My Boyfriend’s First Impression of Japan

japan temple

After two months of silence:  I’m finally back on U.S. soil.

After suffering through China’s excruciating internet (wow, did it get WAAAY worse in the last two years, and hats off to fellow expats still suffering through it), I am finally able to wordpress and Google photos freely (and thus update this little blog).

I traveled extensively for six weeks throughout China and Japan–and believe me, I have A LOT to write about.  I’m very excited to get some posts out in the upcoming days and weeks.  It was great to be a nomad traveler again, donning a backpack and whizzing from place to place for days on end. read more

Visiting Japan? 5 Reasons You Should Go to Nagano

VisitNaganoBlogCover

Chances are, most travelers never heard of Nagano.  Some people know it as that place in Japan that hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics–but other than that, Nagano, unfortunately, still remains widely unknown.

 Nagano's right in the middle!
Nagano’s right in the middle!

Nagano is one of Japan’s larger prefectures located in the Shinshu region directly west of Tokyo (about a one hour bullet train ride away).  It is one of the most mountainous regions in Japan and is known for its snow, great peaks and amazing forests.

Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto Castle! In Matsumoto City

Nagano is special to me, because it’s the first place I ever went to in Japan.  I did a one month study abroad program here, and it was nothing less than magical.  The mountains, the food, and most of all the kind hearts of the people in the countryside are what made me fall in love with this place–and convinced me to come back.

Since my first trip to Japan, I’ve been to countless prefectures and cities in the country–yet Nagano still remains my favorite.  It has charm.  It has tradition.  It has nature.  It’s the best prefecture to visit because of its close proximity to Tokyo and countless sights.

This is why you should go to Nagano:

1. Matsumoto City (and castle)

Downtown Matsumoto City

Matsumoto City is located in southeast Nagano and is the second largest city in the prefecture.  It’s not only famous for the Shinano river which runs throughout the city and for being the home-base of the Seiko watch… it’s also famous for this:

Nagano - Matsumoto2

Japan’s most authentic and intact castle: Matsumoto-jo.

Smack center in the middle of the city is this masterpiece.  This is one of the few castles in Japan which was not destroyed by wars or fires.  It’s almost exactly the same as it was 400 years ago.  Built in the karasu-jo (crow castle) style, this castle design is in stark contrast to its counterpart Himeji Castle (in hakuro-jo style, white egret) in Himeji city way down south.

matsumotoclose

With a cheap ticket (10 USD or less if I remember), you can enter the castle and climb up the crazy, steep stairs used to keep intruders out.

The castle gardens are also the best place to watch the sunset, go for a romantic stroll, or perhaps even catch a festival.

2.  Kamikochi

Kamikochi is one of Japan’s national parks and a UNESCO world heritage site.  Only a quick one hour bus ride away from Matsumoto City is an immensely green forest covered in trees that reach up to the heavens.

Nagano - Kamikochi

Nagano - Kamikochi4

At the top of Kamikochi is a shinto shrine, where you can wish for safe travels, a long and healthy life, or to pass the college entrance exams (by far the most popular request of Shinto temples in Japan).

Nagano - Kamikochi1

I’ve been to this national park three times and let me tell you: it never gets old.

Nagano - Kamikochi2

It feels like walking into a fairy tale.

Nagano - Kamikochi3

3. Nagano City (Zenkoji)

Ah, Nagano City.  You can’t go through the prefecture without stopping through its capital city, right?

Nagano - Zenkoji1

The main highlight of Nagano City is Zenkoji Temple, one of the few remaining pilgrimage sites left in Japan,  rumored to hold the first Buddha statue ever brought to the country.

nagano - zenkoji

I’ve seen a lot of temples in Japan: and trust me, Zenkoji does not disappoint.

You can also go through the underground sanctuary beneath the temple for a tour in the dark.  Guests are supposed to feel their way around the passage through the guiding light of Buddha–but mainly, it’s dark and and somewhat creepy.  Still, an experience nevertheless.

Nagano City is also a lovely, medium-sized city that is much more manageable than crazy and crowded Tokyo.  It has a slew of bars, restaurants, and good food that are very friendly and open to foreigners.  Nagano is also known for its apples and wasabi, so don’t forget to pick up your apple themed omiyage (souvenir) before leaving.

4. Karuizawa nagano - karuizawa

Just in time for the holidays.

Karuizawa is a trendy, hip mountain town located on the western most edge of Nagano prefecture (closest to Tokyo).  It’s famous for its western churches (one of the first built in the region), which is where many Japanese couples dream of tying the knot.  These two churches are: St. John Paul the Baptist’s church and the modern stone wall church built into the side of a mountain.

Nagano - Stone Wall Church
Image Credit

Karuizawa is mainly a place for the rich to buy a cool mountain retreat to escape the unbearable heat of Tokyo summers.  Yet despite its high-profile, short-term tenants, the place has managed to retain its small town charm.  A quick stroll down main street and you’ll find dozens of local shops selling local Nagano fashion, organically harvested honey, and furniture stores run by local artists.

Nagano - Karuizawa2

While Japan doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas, Karuizawa is one of the few places in Japan where the Christmas spirit felt authentic.  Christmas lights, cold weather and snow?  Yes please.

Celebrating Christmas in Karuizawa
Celebrating Christmas in Karuizawa

5.  Hot Springs and Soba

 Image Credit
Image Credit

In Japan, the best hot springs (or onsen) are located in the middle of nowhere–and lucky for you, Nagano prefecture is in the middle of nowhere.

A short ride away from Kamikochi is Jigokudani, a snow monkey park where, yes, you can actually bathe with the monkeys.  This is actually horrifically dangerous (I have done it–eye contact with a monkey could result in multiple flesh wounds and the loss of an eyeball), so I recommend taking photos of the monkeys from afar and not bathing with them.

Nagano - Monkeys
Image Credit

The most famous hot spring (without monkeys) is Nozawa onsen located near Nozawa Ski Resort in the middle of nowhere (aka, Nozawa village in Nagano).  It’s a great place to relax, soak in some natural mineral waters, and sip some hot sake as you enjoy a snowy winter day in the comforts of a bath.

But honestly, there’s an onsen almost anywhere in Nagano.  Whether you’re in Nagano city or Matsumoto City, there is usually one hot spring a short bus or train ride away.

Nagano - soba

In Togakuchi, a mountain village located one hour away from Nagano City, is a soba school.  Nagano is famous for its zaru-soba, or buckwheat noodles.  You cannot leave Nagano without sampling its cold/hot buckwheat noodles alongside some crisp and flaky tempura.  Hell, at Togakushi Tonkururin, a famous soba restaurant, you can learn how to make soba AND eat it all in one go.

The Spirit of Japan

Nagano - Matsumoto1

After wandering around Matsumoto Castle, I returned to the garden entrance to find the 65th annual Obon festival dance in full motion.

The beat of the taiko drum.  The chanting of the dancers singing the familiar festival songs that reverberate across Japan throughout summer.  The red and white striped lanterns.  The familiar “yokosoi” dance for summer festivals, where men and women in kimonos and yukatas flick their hands up, dip down and twirl around in perfect unity and precision.  The humid summer air.  The smell of yakisoba (fried noodles) wafting up from the food stalls nearby.  The gathered community.  People laughing.

I felt it.  This is Japan.  What it means to be Japanese.

A small slice of Japanese life in the countryside.  In Nagano.  The heart of Japan.

Nagano - Matsumoto

Where, when, and how?

If you’re planning a trip to Japan, definitely stop by Nagano!  It’s easy to tack onto any Japan trip because of its close proximity to Tokyo.  If you’re a skiier or snowboarder, it’s a must.

If you’re planning a trip, the official Nagano website is the best place to get tips.  They’ll give you advice on how to get where.

Also, the best website/app to look up train directions in Japan is Hyperdia and Google Maps.  Japan is a super easy country to navigate, and almost ANYWHERE is accessible by train (even Kamikochi and other extremely remote national parks)!

And of course, use Airbnb and hostels when you can, since accommodation is usually the most expensive thing in Japan.  Matsumoto has a slew of great Japanese B&Bs!

The Best Fall Foliage in Japan

Lookit dem trees!
Lookit dem trees!

Winter is Coming

November whizzed by in the blink of an eye, and it’s already the third day of December.  It may be a little too late to talk about fall foliage in Japan, but after seeing all the amazing fall photos posted by my friends in Japan on Facebook, I just had to get in on the action.

I’d also like to mention that seeing fall foliage in Japan was, quite frankly, one of the highlights of my life.  There are some things that are best done in Japan, such as eating fresh sushi or viewing cherry blossoms, and I have to say seeing the fall leaves should rank at the top of that list.

In my opinion, the best time to go to Japan is not during the spring to see cherry blossoms; but rather, during the fall when leaves are painted blood red, sunset orange and a golden yellow.  There is nothing else like in the world.  It should be on everyone’s bucket list.

Although it may be too late to visit these spots this year, I wanted to introduce my favorite spots for viewing the fall foliage of Japan.

First Off, Where Not To Go

Looks like some people might just spill out...
Looks like some people might just spill out…

Kyoto is regarded as one of the best spots to see fall foliage…

…that is, if you like to be sandwiched between a sea of people.

While the fall leaves in Kyoto do turn spectacular colors and the backdrop of some of Japan’s most famous temples create some picture perfect photos, I  think the crowds (and prices) make it more of a hassle than a hidden treasure.

In other words, avoid Kyoto and try going somewhere else.

Try somewhere like…

The Hokuriku/Alps Area

Wee, Niigata!
Wee, Niigata!

I know, I rant about Niigata on here more than I should, but I truly feel it is an under appreciated prefecture and deserves more attention.

I saw fall foliage in Kyoto, Nagano, Himeji, Toyama–and none of the colors there even came close to what I witnessed in Nagaoka city in Niigata prefecture.

Reach to the sky
Reach to the sky
Didn't think trees could turn this red, right?
Didn’t think trees could turn this red, right?
Amazing.
Amazing.

Most of the Hokuriku area in Japan has some stunning fall foliage scenes, with Niigata as a local favorite of mine.  Nearby Nagano prefecture has Kamikochi national park, which blends fall hues and mountain landscapes beautifully together to give you some truly stunning scenery.

But my absolute, favorite place for fall foliage in Japan?

Kurobe Valley in Toyama Prefecture

The famous bridge that brings you into the valley
The famous bridge that brings you into the valley

This place is what fairy tales are made of.  The red bridge connects the outside world of Japan into the inner valleys of Kurobe, a true tribute to nature and a sanctuary of trees, bubbling brooks and towering mountains.

 

Feast your eyes on this
Feast your eyes on this

While the leaf colors here don’t dazzle as much as Niigata, the overall landscape composition is mind blowing.  The translucent water, powdered snow sprinkled on top of the mountains like sugar on a cake, and the rain of golden leaves as they retreat into their winter slumber are all symbols of Japan’s changing seasons.

 

Kurobe valley is a MUST.
Kurobe valley is a MUST.

This vacation was also quite memorable because I went with my favorite teachers at the time.  Although I suffered immensely from loneliness when I lived in the countryside of Japan, there were a few teachers that reached out to me as more than just a foreigner in distress or a lonely gaijin: They saw me as a friend.

 

The 6th grade teacher, school nurse and vice-principal
The 6th grade teacher, school nurse and vice-principal

The vice-principal was one of the few Japanese teachers that talked to me not as “that American teacher,” but just as Mary.  Halfway through his term as vice-principal, he left the school due to an “illness.”  When I asked him about it during this trip, he went into detail about the overwhelming pressures of Japanese society and how he was crumbling under the system, mentally.   He was one of the few, and brave, Japanese men I met that put his health–and his family’s–above his job.  I was touched that he opened up to me about such a sensitive topic, and talked to me as a friend rather than a foreigner in a strange land.

 

Hokairo!
Hokairo!

Anyway, Kurobe Valley can only be accessed via the train that runs on the red bridge above.  The train is very old school, which means no heating and–yes–no windows.  This gives better access to the views outside, but definitely makes the ride a wee bit drafty (thus the vice-principal and I up there are holding Japan’s archaic heating method, the hot pad hokairo).

 

Even in the dead cold, it's an open-air train
Even in the dead cold, it’s an open-air train

This wasn’t the last trip I went on with the above trio.  We also explored various parks in Toyama and Nagano, toured the Christmas lights in Karuizawa Japan, and had countless dinners together.  Even today, the memory of them remain deep in my heart.  I hope somehow, someway, I can see them again.

I know, too much reminiscing.

While the leaves aren’t as crimson as Niigata, the impeccable outline of the maple leaves in Toyama (momiji) and its cascade of fall hues will leave you in awe of Japan’s beauty.

Colors of Kurobe
Colors of Kurobe
Momiji Outline
Momiji Outline

In Japan, the seasons bring more than just a change of weather.   The food, the scenery, the customs and even everyday life changes according to the time of the year.

To me, fall in Japan was the end to the relenting humidity of summer.  Fall was a draft of fresh air that painted the trees in warm colors of harvest.  Fall meant that it was time to bring the kotatsu (heated table) out from the closet and prepped for use.  Fall i sthe season to munch on Japan’s juicy tangerines (mikan) after sipping on an ice-cold, autumn flavored Asahi beer.  Fall meant it was time to dust off the sweaters, the mittens, the scarves and bring out the coat for the upcoming winter.

Going across the famous bridge
Going across the famous bridge

Whether you’re going to Kurobe Valley in Toyama prefecture or simply exploring a small park full of trees in Tokyo, fall foliage needs in Japan is a definite must on any traveler’s list.

And with the yen hitting record lows (180 JPY to the  dollar!) now has never been a better time to go.

Come and see for yourself
Come and see for yourself

Although my relationship with Japan is complicated, there is no doubt in my heart that I love that country–with fall being my personal favorite.

Skip to toolbar