15 THINGS TO DO IN AZUMINO
To understand any country properly you need to get outside the cities and head to the country. For it is invariably the countryside from which cities and culture grow to become nations and even in the most developed of countries, rural areas remain the bastion of tradition and identity that define each nation. This is demonstrably true in Japan, a country in which the Japanese don’t look to the cities of Tokyo or Osaka for their national character, but instead find the root of what it is to be Japanese in the often idyllic vistas of rural villages set against the backdrop of dramatic mountain peaks – the true heart of Japan.
Located within three hours of Tokyo, Azumino offers visitors a chance to experience the tradition and remarkable beauty of rural Japan with numerous cultural highlights – both old and new – combining to make this Nagano’s next must-visit destination. Conveniently positioned between Matsumoto – home to one of Japan’s most impressive original castles – and the ski resorts of the Hakuba – wildly popular with both international and Japanese in both winter and green season – Azumino already attracts many travelers en route between these more famous locations.
Those who have taken the time to stop and explore have discovered the Azumino should not be overlooked, offering a fantastic combination of cultural, culinary, and sporting activities all set against the stunning backdrop of Japan’s Northern Alps.
Here are 15 things to do in Azumino, Nagano’s next must-visit destination:
1. Daio Wasabi Farm
Japanese food is one of the most enjoyable and seductive reasons to visit the country. Offering an array of cuisine and tastes, one constant across the wide spectrum of Japan’s celebrated food culture is ‘wasabi’. Known in the West for its nasal-clearing heat, real wasabi is a much more subtle and highly versatile taste than many people realize. Azumino’s Daio Wasabi Farm is one of Japan’s largest producer of wasabi and in itself, a beautiful destination well-worth visiting.
Wasabi requires large amounts of clear water to grow and the streams and pools that flow across the farm create a picturesque and idyllic setting in which to wander. Daio Shrine and wooden water wheels on the Tade and Yorozui Rivers – the setting for Kurosawa Akira’s 1989 film ‘Dreams’ – only add to that atmosphere. While at the farm you can delight in the varied uses of wasabi including both wasabi ice cream and wasabi beer.
2. Leisurely boat ride and SUP at Daio Wasabi Farm
Fed by the Tade and Yorozui Rivers, one of the farm’s most striking elements is the endless pure water that follows through the streams and feed the expansive beds of wasabi. The clarity of water delights and imbues the farm with an atmosphere of vitality and tranquility as it trickles and follows past the senses.
The calming experience of the water is perhaps best enjoyed while floating on it yourself, which can be done with a guided boat ride or self-propelled SUP (Stand-up Paddling) over the rivers and past the farm’s iconic water wheels. The clarity of the water below will amaze and as you gaze deep into shimmering streams, any worry and stress is quickly forgotten…
3. Rural cycling from Hotaka Station
There’s no better way to experience the rural atmosphere, sights and sounds of Azumino than cycling through the landscape of rice fields and farms all set against the stunning backdrop of the Northern Alps. With rental road and mountain bicycles available at Hotaka Station (including e-bikes for an even more leisurely time), cycling through Azumino promises to be the highlight of any visit. Suggested cycling routes allow you to explore the area to your own speed and will lead you past countless rice fields, farms, and orchards and onto wineries, temples, museums, eateries, and well-earned ‘onsen’ (hot springs).
4. Fruit-picking at one of the region’s numerous farms and orchards
Blessed with an ideal climate for growing countless varieties of fruit and vegetables, Nagano is most famous for its apples and grapes, both of which grow to impressive size and deliciously flavorful in the higher elevation of Azumino’s orchards. Growing many varieties of apples including well-loved Fuji and San Fuji types, the pronounced temperature difference between day and night promotes the growth of delicious apples which you can pick and enjoy for yourself and several of the region’s many orchards. This leisurely activity is suitable for all ages and is particularly popular with families, whose children relish the rare chance to be among orchards and choosing their own delicious apples directly from the tree.
5. Soba-making experience
‘Soba’ or buckwheat noodles are a staple of Japanese cuisine and one best enjoyed in the very place it’s grown. Azumino is known for the quality of its soba and what better way to indulge than with the hands-on experience of making your own! Konekone House in Azumino offers soba-making experience for beginners upward.
Known for their friendly cooks who will guide you every step of the way, instruction is in Japanese however is also suitable for non-Japanese speakers with hand gestures and friendly guidance all you need to roll your way to a perfect soba noodle!
6. Explore the museums and galleries of the ‘Azumino Art Line’
Extending from over 50km from Azumino City to Hakuba Village, the ‘Azumino Art Line’ includes 19 museums and art galleries showcasing both traditional and contemporary arts within the beauty of the surrounding landscape. The museums forming the Art Line range in scale and focus with notable stops including Rokuzan Art Museum (a small but beautiful museum housing a sculpture collection of artist Morie Ogiwara), the Chihiro Art Museum (featuring illustrators and artists of childrens’ books) and the Azumino Art Hills Museum of glass art. Collections vary between classic to cute, contemporary to traditional in an eclectic array of museums. Your best starting point is from Hotaka Station from where you can drive or cycle between the museums of your choosing. The station’s friendly English-speaking information staff will happily provide you with all the details and maps you need to set-off on your self-guided discovery.
7. Soak in an ‘onsen’ (natural hot spring) at Hotaka Onsen-kyo
Azumino is home to numerous ‘onsen’ (natural hot springs) in which you can unwind and soak in the full atmosphere of the region. Playing a central role in Japanese society, time at an onsen is intended to relieve the stress and worry of daily life, recuperate from injury and relieve pain, and perhaps most importantly, spend time with family and friends as you chat quietly and informally. Situated within 20 to 25 by bicycle from Hotaka Station, Hotaka Onsen-kyo is Azumino’s main onsen village and home to many private ‘ryokans’ (traditional guesthouses) with their own hot springs and public onsens including free ‘ashi-yu’ or foot onsens.
Requiring to you strip down and enter the water without any clothing, the first onsen experience can be a little intimidating for international visitors, but just ask those who live here! You will quickly lose that inhibition as you discover just why soaking in an onsen is a national past-time; and there is no better place to do so than the beautiful surroundings of Azumino and its majestic mountain vistas.
8. Mountain-hiking in the stunning Northern Alps
The Hida Mountains of Nagano are more commonly referred to as the Northern Alps, the third of three extensive mountain ranges that cut across Nagano and collectively form the Japanese Alps. Home to the majority of Japan’s highest mountain peaks, this dramatic alpine landscape offers some of Japan’s most stunning hiking and mountaineering routes, with numerous trails catering for all levels of fitness and expertise.
One of the most popular routes is the ‘Panorama Ginza’, known for its breath-taking vistas including Mount Yarigatake (3180m) among other famous peaks, as it walks the ridge line. This well-trodden trail is serviced by a network of mountain huts, making it an ideal place to discover the mountainous heart of Japan and some of the most dramatic landscapes that the country has to offer.
9. Hike the abandoned train line of the ‘Haisenjiki’
In operation from 1902 until 1988, the former Shinano Line connected the region’s principal cities of Matsumoto and Nagano by train, along a mountainous, often beautiful route which can still be traced today. Now out of use for former than 30 years, the abandoned train is now a popular hiking course now called the ‘Haisenjiki’.
Winding through a lush terrain of mountain forest the Haisenjiki is an evocative journey through time and space; one that takes you through tunnels and past artefacts which tell the story of its former use. This is a relaxed hiking course with a unique atmosphere, an experience that really does take you off the beaten track!
10. Cherry blossom viewing at Mount Hikarujo
There is no more quintessential Japanese past-time in spring that ‘hanami’ or flower viewing. Blooming each year around April to May, Azumino’s glorious ‘sakura’ (cherry blossom trees) transform the landscape into a softly contrasting mosaic of white and soft pink and these beautiful, fragile flowers make their yearly appearance before falling from the trees to carpet the ground below.
One of the best locations to view the blossoms while Azumino is walking one of the altnerate Mount Hikarujo trails, which run below a canopy of blossom trees all the way to the mountains peak at 912 meters. Once there you are afforded views of the landscape below before meandering back down and again into the quiet beauty of these most Japanese of flowers.
11. Sunrise observation from Mount Nagamine
Mount Nagamine is a small but beautiful mountain best enjoyed at sunrise as the emerging light hits its peak and illuminates it against the stunning backdrop of the larger Northern Alps. The acclaimed writer Yasunari Kawabata once praised its beauty and while it can be enjoyed in all seasons, it is perhaps at its best in the early winter mornings as the crisp, clear light radiates atop the snow-covered mountain peaks of Mount Nagamine and beyond.
12. Azumino Fireworks Festival
Summer is a time for festivals in Japan and especially fireworks displays! Known as ‘hanabi’ in Japanese, the huge fireworks displays taking place across the country through the hot and humid months of summer draw massive crowds as family and friends come together in the cooler evenings to gaze up in wonderment to dazzling displays of light and color above. Held on August 14th each year, the Azumino Fireworks Festival is the second largest fireworks event in Nagano (after Nagano City’s Ebisu-ko Fireworks Festival held each November) and takes place on the banks of the Saigawa River – a grand event on the Azumino calendar!
13. O-fune Festival at Hotaka Shrine
Japanese love a ‘matsuri’ (festival) and there’s no better way to experience one than at the local level. Held every autumn, the O-Fune Matsuri/Festival is a great way to enjoy the community spirit of rural Japan as the townspeople parade the festival floats toward Hotaka Shrine. The name Azumino means ‘Land of the Azumi’, the original people of the region are said to have journeyed there from the sea. In commemoration of that origin story, to boat like floats – one male and one female – are carried through town toward the shrine. En route they will collide, a symbolic wish for fertility and the continuation of the Azumino community. Matsuri is very much a community celebration and usually involves plenty of drinking. You’re sure to be warmly welcomed!
14. Kamiakari at Hotaka Shrine
Held each December, the Kamiakari Festival at Azumino’s Hotaka Shrine is a charming event in which 2400 bamboo lanterns burn in the cool evening of early winter and imbue the shrine with an other-worldly quality. A small event in nature, it is a favorite with locals and is sure to delight any visitor to Azumino.
15. Illumination at the Alps Azumino National Govenment Park
Taking place each year from November to early January, this illumination event brings the park into bright and splendid light for all to enjoy. While the autumn evening is sure to be chilly, the more than 700,000 lights that illuminate the park will dazzle and delight you. Admission costs JPY410 and runs from 4PM to 9PM daily, between November 11th 2018 to January 8th 2019.
From Tokyo: take the Limited Express ‘Azusa’ or ‘Super Azusa’ from JR Shinjuku Station to JR Matsumoto Station. The journey takes approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes to reach Matsumoto (then follow the directions from Matsumoto to Azumino).
From Nagoya: take the ‘Chuo-saisen’ (Central West Line) Limited Express ‘Shinano’ train bound for Nagano, and disembark at Matsumoto. The journey takes approximately 2 hours and 50 minutes to reach Matsumoto (then follow the directions from Matsumoto to Azumino).
From Nagano: also take the Limited Express ‘Shinano’ train bound for Nagoya and disembark at Matsumoto. The journey takes approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes to reach Matsumoto (then follow the directions from Matsumoto to Azumino).
From Matsumoto: take a local train on the Oito Line to Hotaka Station. The journey takes approximately 30 minutes and once at the station, Tourist Information (including English-speaking staff and rental bikes) can provide you with the assistance necessary to get you going on your discovery of Azumino.