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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!

A Matsumoto New Year

Happy New Year from Matsumoto! Hopefully everyone had a great beginning and end of the year ^^

Matsumoto was bustling with activity as people flocked to the local Buddhist temples and Shinto Shrines to ring in the New Year. The New Year’s festivities and rituals at temples and shrines begin just before midnight on December 31st, as many people want to make their first visit right as the clock strikes twelve (even in the freezing cold!).

On their visit, temple- and shrine-goers will usually line up before the main hall of the temple or shrine, make a small offering and prayer for the New Year, and then draw a paper “o-mikuji” (おみくじ) fortune which gives insights into how the year is going to play out for you regarding general luck, family, childbirth, marriage/love, travel, and other life events (they kind of remind me of a horoscopes…). Many people also get new “o-mamori” (お守り: blessed personal amulets for good fortune, health, etc.) for themselves or their homes for the new year.

Paper fortunes from Tosenji Temple

Paper fortunes from Tosenji Temple

I also paid a visit to a few temples and shrines around Matsumoto to see what was going on, so I’ll share some photos and insights here :)

Just before midnight, I visited Tosenji Temple in the Yamabe area. According to my Japanese neighbor, it’s good fortune to do a “ni-nen mairi” (二年参り), which translates to a “2-year visit to a shrine/temple” — that is, by doing a double visit (including small offering and prayer) just before midnight and then right after midnight, you are in a way paying your respects to the shrine/temple over two separate years on the same day!

Upon arriving at Tosenji, they had a huge bonfire going, which not only helps keep people warm, but is also where you can “return” your old o-mamori amulets from the previous year by tossing them in the fire (you certainly wouldn’t want to toss an amulet blessed by a priest into the regular trash!).

Giant bofire at Tosenji

Giant bonfire at Tosenji

The temple was also decorated with lit paper lanterns, colorful drapes, and there was a multicolored streamer attached to a huge pole so it would fly in the wind above the temple.

Tosenji lit up in red paper lanterns

Tosenji lit up in red paper lanterns

Colorful streamer flying above the temple in the moonlight

Colorful streamer flying above the temple in the moonlight

To bring in some extra good fortune, some people (including me) did their “ni-nen mairi” double visit, but in general, it seemed like most people showed up just after midnight.

People lining up before Tosenji

People lining up before Tosenji Temple

The next day, New Year’s Day, I visited two of the main shrines in central Matsumoto: Fukashi Shrine and Yohashira Shrine.

Visitors at Fukashi Shrine

Visitors at Fukashi Shrine

Fukashi Shrine was fairly busy, but nothing compared to Yohashira Shrine—here, hundreds of people were lined up all the way to the main street waiting to pay their first visit to the shrine. To help keep people warm while waiting, the shrine was selling cups of hot amazake, a traditional sweet drink made sake lees (sakekasu) or koji, and steamed rice. Amazake is one of my favorite things about New Year shrine visits!

Hundreds of people lined up before Yohashira Shrine

Hundreds of people lined up before Yohashira Shrine

People doing prayers once they reach the shrine hall.

People doing prayers once they reach the shrine hall.

A cup of hot amazake, yum!

A cup of hot amazake, yum!

My last stop was the quirky Kasamori Inari Shrine dedicated to the white “inari” foxes. Here, you could buy pieces of fried tofu and place them at the shrine altar or at the base of the fox statues as an offering (because the white foxes apparently love eating fried tofu!).

A visitor at Kasamori Inari Shrine.

A visitor at Kasamori Inari Shrine.

The shrine also sold bundles of incense sticks which you could light and place in the stone incense bowl in front of the shrine building. Some people actually like to douse themselves in the smoke from the incense. Inside the shrine, a priest was selling small protection amulets, inari fox statues, and other items.

Offerings of fried tofu before the shrine altar

Offerings of fried tofu before the shrine altar

Someone dousing themselves in incense smoke.

Someone dousing themselves in incense smoke.

Did you spend New Year’s in Matsumoto? If so, feel free to share any photos or experiences on our Facebook page!

Again, happy New Year, and keep tuned in for more blog posts in 2018 <3

Susuharai “Soot Sweeping” Ritual and Hanging of the Shimenawa at Matsumoto Castle

Yesterday, Matsumoto Castle held its annual end-of-the-year Susuharai event, a ritual performed in order to purify the castle of the year’s worth of dirt and soot and prepare it for the New Year. This custom originates from a religious ritual that dates back hundreds of years in which people cleaned their houses to welcome in the god of the New Year.

The susuharai team posing with their brooms in front of Taikomon Gate

The susuharai team posing with their brooms in front of Taikomon Gate

Starting in the morning, several workers dressed in bright orange coveralls take 4-meter long (12 feet!) bamboo broom in hand and sweep off the walls of the Taikomon Gate, Kuromon Gate, and the lower part of the castle tower. At some points, they even climb partially up the stone foundation of the tower in order to reach a few more meters up (I couldn’t get photos of this but you can see a couple photos on the Matsumoto Castle website here by scrolling down to the Susuharai event).

The super long susuharai brooms

The super long susuharai brooms

There are also other workers who actually go out on the castle’s roof and wipe the roof tiles. Lets hope that no one falls in the moat…

Workers wiping off the roof tiles of the castle tower

Workers wiping off the roof tiles of the castle tower

Besides sprucing up the castle, a sacred interwoven, straw rope called a shimenawa is also hung across each of the gates and the main entrance to the castle tower. The shimenawa represents the barrier between our world and the world of the gods, and the rope prevents any evil from entering. These are same kind of ropes that you’ll find year-round at Shinto shrines, but around New Year’s shimenawa are also hung up at homes and businesses.

The shimenawa across the castle tower entrance

The shimenawa across the castle tower entrance

The shimenawa hung up at Matsumoto Castle are huge—several meters in length and I imagine quite heavy. I watched them hang one of the ropes across the Taikomon Gate and it took five or six people to complete the task.

Preparing to lift the shimenawa up to hang

Preparing to lift the shimenawa up to hang

Success!

Success!

If you missed Susuharai this year, the event happen on the same date, December 28, every year at Matsumoto Castle!

Matsumoto Castle's main gate adorned with a shimenawa and kadomatsu

Matsumoto Castle’s main gate adorned with a shimenawa and kadomatsu

A sparkling Matsumoto Castle all ready for the New Year ;)

A sparkling Matsumoto Castle all ready for the New Year 😉

New Year’s Decorations and Preparations in Matsumoto

Places around Matsumoto have started adorning themselves with the traditional Japanese decorations for New Year’s! If you go to Matsumoto Castle or major shrines like Yohashira Shrine, you’ll find impressive kadomatsu set up at the castle gates and in front of the shrine — the ones at Matsumoto Castle are especially huge!

Kadomatsu at the gates of Matsumoto Castle

Kadomatsu at the gates of Matsumoto Castle

An up-close look at one of Matsumoto Castle's kadomatsu.

An up-close look at one of Matsumoto Castle’s kadomatsu.

Kadomatsu are usually constructed out of cut bamboo, pine branches, and sometimes other plants or ornaments, and almost look like giant flower arrangements. They come in many different styles, so it’s fun to walk around and see all the varieties (check out some of the photos below too!). You will find them set up in pairs in front of houses, businesses, and shrines from late December to early January. Kadomatsu are thought of as a kind of “temporary housing” for the gods during the New Year’s holidays and therefore bring in good fortune for the New Year.

Kadomatsu at Yohashira Shrine by Nawate Street

Kadomatsu at Yohashira Shrine by Nawate Street

A closer look at the kadomatsu at Yohashira Shrine

A closer look at the kadomatsu at Yohashira Shrine

Kadomatsu in front of a business in downtown Matsumoto

Kadomatsu in front of a business in downtown Matsumoto

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Besides kadomatsu, there are many other kinds of New Year’s decorations which, depending on the type, may be hung above doorways, on doors, on gate posts, or simply set up on a shelf. Along the main street in downtown Matsumoto, the Christmas lights have been replaced with special New Year made of pine branches and bundles of rice attached to each of the light posts.

Decorations along the main street

Decorations along the main street

If you’re in decorating your own house Japanese style this New Year’s, go check out the New Year’s decoration market going on now until December 30 on Nawate Street right in front of Yohashira Shrine (Google map)! The vendors have a big selection of decorations (including both big and mini kadomatsu!) that, if nothing else, are fun to look and get a feel for the festive spirit of the Japanese New Year :)

New Year's decorations lined up on one of the market tables.

New Year's decorations lined up on one of the market tables.

One of the New Year's decoration vendors in front of Yohashira Shrine

One of the New Year’s decoration vendors in front of Yohashira Shrine

Some of the stands are selling daruma dolls of all colors and sizes, too! Daruma are often bought around the New Year, as they represent a wish, goal, or resolution you want to accomplish during the next year (you can read more about daruma on wikipedia).

A daruma seller at Yohashira Shrine

A daruma seller at Yohashira Shrine

And, some of the sellers are quite festive all by themselves!

Photo credit: from our Japanese blog

Photo credit: from our Japanese blog writer Yamamoto. See their article here.

Enjoy the New Year!!

Hidden Matsumoto: Tsukiizumi Shrine and Its Natural Spring

If you’re into finding nifty, off-the-beaten-path treasures, then I think you’ll really enjoy Tsukiizumi Shrine. It may appear low-key to some, but this is probably one of my favorite spots in Matsumoto!

The wooden torii gate in front of the shrine

The wooden torii gate in front of the shrine

You’ll find Tsukiizumi Shrine on a side road right off of the Metoba River. At the entrance to the shrine, a small, red bridge leads you over a pool of water which is actually formed by the ground water bubbling up right from the natural spring on the right side of the bridge. There are some koi carp living peacefully in the pool, too. In front of the bridge, there is a stone carved with the image of a man and a women, which represents a guardian spirit for travelers (all the more reason to stop by this shrine on your trip!) and also keeps evil from entering the town (in Japanese it is called 双体道祖神 or “sotai dosojin”).

Bubbling natural spring

Bubbling natural spring

Koi carp!

Koi carp!

At the other side of the bridge, you’ll see that the spring water also flows out from a spout. Since this water comes directly from the spring, it is safe to drink and many of the Matsumoto locals come here to fill up several jugs with water so they can use it at home! If you have a water bottle with you, fill it up here with the natural spring water–it’s cold even in the summer and tastes great.

Natural spring water from the spout. Fill up your water bottle!

Natural spring water from the spout. Fill up your water bottle!

According the sign board at the entrance, the spring here has been used since at least the Edo Period (1603–1868) and the water was used for dyeing and paper making. As for the shrine, it may date as far back as the year 881(!) but it is not confirmed.

Up close to the shrine structure

Up close to the shrine structure

Then, there is the humongous tree! It stands 25 meters (82 feet) tall, its trunk is about 1.6 meters (over 5 feet) wide and it is estimated that the tree is around 300 years old. Now, if you don’t look closely, you will miss the coolest part about this whole place: the hidden guardian spirit inside a big crack in the trunk of the tree! There’s even a little platform to put offerings of coins next to the figure.

The old tree at Tsukiizumi Shrine

The old tree at Tsukiizumi Shrine

A guardian spirit for travelers, hidden inside the tree!!

A guardian spirit, hidden inside the tree!!

If you have a few spare minutes while you’re in Matsumoto, I hope you’ll come check out this special spot. It’s about a 20-25 minute walk from the station or Matsumoto Castle, but if you have a bicycle, it won’t take you long to get there. If you’re going to the Aeon Mall, it’s quite close to there, too. See a Google Map here.

Enjoy!

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FYI, if you’re interested, here are some Japanese language references/articles on Tsukiizumi Shrine with more photos:
http://takara.city.matsumoto.nagano.jp/city/142.html
http://www.i-turn.jp/wakimizu-tukiizumijinnjya-matumoto.html


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