festival, Festivals, Japan, Outdoors, Photography, travel

Iizuna, Japan. More than ski.

What’s good in Iizuna?

Of course, Iizuna is known as one of the locations hosting the winter Olympics in 1998, but since I’m just a beginner skiing, what else is there to see? I was lucky to be invited to an unusual trip organized by Iizuna’s town hall where I could answer this question.

The short answer is: “Food, outdoors and people”. Iizuna’s main economy is based on agriculture, being apple and chestnut some of the most common products. Not a surprise we spent most of the time doing outdoor activities and eating. But it was blending and talking with the locals that made of this trip a great memory.

The following are just a few highlights of the trip:

Snowshoeing

dsc_8229Iizuna city is located right next to mount Iizuna, making it a popular location for hiking during summer and snowshoeing during the winter season in addition to skiing. Snowshoeing was a “must” and we had to try it, but our tour took an easy route, snowshoes and poles were provided and then the bus driver took us to an elevated point where we started our walk down the hill. It was a easy walk that didn’t require much physical strength, totally suitable for families.

On the way, we found plenty of footprints of rabbits and raccoons. The guide commented that bears are commonly seen, but not during the winter season and it is perfectly safe to do snowshoeing. It always helps however to have someone who is knowledgeable of the area to prevent any accidents. As we approached to the end of our walk we found nice views of the snowed city. We ended the walk at an apple farm owned by the same family who owns the pensions where we stayed at. Right after the walk we had hot soup, hot coffee and headed to have lunch.

Wakasagi – Ice fishing.

dsc_8040Wakasagi Ice fishing is a popular activity in Hokkaido (the northern Island of Japan), but Nagano is conveniently located just a few hours from Tokyo by shinkansen (bullet train). You can experience this and other winter activities without having to go as far away as Hokkaido if you are in Tokyo.

I didn’t know what to expect from this activity and probably the shocking part was that we ate the fish that we caught. I have done fishing in the past when I was living in the USA, but it was always catch and release. This time, the organizers took the fish we caught and passed it on to the restaurant where we had lunch. They deep fried it and served it to us!

The logistics were very simple. We arrived to the lake where the host showed us the way and let us choose where we wanted to place our tent that protected us from the cold wind. He drilled on the ice two holes per tent and handed us the fishing gear. Waksagi is a very small type of fish and our fishing poles had about half a dozen hooks with bait to attempt to catch more than one at a time. Although, fishing was a lot of fun, after one hour of fishing I went for a walk to take photos of the landscapes before taking off.

Obuse-machi

dsc_7959Obuse town is a quick drive from Iizuna, we started at Ganshion temple where we had the chance to see some of the paintings and collectibles, unfortunately photos inside the temple are not allowed, which was not a big issue as most of the good photography spots are outside the temple. We spent around 30 minutes there just walking and taking photos before we moved to Kurino Komichi.

Kurino Komichi is the area with a look and feeling of old Japanese town. In this area, you can try different local products, chestnut and apples are the most traditional here and you can find things such as chestnut ice-cream and apple jam locally produced. We walked around the streets for around 30 more minutes before we landed in a restaurant to have some sweets and green tea. This was a good opportunity to buy some souvenirs and curiosities.

Ketsu-zori

We were lucky that during our trip, Iizuna city was celebrating the Ketsu-zori festival which is a type of snow sledding competition. Locals bring their kids to participate and enjoy some quality time with their family and friends. We as visitors were encouraged to participate in the competition to which it was obvious that those kids were a lot more skillful than us.

Same as many other places in Japan, we were the only foreigners and we quickly got the kids attention who wanted to play and talk to us. After a while, we totally forgot about the competition and turned it into a snow fight against the kids.

I’d been traveling Japan for a while now and my best experiences are always when you get the chance to blend with the locals in their regular festivities and gatherings. Certainly, Iizuna was not the exception.

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Musemus

No trip is complete without visiting the local museums to learn one or two things about the location. This is the very first time that I see a museum dedicated to apples, which kind of gives a good hint of the importance of the apple production in Iizuna. The apple museum was just across the street from the Oyaki cooking class, for such reason we visited it during the time we were waiting for our Oyaki to be ready.

The last day we went to the Iizuna history museum in our way to the winery where we had lunch. The third floor of the museum have a nice view of the city where once again I had the chance to take some photos.

 What about the food?

Although, during the ski sessions we ate at ski resort, the organizers squeezed a few foody events. Whether it was the homemade dinner at the pension we stayed at, the wine tasting at the local winery where we had a chance to try a cider made of apples unique to Japan, or the food samples and souvenirs on the streets; The food was always good, clearly made of fresh locally grown products. One way or another, we spent most of our time eating and exercising (outdoor activities). Life was good!

It is part of the Japanese culture to socialize through what they call the “Nomikai”, which the literal translation means “drink meeting”. We were invited to a few social events organized by the comity of tourism where we had the chance to chat about upcoming festivals and events and shared some food and drinks. We even went to sing to the karaoke with the vice minister of Iizuna to continue the party after dinner.

We also had a few cooking lessons, they took us to a restaurant where we made our own Soba noodles which turned out to be quite challenging. We were grouped on teams of 3 people and provided with the ingredients. It happens that the noodles are cut by hand without any special equipment other than a knife to make exact cuts. Of course, our team’s noodles looked a bit more like fettuccine instead of thin noodles, but at the end the taste was just as good. It was in this restaurant where they cooked for us the fish we caught earlier that day. They also taught us how to make Oyaki (a type of Japanese dumpling) filled with sweet beans or vegetables.

Conclusion

Nagano in general has a lot to offer to the tourist wanting to see something different than Tokyo or Kyoto. It is conveniently located a few hours from Tokyo and will fit perfectly well for a weekend trip. Among the many things to see in Nagano, don’t forget to swing by Iizuna and try some of the activities I just mentioned in this article.

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Festivals, Japan, Photography, travel

Hotaru gari – Catching fireflies

The rainy season brings along fireflies that can be seen near rivers or lakes. Fireflies play an important role in the japanese culture, they can be seen in old paintings and even I the popular animation the grave of the fireflies.

Similar to sakura (cherry blossom) fireflies brings families together to go away from the city center to the country side and appreciate the beauty of the fireflies, this tradition is called Hotaru-gari in Japanese.

Nowadays is becoming more and more difficult to see these insects (it is believed that pollution is decreasing the population), that’s why fussa city is my recommended spot to increase the chances of spotting more of these insects. makes it a more special place to see them.

Fussa city’s firefly festival releases more than 500 fireflies to the river for people to enjoy. Similar events can be found all around Japan, but often kept unadvertised and for the locals only.

Full details of the event:

http://discoverjapan.info/Details/FussaCityfireflyfestival

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Festivals, Japan, Photography, Tokyo, travel

Shibuya Kagoshima Ohara Matsuri

Mid May, the weather starts warming up and so the festivals in japan. The Shibuya Kagoshima Ohara matsuri is just a reproduction of its original festival in Kagoshima (more than 1000 km away from Tokyo), but yet it was an enjoyable event where I had the chance learn a little bit about the traditions specific to the Kagoshima prefecture.

Shibuya is famous for its crowded and lively streets, so at first sight I didn’t really notice anything different than usual (it was crowded as always), but then I realized that there was actually a parade about to start. Celebrated on the streets west side of the Shibuya JR station (commonly known as the Hachiko square), thousands of performers get together to dance ohara music, wear traditional Japanese clothes and promote tourism in Kagoshima. In addition to the parade, they also have a taiko concert (Japanese drums), and some Kagoshima street food.

One thing for sure, this festival made me want to travel to Kagoshima to see the original festival in November, which is supposed to last for 2 days and is supposed to be packed with a lot more activities. Of course Kagoshima shines by itself for its amazing onsens (hotsprings) and hot sand bath, all of these combined with an awesome festival could be the perfect formula to a great vacation.

Full details (Where, when and how) can be found here: http://discoverjapan.info/Details/ShibuyaKagoshimaOharaMatsuri

The following are the pictures I took during this festival

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Art, Culture, Festivals, Japan, Outdoors, Photography, travel

Tama Genryu matsuri (Headstream Festival) Kosuge, Yamanashi

Drums being played in front of a fire with a flame taller than 5 meters next to the river, prayers for clean water and fire. A ritual I thought I could only see in movies is the highlight of the Genryu festival.

This is a daylong festival loaded with many events and performances. This area is known for its fish and wasabi which is sold at the event by many food stalls during the performances. However, the highlight of the day starts around 6:00 pm with a taiko performance (Japanese drums) as they start lighting the torches. After a few words, they proceed to burn 3 big piles of straw while the drums continue to play. The ritual ends with a display of fireworks.

Although it was a difficult transportation, I rate this as one of my top favorite fire festivals in Japan. Surprisingly not very well known by many tourist, I was literally the only foreigner in the crowd. The following are just a few pictures I took during this trip.

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Festivals, Japan, Photography, Sakura, Tokyo

Sakura madness – Photographs of numerous festivals

The Sakura tree (cherry tree) is one of the strongest symbols in Japan, it can be found in the 100¥ coins, poems, paintings, music, cloths, food, even Starbucks made a Sakura flavored coffee. It is a source of inspiration and a delight for Japanese people. It has been like this for centuries, and it will continue like this for many more generations.

Sakura trees last in full bloom only for a little longer than two weeks. For many it is a symbol of how beautiful and short life is, frequently compared to the life of the samurai (not very sure why the life of a samurai is beautiful though). Sakura season is also a season to say goodbye for students graduating from college who start a new life in their new job.  Parents say goodbye to their sons and daughters as they become independent, many of them get reallocated to different cities as required by their new employers.

Short life and new life calls for celebration and certainly Japanese people know how to do it: drinking, eating and awesome Sakura decorations and illuminations. I call these two weeks the “Sakura madness”. They have a Sakura forecast that people follow very closely to find out when and where are the most beautiful Sakura trees in full bloom. The most popular areas will usually host Sakura festivals with street food stalls, people bring their picnic mat and enjoy the moment drinking and eating with friends and/or family. Many people wake up very early in the morning to “reserve” an space with their picnic mat and wait for their guests. This tradition is called “hanami”.

The famous “hanami” parties and Sakura festivals are definitely a must see and do. There are lots of popular places for hanami, the following are just a few that I covered this year:

Nakameguro Sakura Festival

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Kawazuzakura Festival

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Midtown blossom

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Kasai Rinkai Park

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Sankeien Garden

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Chidori-ga-fuchi

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