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Surprising sights in Suwa Part 2: Shimosuwa

Surprising sights in Suwa Part 2: Shimosuwa

Located in the centre of Japan, Shimosuwa Town (下諏訪町) faces the largest lake in Nagano Prefecture, Lake Suwa (諏訪湖 Suwa-ko), where you can get a scenic view of Mount Fuji through mountains. This magnificent scenery can only be seen at a limited section by the lake, and has been attracting people for centuries, with even world-famous Ukiyoe painters such as Hokusai and Hiroshige selecting this view as motifs in their works.

 

Onbashira Festival. (Image credit: 下諏訪観光協会)

 

Shimosuwa is well known for the valiant and exhilarating Onbashira Festival (御柱祭 Onbashira-sai) which is held every 6 years. But even if your visit does not coincide with the festival, there is still so much to see in Shimosuwa. If you are short on time, strolling around the downtown area should be enough to make your day, as it only takes about 99 minutes to visit the popular sites filled with a historical atmosphere. You can also enjoy hiking up on the mountain area at the Natural Monument Yashima Wetland (八島湿原 Yashima-shitsugen), and rejuvenate yourself at the historic hot spring. As Shimosuwa is only a 2.5-hour train trip from Tokyo, it is a perfect place to arrange a day trip.

 

History of Shimosuwa Town

Old picture of Shimosuwa. (Image credit: 下諏訪観光協会)

 

Shimosuwa Town bloomed fully in the Edo Period (1603–1868) as a key junction and post town of the two central highways: Nakasendō (中山道), a path running through the mountains from Edo (former Tokyo) to Kyoto, and Kōshū-dōchū (甲州道中), a path that connects the town to Edo. As Shimosuwa was the only stop with a hot spring, and also due to its location next to one of the oldest and most authoritative shrines in Japan, Suwa Taisha (諏訪大社 Suwa Grand Shrine), Shimosuwa became the foremost post town among the 69 stations of the Nakasendō, which was the most important highway in Japan at that time.

 

Today, the town is getting popular amongst people who wish to move away from the city to a simpler and slower life. Reusing the vacant stores, they opened up unique cafés and shops in the local shopping area, which led the community to revitalize. This nice mixture of old and new makes Shimosuwa Town even more charming.

 

It was a bit cloudy to expect Mt. Fuji this time... but still refreshing! (Image credit: JR East / Hiroaki Todoroki)

 

Taking this opportunity, we planned a girls-only trip to introduce our town with many pictures. We hope you enjoy!

 

Slipping back in time to the Edo Period at Honjin Iwanami House

Honjin Iwanami House. (Image credit: 下諏訪観光協会)

 

First, we visited Honjin Iwanami House (本陣岩波家 Honjin Iwanami-ke), an inn for government officials and VIPs located along Nakasendō. Due to its location in the mountains, Nakasendō was cooler than other highways of the past. Also, there are no seas or large rivers along Nakasendō, so people would rarely get stuck due to seasickness or flood. For these reasons, Nakasendō was used as the bridal road of princesses in the past, and Honjin Iwanami House was along this road.

 

In 1861, Princess Kazu stayed at this inn when moving for marriage from Kyoto to Edo. We were thrilled to visit this place, which in the past was a place where only authorities and important people were allowed to stay at.

 

Enjoying the garden and a Japanese teatime treat in a traditional Japanese room at the Honjin Iwanami House. (Image credit: JR East / Hiroaki Todoroki)

 

Other than being an inn, the grounds of the Honjin Iwanami House also has a beautiful Japanese garden that is said to be the best in Nakasendō. Sitting in a traditional Japanese room, time flew by while gazing at the garden. I will never get bored visiting this place as the view changes from season to season. You can enjoy different views all year round, from azaleas in spring, to fresh greenery in early summer, to autumn foliage, and snowy white scenery in winter. Enjoying tasty matcha and Japanese sweets in a traditional manner, we had unforgettable time with such a timeless view of the traditional garden. Do note that advanced reservations are required.

 

Honjin Iwanami House (本陣 岩波家)
Address: 3492, Shimosuwa, Suwa, Nagano 393-0000
Access: 15-minute walk from JR Shimo-Suwa Station (下諏訪駅)
Opening hours: 10:00–15:00 (reservation required) (Irregular closing days)

 

Visiting one of the oldest shrines in Japan, Akimiya of Suwa Taisha Shimosha

Akimiya of Suwa Taisha Shimosha. (Image credit: 下諏訪観光協会)

 

Akimiya (秋宮) of Suwa Taisha Shimosha is around the corner of Honjin Iwanami House. Taisha (大社) literally means “grand shrine”. Suwa Taisha is a complex of four shrines grouped in two sites, Kamisha (上社 upper shrine) located in the south of Lake Suwa and Shimosha (下社 lower shrine) in the north. We have both Harumiya (春宮) and Akimiya of Shimosha here in Shimosuwa Town. Standing in front of the torii gates will calm your body and soul in its tranquil and stately atmosphere.

 

Visiting Akimiya of Suwa Taisha Shimosha (Image credit: JR East / Hiroaki Todoroki)

 

Before entering the shrine, there is a purification fountain called chо̄zuya (手水舎), a place where you wash your hands and rinse your mouth before offering a prayer. Unlike the chо̄zuya of other shrines, the water from this one comes from a natural hot spring.

 

Entering the shrine, the largest bronze guardian dog in Japan welcomed us behind the large cedar tree that is said to be over 600 years old. We then offered prayers at Kagura-den, a place where the sacred dance and music are offered to God. It is decorated with a splendid 13-metre-long shimenawa, a purification rope, in front.

 

The architecture itself is filled with historic and stately atmosphere, so it’s no wonder that Suwa Taisha is designated as the country’s Important Cultural Property.

 

Suwa Taisha Shimosha Akimiya (諏訪大社 下社 秋宮)
Address: 5828, Shimosuwa, Suwa, Nagano 393-0000
Access: 10-minute walk from JR Shimo-Suwa Station (下諏訪駅)

 

Simple and sophisticated lunch by an experienced chef

Enjoying lunch at kagra with colourful and healthy dishes using local vegetables. (Image credit: JR East / Hiroaki Todoroki and Chie Matsubara)

 

We had Japanese-style lunch at kagra (二十四節氣 神楽), a restaurant in front of Akimiya. We ordered a combination menu of grilled rice balls with two different original miso pastes, traditional soup of local vegetables, and wasabi cream cheese. Every dish brought out the full flavours of the local ingredients.

 

Original seasonings sold at the store are perfect for souvenirs. (Image credit: JR East / Hiroaki Todoroki)

 

Original seasonings such as miso, soy sauce, oil, and shichimi (七味) powder (a mixture of cayenne pepper and other aromatic spices) are available at the store are perfect for gifts!

 

kagra (二十四節氣 神楽)
Address: 3571 Shimosuwa, Suwa, Nagano 393-0015
Access: 10-minute walk from JR Shimo-Suwa Station
Opening hours: 11:00–15:00 (Closed on Wednesdays)

 

Strolling through alleys

Slipping into a small alley and walking through the Japanese style garden. (Image credit: JR East / Hiroaki Todoroki)

 

After the satisfying lunch, let’s stroll around local alleys for better digestion! You may notice many small paths while walking around the town. Just pick one of them and start a short adventure. This time we tried the one next to kagra, which led us to the Japanese-style garden of the Post town museum.

 

Jiun-ji: A Zen temple full of history

Dragon’s Mouth at the entrance of the stairway. (Image credit: JR East / Hiroaki Todoroki)

 

Back on the Nakasendo to Harumiya, you will find a quaint stairway up to the historic Zen temple Jiun-ji (慈雲寺), which was established in 1300. There is a stone monument at the bottom of the stairway called Ryū-no-kuchi (竜の口 Dragon’s Mouth), which has been relieving travelers’ thirst since the mid Edo period.

 

Approach to Jiun-ji. (Image credit: JR East / Hiroaki Todoroki and Chie Matsubara)

 

Cedar trees and green moss carpet welcome you as you enter the first gate, and the sunlight falling onto the moss carpet makes it even more beautiful.

 

Passing through the majestic gate (left) and inside the dry garden (right). (Image credit: JR East / Chie Matsubara and 下諏訪観光協会)

 

At the back of the temple is a beautiful Japanese garden that is very well cared for, and you can’t miss a large pine tree called Tenkei-no-matsu (天桂の松). Jiun-ji is a place where time flows peacefully, and is a place you’d want to visit to sooth your heart and soul.

 

Jiun-ji (慈雲寺)
Address: 606 Higashi-Machinaka, Shimosuwa, Suwa, Nagano 393-0005
Access: 20-minute walk from JR Shimo-Suwa Station (下諏訪駅)

 

Visiting Harumiya, another shrine of Suwa Taisha Shimosha

In front of Kaguraden, and offering prayers. (Image credit: JR East / Hiroaki Todoroki)

 

Suwa Taisha Shimosha Harumiya is just a few minutes’ walk from Jiun-ji. One of the elements that makes Suwa Taisha Shimosha unique is the ceremony for moving the deity, which is held twice a year: from Akimiya to Harumiya on 01 February, and Harumiya to Akimiya on 01 August. The one held in August is accompanied by a colourful and vibrant festival, the Ofune Matsuri (お舟祭り), when the whole town livens up.

 

Suwa Taisha Shimosha Harumiya (諏訪大社 下社 春宮)
Address: 193 Daimon, Shimosuwa, Suwa, Nagano 393-0092
Access: 20-minute walk from JR Shimo-Suwa Station (下諏訪駅)

 

A unique stone image of Buddha

Cross the Togawa River running on the west side of Harumiya and trace it back for few minutes, and this huge stone image of Buddha Manji-no-sekibutsu (万治の石仏) awaits you at the end.

 

The stone image of Buddha, created in 1660. (Image credit: 下諏訪観光協会)

 

Manji (万治) is the name of the era during the Edo Period when this statue was built, a name which literally means “everything will turn out well”. Hence this stone Buddha is said to grant any wish. His unique looks inspired the avant-garde artist Taro Okamoto, who said: “I have traveled to so many places home and abroad but never encountered such a thing!” Since then, this statue has become a popular destination for tourists.

 

Circle around the statue for three times making a wish: a unique manner to offer prayer. (Image credit: JR East / Hiroaki Todoroki)

 

According to the folklore, when the master mason tried to cut the huge stone to make a large shrine gate for Harumiya, the stone suddenly started to bleed, and so the terrified mason carved an image of Buddha to calm the stone. To offer prayers to the stone Buddha, circle around the statue three times while making a wish.

 

The Onbashira Museum YOISA

A gigantic pillar placed in the corner of Harumiya (left) and the exterior of the Onbashira Museum YOISA (right). (Image credit: 下諏訪観光協会)

 

Have you noticed the four gigantic pillars placed in every corner of Harumiya and Akimiya? Those are called Onbashira (御柱), which literally means “sacred pillars”. Every 6 years, fir trees about 17 meters long and weighing over 10 tons are cut down and manually carried out from the mountain in dedication to the Suwa Taisha shrines. This festival, all carried out by hand, is called the Onbashira Festival. More than 200,000 people from the region participate in this festival, and it is said to attract over 2 million visitors.

 

Experience the log ride of Kiotoshi slope, one of the highlights of the festival. (Image credit: JR East / Hiroaki Todoroki)

 

The Onbashira Museum YOISA (おんばしら館 よいさ Onbashira-kan Yoisa) is just a few minutes’ walk from Manji-no-sekibutsu, and is the best place to learn about this 1,200-year-old festival through various documents and materials. For a small fee of ¥200, you can even experience a simulation of riding a log of the Kiotoshi slope, one of the festival’s highlights.

 

Onbashira Museum YOISA (おんばしら館 よいさ)
Address: 168-1 Shimosuwa, Suwa, Nagano 393-0092
Access: 20-minute walk from JR Shimo-Suwa Station (下諏訪駅)
Opening hours: 09:00–15:00
Admission fee: ¥300/adult

 

The only sake brewery in Shimosuwa

Various types of sake are available at the shop. (Image credit: JR East / Hiroaki Todoroki)

 

On the way back to Shimo-Suwa Station, we dropped by at the only sake brewery in town, Mikotsuru (諏訪御湖鶴酒造場Suwa Mikotsuru Shuzо̄-jо̄). This newly built building has a modern taste, unlike typical traditional breweries.

 

Tasting sake of your preference, cheers! (Image credit: JR East / Hiroaki Todoroki)

 

At the shop, you can not only taste the sake of your preference, but also learn a lot about it. From dynamic to delicate, each sake has a different taste and character. Trying them is like touching the heart and thoughts of the brewer.

 

Mikotsuru Sake Brewery (諏訪御湖鶴酒造場)
Address: 3205-17 Shimosuwa, Suwa, Nagano 393-0061
Access: 10-minute walk from JR Shimo-Suwa Station (下諏訪駅)
Opening hours: 10:00–16:30 (Closed on Wednesdays)

 

Masuya Guesthouse

Lounge at Masuya Guesthouse. (Image credit: 下諏訪観光協会)

 

For those who are planning an overnight stay, Masuya Guesthouse (マスヤゲストハウス) will be a perfect choice. Renovated from a traditional ryokan, the place has a relaxing and friendly atmosphere with a bar opening at night, and has been a popular night spot for both travelers and locals.

 

Masuya Guesthouse (マスヤゲストハウス)
Address: 314 Hirasawa-Cho, Shimosuwa, Suwa, Nagano 393-0062
Access: 5-minute walk from JR Shimo-Suwa Station (下諏訪駅)

 

Refresh yourself at a historic hot spring that has been popular since the Edo era

Tanga-no-yu serves the hottest hot spring in town. Image credit:下諏訪観光協会)

 

You cannot leave this town without trying the great hot spring here that has been soothing visitors since the Edo Period. At Tanga-no-yu (旦過の湯), there are seven local and public bath houses with fresh hot spring where you can bathe at for only ¥240. We strongly recommend trying at least the footbath if you don’t have time!

 

Tanga-no-yu (旦過の湯)
Address: 3441 Shimosuwa, Suwa, Nagano 393-0016
Access: 20-minute walk from JR Shimo-Suwa Station (下諏訪駅)
Opening hours: 05:30–22:00

 

Getting to Shimosuwa

Please come and visit the charming Shimosuwa Town, an attractive place where nature, history, and culture of old and new merge!

 

JR Shimo-Suwa Station’s unique decorations. (Image credit: JR East / Hiroaki Todoroki)

 

JR Shimo-Suwa Station is only a 2.5-hour ride on the Limited Express Azusa from JR Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, making it perfect for a day trip. Before exiting the station gantries, keep your eyes out for the replica of the Manji-no-Sekibutsu and an old onbashira!

 

Before ending this article, the Station Master of JR Shimo-Suwa Station, Todoroki-san, has a short message for our readers:

“Hello everyone! Shimosuwa is a small post town with hot springs, located at the intersection of the Nakasendo and Koshu-Kaido highways. Despite its small size, it is a town where you can experience rich history and warmth of the local people. As a compact town, you can walk to most of its attractions without the need for vehicles. Recently, fashionable shops have been popping up, bringing a new charm to the town. The people of Shimosuwa are very welcoming to visitors, so I look forward to seeing you here!” —Hiroaki Todoroki, Station Master of JR Shimo-Suwa Station

 

Shimosuwa Town’s Tourist Information Center. (Image credit: JR East / Hiroaki Todoroki)

 

Right outside the station is the Tourist Information Center for Shimosuwa Town, so if you have any questions or require any recommendations, feel free to drop by and chat with the friendly staff on duty!

 

Header image credit: 下諏訪観光協会

 

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