Komagane City is home to Yomeishu, the medicinal liqueur. This herbal tonic is made from 14 natural medicinal ingredients, many of which are found here at the base of the Central Japanese Alps. In fact, the plant's grounds cover over 360,000m2 of which 70% are natural forest.
Factory tours start by driving to the plant's entrance gate, where guests are directed to the visitors parking lot. A short walk takes you to the main entrance building and its elegant lobby. Walk up the stairs where a greeter takes your name and address, and guides you to the theater room for a 10 minute video presentation (with English subtitles) about the history and manufacturing process of Yomeishu. After that, the guide takes visitors across to the bottling plant where you can see the automated bottling and packing lines. (Explanatory signs in English.) The tour finishes with a sampling of Yomeishu (except for designated drivers -- they get a bottle of mineral water that also comes from the plant.)
The tour in and of itself is worthwhile, but that is not all. There are 4 nature walks to enjoy the forested grounds, a restored sake storehouse that serves as a museum (which holds classes on natural herbs and medicinal Chinese cooking) and cafe, and 3 restored prehistoric dwellings representing artifacts found on the site from 3 separate ancient eras: the Jomon, Yayoi and Heian periods.
A factory tour of the Yomeishu Komagane Plant will give you a deeper understanding of Nagano's rich natural environment and its connection to the people here from times past to the present.
As part of the Unique Nagano project to introduce Nagano's unique activities and cultural experiences to the world, I took a tour of the Komagane Silk Museum.
Japan's historical silk road originated here in Komagane and the Ina Valley and extended to Yokohama Port where the silk was exported to the world. The Komagane Silk Museum not only describes that history, but that of the the role of silk throughout the world as well as throughout the ages. It is a working museum, with a research lab where silkworms are actually grown for their cocoons. It boasts a full workshop where visitors can do everything from making cocoon-based crafts to dyeing silk fabric or weaving a silk tapestry at a real loom.
To be honest, at first I was dubious about the Komagane Silk Museum, with its location far from public transport and some of the crafts struck me as being a bit childish. However, the curator, Seki-san, very kindly gave me a tour of the museum and workshop, leaving me amazed at how fascinating the history and complexity of how silk is made and used. Curious about how many cocoons it takes to make a kimono? See the glass cannister filled with cocoons. Want to know where the indigo dye for the silk dyeing comes from? There are indigo plants right outside of the workshop. Ever seen a real-life silkworm? Check out the lab where you can see the larvae munching away at mulberry leaves. (By the way, cocoons used in the workshop are grown in the museum's lab, and the indigo dye is hand-made on-site from the indigo plants growin in the museum's garden.)
Yajima-san, the workshop attendant, sat me down to make a tanuki raccoon dog out of cocoons. It turned out to be a very educational experience getting to work with real silk cocoons with my very own hands, feeling and getting accustomed to their physical properties. Then Yajima-san pointed out some of the intricate silk craftwork on display, everything from silk flowers to samurai dolls made from cocoons. Obviously, working with silk for crafts is not just for children!
There is very little English explanation at the museum other than a brief description reproduced (with editing by me) below. But the workshop activities are all hands-on enough that verbal explanation wouldn't be necessary.
The facility's location is in a hard-to-find spot quite far from the nearest train station, Komagane on the JR Iida Line. It's 10 minutes by taxi, and I do recommend taxi as the driver would likely be able to navigate the backcountry roads to get to the museum with no problem. The taxi fare would be approx. 2000 yen, well worth it for the indepth silk experience the Komagane Silk Museum provides.
KOMAGANE SILK MUSEUM
A working museum featuring a wide range of sericulture activities from silk-reeling history to the latest silkworm research.
1F EXHIBITION ROOM
*Restored Seri Culturist's Farm House (dates back to 1920-1940)
*History of Silk
Explains the origin of sericulture and fabric making in China from 420-479AC, as well as silk making developments in Japan during the Edo era. Includes ukiyoe woodblock prints circa 1600 depicting various scenes of silk making.
*Japanese Silk Manufacturers Trademark Emblems
From the era when Japan was the world's largest silk exporter.
*Sericulture in Developing Countries (Nepal, India, Brazil, China, etc.)
Maps and videos of the history of the Silk Road across Asia, as well as Japan's own silk road from the Ina Valley to the port of Yokohama.
*Sericulture at the Imperial Household
Her Majesty the Empress Michiko working with silk making.
*History of Local Silk Manufacturing Unions
The Ryusuisha and Kamiinasha silk reeling unions, with actual automatic silk reeling machines, seriplan testing utensils, etc.)
*Silk Making Equipment
Various tools and utensils used in the silk making process.
*Characteristics of Silk
Explanation about the properties and structure of silk as well as its use in clothes (e.g. silk stockings).
*Uses of Silk
Domestic silk products, "Ina Tsumugi" - the local style of silk weaving, silk used in traditional clothing from around the world, etc.
*Alternative Uses of Silk
Handmade cocoon dolls, artificial flowers and more.
Visual aids to explain the incredible growth stages (30-times the original size!) of the silk worm. Includes a rotating model of the silkworm's inner structure, microscopic views of silkworm tissues, and cocoon samples from different varieties of silkworms.
*Silkworm Growing Lab
Actual silkworms being raised for study and cocoon making.
Video presentations on the lifecycle of silkworms as well as the biotechnology and uses of silk.
*Special Exhibit Room
Silk-related special exhibits are held throughout the year. Since the opening of the museum, several dozens of exhibits have been held over the years, with reference books issued in conjunction with the exhibitions.
Visitors can try their hand at a variety of silk-related activities, including:
Activities can be enjoyed by children as well as adults. They can take anywhere from 30 minutes for making a small doll out of cocoons or weaving a drink coaster, to thorough lessons on more elaborate silk creations.
2F SHOPS & RESTAURANTS
Farmers Market, Museum Shop, All-you-can-eat lunch buffet restaurant "NANA-chan".
The famous moon-reflecting terraced rice fields of Obasute, a short 10 minute drive from Kamesei Ryokan and our onsen town, Togura-Kamiyamada. Harvest is set to start in a couple of weeks.
Golden waves of grain -- a quintessential landscape of the Japanese countryside.
For this "Azumino Series" of suggested places to see, I would be remiss if I didn't add a spot to get your 3-o'clock snack. So here it is:
Kita Arupusu Bokujyou, err, the Northern Alps Ranch.
Not much of a ranch per se, but their handmade softserve ice cream is some of the best I've ever had.
I had it topped with blueberries, and my buddy tried the soy sauce topping. (I took a taste, too, and suggest sticking with the blueberry one.)
The Azumino Art Line is comprised of 18 art museums. Probably the most notable are the Azumino Chihiro Art Museum featuring works by childrens book artist Chihiro Iwasaki, the Rokuzan Art Museum of sculptures, and Azumino Art Hills Museum of glass art, which our family visited on our recent trip to Azumino.
All 18 museums, but especially these 3, share a common bond: not only do they display beautiful works of art, but their buildings and gardens are an awe-inspiring complement to the majestic Japanese Alps and the bucolic Azumino countryside.
The Azumino Art Hills Museum pays wonderful tribute to the glass art of Scandinavia, France's modern 'pop' art, Japan (especially the young generation of glass artists here in Nagano) and more. And they offer an extensive variety of hands-on (and lips-on) glass making and blowing lessons. But on top of that, outside the museum is an amazing combination of glass art and nature. Visitors are greeted by an almost mystical sound coming from glass windchimes hanging from the trees at the entrance. The pond and wildflower garden on the north side causes you to look closer to discern which flowers are real and which are made of glass.
Having such an extensive glass museum here in the Nagano countryside (or perhaps, it's because it is the Nagano countryside) is such an exhilerating feeling!
Just north of Matsumoto City is one of Nagano Prefecture's more popular sightseeing destinations: Azumino. It's always had a plethora of visitors coming to the Daio Wasabi Farm and to see the various museums along the Azumino Art Line. But last year's NHK Morning 'Drama' "O-Hisama" propelled Azumino into the nation's conscience. Now the area is so popular, even the local expressway interchange has been renamed "Azumino IC".
Our family recently went for drive to Azumino and I'll post about a few of the places we went to in the hopes it will make you readers want to go and enjoy Azumino, too.
First off, food, as all good trips should do. Azumino has a reputation for yummy soba noodles, but we ended up having a heck of a time finding a noodle shop. A combination of hitting shops on their day off, and shops permanently being 'off', it took us 4 tries to finally find:
Hidden on a side street off the main thoroughfares, Jonen is situated in the house and grounds of an Edo-era wealthy farmer. So you can enjoy a view of the formal Japanese garden as well as the interior decorated with a variety of antiques as you have some of Nagano's finest soba.
Note: Kamesei's junior proprietress' recommendation: the tempura soba set.
A quick 10 minute drive from Togura-Kamiyamada Onsen, the Obasute "Tagoto no Tsuki" terraced rice fields are a beautiful sight to see. Their name refers to how the terraced slope is situated in just such a way that when the moon comes up, it reflects in each individual rice field.
The rice fields offer distinct scenery depending on the seasons:
Deep green of the rice fronds in the summer,
Golden yellow of the rice ready for harvest in the fall, and the scenes of the cut rice set out for drying.
Patterns of snow over the barren fields in the winter.
And, of course, the mirror-like surface of the fields flooded in springtime for planting.
But what some people may not realize is the fields also offer a variety of scenery throughout the day.
During the middle of the day, the waves of rice grains blowing in the wind with the Zenkoji Plain stretching out below and the 5 Northern Nagano Peaks in the distance,
At dusk, the golden rays of sunlight streaming from over the shoulder of the terraces, lighting up the rice plants from the side.
At night, the inky darkness of the rice fields in contrast with the lights of the Zenkoji Plain down below,
And in the morning, the sun raising up over the mountains across the Chikuma River bathing the terraces in the early morning light.
This morning, I woke up early and went for a bike ride with our oldest son and a guest who stayed at our inn after competing in the nationally famous Norikura Road Race. We set out along the Chikuma River Cycling Road
before heading up to cycle through the Obasute rice fields. It was an envigorating 19-km ride.
September has come along. Here in Kamiyamada, that means grape season!
I took our daughter Misaki to Nakajima Orchard to pick some grapes for our guests. This month, Kamesei Ryokan's dessert at dinner time is a plate of 3 varieties (3 colors) of fresh-picked grapes.
If you go grape picking, the experience gives you insights into a world you otherwise wouldn't know, such as:
How many varieties of grapes there are,
How farmers in Japan use to grow them,
The extensive techniques used to keep animals away,
How much labor the farmers here apply to growing the grapes,
How much cleaner the air is in a grape orchard
Come and experience grape picking yourself, here in Kamiyamada. I would be happy to take you to an orchard!
In the world of Japanese cuisine, there is something called 'kanroni', which is basically river fish that has been stewed in a sweet marinating sauce. Not exactly sexy, it's still a pretty basic staple of Japanese cuisine.
So one would expect that a kanroni shop would be pretty basic and not-sexy, too, right?
Wrong! Welcome to Togura Kamiyamada Onsen's kanroni specialty shop, Shimaya!
Takahashi-san, the tall (perhaps 2nd tallest person in town after me) 3rd-generation owner of Shimaya is not only big in height, but in heart, too. He is serious about kanroni, and one of their specialties is "Uruka", a seasoning made from the river fish innards. It is a rare specialty. According to Takahashi-san, "People who know it, know it, and we get orders from far and wide. The problem is, not many people know it."
His shop shows a love of the Chikuma River's fishing roots as well as our onsen town's history, with wooden boats and paper models of our town's first bathhouse "Kame no Yu" displayed along with a variety of other interesting decorations.
...or so I thought. "That's just an old boat I found -- it's not even a fishing boat. And that's not really Kame no Yu -- I just wrote it on a model of an anonymous building."
Everywhere your eyes go, they come across some funky decoration. But one thing that is not a joke is the delicious taste of Takahashi-san's kanroni