Sunday 16 August 2015

Nagano - Togakushi - Part 4

This is the 4th and final post of a recent trip to Nagano.  You can find part 1 here, part 2 here and part 3 here.

The village of Togakushi is famous for a number of things.  It is famous for it's high quality soba (with over 30 soba restaurants in the village), ninjitsu (there is a school of nijitsu there that was founded over 800 years ago.  There is also a ninja museum and village to visit), and it's Shrines.  There are 3 main shrines in the area, Hokosha Shrine (the lower shrine), Chusha Shrine (the middle shrine) and Okusha Shrine (the upper one).  The village is nestled among 900 year old cedar trees (anyone with hay fever should stay away in the spring months!) and sits at the foot of Mount Togakushi (which, like so many mountains in Japan is a volcano).  Our goal for the day was to wander around each of the three main shrines.

After breakfast on day 3, Yuuki, Miwa and her Dad, Yuji and her Mum, Reiko.  We piled into the car and drove off toward the highest of the three Shrines.  Being that it was a weekend day, so many cars were out and about and it proved a challenge just to find a place to park.  We eventually did and walked off towards the start of the short, but (in some places) steep hike to the upper Shrine.  A few people had taken the opportunity at the start of the climb to refresh with an ice cream.  

It seemed like a good idea we each grabbed one (mine was soba flavoured!)

We then set off on the walk to the top.  The Shrine gate signalled the start of the walk.

It was a hot and humid day, a typical Japanese summer day, and the sweat soon started dripping, but it was nice to be in the outdoors getting some good exercise!  The area we were walking through was beautiful and green, rugged and forested.

Pretty soon, we saw signs that we were at the entrance to the Shrine (although the Shrine itself was still about one kilometre away!)

You might be wondering what the stones at the base of the statues are for.  I sure was.  During the hike I saw quite a few examples of this.

Yuuki explained that they are placed there by mountain climbers and it represents their hopes and prayers for a safe return.  I figured our climb today was not terribly dangerous so I didn't worry about adding to them.

We stepped thought the gate and the view on the other side was stunning!

I have read that these cedar trees lining the walkway to the shrine are anywhere from 100 to 400 years old.  However old they are, they are certainly majestic

although this one had seen better days!

All of a sudden, the path turned into steps and the going got a little tougher (and more crowded)!

About halfway up the steps I saw a small stairway leading off to the left which required checking out!

I love little discoveries like this!

Now these ladies had made a discovery so they beckoned me down

so I walked down the steps and found a cold mountain stream!

My head certainly thanked me after I dipped my cap in it and put it back on!

Finally we were at the top!

After a brief rest and a zen moment with the local wildlife

we set off back down the path again.  Going down was much easier than coming up!

We got back into the car and drove over to nearby Kagami ike, or mirror pond for a look. 

There were not so many people here and I can imagine that early in the morning, when the lake surface is calm it must be spectacular.  It was amazing when we were there!

Stomachs had started rumbling by this time so we headed off to one of the many soba restaurants around.  We chose one of the more popular ones, so after a 30 minute wait, we were finally inside and eating!

After lunch, everyone went off to the middle shrine.  I looked up and saw steps, many, many steps 

and thinking about my poor lungs which had just been through a bout of pneumonia, I decided to skip these ones so I went off for a walk around the area at the foot of the stairs.  Look what I found!  Nestled uncomfortably in the middle of soba territory was a 

ramen shop!  I didn't go too near for fear of getting run out of town!

Meeting up with everyone else, we drove back down to the lower Shrine which had more steps, many more steps!

218 to be precise!  

I decided to climb these ones and was rewarded with a beautiful old wooden shrine at the top.

It also meant, however, that I had to walk back down the steps.  It had started raining a little so I gingerly navigated the steps being careful not to slip.  

While that would have made the trip back down the steps a lot quicker, it would also have been a whole lot more painful too!

With the rain steadily falling now, we decided to call it a day at that point and saying goodbye to Yuuki, Miwa, Yuji and Reiko, I went back to my ryokan.  I slept very well that night!

The next day I went back to Nagano and after booking my train ticket back to Tokyo, I jumped on a bus and went to check out Zenkoji Temple which Miwa had told me not to miss!

Zenkoji Temple dates back to 642 AD (!) and has been designated as a National Treasure.  The structure was rebuilt in 1707 and is one of the largest wood structures in Japan.  It was well worth a look!

There are signs all around the Temple with explanations of the various parts of the Temple grounds in both Japanese and English, so it is very tourist friendly.

There is one part of the temple where you pay 500 yen and you can go inside the temple (no photos allowed though) and also into a pitch black passage under the altar where you must find your way to the other end of the passage.  It is dark, you are completely unable to see anything and you don't know how far away the end of the passage is!  When I started walking along it, suddenly, from somewhere in front of me, I heard a child start crying.......then I heard the mother talking to it (okay, so it wasn't a ghost!).  I still didn't know how far in front of me they were so I continued inching forward until I eventually bumped into them.  I'm sure they got much more of a shock than I did!!

It was all too soon time to return to the station and make my way back to Tokyo.  I had enjoyed the 4 days that I had spent in Nagano, and despite not being able to do the main thing I had wanted to do (walk along the Nakasendo) I had had a great time.  Nagano is becoming one of my favourite areas to visit in Japan and I thoroughly recommend a visit to Nagano when you come to Japan or when you have some free time (if you live in Japan).

Thanks again for reading.  Please leave me a comment below and a suggestion for a place for me to visit that you would like to see.

See you next time!

Tuesday 4 August 2015

Nagano - Oshi Ryokan (Japanese hospitality at it's finest) - Part 3

This is part 3 of a series of blog posts about a recent trip to Nagano.  You can find part 1 here and part 2 here.

On my travels around Japan I stay in a fair few hotels which vary in style from a simple business hotel to old traditional Japanese ryokans.  I often make a mention of where I stay if the place is especially nice.  Never have I dedicated a whole post to where I stay.....until now.

At the end of my last post I finished by talking about taking a bus from Nagano city to Togakushi.  This is where I was to spend the next 2 nights.

When I had been planning this trip, I was originally going to stay in a hotel in Ueda city where Yuuki and Miwa were staying.  However, we were not able to find a hotel room as Ueda city was having it's festival on that weekend, so I had to look elsewhere for a hotel.  I found a place called Oshi Ryokan right in Togakushi, which was where we were going to be the next day anyway, so I went ahead and booked a couple of nights there.  Oshi Ryokan is in a 250 year old building, and in a country with as many earthquakes as Japan has, that is an achievement in itself!

From the moment I booked, the owner of the ryokan Mr Hidenori Oshi, was in contact with me checking to see if I wanted dinner included in my stay, and providing me with a link to the bus timetable for the bus I needed to catch to get from Nagano City to Togakushi.

When I arrived in Nagano I gave the ryokan a call to let them know when I would be arriving.  Hidenori answered the phone and spoke great English!  He told me to make sure I would arrive with an empty stomach because dinner would be served when I arrived and that there was a lot of food!

I got onto the bus which spent the next hour winding through the mountains outside of Nagano.  Hairpin after hairpin bend followed as we made our way up into the Japanese Alps.  This was the area of Japan that had hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, so there was no shortage of mountains around.  I got off at the stop I needed and Hidenori met me at the bus stop.  We walked the short distance back to the ryokan and the first thing I noticed was the beautiful thatched roof.

I asked how often the roof had to be changed and was told that it is replaced every 40 years and that it is done quarter by quarter with each quarter being done per year so the whole roof takes 4 years to replace.

We went inside and during check-in, Hidenori noticed where I lived in Tokyo and mentioned that he himself used to live in the same area, so we spent some time talking about the things that were still in the area.

Next, I was taken to my room, a beautiful, traditional Japanese room complete with tatami flooring.

I love tatami flooring!!

Next up was dinner.  Each room at Oshi Ryokan has it's own private dining room and I was lead into mine, again, a lovely traditional Japanese style room.

Dining rooms, like the one above, are double dining rooms with both sides separated by a screen.  The second night I was in a dining room like this one, sharing it with an English guy who lives and works in Majorca.  We got talking to each other over the screen which was removed next time Hidenori came in.  The first night I was in a completely private room.

I walked into the dining room which already had the first course ready to go.  Sashimi and fresh tasty melon (described to me as mountain sashimi!).  Both dishes were delicious and fresh!

I may have forgotten to take photos of one of two of the courses, I was too busy enjoying them!  Next up was, quite simply, one of the best fish dishes I have ever tasted!  Now I grew up around fishing towns and did quite a lot of fishing myself when I was younger, so I know a little about eating fish, but this one was like nothing else I have ever tasted!

Simple, yet so many flavours happening inside my mouth.  I would have been happy having this for every course!

Next was some deliciously tender Shinshu beef.  Again, simply cooked which allowed the flavours of the beef to come through beautifully.

The vegetables were beautiful, crisp and fresh too.  It was around here that I started forgetting to take pictures......  I remembered just in time to take a picture of some soba noodles that were served.  Togakushi is quite famous for soba.

With that, dinner was finished and Hidenori came in and we started talking.  He is a very interesting man who has a few different jobs, including being a Shinto priest!  Now there is something I have always wondered about Shrines and Temples and it is something that I have mentioned on these pages before.  What better time, place and person to ask than right here and now with Hidenori.  I asked him why Temples and Shrines are so quiet and peaceful.  The sounds of the city outside seem to fade away to nothingness.  He smiled at me and said that it is because of the wood.  Temples, Shrines and their structures and gates are all made of wood and wood blocks the noise.  He said it is done so that the Gods can hear us talking to them.  After all,  what point is there talking to the Gods if they can't hear us.  Such a simple, yet deep explanation.

Dinner finished I went back to my room and, a few hours later, fell asleep on the comfortable soft futon.

Morning soon came, which meant breakfast and after the dinner the night before, I was looking forward to breakfast!

I'm not a vegetable expert, but this (whatever it was) was good!

simple, yet delicious salmon,

bacon and egg with a little salad on the side,

miso soup,

and some yogurt and coffee to finish things off.

That breakfast of champions set me up nicely for a day of walking around the shrines in the area (which I will cover in the next post).

Dinner that night and breakfast the next morning followed a similar, delectable pattern.  I can definitely say that the food alone is worth the nightly cost of the ryokan.  

There is also a beautifully deep bath to sink into (up to the neck) to wash away the aches of walking through the mountains.

The next morning before I left, I wandered around for a few last photos.

I reluctantly said goodbye to Hidenori and his wife and left to catch the bus back to Nagano city.  (Thank you very much for your hospitality, I will be back!)

It truly was a great way to spend a couple of nights, and at 9,000 yen a night, including breakfast and dinner, an extremely reasonably priced place to stay, especially when you consider the level of customer service and Japanese hospitality (omotenashi) that you experience when staying here.

If you find yourself heading to Togakushi (and it is a naturally beautiful mountain getaway), look to Oshi Ryokan first for accommodation.  You will not regret it!

Thanks again for having a read.  I hope you are enjoying this mini series of posts on Nagano.  If you are, please leave a comment below, and keep an eye out for part 4.

See you next time.