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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!!

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.

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.

Sightseeing in Matsumoto Now Easier Via the Town Sneaker!

20170711_townsneaker

Starting this month, the local bus line, the Town Sneaker, is now nearly 3 times as convenient! The number of buses per day has increased from 35 to 103!

Four Main Routes:

NORTH for Matsumoto Castle, the Former Kaichi School

Weekdays: Departs every 30 minutes! Weekends: Departs every 20 minutes!

First bus: 8:30am Last bus: 5:15pm

SOUTH for Aizawa Hospital, Yumehiroba Shonai

Departs every 30 minutes!

First bus: 7:30am Last bus: 6:35pm

EAST for Nakamachi, Agata-no-mori

Departs every 20 minutes!

First bus: 8:40am Last bus: 8:00pm

WEST short course for Marunouchi Hospital & Nagano Prefecture Matsumoto Regional Office, long course for the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum

Departs every 30 minutes!

First bus: 8:10am Last bus: 6:40pm

*Please note that portions of these routes have changed starting August 1*

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Japan Ukiyo-e Museum Access

Added to the Western Route is the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum which holds the world’s largest private collection of ukiyo-e, painted screens, and old books. Be sure to take the bus that runs the full “long course”!

Passes and Ticket Books

  • Town Sneaker One-day Bus Ticket
    At ¥500 for an adult ticket, you get unlimited rides on the Town Sneaker. This ticket also gives you discounts at other locations throughout Matsumoto including Matsumoto Castle and museums.
    Available for purchase on board or at the Matsumoto Bus Terminal
  • MATSUMOTO ONE DAY PASS
    This pass can be used on Matsumoto City’s local bus lines such as the Town Sneaker and also lines running to areas on the outskirts of the city including Matsumoto Airport and both Asama and Utsugushigahara Onsen. This pass also gives you discounts at other locations throughout Matsumoto including Matsumoto Castle and museums.
    Available for purchase at the Matsumoto Bus Terminal
    Adults: ¥800 Children: ¥400
  • “La Coupon”
    13 tickets for the price of 10!
    Available for purchase at the Matsumoto Bus Terminal

★The Matsumoto Bus Terminal is located here. It is open everyday from 6am to 8pm. ★

  • Sightseeing Pass
    A separate Sightseeing Pass that provides access to Matsumoto Castle and the city’s museums is also available for purchase at each of the sites included in the pass. The pass is valid through September 30, 2017, but each site can only be visited once. Further information about the pass is available in both Japanese and English here.
    Adults: ¥800 Children: ¥370

NAGANO NAVI

You can also search for bus routes and times with the app “Nagano Navi”.

Baba Family Residence

Baba’s Family Residence is an immaculately preserved late-Edo period home of wealthy farmers. This estate is tucked into a pocket of farmland, giving the farm a surreal view of green fields and mountains from the front gate of the property. As a lover of history, there was a lot more here than I was expecting!

There isn’t much English information about this residence online. I was able to gather some information from knowledgeable people before my visit. I was also lucky enough to arrange a tour by the property’s curator, which isn’t normally done.

My research brought up a lot of important details for understanding and appreciating the residence that I certainly would have missed if I’d simply gone there after a couple of Google searches.

The Baba Family Residence.

The Baba Family Residence.

 

The Baba family descends from the relative of a vassal who served under the famous Japanese warrior, Takeda Shingen. In one of the front rooms, you can see a painting with Takeda at the top and some of the Baba descendants under him.

Takeda stands at the top of a painting of his descendants.

Takeda stands at the top of a painting of his descendants.

A line of 16 Babas extend from the 16th century through today. It was the 12th Baba, Gizaemon, who built most of the buildings you’ll find when visiting. The 16th and current Baba, Taro, donate much of the property to the city of Matsumoto in 1992. Matsumoto City’s renovation efforts go a long way toward making this such an amazing destination.

There was a surprising number of activities that kept me engaged much longer than I was expecting! Some details could be easy to miss, so let me be your tour guide!

The walkway from the street, leading to the inner-gate.

The walkway from the street, leading to the inner-gate.

Surroundings – Riding my bicycle set a relaxing, peaceful mood for my visit. The 40 minute bike trip from Matsumoto Station to the residence winds through small neighborhoods and patches of farmland. The front of the entrance is opposite wide open fields, making the property really pop. There’s a manicured space between the street and the gate with a path, trees, and flowers.

I parked my bike out front and wandered the front garden area before entering the inner-gate. At 10 in the morning, I was the only visitor. This enhanced the beauty of the experience after my relaxing bicycle ride.

The inner-gate, looking out toward farmland.

The inner-gate, looking out toward farmland.

Inner-Gate – Legend has it that the impressive inner-gate was built to welcome the lord of Takashima Castle, in neighboring Suwa. Being close to the family, the lord was known to visit the property. The family’s wealth when the buildings were constructed in the 1850s and their ongoing friendship with the castle lord certainly make this story plausible.

View of the house through the mouth of the inner-gate.

View of the house through the mouth of the inner-gate.

The Home – After entering the gate, I walked straight to the office to begin my tour of the home. The first room is an open area where you should take your shoes off before continuing deeper into the home. In this area, you’ll already see historic photos, art, and model recreations. Almost all of the home is open for visitors. You’re allowed to explore the Lord’s Entrance, the lord’s room (and lord’s bathroom!), the master baba’s room, common rooms, the kitchen, one of the upstairs areas, and more.

It should be obvious which stairs you are allowed to go up because there will be no ropes or blockades. Upstairs is where the house caretaker lived. I enjoyed looking out over the property from the upper windows. The caretaker had a clear view of everyone coming and going through the front gate. There’s also a beautiful painting of the Baba home on display.

The welcoming kitchen made me hungry.

The welcoming kitchen made me hungry.

The Kitchen – The kitchen has the traditional cooking pit surrounded by mats, a cooking stove, a sink, and lots of photos, displays, and decorations. The pot over the cooking pit is suspended by a really cool device that allows the pod to be easily raised and lowered (I should have taken a picture of it!). The kitchen ceiling is high, using the traditional Japanese method of opening windows or the roof vent to get rid of smoke. This gives the kitchen an open, welcoming feel.

I’ve seen a few of these cooking areas in old Japanese homes, but I found this one particularly welcoming. It made me want to sit and eat with friends in a circle around a pot of delicious food!

The entrance reserved for the visiting lord of Takeshima Castle

The entrance reserved for the visiting lord of Takashima Castle

The Lord’s Entrance – The visiting lord of Takashima Castle didn’t enter through the same door as other visitors. You’ll find the lord’s ornate entrance positioned off the courtyard in line with the inner-gate. The room he entered would be closed off to others when he arrived. In this room, the head Baba and the lord would commune. Directly off of this room, toward the garden, you’ll find the room where the lord slept. This is the room where you’ll find the painting of Takeda and his descendants.

This area made my imagination run wild. It made me think of the first episode of Game of Thrones where King Robert was talking to Lord Stark Winterfell. I kept wondering what kind of political intrigue was discussed behind closed doors. What sorts of real-life historical dramas could have been set in this home?

View of the inner-gate from the Lord's Entrance.

View of the inner-gate from the Lord’s Entrance.

 

The Bathroom – Just off of the lord’s room, you’ll find a bathroom! I’ve visited quite a few old Japanese homes and I’d never seen a bathroom built inside a home! There is a wooden sink, a urinal, and a small room with a hole to squat over. Above the sink, you’ll find holes where water would have been piped down. The sink had a slight slope toward a hole in the wall that drained outside. I hope you’re as excited as I am about this (rudimentary, but highly functional) toilet area! But… maybe it’s just me…

View of the garden from inside the home.

View of the garden from inside the home.

The Garden – The gate to the most beautiful garden on the property is closed off to the public. But, don’t worry! The Garden is in full display from the home itself! The garden has a series of ponds, connected by a small creek. I enjoyed sitting on the edge of the home and soaking up the greenery.

The Storehouse – There’s a storehouse directly behind the home that’s open to the public and that I was pretty excited about. I’ve seen so many of these storehouses along Nakamachi Street in downtown Matsumoto, but I’d never been able to explore one in its original condition! The storehouse was set up to showcase a few artifacts related to the storehouse and the home’s architecture.

In the upstairs of the storehouse, you’ll see photos and luggage of a Baba who had travelled the world as a diplomat in the early 20th century. I love exploring this Baba’s adventures through the photos on display!

Farm equipment on display.

Farm equipment on display.

Farm Equipment Showcase – In the courtyard in front of the home, you’ll find a few other buildings to explore, including one dedicated to showing the Babas’ retired farm equipment. There are saws, sickles, carts, and all sorts contraptions I couldn’t identify. My favorite part were the old photos of the Babas’ fields being worked. These photos reminded me of visiting my ancestors’ farms back in western Washington, USA.

Silk Weaving Machines – Another building off the front courtyard showcases silk weaving equipment. The family raised silkworms in layered beds that you can see on display. You can see the many machines used to process the silk.

Neolithic settlement, dating thousands of years before the Babas.

Neolithic settlement, dating thousands of years before the Babas.

Neolithic Artifacts – The last building off the courtyard was my favorite. This was surprising because I hadn’t read anything about this during my research of the property! Apparently, the Baba Family Residence is on the site of Neolithic community, dating back thousands of years. You can see many artifacts excavated from the area. There are tools, arrowheads, 4,000 year old pots, and lots of photos of the excavated homes. There’s even a model recreation of what the homes looked like at the time.

My favorite artifact was the 3,000 year old stone figure. It’s carved on a flat stone, about the size of a doll. It’s cracked in half, but the carved features are still easy to identify.

Stone Figure on display.

Stone Figure on display.

I knew there would be lots of history at the Baba Family Residence, but the Neolithic artifacts really impressed me! I can’t believe this isn’t promoted more!

Baba family shrine, sitting in front of an 800 year old tree.

Baba family shrine, sitting in front of an 800 year old tree.

Baba Family Shrine – On your way out of the property, there’s still one more stop! The Baba family’s shrine is in the middle of a batch of trees in front of the property. It’s hard to miss because the trees are an island in the middle of flat farmland. The shrine is a traditional shrine with a Shinto gate and a little enclosed shrine building. The key feature is the 800 year old tree directly behind it! The trunk is massive!

Walkway to the office.

Walkway to the office.

Overall, the Baba Family Residence has a lot more to offer than you might expect. There were a few pamphlets in English, but expect to be on your own after paying the entrance fee. Although it has such a small presence online, it has jumped high on my list of places I recommend tourists visit. It’s a great place to explore, relax, and soak up the beauty – especially if the weather is clear enough for a bike ride.

For information on opening times, admission fees, etc., please see the Baba Family Residence page.

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.

Matsumoto City Museum – A Good Dose of Castles, Samurais and Matsumoto Culture

Matsumoto celebrates its city anniversary on May 1st of every year by opening all the city museums to visitors free of cost – the perfect chance to go explore a few places in the city.  I chose to check out the Matsumoto City Museum, which is right next to Matsumoto Castle. Here you can get your fill of samurai equipment, ancient pottery, Matsumoto history through the years and Matsumoto local culture.

Matsumoto City Museum from the outside.

Matsumoto City Museum from the outside.

Samurai armor with a red face mask.

Samurai armor with a red face mask.

 

Following the suggested viewing route, I started off learning about Matsumoto in the ancient days long before the samurai with shattered-and -reconstructed pieces of Jomon pottery and primitive arrowheads and stone tools. And despite being what seemed like a collection of simple wooden logs, the Edo-era wooden plumbing  display was very interesting. Can you imagine that you can build an entire plumbing and water system using carved out wooden pipes and wooden joints?

Ancient pottery and tools from Matsumoto

Ancient pottery and tools from Matsumoto

Sections of wooden pipes used transport water.

Sections of wooden pipes used transport water.

 

The next section of the museum featured all kinds of information, displays and artifacts from Matsumoto Castle, the castle lords and the samurais including beautiful decorative tiles of the castle roof, samurai weapons and training equipment, items used by the castle lords and giant, old hand-drawn maps of the castle and surrounding town. There were also some more “everyday” artifacts used by commoners and merchants, as well as one of my favorites, the big wooden “water guns” used to put out fires.

Japanese bows and arrows

Japanese longbows and arrows

samurai armor

Intricately detailed, full suits of armor

Labeled as a "Japanese gargoyle", this is one of the elements from the castle's roof.

Labeled as a “Japanese gargoyle”, this is one of the elements from the castle’s roof.

Forms of entertainment used by samurai families

Forms of entertainment used by samurai families

Big wooden water guns for fire fighting

Big wooden water guns for fire fighting

 

The next area featured items from more recent times including wartime Japan and retroesque artifacts from the Showa period. After that you get to learn about some of the neat local festivals that started hundreds of years ago and still go on in Matsumoto.

showa tank

A retro toy tank from the Showa Period

first mayor of matsumoto

First mayor of Matsumoto and his personal belongings. Yes, that is a silk top hat.

Tanabata dolls from Matsumoto's unique Tanabata festival

Quirky Tanabata dolls from Matsumoto’s unique Tanabata festival

Straw horse for the Koto-youya event

Straw horse for the Koto-youya event

 

The Matsumoto City Museum also holds special exhibitions, and luckily for me, I came during the samurai sword exhibition featuring swords and blades made in the different sword-making regions of Japan. If you’re at all interested in samurai weapons, the exhibition lasts another month until June 4th. You’ll learn some interesting facts like part of the sword hilts are made out of shark skin and that swords had special rain covers to protect them from getting wet (which makes sense but I would have never thought of it!).

Sword exhibition flier

Flier for the sword exhibition

Blades of samurai swords

Blades of samurai swords

Swords in their hilts

Swords in their hilts

sword emblem

Emblem engraved into the base of a sword blade.

rain covers

Rain covers for the swords. Who knew?

Anyways, if you’re going to see Matsumoto Castle, the museum is a great complementary stop that’ll let you see amazing artifacts and learn more about the city.

Open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (last entry at 4:30)

During Golden Week season (Apr. 29th – May 7th) this year: 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (last entry at 5:30)

Matsumoto Folk Craft Museum – Handcrafted Artifacts from Everyday Life

I spent my Saturday morning exploring the Matsumoto Folk Craft Museum, a little gem that lies just outside of the central Matsumoto. The museum has on display thousands of traditional hand crafted, everyday things ranging from pickling crocks, smoking pipes and old toys to kimono, trinket boxes, furniture and old store signs from years ago. Many of the items are from Japan, including Nagano, but there are also several artifacts from around the world, as well, such as Korea, Mexico, Southeast Asia, and Africa. According to the staff, certain parts of the collection are changed up four times a year to offer exhibitions with different themes.

I have to be honest, I wasn’t expecting to be impressed because the information online about the museum lacked any particularly enticing photos or detailed descriptions. But upon arriving at the museum, I knew I was going to enjoy it. The folkcrafts are housed inside of one of Matsumoto’s characteristic Edo-period warehouses with “namako-style” black and white earthen walls adorned with geometric crisscross patterns. Before reaching the main building, you pass through a  small, forest-like Japanese garden.

The outer gates of the Matsumoto Folk Craft Museum

The outer gates of the Matsumoto Folk Craft Museum

The main building of the museum with crisscross patterning.

The main building of the museum with crisscross patterning.

 

Once inside, I was pleasantly surprised that it felt more like a cozy Japanese grandma’s house filled with antiques than a museum. The museum is not large so if you simply walk through without taking time to examine all the artifacts, you can probably be done within 30 minutes.

A wooden daruma from Yamagata on a beautiful wooden chest.

A wooden daruma from Yamagata on a beautiful wooden chest.

A collection of furniture, crocks and other things.

A collection of furniture, crocks and other things.

Patterned vase

Patterned vase

 

However, I was instantly captivated by the simple beauty of the museum’s handicrafts and spent nearly two hours examining and photographing their intricacies. The designs, patterns and colors of the crafts are inspiring and some even breathtaking such as the kimono from the indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido. I loved seeing the collection of wooden combs from around the world, the Edo-period shop signs and the colorful glazes of the pickling crocks. What’s great is that a lot of the things on display are right out in the open rather than behind glass walls so you can get extra close, looking in every nook and cranny of the piece.

Sign from a comb shop

Sign from a comb shop

Signs for a brush shop and money exchanger

Signs for a brush shop and money exchanger

Combs from around the world

Combs from around the world

Korean dolls

Korean dolls

Water pot from Turkey

Water pot from Turkey

Japanese crock

Japanese crock

Part of the museum features crafts made by the founder of the museum himself, the late Taro Maruyama. Maruyama owned a folkcraft shop in Matsumoto where he also made his own goods. I found his wooden crafts glazed or lacquered in red and patterned with eggshell (!) designs particularly striking. I can’t imagine how much patience it must have taken to produce these patterns with eggshells!

Wooden box patterned with eggshells

Wooden box patterned with eggshells

Another wooden box patterned with eggshells

Another wooden box patterned with eggshells

Hexagonal box with intricate eggshell pattern

Hexagonal box with intricate eggshell pattern

Tray with oak leaves made with eggshells

Tray with oak leaves made with eggshells

 

One interesting thing about the Matsumoto Folkcraft Museum is that almost none of the items have a written description apart from where it came from and what the item was. Maruyama’s philosophy was that it was enough for the crafts to simply be “beautiful” — rather than burden it with an explanation of when, where and how something was used. Indeed, I did find it refreshing to enjoy the handicrafts for what they were, without feeling obligated to read lengthy descriptions, imagining for myself who may have used them and what life must have been like back then.

Traditional horse riding equipment

Traditional horse riding equipment

Carrier for transporting loads on one's back

Carrier for transporting loads on one’s back

 

When you reach the last room, there is a tatami mat area set up like a room in a traditional Japanese house where you can sit and enjoy the atmosphere of the building.

Tatami space complete with furniture and indoor fire pit.

Tatami space complete with furniture and indoor fire pit.

Though the Matsumoto Craft Museum is a little bit out of the way from other popular places, if you have the time, I highly recommend checking it out. There may not be any samurai or imperial artifacts, but this museum gives you a peek of the ordinary lives from the past and the amazing things traditional craftsmen can accomplish with just their hands.

Take the Utsukushigahara Onsen bus (#30) from Matsumoto Station bus terminal (there is also a bus stop by Matsumoto Castle) and get off at the “Matsumoto Mingei-kan (Matsumoto Folkcraft Museum)” stop. You can also walk there from the station in about 45 minutes or from the castle in about 30 minutes (or even better, rent a bicycle!). See Google Map.

Open 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (last admission at 4:30) and closed on Mondays.

To learn more about the history of the museum, check out this article here.

Fall Foliage Collaborates with Yayoi Kusama’s Artwork on City Museum of Art

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Now fall foliage in downtown Matsumoto is at the final stage.

This morning, at the entrance of Matsumoto City Museum of Art, I was surprised to see beautiful red colored trees collaborating with Matumoto-born Yayoi Kusama’s artwork on the building. Nature’s red and yellow colors are competing with artificial red and yellows.
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The artwork was created before fall foliage starts. Is it just coincidence, or calculated art by Yayoi Kusama? Genius!

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You can enjoy the Kusama world in the permanent exhibition inside the building.


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