Nagano: Mountains, cottages, hot springs, a nice lake and NINJAS

Posted by in Mike's blog

We just got back from a 6 day vacation in the mountains of Nagano prefecture.

A few weeks ago I was having a discussion about my family’s summer plans with a friendly group of old ladies.  We had been trying to put together a plan for a short trip, but it wasn’t coming together.  One of them casually mentioned that she has a vacation home/cottage in Nagano, it has been largely unused this year, and she wanted us to take our vacation at her cottage so that someone could open the windows.

We gladly accepted this task.

The trip came about only a week and a half before we were to depart, and we had many arrangements to make.  I had to clear my schedule, we had some last minute errands and meetings…and the time that we like to spend researching and trip planning had to be condensed into 2 short hours.  I went to the bookstore to pick up an analog GPS (read: road map), and we took off last Tuesday.  I think we did well for ourselves.

When we left, we knew we would be embarking on a few “firsts”.  I drove from Fukui to the little town of Kurohime, less than an hour north of Nagano city, and I took the expressway to get there.  In Japan, expressways are expensive.  We paid a toll of ¥5000 each way – ouch.  On the plus side, the road was very well maintained and there was no traffic at any point.

This was to be the first time we would be staying overnight in a real Japanese home.  We’ve stayed with foreigners before, and technically we weren’t staying with any Japanese people, but we were in a Japanese-style house.  We had no idea what kind of place it would be…  It could have been a shack, a mansion, a little cottage – we didn’t know.  We arrived at night, and we found the place pictured above.

On the outside, it didn’t look Japanese at all!  On the inside, it felt like a really big cottage…with a Japanese twist.  It had both a squatty and a western-style toilet, we got to sleep on tatami mats under futons, and the chopstick to cutlery ratio in the utensil drawer was heavily skewed.  We weren’t in for a rugged countryside forest experience at all.  There was a large flat screen TV in the living room that played cartoons in the morning and Olympics in the afternoon/evening, in HD of course.

This was one of many “I can’t believe we’re so high up in the mountains” moments. There was a point before the steep ascent when we could have chosen the path we were on OR a tunnel. The tunnel would have taken us through the mountain(s), our road took us OVER THEM.

As nice as it was inside, we were in a gorgeous part of Japan, so we wanted to go exploring as much as possible.  On the first day we weren’t sure where to go (we were still getting our bearings), and the Bunny fell asleep in the car.  We continued to drive to Nagano city – but we didn’t know where to go when we got there, so we wandered around aimlessly for an hour.  On the way home we decided to take a different route.  The route was “squiggly” on our road map.  That was the day we learned that in Nagano, squiggly lines on the map means mountain climbing on wheels.  Our little kei car survived, and so did we despite sharp turns, the absence of guard rails and numerous single-lane roads for both directions of traffic.

Cameras aren’t allowed in the Togakushi ninja village trick house for some reason. We got lost a few times before we figured out what had to move before we could continue.

Kurohime is close to a place called Togakushi, which has a pretty big ninja theme going for it.  There were quite a few things to see and do there.  We started with a hike in a forest because we couldn’t read any of the maps we found (kanji, kanji everywhere).  From there we went to a ninja village, where the Togakure ninja school once was.  The ninjas picked a pretty great place to settle, the mountains are both strategic and nice places to spend time around.  We had fun finding secret passages and trap doors in a trick house, we threw shurikens, and we looked around a couple of museum buildings.  Here are a few more pictures from the village.  A couple of days later we went to (in our opinion) the real attraction.

Ninja training in street clothes? This is Japan, this is where it’s done right.

Again, we had no idea what we were getting into because we didn’t have enough time to properly research it.  We knew the place was called “Chibiko Ninja-Mura“, it had something to do with ninjas, and it was supposed to be for kids.  We expected a little kids attraction and it turned out to be a full ninja-themed amusement park.  Instead of roller-coasters and other rides, the attractions were based on ninja training for kids.  There was even a costume rental shop near the entrance so everyone (adults too!) can dress up as a ninja for the training exercises.  It would have been a crime for us NOT to dress the Bunny up for the occasion, so we gladly paid the ¥400 rental fee.  There were two giant obstacle courses to complete, however, we found that she was a little young for most of the climbing/rope/swinging contraptions.  There were still lots of fun things for her to do though.

This bath was warm from both the sun and the natural hot spring water. It reeked of sulfur. After the walk uphill in the heat, we were hoping for cold springs, but it was worth it.

One of the highlights of the trip was succeeding in our mission to do something unique.  I spent part of my 2 hours of research time trying to find something “off the beaten path” in the area.  We found a small mixed-gender onsen 15 minutes uphill from a small hot springs town on a mountain.  The town is called Tsubame Onsen, and technically it’s in Niigata prefecture, so we’re checking one more prefecture off on our list of places we’ve been to.   The onsen is free, and it’s farther into the “middle of nowhere” than we’ve been in Japan to date.  The journey to get to this place deserves a post in itself – look forward to it in the near future.

This isn’t the pedal boat we were in. It is VERY difficult to take a picture of our own boat…I couldn’t get out and walk far enough to get any of it in frame, so here’s someone else in a pedal boat that looked like ours!

From what we gathered, the “main attraction” of the area we were in was Lake Nojiri.  Lakes aren’t as prominent in Japan as they are in Canada, so they seem to be a big deal here.  To us….hey it’s a lake.  We drove around the circumference of it looking for a nice beach/swimming spot, and we didn’t find it.  As far as we could tell, the property around the lake has been bought and sold.  When compared to the beaches we have close to home on the sea, the lake with no sand anywhere didn’t seem as nice.  We were determined to enjoy ourselves there, so we found a nice Japanese-Italian restaurant that did pizza closer to the Italian way than we’ve had since we were in Rome, and we rented a pedal boat like the one pictured above.  While we were at sea (lake), we heard something speaking in Japanese over a megaphone.  Our pedal boat wasn’t equipped with a rear-view mirror…and there was a ferry coming at us.  I’ve never pedaled more vigorously in my life.  Disaster was averted.

Watermark FAIL!

There are hills, and then there are mountains.  There’s a reason Nagano hosted the Olympics in 1998.  Driving was scary, the view was spectacular, and the experience of living it up in cottage country was not at all what we expected for our summer.  We would do it again in a heartbeat.