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Japan Hour

Road Trip to Shinshu (Part 1)

A farmer’s club which sells a popular nozawana speciality, a temple known for its Somin Shorai lucky charms made of poplar wood and a sacred log used during a famous festival are featured this week.

This week, we embark on a unique stopover local train journey in Nagano Prefecture. We will travel on four local railway lines, starting from Shinano Railway Line’s Karuizawa Station and ending at Nagano Line’s Yudanaka Station. The two-day journey will span 60 stations, covering a total distance of 100km. 

We will be given “travel funds” at each station and the amount is determined by the number of station users. If we succeed in visiting famous places recommended by the locals, we will receive the travel funds linked to that particular station. However, if we do not manage to find a famous spot or a speciality recommended by a local, the money allocated for that station will be confiscated. 

Stations with fewer people will command larger sums of money but this also means that it will be more difficult to find famous spots and products. The lowest payout amount for stations is 1,000 yen, while the highest is 50,000 yen. Our goal is to collect 77,760 yen by the time we reach Yudanaka Station at the end of the second day. If we succeed in our task, we will get to indulge in high-grade Nagano cuisine at a luxurious hot spring inn.

We begin our adventure by getting on the 8.15am train at Karuizawa Station and travelling towards Komoro. We decide to alight at Hirahara first, which has a payout of 20,000 yen. Compared to Karuizawa Station's daily traffic of 10,000 people, this unmanned station only sees 185 users per day. The station building was previously a car of what used to be a freight train. We manage to find someone to talk to and he tells us to go to Maruyama Coffee, where Japan’s best barista works. 

On the way to the coffee place, we pass by a farmer's club called Yoshimitsu. Its most popular item features Nagano Prefecture’s speciality, nozawana. It is made from mixing nozawana and kelp. This store is the only one selling it and has been doing so for 20 years. More than 100,000 containers of the product are sold every year and it has thus become a popular souvenir from Karuizawa. 

We then walk to Maruyama Coffee and look for famous barista Kamiyama. He is well-known for his hand-dripped coffee and latte art. He has even won prizes at international competitions. Unfortunately, he is away on a business trip on this day. 

We then catch the 10.25am train at Hirahara and head to Komoro Station. We later transfer to a train going towards Nagano Station. A passenger on the train tells us there is an old state-supported provincial temple near Shinano-Kokubunji Station. So, we alight at the “3,000-yen” station and have an hour till the next train at 11.55am. 

The Kokubun Temple is a five-minute walk from the station. It was built during the Nara period. During that time, Ueda was considered Shinano's centre so Shinano State's provincial temple was placed here. Every January, a temple festival is held here and it attracts more than 50,000 people. They come here in search of Somin Shorai. Made from poplar wood, it is only sold at this temple. Just like Daruma dolls, the Somin Shorai is an amulet to ward off evil. We get to meet the person who makes these talismans for Kokubun Temple and see how the unique pointed hexagon is shaped using a rare all-purpose machine. Mr Yamakoshi, who is 84 years old, has 60 years of craftsmanship and he makes 500 of the Somin Shorai each year. These unique lucky charms have been designated as the country's intangible folk culture asset.  

We return to the Shinano-Kokubunji Station and take the train to Ueda Station. From here, we transfer to Ueda Electric Railway’s Bessho Line, which stretches towards the Chikuma mountain district. We take the 12pm train and alight at Miyoshicho Station, which offers a payout of 30,000 yen. However, we are unable to get any leads here so have to forfeit the travel fund. 

We hop on the next train, which departs at12.35pm from Miyoshicho. A passenger recommends we alight at Nakashioda and take a shuttle bus which goes around famous places in the area. One of the spots is Mugonkan, where there is an exhibition of a famous painter. We then head to Nakashioda, which commands a travel fund of 30,000 yen, and start looking for the bus stop to take the shuttle bus. Unfortunately, we end up walking in the wrong direction so we head back to Nakashioda Station. 

A local we meet tells us to check out the Ikushima Tarushima Shrine. It is associated with the second-largest Onbashira Festival after the one at Suwa Taisha Grand Shrine. The Ikushima Tarushima Shrine is known to have a deep connection with the Sanada Family and Takeda Shingen. During the Onbashira Festival, which is held every seven years, a gigantic tree weighing more than three tonnes is cut down and the sacred log is offered to a shrine five kilometres away. This traditional event takes place in the Shinano district and attracts more than 2,000 participants and 30,000 people.

There is a soba restaurant next to the shrine. The chef makes fresh soba from local buckwheat flour every morning. We plan to have lunch here and later take a taxi to Mugonkan.  


1)    Meet Japan’s best barista at Maruyama Coffee near Karuizawa Station
2)    The Kokubun Temple is famous for its unique Somin Shorai lucky charms


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