Happy belated new year!!! I hope all of you had a wonderful winter holiday!
My shop generally opens 7 days a week, so I do now have any fixed holidays except the few days summer and winter holidays.
New year season in Japan is like a christmas in the west, so many shops are closed at least for the first few days (many places are closed until 4th of January), so some people travelling to Japan during that season might be disappointed finding out that many places are closed. (Major touristy areas are still open though, but generally very busy during that season).
I also closed my store for 5 days from 31st of December to 4th of January, so I had a chance to visit my favorite place in Japan, Nagano prefecture.
Nagano can be easily reached with Shinkansen from Ueno station in Tokyo (less than two hours train journey). It is very mountainous area, so you can enjoy hot spring bathes called Onsen and also various winter sports, so you will certainly enjoy visiting that area in winter, but you should also be able to enjoy visiting there in summer too by climbing mountain and visiting traditional old onsen villages etc.
When I visit Nagano, I always rend a car to drive around various areas and you should certainly get one for yourself, if you have a chance to visit there.
My visit to that area generally starts from Ueda city, where I pick up a rented car and then drive to Bessho Onsen, where I introduced before on my blog. Bessho is only about 30 min. drive from Ueda station and what I love this small Onsen village is that it is surrounded by the mountains and I love the close proximity of that village with the nature. I also went to that village this time visiting the Kitamuki Kannon Temple.
I, then, drove to a little Onsen town called Togura-Kamiyamada Onsen, where my grandmother used to live and I used to visit every summer with my family. We still have a house there, so I generally stay at the house while I am there.
Shinkansen does not stop at the Togura-Kamiyamada Onsen station, so you either have to change the trains at Nagano or Ueda stations to visit there. The town is not so popular due to that reason, so it has been, a kind of, forgotten even by many Japanese, but I personally like that relaxed and not too touristy atmosphere and you can still enjoy walking around that onsen town.
My main purpose of visiting Nagano this time was to go skiing in Nozawa Onsen area, where is famous not only for onsen, but also for the ski resort.
Although the ski was my main attraction of this trip, I am not a ski enthusiast, so I stopped at a small town called Obuse, where is famous for chestnuts, before going to Nozawa.
That is a sugidama, I found in Obuse. It is decorated with the new year ornament. The shapes of the new year ornaments vary across different parts of Japan, so it is fun to compare them while you are travelling Japan during this season.
They were making mochi (mochi is a non-sweet rice cake made from a certain kind of sticky rice) at the town square.
I, then, moved to Nozawa Onsen for skiing.
The ski resort extends to the large area and there are various types of ski slopes to enjoy.
I rented the whole set including the ski ware, boots, ski board etc for only 3500yen.
Although that was my second ski experience, I could thoroughly enjoy the ski.
On the following day, I visited Nagano city for the new year prayer at Zenkoji Temple.
Zenkoji is the largest temple in that area and it is made with the original wooden structures. There are various small-sized temples in that area too, where you can actually stay, so if you are confident enough to communicate in Japanese, it will be a good opportunity to stay at one of those temples. They normally serve you vegetarian meal (monks generally do not eat any meat) during your stay.
There is a volunteer guide group in Nagano, which provides free guided tour in various languages, but it seems you need to book that in advance, so if you are interested, you can check their homepage.
There are many foods unique to Nagano area such as Oyaki, Soba noodles and so on, so please do not forget to enjoy the local foods too. As you may expect, those restaurants in the touristy areas tend to serve ordinally food. If you find those restaurants with a long queue in non touristy area, it is likely that those restaurants are worth queueing for.