Since the winter in Nagano was pretty mind blowing, we figured we had to come back and visit again during a different season to see what else the prefecture had to offer. Japan as a whole is known for both its beautiful spring and its picture perfect fall. The weather is fresh, crisp, and begs you to be outside 24/7 to soak it all up. Being a family that never lets a long weekend go to waste, we picked Memorial Day to escape to Nagano and dive into some history, hiking, onsen soaking, and shrine exploring (oh, and ninja training! Obviously.)

[ D A Y • 1 ] Zushi → Matsushiro Castle Ruins → St. Cousair Winery → Lake Nojiri

We left the house mid-morning (although we had stated the night before we were going to get a reeaallllly early start) and headed to Matsushiro Castle Ruins. This stop was a great stretch break, however there wasn’t a ton to see (hence the whole “ruins” thing, I suppose). I originally penciled in a bit more time to explore here (more than we really needed), so we were able to make up for a portion of the time we lost in the morning. After letting the kids walk around a bit, we piled back into the car and drove to St. Cousair Winery (~35min away from the castle ruins). This spot is a perfect place to kick back a bit and enjoy some breathtaking scenery. Annually, the winery produces a combined ~250,000 bottles of wine and cider mostly from fruit grown in Japan.  I sampled a few wines (I most liked the Zion 2017) and Dom and the kids had gelato.

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Japan has very strict drinking and driving laws, so usually when we stop at vineyards or breweries we try to take the train so we can both partake in adult beverages. However, since that wasn’t possible, Dom sat this one out. Like many places in Japan, the winery closed early and then it was just ~15-20min to reach our hotel for the weekend, DearCards Resort. Honestly, this hotel was not the one I originally booked, however, due to a glitch in the original hotel’s system we ended up booking a stay at DearCards. Ted, the American owner went above and beyond making our stay so enjoyable and gave us so many tips that we wrote a review on Booking.com (something Dom and I don’t typically do, but probably should).

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Matsushiro Castle Ruins:

  • Hours: 0900 – 1700
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free

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St. Cousair Winery:

  • Hours: 0900-1700
  • Admission: Free tours at 1100, 1330, and 1500 (~20min in length), tastings free as well
  • Parking: Free

St. Cousair Winery Tip: There is also a restaurant next to the chapel on the winery grounds that specializes in European fare that is a bit more expensive. Reservations are highly suggested. Interested in eating, but desiring to forgo the heavier price tag? Check out the Delicatessen, a more casual experience located right next to the garden and archway entrance. This dining option is open daily from 1000 – 1600, well, except for Wednesdays during the winter season.

[ D A Y • 2 ] Lake Nojiri: Uga Shrine, Mt. Iizuna, Naena Waterfall

While checking in at the Resort we opted to add breakfast to our stay (800yen/adult). The breakfast room at DearCards is located in a room with large windows overlooking Lake Nojiri which is well-known due to the discovery of fossils of the Naumann Elephants (giant elephants which became extinct ~15,000 years ago). Post breakfast, we took one of the Resort’s row boats out (free) for a short ~10min row to Uga Shrine on Bentenjima Island.

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On this island, the grave of a samurai named Usami Sadamitsu can be found. After a bit of exploring (and roly poly collecting) we hopped back in the row boat and headed for the hotel. We arrived back at the resort’s dock mid-day and hopped into the car to drive to Mt. Iizuna in Myoko-Togakushi Renzan National Park (~35min travel time). If you plan on doing this hike may I suggest stopping at 7-11 (or any convenience store really) and picking up some snacks for the trip? The climb isn’t crazy, but at 1,917m it will take a family with kids in tow ~2hrs up and ~1hr 30min down (going at a pretty good clip). Full disclosure, the hike has some sections that are somewhat technical and our 4-year-old could not have completed this in its entirety on his own. If you are taking young kids have carriers ready for when they get too tired or their little legs need some assistance with navigating the terrain. We purchased our Deuter a few years back and it’s seen more mileage than we ever thought that it would (including a trip to the Macy*s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2015). We did a lot of research on different carriers, and finally decided on the Dueter Kid Comfort 3 carrier. Granted, Miles lost the little teddy bear that comes with it on the first hike, but besides that it has been awesome. He loves it and we have found it gets used much more than expected.

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After the conclusion of the hike, we drove to Naena Waterfall aka “earthquake waterfall” aptly named for the sound of the pounding water as it quickly flows down a 55meter cliff into the Seki River. The large sum of water sounds throughout the surrounding woods hence the nickname, “earthquake waterfall.”

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Mt Iizuna:

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Naena Waterfall:

  • Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free

[ D A Y • 3 ] Tsubame Onsen, Ninja Village, Togakushi Hokosha → Zushi

We left early the next morning to drive out to Tsubame Onsen to enjoy an outdoor natural hot spring. I am not incredibly comfortable (yet) with going to a public onsen here in Japan as 1.) you have to be completely naked to enjoy and 2.) the traditional size towel you are supposed to use is itty bitty. But one really can’t leave Japan without taking part in this tradition, so when Ted gave us some insight into one that wasn’t super popular we figured if we got there early enough there would be a chance we would have the hot spring to ourselves – and we were right! **Wheew** Less anxiety = better experience!

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We spent some time relaxing in the waters and then drove back to DearCards for breakfast before checking out of the hotel and waving goodbye to Ted and thanking him again for sharing information about the outdoor onsen with us! 25min down the road we arrived at the Ninja Village where we pretended we were ninjas performing tricks and escaping the trick house (a great stop if you have high energy kids!). Miles had the best time here and his smile makes me so excited to eventually check the one out in Tokyo that I have heard/read wonderful things about!

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We made the obvious choice and indulged in ice-cream at a shop across the street from the village (try the Kumazasa (bamboo grass) and Soba Tea flavors!) and then piled back in the car to drive to Togakushi Hokosha Lower Shrine (there are three shrines in this series with this being the last one).

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***I had originally thought we were maximizing our time by doing this, but I later learned there was a better way, so learn from my planning mistake! To maximize efficiency, park at The Ninja Park and then visit the Ninja Park and the Upper Shrine (can walk there from the ninja park parking lot). After visiting the Upper Shrine, walk back to the ninja park parking lot and drive to the Middle Shrine (visit the Shrine and park for free here) and then drive to the Lower Shrine (visit the Shrine and park for free here as well). The prettiest part of the walk from the Middle Shrine to the Upper Shrine is the avenue of Japanese Cedar trees which you get to experience if you begin walking from the ninja park parking lot. Doing it this way you still maximize the prettiest parts, see all the shrines, and have a bit of extra time to see something else or get on the road earlier. ***

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After touring the Lower Shrine (in my opinion this was the prettiest of the three shrines); we drove to the middle shrine (Chusha Shrine) and parked here for free. After the middle shrine we then hiked to the Upper Shrine (this hike is ~2miles each way, so plan accordingly). Once we finished visiting all three shrines we walked back to the car. Miles’ little legs were tired and neither kid had a nap, so we stopped at 7-11 (you’ll soon realize if you haven’t already that convenience stores in Japan 1.) are super convenient and 2.) have delicious (yet inexpensive) Japanese food) for dinner.

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Kids slept roughly 80% of the way home and Dom and I had an opportunity to reflect on the weekend. I would absolutely love to come back to Nagano (again…and again…), but there is just too much to see in Japan.

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Tsubame Onsen:

  • Hours: 24/7
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Park in the lot at the bottom of the hill
  • Directions: Walk up steep path to the Little Shrine; continue to follow the path to the left of the shrine (very steep!); onsen will be on your right

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Ninja Village:

  • Hours: 0900 – 1700 (Entrance until 1630)
  • Admission: 600yen/Adult, 400yen/Children (elementary & high school only), Free/Children under Elementary age
  • Parking: 600yen

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Togakushi Hokosha:

  • Hours: Always Open
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free

Directions from Middle Shrine to Upper Shrine: Look for the signs for Okusha Shrine from the Middle Shrine and follow them. The beginning of the walk is easy. You will cross a road and continue strolling. Later the trail will cross at Zuijinmon Gate and the Japanese cedar trees begin to come into sight. From this point it will be another ~20min until you meet up with the Upper Shrine.

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