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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



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



Speaking of gelato, just this week I also noticed that Nakamachi Kura Marche, another shop on Nakamachi street, started selling gelato too, which I believe features flavors made with local ingredients. Check it out if you’re interested! (map)

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!

Shinshu Wine Summit This Week in Matsumoto

The light-bodied, white wine selection

The light-bodied, white wine selection

Wine fans! This week the Shinshu Wine Summit is being held in Matsumoto (Wed., June 21st to Mon., June 26th), and if you’re interested in wine, I’d definitely recommend checking it out! Yesterday, I was invited by one of my friends and it really turned out to be a fun time so I just had to share on the blog.

The Wine Summit is set up in the plaza/park next to the Parco department store. On weekdays, it’s open from 5 pm to 9 pm, and on weekends from 11 am to 9 pm. There are over 120 kinds of wine from 40 wineries, all from Nagano. There are four wine counters where you go and order the wine, which are separated by type: full-bodied white, light-bodied white/sparkling, full-bodied red, and light-bodied red. Though the wine list only seemed to be available in Japanese, at each counter they had the actual bottles out in front to view (most of them have English labels) and on top of that, there were sommeliers (at least a couple could speak English) waiting on each customer to explain the different wines.

The wine ordering counters

The wine ordering counters

One glass coming right up!

One glass coming right up!

To be honest, I’ve had a lot of bad luck with Japanese wines, but yesterday at the Wine Summit, I got to taste a couple of really nice ones, both red and white, and they weren’t necessarily expensive! In general, the wines ranged from 600 yen to 2,000 yen for a full glass, with a couple of more expensive selections. Half glasses at half the price were also available.

The food was pretty good (good pizzas, grilled seafood like oysters & scallops, fresh fruits, etc.) and not to pricey, too. The seating was set up like those German-style beer tents, so the atmosphere was fun and casual, and it wasn’t too crowded, though it will probably more crowded on the weekend. If you need a break from wine, you can get a glass of locally-brewed, Hotaka Beer.

The party tent ;)

The party tent ;)

White mushroom pizza

White mushroom pizza

Nuggets of fried fish

Nuggets of fried fish

Locally brewed Hotaka Beer is also making an appearance!

Locally brewed Hotaka Beer is also making an appearance!

I’m so used to the super crowded, super expensive festivals like this in Tokyo and Yokohama, I was pleasantly surprised at the Wine Summit. So, if you’re eager to try some Japanese wines or just enjoy the fun, party-like atmosphere, then I highly recommend checking out the wine summit before it ends!

My personal recommendation is the Riesling on the right. A little on the sweet side, but good balance.

My personal recommendation is the Riesling on the right. A little on the sweet side, but good balance. Also, the Sogga pere et fils Merlot & Cabernet for red.

Hashigo Yokocho food court : vegan options available

So you’ve come to Matsumoto and have been to eat at all the usual tourist spots, or you just want to get away from the crowds and try something a bit different, Hashigo Yokocho on Uramachi Street is the perfect place for you. Tucked away between all the bars, clubs and sunakku is the perfect little food court. The name Hashigo, meaning ladder, is also used in Japanese for hopping from one place to another, e.g bar hopping, and Yokocho are the little narrow alleys full of shops and cheap places to eat. The name suits the place perfectly as you can easily hop from one store to the next and there are plenty of choices for food available.

DSC_0540

Whether driving, cycling, walking or taking the bus you shouldn’t have any problem at all, there is free parking for both bikes and cars, it is only a 2 minute walk from the bus stop. However, even if you are walking from the station it is only about 15 minutes and from the castle, only 10. On a nice day I’m sure you will love the walk.

DSC_0544

 

Upon arriving, you first notice the beautiful traditional Japanese style entrance and just inside there is a small Torii (archway) and miniature shrine which really adds a nice touch. Inside is like stepping back in time to a more traditional Japan. I found myself instantly reminded of the movie spirited away with the amazing style of everything.

DSC_0543

Taking a walk around, you can check out all the cute little stores. Most only big enough for a handful of people. Every store has its own style, for starters, right by the entrance there is a store called “Shun” where you can try “Oden” a Japanese dish consisting of different vegetables, fish cakes and eggs all boiled together in a delicious broth.

DSC_0555

You can try Chinese food at “Lili’s Kitchen”, Teppanyaki (food cooked on the hotplate right in front of you) at “Teppanyaki Fumoto” or go to an izakaya (Japanese style bar) for a beer or sake.

Every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday you can go early to buy fresh locally grown vegetables from “Sasaki Seeds” and take home with you to cook later.

IMG_3774

All your tea needs can be met at “Chahua” selling a wide range of different Chinese and herbal teas and accessories such as cute little tea pots. Although the owner doesn’t speak much English, they are very friendly and helpful and will happily brew a tea for you in store.

.tea shop

 

My personal favorites, however, are the 5 star Indian restaurant “Doon Shokudo Indoyama” and the cafe “Chokonto”

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Doon Shokudo Indoyama is run by a lovely couple who speak fluent English. You have your choice of three delicious curries including a vegan option if you are not much of a meat eater. All curries come with a popadom, chapati and great conversation. Also feel free to ask the owner for extra rice if you’re feeling hungry.

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Chokonto is by far one of the cutest cafes I have ever stepped inside, it has a real lovely style of all its own. It even has cute little handmade menus. Besides the nice variety of western style and Japanese style food and drinks, there are lots of really nice local made products that would make a great souvenir to take back home.

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As a bonus, if you happen to be in Matsumoto on the 7th of July, Hashigo Yokocho, will be hosting a small festival from 4m till 9pm where everyone will be wearing yukata (a light summer kimono) and there will special items for sale. And then everyone will head downtown afterwards.

 

So please come and join the fun. :)

Snow Walls on Mt. Norikuradake

Mt. Norikuradake with some remaining snow.

Mt. Norikuradake with some remaining snow.

I’ve been to Norikura a few times already, but last weekend was my first time at the top of Mt. Norikuradake, and WOW – it was some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. In late spring and early summer, there’s still a lot of snow left around the summit of Norikura and a corridor is carved through the snow to open the road to the top. Alpico operates a bus (Haruyama Bus) from the Norikura Kogen Tourist Information Center to the top around the snow gorge and snow walls during this season. If you are a skier, you can also take your skis up with you and freely ski down the mountain! There isn’t a lift, though, so you have to trudge up the mountain on foot (apparently this takes 2 or 3 hours…).

Skiers on the mountain

Skiers on the mountain

Mt. Norikuradake is actually made up of 8 separate peaks grouped together, with the tallest being 3,026 meters. The Haruyama bus dropped us off at just under 2,700 meters and then we were free to frolic among the huge walls of snow and amazing mountainous scenery. The walls of snow gradually melt as summer approaches, but even in mid-June this they were still at least 10 meters high! And though it was quite a warm, sunny day down below in Matsumoto, it was quite cold at 2,700 meters (I’m glad I wore a sweater and brought my knit cap!). You can have an endless snowball fight and climb around on the snow to your heart’s content, assuming of course, that you are properly equipped with proper gear. If you want to take phenomenal photos of mountains and nature, this is your place.

Hotaka Mountain Range as seen from Norikura

Hotaka Mountain Range as seen from Norikura

Huge walls of snow (and an endless supply of snowball ammo)

Huge walls of snow (and an endless supply of snowball ammo)

One of the machines that carves through the snow.

One of the machines that carves through the snow.

The mountains beyond

The mountains beyond

Instead of waiting for next bus to come and take us back to the information center, we opted to walk back down the road to a mountain lodge called Kuraigahara Sanso, which is about a 5 kilometer/1-hour walk down hill that includes more walls of snow and great views. At the Kuraigahara Sanso, we took a break for lunch then waited for the bus to take us back down. There are a lot of people who take the bus from here, so the bus may be crowded, but if there are too many people to fit on one bus, luckily Alpico will bring another one – after all, it can be quite dangerous if anyone gets stuck on the cold mountain at night!

The snow gorge between peaks of Mt. Norikuradake, as seen after walking down a bit.

The snow gorge between peaks of Mt. Norikuradake, as seen after walking down a bit.

Kuraigahara Sanso Hut, which has a bus stop and you can also order food & drinks.

Kuraigahara Sanso Hut, which has a bus stop and you can also order food & drinks.

After hopping on the bus from Kuraigahara Sanso, you can head all the way back to the Norikura Kogen Tourist Information Center, but for us, we decided to get off at a stop called Kyukamura where you can do a mini hike (about 1 hour) to see Ushidome Pond and Zengoro Falls before reaching the information center. Ushidome Pond has a super nice view of Mt. Norikuradake which is reflected on its waters, not to mention a tree that has grown into a loop shape!! (see photo below). Zengoro Falls is definitely worth seeing too – it has a powerful presence and is located in a pretty little river gorge in the forest. I’ll write more about Norikura waterfalls in a later blog post :)

You can get some more info about Norikura on this page, including a multilingual leaflet about the area. To get to the Norikura Highlands area in general, you can take the Kamikochi Line Dentetsu Train from Matsumoto to Shin-Shimashima Station and then a bus from Shin-Shimashima to one of the stops in Norikura. If you have a car, that works too, and you can park at the information center and other places for free.

Ushidome Pond

Ushidome Pond

Loopy tree!!

Loopy tree!!

Zengoro Falls and its mist

Zengoro Falls and its mist

River running down from Zengoro Falls

River running down from Zengoro Falls

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Utsukushigahara Ranch Festival 2017

 

ranch festival

This past weekend was yet another small festival in Matsumoto, this time high up in the Utsukushigahara Highlands where the Utsukushigahara Pasture is located. Though the festival itself is quite young (this year was the ninth time), use of the Utsukushigahara Pasture for cows and horses dates back to the Heian times (794-1185 AD)! The pasture is located at an elevation of about 2,000 meters, so the views of the surrounding mountains are a-ma-zing. You can see Mt. Norikura and the Japan Alps, Yatsugatake and even Mt. Fuji on a fine day.

view with trees

 

Unlike other festivals in Japan, there are no rows of food and games stands lined up along the streets and no spectacular main events. The ranch festival is more like a big family event and is held to celebrate the release of the cows into the pasture in the spring. The great thing is that it’s not crowded, you can bring your picnic blanket for relaxing, you get to see (and may pet) cows, goats and mini-horse, and the food is provided for free! Also, there are a lot of trails and walking paths where you could spend the entire day exploring and enjoying the scenery.

 

Releasing cows into the pasture

Releasing cows into the pasture

Moooo

Moooo

Kids enjoying the cows

Kids enjoying the cows

 

As I mentioned, the food, which includes curry rice made with deer meat, mochi (pounded sticky rice cakes), is provided for free, but you do have to grab one of the food tickets handed out at the tent in front of the the Utsukushi Tower. Also, every year they give out a little carton of local milk to all the festival visitors and the event is officially kicked off by doing a big, group “toast” with everyone and their boxes of milk!

 

Say cheers with milk!

Say cheers with milk!

Curry with (very small pieces of) deer meat

Curry with (very small pieces of) deer meat. I think all the meat missed the ladle when they spooned out my portion, hehe.

Fresh pounded mochi with sweet kinako and black sesame

Fresh pounded mochi with sweet kinako and black sesame

 

After the toast, the ranch workers release some of the cows in to the pasture, and the mini-horses in spot where you can actually pet them. There’s also a few games like a huge came of rock, paper, scissors that the entire crowd participates in (and kids have a chance to win a deer antler), and a performance by one of Matsumoto’s alpenhorn groups. The mochi rice is actually pounded on premises so it will be super fresh when you get to eat it, plus you might even have a chance to try your hand at pounding the rice with one of the giant, wooden mochi mallets. Another fun thing for kids is the cow-milking activity where they can experience what it’s like to milk a cow with a “model” cow with fake utters (too bad it’s not a real cow!).

 

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Alpenhorn players

Alpenhorn players

 

When the activities have died down, then it’s fun to walk around the pasture and trails, or walk to the nearby Ogato Hotel where you can get a cone of milk-flavored soft-serve ice cream. The hotel is easy to spot because it’s surrounded by a few communications towers for TV, cellphone service, etc. Walking up the trail toward the Utsukushigahara Open-Air Art Museum, you’ll find some neat stone “sculptures” that have been created by countless people piling up stones on top of one another.

 

Rock "sculptures" - you can add a stone or two yourself to contribute ;)

Rock “sculptures” – you can add a stone or two yourself to contribute ;)

The Ogato Hotel with its many towers... go here to find ice cream and coffee!

The Ogato Hotel with its many towers… go here to find ice cream and coffee!

View from Ogato Hotel

View from Ogato Hotel

Mountains! And I believe that's Matsumoto down below.

Mountains! And I believe that’s Matsumoto down below.

 

Since the area is located so high up, you’ll definitely want to bring/wear removal layers, especially a windbreaker and cap, and don’t forget the sunscreen! It can be quite chilly but the sun is harsher.

Unfortunately, the bus to Utsukushigahara only operates in the summer, so you would need a car or friend with a car to actually go to the festival. In the summer the bus to Utsukushigahara departs from Matsumoto Station and goes all the way to the art museum, or there’s an option to get off the bus earlier at Sanjiro bus stop and do a little hike to the top. See more info about that on the Utsukushigahara page here.

The ladies' room ;)

The ladies’ room ;)

Asama Hot Springs and Fujinoyu Ryokan

Last month I had a wonderful opportunity to visit the family-owned, traditional-style Japanese inn, Fujinoyu Ryokan, in the Asama Onsen (Hot Springs) area of Matsumoto. This particular ryokan is almost 200 years old (it’s been open since the 1830s!!) and has its own natural hot spring baths in the building.

There are few special things about Fujinoyu. First is its collection of antiques that include authentic samurai armor and formal wear, samurai swords, paintings and calligraphy by one of the Matsumoto Castle lords, and paintings by Kogetsu Saigo, who was one of the four most famous painters at the end of the 19th century. Kogetsu Saigo was born in the Matsumoto area and was one of the first students to attend the Tokyo School of the Arts in the late 1800s. The inside of the ryokan feels very much like a mini museum and some of the items were gifted to the family by the lords of Matsumoto Castle themselves!

Samurai armor displayed at the entrance of the ryokan

Samurai armor displayed at the entrance of the ryokan

Samurai formal wear

Samurai formal wear

Paintings by Kogetsu Saigo

Paintings by Kogetsu Saigo

Of course, one of the best reasons to stay at a traditional ryokan are the elaborate “kaiseki ryori” meals that consist of several painstakingly prepared, small dishes which could possibly be mistaken for tiny works of art. The food is usually served on equally beautiful plates, trays and dishes. The best ryokan will make everything from scratch and use local ingredients (Fujinoyu is no exception). Here is just some of the food that we got served at Fujinoyu and the amazing table presentation:

The table settings in our (private) dining room

The table settings in our (private) dining room

A set of small appetizers

A set of small appetizers

Smoked duck

Smoked duck

A delicate soup with clams and red & white somen noodles

A delicate soup with clams and red & white somen noodles

After the meal, we got to enjoy Fujinoyu’s hot spring. There are two large baths (one for men and one for women) and there is one special private bath that can be used by couples, families or individuals. This bath is unique in that instead of tiles around the bath, they used tatami mats! Also, the hot water comes directly from the hot spring (as opposed to being heated or being mixed with regular water to adjust the temperature).

The private bath with a tatami floor and direct line from the natural hot spring.

The private bath with a tatami floor and direct line from the natural hot spring.

Fujinoyu is just one of many hot springs and ryokan in the Asama Hot Springs area, each with their own characteristic atmosphere, baths, and food. The area has a long history dating back hundreds and hundreds of years and during the Edo Period (1603-1867), one of the lords of Matsumoto Castle built his own bathhouse here, so even back then it was known as a resort area to go and relax. Needless to say, it’s a great area to stay if you’re coming to Matsumoto and want to literally soak in its long history.

Here is a list of the ryokans and hot springs in Asama Onsen:
http://www.asamaonsen.com/en/yado

To learn more about the Fujinoyu Ryokan that I wrote about in this article, check out their website here:
https://fujinoyu.com/en/

Sumomo Matsuri (Plum Blossom Festival) in Norikura

Plum blossoms

Plum blossoms

Last Sunday was the 46th annual Sumomo (Plum Blossom) Festival in Norikura Highlands. The festival is held every May in the beautiful Ichinose Enchi area of Norikura to celebrate the coming of spring in the highlands. Every year, the event begins with a blessing ceremony performed by Shinto priests, followed by several performances or shows.

This was my first time going to the Sumomo Festival and the first thing I noticed was that unlike most events in Japan, it’s not super crowded! The festival grounds are set up in a wide-open grassy area spotted with plum trees and has a crystal clear (and ice cold!) stream running through it. There’s plenty of room to layout a big picnic blanket and lazily enjoy the festival shows, the food, and the scenery.

The snowy peaks of Mt. Norikura

The snowy peaks of Mt. Norikura

A small creek that runs through the festival grounds (it's ICE cold!)

A small creek that runs through the festival grounds (it’s ICE cold!)

Playing in the creek :)

Playing in the creek :)

The line up of food stalls

The line up of food stalls

Everything kicks off at 10:00 A.M. but many people come early so they can secure a ticket for one of the main attractions – the free homemade soba noodles and “sansai” tempura. Sansai is the name for a variety of edible, wild plants picked from the mountains in the spring, for example kogomi (fiddleheads or young fern stalks), koshi abura buds, and fukinoto (young butterbur).

The sansai season is very short and the plants are prized for their unique, sometimes pleasantly bitter, flavors. Perhaps the most popular way to prepare them is frying them as tempura. At the festival booths, you can buy fresh sansai to cook with at home as well as other homemade foods made with sansai or other local vegetables such as sansai rice balls, oyaki dumplings (one of my favorites!), Japanese pickles, and obento-style lunch boxes. Other booths sell breads or baked goods from local bakeries, among other things.

Sansai tempura!

Sansai tempura!

Booths selling "sansai" - edible plants from the mountains - at the festival.

Booths selling “sansai” – edible plants from the mountains – at the festival.

Fiddleheads - these are one type of mountain plant used for the tempura at the festival.

Fiddleheads – these are one type of mountain plant used for the tempura at the festival.

Tempura being made in a huge oil pot.

Tempura being made in a huge oil pot. The box in the bottom right is filled with “fukinoto” (butterbur)

The performances are fun to watch too. First of all, I should mention that after the Shinto priests finish their ceremony, they break into a barrel of local sake which is shared with all the festival comers (including you!). After that, the local Alpenhorn (+ one accordion) players played a few songs followed by a kid’s taiko drum performance that echos the drum beats through the whole park, and a traditional “sumomo dance” by kimono-clad dancers (everyone can participate in this dance).

Next came a kind of “live calligraphy” performance by Matsumoto’s Arigasaki High School Calligraphy Girls club in which the girls create a huge piece of calligraphy artwork using giant brushes and coordinating the performance to music. Last was a vocal and acoustic performance from a Norikura-born singer/songer writer who is now active in Tokyo.

Alpenhorn players performing.

Alpenhorn players performing.

A taiko performance by students from the local school.

A taiko performance by students from the local school.

Sumomo - Plum Blossom - Dance

Sumomo – Plum Blossom – Dance

(Giant) calligraphy performance

(Giant) calligraphy performance

The performances last until about noon but you can hang around in the area for afterwards or if you came by car, check out the Zengoro Falls just up the road from the Visitor Center. It’s located a little far from the center of Matsumoto but it’s easy to get to if you use the Norikura-bound buses departing from Shin-Shimashima station and get off at the “Kanko Center” (Norikura Visitor Center) bus stop. It’s probably a 10-15 minute walk from the Visitor Center. By the way, don’t forget sunscreen! The sun rays are extra strong because of the high elevation so you don’t want to go home bright red.

Zengoro Falls near the festival grounds

Zengoro Falls near the festival grounds


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