And here we go, PART TWO of Nagano: Japan’s Nature Wonderland picks up where we left off after a brilliant night spent at Lemeiesta Hotel in Kamikochi…
After a good night’s rest, wake up to the sight of sunlight streaming in through your glass windows and head down for breakfast at the hotel restaurant. A wide selection of local delights and freshly baked bread are available here every morning, so you can be sure to find something you like.
As we had a big day planned, we bought bentos (takeout lunch boxes) from the hotel. The special Kappa no Hirumeshi Lunch Box (1,100 yen) offered by Lemeiesta contains many local specialities, including their well-loved walnut onigiri.
(We’ll get to the unboxing later in the day!)
A short walk from Lemeiesta, we found ourselves at the Weston Memorial Plaque.
An English missionary who introduced the Japan Alps to the world, Walter Weston was also considered the father of mountaineering in Japan. Through his efforts, Kamikochi flourishes as a popular hiking and mountaineering grounds, and every year on the first Sunday of June, the Weston Festival is held to commemorate his contributions.
Located in the centre of the park, Kappa Bridge (河童橋) is so named after its association with the legendary kappa (河童), a water monster often blamed for drownings.
Venturing deeper into the mountains with our experienced guide, we were greeted with scenic views from all around. From astoundingly majestic mountains to pristine streams and rivers, to unassuming trees and plants that could be distinguished by their unique characteristics. We came across an artist serenely painting while polite hikers who passed us always had a friendly greeting and smile ready.
Then all of a sudden, a flurry of movement within the thick bushes alerted us to the presence of snow monkeys! Officially named Japanese Macaques, these red-faced creatures live in large social groups. According to our guide, at least four different groups of these monkeys inhabit the Kamikochi region. While they are considered wild animals that should not be fed, they are used to humans and will not harm you if you leave them alone.
One of the notable sights of the day was Myojin Pond (明神池). Made up of two ponds, with one larger than the other, this is also the sacred site where the inner altar of Hotaka Shrine is located.
After a long, hard day trekking the forests, we made our way to Gosenjaku Hotel (五千尺ホテル) to stuff our faces with their mouth-watering cakes! Using a recipe passed down since the hotel was opened, their signature rare cheesecakes are creamy, rich and oh-so-soft. The recommended apple pie was also good, with a generous portion of Nagano-produced apple stuffed into a yummy baked crust.
It was then time to say goodbye to Kamikochi as we got our hands on numbered tickets to board the timed shuttle bus that would take us back to Shin-Shimashima station.
Tickets for buses can be purchased on the day itself at the ticket counters. Remember to ask for and take a numbered ticket during your purchase and be on time for your scheduled bus as boarding is on a first-come-first-serve basis!
As evening fell, we took the train back from Shin-Shimashima to Matsumoto, where we checked into Ace Inn Matsumoto, a quick one minute walk away. After a smooth check-in, we popped by a local soba restaurant for dinner.
This was the first time I tried the famous Touji Soba, in which the soba noodles are first placed in a small bamboo basket and dunked into the iron pot of broth for a few seconds before serving (kind of like soba shabu-shabu style!). I really enjoyed eating fresh soba in Nagano; there is a stark difference from soba I’ve eaten in Singapore in terms of texture and taste, which I will miss dearly.
And what better way to unwind after a long day than with heavenly cocktails prepared by the magic hands of the master bartender Hayashi Kouichi-san at Main Bar Coat. He represented Japan in international bar tending competitions and had earned himself fourth place in the whole world. Using locally grown fruits which are in season, our bartender skillfully blended, mixed and shook these amazing concoctions. Every part of the process is done with precision and care, so the drinker can savour every sip of the cocktail from start to end.
The bar is one of around 15 in Matsumoto City, which has gained the reputation of Bar Street. This is because unlike similarly small cities with populations of less than 200,000, Matsumoto has a higher bar-to-population ratio. The quality of drinks served at these bars are also higher due to an initiative started by Hayashi-san and like minded bartenders who wanted to share tips and practice together.
Having tried countless cocktails (both good and bad) in Singapore and Tokyo, I can say with no doubt that the peach and champagne cocktail made by Hayashi-san was by far the best cocktail I have ever tasted. The frozen pear and vodka combination was, for lack of a better word, incredible. If I had to only drink one cocktail for the rest of my life, that would be it.
Fast forward to our final morning in Nagano and we were on our way to see one of the most interesting attractions in Azumino City — Daio Wasabi Farm (大王わさび農場)!!
We met with our enthusiastic guide, who showed us around the 15-hectare-large area. Using water from the Northern Alps, the farm produces an annual yield of 150 tons of wasabi, one of the biggest in the nation.
At the end of the highly informative tour, we sat down to have the farm’s specialty — variations of soba served with fresh wasabi!
Access: From JR Matsumoto Station→ Hotaka Station (30 min), followed by a 10 min taxi ride.
We then headed to Kametaya Sake Brewery (亀田屋) for a quick tour of the historical house.
The family-run brewery has been in business for four generations and is currently headed by a female president who speaks excellent English. As she showed us around the many rooms of the house, she explained in detail how the spaces were used for different occasions and how the business operated.
Kametaya provides the tour at no charge and customers can simply drop by anytime during their opening hours and request for it without any prior booking. At the end of the tour, there is even a counter for you to sample their award-winning rice sake, fruity sake and umeshu too.
Access: Take the Matsumoto Dentetsu (Alpico Railway) from Matsumoto Station → Shimonii Station (10 min), followed by a 5 min walk.
Our third and final stop of the day was The Japan Ukiyoe Museum (日本浮世絵博物館).
Aside from admiring the number of rare ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) pieces from the vast collection of the Sakai family, non-Japanese speakers can also enjoy a video that shows the process of woodblock printing.
Access: Take the Town Sneaker Bus (West course) from Matsumoto station (Alps exit) → Japan Ukiyo-e Art Museum (25 min)
After a marvellous four-day tour of some of the best sights in Nagano (and possibly Japan), it was time to say goodbye to this nature wonderland, but not before stuffing our luggages full of omiyage (お土産, souvenirs)!!
So now that you know just how much there is to discover in Nagano Prefecture, you should be scrambling to book your flight to Japan soon! Do remember that all the places we visited are covered under the 2 Day Free Passport plus ONE, the most convenient and affordable way to get to know Nagano better. Drop us a note if you need more information on any of the attractions mentioned or if you need help with access and transfers, we’ll be more than happy to point you in the right direction.
So long, and see you on our next Japan adventure!!!