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Light Hiking in Asama Hot Springs with an Amazing View

While climbing the rugged Japan Alps is quite an adventure, if you’re looking for a more laid-back option, there is a nice hiking trail in the Asama Hot Springs area that has a lot to offer: easy access by bus or even bicycle from downtown Matsumoto, historical Shinto shrines in the forest, and best of all, a spectacular view of the Japan Alps (sometimes it’s just as impressive to see the Alps from afar as it is climbing the mountains themselves!). I checked it out last weekend and I’ve got a custom Google Map of the trails and points of interest below! If you prefer a Japanese map, there is a hiking map available in PDF format for this course here as well.

View from the look out point above Asama Hot Springs

View from the look out point above Asama Hot Springs

The trail up to the view point, which is on Mt. Gotenyama, takes 30 to 45 minutes from the trail heads and is easy enough for just about anyone to walk. First off, if you’re taking the bus, you can use the Asama Onsen bound bus (departs from Matsumoto Bus Terminal by the Matsumoto Station. See schedule here) and get off at the Asama Onsen bus stop. You just need to walk up the hill for about 10 minutes to get to the trail heads.

I started at Trail Head A (see map) and ended at Misha Shrine (where Trail Head B is located). I’ll go through the course I took below, photos included.

Fudo Falls (optional)

Now, before heading to the trail head, I would recommend checking out this cool little waterfall hidden just off the road on the way to Trail Head A and C. The waterfall itself is small, but it runs down from a small temple/shrine into a natural hollow carved into the rock wall. There is also a Buddhist carving in the wall as well as a fearsome stone sculpture. When walking through the town, you might notice there are some street signs pointing in the direction to the falls. Once you get near the falls, you’ll have to walk down a narrow path along a stream to find the actual waterfall. There isn’t an obvious sign in English at the entrance to the path so it can be hard to miss (use the map as guide).

Sign pointing to the Fudo Falls in the Asama Hot Springs area

Sign pointing to the Fudo Falls in the Asama Hot Springs area

The Buddhist stone sculpture at Fudo Falls

The Buddhist stone sculpture at Fudo Falls

A Buddhist carving behind the trickling Fudo Falls

A Buddhist carving behind the trickling Fudo Falls

Trail Head A to the Look Out Point

I started from Trail Head A located above the whole Asama Hot Springs area at the top of a steep hill. There is a big trail map at the entrance and a nice view of Mt. Norikuradake! In the fall, if it’s a nice day, you’ll be able to see the mountains through the trees as you’re hiking. Walk down the trail for about 15 minutes and you’ll come to a fork: take a right here to get to the look out point.

Trail map at trail head A

Trail map at trail head A

Mt. Norikuradake from trail head A

Mt. Norikuradake from trail head A

The Japan Alps peaking through the trees.

The Japan Alps peaking through the trees.

Trail near the look out point

Trail just below the look out point

The Look Out Point!

Once you get to the look out point, you’ll be rewarded with a great view of the city of Matsumoto and the Japan Alps (assuming there aren’t clouds hanging over the mountains)! There are also a couple of wooden benches here, so you can take a break or eat a snack.

Matsumoto with a snowy Mt. Norikuradake above

Matsumoto with a snowy Mt. Norikuradake above

Look Out Point to Tenmangu Shrine (天満宮)

After you had your fill of the look out point view, head back down the trail you came up until you reach the fork in the road again. Turn right to go toward Tenmangu Shrine (天満宮). Shortly after, there is another fork in the trail, where you ‘ll turn left to continue toward the shrine. After passing through a pleasant forest trail, you will see Tenmangu Shrine come into sight after just a couple minutes. Once you reach the shrine, check out its red torii gate, the small wooden pavilion, and the main shrine structure at the top of the stairs.

According to the sign standing next to the shrine, it was originally built back in the year 1659 as offering of gratitude to the gods after a source of lead was found in the area.

Pretty trail with fallen leaves

Pretty trail with fallen leaves

Torii gate in the woods below Tenmangu Shrine

Torii gate in the woods below Tenmangu Shrine

A wooden pavilion below Tenmangu Shrine

A wooden pavilion below Tenmangu Shrine

Tenmangu Shrine in the forest

Tenmangu Shrine in the forest

Tenmangu Shrine to Misha Shrine (御射神社)

Just below Tenmangu Shrine is a small suspended bridge. Check out the bridge if you like, then head down the trail towards Misha Shrine (御射神社 in Japanese; toward the right if Tenmagu Shrine is at your back). The trail will exit the forest and you will briefly walk through a residential area. Misha Shrine shouldn’t be hard to miss because it has an impressive red torii gate at its entrance. To see the main building of Misha Shrine, take the trek up the stone steps.

A small, but fun suspended bridge constructed out of wood.

A small, but fun suspended bridge constructed out of wood.

Beautiful torii gate at Misha Shrine

Beautiful torii gate at Misha Shrine

After you’re all finished exploring, you can take the bus back to downtown, or even better, take a soak in at the Hot Plaza Asama hot spring facility first! This is the only public hot spring in Asama Hot Springs, and here you don’t need a reservation. It only costs ¥650 – see more details here.

If you’re looking for some more light hiking, check out the Hayashi Castle course in the Satoyamabe area here.

Winter Light Displays

Yayoi Kusama's gigantic flower sculpture lit up in candlelight

Yayoi Kusama’s gigantic flower sculpture lit up in candlelight

Christmas Candle Night at the Matsumoto City Museum of Art

Enjoy listening to music while strolling around the art museum garden lit up in numerous soft candle lights.

Date: Saturday, December 9
Time: 4:00 p.m.–7:00 p.m.
Location: Matsumoto Museum of Art
 
 
 
 
 
 

Lights Pageant in Daimyocho and on the Chitose Bridge

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Nearly 80,000 lights decorate the trees lining Daimyocho, the road leading up to Matsumoto Castle. After viewing the lit-up trees, you can see the lit-up Matsumoto Castle just down the road.
The lights are up from early December until February 28 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. (on until later Dec. 20 through Jan. 3)20171204_194838

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JR Matsumoto Station

The front of Matsumoto Station is lit up with a festive images on the side of the station building.

Matsumoto Station Illumination

Asama Onsen

Look forward to the warm glow of decorative lights when you visit Asama Onsen’s Hot Plaza. Hot Plaza offers day-trip bathing and a hot spring foot bath, while overnight stays are available at a number of traditional Japanese inns in the area. Find out more about the area here.

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Foot Hot Spring

Forest of Lights Pageant in Azumino

Twin Illlumination
The Alps Azumino National Government Park is holding an illumination event from Nov. 11, 2017 (Sat) to Jan. 8, 2018 (Mon/holiday). The displays tell the story of “The Secret of the Seven Jewels”.

The illumination will be on display in two separate areas: the Horigane-Hotaka area and the Omachi-Matsugawa area. Please see below for access information.

In addition to the light displays, various other activities will be taking place. A single ticket allows you to enter both areas on the same day. Visit the official website here (Japanese only).

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Admission

Hours: 4:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m.
* Park hours are 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., but you may remain in the park to view the lights.

Prices

Adult: 410 yen

Elementary/Junior High School Student: 80 yen

Senior (65+): 210 yen

Preschool: Free

 

Fireworks (Horigane-Hotaka Area)

A 5-minute fireworks show will take place every Saturday between Nov. 11, 2017 (Sat) and Jan. 6, 2018 (Sat) and also on Christmas Eve from 8 p.m. to 8:05 p.m.

The show will be cancelled in the event of rain or bad weather.

Food Tasting (Omachi-Matsukawa Area)

Grilled mochi, mochi in a sweet bean sauce, and baked apples!

100 yen *Limited to the first 100 people.

Live Performances (Omachi-Matsukawa Area)

Christmas Stage: Various performances (dates and times)

Magic Show: Jan. 6 (Sat)-8 (Mon/holiday) 4:00 p.m.-4:30 p.m., 6:00 p.m.-6:30 p.m., and from 7:30 p.m. FREE

Crafts (Both Areas)

Horigane-Hotaka Area

Omachi-Matsugawa Area

Miniature Aquariums Display (Horigane-Hotaka Area)

Tropical Christmas

Access

Free Shuttle Bus

JR Matsumoto Station –> Toyoshina Station –> Horigane-Hotaka Area: Dec. 23 (Sat/holiday)-24(Sun) 4:00 p.m.-9:15 p.m.

View in Google Maps

JR Matsumoto Station –> Shinano Omachi Station –> Omachi-Matsukawa Area: Dec. 23 (Sat/holiday)-24(Sun) 3:45 p.m.-9:00 p.m.

View in Google Maps

By Taxi

(JR Oita Line) Matsumoto Station –> Toyoshina Station + taxi

(JR Oita Line) Matsumoto Station –> Shinano Omachi Station + taxi

Inquiries (Japanese)

Horigane-Hotaka Area: 0263-71-5511

Omachi-Matsukawa Area: 0261-21-1212

 

Former Kaichi School: Go Back to School a Century and Half in the Past

View of the Former Kaichi School from outside

View of the Former Kaichi School from outside

The Former Kaichi School was built back in the late 1800s—almost 150 years ago. When I first visited the Former Kaichi School back in the summer, I was struck by its peculiar architecture. At first glance it looked like a beautiful European building, but as I walked closer and started looking at the details, I found hints of Japanese-ness that had snuck into the design: Carved dragons along with the flying cherubs above the entrance, chandeliers hanging over bamboo flooring, and other such opposing style quirks.

Who know that cherubs and dragons got along so well?

Who know that cherubs and dragons got along so well?

Going inside was almost like going back to school a century and a half in the past. One of the classrooms was preserved as it was when the school was still in commission, complete with tiny wooden desks, black board, and teacher’s podium. The best part was that you could actually sit in the desks (if your legs fits…) and play around with everything in the room! Getting to walk through the same halls and climb the same wooden stairs as the little students did in the past also adds to the atmosphere.

Kaichi School

Former Kaichi School

Most the other rooms in the school were filled with displays of old building plans, learning materials like text books, and other school-related artifacts like writing tools and even dumbbells used for fitness. Also, the former principal’s office and a special room for the Meiji emperor were open for viewing, too.

Wooden dumbbells! I wonder how heavy they are. Notice the diagrams of exercises in the book to the left.

Wooden dumbbells! I wonder how heavy they are. Notice the diagrams of exercises in the book to the left.

Book for kids to learn katakana characters

Book for kids to learn katakana characters

Textbook with flags of the world.

Textbook with flags of the world.

My favorite artifacts were the picture textbooks for primary school kids, old toys and, check these out, old baseball cards!

Old baseball cards ! Check out the interesting shape.

Old baseball cards ! Check out the interesting shape.

Perhaps a book for learning how to count? I remember using something like this in my primary school (minus the silk worms and bamboo shoots...)

Perhaps a book for learning how to count? I remember using something like this in my primary school (minus the silk worms and bamboo shoots…)

It was also nice to see some of the cool dragon carvings and other pieces from the building design, like the “East, West, North, South” direction markers for the tower’s compass piece.

Carving with a dragon and  a wave.

Carving with a dragon and a wave.

"East, west, north, south" markers in Japanese for the school's tower.

“East, west, north, south” markers in Japanese for the school’s tower.

Overall, the Former Kaichi School was a short, but worthwhile stop. The school is beautiful and a lot of the artifacts are fun to see. Plus, it’s only a few minutes from Matsumoto Castle. My only complaint was that there aren’t enough English explanations for the interesting things on display!

For more info, check out the main page on the Former Kaichi School here.

Natural Springs and Historic Wells

Genchi Well

Thanks to Matsumoto City’s supply of ground water, fresh spring water wells up abundantly even within the inner city area. You can enjoy a number of different walking routes leading you to streams and fountains that you can even drink from, including the fountain in front of Kurassic-kan.

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Kurassic-kan Well


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Please note that the water is naturally sourced and is not treated.

A natural waterfall formed from Nawate's rejuvenating waters.

A natural waterfall formed from Nawate’s rejuvenating waters springs forth in front of Yohashira Shrine.

Nawate Rejuvenating Waters

Nawate Rejuvenating Waters

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Streams such as the Hebi Stream weave their ways through the city.

Spring water is used regularly by locals. In addition to serving as drinking water, the water is also used in soba noodle making and sake brewing. The Kametaya Brewery uses the water from the spring right in front of their building to brew their sake!

 

 

 

 

 

Some of the more well known spots include the Genchi Well also pictured above and Iori Reisui Well. Well and spring locations are indicated on Matsumoto City maps. Keep an eye out for the Matsumoto Spring Water Excursion Map that will be published at the beginning of 2018!

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Genchi Well

Iori Resui Well: Located in front of the grave of the samurai Iori Suzuki.

Iori Resui Well: Located in front of the grave of the samurai Iori Suzuki.

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Fall Colors Starting to Show Up at Matsumoto Castle

One of the prettiest times of the year at Matsumoto Castle is finally here: at the end of October the trees start to paint the castle garden in the colors of autumn! So if you’re eager for some perfect photos at the castle, now is a great time.

Colorful trees as seen from inside the castle tower

Colorful trees as seen from inside the castle tower

As of yesterday (Oct. 24), some of the trees were already red and yellow, but many of them are still just showing the first hints of color, so I’m betting the castle park is going to grow more and more beautiful over the next several days.

Fall colors peaking over the castle walls

Fall colors peaking over the castle walls

Still quite green near the castle itself, but hopefully that will change in the next few days!

Still quite green near the castle itself, but hopefully that will change in the next few days!

As a little bonus, there is also a special Japanese doll display in the castle garden until November 5th. Every year, the large display depicts a historical/cultural scene from Matsumoto Castle’s past.

Special doll display in the castle garden. Looks like they are pounding some mochi!

Special doll display in the castle garden. Looks like they are pounding some mochi!

Road Trip!! Special Passes for Tourists

Convenient access to some of Japan’s more remote regions with the following ETC (tolls) discount passes.

Central Nippon Expressway Pass (CEP)

Explore the central area of Japan’s largest island.

Requires:
– Non-Japanese passport if you are a visitor/proof of permanent residence in another country if you are Japanese
– Driver’s license that is valid in Japan  (or International Driving Permit)

Rates
The pass can be purchased for a period of as little as 2 days (5,000 yen) and up to 14 days (16,000 yen). Other optional areas can also be added.

For more information on rates, participating rental companies, routes, and more please visit the Central Nippon Expressway Company website.

*NEW* Japan Expressway Pass (JEP)

The new, expanded special discount ETC pass allows tourists to explore Japan from top to bottom (Hokkaido pass sold separately).

Requires:
– Non-Japanese passport if you are a visitor/proof of permanent residence in another country if you are Japanese
– Driver’s license that is valid in Japan (or International Driving Permit)

Rates
7-day pass: 20,000 yen
14-day pass: 34,000 yen

For more information on participating rental companies, routes, driving tips, and more please visit the national expressway information site DoRaPuRa (E-NEXCO Drive Plaza) website.

Reservations
Reservation must be made through participating rental companies listed on the above websites.

*WINTER DRIVING*

Please note that areas within Nagano Prefecture require winter tires or tires with chains. Your car will be inspected before you are allowed to drive on certain roads. Fortunately, rent-a-car locations in the area typically offer their rentals with winter tires or chains at no extra cost.

In addition, certain mountain passes are also closed during winter months as a result of heavy snowfall.

Old-fashioned Guns Impress at Matsumoto Castle

This past weekend, the 29th Old-fashioned Gun Firing Exhibition was held at Matsumoto Castle! I didn’t get to see the show in person, but thanks to one of the bloggers (Nishimori) from the Japanese web page (see article here), we have a couple of nice photos to share from the event!

Twice a year, Matsumoto Castle hold a special gun show where you can see (and hear!) old-fashioned matchlock guns and muskets fired on the castle grounds. The shows are performed by different old-fashioned gun clubs from Matsumoto and other parts of Japan. It’s not only impressive to observe the guns themselves, but the gun club members dress in traditional samurai armor so you can really imagine what it might have been like to be a soldier at that time.

In formation and... bang!

In formation and… bang! (Photo credit: Nishimori)

The old-fashioned gun clubs posing in front of the castle.

The old-fashioned gun clubs posing in front of the castle. (Photo credit: Nishimori)

Matchlock guns like the ones fired at the exhibition were supposedly used at Matsumoto Castle, which has specially constructed windows that allowed the soldiers to shoot from inside the keep.

Also, if you love to learn about old-style guns like these, then you won’t want to miss the superb matchlock gun museum inside of Matsumoto Castle! Here, there are over 140 matchlocks and other armaments on display (Learn more about the gun exhibit on the Matsumoto Castle website).

If you missed the actual shooting demonstration, you can see it twice a year in the spring (April or May) and in October. (Event info here)

Matchlock guns, some with beautiful designs, in Matsumoto Castle

Matchlock guns, some with beautiful designs, in Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Soba Festival

The 14th Matsumoto Soba Festival was held at Matsumoto Castle this past three-day weekend October 7 – 9 (Sat – Mon), 2017. Soba, which means buckwheat, is also used to refer to buckwheat noodles. Due to the high altitudes and harsh winters of Nagano Prefecture, soba has long been cultivated as it is a robust crop that can withstand the elements.

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Since the festival was held on the outer edge of Matsumoto Castle, you could also enjoy the view of the historic wooden structure while browsing the various stalls. While the castle is walking distance from JR Matsumoto Station, temporary bicycle and scooter parking was also available at businesses around the castle.
 

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20171008_143011With nearly 20 soba vendors from all over the country, there was a variety of tasty noodles and broths to try. Soba is served both hot and cold.  While Nagano Prefecture is especially famous for its soba, other vendors representing prefectures such as Hokkaido, Fukui, and Fukushima allowed visitors opportunities to savor their spins on the dish.

 

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Soba noodles served cold in a tsuyu broth and topped with grated radish, chopped onions, and bonito flakes.

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Rows of food stalls offered freshly made soba and also dried soba to take home. Local fruits, vegetables, crafts, and more were also being sold, including apples, another Nagano specialty that is now in season. Other food trucks and stalls offered tacos, grilled meats, crepes, and more.

If you missed the festival, fear not, you can still find many local restaurants offering great soba year round!

Tsukimi–A Timeless Tradition of Appreciating the Beauty of the Moon

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Tsukimi means “moon viewing”, and in Japan, gatherings are held to view the harvest moon—often in conjunction with harvest festivals. Tsukimi is officially celebrated on the 15th night of the eighth month according to the lunar calendar.

Matsumoto Castle Tsukimi

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Live music being performed within the castle.

Matsumoto Castle is celebrating tsukimi with live music performances and tea ceremony demonstrations on the castle grounds. The event is being held this week 9/29(Fri)–10/4(Wed) 5:30–8:30 p.m. It is free to enter the castle grounds and ¥500 to view the tea ceremony up close and receive freshly whisked matcha or green tea. Other light snacks are also available for purchase.

Come bask in the radiance of the moon and illuminated castle while listening to traditional music. Instruments include the shamisen and the koto, and the sound of the music floating across the grounds leaves you feeling that you have been transported back in time.

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A flower display exhibiting the Japanese art ikebana and sweets called dango add a sense of festivity to the occasion. 

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Japan Alps Kamikochi – A Serene Summer’s Day in the National Park

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Whether you’re an avid hiker or just looking to take in the world-famous scenery on a stroll at the base of the mountains, Kamikochi is an unforgettable outdoor experience. Even on a hot summer’s day, like the one I visited on, I was treated to a cool breeze, icy-cold water, and plenty of shade on well-maintained paths. Unless you hire a guide, you cannot access the park in the winter, but spring, summer, and fall give you a unique landscape depending on when you visit. The green season offers a barrage of colors including vibrant greens and other colors from the various foliage and sediment.

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Taisho Pond

Even before entering the heart of the park, you are treated to a expansive reflection of the mountains on Taisho Pond.

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Shimizu River

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Some of the clearest water you’ve ever seen.

In order to preserve the environment of the park, there are strict regulations including not allowing cars into the area. The regulations, higher altitude, and natural springs make for fresh air and stunningly clear water.

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Kappa Bashi (Kappa Bridge)

The view of the Kappa Bridge overlaid on Mt. Hotaka is one of the most famous images of the park. Crossing the suspension bridge, you can gaze out over the pristine water of the Azusa River.

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Kamonjigoya

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This century-old mountain hut now serves as a restaurant as well lodgings and makes for a great place to rest before visiting the nearby Hotaka Shrine and Myojin Pond. Try a classic summer dish, grilled ayu.

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Raised in the nearby river, this sweet-fish is fresh and juicy. Grilled over an open fire, the salted skin makes for a delicate crust while the meat is kept moist. You can eat the entire fish from head to tail!

Replenish your salt levels after your trek!

If eating fish heads isn’t your thing, not to worry, there is other food such as soba (buckwheat noodles) and cake available for you to enjoy.

Myojin Pond

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This area is said to be sacred to the gods and thus known as a place where the gods come down.

Myojin Pond has two areas: Ichino Pond and Nino Pond. The Hotaka Shrine sits just in front of Ichino Pond.

Although you cannot ride in them, two boats float on the pond and are used during a local festival.

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Hotaka Shrine

Ichino Pond

Ichino Pond

Nino Pond

Nino Pond

Tashiro Pond and Wetlands

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Although it has been steadily filled in by natural decay and sediment buildup, water still flows through this area, creating a stark contrast between the orange sand and the surrounding greenery.

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Mt. Yakedake

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Signs of the eruption that occurred 100 years ago still remain.

Mt. Yakedake is still an active volcano. It’s activity is constantly monitored and the current level is level 1.

Access and Accommodations

Details on how to get to the park and more information such as hotel and campsite information are available on the official English website here.


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