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Surprising sights in Suwa Part 1: Kamisuwa

Surprising sights in Suwa Part 1: Kamisuwa

When speaking of Suwa (諏訪) in Nagano Prefecture, Lake Suwa (諏訪湖 Suwako) comes to mind. Fireworks on the lake are a characteristic of summer, and in winter, depending on the year, the entire lake may be covered with ice. In the colder years, you might even witness a phenomenon called omiwatari (御神渡り), a characteristic of Suwa’s winter.

 

Suwa Taisha. (Image credit: Suwa Tourism Association)

 

Related to that is Suwa Taisha (諏訪大社 Suwa Grand Shrine), which is considered to be one of the oldest shrines in Japan. Kamisha (上社 Upper Shrine), which consists of the Maemiya (前宮) and Honmiya (本宮) shrine complexes, is located to the south of Lake Suwa, and Shimosha (下社 Lower Shrine), which consists of the Harumiya (春宮) and Akimiya (秋宮) shrine complexes, is located in the north across the lake. It is said that Kamisha enshrines a male god, and Shimosha enshrines a female god.

 

Omiwatari on Lake Suwa. (Image credit: Suwa Tourism Association)

 

In the coldest years, Lake Suwa freezes completely, and the ice splits from the south shore to the north shore, forming ice ridges with a height of 30–180cm. A long time ago, it was said that the male god at Kamisha (上社) crossed over the ice to meet the female god at Shimosha (下社) on the opposite bank, and the path of ice that lined up like a ridges came to be called "Omiwatari" (御神渡り)—a path which the God passed.

 

In this first part of a two-part series on Suwa, we will go on a men's trip to Kamisuwa (上諏訪), where Kamisha is located, and in Part 2 the girls will be going to go on a girls’ trip to Shimosuwa (下諏訪) where Shimosha is located.

 

Group photo at Lake Suwa. (Image credit: JR East / Tsuyoshi Nishizawa)

 

First off, to introduce ourselves, we are train crew working at JR East Nagano Branch Office. The five of us guys have been living in Nagano Prefecture for about 3 years, and have visited various sightseeing places on our holidays.  We noticed that Nagano Prefecture has many attractions such as scenery and food, and over time we grew to like Nagano more and more. Therefore, we started a project with the desire to share the charms of Nagano and the excitement we felt with everyone. In this article, we will take a walk around Kamisuwa, which is famous as a tourist city in Nagano Prefecture, and share with you the charms that we felt from our trip.

 

About the Suwa area

Limited Express Azusa. (Image credit: JR East Nagano Branch Office)

 

Located almost in the center of Nagano prefecture, the Suwa area is easily accessible from JR Shinjuku Station by the Limited Express Azusa in about 2 hours. The Suwa area is a basin surrounded by mountains and is adjacent to Lake Suwa, which has a circumference of 16km.

 

A little bit of history about the area, Suwa is called "Switzerland of the East" because of its thriving precision machinery industry and its rich natural environment, which are similar to that of Switzerland. Until the early Showa Period (1926–1989), the silk industry prospered greatly, but sericulture declined due to the effects of the Great Depression. After that, when the Pacific War began, evacuated munitions factories moved in to abandoned warehouses from the silk industry. After the war, many factories moved out, but some remained, which led to the development of the precision machinery industry such as watches, cameras, measuring instruments, and printed circuit boards.

 

Outdoor hot springs at Kamisuwa Onsen. (Image credit: SUHAKU (left) and Hotel SAGINOYU (right))

 

In recent times, the Suwa area’s most famous draw is Kamisuwa Onsen (上諏訪温泉), a hot spring resort representative of Nagano Prefecture. Kamisuwa Onsen is located along the shores of the scenic Lake Suwa, and here you can enjoy the resort atmosphere and relax at the hot springs at the many modern accommodations with well-equipped facilities.

 

Summer fireworks over Lake Suwa. (Image credit: 諏訪市)

 

In summer, a dazzling large-scale fireworks festival is held over Lake Suwa, and due to its proximity to the mountains, you can feel the reverberations from the fireworks, which create an amazing "4D" experience. Other than the festival, shorter 15-minute fireworks show are also held every night for about a month in summer, so you can enjoy the sights and sounds when you stay overnight at Kamisuwa Onsen.

 

Kamisuwa Onsen is easily accessible from JR Kami-Suwa Station (上諏訪駅), where the Limited Express Azusa stops, and the hot spring town is only a 10-minute walk from the station. Many of Kamisuwa’s sights and attractions are also within walking distance from Kamisuwa Onsen, so why not stay overnight here and enjoy a short trip around Kamisuwa? Here are some of our recommended spots:

 

Superb view from Tateishi Park

Enjoy the view from Tateishi Park. (Image credit: JR East / Michinari Ono)

 

First up is Tateishi Park (立石公園 Tateishi Kо̄en), which can be reached from JR Kami-Suwa Station by a 10-minute bus or taxi ride, or by a 30-minute walk on the mountain road. Located at an altitude of 934m, the air here feels clearer. From here, you can get a panoramic view of Lake Suwa, which is surrounded by the three cities of Suwa, Shimosuwa, and Okaya, and the magnificent mountains. It was a cloudy sky on the day we visited, but the view was nice. 

 

Superb view from Tateishi Park. (Image credit: JR East / Kazushi Yokumichi)

 

The view from the park is so magnificent that it is said to have become a model for a popular animated film. When you visit the park, we’re sure you will see the similarities in the fantastic sceneries.

 

Sunset from Tateishi park. (Image credit: SUWA Tourist Information)

 

We especially recommend coming to see the sunset, when Lake Suwa reflects the setting sun and creates a fantastic atmosphere.

 

Tateishi Park (立石公園)
Address: 10399 Kamisuwa, Suwa, Nagano 392-0003
Access: 10-minute bus ride or 30-minute walk from JR Kami-Suwa Station (上諏訪駅)

 

Experiences at Lake Suwa

View of Lake Suwa from a boat. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

After returning to the city, we headed to Lake Suwa. Lake Suwa is surrounded by a promenade and you can enjoy a walk. Also, you can see a locomotive exhibition beside the promenade and enjoy the free footbath (足湯 ashiyu). For a different view, you can enjoy a leisurely view of the city from the lake on a pedal boat, motor boat, or pleasure boat. In addition, many tourists come to see cherry blossoms in spring, fireworks in summer, and coloured leaves in autumn, and smelt fishing (わかさぎ釣り wakasagi-tsuri) in winter.

 

Enjoying the pedal boat. (Image credit: JR East / Keisuke Tsukada)

 

First, we decided to take a pedal boat to enjoy the view from the lake. Pedal boats are a staple at Japanese lakes, and are also often featured in anime and dramas, but this was the first time for us to actually ride it. We boarded a swan-shaped boat and worked together to pedal the pedals at our feet. Pedaling the boat was like doing an exercise similar to pedaling a bicycle, and it was comfortable. When we got on the boat, it was thrilling because we could feel the lake surface moving. Also, rowing with friends created a sense of unity, and we’ve become closer.

 

Enjoy footbath. (Image credit: JR East / Keisuke Tsukada)

 

After the boat ride, our feet were tired from pedaling the boat, so we soaked our feet in the footbath near the promenade. As mentioned earlier, Suwa is famous as a hot spring resort, and the feeling of enjoying a footbath while looking out over Lake Suwa is exceptional. The footbath here is free, so it was a perfect way to take a break, and we enjoyed chatting while soaking our feet in the hot water.

 

Eat vegetables and meat made in Nagano Prefecture

The exterior of CLASUWA. (Image credit: CLASUWA)

 

After using up our energy to pedal the boat, we felt hungry and decided to go for lunch. Many commercial facilities are lined up around Lake Suwa. We visited a place called CLASUWA (くらすわ).

 

On the 1st floor, you can enjoy shopping for Shinshu specialty souvenirs like local crafts, as well as foods such as ham, pickles, jams, and local sake. There is also a bakery and café next to it where you can have a light meal. At the restaurant on the 2nd floor, you can enjoy a main dish which comes with a buffet of seasonal vegetables.

 

Grilled Shinshu juicy pork. (Image credit: JR East / Tsuyoshi Nishizawa)

 

For lunch, you could choose one main dish from the four options. On the day we visited, the options were four dishes made using the CLASUWA brand of Shinshu juicy pork—grilled meat, Hamburg steak, pasta, or curry.

 

Buffet-style vegetables. (Image credit: JR East / Tsuyoshi Nishizawa)

 

The CLASUWA-branded Shinshu juicy pork was, as its name suggests, juicy and tender meat. The vegetables were fresh and had a rich taste, and they were even more delicious than the usual salads, and I finished eating them in no time.

 

CLASUWA’s flagship shop. (Image credit: CLASUWA)

 

After lunch, I went around to see the souvenirs on the 1st floor. Among them, I was interested in sake made in Suwa region, apple wine, pork jerky, and warabi pickled in soy sauce. For local souvenirs representative of the Suwa region, which is famous for sake brewing, delicious sake and snacks were lined up. I bought some souvenirs, and will share them with my friends at a later date.

 

CLASUWA Flagship Shop (くらすわ本店)
Address: 3-1-30 Kogandori, Suwa, Nagano 392-0027
Access: 10-minute walk from JR Kami-Suwa Station (上諏訪駅)
Opening hours:
     Shop: 09:00–19:00
     Restaurant: 11:00–15:00 (lunch) / 17:30–22:00 (dinner)

 

Heal the tiredness of your trip at a hot spring

The exterior of Katakurakan. (Image credit: KATAKURAKAN)

 

After lunch, we took a hot spring bath to rejuvenate ourselves. We were not staying overnight, but as Kamisuwa Onsen is one of the leading hot spring resorts in Japan, we just had to try out the hot springs here. We headed to Katakurakan (片倉館), a hot bath facility and community hall built for local residents, that features retro Western-style architecture and is designated as a National Important Cultural Property. 

 

Hot spring inside Katakurakan. (Image credit: KATAKURAKAN)

 

As soon as you enter, you will find a jacuzzi bath and the Sennin-buro (千人風呂 thousand people bath).  The Sennin-buro is also called the "art bath", and is loved by many people. It is a large and deep hot spring bath with round pebbles on the bottom, and it feels good to step on them—they massage the soles of your feet to improve blood circulation. The water is hot, colourless, and transparent, and it feels good to bathe in as it takes away you fatigue. The waters of Katakurakan are loved not only by local residents but also by visitors to Suwa.

 

The milk you drink in a glass bottle is the best. (Image credit: Kazushi Yokumichi)

 

After taking a bath, we enjoyed cold milk and beer at the rest area as it refreshes us after all the sweating in the bath. In Japan, milk is the standard drink after taking a bath, and it is usually sold at any hot spring facility.

 

Katakurakan (片倉館)
Address: 4-1-9 Kogandori, Suwa, Nagano 392-0027
Access: 8-minute walk from JR Kami-Suwa Station (上諏訪駅)
Opening hours: 10:00–20:00 (Closed every 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month)
Admission: ¥750/adult

 

Taste traditional sake made in Kamisuwa

Suwa's local sake. (Image credit: JR East / Todoroki)

 

After warming up in the hot springs, we decided to taste sake, which is synonymous with Suwa. Suwa is famous for its sake because of its good water. We headed to five sake breweries called Suwa Gokura (諏訪五蔵), which are about a 10-minute walk from JR Kami-Suwa Station. The five breweries are Maihime (舞姫), Reijin (麗人), Honkin (本金), Yokobue (横笛) and Masumi (真澄), and each warehouse is lined up just 500 meters from the main street. At these stores, a sake brewery tour is held jointly, and you can compare the recommended sake of each brewery.

 

Buy a ticket and get a gift. (Image credit: JR East / Shunsuke Yamada)

 

To use it, purchase a ticket at any of the Suwa Gokura stores or at the Suwa City Tourist Information Center next to JR Kami-Suwa Station. When you buy a ticket, you will receive an original handbag and glass, so take this with you when you go around five breweries. It seems that you can also use the glass when drinking alcohol at home. After get a stamp on a ticket, you can enjoy tasting sake. (This time, due to the influence of COVID-19, it was not possible to do sake tasting at all the breweries. Some breweries offer recommended cup sake when tasting is unavailable.)

 

Reijin Shuzo. (Image credit: JR East / Aru Amikura)

 

Normally, the five breweries hold a biannual Nomiaruki (呑みあるき) drinking event in spring and autumn, where you can enjoy the sake of each brewery while enjoying the local snacks of Nagano Prefecture and Suwa's specialty products, but this year it was canceled due to COVID-19. I really wanted to join this event and sincerely hope that when everyone reading this article comes to Japan, it will be resumed.

 

Enjoy tasting the sake. (Image credit: JR East / Aru Amikura)

 

One of the characteristics of Suwa sake is that it has a good balance between the taste of rice and the fruity aroma, so it goes well with meals. The sake also has a soft taste that you can comfortably enjoy on its own. If you are interested in sake, I recommend trying sake made in Suwa.

 

Experience Japanese history and culture at Takashima Castle

Castle take on the glow of the evening sun (Image credit: JR East / Aru Amikura)

 

The Suwa area is famous for Lake Suwa and hot springs, but in fact, Takashima Castle (高島城 Takashima-jо̄), which has a long history, is also a famous tourist spot in the local area. In the olden days, the castle was surrounded by lake water and wetlands, and it looked as if it was floating on Lake Suwa, so it was also called a Suwa’s floating castle (諏訪の浮城 Suwa no Ukishiro). The castle is included as one of Japan’s Three Floating Castles. (Currently, the castle is on land due to land reclamation.)

 

Takashima Castle was built in 1598, so it has a history of more than 400 years. Admission to the castle tower is charged, and inside you can see valuable materials related to warlords and castles on display. Furthermore, from the castle tower, you can also see a panoramic view of Lake Suwa and the lakeside area, which is truly a magnificent view.

 

Takashima Park. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Takashima Park on the castle grounds has an atmosphere reminiscent of a Japanese garden, and although the castle itself is not large in scale, it was majestic enough for us to experience Japanese history and culture.

 

Also, at Takashima Castle, "LOGet! CARD", which is a card of tourist spots nationwide, is currently being distributed, and you can receive it when you enter the castle tower (admission fee charged). You can enjoy collecting "LOGet! CARD" and make it into a collection ("LOGet! CARD" may change the distribution method or end distribution without notice).

 

Enjoy the four seasons at Takashima Castle. (Image credit: 諏訪市)

 

At Takashima Park, you can enjoy cherry blossoms in spring and autumn leaves in autumn, so if you have a chance, why don't you come and experience the four seasons of Japan?

 

Takashima Castle (高島城)
Address: 1-20-15 Takashima, Suwa, Nagano 392-0022
Access: 15-minute walk from JR Kami-Suwa Station (上諏訪駅)
Opening hours: 09:00–17:30 (April–November) / 09:00–16:30 (October–March) (Closed on 26–31 December and on the 2nd Thursday of November)
Admission: ¥310/adult

 

See you at Kamisuwa

After traveling to Kamisuwa and experiencing delicious food, wonderful scenery, hot springs, and culture, I learned that there are still many places to introduce in Nagano Prefecture. The Kamisuwa area was just a small part of it, but I'm very happy to have introduced it to you. Also, I enjoyed this trip with my friends and we’ve become closer. Please do come and visit Kamisuwa at least once!

 

Stay tuned for our article on Suwa Part 2 coming next month, where the girls will introduce Shimosuwa.

 

Getting there

Footbath at JR Kami-Suwa Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

JR Kami-Suwa Station (上諏訪駅) is around 2 hours from JR Shinjuku Station (新宿駅) by the Limited Express Azusa on the Chūо̄ Line, or about 25 minutes from JR Matsumoto Station (松本駅) by the Limited Express Azusa on the Chūо̄ Line. Did you know? Living up to Kamisuwa’s reputation as a hot spring resort, even JR Kami-Suwa Station has a very unique feature: there is a footbath at the station platform, so you can soak your feet while waiting for the train.

 

COVID-19 countermeasures on trains

Air circulation in the Limited Express Azusa. (Image credit: JR East)

 

When riding trains, you can rest assured and be at ease. The air inside the Limited Express Azusa is well-circulated in the cars by the air conditioning and ventilation system. For more information about ventilation inside JR East trains and other COVID-19 countermeasures, check out this article or watch the video below:

 

JR East's COVID-19 countermeasures. (Video credit: JR East)

Header image credit: JR East / Michinari Ono

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