Just 85 minutes from Fukuoka
Fukuoka Now readers might be wondering, why are we introducing Shiojiri, Nagano Prefecture this month? Well, because Japan is a land of four seasons, and Kyushu’s winter is, let’s be honest, not quite the “real deal!” Just 85 minutes on a non-stop flight to Matsumoto and we were ready to get deep into Japan’s wonderful winter and deep into fresh snow! We just got back from Shiojiri and loved it. You will too!
Narai-juku is one of the longest (1 km) post towns in Japan and the 34th post town amongst 67 along Nakasendo. In the Edo period, travellers preparing to cross the Torii Pass rested here and the town flourished. In 1978 the street was decreed a historic site and the inns, shops and other buildings have been preserved beautifully. There are no telephone poles, vending machines, or other modern-day distractions. Even better, winter is the off season and ideal for strolling peacefully and taking photos. Several minshuku offer accommodation, so spend the night if you can.
The Kiso Valley area is famous for its production of soba (buckwheat), so Toji Soba is our recommendation as a must-have meal in Narai-juku. Use a bamboo basket to dip soba noodles into a hot-pot of chicken and vegetables. It’s similar to shabu-shabu, but with soba noodles. There’s usually a side dish of tempura and pickles too.
Finding an irori (sunken hearth) today is like finding a treasure; fortunately Shiojiri has several open to the public. Filled with ashes, the irori is multifunctional; used for heating the home, providing light, boiling water and light cooking. Feel the warmth of irori at several restaurants and inns including Tokuriya where you can try goheimochii, a sticky rice cake snack with sesame, walnut and sansho miso sauce.
A former merchant’s house and now a museum, guided tours of this well preserved period building gives much insight into life here in the Edo period and also an example of the day’s clever architectural features. Many artefacts of the original owners including many lacquered combs are on display.
Located behind the main street of Narai-juku, this Soto Zen Buddhist temple is worth visiting if only just to see the huge painting of a dragon on its ceiling. The head priest claims that as a child, he could hear the dragon roar when he clapped his hands under its eyes. The temple also offers Zen meditation experiences (20 minutes) with advance reservations.
Kiso Shikki (Lacquerware)
The area of Kiso has long been associated with the production of lacquerware, beginning in the Edo period where lacquerware made from the areas’ prized Hinoki cypress trees were popular souvenirs. The area continues to be a major producer of lacquerware and Kiso shikki is an officially recognized traditional craft of Japan.
Another local specialty product is magemono (shaped wooden boxes). The oval shaped boxes are made of thinly cut Hinoki or Sawara cypress which, after being heated with water, are carefully shaped. They are used as lunch boxes because they keep the taste of rice well. Look for a workshop where you can see craftsmen in action.
Kaida Highland Snowshoe Trekking
True Nagano has some great ski and snowboard resorts, but for those who just want to get outside in the fresh air, try snowshoeing! The Kaida Highlands (1 hour by car from Narai-juku) has lots of powdery snow and on a clear day, a spectacular view of Mt. Kiso Ontake. Snowshoes and other required gear can be inexpensively rented. Sixty to ninety minute courses with or without guide and optional “Healthy Bento” makes for a fun few hours. Along the way you’ll see the horses known as Kiso uma, a local breed.
In winter, Lake Suwa freezes over and it’s the site of a special natural phenomenon called “omiwatari” (the god’s passage). Pressure from the edges creates buckling on the ice’s surface, and when it buckles, a large bang can be heard and ridges pop up. Or is it the gods crossing the lake? Also, at sunset on a clear winter day, Mt. Fuji can be seen behind the lake. Stunning!
Suwa-taisha Shrine, which consists of four shrines located to the east and west of Lake Suwa, is one of the oldest shrines in Japan, and has more than 10,000 branches across the country.
Shirakawa Hyochugun (Shirakawa Giant Wall of Icicles)
In the months of January and February, water that pours over the rock cliff freezes to form huge curtains of icicles. The sheer scale of these curtains (up to 250 meters wide and 50 meters high) makes this a must see! From a nearby parking lot, it’s just a few minutes to reach the river bed and stand within a few meters. Evening light up ends at around 9 p.m.
The production volume and quality of Japanese wines has been making great progress in recent years. And with a 120-year history of grape cultivation, the wineries (now eleven) in the Kikyogahara Wine Valley are partially to be thanked. Wineries such as the Sun Sun Winery offer tours and tasting. Try their Merlot, Schiller, Chardonnay and dessert wines!
Kiso Kurashi no Kogei Kan (Craft Shop)
With so many local crafts, foods and beverages, it’s convenient to shop for souvenirs at a place such as here. From Kiso shikki, magemono, soba noodle or soba flour, wine to sake – it’s on display here. Fun to browse even if you aren’t buying.
Shiojiri’s winery history is deep, but its sake legacies run much deeper. Sake brewers such as the Syoki Sake brewery have been carrying on the techniques of handmade sake production since their founding in 1883. Visitors are welcome to drop by for free tasting. They have delicious non-alcoholic amazake too.
• Fuji Dream Airlines
• 2 departures/day, 85 minutes each way (Matsumoto Airport)
• Distances by car: Matsumoto Airport to Narai-juku: 60 min, Narai-juku to Kaida Highland: 60 min., Narai-juku to Lake Suwa: 90 min.
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn231, Mar. 2018)