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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!

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)

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.

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

Matsumoto Scale Museum on Nakamachi Street

The front of the Scale Musuem

The front of the Scale Musuem

If you’re walking up Nakamachi Street while you’re in Matsumoto, there’s a quirky little museum dedicated to all sorts of scales and weights that is fun to poke around in. The silkworm cocoon scales were especially interesting! The museum is made up of three separate buildings, but all together it’s quite small so you can check the whole place out in less than 30 minutes (plus it only costs 200 yen!). One of the nice things about the museum is that buildings consist of two beautiful, old kura-style warehouses and another equally beautiful wooden structured warehouse that was converted into a residence, so not only do you get to look at bunch of antique scales, but you can also admire the architecture of the museum itself.

The wooden warehouse-turned-residence. Amazing construction!

The wooden warehouse-turned-residence. Amazing construction!

A smaller building in the back area.

A smaller building in the back area that houses the silkworm scale display.

As you would expect, there’s a big collection of scales and weights inside from the Meiji Period to the Showa Period, including some you can actually play around with (fun for kids too) as well as many uncommon scales. Originally, the building was the Takeuchi Weights and Scales Shop that operated from the early 1900s to the mid 1980s. After closing, the building and things inside were taken over Matsumoto City and turned into a museum.

Area where you can play around with some of the weights and scales.

Area where you can play around with some of the weights and scales.

Nice collection of different weighing devices.

Nice collection of different weighing devices.

Wooden measuring cups

Wooden measuring cups

Moving up in technological advances - this is an automatic scale that also appears to show you the price per 100 grams.

Moving up in technological advances – this is an automatic scale that also appears to show you the price per 100 grams.

One of my favorites in the whole collection.

One of my favorites in the whole collection.

Old, standing health scales for weighing yourself.

Old, standing health scales for weighing yourself.

The silkworm scale display features scales that were used to measure the weights of silkworm cocoons in order to figure out which ones were male and which ones were female. The instruments can detect very slight difference in weight down to the milligram. In the past, Nagano was one of the production areas for silk in Japan. The cocoon scale, which was developed in the Taisho Period (1912-1926) was sold at the Takeuchi Shop and was a popular product around Japan for silk producers.

Cocoon scale developed by the Takeuchi shop

Cocoon scale developed by the Takeuchi shop

Some of the different silkworm cocoon scales.

Some of the different silkworm cocoon scales.

Bags of silkworm cocoons

Bags of silkworm cocoons

The museum is 15 minutes from Matsumoto Station and about 10 minutes from Matsumoto Castle, and is located right in the center of Nakamachi Street.

Open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.
Closed Mondays, unless its a national holiday.
Admission 200 yen for adults, free for junior high school students and under.

Onbashira Festival at Susukigawa Shrine in Matsumoto

The Onbashira log and its rope

The Onbashira log and its rope

The Onbashira Festival of the Lake Suwa area in Nagano is one of most famous festival in Japan and also one of the most dangerous because it involves felling a number of huge trees from the mountain forests, riding the logs (which weigh several tons) down the steep mountain slope and then erecting (by hand!!) at the local Shinto shrine. To get a better idea of events of Lake Suwa’s festival, you can see some fantastic photos here and here and here.

Although Lake Suwa’s Onbashira event is perhaps the largest and most exciting, Matsumoto also has its own (toned down) versions of the festival that take place at some of the shrines in the city. The actual day of the festival depends on the particular shrine, but like in Lake Suwa, it takes place only once every six years. The rituals of Onbashira date back hundreds of years and the trees offered to the shrine were used in rebuilding its structure as the wood deteriorated from age.

A torii gate at Susukigawa Shrine

A torii gate at Susukigawa Shrine

I was lucky enough to get to experience the Susukigawa Shrine Onbashira Festival right after moving to Matsumoto this past Golden Week. The whole ritual starts a few months before the actual festival when the two trees are felled and brought down from the mountain (unfortunately I didn’t get so see that part). By the day of the festival, the trunks of the trees have had their bark removed and the wooden smoothed out. In order to transport each tree to the shrine, gigantic ropes are attached to it so the entire neighborhood can help pull it through the streets. Although the young men of the neighborhood are the main participants, women, children and the elderly also help pull the rope (in fact, it would probably be impossible to move the tree trunks without their help).

Crowds gathered for the departure of the Onbashira log to the shrine.

Crowds gathered for the departure of the Onbashira log to the shrine.

The Onbashira log departs the Yunohara neighborhood

The Onbashira log departs the Yunohara neighborhood

Turning the Onbashira log around a corner

Turning the Onbashira log around a corner

The process of pulling the Onbashira log along is quite a sight. Three or four of the young men actually stand on top of the log (not to mention make it even heavier…), acting as the leading “cheerleaders” who shout out encouragement and chants to the pullers. Then there are men armed with long, sturdy sticks who help nudge the log along by wedging their sticks underneath the front and leveraging it up so it budges just enough to give traction to the pullers. The pullers heave the log in sync with the chants of the cheerers. If you attend the festival, you’ll also notice the colorful “pompoms” on a stick, if you will, that the festival participants wave and shake for encouragement.

The Onbashira logs arrive at Susukigawa Shrine around noon, where everyone takes a long break for lunch. Like in the Ofune Matsuri (Boat Festival), the crowd separates in to their respective neighborhoods and have a big picnic together under the shrine’s humongous trees. Here another interesting ritual occurs: in each neighborhood group, the men pass around one of the “pompoms” and take turns singing, waving the pompom in circles over their heads. The songs and style of singing seem to be specific to the Onbashira Festival, and I’m guessing have been passed down through the generations (though the lyrics can be made up in an impromptu fashion – see the video below).

One of the Onbashira logs parked before the gate of the shrine.

One of the Onbashira logs parked before the gate of the shrine.

One of the lunches eat at the shrine.

One of the lunches eat at the shrine.

One of the elder men taking his turn singing.

One of the elder men taking his turn singing, pompom in hand.

After lunch, singing, and a dose of sake, it’s time for the main event – erecting the Onbashira logs at the side of the shrine. First the logs, which are parked just outside the shrine premises, need to be pulled up next to either side of the shrine’s main building. This is a bit more difficult than pulling on the street because of the soft ground under the trees and a couple of shallow steps on the path. Crowds gather around the narrow shrine path to watch and cheer on.

Crowd watching the Onbashira log getting pulled through the shrine gate.

Crowd watching the Onbashira log getting pulled through the shrine gate.

Using large sticks in attempt to lift the front of the log over a small step.

Using large sticks in attempt to lift the front of the log over a small step.

Men pulling the rope to move the log

Men pulling the rope to move the log

When the Onbashira logs are finally positioned on both sides of the shrine, they are erected so they stand up perfectly straight. Due to several accidents in past years, unfortunately (or fortunately) the logs are lifted using cranes instead of pure manpower. Still, using a crane is more difficult than it sounds and it is a spectacle to watch the three or four ton logs getting picked up and somehow maneuvered into their posts. In yet another peculiar ritual, once the Onbashira are standing, some of the men take gigantic wooden mallets and hammer at the base of the logs (due to the large crowd, I unfortunately couldn’t get a photo of this).

Onbashira log being lifted by a crane.

Onbashira log being lifted by a crane.

Onbashira logs standing on both sides of the shrine.

Onbashira logs standing on both sides of the shrine.

The log after it has been stood up straight.

The log after it has been stood up straight.

Considering the infrequency of the festival, it may be hard to be able to go, but do keep an eye out if you’re around the Matsumoto and Suwa area and check if Onbashira is scheduled. The next festival in Suwa is in 2022 and in Matsumoto in 2023. Hopefully you enjoyed the photos for now :)

Ofune Matsuri – “Boat Festival” in the Yamabe Area (with videos)

This lively festival takes place every year during Golden Week in the Yamabe area on the east side of Matsumoto. There are nine neighborhoods in Yamabe that take part in the festival, each with their own “boat.” The boats, called “fune,” are a kind of traditional wooden float with two huge wheels on either side and are adorned with lavish wood carvings depicting different scenes or legends. The boat shape is created by attaching long, wooden posts in the front and back, then draping over colored cloth to form a bow and a stern. Each fune, most of them being a couple of hundred years old, has its own unique carvings and color patterns for the cloth used to create the boat shape.

The fune from the Fujii neighborhood

The fune from the Fujii neighborhood

Each fune has its own special carvings

Each fune has its own special carvings

Elaborate carvings on one of the fune floats.

Elaborate carvings on one of the fune floats.

This fune has dragon carvings going up its four posts

This fune has dragon carvings going up its four posts

The timing of the festival coincides with the planting of rice and other crops, an the festival day, the fune depart their respective neighborhoods and make their way to the local shrine, Susukigawa Jinja, to ask the gods for a good harvest in the fall. You might wonder why there are giant boats parading around the mountainous region of Matsumoto – there are many stories, but according to one of the elder men in the Yamabe area, the region was settled by migrants from around Izumo on the Japan Sea. Another story tells of migrants from seaside areas in Kyushu, the Azumi people. Though the new settlers were originally from ocean-side areas, they brought their culture and customs with them, including the Ofune Festival.

The fune, being extremely heavy and difficult (and dangerous) to maneuver, are pushed and pulled through the streets by the young men from the neighborhood chanting “Yoisa! Hoisa!” as the go. There are a couple of flute players and taiko drummers inside the float, and a few people who stand on top to yell out encouragements to the pullers. On some stretches of the route, the fune aren’t just simply pulled in straight line, rather the men rock the front and back of the floats up and down while zigzagging across the streets – just as a boat would sway and rock on the ocean waves.

Before going to the Susukigawa Shrine, all nine fune line up in front of the Matsumoto City Education and Culture Center for a short break (and a refill of sake!), as the next part of the route – entering the road to the shrine – is one of the more difficult parts. Each fune must build up speed to turn a sharp corner, which is not only narrow, but also located on an incline. If not maneuvered precisely, the heavy float will crash into the road signs or worse, one of the houses on the road.

All the fune lined up in front of the Education and Culture Center

All the fune lined up in front of the Education and Culture Center

This boat is preparing to turn the sharp corner to the shrine.

This boat is preparing to turn the sharp corner to the shrine.

After successfully turning the corner.

After successfully turning the corner.

Pushing up the incline street to the shrine

Pushing up the incline street to the shrine

 

After turning the corner, the fune now line up in front of the shrine gate, where a crowd of people is waiting to watch their grand entrance. First the shrine’s Shinto priest blesses the fune and then they prepare to enter. Again, the men must build up speed to turn corner in the shrine, except this time the ground is now a soft, forest floor which makes it even more difficult to push the shrine through, not to mention there is not a crowd of people who, if they are not careful, they will crash right into. It’s quite exhilarating if you can get up close to watch this part of the festival.

 

Getting ready to run through the gate!

Getting ready to run through the gate!

Entering the shrine gate

Entering the shrine gate

After running through the shrine gate

After running through the shrine gate

Pushing up the incline inside the shrine premises

Pushing up the incline inside the shrine premises

After all the fune have entered the shrine premises, each neighborhood separates into their own group and everyone eats lunch and enjoys more beer and sake under the Susukigawa Shrine’s magnificent trees. Once all the festivities are over, the fune are pulled back to their respective neighborhoods.

If you are in the Matsumoto area during Golden Week, definitely go see this festival! If you know someone in the area, or strike up a conversation with one of the locals during the festival, you may even be able to join in on the picnic and share a swig or two of sake 😉

This fune is being pulled home with the help of the entire neighborhood.

This fune is being pulled home with the help of the entire neighborhood.


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