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Even More Free Rental Bikes Now Available for Tourists

Did you know you can rent bicycles for free in places all over Matsumoto? If you’re planning a day in the central part of the city, bicycles are one of the best – and most flexible – ways to get around. Matsumoto even has designated bike lanes on its main roads, so you don’t need to fight with pedestrians for riding space!

Eighteen brand new rental bikes have been added to the free bike pool offered by the Sui Sui Town public bike service. These new bikes are available at the bicycle parking outside Matsumoto Station’s Castle (Oshiro) Exit and the north bicycle parking area also near the station. The rental service is available from 9 AM to 5 PM, but you can return the bikes up until 9 PM. (see a map of locations on this page – which also includes English information toward the bottom).

Rental bikes at Matsumoto Station bicycle parking lot

The new rental bikes at Matsumoto Station bicycle parking lot

One word of caution: The free bikes at the station tend to be completely rented out during busy times like the weekends. However, there are several other spots that also offer free rentals not too far from the station, including the car parking lot on Nakamachi Street, the “M Wing” near Parco, and the Matsumoto City Museum near the castle. See more complete info on location here.

Cycling roads in the city

Cycling roads in the city

If you do run out of luck and can’t find a bicycle available to rent, Matsumoto is definitely compact enough that you can see many of the best sights on foot. You can also use the convenient Town Sneaker buses. But if you really want an extra classy ride, keep an eye out for Matsumoto’s one and only rickshaw puller! (He is often found at or around Matsumoto Castle).

For the best tour of Matsumoto, take a rickshaw ride!

For the best tour of Matsumoto, take a rickshaw ride!

Nakamachi Japanese Culture Event

Get an Early Preview of Matsumoto’s New Aeon Mall

The new Aeon Mall in Matsumoto opened its doors to local residents yesterday (Sep. 16), calling it a “soft open” before the official grand opening on Sep. 21. The mall is sprawled across three separate buildings: the “Sky Garden” (空庭) which consists of a movie theater and shops selling local goods, the “Wind Garden” (風庭) which is apparently one of Nagano’s largest food courts, and the “Sun Garden” (晴庭) which is the main section that includes all the typical kinds of stores you would expect to find in a mall like apparel, accessories, toy stores, and even a huge grocery store.

The first floor of the food court

The first floor of the food court

Aeon Mall

A shop selling local fruits, vegetables, meat, and other food products like miso.

A shop selling local fruits, vegetables, meat, and other food products like miso.

It seems like Aeon Mall put a lot of thought into trying to give the place a local feel, as you’ll find they incorporate little pieces Matsumoto-inspired design all over the mall. I particularly enjoyed the unique the hanging temari decorations (temari are a traditonal craft from Matsumoto) in the food court area and the huge daruma doll in the Sky Garden area.

"Temari" decorations inspired by the traditional temari crafts originating in Matsumoto

“Temari” decorations inspired by the traditional temari crafts originating in Matsumoto

A gigantic "daruma" on display

A gigantic “daruma” on display

Overall, I think the mall has something that everyone will enjoy, even if you don’t like all parts of it. If you have kids, there are toy stores and fun shops like a candy shop modeled after old-fashioned Japanese candy stores, a model train shop with a moving, interactive model train, and an arcade. Besides your typical clothes & accessory stores, there is a large book store, an electronics store, a sporting goods shop, Kaldi – the import food/wine and coffee retailer, a big wine and liquor section where you can buy wine ranging from table wine to high quality bottles, and more. The mall also has large retailers like Muji and H&M.

A fun "dagashi" candy shop for kids

A fun “dagashi” candy shop for kids

A big toy train that you and your kids can play with

A big toy train that you and your kids can play with

A nice big book store!

A nice big book store!

Huge wine selection

Huge wine selection

Personally, I’m extra excited about the new theater, Aeon Cinema. The theater has eight screens including a 4K digital projector screen. The base price for a movie is 1,800 yen but they offer some great discounts like matinee shows, late show discounts, and 1,100 yen tickets every Monday for all movie goers!

The entrance to the movie theater

The entrance to the movie theater

The mall is located about a 20 minute walk from the station, but you can easily take the Town Sneaker bus or a bicycle, too (there is ample bicycle parking). The theater is open from 10:00 – Midnight, and the main mall from 9 AM – 10 PM (* On 9/21 and 9/22, it opens at 10 AM).

Aean Mall website (Japanese): http://matsumoto-aeonmall.com/
Aeon Cinema Matsumoto website (Japanese): http://www.aeoncinema.com/cinema/matsumoto/

Japanese Culture Experience in Nakamachi – Day 1 Report

Looking for a chance to experience a piece of Japanese culture? This month, Nakamachi in central Matsumoto is holding a special event on two separate days for foreign visitors and residents to try out various Japanese arts, crafts, and other cultural activities. The first day of the event was last week so I went to try out a few of the activities (the next day is on Sep. 23).

Nakamachi Japanese Culture Event

The first day of the Japanese Culture event started off with a kagamibiraki ceremony that entails busting open a sake barrel with wooden mallets (and yes, the event does include sake tasting of Nakamachi original-brand sake!). To help out with the activities and interpreting Japanese to English, students from a local high school also came to lend a hand, as well.

Many visitors from all over the world, including France, Malaysia, Germany, Taiwan, Australia, and the U.S., came to try out the different kinds of hands-on activities like the Japanese tea ceremony, origami, and Japanese calligraphy. I also tried out as many activities as I could – and had a blast doing it! Even though I’ve been living in Japan for a few years now, I got to try some new things that I’ve never done before like riding in a rickshaw and shooting ninja darts through a blowgun.

The main activities are held at the Kurassic-kan, and here I started off with calligraphy, quickly realizing how challenging (yet fun!) it is to write well-balanced Japanese characters with a calligraphy brush. I saw other participants also getting their names translated into Japanese so they could write it themselves, and writing the names of the cities/places they had visited.

Learn to write your name in Japanese or any of your favorite words & phrases

Learn to write your name in Japanese or any of your favorite words & phrases

My next stop was at the Japanese tea ceremony activity. Here, the teacher taught me not only how to properly mix the matcha tea with the tea brush, but also how to properly sit, hold the cup, and drink the tea (not to mention you also get to munch on some tasty Japanese sweets while drinking the tea!).

Visitors learning the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and how to make matcha

Visitors learning the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and how to make matcha

After that, it was time for my first ride in a rickshaw! I had never ridden in a rickshaw before and it was so much more fun that I thought. The breeze feels nice as you get pulled down the street and you can see everything from the open carriage as if you’re riding in a kind of traditional convertible. Plus, seeing a rickshaw in Matsumoto is not so common as in some other cities like Kyoto, so everyone loves to wave at you as you ride by! Highly recommended if you’ve never tried a rickshaw ride before.

Matsumoto's one and only rickshaw!

Matsumoto’s one and only rickshaw!

Lastly, I did a quick kimono/yukata rental with my friend and walked around Nakamachi Street to some of the shops who were offering their own activities: I tried on different kinds of traditional Japanese footwear like geta at the Yaguchi shop, wine and amazake tasting at Senri, and the fun little bean-and-chopsticks game at the Ihara shop (you get a pair of your own chopsticks for trying the game!). All the shopkeepers were extremely nice and were happy to see us wearing yukata’s around the town.

Trying out Japanese footwear in my Yukata

Trying out Japanese footwear in my Yukata

By the way, I recommend trying out the ninja blowgun activity… it’s super fun no matter what your age, plus the blowgun is one of the weapons/techniques that ninjas actually used to get their job done way back in the day!

Ninja blowgun game. You can also rent a ninja outfit, like this  person here!

Ninja blowgun game. You can also rent a ninja outfit, like this person here!

Learn ninja tricks from this guy ;)

Learn ninja tricks from this guy ;)

If you missed the first day of the event, or didn’t get to do all the activities, the second day is being held on Saturday, Sep. 23 at the Kurassic-kan and various shops around Nakamachi Street.

See all the event details here or bookmark the event on Facebook here.

The origami table

The origami table

Rickshaw rides!!

Rickshaw rides!!

Germany – Japan Baking Exchange in Norikura

Last weekend in Norikura, I got to participate in a fun cultural exchange event hosted by the Norikura Highlands Tourism Association and a German-style bakery, Brot Hügel, in Matsumoto. For a 2 day event, two master German bakers from Saxony, Torsten Eckert and Erik Wunderlich, were invited to Matsumoto to share one of Germany’s most celebrated cultural traditions – baking!

21231159_1673091Germany - Japan Bread Exchange

The first day consisted of a welcome party with a taiko drum performance by the Norikura elementary school taiko club, locally brewed rye beer, German bread, sausages, and regional dishes, and a speech by the German guests.

The Norikura elementary school taiko club

The Norikura elementary school taiko club

The German and Japanese Bakers

The German and Japanese Bakers

Mountains of pretzels!

Mountains of pretzels!

On the second day, the bakers taught a special baking (and cooking) course. We made different kinds of bread made with sourdough rye dough (baked in a wood-burning oven!), eclairs, creme puffs, a beautiful buttercream cake, and a potato salad and radish salad from Saxony. Because truly authentic German bread and food is a rarity in Japan, it was a unique opportunity for all of to get a taste of the real thing and see how it’s actually made.

Participants eagerly watching the bakers demonstrate how to make the bread dough

Participants eagerly watching the bakers demonstrate how to make the bread dough

Preparing the bread dough

Preparing the bread dough

Squeezing out dough for creme puffs

Squeezing out dough for creme puffs

Eclairs and creme puff shells baking in the wood-burning oven

Eclairs and creme puff shells baking in the wood-burning oven

The finished cake!

The finished cake!

The whole Germany – Japan Baking Exchange got started when the baker from Brot Hügel connected with the German bakers on Facebook. After building their friendship online, Brot Hügel traveled to Saxony last year to teach about some quintessentially Japanese breads like melon pan (a sweet roll with a cookie-based crust), anpan (roll filled with sweet red bean paste), and creme pan (roll filled with custard cream). As a continuation of the cultural exchange, the German bakers were then invited to Matsumoto this year. The bakers are eager to continue their friendship and offer more cultural exchange in both Saxony and Matsumoto, so let’s hope we see more events like this in the future!

Finished rye bread!

Finished rye bread!

In the meantime, if you’re interested in German bread, beer, or food, there are a couple of options right here in Matsumoto!

German-style bakeries:

Food & Beer:

  • Sonnenblume – serves various German-inspired dishes and has a huge selection of imported German beers (Location on map | Website – Japanese | facebook)
  • Baden-Baden – Specializes in homemade sausages and offers a selection of beer (including German ones) (Location on Map | Website – Japanese)
  • Matsumoto Brewery – Matsumoto’s craft beer brewery and bar (Location on Map | Facebook)
  • Amongst the Clouds and Flowers at Tatamidaira

    Boardwalk through the meadow

    Boardwalk through the meadow

    After hearing Tatamidaira at the top of Mt. Norikuradake had a beautiful flower meadow abloom with alpine wildflowers in the summer, I decided to venture up to the top in mid-August. Like Kamikochi, the higher elevation areas of Norikura are closed to personal cars so you need to take a bus from the Norikura Visitor’s Center (you can get to the Visitor’s Center by car or using a bus from Shin-Shimashima Station). I recommend getting the round-trip ticket, which is cheaper than two one-way tickets, unless you plan on hiking back down. The other options are to hike or bicycle (serious hill climb) up to the top.

    Tatamidaira

    Tatamidaira

    Tatamidaira is a crater basin that was created from a volcanic eruption long, long ago, and is surrounded by several of the mountain peaks of Norikura. The bus arrives at the Tatamidaira visitor’s center which is located at 2702 meters (8,865 feet), making it the highest bus stop in Japan. From here you can easily walk to the flower meadow and see Tatamidaira’s pristine lake, Tsurugaike Pond. If you arrive earlier in the day, there are also a couple of short hiking trails (15 – 90 minutes, one way, depending on the trail) that let you climb to the summits of the surrounding peaks: Mt. Fujimidake, Mt. Daikokudake, Mt. Maoudake, Mt. Marishitendake, and Mt. Kengamine.

    Tatamidaira

    Tatamidaira

    For the alpine flower meadow, the peak season is mid-July to mid-August. A nice wooden boardwalk lets you walk around the meadow and get a close look at many species of rare flowers which come in all sorts of shapes and colors. You’ll also see some huge boulders lying around the meadow which probably tumbled down from the mountain peaks years ago. I’m a big fan of wildflowers so I loved being surrounded by hundreds of cute little flowers!

    Tatamidaira

    Giant boulders lying around the meadow.

    Giant boulders lying around the meadow.

    Tatamidaira

    Now, the one tricky thing about going to Tatamidaira is the weather at the top. Even if it’s a perfectly sunny day in Matsumoto, there are often clouds hanging about the summit of Mt. Norikuradake. The day that I went to Tatamidaira, I could see a few clouds from the Norikura Visitor’s Center, but I figured they wouldn’t be a problem. However, as you can see from the photos, when I arrived at the top, I was enveloped in a thick cloud that made it impossible to see anything past a few meters in front of me. Though being stuck in a cloud is a unique and mystical experience in itself, I couldn’t enjoy the beautiful scenery to its fullest.

    Tatamidaira inside of a cloud

    Tatamidaira inside of a cloud

    .

    The highest bus stop in Japan! This is what the scenery looks like when you're not in a cloud.

    The highest bus stop in Japan! This is what the scenery looks like when you’re not in a cloud.

    Another thing you want to keep in mind is the temperature difference. It is cold! Even when the summer is blazing down below, at 2,700 meters it’s going to feel like late fall or early winter. I went in mid-August and was wishing I had brought light gloves and a decent sweater. You’ll definitely want a windbreaker, preferably waterproof, too.

    Buses run to Tatamidaira from July to the end of October and you can count on seeing something different every season! See the bus schedule here.

    There are all kinds of unique bus stops at Tatamidaira. This one features the "raicho" or rock ptarmigan which you can sometimes spot at Tatamidaira.

    There are all kinds of unique bus stops at Tatamidaira. This one features the “raicho” or rock ptarmigan which you can sometimes spot at Tatamidaira.

    Japanese Culture Event at Kurassic-kan in Nakamachi!

    Event flyer

    As announced in our previous blog post, Nakamachi is holding a fun Japanese culture event at the Kurassic-kan on Sep. 6 (Wed) and Sep 23 (Sat). Here you can try all kinds of Japanese arts, crafts, activities, and other cultural experiences, not to mention everything is hands-on and mostly free! Besides the main event at the Kurassic-kan, several of the shops and restaurants around Nakamachi will also be offering cultural activities like traditional games or food/drink tastings. See below for a list of activities and where you can get the official details, event flyer, or see the event on Facebook!

    There will also be volunteers providing translation/interpretation to help with communication, including local high school students and local guides. So not only is this a great opportunity to experience Japanese culture, but also a nice chance to communicate with the locals!

    Event Details

    Place: Kurassic-kan in Nakamachi, Matsumoto
    Date & Time: Sep. 6 and Sep. 23, 10 am – 4 pm (times for activities at the shops differ. Check the event flyer or webpage)
    Event webpage: http://nakamachi-street.com/en/experiencedays/
    Event on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/1607791399271217/

    Get the official PDF flyer here which includes a map and all activity details:

    Japanese Culture Experience Days flyer

    Click here to download the PDF

    List of main activities at the Kurassic-kan:

    • Origami folding
    • Japanese calligraphy
    • Japanese Tea Ceremony (traditional way of making matcha green tea)
    • Japanese folding fan decorating
    • Play with old-fashioned and traditional Japanese toys
    • Sake tasting with Nakamachi’s original-brand sake
    • Kimono (yukata) and ninja costume rental (paid activity)
    • Rickshaw rides around Nakamachi (paid activity, discount with kimono rental)
    • Ninja blowgun activity (paid activity, free with ninja costume rental)


    List of shops offering activities around Nakamachi:

    • Geiyukan: Try plaing the shamisen, a traditional Japanese music instrument.
    • Kuriya: Make fresh wasabi from real wasabi root.
    • Senri: Japanese wine, sake, amazake, and juice tasting
    • Yamahei: Introduction of some Japanese local foods
    • Yaguchi: Try wearing geta, a traditional form of Japanese footwear.
    • Ihara: Chopsticks and beans game
    • Itoya: Play the konpira fune-fune game, a traditional game played at geisha banquets, and other activities.
    • Okinado Kura Branch: Try playing the Japanese taiko drum. Also, exhibit of traditional tools used for making Japanese confections/sweets
    • Temariya: Free Japanese tea



    Flyer page listing shop activities. Download the PDF for all the details.

    Flyer page listing shop activities. Download the PDF for all the details.

    Fujigen Music Instrument Exhibit in Nakamachi

    Fujigen, the Japanese musical instrument maker, is holding its 17th annual music instrument exhibition from at Okinado Kura Branch, a Japanese confectionary on Nakamach Street. The exhibition runs from Friday, Aug. 25 to Sunday, Sep. 3 (10:30 am – 5:30 pm) and is located in the old kura-style storehouse in the back of Okinado’s shop. Just walk through the shop to get there (you can also pick up a tasty Japanese sweet while you’re there too!).

    A selection of Fujgen's guitars

    A selection of Fujgen’s guitars

    The Okinado Kura Branch shop

    The Okinado Kura Branch shop

    Fujigen is based in Matsumoto and makes all kinds of wooden instruments including guitars, ukuleles, big Japanese taiko drums, wooden music boxes, and other instruments made from wood. Originally the company focused on guitars and violins, and at one point even worked with Fender. You can see examples of all of these instruments at the exhibition and even buy one if you feel inclined to (they even had several ukuleles on sale for affordable discount prices).

    I visited the exhibition yesterday and for me, it was especially cool to see the huge taiko drums up close. They also had an interesting kind of “music box” that looks more like a small cabinet and uses a round metal disk to play the tunes instead of the revolving cylinder you normally see in smaller music boxes. If you’re a guitar or ukulele player, there were plenty of those on display too. Fujigen specializes in the wooden bodies and frames of these instruments, which can be quite beautiful, and each one has its own unique characteristic color and patterns.

    The taiko drum display

    The taiko drum display

    For percussion fans, you might be especially interested in Fujigen’s newly developed “A-frame,” which is a kind of electronic percussion instrument developed in collaboration with the ATV company in Hamamatsu, Japan. The instrument is shaped like a flat diamond, with a wooden frame and electronic, plastic surface that you beat with your hand. The A-frame has hundreds of different percussion sounds stored in its memory which you can play around with and make your own compositions. If you’re interested in hearing or trying it out, on Saturday, Sep. 2 from 11 am to 4 pm, you’ll actually have a chance to hear and play the A-frame!

    The new A-frame electronic percussion instrument

    The new A-frame electronic percussion instrument

    The exhibition is free, so if you have a chance, to check it out. I also highly recommend trying at least one of Okinado’s Japanese confections too. They have a good variety including mochi based sweets like walnut mochi, chestnut/walnut sweets, and sweet bean past confections. Map to Okinado is here.

    You can check out some of Fujigen’s guitars on their website here too. It’s in Japanese but you can see some of the nice frames/bodies they make!

    Ishii Miso Brewery with Tour, Lunch, and Miso Ice Cream!

    I recently found out about the Ishii Miso Brewery located right in central Matsumoto so I wasted no time in going to check out – especially because they offer free tours, a special lunch with miso-inspired dishes, and miso soft-serve ice cream!

    Ishii Miso was founded in 1868 and what makes it so special is that it is a now rare example of miso maker that still uses traditional methods to produce their miso. I took advantage of the short tour they offer so I could learn more about the process of making miso and Ishii Miso itself. The tour is free, can be done in both English or Japanese, lasts about 10-12 minutes, and once you’re done you can brag to all your friends about your expert miso knowledge, so I definitely wouldn’t skip it!

    ishii miso

    Part of the miso brewery

    The tour starts in the “first year miso room” where you are greeted by huge, wooden fermentation barrels. These barrels are all around 100 years old and contain 4.5 metric tons (almost 5 US tons) of fermenting miso! Most miso makers now use stainless steel containers to ferment miso, but wooden barrels are much better because the wood allows aeration and the beneficial bacteria – yeast and lactic acid bacteria – can actually establish themselves in the sides of the barrels, helping to improve the flavor and protect against unwanted bacteria.

    miso barrels

    The year-one miso barrels

    At Ishii Miso, perhaps their most prized product is their three year fermented miso. I was really surprised to learn that the not only is each 4.5 ton batch of miso transferred to another barrel at the end of each year, but they also “flip” the miso (a process called tenchi-gaeshi 天地返し
    in Japanese) once per year as well to aerate it in order to help the beneficial bacteria do their fermentation work as well as to help even out the flavors. The transferring and flipping is done by hand (with a shovel!), and according to tour guide, takes a whole day to complete for one barrel. Ishii Miso also makes a one year fermented miso, which also undergoes the flipping process one time during the year.

    Ishii Miso worker in a barrel

    One of the works transferring the miso to another barrel

    Unfortunately, less than 10% of the miso made in Japan is still made using traditional methods. Most miso is mass-produced in a factory using additives and heat to speed up fermentation so that a batch can be finished in 2-3 months. But, this fast-miso doesn’t have enough time to build up the complex flavors that you would get through natural, slow fermentation, so more additives and chemicals are added to attempt to make up for the loss of flavor. After trying Ishii’s miso or other traditionally made miso, you’ll definitely notice the difference whenever you eat miso made with mass-produced miso.

    Big pots of miso soup and tonjiru soup

    Big pots of miso soup and tonjiru soup

    On the tour, you’ll also learn other interesting facts about miso making in Japan like the regional differences due to the kind of koji (a kind of malted grain made with a beneficial fungus) used kome koji(rice malt), mugi koji (barley malt), or mame koji (soy bean malt) – and why miso gets gradually turns a darker brown color the longer it ferments (hint: it involves the increase of a compound called melanoidin produced through the Maillard reaction – the same reaction responsible for browning meats, bread crust, and coffee).

    After the tour, check out the Ishii Miso Shop to taste their miso pastes, miso pickles, and other miso products. Of course, you can buy your favorite products to take home with you. I definitely recommend eating the special miso-inspired lunch, too! It includes a big bowl of tonjiru (miso soup with vegetables and pork), miso-grilled rice ball, rice ball with seasonal miso sauces like wasabi miso, miso pickles, salad with miso dressing, and a little miso ice cream. I’m also a big fan of the miso soft-serve ice cream, which is made with Ishii’s three year miso, so I’d recommend giving it a try too!

    If you plan on having lunch, be careful about the time. Lunch is only available from 11:00 AM to 2:00 PM, but you can get soft-serve ice cream and buy things in the shop anytime between their opening hours of 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM.

    See access info, hours and more on our Ishii Miso page here.

    Miso rice balls

    Miso-grilled rice ball and rice ball with different miso pastes

    Tonjiru - hearty miso soup with veggies and pork

    Tonjiru – hearty miso soup with veggies and pork

    Miso soft-serve ice cream with 3-year miso

    Miso soft-serve ice cream with 3-year miso

    Entrance to the cafe and shop

    Entrance to the cafe and shop

    Matsumoto Summer Festivals

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

    Tenjin Festival

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

    Festival Floats lined up at the shrine

    Festival Floats lined up at the shrine

    Ornament on the front of one of the festival floats

    Ornament on the front of one of the festival floats

    Pulling one of the floats into the the shrine

    Pulling one of the floats into the the shrine

    Tenjin Matsuri

    Main building of Fukashi Shrine

    Main building of Fukashi Shrine

    Taiko Festival

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

    Matsumoto Bon Bon

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

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

    Matsumoto Bon Bon

    Matsumoto Bon Bon

    Dancers trying to stay in sync!

    Dancers trying to stay in sync!

    Waiting for the festival to start under the lanterns

    Waiting for the festival to start under the lanterns

    Matsumoto Obon Dance

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

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

    Front entrance to Akanejuku

    Front entrance to Akanejuku

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

    Akanejuku, main building

    Akanejuku, main building

    View from Akanejuku's lounge

    View from Akanejuku’s lounge

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

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

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

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

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

    An open hearth in Akanejuku's lobby

    An open hearth in Akanejuku’s lobby

    Painted kite hanging in the dining hall

    Painted kite hanging in the dining hall

    Painting of the Japan Alps

    Painting of the Japan Alps

    Stained glass lamp at Akanejuku's enterance

    Stained glass lamp at Akanejuku’s enterance

    One of Akanejuku's antiques

    One of Akanejuku’s antiques

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

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

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

    Open-air bath at Akanejuku

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

    Indoor bath with stone tiles

    Indoor bath with stone tiles

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

    Akanejuku's dining hall

    Akanejuku’s dining hall

    Homemade liquors on display in the dining hall

    Homemade liquors on display in the dining hall

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

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

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

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

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


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