Exploring Narai in Kiso Valley

A rainy yet beautiful day in the mountain town of Narai.

A place that’s been on my bucket list for quite a while is Kamikochi, a beautiful hiking area nestled in the valleys of Nagano, and this year I finally had the chance to go! I was actually planning to go last year, but the main camping area was attacked by a wild bear that tore a tent to shreds and stole a camper’s curry, so unfortunately my trip was cancelled. Fortunately this year they had the bears under control and no other attacks have been reported. However, this year we encountered wild monkeys during our hike but they were extremely friendly!

I will be covering my trip to Kamikochi in two separate posts since this trip lasted two full days. On the first day I rode from Tokyo to Enzan Station to meet my friends in Yamanashi which was on the way. From there we drove to Narai in Nagano by car which was roughly two hours away. This was an extremely smart move since the weather was rainy the first day but sunny for our hiking trip on the second day.

Narai is reachable by both car and the Chuo Line making it cheaper than taking the shinkansen. If you have the chance you should definitely check this town out because it has a lot of history and delicious food!

Getting to Know Narai

After parking or getting off at the station, all of the main strip of Narai can be explored by foot. The very first thing that I noticed was the Narai Kiso Bridge that will take you over to the shops and restaurants. In the Meiji Period, Narai was a famous post town and you can see why by how easy it is to get around here. The town is extremely condensed and features a lot of antique wooden buildings and cafes that you can explore. There are small art museums, soba and teishoku restaurants, as well as a stone path that will take you to Joryuji, a temple with a painting of a dragon inside. This was actually my favorite part of the town because I wasn’t expecting to see such a beautiful mural! Narai can be explored in about 1 hour and is the perfect place to stretch your legs before making it to other destinations in Nagano.

Shirahone Onsen

Before heading to our ryokan, we decided to stop by Shirahone Onsen which is a natural sulfur hot spring located in the mountains. It’s about a 45 minute drive from Narai but was completely worth the trip! For the entire day the weather was chilly and raining, but a soak in the onsen definitely put us back in high spirits. This is probably the best onsen I’ve been to in Nagano besides the fancy resort I stayed at in January. I just appreciated how simple but highly effective it was. Natural hot springs definitely have a healing property!

Address: Azumi, Matsumoto, Nagano 390-1515
Admission Fee: 520 yen (the baths are gender segregated)

Narai Food

Since Narai is located near the river, ayu (sweet fish) are one of the most popular meals here! When I first moved to Japan, I honestly didn’t know what to think of freshwater fish but recently they have really grown on me. For lunch I had a teishoku set which included ayu, miso, tofu, and rice in the town we visited earlier. The meal was simple but I couldn’t believe how amazing it was! For dinner we drove to a restaurant called Mominoki where I had vegetables with miso, another grilled ayu, and some delicious caramel and azuki ice cream topped with jelly cubes. I mentioned this in my last Nagano article, but the people here have the longest life span in Japan and you can easily see why. This prefecture is filled with onsen and beautiful nature and has wonderful food too! There are a lot of options for both meat lovers and vegetarians too.

Lodge Fumoto

After a full day of hiking, food, and hot springs, we decided to spend the night at Lodge Fumoto. Unbeknownst to us, we were the only 3 people staying that weekend so it was the ultimate party! The reason for that is a lot of buses to Kamikochi have reduced service due to the pandemic and you really need a car to get around. The hotel, or “lodge” is really no frills and has limited amenities but it has amazing hot springs. There is a shared indoor bath and a private outdoor one you can freely reserve. You can tell by the sulfur debris that sticks to the wood that these hot springs are legit and the surrounding outdoor scenery is absolutely breathtaking. I had an amazing stay here and am happy that we didn’t go camping so we could avoid the rain. The rooms here are around 6000 yen which is average for most ryokan too.

Thank you for reading the first part of my summer Nagano adventure! In my next article I will be writing about how we hiked through the entirety of Kamikochi and met the monkeys. Now is a really good time to travel here because there are far less people than usual!

Living Life the Way it’s Supposed to be Lived (Onsen Trip to Nagano, Japan)

Snow falls gently on Lake Nojiri in Nagano creating a a picturesque winter scene.

Right before the second emergency state for Tokyo and surrounding areas was declared on January 7th, a number of business owners gathered in Nagano Prefecture to discuss what would become of their once booming industry that has rapidly declined this year due to the effect of the corona virus. According to a friend of mine who owns several ski resorts and ryokan in this area, they are currently only at 1/4 capacity this year. Usually Nagano is one of the most popular areas to do winter sports because it is easily accessible by shinkansen and has many hot springs where you can spend the night. It was also where the 1998 Winter Olympics were hosted and is famous for its snow monkeys which normally draw in a number of visitors from around the world each year. According to the Foreign Press Center, Nagano has surpassed Okinawa for having the longest life expectancy in Japan of above 80 years for both men and woman. Seeing the local tourism drop in such a boisterous place is a fatal blow to the nation, but also can’t be helped in this situation.

Though this is a tough time for everyone, currently many people in Nagano are strategizing what they can to keep their businesses alive. My friend who I met through writing articles online invited me to Nagano right before signing the contract to close one of their hotels for a final celebration. This became a two day trip that was completely sponsored and I am very fortunate that I was able to travel here so spontaneously. I previously traveled to Nagano in 2018 and saw the snow monkeys as well as an indie music show in Matsumoto, but I’ve never stayed at a ryokan here. Like the ryokan in Nara that I stayed at during my last sponsored motorcycle trip, this one did not disappoint!

Getting to Nagano

From Tokyo Station, Nagano Station is only 1 hour and 20 mins away and only costs 8340 yen to ride the Hokuriku Shinkansen there. This is less hassle than going all the way to Kyoto or Osaka. I was initially worried about traveling here due to heavy snowfall last weekend and almost cancelled my trip, but my friend assured me that the snow was further north by Toyama and my trains from Tokyo would not be affected. I left around 9:30am and made it to Nagano Station by 11:30am. The trip was peaceful because I mostly slept on the train and drank a cup of umeshu from Ueno for a buzz when I woke up. Since I didn’t travel during the New Year’s holiday, this was my first major trip of 2021 and it was sure a memorable one!

Lunch at Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

Just as I arrived to Nagano Station, my friend was waiting for me in the parking lot with their car. The temperature was definitely chilly but not as cold as I had expected. I was happy to see the vast view of the snowy mountains but was also starving. Fortunately my friend was hungry too so after exchanging quick greetings we drove to Hotel Metropolitan Nagano and had a delicious lunch set at Shinano. I ordered a balance of sashimi, rice, tempura, and vegetables and has some delicious miso soup to warm me up. I loved the decorative dishes and the wine they had on display here. Already I was proud of myself for braving through the snow and making it here because the food was worth it!

Exploring Lake Nojiri

Since our ryokan checkin time was at 15:00, we had around 3 hours to kill. We decided to drive around Lake Nojiri since it was on the way to the onsen. Though the area around Nagano Station was mostly just frosty, we were surprised to see thick layers of snow piling up just 5km away on the forest roads. Fortunately my friend had a lot of experience driving here so it was not a problem. Once we arrived at the lake, we got out of the car to do some photography. There was a beautiful island in the middle of the lake that gleamed in the gentle sunlight. There were also little log cabins in clusters on the edge of the lake. My friend informed me that this area was called “Gaijin Mura” because foreign missionaries have owned property and have lived here for over 100 years. According to Outdoor Japan, they have managed to protect the place from “bubble-era developers” so this is actually a good thing. This area already has a number of resorts so it’s refreshing to see this atmosphere. You can rent cabins here year-round which sounds like an awesome to do in the summer!

I remember a while ago one of my Japanese friends traveled to this area and called it “雪の国” on Twitter. With all of the snow flurries around I can definitely see the reference to “Snow Kingdom” in Mario Odyssey!

Arriving at Onsen Paradise (Yorozuya)

After driving around Lake Nojiri in its entirety, we arrived to our ryokan, Yorozuya, around 15:30 and immediately went to the public outdoor hot springs since they are the largest and have the best scenery. We decided to use the smaller private ones at night after dinner. I had previously looked on Booking and other Japanese sites for ryokan deals, but could have never imagined staying somewhere so beautiful. My friend actually found this deal through a local travel agency in Nagano by going there in person. All of the rooms had their own custom design and were equipped with a kotatsu (which I slept under), yukata, amenities, and premium room service. It had been half a year since I had stayed in one of these room so I was beyond excited. I will be sure to consult with Japanese travel agencies in the future because this was for sure a better place than anywhere I looked at online. I felt fully relaxed and welcome during my stay so I would rate Yorozuya 5 stars.

Address: 〒381-0401 Nagano, Shimotakai District, Yamanochi, Hirao, 3137

Dinner with a Hint of Gold

After fully relaxing at the indoor and outdoor hot springs, we sat down for our dinner at around 18:30. This wasn’t my first time going to an onsen during winter, but seeing the snow fall from sky while the steam rises up from the water was definitely a sight to behold. Plus I already had a decent buzz going on from the sake and apple wine that I ordered for our room so I was in a really good mood!

An immaculate course dinner was served with an explanation before each dish by the kind waitress and I was amazed to find that there were real flakes of gold in my food! I think the seared fish, sashimi, and mushroom hot pot were my favorites but all of these dishes tasted out of this world. Dessert was light fruit and green tea-flavored pudding. Plus another round of nihonshu requested by yours truly! And there was a tiny serve-yourself bar in the basement of the ryokan. What more could you ask for in life? The view of the snowy mountain tops from the window topped it off.

Private Onsen

Since the outdoor bath in our room was frozen due to cold temperatures, the Yorozuya staff graciously offered us a free shuttle service to a nearby onsen where we could use private baths after dinner. There we found a steamy indoor bath filled with apples and an outdoor one decorated with bamboo and an umbrella. Since these baths were completely private, photography was allowed. This was the moment I had been waiting for!!

Final Thoughts

This trip is exactly what I needed to get 2021 off to the right start and set my mind free. I did not travel during the winter holiday because many places were affected by COVID-19 and I wanted to prioritize work and saving money. I have been bummed that I still haven’t been able to travel to the Philippines or Indonesia like I had planned to last year, but this trip reminded me that it’s really important to focus on self-care and that nature can be enjoyed in its simplicity. I graciously thank all of my friends here for taking care of me because I don’t know when it will be safe to visit America again. However, I am very happy with my life now and am also close to reaching one of my major financial goals this month so I plan to continue at this pace for now. I have faith that things will get better with time and that I will be able to meet my friends and family with a smiling face one day again. In the meantime, I’ll be playing FFXIV and giving my all to my current line of work.

What does this mean for the future of small Japanese businesses though? From my personal example I found it interesting that two ryokan were working together to ensure that all facilities were available to their customers. Perhaps these businesses can continue to rely on one another and also local travel agencies to keep their businesses alive. Though I definitely noticed less people here, I did not sense a complete loss of hope. Cuts and sacrifices will need to be made in order to survive these hard times, but as this culture has demonstrated many times, perseverance can go a long way.