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Shirahone Onsen – A Peaceful Getaway at a Hot Springs Resort

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Shirahone’s signature milky white waters

An avid onsen enthusiast, I recently paid a visit to the hot spring village of Shirahone in the mountains of Matsumoto. Although going via public transportation in the winter is a bit more of a challenge, it is still doable. After purchasing my round-trip ticket (available in the ALPICO Plaza/Matsumoto Bus Terminal across the street from Matsumoto Station), I hopped on the Kamikochi Line train bound for Shin-Shimashima Station.

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The ticket to Shirahone costs 3,500 yen and is good for 7 days.

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Board the train from track 7.

Things to Note about Going by Public Transportation

A direct bus leaves from Matsumoto once a day, but departs only in the afternoon, so if you want to make a day trip of your visit, you will need to take the earliest train (7:16 a.m. in the winter) and head back on the 3:50 p.m. bus. Since a lot of visitors come to the area after Kamikochi opens (around mid-April), you will probably have a nicer trip if you visit after that. A few ryokan and the only cafe are closed for the winter. Furthermore, the ryokans that allow day-trip bathing will only allow you to use them until 2:00 p.m. or so. Thus, you will have a bit of time to kill before you catch the bus back to Shin-Shimashima. While there is an information hut next to the Shirahone bus stop, it is fairly old and small and also not very well heated.

The Trip Up

A winter wonderland awaited me. The road was very winding, but the view was superb.

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Watching us from the roadside, a kamoshika or Japanese deer.

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The Shirahone settlement sinks into the valley.

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Arriving at Shirahone Onsen

I stayed on the bus until the last stop, Shirahone Onsen. However, for those visiting for just the day, I recommend getting off one stop sooner at Awa-no-yu.

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A map and guide are posted outside of the information hut (open 10 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.). The guide indicates what ryokans offer day-visit bathing, when they are open, and how much they cost. Sadly, the board’s information may not be kept entirely up to date, so it’s better to ask before setting out.

Walking to Awa-no-yu

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Fortunately, the previous stop, Awa-no-yu, was only about a 15-minute walk back up the road. Still a part of Shirahone Onsen, there are a few ryokan there that all offer day-visit bathing. I was able to visit two of them. My first stop was the Marui Ryokan‘s Katsura-no-yu. They were kind enough to let me enter a little early. Although the bath was not very large, it was well maintained and included an outdoor portion (possible coed a bath). The natural hot spring waters were the perfect temperature for a nice long soak. Shampoo, conditioner, and body soap were available, but bring your own towel and hairdryer. No lockers were available in the changing room, but the front desk might be willing to keep an eye on your things.

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Katsura-no-yu from below

After a cup of coffee (available for purchase in the lobby along with some other drinks and snacks), I headed over to the inn across the street. The Awa-no-yu Ryokan offers both separate and coed bathing. If you’re just there for the day, you will enter through an entrance around back. Last entry is 1:30 p.m. Medium-size coin lockers and lockers for valuables as well as drink and food vending machines are available in the lobby.

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The women only side has both an indoor and outdoor bath and provides shampoo, conditioner, body wash and hairdryers. Once you wash off, you can cover up and head down the hall to the large outdoor bath. The men’s and women’s entrances are separated, so you can fully submerge yourself before heading out into the open. The water is so cloudy that you can’t see more than a few centimeters down, but I was told that I was allowed to wrap myself in a towel if a preferred.

After trying out all of the baths, it was time leave, so I headed back to the information hut to wait. I lucked out with some nice weather and got to enjoy the scenery along the way. Overall, I had a pleasant, relaxing experience and hope to be back again.

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A Great Day of Boarding in Matsumoto at Mt. Norikura Snow Resort

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Not to be confused with Hakuba Norikura Onsen Ski Resort, the Mt. Norikura Snow Resort in Matsumoto City is a medium-sized resort that offers off-piste skiing/boarding, a kid-friendly area, hot spring bathing, and more.

*BEFORE YOU GO*

Norikura Kogen tends to be a very windy area. Make sure the lifts are operating before you go!

Access via Public Transportation

You can take a bus or a combination of train and bus to the resort.

The round-trip ticket is very efficient as it covers both train and bus fare. It costs ¥3,300 and is valid for 7 days. Don’t lose it! Purchase your ticket at the Alpico ticket office across the street from Matsumoto Station’s Castle (Oshiro) Exit.

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Only one bus runs directly to the resort, and it leaves in the afternoon. Otherwise, take the Matsumoto Electric Railway from track 7, which is next to track 6. You will not see the track listed on the panels near the ticket gates, but head through to the ticket gates and to your right.

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Last stop: Shin-Shimashima

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Once you arrive at Shin-Shimashima Station, you should have at least 10 minutes to transfer to the bus out front. The transfer is fairly smooth. You can purchase bus tickets there as well. If you do not purchase your tickets in advance, you will need to pay (cash only) when you board the bus.

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Enjoy the scenery

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View the Nagawado Dam along the way!

Get off at stop N31 Ski Resort (also announced “ski-jo mae”). You should see a large dark grey building directly in front of you.

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The last bus bound for Shin-Shimashima Station leaves the resort at 6:22 p.m.

Trails & Facilities

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One of the quad lifts

Rentals

Gear and wear rentals are available at a number of shops.

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Coin Lockers

If you are not driving up or staying at one of the hotels, coins lockers are available in places such as the rental shop located in the dark grey building near the ticket vendor. Other lockers are available in the restaurant nearby, but the restaurant closes at 3:00 p.m. on weekdays, so you will need to get your belongings out before then.

Trails

Many of the beginner trails are wide and slope gently. Beginner snow boarders should note that sections of beginner areas, such as trail 19 and 13/11 will flatten out considerably. There is also a kids’ area near the bottom of trail 9 that can be accessed on your way down the trail or from the nearby parking lot.

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The more advanced can enjoy tree runs, the terrain park, and off-piste skiing/boarding. Mt. Norikura backcountry tours take you from the top of the highest lift into an expanse of mountain peaks and fields of snow.

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Overall the trails were not crowded, and the snow was not packed.

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Restaurants

There a few restaurants along the trails and one at the base of the resort. Be careful though! Many dishes are sold out as early as 1:30 p.m.

Hot Springs

Wind down with a dip in the milky white waters of the local hot springs. Hot springs such as Yukemurikan and Kyukamura Onsen are close to the base of the resort. Yukemurikan is about a 9 minute walk, and you can board the return bus to Matsumoto from the Tourist Center (Kanko Center Mae) bus stop out front.

 

Easy to Reach Bath House Sakura no Yu

The entrance is brightly lit at night.

The entrance is brightly lit at night.

Sakura no Yu is a clean and reasonably priced bath house that was built relatively recently. It is located on a main street, but has a quiet atmosphere and visitors include both men and women, young and old.

The large bath is fairly spacious compared to baths at other traditional Japanese bath houses. It has a seating area with jets for your back and legs and also a section with bubbling water that you can submerge yourself in to ease your aching muscles.
The type of water in the smaller bath is rotated on a daily basis, allowing you to enjoy bath soaks such as lavender, lemon, floral, and more.

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Look for the yu (ゆ)sign which indicates that the building is a bath house.

Facility

Hours: 15:00 (3pm) – 22:00 (10pm)

Closed: Friday

Prices: ¥400 for entry

*Amenities such as shampoo and soap are not provided, so please bring your own or purchase some at the front desk.
A set of shampoo, conditioner, soap, and a towel costs ¥300 altogether (Items are sold individually).*

Other items available: hairdryer, lockers, vending machines

Access:

1-4-14 Metoba, Matsumoto, Nagano 390-0806

By bus:
From Matsumoto Bus Terminal platform 3, you can take the 31/30 Utsukushigahara Onsen Line Bus bound for Utsukushigahara Onsen. (This bus runs until 9:45 pm on weekdays and 8:45 pm on weekends/holidays.) Get off at Sakuramachi. It takes about 13 minutes and costs ¥200.

From Matsumoto Station, you can take the 100 North City Bus bound for Jidosha Gakko and get off at Shimizu Nakaku. The ride takes about 8 minutes and costs ¥200. From that stop you will turn left at the light then cross the bridge.

Walking: The bath house is about a 22-minute walk from Matsumoto Station’s East Exit, but only about a 12-minute walk from Matsumoto Castle.
It is also walking distance from a number of hostels, so if you are staying around the Castle it’s an easy location to reach!

Parking: For those who drive, the parking lot is just across the street.

Bathing Etiquette and Tips

Here are a few tips to help make your bathing experience more enjoyable:

– Put your belongings in a locker and/or a wicker basket. (Be sure to put valuables in a locker. The bath house will not be responsible for stolen items.)

– Bathing with bathing suits or clothes on is not allowed.

– Be sure to wash your body first before entering the bath. There is no set order, but many people wash their body, warm themselves in the bath, then proceed to wash their hair and so forth.

– It is common to bring a small towel in the bathing area, but don’t put your bath towel in the water.

– Water temperatures can be quite hot, so take breaks. You may start to feel light headed and dizzy after more than a few minutes.

– When returning to the changing room, be sure to dry your body off near the doorway so you don’t get the floor wet.

– A common way to cool down after the bath is with a nice, refreshing bottle of milk!

 

 

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

Front entrance to Akanejuku

Front entrance to Akanejuku

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

Akanejuku, main building

Akanejuku, main building

View from Akanejuku's lounge

View from Akanejuku’s lounge

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

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

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

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

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

An open hearth in Akanejuku's lobby

An open hearth in Akanejuku’s lobby

Painted kite hanging in the dining hall

Painted kite hanging in the dining hall

Painting of the Japan Alps

Painting of the Japan Alps

Stained glass lamp at Akanejuku's enterance

Stained glass lamp at Akanejuku’s enterance

One of Akanejuku's antiques

One of Akanejuku’s antiques

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

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

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

Open-air bath at Akanejuku

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

Indoor bath with stone tiles

Indoor bath with stone tiles

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

Akanejuku's dining hall

Akanejuku’s dining hall

Homemade liquors on display in the dining hall

Homemade liquors on display in the dining hall

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

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

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

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

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

Asama Hot Springs and Fujinoyu Ryokan

Last month I had a wonderful opportunity to visit the family-owned, traditional-style Japanese inn, Fujinoyu Ryokan, in the Asama Onsen (Hot Springs) area of Matsumoto. This particular ryokan is almost 200 years old (it’s been open since the 1830s!!) and has its own natural hot spring baths in the building.

There are few special things about Fujinoyu. First is its collection of antiques that include authentic samurai armor and formal wear, samurai swords, paintings and calligraphy by one of the Matsumoto Castle lords, and paintings by Kogetsu Saigo, who was one of the four most famous painters at the end of the 19th century. Kogetsu Saigo was born in the Matsumoto area and was one of the first students to attend the Tokyo School of the Arts in the late 1800s. The inside of the ryokan feels very much like a mini museum and some of the items were gifted to the family by the lords of Matsumoto Castle themselves!

Samurai armor displayed at the entrance of the ryokan

Samurai armor displayed at the entrance of the ryokan

Samurai formal wear

Samurai formal wear

Paintings by Kogetsu Saigo

Paintings by Kogetsu Saigo

Of course, one of the best reasons to stay at a traditional ryokan are the elaborate “kaiseki ryori” meals that consist of several painstakingly prepared, small dishes which could possibly be mistaken for tiny works of art. The food is usually served on equally beautiful plates, trays and dishes. The best ryokan will make everything from scratch and use local ingredients (Fujinoyu is no exception). Here is just some of the food that we got served at Fujinoyu and the amazing table presentation:

The table settings in our (private) dining room

The table settings in our (private) dining room

A set of small appetizers

A set of small appetizers

Smoked duck

Smoked duck

A delicate soup with clams and red & white somen noodles

A delicate soup with clams and red & white somen noodles

After the meal, we got to enjoy Fujinoyu’s hot spring. There are two large baths (one for men and one for women) and there is one special private bath that can be used by couples, families or individuals. This bath is unique in that instead of tiles around the bath, they used tatami mats! Also, the hot water comes directly from the hot spring (as opposed to being heated or being mixed with regular water to adjust the temperature).

The private bath with a tatami floor and direct line from the natural hot spring.

The private bath with a tatami floor and direct line from the natural hot spring.

Fujinoyu is just one of many hot springs and ryokan in the Asama Hot Springs area, each with their own characteristic atmosphere, baths, and food. The area has a long history dating back hundreds and hundreds of years and during the Edo Period (1603-1867), one of the lords of Matsumoto Castle built his own bathhouse here, so even back then it was known as a resort area to go and relax. Needless to say, it’s a great area to stay if you’re coming to Matsumoto and want to literally soak in its long history.

Here is a list of the ryokans and hot springs in Asama Onsen:
http://www.asamaonsen.com/en/yado

To learn more about the Fujinoyu Ryokan that I wrote about in this article, check out their website here:
https://fujinoyu.com/en/

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.

Plum Blossoms Festival in Norikura

The 43rd Plum Blossoms Festival(sumomo-matsuri) will be held at Ichinose Ranch(一の瀬牧場)in Norikura Highlands on May 18th Sunday.

The ceremony starts from 10:30 a.m., admission is “free”. Live music with Alpine Horns, Taiko(Japanese drums), Yodel Chorus and Japanese traditional dance are offered to the visitors along with “Sake”, “soba” and “Miso soup” services.

Sumomo(Japanese plum) trees grow naturally in Norikura Highlands, they usually start blooming from mid- May and last until Mid June.

Sumomo jam, wine and ice ream are on sale at the shop in Ichinose ranch.

And don’t forget about famous Norikura Onsen(hot springs)! There are several inns and public bathhouse for day trip visitors.

Yukemurikan(湯けむり館)opens from 9:30~20:00, admission fee is 720 yen for adults, 300 yen for kids.
There are many small inns and hotels with onsen in Norikura area. ⇒Norikura accomodations

To reach Norikura highlands, Haruyama bus(春山バス) services are available until June 30th.
The bus departs from Shinshimashima bus terminal in Matsumoto, and takes visitors to the snowy corridors on Mt. Kuraigahara.
Haruyama bus info

2 Days Free Bus Passport (& 4 days also available)

Good news for the tourists who wish to visit Kamikochi, Norikura, Matsumoto and Utsukushigahara all at once.

Very reasonable 2 Days Free Bus Passport is now available at ALPICO bus terminals in Matsumoto and Shinshimashima.



This 2 days free passport is 5,150 yen for adults (half price for kids (including tax)), available at ALPICO counter in Matsumoto Bus Terninal and Shinshimashima Bus Terminal. It is handy to use and perfect for touring Matsumoto area! Just to show this passport to the driver before get off the bus (except for Kamikochi line). For Kamikochi line, you need to get a “Numbered ticket (determining order of service)”at Kamikochi Bus Terminal in addition to this 2 days passport for boarding.

With this amazing open ticket, all bus services including Kamikochi line(train), Utsukushigahara line and of course Matsumoto city zone lines become free within 2 days after the purchasing.

In addition to this, by paying double the price of 2 days pass, you can get 4 days free ticket called “Shinshu – Hida Wide Free Passport“.
With this 4 days pass, you can even visit Takayama and Shirakawa village and come back to Matsumoto. The pass is available at ALPICO counter in Matsumoto and Shinshimashima bus terminals, Takayama Nohi Bus Center and Gero Bus Center in Gifu.

Have fun!

“Matsumoto Concierge Map” will be distributed

“Matsumoto Concierge” is a civic volunteer group guiding tourists from JR Matsumoto Station and the downtown tourist information booth.
The Castle Town: Matsumoto Concierge Map” was created by “Matsumoto Concierge” members after numerous discussions, and the most useful, often unwritten, tourist information has been selected.

Recommended restaurants with price range, availabilities of credit cards, free wi-fi and English menus, and the locations for  free bicycle pick-up, convenience stores, drug stores, banks, coin lockers, camera equipment stores are addressed on the map.  Since all the spots, shops and restaurants introduced on the map are selected by the locos (Matsumotorian),  the short comments tell real stories of Matsumoto.

This unique and very useful map is provided at the major hotels and inns in the downtown area, and will be distributed at the “Matsumoto Concierge” booth which is located in front of the wicket gate of JR Matsumoto station during tourist season starting from this golden week.

However, the number of the map is very limited, it may not be available to every tourist who will visit Matsumoto in this year.

Please download the map image from ⇒ “Matsumoto Concierge Map“, so you can install in the tablets of yours and use them while strolling the town.

Have lots of fun along with this handy information!

Nagawa “Soba Festa” Oct 20th

Nagawa is a small village located on the western mountain range, about one hour away from JR Matsumoto Station by both train and local bus.
There, “Soba Festa” has been held until November 4th. During the festival, various Soba restaurants are serving this year’s first cropped soba and having stamp rally. Collect stamps by trying at different soba restaurants during this season, guests will get some prize.  But forget about prize and such, Soba in Nagawa is already rewarding!!

This Sunday the 20th, they are serving “Nagawa Soba” which only use this region’s buckwheat for 500 yen at Sansai kan.  After having wonderful meal, travelers can relax at the local inn’s natural hot spring “Onsen”. Enjoy autumn’s breath taking colorful foliage on the mountain and delicious local soba in Matsumoto’s back yard!


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