Nagano Pre­fec­ture

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THE CROW CAS­TLE: JA­PAN’S OLD­EST PREMIER CAS­TLE

The first cas­tles in Ja­pan were built by the in­de­pen­dent states which fought against one an­other dur­ing the chaotic War­ring States Pe­riod (1467-1603). With the bulk of these cas­tles de­stroyed dur­ing the Meiji Restora­tion and World War II, only a dozen of them are left stand­ing to­day – and Mat­sumoto Cas­tle is the old­est amongst these re­main­ing cas­tles. The cas­tle’s don­jon (main keep) is char­ac­ter­ized by an in­tri­cate de­fen­sive sys­tem con­sist­ing of a large moat, hid­den floors and var­i­ous open­ings for launch­ing at­tacks on in­vaders. The wooden in­te­ri­ors and ex­ter­nal stonework kept in their orig­i­nal states add to the au­then­tic­ity of this his­toric com­plex. Mat­sumoto Cas­tle is a pop­u­lar pho­tog­ra­phy spot for new­ly­weds, es­pe­cially dur­ing spring where cherry blos­soms abound in the cas­tle grounds. The cas­tle also hosts the Taiko Drum Fes­ti­val in sum­mer and the Moon View­ing Party in au­tumn.

NAWATE DORI: THE BLESSED FROG STREET

En route to Mat­sumoto Cas­tle, take a stroll through Nawate Dori, a stone-paved pedes­trian street next to the Me­toba River. Af­ter the Yo­hashira Shrine was built in 1879, the street be­came an im­por­tant path lead­ing to the place of wor­ship and busi­nesses pros­pered over time. To­day, an eclec­tic mix of an­tique shops, hand­i­craft stalls and snack shops can still be seen on the af­fec­tion­ately named Frog Street. The word for frog in Ja­panese, “kaeru”, also means to buy and to go home safely, and the frog statue at the end of the street is be­lieved to bless cus­tomers with a safe pas­sage home.

KAMIKOCHI: WHERE GODS DE­SCEND

Ja­pan takes its en­vi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion very se­ri­ously, and this is why vis­i­tors of­ten head to the coun­try for its pris­tine nat­u­ral land­scapes. Just an hour’s bus ride away from Mat­sumoto City lies Kamikochi, a charm­ing basin along the Azusa River that is part of the Chubu San­gaku Na­tional Park. The 15-km long plateau nes­tled in the Hida Moun­tains, bet­ter known as the North­ern Ja­pan Alps, is a hik­ers’ par­adise with its breath­tak­ing scenery and un­tamed wilder­ness. The word “kamikochi” can be writ­ten as “as­cent to heaven” or “where gods de­scend” in the Ja­panese lan­guage. Both names sym­bol­ize the spir­i­tu­al­ity and out-of-this-world beauty that is char­ac­ter­is­tic of this place.

HIDA MOUN­TAINS: PUTTING JA­PAN ON THE MOUN­TAINEER­ING MAP

His­tor­i­cally, the Hida Moun­tains were con­sid­ered sa­cred and all were pro­hib­ited from scal­ing them ex­cept monks and priests. That changed in 1877, when the Meiji gov­ern­ment in­vited an English gold­smith, Wil­liam Gow­land, to climb Yari­gatake with a group of Western engi­neers. Gow­land wrote about his moun­taineer­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in a mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle and first coined the phrase, “Ja­panese Alps”. His ar­ti­cle in­tro­duced the English com­mu­nity to the beauty of the moun­tain ranges, and there­after, Rev­erend

Wal­ter We­ston too wrote about his ex­pe­ri­ence of Yari­gatake and Kamikochi in his book, “Moun­taineer­ing and Ex­plo­ration in the Ja­panese Alps”, spark­ing an in­ter­est in recre­ational moun­taineer­ing in the re­gion.

THE MUL­TI­PLE FACETS OF KAMIKOCHI’S BEAUTY

Be­cause of Kamikochi’s rel­a­tively flat to­pog­ra­phy, marshes and ponds are a com­mon fea­ture of the basin. In 1915, an erup­tion of the ad­ja­cent ac­tive vol­cano, Yakedake, cre­ated a nat­u­ral dam in the Azusa River to form one of Kamikochi’s most scenic spots, Taisho Pond. The best way to en­joy the sights of Kamikochi is to take an easy hike along the river from

Taisho Pond to My­o­jin Bridge, where you will pass by sev­eral panoramic points, such as Tashiro Pond, Kappa Bridge, Takezawa Marsh and My­o­jin Pond. For sea­soned hik­ers and cam­pers, a hike up to Kara­sawa Val­ley will be slightly more chal­leng­ing, but the vi­brant au­tum­nal fo­liage will be well worth the ex­tra ef­fort. Be sure to look out for ex­otic species of flora and fauna dur­ing the trek, such as the

Ja­panese bush war­bler and the snow mon­key.

WASABI: THE IN­DIS­PENS­ABLE SPICE OF JA­PANESE CUI­SINE

Sushi is a beloved dish all round the world, and its ac­com­pa­ny­ing condi­ment – the wasabi, is our favourite root veg­etable that makes us choke and wheeze. But did you know that it is not wasabi that they have been putting on your salmon sashimi sushi all this while? Be­cause real wasabi costs an arm and a leg, most Ja­panese restau­rants have switched to us­ing horse­rad­ish in its place, with the paste dyed green to look like wasabi. Now, be­fore you throw up your hands in de­spair and give up on Ja­panese cui­sine for good, here is the good news – in the coun­try­side of Azu­mino, you will find the largest wasabi farm in the world, the Daio Wasabi Farm. Here, not only can you pur­chase fresh wasabi roots to bring home (they last in fresh­ness up to a week), you can find out more about the cul­ti­va­tion of wasabi by tak­ing a tour of its grounds. Even if you are not a fan of the root, the rus­tic farm is bound to charm with its quaint wa­ter­wheels and crys­tal clear wa­ters. For the gas­tro­nom­i­cally ad­ven­tur­ous, you will be spoilt for choice at the wasabi restau­rant on the premises - from wasabi curry rice, wasabi soba, wasabi ice cream, to wasabi cro­quettes, wasabi tem­pura, wasabi beer... The ver­sa­til­ity of the veg­etable will amaze you. This is one place you will walk away from feel­ing warm and happy in­side.

LEFT Nick­named the ‘Crow Cas­tle’ for its black ex­te­rior and wing-like roofs, the 420-year-old struc­ture is a Na­tional Trea­sure and the pride of Mat­sumoto City

ABOVE Be sure to walk along Kappa Bashi, a sus­pen­sion bridge near the cen­tre of Kamikochi, where the yearly open­ing and clos­ing cer­e­monies are held

BOT­TOM LEFT Ap­pre­ci­ate the aes­thet­ics of the tea gar­dens as you par­take in a tra­di­tional tea cer­e­mony

BOT­TOM FROM TOP Daio Wasabi Farm was the set­ting for one of the iconic scenes in Ja­panese film di­rec­tor Akira Kuro­sawa’s “Dreams” Dig into the restau­rant’s very own ren­di­tion of wasabi curry rice. The taste is rem­i­nis­cent of Thai green curry with an oc­ca­sional hint of wasabi

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