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Experience the life of Shinshū at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen

Experience the life of Shinshū at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen

The city of Chikuma (千曲市 Chikuma-shi) in Nagano Prefecture (長野県 Nagano-ken), as the name implies, is located on the banks of the Chikuma River (千曲川 Chikuma-gawa). Chikuma River is the name used in Nagano Prefecture, but in Niigata Prefecture (新潟県 Niigata-ken) it is called Shinano River (信濃川 Shinano-gawa) instead. It is also Japan’s longest river, with a total length of 367km.

 

It feels wonderful to take a stroll or cycle along the Chikuma River while gazing at the mountains of Shinshū (信州, also the old name for Nagano Prefecture), but Chikuma has many other splendid attractions.

 

Obasute’s rice terraces in spring. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

Obasute’s rice terraces in autumn. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

Rice terraces that resemble Japan’s olden and cherished sceneries spread out and overlook the Nagano Basin, the famous Obasute (姨捨) district, and Inariyama (稲荷山), which once prospered as a post town on the Zenkoji highway. In fact, there are lanes of rustic warehouses make visitors feel like they've gone back in time, so much that it feels like a town of warehouses (蔵の町 kura-no-machi). At lastly, there's Anzu no Sato (あんずの里) where you can see sprawling trees with apricot flowers called Hitome Jūmanbon (一目十万本) every spring.

 

Inariyama. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

The most famous attraction of all is Togura Kamiyamada Onsen (戸倉上山田温泉), which is one of the best hot spring resorts in Shinshū with a history of more than 120 years, and has long been popular as a hot spring among visitors making a trip to Zenkoji Temple. It is a hot spring town where you can enjoy the atmosphere while taking a stroll in a yukata.

 

In Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, there is a hot spring inn called Kamesei Ryokan (亀清旅館) known for being run by a blue-eyed, young man named Tyler Lynch, who is also a guide to his own Zukudashi Eco Tour, and his family!

 

With Tyler’s guidance, we shall introduce a cycling tour that offers a glimpse of the locals’ lifestyle, a spectacular night view of Obasute, and the exquisite charms of the town of Togura Kamiyamada Onsen.

 

Zukudashi Cycling Tour

Tyler's Zukudashi Eco Tour offers two courses: cycling, and walking around the city.

 

At this point you might be wondering: what does “Zukudashi” mean? Well, it is a local Nagano dialect that means “doing something bothersome with diligence”.

 

As the phrase suggests, it means doing something that’s difficult with pride and commitment, and the people at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen would go to great lengths to do so. This is the true enjoyment of the Zukudashi Eco Tour, which offers a glimpse of how they live their lives.

 

Venture through the hot spring town for apple-picking

Your Zukudashi cycling tour guide, Tyler. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

As you ride your bicycle through the hot spring town, you will eventually reach Kamiyamada Central Park (上山田中央公園 Kamiyamada chūō-kōen).

 

Here, there is a mound that enshrines kitchen knives used by Japanese chefs who wield their arms in the kitchen of each inn at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen. He explains the history of Togura Kamiyamada Onsen’s prosperity and the kitchen knife mound.

 

Wall murals depicting daily life of locals. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

Next, we visit murals drawn on an earthen wall that depicts a scene of local daily life. From an American's point of view, it's cute to wish for love under a shared umbrella. With murals flowing throughout the town, the place is filled with retro atmosphere.

 

Picking apples at an apple orchard. (Image credit: 千曲市協会)

 

As you pass through the farm road, you will find an apple orchard. Shinshū is famous for producing apples, and many kinds are produced here.

 

Shinshū apples. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

At the farm, there are tatami mats that are no longer used at the inns. Eventually they will decay and become compost, which contributes to eco-friendly agriculture.

 

Crown Farm (クラウン農園)
Address: 1240 Kamiyamada, Chikuma, Nagano 389-0822
Nearest station: Togura Station (戸倉駅)
Tel: +81-26-275-0929

 

Chishikiji (智識寺)

Hydrangea at Chishikiji Temple. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

Chishikiji was built by Emperor Shōmu at the eastern foot of Mount Kamuriki (冠着山 Kamuriki-yama) in 740, and is said to have been relocated to its current location without being dismantled.

 

The main hall of thatched roof is called Ōmidō (大御堂), and a 3m-tall, 11-faced Kannon statue made from zelkova wood is enshrined in it. Both the Chishikiji Ōmidō and the Kannon statue are Important Cultural Properties of Japan (重要文化財 jūyō-bunkazai).

 

This place is also known as Hydrangea Temple (あじさい寺 ajisai-tera), as hydrangea are in full bloom around the area in mid-June.

 

Chishikiji during autumn. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

Also, it is a famous spot for autumn leaves, and many photographers visit here to take photos of them in autumn.

 

Chishikiji (智識寺)
Address: Yasaka-1197 Kamiyamada, Chikuma, Nagano 389-0822
Nearest station: Togura Station (戸倉駅)
Tel: +81-26-275-1120

 

Ride along the Chikuma River

Cycling by the Chikuma River. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

Later, when you go down the mountain, you will reach the countryside and the cycling path along the Chikuma River.

 

This cycling path is along Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, and stretches 28km along the Chikuma River from Ueda City (上田市 Ueda-shi) to Nagano City (長野市 Nagano-shi). Because of its flat ground, the path is popular among cyclists.

 

After going through the cycling route, we come back to the hot spring town.

 

Zukudashi Eco Tours (ずくだしエコアーズ)
Address: 2-15-16 Kamiyamada Onsen, Chikuma, Nagano 389-0821
Nearest station: Togura Station (戸倉駅)
Opening hours: 9am–6pm (March–November), 9am–5pm (December–February)
Tel: +81-26-275-1032

 

Footbath & apricot jam soft-serve ice cream

Enjoying apricot jam soft-serve ice cream on a footbath. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

The last item in the Zukudashi Cycling Tour, which takes about 2 hours, is enjoying apricot jam soft-serve ice cream while relaxing at the Karakoro footbath at the hot spring town.

 

Apricots, local specialty of Chikuma. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

Apricots (あんず anzu) are a local specialty of Chikuma, and its harvest season is from late June to early July. Here, you can enjoy freshly plucked apricots!

 

Soft-serve ice cream served with apricot jam. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

Apricot jam soft-serve ice cream’s jam is made exclusively for this ice cream, and is made with an exquisite balance of tartness that goes well with the ice cream’s sweetness. It’s a gem you definitely want to eat!

 

Chikuma, filled with apricot flowers during spring. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

By the way, apricots are a special product of Chikuma, which boasts the highest yield in Japan. The season for the fruit’s flower is from the end of March to the beginning of April, when the entire mountain village is blanketed in pink. Approximately 200,000 tourists from all over the country visit the Anzu Festival held annually at this time of the year.

 

Obasute night view tour

Another attraction of Chikuma is the night view from Obasute Station (姨捨駅 Obasute-eki). There is the Obasute Night View Tour organised by the Shinshu Chikuma Tourism Bureau where you can witness this wonderful night view. One of the volunteer guides for this tour is none other than Tyler himself!

 

Night view from Obasute station

Night view of the Nagano Basin. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

Many guests staying at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen join the Obasute Night View Tour, which offers a panoramic night view of the Nagano Basin.

 

Tyler explaining the story of Obasute. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

Our guide Tyler narrates the legend of Obasute, which literally means "to throw away old ladies", where legend has it that people had abandoned their elderly in the past. He clarifies the legend with the following quote: “Obasute is not a place where elderly people are abandoned, but a story of filial piety brought home.”

 

Obasute Station is one of the “Three Best Train Window Views” (日本三大車窓 Nihon-sandai shasō) in Japan, and is a station that many people want to visit, not just railway fans. It is also famous as a station where you can see a switchback first-hand, and many people come here just to see this.

 

Night view from Shiki-shima Lounge at Obasute Station. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

It became famous recently as a station where JR East's luxury cruise rain Train Suite Shiki-shima stops. On the train’s exclusive lounge, specially created to experience the night view at Obasute Station, passengers will have time to enjoy wine and sake from Shinshū while gazing at the night view for about an hour.

(NOTE: Obasute Station is also one of the stops for Resort View Furusato, a Joyful Train by JR East. I wrote about the train here, so do have a look!)

 

Takamura Shōten

Shopping for local goods. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

After gazing at the night view from the Obasute Service Area, which is one step up from Obasute Station, it's time for souvenir shopping at Misogura Takamura, where you can enjoy shopping while tasting their proud pickles and miso soup!

 

You can also find other attractive products such as miso-based products, local sake, and Chikuma's own specialty apricots.

 

Misogura Takamura (味噌蔵たかむら)
Address: 1-320 Haneo, Chikuma, Nagano 389-0812
Nearest station: Obasute Station (姨捨駅)
Tel: +81-26-276-0591

 

Togura Kamiyamada Onsen

Togura Kamiyamada Onsen has long been popular as a hot spring for visiting Zenkoji Temple. It is also known as a "beautiful-skin hot spring" because of its high-quality spring water. It’s one of the best hot spring resorts in Nagano Prefecture, with more than 50 hot springs with plentiful hot spring water. Furthermore, it’s common for inns to have their own hot spring, and flow into the guest rooms’ bathtubs.

 

Plus, the outdoor hot springs are also highly attractive. Currently, there are seven outdoor hot springs, which are popular as a place of relaxation for locals and tourists.

 

Togura Kamiyamada Onsen is a mild alkaline hot spring that is gentle on the skin. The hot spring water removes dead skin cells, making your skin smooth and beautiful after a bath. The hot spring is also popular among female repeat travellers because the effects on their skin can be felt immediately.

 

The hot spring water is colourless and transparent, but the colour may change to milky white or emerald green depending on the water, which is one of the pleasures of dipping in the bath. It has a reputation where children and the elderly can slowly warm up their bodies and enjoy a bath with a peace of mind.

 

Pure Japanese-style Kamesei Ryokan

Kamesei Ryokan, run by Tyler and his family. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

Kamesei Ryokan in Togura Kamiyamada Onsen is a hot spring inn run by the young master, Tyler Lynch, born and raised in the port city of Seattle on the west coast of the United States.

 

Kamesei Ryokan is a traditional Japanese-style inn that exudes wooden warmth. The open-air bath is built by Tyler himself, and when you soak in hot water, the tiredness of your whole body will naturally fade away.

 

Meals at Kamesei Ryokan. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

For meals, seasons are highly appreciated by the locals, so the inn serve their dishes that complement the current season. The dish above is served with original balsamic vinegar sauce, and arranged in a uniquely Western style.

 

Kamesei Ryokan (亀清旅館)
Address: 2-15-1 Kamiyamada Onsen, Chikuma, Nagano 389-0821
Nearest station: Togura Station (戸倉駅)
Tel: +81-026-275-1032

 

Get in touch with the geigi

A geigi performance. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

In the past, there were geigi (芸妓) in every hot spring area but these days it's rare to see them. However, Togura Kamiyamada Onsen is a Shōwa-Era retro hot spring town where the old geigi culture still remains. The geigi here are so popular that when "Togura Kamiyamada Onsen" is mentioned, the image of geigi would immediately come to mind!

Usually, when you call for a geigi, it will be a 2-hour course where you can sing and dance at dinner at an inn or hotel, have a drink with them, and have a pleasurable chat.

 

Interaction with the geigi. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

At Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, there is a geigi show for foreign visitors that features a sing-and-dance performance, and they can also play a game with them before dinner. The geigi experience lasts 30 minutes before meals are served, which are prepared at the request of foreign guests who wish to enjoy their meals slowly.

Experience traditional arts performances in a Japanese tatami room called ozashiki-gei (お座敷芸) at the Togura Kamiyamada Onsen!

 

Drinking bars & shooting galleries

The nightlife of Togura Kamiyamada Onsen. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

If you walk around the Shōwa-Era retro hot spring town, you will find more than 100 restaurants such as izakaya and lounges. From local restaurants to snacks for karaoke sessions that even women can easily enter, to nostalgic shooting galleries, the resort is crowded with people at night.

 

A shooting gallery at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

There are three Shōwa-Era retro shooting galleries at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen. One of the pleasures of staying at the inn is to compete with your friends to see how many targets you can beat with 10 shots per plate for ¥500. You can choose the prize based on the number of targets you got!

 

Local delicacy oyaki

Oyaki, a local delicacy of Nagano Prefecture. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

Oyaki (おやき) is the representative dish of Nagano Prefecture's local cuisine. If you’re hungry while walking around the hot spring town, you should definitely try one! Oyaki is usually made by wrapping sweet and spicy vegetables in buckwheat dough and steaming them, but at Shichifuku, a restaurant that sells oyaki for many years at Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, they’re crispy and fragrant.

 

Old-fashioned ramen, gyoza, and shumai are also delicious, so why not try them all together? After a drink at an izakaya and a stop at a shooting gallery, you're bound to be hungry!

 

Oyaki Shichifuku Honten (おやき七福本店)
Address: 1-56-3 Kamiyamada Onsen, Chikuma, Nagano
Nearest station: Togura Station (戸倉駅)
Opening hours: 6:30pm–11pm daily (closed on Mondays)
Tel: +65-26-275-1559

 

Anzu no Sato

In late-spring in Shinshū, apricot flowers bloom a little earlier than cherry blossoms, and they signify the arrival of spring. Apricot trees with blooming flowers sprawl on gentle slopes, and many flowers can be seen at a glance so it is called “100,000 trees at a glance”—and hence Hitome Jūmanbon—and “the number-one apricot village in Japan” (日本一のあんずの里 Nihon-ichi no Anzu no Sato).

 

It is said that “Anzu no Sato” is based on the story during the Genroku Era (元禄時代 Genroku-jidai, 1688–1704), when Toyohime, the daughter of Date Munetoshi who was the feudal lord of Uwajima Domain in Iyo Province (present-day Ehime Prefecture ), who brought Sanada Yukimichi, the third feudal lord of Matsushiro Domain in Shinano Province (present-day Nagano Prefecture), apricot seedlings that reminded her of her hometown.

 

Enjoy the scenery that the princess witnessed with nostalgia for her hometown, a picturesque view that would leave you speechless.

 

Apricot flowers in full bloom. (Image credit: 信州千曲観光局)

 

So, how about it? Come visit the city of Chikuma and Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, which are full of such amazing attractions!

 

How to get to Togura Kamiyamada Onsen

Togura Kamiyamada Onsen is located in Chikuma in Nagano Prefecture, and can be reached easily from Tokyo by train. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸幹線) bullet train from JR Tokyo Station (JR東京駅 Tōkyō-eki) to JR Nagano Station (JR長野駅 Nagano-eki) or JR Ueda Station (JR上田駅 Ueda-eki), and then switch to the Shinano Railway Line (しなの鉄道線 Shinano Tetsudō-sen) to Togura Station (戸倉駅 Togura-eki). To reach Obasute, visitors can take the Shinonoi Line (篠ノ井線 Shinonoi-sen) from Nagano Station to Obasute Station (姨捨駅 Obasute-eki). The journey from Tokyo to Togura/Obasute takes about 2 hours 10 minutes, and the train fare is ¥8,400 and ¥8,580 respectively (via JR Nagano Station). If you're going via JR Ueda Station, the train fare is ¥6,600.

(NOTE: If you have the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), you can travel to Obasute Station on the Hokuriku Shinkansen and Shinonoi Line, and make seat reservations for free! For Shinano Railway Line however, you have to pay a separate fare.)

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area. It's a 5-day flexible pass where you can choose any 5 days within a 14-day period for your travel, and the 5 days need not be consecutive either. It's ¥17,310 when you buy it overseas, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free.

 

For more information on Chikuma, you can visit the link here (Japanese only). For more information of the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), click here.

 

Header image credit: 信州千曲観光局

 

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Writer’s profile

Hayashi Yoshikatsu (林欣克)

Born and raised in Chikuma, serving Chikuma City Hall for 30 years. He’s had the pleasure of sharing the charms of Chikuma with the world, thereby becoming a globetrotter and having amazing encounters everywhere he goes.

P.S. He loves women from Southeast Asia, especially Thailand and Vietnam. They’re friendly and kind, in his view.

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