Category Archives: Weekend Trips

Hakone Kowakien Yunessun

Water Slides by Linda Bell HakoneHakone Kowakien Yunessun is a water amusement park and spa resort in Hakone-machi, Hakone. It has over 25 water attractions with fun and kitschy theme pools like the red wine pool, green tea pool, Greek Santorini pool, and Roman baths (see photos below).  There are also different spas, water slides, and kiddie pools. Water temperatures vary between the different pools from ~100F to cold spring water. This park is great because it can entertain a wide range of ages from babies to grandparents.

Red wine spa pool linda bell hakoneTo buy tickets to the park proceed to the second floor of the building.  There are three main tickets you can buy, depending on what zones you want to visit. A ticket to the Yunessun Zone gives you entry to the swimsuit-wearing zone. Admission, here, is ¥2800 for adults and ¥1500 for children over 3 years old. A ticket to The Mori No Yu Spa Resort Zone gives entry to two separate nude areas for men and women, and admission here is adults ¥1800 and children over 3 years old ¥1200. A combo ticket can also be purchased which allows entry into both zones. This costs ¥4000 and ¥2000 for both adults and children respectively. I believe tickets for just the afternoon session can be purchased for 1pm til close, but check. Discounted tickets may be bought by using Google Translate at this web site A map of the park, in English, is available on the second floor, but you may need to approach a staff member in order to get one.

Greek Santorini Pool by linda bell hakoneEach ticket holder will be given a plastic bracelet which will act as a key to your locker and also allow you to purchase items at the various restaurants and vending machines. Once you pass the ticketed turnstile and take off your shoes, the locker rooms are basically down the hallway, to your right, on the same floor. The first number on your bracelet does NOT denote a particular floor for your changing room. I don’t believe there are any family changing rooms.

Roman Baths linda bell hakoneThe men’s and women’s locker rooms exit into the same area, the “Clock Square”.  There are a number of restaurant/fast-food places inside the park that range in price and variety. Tattoos are not allowed to be seen at the park. You may need to use sun block/swim tops as part of the park is outdoors. I would not recommend bringing a stroller as the park has many stairs and potentially crowded hallways, and swim diapers need to be accompanied with a swimsuit. In general, the pools aren’t very deep. Our three year old (100cm) was too small for only one of the pools.

When you’ve finished at the park, you leave through the same hallways that you entered, and pay off your bracelet’s amount at the park’s machines. We used cash, but according to the park’s website the reception takes credit cards.  We only visited the Yunessun portion of the park on a Sunday, in summer, and it was relatively crowded so I would suggest trying to go during the week to get the most out of your experience.

The Yunessun Zone opens at 9am, year round, and closes at 7pm from March-October. The rest of the time it closes at 6pm. The Mori No Yu Zone is, however, open from 11am-9pm throughout the year.  For more details about this destination, please visit their website:

Parking at Hakone Kowakien Yunessun park is ¥1000 for the day, but it might be free for the first two hours of your visit (this needs to be confirmed). Parking fees are paid to the automated machine on your way out of the parking lot. Large notes are not accepted e.g. ¥5,000. We arrived at the park after 10am, after we’d stayed the night in Hakone, and we got one of the last parking spots.  – Linda Bell, September 2013.

DIRECTIONS: The GPS coordinates to the entrance of the Park’s parking lot are 35.23916, 139.04460.

For more on Hakone check this separate entry: Hakone.


Sapporo Ice Festival

While stationed at Yokota AB one of the best things to do in the winter is to take a trip up to Sapporo for the annual Snow Festival, one of Japan’s largest winter events.  About two million people come to Sapporo to see a large number of massive snow statues and ice sculptures which line Odori Park, the grounds at Community Dome Tsudome, and the main street in Susukino.  For seven days in February, these sculptures turn Sapporo into a winter dreamland. Many of the ice sculptures are larger than houses and are really a sight to behold!
We took our two young children, ages 4 and 7 and they had a great time. They loved the giant ice slides! There was plenty for kids to do and see. We watched the extreme snow boarders jumping and enjoyed the ice skating rink.
It took us one full day to see all the sculptures. There are many other things to do while in Sapporo as well if you would like to stay a couple of days. Some other highlights in the area include the Sapporo Bier Garden for some great beer and BBQ, the chocolate factory, many museums, and “Ramen Alley,” for what people claim is the best ramen in the world. The area is also famous for their giant crab, sort of like Alaskan king crab. We had some for dinner one night and it was delicious.
Please note that they do not shovel the side walks or plow the roads there and the streets are very slippery. I definitely suggest snow boots with good traction to avoid falling. The festival is not at all stroller friendly though. I think a baby in a back or front carrier might be OK if they could be kept warm enough. The day we toured the festival it was in the 20’s and snowing hard!
Yokota ITT offeres two tours a year during the snow festival which are a great value. Their trips sell out quickly and usually go on sale the first of December. There were many people waiting in line that morning so book early if you would prefer their package deal. The Yokota Recreation Center also has a ski package to Sapporo which is usually a couple days before the festival but you still get to see many of them being built or even completed before the festival officially kicks off. Many people also book the trip by themselves. The flight up to Hokkaido, the northern island where Sapporo is located, only takes about 1 1/2 hours from Haneda Airport.  It was definitely a once in a lifetime experience! Very “cool” (pun intended)! – Kelly O’Donnell, February 2013


Just a short car ride away from Nagano, is Obuse, home to chestnuts, the famous Japanese artist Hokusai and many beautiful floral gardens. We visited during Thanksgiving weekend which coincided with their annual Fuji apple harvest and we were delighted to try the Japanese version of apple pie, chestnut ice cream, fresh roasted chestnuts, chestnut mochi and local sake. We visited the Hokusai Museum which costs ¥500 per adult, ¥300 kids. It contains many beautiful pieces of Hokusai artwork and the signs were in English. The gift shop has copies of his artwork that are reasonably priced and less expensive than the copies sold at the YCC lobby or at one of the bazaars.

Obuse is also home to several wineries, one of which is St Cousair. They offer free samples of their locally made wine, jams, spreads and cheeses. If you are interested in touring the winery, it is a 30 minute trip away in Iizuna. There you can find an upscale restaurant, acres of flowers, a chapel, the winery and its packaging/processing factory.

Overall, Obuse was a quaint little town perfect as a side trip to Nagano. It had just enough to do for an enjoyable afternoon. If you go, make sure you visit the Tourist Information office which doubles as a café.  They give free Fuji apples to good little boys and girls and the tourist representative/barista speaks English.  GPS coordinates to town center36.697535,138.311985.  – Anna S. November 2012.

Big Bear Chalets, Hakuba

Big Bear Chalets, located in Hakuba outside Nagano, is possibly the best cabin that we’ve stayed in.  It has all the amenities of a house plus private in-cabin onsen and it makes for a fun destination in itself.   We had so much fun at the cabin that we found it hard to leave. Our 2 bedroom cabin fit up to 6 adults comfortably and there’s plenty of space to squeeze the kids in.  Bedrooms have American sized full beds. Bring your own food and cook in the full sized kitchen minus an oven.  It is located walking distance to local eats (sweet, savory, or noodles – Mexican too) as well as a 7/11.  Staying here you can enjoy nature hikes, bike trails, and fishing pond.  In winter come for the skiing and walk from the chalet to the ski lifts.  Tip: Owner Darrin suggests that the best time for skiing is late March/early April.  At that time, there are fewer people, much less traffic and the cost of lodging is almost half the December – March price. The snow quality is much better as well.  During peak season (Dec-Mar), the snow is not optimal due to crowds. Hakuba become a popular ski spot after the winter Olympics took place here in 1998.  In winter it fills up with Australians and skiers from all over Asia.  The chalet is expensive, but priced for the unit, not by person.  Split the cost with another family or two to make for a more cost effective vacation.
Directions: GPS 36.705053 ,137.840202.  About a 4 hour drive, located in Hakuba. – Anna S., November 2012

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nikko by brookeA few hour trip from Yokota Air Base is one of Japan’s most famous shrines – National Park Nikko.  The park is home to the tomb of Tokogawa Ieyasu, the man who brought all of Japan’s famous samurai warriors under one ruler. But Nikko is much more than just another shrine.  National Park Nikko is a collection of temples, pagodas, gates and shrines, full of beautiful gilded statues, altars and painted ceilings.  When you enter the park, you should go to the ticket window at the entrance.  Your first stop will be Sanbutsu-do, the largest temple in the Nikko mountains.  Inside the temple you will see the statues of the Thousand handed Kwannon, the Amida Buddha and the Horseheaded Kwannon.  Enjoy the craftsmanship and sheer beauty of the statutes, but don’t expect to take a picture…photos inside the temples are not allowed.  As you exit the temple, you can buy a book full of pictures.

nikko by brooke 2There are more than 10 temples at National Park Nikko, so plan to spend a lot of time if you want to see them all.  After seeing a few of the temples, head up the mountain where you will see a giant torii – or gate.  As you go through the gate, you will see the gorgeous Five-Storied Pagoda.  The pagoda was originally built in 1650, but was destroyed by fire in 1815.  It was rebuilt four years later.  Just past the pagoda, you will see the sacred stables.  Inside is a beautiful white stallion, thought to be good luck to the Japanese.  Above the stable doors, you’ll see a series of wooden carvings.  If you look closely, you’ll see the famous “See no, Hear no, Speak no Evil” monkeys.  After climbing another couple of flights of stairs, you’ll go through the Yomeimon Gate, a giant structure covered in gold awnings and guard dogs.  The gate is also known as the “Sunset Gate” because it is said visitors do not grow tired of viewing the gate until dusk.  Inside this gate, turn to the right and you’ll see the entrance to Tokogawa’s tomb.  You can’t go in without paying a small fee.  But once inside, you will get to see the famous “Sleeping Cat,” and climb the 100 steps to the famous tomb.

photo 2But don’t spend all of your time at the National Park, because Nikko has so much more to offer.  If you drive, which I recommend, take the car past the park, and head up to what is known as the “Zig-Zag Highway.”  Before heading up the series of twists and turns, we saw a couple of wild monkeys standing on the side of the road.  Note of caution:  tourists are warned not to stop their cars to feed the monkeys, because they have been known to be violent.  The climb to the top of the mountain is sheer driving pleasure.  The road is a series of 25 or so switchbacks, with some curves being more than 180 degrees. Before you get to the top, watch for the ropeway where you can get a beautiful view of the lake and falls from above.  After navigating the roadway, you will find Lake Chuzenji, a
crystal-clear lake located at the top of the mountain.  There are a series of quaint shops and restaurants alongside the lake. Before heading down the mountain keep an eye out for the signs to Kegon Falls.  The falls are on the Ojiri River, which flows from Chuzenji.  More than 300 feet high, the falls are breathtaking…and loud. – Sam Amrhein, October 2001, photos by Brooke Smith, July 2013.

If you are going to stay the night, a lot of military people prefer to stay at the Turtle Inn Annex/HotoriAn (0288-53-3663, GPS I think… 36.750434, 139.592344 but can someone confirm? – Sarah), which comes complete with meals and an onsen.  If you go during the off-peak season, you may have the hotel to yourself!  We chose to stay just outside Nikko at the Woodsman’s Village, a collection of log cabins located on the other side of the mountain from the National Park.  The cabins are completely made of logs, but contain all the modern conveniences from a full kitchen and full bath.  No beds though, they provide futons.  The cabins vary in size, meaning it would be perfect for a couple, or an entire group.  The people who run the cabins speak English, so making reservations is easy. (I think that Woodsman Village GPS cooridnates are 36.669314,139.61393, but can someone confirm? – Sarah) – Sam Amrhein, October 2001; Cabin photo by Meg Martin, 2012.

Nikko by Brooke 4DIRECTIONS
We recommend you see the Yujo Center for directions & maps.  Take the Tohoku Expressway to the Utsunomiya Interchange, then follow the signs to the Nikko Toll Road, which will lead you to Nikko.  The tolls will cost about 5,000 yen each way.  You can get to the Tohoku either by going into Tokyo, or by turning right out the terminal gate and following Route 16 for about 30 km.  Be warned, Route 16 winds through several towns along the way, and the traffic can be heavy at times.  It took us about two hours to get to the Tohoku by traveling Route 16, and another hour or so to get to Nikko.  You can take a super-express train to Nikko as well. The line runs from Asakusa Station, and seats can be reserved in advance. GPS Coordinates for Shrines inside Nikko National Park: 36.757659,139.59893.  – Sam Amrhein, October 2001

We stayed at Woodsman’s Village.  In addition to what is written about it above I would add that it was a little difficult to find at night and the roads were narrow, but we thought it was well worth the effort. Our cabin was beautiful and great for 3 kids and 3 adults. Would stay there again. – Christina Bowman, October 2012

Magome and Tsumago: Stroll the Ancient Highway

The towns of Magome and Tsumago used to be typical waypoints on Nakasendo, the road between Tokyo and Kyoto during the 1600s and 1700s. Now they’re impossibly picturesque villages that look unchanged since the days of the shogun, with a scenic, peaceful trail running between them.  This was one of my favorite Japanese weekends away.
The trail is about 8 km long and should take about two hours to stroll. It is easy to follow with frequent signs in English. It meanders through forests and settlements and along rice paddies, crossing the road at several points.
It’s a little easier to start from Magome because it’s higher than Tsumago so you’ll have a net downhill.
Both villages have nice-looking ryokans that look ideal for spending the night. Guests pad around in their inn’s yukatas (cotton robes) and eat dinner in the humble dining room. These inns looked more rustic than posh, but a step up from hostels. You could also stay in an onsen (hot springs resort.) The real benefit of spending the night is that you get to enjoy the town in the evening and early morning, before the busloads of tourists show up.
I was quite taken with Tsumago. Magome, which seemed a bit more commercial looked intriguing, too, but I only enjoyed it for a few minutes in the morning before the hordes appeared. Both towns have parking lots. The lots in Magome were much larger but you have to pay to use them.
From March to November, the towns operate an inexpensive baggage-forwarding service. Drop your luggage at either town’s tourist information office in the morning and you can pick it up at the other end by 1pm. There’s also a shuttle bus that runs between the towns in the high season.
It takes at least four hours to drive from Yokota, so it can be done in a regular weekend, but it would be better to do this over a long American holiday weekend to avoid the crowds.
Tsumago’s tourist information center can help you book accommodation: Tel: 0264- 57-3123.  Magome’s information office (Tel: 0573-69-2336) might offer the same service, but it does not have an English website. You can always ask the helpful guys at the Yujo Center for assistance. The site Japanese Guest Houses lists a few inns in Tsumago and Magome. For more information about the towns, try here. GPS for free parking lot in Tsumago: 35.57658, 137.59447.
DIRECTIONS: The drive from Yokota to Tsumago is about 300km, nearly all of it on the Chuo Expressway. (See the map below.) At Lake Suwa, where the Chuo and Nagano Expressways meet, stay on the Chuo, which at Suwa takes a sharp turn to the southwest, toward Nagoya. Alternatively, if you don’t like expressways or you have more time, keep heading toward Nagano a couple of exits, to the Shojiri Interchange. Exit the expressway here and pick up 19, the Nakasendo Highway, which takes you through the Kiso Valley. The distance is about the same but the valley route is more scenic. Liz Ruskin, 2012.

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Hakone is a popular vacation getaway about one and a half hours outside of Tokyo. It is a beautiful little area nestled in the crater of a volcano. Just getting there is part of the fun. You take the Odakyu line from Shinjuku to Odawara, then transfer to a tiny railroad line called the Hakone Yumoto line that winds its way up the lower part of the volcano. As it gets higher, it has to reverse directions several times to switchback up the steeper areas.
Along the way, make sure you stop for a while at the Chokoku-no-mori station to visit the Hakone Open Air Museum. It is a beautiful art museum with most of its display dedicated to large sculptures that dot beautiful lawns. They also have a building dedicated to works by Picasso.

All photos by Kevin Green

After getting back on the Hakone Yumoto line, you go all the way to the end and then take a cable car that pulls you straight up a steep section of the slope. From here there is a beautiful view of the surrounding countryside. At the end of the cable car, you get on a ropeway that takes you over the crest of the mountain into the gigantic crater. Looking out the ropeway, you pass a section where they are drilling into the side of the mountain to prevent the pressure from building up and causing an explosion. Make sure you get off at the stop in the middle of the ropeway to see the “sulfurous vapor erupting area.” Here you can take a short nature walk and see the sulfur steaming from the ground, and natural hot springs from the volcano. You can eat eggs boiled in the hot water which the Japanese say will help you live longer. Along the nature trail there are signs in Japanese and English that tell you such things as “This area was once covered with tall trees, but now you can find only the species which have been able to survive such things as Volcanic eruption.” The ropeway will then take you the rest of the way into the crater to Lake Ashi, which you cross on large replicas of pirate ships.
Lake Ashi is a crater lake famous for its reflection of Mt. Fuji on clear, calm days. The boat takes you to Hanokemachi which is a historical area from the 1600’s, including the Hakone Checkpoint and a portion of an ancient highway that was lined with cedars to provide shade hundreds of years ago. By the time we get here we are pretty tired, so we catch a bus to the Fujiya Hotel in Miyanoshita to spend the night. It is a beautiful hotel established in 1878, making it the oldest western-style hotel in Japan. It has been visited by many famous people including Albert Einstein, Dwight Eisenhower, Margaret Thatcher, Hellen Keller, and many emperors of Japan. It is nestled among trees, and has a beautiful garden in back which is home to the only California Redwood tree in Japan. Inside the decor is beautiful, including many wood carvings. You can also bathe in the natural hot spring onsens. The next day, be sure to see some of the many other attractions in the area including the Hakone Ashinoyu Flower Center (a gigantic greenhouse with many types of flowers and other plants – indoors, so nice even in case of rain) and the Botanical Garden of the Wetlands.
On our way home the next day, we stopped at the Odawara Castle. The old castle town of Odawara serves as the main gateway to the Hakone district. About a 10-minute walk from Odawara Station is the reconstructed five-story donjon (central structure of the castle). It houses a museum of historical materials, ancient suits of armor and swords, folk arts & crafts, and special exhibits. The view of Sagami Bay from the fourth floor is excellent. Open 9am-4:30pm, admission is Y200 for adults, Y100 for children. The park surrounding the castle includes a playground and small zoo. Brian & Kristen Marriott, 2001.
DRIVING DIRECTIONS: Driving in these areas, especially on weekends or in the summer, can be very difficult. Traffic is extremely heavy and slow. To maximize your sightseeing time, it is well worth the effort to leave no later than 5am. To enter the Hakone district at Odawara, take Rt. 16 from Yokota south, until it joins Rt. 129. Just north of Atsugi, you will see elevated Rt. 246 and a sign for the Tomei Expressway. Turn right immediately after passing under elevated Rt. 246 – this leads to a ramp that puts you on 246. Go through Atsugi. Look for signs for Odawara/Atsugi toll road (this will be south of Atsugi). When you see the signs, it will be a right turn. You will drive parallel to the toll road for several kilometers before entering. Once you are on the toll road, you will pass through two tollbooths and pay Y350 at each. When the toll road ends, follow the signs to Rt. 1. At Miyanshita (about 7km), the road will divide. The hotel is at the fork on the left. The right fork of the road will lead to Gora. The left fork will lead to Lake Ashi, which you could visit before checking in at the hotel, since check-in is not until 2pm.

TRAIN DIRECTIONS: Take the Ome Line to Tachikawa. Change to the Chuo Line and go to Tokyo Station. You can take either the Shinkansen (“Kodama Train”, takes 42 minutes, runs every 20 minutes) or a regular train (Tokaido Line, takes 90 minutes, runs every 15 minutes) to Odawara Station. You can also reach the Hakone area from Shinjuku or Machida stations on the Odakyu Railway. Express trains run regularly to Odawara (takes 90 minutes), while the super-fast “Romance Car” runs only every 30 minutes (seat reservations required). Two different transportation companies, Hakone Tozan Railway and Izu Hakone Railway, offer discount tickets from which you can choose. These passes are convenient for multiple use of various modes of transportation after you reach the Hakone area and are valid for four days. The Hakone Free Pass allows you to use the Hakone Tozan Railway, bus, cable car, ropeway, the Odakyu highway bus (between Togendai and the Tomei Gotemba Expressway interchange) and the Hakone excursion boat on Lake Ashi as many times as you wish. These passes are sold at all Odakyu Railway stations and at the Hakone Tozan Information Center at Odawara Station (“Romance Car” ticket not included). Approximate prices from Odawara are Y3,500 for adults and Y1,750 for children (Y4,600 per adult from Shinjuku). Depending on the attraction, the pass includes 10% discounts for Gora Park, Hakone Museum, Chokoku-no-Mori (Hakone Open Air Museum), Hakone Checkpoint, Narikawa Art Forum, Hakone Arboretum, Owakudani Natural Science Museum, etc. A similar pass known as the Hakone-Wide Free Pass allows use of the Izu Hakone bus, cable car, ropeway, excursion bus, and includes discounts at various attractions. The pass is sold at travel agencies and the Izu Hakone Information Center at Odawara Station (for a little less than the other pass.) Cheryl Raggio, Margaret Summers.Lodging in Hakone Fujiya Hotel near the Miyanoshita

(Fujiya Hotel Garden, Sarah Straus, November 2011)

Station. They have a special foreigner’s rate of about $130 per night. All of their employees study English in the United States and making reservations by phone is easy. You can contact them at FUJIYA HOTEL 359 Miyanoshita, Hakone, Kanagawa Pref., Tel.0460-2-2211, Telex. 3892-718, Fax 0460-2-2215. E-mail/ Camp Fuji. Other people stay at Camp Fuji, a little further away, but less expensive ($25/day in 2001). They then drive into Hakone. The number for billeting is 265-5502. (Camp Fuji Operator is 265-5011)

For more information, see:

• For information on Odakyu Railroad, information, including Hakone Free Pass.  For the Japan National Tourist Organization’s “Practical Travel Guide” on Hakone. (Click on “Regional Tourist Guides” then “Practical Travel Guide”

Our Hakone Trip

Over Thanksgiving break my husband, 1 year old, 3 year old and I went to Hakone for two nights. It was fun for everyone and there is an amazing hotel there that has a foreigner rate of $133/night plus tax. There is hotel parking. The hotel is: Fujiya Hotel. You have to call to get the special rate, which is offered during the week, not weekends. It is an older hotel with big rooms and a beautiful garden in the back. There is a lot to do in Hakone. We most enjoyed the ropeway ride over the volcano and the Open Air Museum, which houses some fabulous kid friendly sculptures. I thought this webpage was helpful while planning what to do on the trip: It has a nice overview of the various attractions. We didn’t figure out how to buy the Hakone Free Pass, which allows one payment for two days of transport on all the Hakone trains, funicular, ropeway, pirate ship, and buses. Over Thanksgiving the hotel was not too busy and the fall colors were amazing! We’ll definitely go again. –Sarah S., 2012

Hakone Open Air Museum – kids can climb up into this sculpture and run around at the very center.  Sarah Straus, 2011.


Yamanashi Grapes

Yamanashi Prefecture is inviting anytime, but autumn is the best time to visit this scenic Japanese countryside. It’s only an hour and a half from the gates of Yokota. Known throughout Japan for its deliciously sweet purple grapes, Yamanashi Prefecture offers a ten mile drive along a stretch of Highway 20, from Katsunuma to Kofu, lined with what seems like endless vineyards. Travelers soon see the numerous stands set up to sell grapes. Select a stand and enjoy a generous taste-testing beneath a grape arbor. Customers are often invited to sit and enjoy some sweet tea. You can by grapes by the kilo or pick your own. Grape-picking equipment is usually provided. In the summer months, peaches are offered for sale along the roadside, but people are not permitted to pick their own peaches.
When you decide you’ve seen one too many grapes, continue along Highway 20, past Kofu to the southwest corner of Chichibu Tama National Park. On a clear day, Mt. Daibosatsu will appear as a beacon. Shosenkyo Gorge runs through forested slopes and dramatic rock formations. It is one of the most scenic river valleys in Japan. See separate entry.
DIRECTIONS: Exit from Fussa Gate and turn left on Route 16 South to Hachioji. At Hachioji, get on the Chuo Expressway.(Do not take the the Hachioji Bypass.) Once on the expressway two signs will appear; one for Shinjuku and the other for Nagoya. Take the road to Nagoya. Stay on the Chuo until Otsuki. (Toll: ¥1300.) Take the Otsuki exit and that will lead to Highway 20. Turn right and stay on Highway 20. The grapes will be straight ahead; no turns, no confusion.  To get to Shosenkyo Gorge, continue along Highway 20 as it passes through the outskirts of Kofu. Soon you’ll see signs for “Shosenkyo.” There are several. All will take you to the right, passing under the Chuo Expressway, to a winding road called Shosenkyo Line. It’ll take you right to the gorge parking lot. Fee: ¥1000. GPS for Shosenkyo Gorge parking: 35.72617,138.54987.  – Pam Watson. Directions verified and modified by Liz Ruskin Sept. 2011


Matsumoto Castle & Takayama (Nagano & Gifu)

motsumoto castle kelly odonnell Matsumoto castle in Nagano was built more than 400 years ago and is one of the most unique castles I have ever seen. It was designed to be nearly all black to help keep it safe from enemies at night. It is sometimes referred to as the “Crow Castle.” It is surrounded by a traditional mote and beautiful grounds. It is listed as a National Treasures of Japan. You can tour the inside of the castle. There are six floors and many national treasurers are displayed in cases inside.  Beware however, the “stairs” are very steep and slippery, some are more like ladders. I wouldn’t recommend it for toddlers or older folks who may have difficulty climbing. It certainly is not stroller friendly. You also have to remove your shoes before entering the castle. We visited in November and the floors inside were very cold so make sure you have socks! English brochures and tour guides are available. After touring the castle we walked to some nearby shrines and walked along the river where there were lots of antique and souvenir shops. Admission cost 600¥ per adult, children are 300¥. The only days they are closed are December 29 – January 3rd.

motsumoto kelly odonnellDriving time from Yokota was approximately 2 1/2 hours. It is in the city of Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture.  GPS coordinates to parking lot for Matsumoto castle, which was a two block walk from the castle. 36.235216, 137.969180 – updated post and photos by Kelly O’Donnell, November 2013

Matsumoto Castle, about 200km west of Yokota, is sure to be a hit with kids. It was built in the 1500s, and still has many tiny windows intended for firing arrows and early firearms. A gun museum is on the second floor. Visitors can climb up into the tower and have a lovely view of the moat and the city. The tourism bureau there is very active. On the castle grounds we found volunteer guides ready to give tours in English. Costumed “samurai” with long guns prowl the grounds, eager to have their picture taken with tourists. The day we were there, in July 2011, it was over 100•F, and there was a booth on the grounds giving out free snow cones! The city’s historic district lies along the river, and there were some intriguing antique/junk shops.
Another fascinating place to visit is a 10-minute walk from the castle: The Old Kaichi School (Kyu Kaichi Gakko 旧開智学校)
We then drove into the mountains, where it was lovely and cool and spent the night. We stayed in our camper, but we noticed several campsites and onsens with rooms and cabins.  Liz Ruskin, 2011

Wasabi Farm tour (Daio Wasabi Farm) is one of the biggest distributors of wasabi in Japan.  The grounds are picturesque and touring the farm is free.  We enjoyed a clear bottom boat ride, seeing how wasabi is picked and processed, and tasting all the wasabi treats – including wasabi ice cream and wasabi beer.  Parking was free and easy.  It is located just north of Matsumoto on highway 147.   Anna Quan-Schmoldt, 2012

We went to Takayama, a picturesque city (aka Hida Takayama) where the streets are lined with old wooden houses and shops. A dozen or more have been turned into small history and craft museums. We also visited Hida Folk Village, just outside of Takayama. I thought it was going to be an icky tourist trap. Boy, was I wrong. It’s a nicely landscaped park where about 20 old thatch-roofed farmhouses from the region have been moved for preservation. As you walk through them, you learn not only about the buildings but about the life and history of the area. In some, traditional crafts are on display. Be sure not to miss the silkworm house! Takayama also has two well-regarded morning markets featuring produce from surrounding farms. Liz Ruskin, 2011

Also see the post on Kamicochi – the Yosemite of Japan.

Northstar Lodge is a great place to stay in the Matsumoto area, with lots of recreational opportunity and nearby onsen.  – Theresa O, 2011

If you are going to Matsumoto Castle, consider staying at Kurobe View Hotel located 40 kilometers north of Matsumoto in the town Omachi.  Omachi is a mountain town in the Northern Japanese Alps, Nagano Prefecture.  The hotel has wonderful hot springs on site which are divided into his and hers. We enjoyed the Japanese breakfast and dinner that are included in the price.  It is located across from an apple orchard and there are apple festivals in August and September.  With Japanese-style rooms, the place was child-friendly and accommodating for our family of five – with a futon for each of us, all in the same room.  There is a cute downtown, walking distance from the hotel.  In town, we saw an entire troop of snow monkeys come out of the woods, which I understood was a fairly common occurrence.  For more things to do in Omachi, like seeing the highest damn in Japan and taking a ropeway through the mountains, check the Official Travel Guide of Japan entry for Omachi. Leaving Omachi, on 45 toward Hakuba, we found a fabulous place to eat Belgian waffles and ice cream in a log cabin chalet that looked like it came straight from the Swiss Alps.  I was impressed with the French press coffee. Yum.  Anna Quan-Schmoldt, 2012

DIRECTIONS: It’s a straight-forward drive to Matsumoto, taking the Chuo Expressway & Nagano Expressway. Plot a course on Googlemaps or talk to the folks at the Yujo to get their map on finding the Chuo entrance. Alternatively, you could take the train. There’s even an semi-express train from Tachikawa, but it only leaves a few times a day.

Tip: Rent a van from Vehicle Operations for this trip because toll prices are expensive.  Anna Quan-Schmoldt, 2012

Helpful websites

Matsumoto Castle

The Old Kaichi School (Kyu Kaichi Gakko 旧開智学校)

Takayama guide

Takayama museums

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