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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

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.

Kamikochi in Early Spring and the 49th Annual Kamikochi Opening Festival

While the emerald green mountains of Kamikochi are surely a beautiful sight to see in the summer, the snow-dusted peaks and crisp air of the early spring are also a wonderful experience. If you plan accordingly, you can catch Kamikochi’s Annual Opening Festival which is held every year in late April after Kamikochi opens in mid-April.

Azusa River

Azusa River

This year, in my first-ever trip to Kamikochi, I was lucky enough to attend the 49th Annual Opening Festival which featured a performance from Swiss Alpenhorn player, a traditional shishimai lion dance, a blessing from Shinto priests and special visitors from Matsumoto’s twin town, Grindelwald, Switzerland. After the ceremony, the ceremony officials broke open huge casks of local sake (rice wine) and doled it out to everyone attending.

A crowd gather on Kappabashi Bridge for the opening ceremony

A crowd gather on Kappabashi Bridge for the opening ceremony

The Alpenhorn musicians

The Alpenhorn musicians

The Alpenhorns up close.

The Alpenhorns up close.

After enjoying my own cup of sake, I took walk around the park to take in the breath-taking scenery and learn about Kamikochi. One of the most famous spots in Kamikochi is Taisho Pond, which I was surprised to learn was only created 100 years ago when Mt. Yakedake erupted in 1915 and caused a section of the Azusa River to be blocked. This eruption occurred in the Taisho Period of Japan, hence the name “Taisho Pond.”

Special wooden sake cups for the ceremony.

Special wooden sake cups for the ceremony.

The mountain-scape

The mountain-scape

The Azusa River is fed not only by the melting snow from the surrounding mountains, but also natural springs in Kamikochi that bubble up pure groundwater. The waters are so clear that you can practically see every pebble at the bottom of the river and streams and water at the source of the natural springs is pure enough to drink (just make sure you don’t drink water from the river or too far downstream).

Crystal clear water from the natural spring

Crystal clear water from the natural spring

Just look at this water!

Just look at this water!

Another interesting fact I learned about Kamikochi is that it is constantly in change. The creation of Taisho Pond is one obvious example, but every day, little by little, the water streaming down from mountains gradually carves out ridges in the steeps slopes, and as the sediment runs down into the Azusa River valley below, it gradually causes the valley to rise up. So even though Kamikochi is a nature “preserve,” the nature will never be preserved like a snapshot in time – it is always dynamically changing itself!

If you’re even thinking about coming to Matsumoto, then Kamikochi is a spot you do not want to miss! If you have the chance, I actually recommended visiting the park at least one time in each of the different seasons (except for winter because the park is closed), as every season will have new scenery, new colors, and new wildlife to enjoy. (Thanks to some lucky circumstances, I got to see a rare horizontal rainbow over the Azusa River. You never know what’s waiting for you in Kamikochi!)

A rare horizontal rainbow over the river!

A rare horizontal rainbow over the river!

Find more information about how to get to Kamikochi in our article here, in the English language Kamikochi Guide (pdf), or learn more on the Japan Alps Kamikochi Website.

Hakuba – Matsumoto Express Bus and Sumo Road-show Again This Year & Castle Expo in Yokohama to Dec 25

Happy holidays! Snow falls in the north mountain areas in Nagano, so it is white Christmas.

hakubamatsumotowebIn the last year’s winter, I wrote about the launch of Hakuba from/to Matsumoto direct express bus service. Again this year, it operates from Dec 17 till Mar 20!
Check out this new English website.

Free shuttle buses between Matsumoto and Mt. Norikura/Nomugi Pass ski resorts are operating this year, too. You need reservation for them. See the details on Japanese websites (Mt. Norikura / Nomugi Pass).

mainAnother good news, ‘Sumo road-show in Matsumoto’ will be also held next April again. It might be the season of cherry blossoms seen in and around Matsumoto Castle beautifully.

Time: 8 am to 3 pm, Friday 14th, April
Venue: Matsumoto City General Gymnasium (Google map)
Ticket: advance-sale tickets will be sold from Feb 1 (probably walk-up tickets will also be sold)
Refer to the Japanese website and our previous blog article.

Are you interested in Matsumoto Castle and other Japanese castles and cultures at the samurai age? If so, now ‘Castle Expo’ in Yokohama is being held to Dec 25. See this PDF document.

Tea Ceremony at Matsumoto Castle and Tea Room in Hyakuchikutei

image1In the Matsumoto Castle garden, a tea ceremony is held several times a year.

This summer, it’ll be held on August 6th and 7th, at the beginning of the free admission period for visitors wearing kimono, and also the extension period of entrance hours (8:00 till door closes at 17:30 , normally 8:30-16:30) (until August 16).

Members of the youth group of the Urasenke school of tea ceremony school wearing yukata (a kind of kimono) will serve you cold green powdered tea with Japanese cake for 500 yen. The leader of the group speaks English.

ikegamiHyakuchikuChashitsuAlso, there is a full-scale tea-ceremony room (tyashitsu) with a tea garden in Ikegami Hyakuchikutei, just a few minutes walk northward from the castle.

You can look inside the tea room and garden freely (9:00-17:00 except Monday) without charge when it is not used.

13083097_1706562706266342_5794503086238738997_nHow about wearing kimono at newly opened Kimono & Ninja Costume Wearing & Rental Shop ‘Hanakomichi’, go to the castle, take your photo with an armored man of ‘omotenashi-tai’, enter the castle free of charge, taste cold tea at the castle garden (if you visit Aug 6 or 7), then visit the tea room in Hyakuchikutei?
This is a perfect plan to experience traditional castle culture!

Cherries and Sumo Wrestlers Coming Back Early April

Last year's cherries with the Castle (April 9th)

Last year’s cherries with the Castle (April 9th)

According to the ‘Cherry Blooming Forecast’, cherries at the Castle and downtown Matsumoto might begin blooming April 3rd. The event ‘Nighttime Cherry Blossom Viewing’ will be held from three days after cherries begin blooming and continue 8 days (so possibly around April 6th till 13th)
The special illumination for the cherries will start from the same day and will continue two days longer (10 days).

00006078On April 7th, ‘Sumo road-show in Matsumoto’ will be held again. The last year’s road-show was heated because of a new hero ‘Mitake-umi’ from Kiso in Nagano Prefecture. You might see some sumo wrestlers viewing cherries somewhere after the show if you are very lucky.


Sumo Wrestlers Coming Back to Matsumoto with Nagano-born New Hero

Sumo road-show will come back again this Wednesday 14th.

A photo of the last road-show 2007

8 years has passed since the last sumo in Matsumoto. Refer to a blog article “Gentle Giants of Sumo” at that time.

Super strong Mongolian yokozuna (grand champion) Hakuho still reigns over 8 years (he is injured so cannot come back again this time but other two yokozunas and major wrestlers will come).

And, a new hero from Kiso in Nagano Prefecture will step onto the sumo ring (dohyo) in his home prefecture. He is Mitake-umi, named from the volcano Ontake, which erupted last year and caused many victims and much damages to Kiso area. At that time he was a college student and the strongest amateur wrestler. He chose to become a professional sumo wrestler and encourage Kiso people.
He has scored very well in lower divisions and will make his debut in the makuuchi (top) division this November.
So, he will return in triumph in this sumo performance in Matsumoto and get great applause.

Most wrestlers will stay in Asama hot springs. You may see some of them if you are lucky.

By the way, Chanko (special stew sumo wrestlers eat) Dining Sumotei has opened by ex-sumo wrestler near Matsumoto Castle last year. See this tripadvisor page.

  • Time: 8 am to 3 pm, Wednesday 14th, October
  • Venue: Matsumoto City General Gymnasium (Google map)
  • Ticket: advance-sale tickets were sold out. Walk-up tickets will be sold from 8 am (probably there will be a long line)
  • Japanese website: http://matumoto-sumou.com/


Kiyomizu Art Festival in the Western Hills of Matsumoto.

For those with an appreciation for art and who may want to feel a little cooler in the summer heat, nearby Matsumoto on the western slopes of the surrounding hills is a place called Kiyomizu Highland named after the Temple there that was the original temple from which Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto was named. The locals there are putting on an art festival with a variety of open Studios and even musical events at the Kiyomizu Skyland resort hotel over the next two weeks.

Should you want to vistit or even pop in on the original Kiyomizu temple take a look at the schedule below or the facebook page ( https://www.facebook.com/KiyomizuArtfes?fref=pb&hc_location=profile_browser)if you can read or work with Japanese with a translator.
While you are there you can take a nice Onsen style bath with a great view of the entire Matsumoto Valley and along the Japan Alps at Kiyomizu Skyland. The temperature up their is a good 5 degrees cooler making it a popular mountain cabin locality. You may even spot some monkeys getting about along the way.

Japanese-Style Illumination at Asama Hot Spring Has Started!

In Japan, the winter is a season of “illumination”. There are some beautiful illumination spots lighted up by LEDs. In Nagano, Karuizawa, Azumino, and Suzaka’s illumination events are famous.

This winter, not large but unique illumination has started at Asama Hot Springs in Matsumoto. It is Japanese taste design lighting in front of Hot Plaza Asama, a day trip hot spring facility. You can watch the “healing illumination” while soaking your feet in the free foot hot spring.

Japanese-style illumination of origami cranes and Matsumoto temari balls, made and played in the castle in Edo period.

Japanese-style illumination of origami cranes and Matsumoto temari balls, made and played in the castle in Edo period.

The lights on trees are designed to twinkle by natural wind, like stars in the sky.

Because of the M 6.7 earthquake that occurred on 22nd November and damaged some portions in Hakuba and Northern Nagano, even hotels in Asama Hot Springs suffered from cancellations, even though Matsumoto is in the center of Nagano Prefecture and didn’t have any direct damage.

Now, there are no problems at all sightseeing spots and ski resorts in Nagano, including transportation.

Kick-off ceremony of illumination

People in Asama Onsen hope this beautiful illumination will overcome the quake.?

Asama Hot Spring is located in a convenient place in Matsumoto, Nagano. It is just a ten minute bus ride from Matsumoto Castle. It also has a very long history, 1,300 years or more and feudal lords of the Castle visited there in the Edo period (17th century).

All the lights are LEDs using small amounts of electricity

The illumination is shining 5pm to 0am until April 19.

More than twenty traditional Japanese ryokans in Asama Onsen and the illumination are wating for you.


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