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Soba Off the Beaten Path – Part 1: Inakaya (田舎屋)

While there are soba noodle shops galore in central Matsumoto, there are some great options you can find off the beaten path, too. Since these shops usually aren’t trying to cater to the troves of tourists coming to the city, you can rest assured you’ll have an authentic experience.

The first place I want to talk about is Inakaya (田舎屋), a soba shop located straight east from Matsumoto Castle on the way to the Utsukushigahara Onsen hot springs area and not too, too far off the beaten path (see below for access info).

Inakaya's entrance

Inakaya’s entrance

I’m a little partial to Inakaya because it’s the first soba shop I visited when I moved to Matsumoto, but they definitely serve some high quality soba! They make their soba noodles by hand using soba flour from the Kaida Highland area in Kiso, Nagano and you can see the soba noodle making room on your right when you walk in the door.

Inakaya serves a variety of both chilled soba and hot soba in soup, and like many classic soba shops, you can get a side of crispy tempura on the side. The simplest way to enjoy the soba is the plain chilled soba which has a great texture and delicious, subtle flavor. It gets dipped into a concentrated dipping soup (tsuyu), which after you’re done eating, gets diluted with the thick water from boiling the noodles so you can drink it like soup. Another, more luxurious option is to get the chilled soba with the duck dipping soup, which includes a small, but tasty piece of roast duck.

Chilled soba with duck dipping soup

Chilled soba with duck dipping soup

There is also a hot version of the duck soba noodles:

Hot soba noodles with duck

Hot soba noodles with duck

If you’re a fan of tofu (in particular, fried tofu), then you’ll love the hot tanuki soba (yes, that would be the same tanuki from Super Mario!) which features a big, fat, juicy piece of fried tofu in the soup. Similarly the hot kizami soba has slices of fried tofu with green onion in the soup.

Tanuki soba noodles

Tanuki soba noodles

Kizami soba noodles

Kizami soba noodles

Other types of soba are sansai soba noodles which are served with wild mountain herbs and plants, soba with grated Japanese yam, and tempura soba.

The shop itself has a cozy, country-style atmosphere with a wood-burning stove in the middle of the restaurant and old Japanese folk masks hanging on the walls. Most of the seating is on tatami mats with low tables, but there are also a couple of regular tables with chairs.

Inakaya's wood burning stove

Inakaya’s wood burning stove

An old "otafuku" mask on the wall

An old “otafuku” mask on the wall

The good news is that if you want to try Inakaya’s excellent soba, it’s not too hard to get to!

The shop is only about 2 kilometers from Matsumoto Castle, so you could easily get there by bicycle in 15 minutes or in 30 minutes by foot. From Matsumoto Station it’s 2.7 kilometers, so it’ll take a few more minutes from there. It is also accessible by bus: just take the Utsukushigahara Onsen line bus to the Souza bus stop in front of the Delicia Supermarket (this bus departs both from Matsumoto Station and Matsumoto Castle/City Hall).

Shop Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

I’ll be posting about a couple more soba shops you can find “off the beaten path,” so keep an eye out! 😉

Gonta: Your Dango Destination in Nakamachi

If you find yourself walking down Nakamachi Street in need of a snack, you should check Gonta’s dango stand, a little gem hidden down one of Nakamachi’s side alleys. (But, be careful because they are only open on weekends and holidays!)

Gonta's dango stand

Gonta’s dango stand

If you’ve done your Japan research, you probably know that dango are a kind of sweet, mochi-esque rice “dumpling” often served on skewers. Mitarashi dango, which are slathered in a sweetened soy sauce syrup, and the multi-colored hanami dango (cherry blossom viewing dango) are especially common.

You can get both mitarashi and hanami dango, as well as other kinds at Gonta.

Part of Gonta's dango lineup

Part of Gonta’s dango lineup

Seductively glistening mitarashi dango

Seductively glistening mitarashi dango

Their full line up is shown in this menu (I’ll translate below):

Gonta's dango menu

Gonta’s dango menu

  • Mitarashi dango ¥90 — Plain dango slathered with sweet soy sauce syrup
  • Gohei mochi ¥300 — A hefty, regional treat made from pounded rice, glazed with a sweet sauce, and grilled. Gonta’s version is made with egoma seeds, walnuts, and peanuts.
  • Danhei ¥200 — Three smaller dumplings similar to gohei mochi, but with a sesame seed sauce
  • Shinshu-hei dango ¥100 — Flat grilled dango with a Shinshu (= Nagano) miso-based sauce
  • Pota-pota mochi ¥150 — A flat, round dumpling with a toasty sweet soy sauce and piece of nori seaweed
  • Kibi dango ¥70 — Dango made with millet (no sauce)
  • Yomogi dango ¥70 — Dango made with yomogi, a kind of Japanese herb (no sauce)
  • Also available but not shown on the menu: Hanami dango and anko (sweet bean paste) dango

I haven’t tried all of Gonta’s selection yet, but the past weekend I did try out the danhei, kibi dango, and Shinshu-hei dango. Each had its own interesting texture and flavor, plus the price is quite cheap.

Left to right: Danhei, Shinshu-hei dango, and kibi dango

Left to right: Danhei, Shinshu-hei dango, and kibi dango

The kibi dango had a pleasantly chewy texture with a subtly sweet taste. As expected, the Shinshu-hei dango had a miso-flavored, yet sweet coating that was slightly toasty due to be grilled. The danhei dumplings had a softer texture (which I believe is from being made with pounded steamed rice) and had a richer sauce that had a nice touch of sesame seed flavor.

Also, since the dango are stuck through skewers, they are easy to carry around while strolling around Nakamachi and Nawate. There are also a couple of small tables to sit at in front of and inside the futon shop that Gonta is attached to (if you happen to need some really nice futon bedding, you can get that there!).

Cute figurines on Gonta's counter

Cute figurines on Gonta’s counter

To find Gonta, walk down the alley that’s diagonally across from the Kurassic-kan.

Nature Skiing in Norikura’s Ichinose Area

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about snowshoeing to the frozen Zengoro Falls in Norikura. This week, I have another snowy Norikura adventure to tell you about: Nature skiing!

Yay!

Yay!

You can rent a pair of nature skis, boots, and ski poles for just ¥1,500 for half a day or ¥3,000 for a full day at the Little Peaks equipment rental shop located at the Norikura Kogen Tourist Information Center. (Get here by bus or car).

The Ichinose area in Norikura is one of the best places for nature skiing because it’s fairly flat and wide-open. Plus you can head out directly from the Tourist Information Center/Little Peaks without needing to drive anywhere.

Inside of the Little Peaks shop

Inside of the Little Peaks shop

So, you might be wondering what exactly “nature skis” are in the first place. I originally thought it was just another name for cross-country skis, but upon asking at Little Peaks, they are actually a bit different: Nature skis are a hybrid ski that shorter in length compared to cross-country skis and still have an edge on the sides. They are great for ski-walking through snowy forests or fields and don’t require much technique. On the other hand, they are not built for speed and are not ideal for going down slopes.

Whether you have skiing experience or not, nature skis are easy to pick up in just a few minutes. One of the Little Peaks staff members will also help you learn how to use them and give you tips on how to walk through the snow.

Getting taught how to use the skis

Getting taught how to use the skis

Once you got your skis strapped on, you’re ready to head out!

Skis are ready!

Skis are ready!

If it’s windy or extremely cold, I do recommend having some kind of face cover to keep the wind out, as well as earmuffs or a cap that covers your ears.

Stay warm!

Stay warm!

To head for Ichinose, just walk out of Little Peaks and head out to the road. Look to your left and you’ll see two signs with the numbers “20” and “21” on them. It’s mostly in Japanese except for the “NORTHSTAR Outdoor Adventures” text. You’ll want to head right down that road, which will take you directly to Ichinose (if you are not familiar with the area, make sure you grab a map at Little Peaks and have them explain it to you).

Turn right here to head towards Ichinose

Turn right here to head towards Ichinose

And let your snow adventure begin!

So much snow!

So much snow!

It’s a little tricky to get used to how to efficiently walk with the skis right away, but you’ll get it after a few minutes. The skis are very narrow, so it’s easy to lose your balance, but luckily, there is plenty of fluffy snow to break your fall 😉

Fluffy snow will break your fall :)

Fluffy snow will break your fall :)

For going up or down a very steep or rugged step/slope, you may have to turn sideways and “walk” up or down one ski at a time—or an easier option may be to just remove the skis until you get past that area, as they are very easy to clip on and off.

Get up the slope!

Get up the slope!

Anyway, the best part about nature skis is being able to simply glide across the snow and enjoy the beautiful winter scenery! If you find a gentle downhill, it’s super fun to slide down those too.

Winter wonderland

Winter wonderland

We reached the entrance to Ichinose area in about 45 minutes, but I think it took us extra time because of the large amount of snow (and amount of falling down!). Here, you can explore the area, ski across frozen ponds, and on a nice day, see the surrounding mountains. You could even bring a lunch or some coffee (or mulled wine…) and have a mini-winter picnic out in the snow 😉

Entrance to Ichinose, finally!

Entrance to Ichinose, finally!

Enjoy, stay warm, and stay safe!

See more info about winter activities in Matsumoto here, or about Norikura Highlands here.

Night Museum and Other Events for Chilly February in Matsumoto

Night Museum at Matsumoto Museum of Art and Japan Ukiyo-e Museum

Click to see a PDF leaflet.

Click to see a PDF leaflet.

The second event in the art museum’s Night Museum series and held especially on Valentine’s Day! (The third and last event will be on March 3rd)

Special events to be held at both the art museum and ukiyo-e museum. Tentatively planned is a behind-the-scenes tour (with flashlights!) featuring the preparations for upcoming special Yayoi Kusama exhibit in March. The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum’s talk event will feature a special discussion on the culture of romance found in ukiyo-e wood block prints. (Tours planned for 6 p.m & 8 p.m, RSVP required. Talk planned for 7 p.m.).

There will also be a special “MUSEUM BAR” set up at the Japan Ukiyoe Museum with mulled wine and chocolate, and a special print making activity where you can make your own ukiyo-e.

Shuttle bus service available to go between museums. Tours/Talks will feature interpreting into English and Chinese.

Date: Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018
Time: 5 p.m.–9 p.m. (Last admission at 8:30 p.m. Also open for regular hours from 9 to 5)
Location: Matsumoto Museum of Art (Map) and Japan Ukiyoe Museum (map)
Admission Fee: Pair ticket (2 adults, regardless of gender) for ¥1,000 / General ticket (adult) for ¥1,000 (Junior high school students and younger are free)
Notes: Ticket price includes admission into both museums, talk events, and shuttle bus service

Taiko Drum Workshop for Beginners

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No experience necessary! English speakers will be assisting!
Learn to play taiko like a pro, from correct stance to proper drumming techniques. This one-hour lesson starts with the introduction of basic rhythms and finishes with you giving your very own performance!

The workshop is being offered at a special discount price (¥3,000 OFF) this one time, so if you’ve ever thought about picking up taiko, now is a good time to try it out!
You will be instructed by a member of the group Hibikiza.
*Please note that participants will be filmed and/or have their pictures taken.*

Date: Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018
Time: 2 p.m. (lasts 1 hour)
Location: Agetsuchi Theater (map, formerly known as Piccadilly Hall). 8 min walk from the castle and 13 min from the station.
Price: ¥1,000 (discounted from ¥4,000!)
Registration: Online registration form is here or call 090-4666-3954

Setsubun Festival at Fukashi Shrine

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Setsubun is a festival that celebrates the end of winter (though, it still feels cold to me!!) and often involves bean throwing and oni (a kind of Japanese demon). At Fukashi Shrine, they put on a huge bean throwing event at night and toss out roasted soy beans, lucky 5-yen coins, mochi, Japanese sweets, prize tickets, and more to the crowd surrounding the shrine hall. There is also a special bean throwing area just for kids (so they have a chance to catch some thing on their own and not get stepped on by the adults)! And, yes, the oni will make an appearance 😉

You can watch the bean roast ceremony from 2 p.m. but the festival part doesn’t officially start until 5 p.m. The bean throwing event starts at 6 p.m. Besides bean throwing, there is an arrow shooting ritual (around 5 p.m.) and taiko (before the bean throwing begins)

Date: Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018
Time: 2 p.m.–6:15 p.m.
Location: Fukashi Shrine (map)
Notes: You can see a couple of photos on one of our previous blog posts.

Photos from the 2018 Matsumoto Castle Ice Sculpture Festival

Last weekend was the 32nd annual Matsumoto Castle Ice Sculpture Festival! Top ice sculptors from around Japan come to participate in this event every year and this year there were 18 teams for the “Championship,” which featured long-time professional artists, and 5 teams for the “Pre-event,” which featured young artists with less experience.

Beautiful day, beautiful festival!

Beautiful day, beautiful festival!

It was a beautiful, sunny weekend perfect for walking around to see the sculptures, but the artists actually carved the pieces during the night! (brrrr…)

Getting to work at night

Getting to work at night

Get your ice saws ready and go!

Get your ice saws ready and go!

Check out some of the amazing pieces that were carved up below:

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Some ice blocks even had flowers or other things frozen inside, creating a pretty cool effect:
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One of Japan’s most famous ice sculptors, Junichi Nakamura, also participated. He has been an ice sculptor for going on 36 years and has participated in (and won prizes at) contests all over the world, including America, Canada, and Europe! One of his pieces for this year’s festival (below) is an especially intricate work of art.

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Junichi Nakamura working on his sculpture

Junichi Nakamura working on his sculpture

His other piece was an enormous, 7-meter carving of an image from the Winter Olympics:

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And for the kids — an icy slide!!

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Learn How to Make Soba Noodles at Takagi

Nagano is the land of soba, a.k.a. buckwheat noodles, so when you come to Matsumoto, you’ll find shops everywhere around the city. Assuming it’s not fast food-style soba, most of the restaurants serve super fresh, made-this-morning noodles that have a divine texture and subtle, delicate taste. Don’t pass up the chance to eat at least one basket of cold soba and/or one bowl of hot soba while you’re here!

Or, even better yet, why not learn to make it yourself? Takagi, a souvenir shop and restaurant with a over 130 years of history, offers you the chance to do just that, and as Takagi’s soba master puts it, “Nothing tastes better than soba noodles you made with your very own hands.”

The front of 's shop

The front of Takagi’s shop

Before I go into details on how you can do this yourself, I’ll tell you about my own experience at Takagi’s workshop. I just got to participate in a lesson this past Friday with a home stay student from Australia.

First off, you actually get taught by Takagi’s experienced soba master, who can speak English and has by no doubt been hand-making soba noodles every single day for years. If you’ve ever watched the movie Kill Bill (Vol. 1), he sort of reminded me of the Hattori Hanzo character who taught Uma Thurman’s character how to fight with the samurai sword. Very cool.

Our teacher, the master

Our teacher, the soba master

We started right from the raw ingredients: buckwheat flour, a little bit of wheat flour, and water. That’s it! The first step was to gradually rub together the flours with the proper amount of water (which apparently varies by season/weather) until it starts to clump together. Then, the dough can be kneaded into a ball. “Knead approximately 120 times,” said the soba master (I’m sure he doesn’t need to actually count, as he could tell when the dough was ready by poking it).

Rubbing together the flour

Rubbing together the flour

Ready for kneading and rolling!

Ready for kneading and rolling!

After that, we pressed the dough out into a flat, round shape and started rolling it out with a long rolling pin made for noodles. This was a little bit tricky because you don’t just roll it back and forth as you do when rolling out pie dough or cookie dough; instead you have to form your hands into “cat paws” (as the soba master called it), and quickly move your hands in a circular back-and-forth motion which seems to help evenly distribute the weight of the rolling pin over the dough and lets you work much more quickly. This should be done without tearing holes into the dough and keeping the thickness even. Easier said than done for a beginner!

Pressing the dough into a flat, round shape

Pressing the dough into a flat, round shape

It's all in the "cat paws!"

It’s all in the “cat paws!”

Once the noodles were thin enough, the dough gets folded and cut with a nifty soba-cutting knife and wooden cutting guide that helps you keep the noodles straight and thin. The goal is to cut the noodles very, very thin—again, easier said than done for beginners, but it’s all a matter of practice! Our noodles turned out a little thick here and there, but they’re still going to taste delicious, I’m sure!

Cut, cut, cut...

Cut, cut, cut…

And finished! You can choose to eat the noodles write at Takagi’s restaurant or, if you live in Japan or have a kitchen at your place of accommodation, you can take the noodles home and cook them later (you get a portion of the dipping soup to go with it).

Noodles are ready to go!

Noodles are ready to go!

Of course, the best part is that now you’ll actually have the basic knowledge to practice and make soba noodles yourself once you get back home! Great way to impress friends with a special dinner, if I say so myself 😉

To book your lesson at Takagi, call them or just talk someone in the shop. It’s safer to book a few days in advance, but it might be worth a try to ask directly at the shop if you didn’t have time to make a reservation.

  • Lesson start times: 10:30 a.m., 3:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m., or 5:30 p.m.
  • Lesson time: 1 hour, or 2 hours if you’re eating there
  • Price: ¥3,000 per person (make one batch, which will feed 3 people)
  • Min. participants: 2 people (according to the website you could do it with just one person, but it will cost you the whole ¥6,000)
  • Phone: 0263-33-1039
  • Email: info@e-takagi.net
  • Address: 3-5-12 Ote, Matsumoto, Nagano (map) – 15 min. from the Matsumoto Sta. and less than 5 min. from the castle.

Ameichi Candy Festival: Matsumoto’s Sweetest Event

What I’ve come to learn about Matsumoto since moving here is that the city seems to just love their huge street festivals. Not even the frigid winter is going to stop them from putting on couple of lively days of merrymaking like at last weekend’s Ameichi, a.k.a the Candy Festival. There are so many things going on during the Ameichi that it’s hard to know where to start!

Of course, it couldn’t be called a “Candy” festival without, well, a lot of candy, so you’ll find many street stalls selling all sorts of traditional Japanese candies called “Fukuame” (good luck candy), candy shaped into popular cartoon characters, and lollipops.

A girl selling traditional candies

A girl selling traditional candies

On Nakamachi Street, the Kurassic-kan had its own special market including the “Japan Candy Museum” where all kinds of traditional or craft candies were on display. You could also buy any of the candy from the museum. There were candies made with nuts, carrots, apples, herbs, and other natural ingredients, as well as many types that had been handcrafted by candy craftsmen.

Various candies from around the country

Various candies from around the country

One kind of traditionally made craft candy

One kind of traditionally made craft candy

Outside in the Kurassic-kan market, there was a traditional candy sculptor who crafted candy into cute animals right in front of your eyes. One stall had a special kind of soft candy called “taguri-ame,” that you had to twist and tread onto a stick from a large pot!

Lively market at the Kurassic-kan in Nakamachi

Lively market at the Kurassic-kan in Nakamachi

Taguri-ame candy

Taguri-ame candy

Another big part of Ameichi are the daruma doll sellers. As I mentioned in other blog posts, daruma are associated with achieving goals so they are often bought at the beginning of the year to represent a new resolution. During Ameichi, there are numerous street stalls that sell daruma in all sizes in colors, so people love to come here and pick out a perfect daruma for themselves.

Daruma galore!

Daruma galore!

Picking out the perfect daruma

Picking out the perfect daruma

Besides all the street stalls, there were performances of all kinds going on all over the city including those by several taiko drum groups, the Japan Defense Force marching band, dance groups and more.

A taiko group performing in the street

A taiko group performing in the street

The Japan Defense Force band performance

The Japan Defense Force band performance

One of the most fun parts of the whole festival is the Seven Gods of Good Luck parade. Here, the participants dress up in traditional costumes that represent the aforementioned Seven Gods and walk through the streets with interesting props while passing out good luck candy.

Part of the seven gods of fortune parade

Part of the Seven Gods of Good Luck parade

Members of the seven gods of fortune parade

Members of the seven gods of fortune parade

And, you can’t miss all the mikoshi (portable wooden shrines) that get carried around the neighborhoods of downtown Matsumoto during Ameichi! To transport them, two long, wooden poles are put through metal loops on the shrine. Then, several people lift the mikoshi up, resting the poles on their shoulders, and walk down the street. Because the mikoshi aren’t really that big, at first glance, they don’t look that heavy, but for our mikoshi, it took more than 20 people to pick it up and move it! Needless to say, usually all the carriers end up with very sore shoulders the next day.

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I actually got to participate in helping transport one of the mikoshi around Nakamachi myself, which was an exciting experience. We all wore a festival jacket called a “happi,” and to keep a good walking rhythm while carrying, every repeatedly chants “washoi, washoi.” To show gratitude to the shops and houses in the neighborhood, we stopped the mikoshi in front of each of their doors and lifted it up and down three times, all the while making a lot of noise by ringing a bell and shouting.

The mikoshi set up as an altar in Nakamachi surrounded by sake and the "shishimai" lion dance costumes

The mikoshi set up as an altar in Nakamachi surrounded by sake and the “shishimai” lion dance costumes

The Ameichi Festival happens every year in January, so keep an eye out on our website’s events page. Also, if you are up for braving the cold, this weekend it the Ice Sculpture Festival! See more info on event page on Facebook.

The After-New-Year’s Sankuro Fire Festival

About a week after New Year’s in Matsumoto as I was heading to the local vegetable market, I saw what looked to be a giant, several-meter-high Christmas tree has suddenly appeared on an empty lot in my neighborhood. For a second, I couldn’t believe my eyes; last time I checked, Christmas had ended two weeks ago and this “tree” was definitely not there the day before.

Looking closer, the tree was actually constructed out of pine boughs that were used as New Year’s decorations and “decorated” with several daruma dolls strung around or stuck into the top of the tree, making them appear like Christmas ornaments. There were also other kinds of charms and New Year’s decorations stuck into the structure, as well.

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Continuing down the road, these “Christmas trees” were everywhere: along the river, in the fields, and on the side of the road.

It turns out the “trees” were actually for an event called the Sankuro (三九郎) Fire Festival (also known as “Dondoyaki” in other areas) where old New Year’s decorations such as pine boughs, straw ropes, kadomatsu, as well as last year’s “used” daruma dolls are burned.

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New Year’s decorations are related to the religious and spiritual rituals that take place around the end and beginning of the year, when supposedly the Toshigamisama deity of the New Year comes and takes up residence in these sacred decorations, so it would not be a good idea to throw them away the regular trash. While the act of setting up the decorations for New Year welcomes the Toshishigamisama, the act of burning represents bidding the deity farewell.

The daruma dolls, which have ties to Buddhism, are used to represent a goal or wish you have for the year, and if it comes true, they get burned at the end of the year, as well (then you can get a new one!). Burning of daruma may also occur at temples or shrines.

sankuroSo, as you probably guessed already, what happens during the Sankuro Fire Festival is that each of the Sankuro trees gets turned into a huge bonfire!

Now, besides being a proper way to dispose of your used New Year decorations and daruma, the Sankuro Fire Festival is also considered a special festival for children. The neighborhood children will get a branch from a willow tree (sold at supermarkets and farmers markets around festival time) and stick colorful rice cakes called “mayudama” onto the end of each twig.

They then roast them in the Sankuro bonfire just like you would roast marshmallows! This fun custom is to wish for good health for each child for the rest of the year. (Eating snacks for health sounds like a dream to me!)

If you’re around Matsumoto or Nagano around the beginning of the year, this is definitely something to keep an eye out for.


A twig with several mayudama stuck on it

A twig with several mayudama stuck on it

Snowshoeing to the Frozen Zengoro Falls in Norikura

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During the New Year holiday, I finally checked off another item on my adventure list: snowshoeing to Zengoro Falls in Norikura Highlands to see the waterfall frozen into solid ice. And I’m glad I did, because it was one of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever seen.

If you’re in Matsumoto in the winter, you should GO!

To see the frozen falls, get yourself to the Norikura Kogen Tourist Information Center (by bus or car), which is converted into a winter sports equipment rental center during the winter called Little Peaks.

The Little Peaks equipment rental shop

The Little Peaks equipment rental shop

If you’re confident to go out and explore by yourself, rent yourself a pair of snowshoes. I also recommend the snowshoeing poles, as they help you on the up- and downhills. If you don’t have good winter boots, you can rent those too! Half-day rental for a set of snowshoes and poles will only set you back 800 yen.

If you don’t have confidence in doing this yourself, there is an option to do a paid guided tour at Little Peaks (2-3 hour tour for 5,000 yen for adults).

Get your snowshoes on!

Get your snowshoes on!

If you don’t know the area, grab a map at Little Peaks. You can start on the trail directly from the rental shop (probably about 1 hour to the Zengoro Falls), or if you have a car, you can go up the road just a few minutes to the Zengoro Falls parking (small area of the side of the road). From the parking area, it’s only about 30 minutes.

The snow can be quite deep, but the trail should be well-trodden so you can find your way easily, even if you’re not on a tour.

Snowshoeing along...

Snowshoeing along…

Though the main attraction is Zengoro Falls, walking through the winter forest is a really beautiful experience in itself: deep, white snow; white birch trees; and on a nice day, Mt. Norikuradake towering above.

Wind blowing the snow from the peaks of Norikuradake

Wind blowing the snow from the peaks of Norikuradake

Right before reaching the waterfall, you also get walk over this snow-blanketed bridge.

The snow-covered bridge just before reaching the waterfall

The snow-covered bridge just before reaching the waterfall

And then, the frozen masterpiece will appear from the midst of the winter forest! Really, the photo doesn’t do the icy waterfall the justice it deserves, but it’s nothing like I’ve ever seen.

This will take your breath away!

This will take your breath away!

Since the water around the falls is frozen and covered in deep snow, as well, you can get right up to the waterfall and touch it. The icicles are enormous!

Huge icicles!

Huge icicles!

When I went to falls at the end of December, a small part of it was still flowing, but as winter goes on, Zengoro Falls will freeze completely. Interestingly, the flowing water was actually encapsulated by an icy shaft that froze around the falling water!

Part of the waterfall still flowing under its partially frozen exterior

Part of the waterfall still flowing under its partially frozen exterior

After snowshoeing to Zengoro Falls, if you have more time/energy, you can continue to Ushidome Pond up by Kyukamura. And, when you’re completely done with your snow adventure, don’t miss going to one of Norikura’s hot springs, either at the Kyukamura facility (map) or Yukemurikan near the Tourist Information Center/Little Peaks.

See more about winter activities in Matsumoto here, or about Norikura Highlands here.

Hidden Matsumoto: Kasamori Inari Shrine

Kasamori Inari Shrine

Kasamori Inari Shrine

The quirky Kasamori Inari Shrine is hidden among the tall buildings in downtown Matsumoto, but it’s a little easier to find than my last “hidden Matsumoto” spot, Tsukiizumi Shrine.

Like the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Kasamori Inari Shrine is dedicated to the Inari deity (associated with the rice harvest, prosperity in business, among other things) and is characterized by fox figures and rows of red torii gates.

Foxy!

Foxy!

The path through the torii gates

The path through the torii gates

The foxes—white foxes, to be exact—are not gods themselves; rather, they are kindred spirits that act as messengers to the Inari deity. Although most fox figures at Inari shrines are fashioned out of stone, the quirky thing about Kasamori Inari Shrine are the two enormous white fox statures constructed out of what seems to be some sort of papier-mâché!

A very large inari constructed out of paper mache??

A very large white fox constructed out of paper mache??

Besides the giant papier-mâché foxes, on certain days, they open the doors to the shrines hall so you can see the altar and set up large speakers in front playing ominous, instrumental music (I’m not sure what is up with the music…). I’m not sure how they decide the days to open the shrine yet, but on these days at the small building on the corner next to the shrine, someone will be selling packages of fried tofu (!) and bundles of incense sticks used to make offerings at the shrine.

Although offerings of incense are common at shrines and temples, you might be wondering, why the fried tofu??

Well, I visited the Kasamori Inari Shrine during New Year’s, as I figured there would be something interesting going on, and indeed, the incense/fried tofu stall was open for business and instead of the strange, ominous music, the speakers were playing pleasant, traditional Japanese music for New Year’s.

I wanted to find out more about the offerings of fried tofu, so I asked the lady selling it. As the story goes, the absolute favorite food of the white foxes is fried tofu. And, according to the lady, if you make an offering of fried tofu when making your request or wish at the shrine, the foxes (being messengers to the Inari deity) will be so happy that they will deliver your message to the deity without fail!

So, why not give it a try? I bought my piece of fried tofu, took it to the shrine, placed it in the pile before the altar and made a New Year’s wish.

My slice of fried tofu, ready to offer to the foxes!

My slice of fried tofu, ready to offer to the foxes!

For New Year’s, there was also priest sitting inside the shrine before the altar selling small charms and ceramic white fox statues.

The priest fixing the candles before the altar with a piles fried tofu in front

The priest fixing the candles before the altar with a piles fried tofu in front

I noticed that some people also lay the tofu at the feet of the stone fox statues.

Stone inari with incense and fried tofu at its feet

Stone fox with incense and fried tofu at its feet

Other people got the bundles of incense instead, and burned them in the large, stone incense bowl at the end of the torii gate tunnels. Some like to douse themselves in the smoke, as it is said to have healing effects.

Bathing in incense

Bathing in incense

Aside from all its quirkiness, Kasamori Inari Shrine has many beautiful features, too, such as colorfully painted wooden adornments and intricate carvings. Connected directly to the shrine is the large Jorinji Temple with an over 200-year-old wooden gate that is apparently the oldest in Matsumoto.

Colorfully painted wooden adornments

Colorfully painted wooden adornments

Kasamori Inari Shrine is only five minutes from Matsumoto Station and on the way to the castle (see map), so do go check it out! You can read more about the history of the shrine and temple here on the Kasamori Inari Shrine/Jorinji Temple page, too.

If you are interested in learning more about Inari shrines in general, the Fushimi Inari Shrine website has a great FAQ page that can answer a lot of your questions!


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