Friday, June 14, 2019

Driving Our Way from Tokyo to Nagano with Nissan Rent-a-Car: the Nakasendo Route's Naraijuku, Wasabi, and Sakura!

This spring, Nissan Rent-a-Car took us on a tour of Nagano!

Thinking of Japan in the spring, what kind of scenery crosses your mind? Flowers coming into bloom? Cherry blossoms showering passers-by with pink petals?

Nissan Rent-a-Car x JAPANKURU
Nagano・Spring Tour

This time around, the JAPANKURU team grabbed a Nissan rent-a-car in Tokyo, and drove east into the mountains, towards the prefecture of Nagano.
The trip showed us the full palette of Japan's spring colors, with the green of tree covered foothills, the brilliant white of snow-capped mountains, the bright blue of the warm sky, and the flush of spring sakura.

Grab a paintbrush, and let us show you where we went!

Before You Leave, Confirm Your Rent-a-Car Details

Nissan Rent-a-Car Tokyo Station Yaesuguchi Branch   ―   Traveling to Nagano in a Nissan Rent-a-Car!

◆ For everyone who wants to go on a trip like this, remember! In Japan you'll have to drive on the left side of the road! (Learn more about why!) For some of you that might sound just fine, and you're all ready to start scheduling your trip, but if you're used to driving on the right side, you should probably keep it in mind before going full steam ahead on the roads of Japan. Once your itinerary is all set and you're feeling confident about driving on the correct side, you just have a few things to get ready before you can tear on ahead, rent your car, and go!

◆ For reservations:
     □ Ready your passport.
     □ Obtain an international driver's license. (More details on international permits, for Americans, and some information from Nissan.)
     □ Learn about what ETC (electronic toll collection) cards are for, and how to use them with Nissan Rent-a-Car.
     □ Check in at the rental counter, and confirm your vehicle rental!

◆ Renting a car on site:
     □ Find the perfect rental in their garage.
     □ Pay with cash or credit card.

Our trip began in Tokyo, so the JAPANKURU team decided to use the Nissan Rent-a-Car Tokyo Station Yaesuguchi Branch. It's a quick trip from Tokyo Station's Yaesu Exit, just a 3 to 5 minute walk. If you've got some heavy bags, it's definitely a convenient location! No matter where you start your journey, though, Nissan Rent-a-Car's website has detailed information on each one of their branches, and what services are offered. You can see from the Tokyo Station Yaesuguchi Branch page that they have ETC card rental available.

Tokyo Station Yaesuguchi Branch
Address: 2-5-4 Yaesu, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Hours: 24/7
Phone: 03-3274-4501
Branch Info
Online Reservations

It's Time to Go! Our First Stop? The Fuji Shiba-sakura Festival

This floral celebration isn't quite in Nagano yet, but it was on the way, so we couldn't miss the chance to stop by Yamanashi.

Anyone who's spent time in Japan during the spring season knows how ubiquitous cherry blossom trees are in the country. If you've spent a lot of time in Japan, you might also know that in Japanese the cherry blossoms are called sakura (桜), but did you know that sometimes sakura can be used to refer to another kind of flower, too? In English we might call this other flower moss-phlox, but in Japanese it's "shiba-sakura" (芝桜), and it's more of a rare find than it's taller cherry cousin. That's why travelers flock to this festival each spring, to see the pink flowers carpet the ground just like cherry blossom branches spread overhead.

The Fuji Shiba-sakura Festival takes place in the shadow of Mt. Fuji, a couple hours from Tokyo by car, and it's the largest shiba-sakura festival in the Kanto region. With the famous mountain creating an extremely scenic backdrop, the flowers bloom all across the broad fields of the garden. Every snapshot looks like a painting!

Once you're done wandering the paths to see the shiba-sakura up close, find the Sakura Cafe Fujiyama Sweets to take a break in the seating area, where you can still admire the view. From the cafe you can get some great photos of you, the flowers, and Mt. Fuji all together. While you're there, it's a perfect time to try some special cherry blossom and local fruit-themed desserts, which are all limited-time-only.

This ice cream treat (left) comes with cute sakura decoration, with a base of gelato made with local grapes! It's only available at the 2019 Fuji Shiba-sakura Festival, and new special treats like this are thought up every year.
(Yamanashi Grape Gelato Sundae - 650 yen)

Once you've explored the grounds and sampled some gourmet sweets, maybe it's time to admire the flowers from a new perspective. Literally. You can take a hot air balloon into the sky and see them from high up, or sit down low and soak your feet in a footbath right nearby. It's hard to avoid Yoshino sakura in Japan, the most common variety of cherry blossom, but these shiba-sakura are a unique treat!

The Fuji Shiba-sakura Festival 2019 (Annual Event)
Event Dates: April 13 ~ May 26
Address: 212 Motusu, Fujikawaguchiko, Minamitsuru Yamanashi
Admission Fee: Adults 600 yen/Children 250 yen
Official Website (en)

Driving Info
Parking: 2 lots available
Fee: compact vehicles 500 yen/larger vehicles 2,000 yen/motorbikes 300 yen

Spend a Little More Time in Yamanashi

This might look like some pastoral European scenery, but we're still in Yamanashi Prefecture!

In Yamanashi you'll find Seisenryo, a resort area and natural retreat with hotels, restaurants, and, most importantly, farms! The complex is surrounded by beautiful mountains, and the breathtaking scenery makes it a lovely spot to relax in. Look off in the distance and you can still see Mt. Fuji!

Although Seisenryo was rebuilt in 1957 as a space open to the public, it was originally constructed in 1938 as a Christian youth retreat center. The natural retreat elements are still clearly visible, and Seisenryo now specializes in offering delicious food made with seasonal ingredients, purchased fresh from the local farms. For a real treat, try the soft-serve ice cream made with milk from the local ranches' Jersey cows. This fresh and deliciously milky ice cream is just 400 yen a cone.

Seisenryo Hamburger (480 yen)   ―   Seisenryo Souvenirs

Stop by the Seisenryo Jersey Hut for the famous soft-serve. Inside you'll also find the Seisenryo Baker's Workshop, where you can get the burgers seen above, along with freshly-baked bread, produce, and souvenirs. Once you've decided what to eat, there's a 300 square meter (3230 sq ft) wooden deck outside, where you can enjoy your goodies while gazing at the scenic surroundings.

Address: 3545 Takanecho Kiyosato, Hokuto, Yamanashi
Jersey Hut Hours: 9:00 ~ 17:00
Saisenryo Official Website / Jersey Hut Official Website

Driving Info
Parking: 200 spots available
Fee: free!

The Yatsugatake Area

The Yatsugatake mountain range stretches out between Yamanashi Prefecture and our destination, Nagano Prefecture. Mountain climbers are fans of the area's thickly wooded slopes, but this time we just drove on through, admiring the area's beauty from afar as we passed by.

We've Arrived in Nagano! ➤ Takato Castle Site Park (高遠城址公園)

Legend says that these sakura were the first cherry blossoms to bloom in this world.

If the moss phlox shiba-sakura got you into the idea of more unique sakura viewing experiences, we think you'll like the Takato Castle Site Park as well. It's beautiful at night!

The park is lauded as one of the top sakura hanami (花見), or flower viewing, spots in Japan each spring. The park holds the Takato Sakura Festival annually, where you can not only see the cherry blossoms in the broad daylight, but the enchanting nighttime view is also open for visitors. At night the sakura are lit by carefully placed lights, and the trees reflect magically in the water that flows under the park's bridge. If you do end up at the park during the colder months of the year, when the cherry trees are just trying to get through the winter, the grounds are still lovely. Snow blankets the cherry trees and the maple trees with red leaves, along with the park's Japanese-style buildings, making it into a winter wonderland.

Takato Castle Site Park
Address: Higashi Takato, Takatomachi, Ina, Nagano
Hours: 8:00 ~ 21:00
Admission Fee: Sakura Viewing Period - Adults 500 yen/Children 200 yen
(Free entrance at other times of year.)
Official Website / Takato Sakura Festival Website

Driving Info
Parking: available
Fee: compact vehicles 700 yen

Naraijuku (奈良井宿)

Just like the residents of Edo Period Nagano, we made our way down the roads of feudal Japan.

The Edo Period's "Five Routes" were Japan's main highways, and these five major arteries connected all the regions of Japan to Edo (modern-day Tokyo.) Important figures at the time were required to regularly visit the capital, so these roads functioned as major travel hubs, but they were also utilized by merchants traveling the country, and were hugely important for Japan's economy. One of the Five Routes was the Nakasendo (中山道, literally the central mountain route), which was frequently used by travelers going between the Tokyo area and Japan's former capital, Kyoto. It took approximately two weeks for the average procession to make it's way along the 550 km (340 mile) road, sometimes called the "Samurai Street." Clearly this was no quick excursion, so many "rest stations" (or "shukuba", 宿場) grew up around the Five Routes, becoming towns that catered to the traffic passing through.

Sixty-nine stations formed along the Nakasendo route alone, and one of the more prosperous station towns was Nagano's Naraijuku. (If you have sharp eyes, you might have noticed that you can actually see the same Japanese word, meaning a place to stay, as the "juku" in Naraijuku (奈良井宿) and the "shuku" in "shukuba" (宿場). Naraijuku has always been associated with travelers staying the night!)

Locally grown ingredients. ー Comfortable traditional rooms. ー Simple, flavorful freshwater fish cuisine.

The town earned the nickname "Narai of 1,000 buildings" (Narai senken, or 奈良井千軒) because of all the businesses built thanks to the commerce of the Edo travelers. Some of these old buildings still remain, and many are still taken up by the hotels, restaurants, and small shops that you'd expect from a bustling rest station. The tiled roofs and wooden facades that are still found along this chunk of the Nakasendo are enough to make any traditional Japanese architecture lover swoon.

We stayed the night in Ikariya Machida, a traditional guest house providing a place to stay for modern travelers. With rooms that smelled pleasantly of tatami mats and wooden walls, and simple, traditionally-prepared Japanese cuisine made by the owner, we were transported back in time. We left in the morning feeling all the fatigue of the road washed away, and we could imagine how Edo Era travelers might have felt similarly refreshed after their stays in Naraijuku.

Ikariya Machida Inn (いかりや町田民宿)
Address: 573-1 Narai, Shiojiri, Nagano
Official Website

It almost felt like our Nissan rent-a-car might have been a certain delorean instead, taking us through this old-fashioned main road.

Naraijuku is also a fun place to try out traditional Japanese crafts, like this literal grass-grasshopper we tried making. Bring some Edo-style souvenirs home to your friends.

In the Neighborhood: Matsuyasabo Coffee Shop

It's a rest stop, so of course there's coffee to be found! Can you imagine going on a two-week trip without ever getting your morning cup of joe? Matsuyasabo Coffee Shop is the only coffee we had on our road-trip, and it really kept us going. You can find the shop in a two-story house from the end of the Edo Period, with the first floor being a little more of a modern Western-style cafe, and the second floor containing a Japanese-style tatami-floored room. Plop down on the mats and enjoy your tea or coffee.

Matsuyasabo Coffee Shop
Address: 583 Narai, Shiojiri, Nagano
Hours: 9:00 ~ 17:00
Official Website

The welcoming facade ー matcha roll cake (450 yen) ー and a new friend!

Address: Narai, Shiojiri, Nagano
Official Website

Driving Info
Parking: available around the area.
Fee: both free and paid, see the official website for details.

Daio Wasabi Farm

Fun fact: most of the wasabi found outside of Japan... isn't real wasabi! A lot of those little packets might have a bit of the real stuff, but the lion's share is just normal Western horseradish. This farm, on the other hand, suffers from no lack of the green delicacy.

Established in 1917, the Daio Wasabi Farm has been growing wasabi for more than 100 years. It now covers an area of 15 hectares (more than 1.5 million square ft), meaning it grows a lot of wasabi. In fact, it's the largest wasabi farm in Japan. Wasabi is so rare outside of Japan because it's notoriously hard to grow successfully, but Daio Wasabi Farm knows how it's done!

Wasabi fans rejoice: the farm harvests 150 metric tons of the stuff annually. And, aside from being a functional wasabi producer, Daio Wasabi Farm also offers lots of wasabi treats and souvenirs for purchase. If you just think wasabi is a way to add a little heat to your sushi, the farm's restaurant will open your mind and your sinuses to the possibilities of wasabi.

As a bonus, the farm was also the setting for the final segment of Akira Kurosawa's 1990 film Dreams. Big fans of the director might enjoy this little view into the movie's production.

Wasabi-Don Rice Bowl (980 yen) plus Wasabi Juice (310 yen)

Grind your own wasabi! It doesn't get any fresher.

Daio Wasabi Farm
Address: 3640, Hotaka, Azumino, Nagano
Hours: 9:00 ~ 17:20 (Mar ~ Oct)/9:00 ~ 16:30 (Nov ~ Feb)
Admission: Free!
Official Website

Driving Info
Parking: 350 spots available
Fee: free!

The Hakuba Area

We needed to cool off after eating all that wasabi that really brought the heat, so we took our Nissan rent-a-car and drove into Nagano's mountainous area of Hakuba. Even in the spring and summer this ski resort area is full of delicately snow-capped mountains.

You can see the world-class ski runs, ready to go after a solid snowfall or two. Hakuba has excellent snow quality, making it popular with domestic and international skiers.

The lovely snowy mountains in the backdrop made this another unique way to view sakura, but the warm weather had the cherry trees bursting to life!

Lake Kizaki

One of the "Nishina Three Lakes," Lake Kizaki is a popular lake resort.

The mountains of Hakuba reflect off of Lake Kizaki's peaceful surface, and plenty of travelers visit the area to camp, hike, and spend time in and around the water when the weather turns mild. Taking a kayak into the center of the body of water to enjoy the impressionist painting reflected back by the lake's surface is a very relaxing way to spend the afternoon.

Kizakiko Pow Wow Campsite & Outdoor Club
Address: 19004-1 Taira, Omachi, Nagano
Fee: See the website for prices.
Official Website

Driving Info
Parking: available
Fee: free!

Obinata no Yu Hot Spring

Can you truly say you've seen the best of Japan, if you haven't soaked in a natural hot spring?

Lots of people visit Hakuba in the winter, so those travelers obviously need a place to warm up in the cold, cold weather! Hot springs (or Japanese onsen, 温泉) are a must. Obinata no Yu hot spring comes from a local natural source, and flows into an open-air bath with views of the mountainside. It was lovely in spring, but during the winter snow drifts down on the surrounding area while the hot water keeps you warm and happy, making it a magical place to spend time.

Obinata no Yu
Address: 9346-1 Hokujo, Hakuba-mura, Kitaazumi, Nagano
Fee: Adults 600 yen/Children 300 yen (Bring toiletries and towels, or rent them for an extra fee.)
Hours: 9:00 ~ 18:00 (summer)/19:00 ~ 17:00 (winter)

Driving Info
Parking: 20 spots available
Fee: free!

Mountain Side Hakuba

As you might have guessed from the name, this apartment-style hotel in Hakuba is pressed right up against the mountainside.

When you're staying in the mountains of Japan, no hotel is going to offer the sort of "the city is at your doorstep" convenience that you might find in Tokyo. That's why it's a perfect place to try staying in an apartment-style hotel, Mountain Side Hakuba, which just finished construction in January 2017. Each of the apartment suites has bedrooms, baths, a full kitchen, and a living room! We had a great time taking a trip to the supermarket together, and then returning to our very own kitchen to put together a dinner party. It was lots of fun for the JAPANKURU team, and your family and friends will surely have a good time there too.

Mountain Side Hakuba
Address: 4313-1 Hokujo Hakuba, Kita Azumi-gun, Nagano
Official Website/Reservation Page

Driving Info
Parking: available
Fee: free!


A city steeped in history, the NHK drama Sanada Maru brought Ueda back into the minds and hearts of the Japanese public, by bringing the city back in time a few hundred years.

The Hokkoku Kaido Highway's Historic Yanagimachi Street

Our time in Naraijuku taught us all about the Edo Period's Five Routes, and it made us want to learn even more about the travel and commerce that took place hundreds of years ago in Japan. Aside from Japan's biggest five roads, there were plenty of other main travel routes that were also widely used. The Hokkoku Kaido was one of these, and while it might not have been grouped in the most important collection of Japanese historic highways, this road running the width of Japan was still vital!

The Nakasendo, being such an official route between major Japanese hubs, was strictly inspected. Travelers who wanted to travel a little more freely often went for the Hokkoku Kaido instead, which meant the road was crowded with the citizens of Edo Japan who needed to travel for mundane, every-day purposes. Of course, this wasn't a short road either, and rest station towns came into being around this major thoroughfare just like the more official ones. One of the places where the remnants of these rest stops are still visible is Yanagimachi in Ueda City, where you can still stop into the old shops and inns that have been providing rest and refreshment for travelers for many years. These days it's an especially good place to find traditional foods and snacks, many of which are great to bring home, and all of which fill the air with the smell of the Edo Period!

Ohnishi Soba

This shop is so popular, they close early every day once their hand-made germinated buckwheat berry soba sells out. Don't find yourself disappointed, get there for an early lunch!

Address: 4-9-8 Chuo, Ueda, Nagano
Hours: 11:00 ~ 14:00
Official Website


Yanagimachiya sells traditional Japanese sweets, including little "monaka" (最中), or Japanese wafer cakes. This one has an apple filling, contained in a shell shaped like a lovely blossom.

Perfect for the spring and summer, Yanagimachiya also has kakigoori (かき氷) for sale, Japanese shaved ice. If you're there on a warm day, take a bite and feel your body cool right down.

Address: 4-7-30 Chuo, Ueda, Nagano
Hours: 10:00 ~ 16:00 (closed Wednesdays)
Official Website

Ueda Castle Park

We think you'll enjoy this park whether its history interests you or not.

A quick 10 or 15 minute walk from the historic street of Yanagimachi, and you'll find yourself at the Ueda Castle Park, two places with deep historic connections. The local Sanada clan originally built the castle, the same Sanada clan as found in the NHK drama, and while the castle remnants are just that, remnants, these days, the castle has an impressive track record. When the Sanada clan was facing off against the great Tokugawa army, they and the Ueda Castle forced them into retreat not once, but twice! 

Nowadays, the castle park is more of a place of relaxation than one of battle. Students frequently visit the Sanada Shrine (真田神社) on the grounds, praying particularly for help passing exams. During the spring the park's cherry blossoms come into bloom and reflect off of the castle moat.

If you do want to learn more about the area's history, check out the reenactment shows periodically put on by local historical groups.

Ueda Castle Park
Address: 2 Ninomaru, Ueda, Nagano
Fee: Adults 300 yen/High School Students 200 yen/Elementary School Students 100 yen
Official Website

Driving Info
Parking: available at the Ueda Castle Station lot and Ueda Castle Hokkoku Tourism lot
Fee: free for a limited period, details available here.

For Longer Road Trips: More to See!

Thanks for coming along with us on our drive through Nagano, guys. We wanted to show you our favorite destinations, but if you're thinking about taking a similar trip and want even more places to stop, here are a couple extra recommendations.

Karuizawa Shiraito Falls

The Shiraito falls aren't your average waterfall! They're only 3 meters (10 ft) in height, but the lacey curtains of water fall all the way across an impressive 70 meter (230 ft) width. The name, Shiraito (白糸), literally means white thread, and the source of the name is clear once you see the falls' many delicate, white trickles of water.

Address: Kose Nagakura, Karuizawa, Kitasaku District, Nagano
Parking: 150 spots available

Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza

If you're taking a road trip, that means you've got a whole car trunk to fill with exciting new purchases. Naraijuku and Yanagimachi take care of the old-fashioned Edo-style souvenirs to bring home for family and friends, but this shopping center is the place to go for both modern Japanese stores and international chains. (In fact, we liked Karuizawa and the shopping there so much, we wrote a whole article about just that!)

Address: Karuizawa, Kitasaku District, Nagano

Did you have fun joining us on the roads of Nagano this time around?
If you like reading about road trips in Japan, this isn't our first time out!

Be sure to look out for more exciting articles every day at our main website, JAPANKURU!
Or add us on Instagram and Facebook to share your pictures of Japan. 🗾


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