numerous food and game stalls that are set up in front of the shrine and along Nawate Street! They’ll be dishing out favorites like yakisoba, takoyaki, chocolate bananas, and more.

Schedule of events for Oct. 2nd

  • Wooden Float (Butai) Display: 7 a.m—4 p.m., along Daimyocho Street (main street leading to the castle) and in plaza in front of Yohashira Shrine.
  • Shinto Ceremony: 1:30 p.m. at Yohashira Shrine
  • Live Music: 2:40 p.m. until around 8:00 p.m.
  • “Niagara” Fireworks on the Metoba River: Starts at 8:30 p.m. (cancelled in case of heavy rain)
  • Festival Food and Game Stalls: All day!
Butai floats lined up near the shrine

Butai floats lined up near the shrine

Shrine & Festival Map

Garbage Sorting App “threeR” – Free Download!

Constantly baffled by the complexity of Japan’s garbage sorting? Now there’s a free app to help you figure out how to properly dispose of your garbage.

Garbage_sorting_app

Called threeR (reduce, reuse, recycle) or さんあ~る, the free app is available for download via the App Store (iOS 8.0 or higher) or Google Play (Android OS 4.0 or higher). Matsumoto City is officially registered on the app.

After downloading the app choose “New Registration”, select “Nagano Prefecture”, then select “Matsumoto City”. After that, select your district and agree to the terms of service, and you’re all set!

Although some notices will appear in Japanese, you’ll find a calendar of when to take out certain items and charts detailing how to dispose of different types of garbage and recyclables written in English.

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While you may still need to carry your trash around with you due to the utter lack of public garbage cans, when you do finally happen upon that oasis of trash receptacles, hopefully you’ll be a little less confused about what goes where!


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