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Visiting Narai-juku, Suwa, and Shiojiri: Japan's Fascinating Region Where Unique Cultures Thrived Since 1,000BC (Longreads)

Visiting Narai-juku, Suwa, and Shiojiri: Japan's Fascinating Region Where Unique Cultures Thrived Since 1,000BC (Longreads)

Date published: 16 July 2020

This time we head to the Suwa region in Nagano Prefecture, a picturesque area with hot springs, unique festivals, and a strong connection to Shinto culture.

Our guide this time is Mr. Tetsushi Morita, who lived a long time in France and was also in charge of inspections in Japan during the making of the Michelin Green Guide Japan. Mr. Morita, who has many Western friends and knows very well their attitudes, conveys the charms of Japan from a Western perspective through his "Burari Morita" - "Strolls with Morita".

He and his American friend Timothy spent two days going around the Suwa region.

Table of Contents
  1. ■ Echigoya, an old inn founded in the late 18th century
  2. ■ Trekking on Nakasendo! Edo era feudal lords also traveled over the Torii Pass
  3. ■ Ruins from the Jomon, Kofun, and Heian periods have been restored at Hiraide Heritage
  4. ■ Suwa Grand Shrine religious festival re-enacted. Jinchokan Moriya Historical Museum featuring Jomon architecture
  5. ■ A look at the shrine columns in the Suwa Grand Shrine Kamisha Hongu will give you some idea of the worship of large trees
  6. ■ Tokoro Terrace, where you can enjoy the specialty of Suwa, tokoroten and agar
  7. ■ Enjoy rustic artwork at the edge of Lake Suwa at the Harmo Museum
  8. ■ The magnificent Thousand-person Bath! Katakurakan, made by the silk emperor

Timothy took the express bus from Shinjuku to get there. He got on the Kiso Fukushima Line Keio Express Bus at the massive Busta Shinjuku bus terminal and got off at the Narai-juku bus stop where he joined Mr. Morita.

Morita: “How was your bus ride?”

Timothy: “The view of Lake Suwa was excellent. It only took a little over four hours to get here, which is not bad at all.”

Morita: “Shiojiri sits atop the tunnel you pass through after passing Lake Suwa. From there it connects to the Nakasendo. The Nakasendo connected Edo with Kyoto and was another major route like the Tokaido. The Tokaido Shinkansen runs along the Tokaido which went along the coast while the Nakasendo went through the mountains. Along these major highways there were several inn towns and Narai-juku was the 34th town when counting from Nihonbashi.”

■ Echigoya, an old inn founded in the late 18th century

In Narai-juku, located in Shiojiri City, Nagano Prefecture, approximately 1 km of the main street of the inn town has been preserved as it was during the Edo period. As you walk along the streets designated as a preservation area for important traditional buildings, this is the type of scenery that foreigners interested in Japan imagine how it must have looked during the Edo period.

Timothy: “This street really is exactly as we Westerners imagine Old Japan must have looked like.”

Morita: “That's the image of Japan that Isabella Bird and Lafcadio Hearn conveyed to the West, isn't it? 150 years ago no matter where you went in Japan the towns probably looked like this. The mood is especially wonderful at dusk.”

In the past Narai-juku was the most prosperous inn town on the Nakasendo and was extolled as Narai Sengen - Narai of the thousand shops. Today there are about 70 accommodation facilities, restaurants and souvenir shops, many still doing business in Edo-period buildings.

Echigoya, which was founded during the Kansei years (1789-1800), is a long-established inn that has been operating for 230 years since the Edo period. At the entrance (misenoma), there is a Hatago Andon, an oil lamp stand with a wood frame and paper shade, made entirely of zelkova during the Edo period.

Mr. Nagai, the 9th-generation owner, formally greeted Mr. Morita and Timothy when they entered.

Morita: “The building is just as it was when it was built during the Edo period. During the Edo period a guest would sit here, remove his zori [sandals], and wipe off his feet.”

Echigoya has been in business since the Kansei Years all the while maintaining the upkeep of the building. Only two parties of up to six guests in total can be accommodated each night. In the morning and evening, you can enjoy the seasonal Kisoji cuisine consisting of wild vegetable dishes and river fish dishes.

When the windows in the rooms on the first floor were left open during summer in order to let in the cool air, it was called kunpuro. Kunpu means "balmy breeze" and ro means "tower". The guest room has a lacquered table that has been used for over 100 years, and you can experience the traditional Japanese style of sitting on tatami mats and cushions. In winter guests would warm themselves by sitting at a kotatsu or near a hibachi [brazier]. A kotatsu is a low, wooden table frame covered by a futon or heavy blanket on which a table top is placed. Inside is a heat source which in olden times was a charcoal brazier.

Mr. Nagai: “Recently a third of our guests have been visitors from overseas.”

Timothy: “I’m sure they all really enjoy staying at an authentic Japanese inn. I can see why many Westerners would want to stay here.”

  • Echigoya Inn
    旅館 ゑちごや
    • Address 493 Narai, Shiojiri City, Nagano Prefecture
    • Phone Number 0264-34-3011

■ Trekking on Nakasendo! Edo era feudal lords also traveled over the Torii Pass

Having enjoyed the streets of Narai-juku it was time to experience the Nakasendo of the Edo period. Trekking on the Torii Pass, a 6-km mountain path known as one of the most difficult places on the Nakasendo since the Edo period. Take the train from Narai Station to Yabuhara Station, which is one stop away going in the direction away from Nagoya. From there walk back towards Narai,

After walking about 10 minutes along the street from Yabuhara Station you will come upon the mountain path.

Morita: “During the Edo period, this highway was an important road that was also used for Sankin-kōtai. At that time feudal lords were required to travel between their feudal estates and Edo once every other year. That was called Sankin-kōtai. Every year feudal lords all over the country had to make this great journey and this provided a source of revenue for inn towns. This made Narai and other inn towns very lively places.”

Timothy: “Is this Mitake Shrine? The Torii gate is really big, isn’t it?”

Morita: “It is said that the Torii Pass gets its name from this Torii gate. The feudal lord who controlled this area in the past fought with the feudal lord of Matsumoto. Before going into battle he prayed to Mt. Ontake from here for victory. He built the Mitake Shrine and large Torii gate here in gratitude for being victorious.”

Timothy: “Walking along this road traversed by people of the Edo period is a deeply moving experience. You get a strong sense of being at one with nature which is very satisfying."

After crossing the Torii Pass and walking for about 3 hours on the mountain path they arrived once again at Narai-juku. That was the last activity for the day.
After a long walk along the Nakasendo, much as people did during the Edo period, they were able to spend a restful night.

■ Ruins from the Jomon, Kofun, and Heian periods have been restored at Hiraide Heritage

On the second day they rented a car and drove around the Suwa region. The first place they visited was the Hiraide Heritage.

Morita: “Hiraide Heritage is not far from Shiojiri Station. It is said that people have lived here since the Jomon period and in this area the ruins of about 290 pit dwellings and buildings from the Jomon period to the Heian period have been excavated so far.”

Mr. Nakajima, who works there, guided the two around the site.

Mr. Nakajima: “People have lived on this land since ancient times. Most of the places here date from about 5,000 years ago.”

Morita: “That would be 3000 BC. That is about the same time as when the pyramids were being built in Egypt and Stonehenge in England. The ruins are being restored to how they must have looked back then based on expert research."

The theme at Hiraide Heritage is "the land of Hiraide from 5,000 years ago" expressed through the restoration of a Jomon Village, Kofun Era Village, and Heian Era Village, all of which can be entered freely.

Timothy: “They built fires inside, didn’t they? The smoke would have prevented any damage by insects.”

Morita: “It also probably kept the interior warm, too.”

Timothy: "The kitchen system was the same in the Kofun period as in the pit dwellings."

Morita: “This is called kamado and is an oven. It was devised so that the smoke passed through an underground chimney system that vented it outside the house. This also prevented the interior of the dwelling becoming smoky. You can see how this evolved over time.”

At Hiraide Heritage there is a building where you can experience making fire and making magatama jewels. You can enter the dwellings freely when the park is open and there are guides who will tell you about the history of the archaeological sites.

  • Hiraide Heritage Guidance Building
    平出遺跡公園ガイダンス棟
    • Address 388-2 Soga, Shiojiri City, Nagano Prefecture
    • Phone Number 0263-52-3301

■ Suwa Grand Shrine religious festival re-enacted. Jinchokan Moriya Historical Museum featuring Jomon architecture

■ Suwa Grand Shrine religious festival re-enacted. Jinchokan Moriya Historical Museum featuring Jomon architecture

Next they visited the Jinchokan Moriya Historical Museum.

This is a museum that stores and makes available to the public valuable documents from the Middle Ages to the Meiji era that have been handed down in the Moriya Family, members of which have served as high-ranking priests of Suwa Grand Shrine.

Timothy: “The facade pillars holding the protruding roof are quite impressive.”

Morita: “The building is the first work of architect Terunobu Fujimori, a researcher of architectural history and a professor at the University of Tokyo. Prof. Fujimori's architecture is also called Jomon architecture. This area was land controlled by the Moriya Clan which venerated Mt. Moriya as a god. Another clan from Izumo invaded this land and its head became the king, however, it recognized the local religion of worshiping Mt. Moriya and built the Suwa Grand Shrine. He then made Moriya, who had been king from long before, the Jinchokan [head priest]."

Inside there is a display of the most important festival of the Suwa Grand Shrine called Ontosai. The heads of 25 deer (including wild boars) dedicated to the god is a shocking sight.

Morita: “This is a reconstruction of how the Ontosai, a giving of thanks to the god for bounties received, but it is based on observations made during the latter half of the Edo period and recorded in detail by Sugae Masumi who traveled extensively in Hokkaido and the far-most regions of Tohoku. When he visited Suwa, he witnessed the Ontosai ritual and recorded his observations."

There are three interesting buildings designed by Terunobu Fujimori near this museum.

They are called the Flying Mud Boat, Takasugi-an and Hikusugi-an, the latter two floating tea ceremony rooms. It seems that many students studying architecture come from overseas to see these structures.

  • Jinchokan Moriya Historical Museum
    神長官守矢史料館
    • Address 389-1 Miyagawa, Chino City
    • Phone Number 0266-73-7567

■ A look at the shrine columns in the Suwa Grand Shrine Kamisha Hongu will give you some idea of the worship of large trees

After leaving the Jinchokan Moriya Historical Museum they next went to the Suwa Grand Shrine Kamisha Hongu that was used by the Jinchokan.

The precincts of the Suwa Grand Shrine house several shrines in four locations around Lake Suwa. Mr. Morita and Timothy visited the Kamisha Hongu, the upper main shrine, on the south shore of Lake Suwa.

Morita: “Suwa Grand Shrine is comprised of four shrines: the Lower Shrines of Harumiya and Akimiya and the Upper Shrines of Honmiya and Maemiya. Takeminakata no Kami is the god of the Upper Shrines. He was one of the sons of Ōkuninushi, the god of Izumo Province.”

Timothy: “The wood columns are huge!”

Morita: “These are what make Suwa Grand Shrine unique. One gets the feeling that the four columns were built to protect the shrine. In Japanese these are called onbashira and the kanji for them mean ‘honorable columns’. Every seven years a large festival is held at the Suwa Grand Shrine. At this time the onbashira are replaced with ones made from large trees pulled down from the mountain by a large group of people. These are then slid down the steep side of the mountain. At that time men straddle the onbashira as it slides down the mountain and this is a very important festival for the people who live in this area.”

Timothy: “I have seen pictures of that. The worship of large trees seems to be deeply rooted here.”

Morita: “By the way, Timothy, in Japan October was called Kannazuki. The three kanji that make up its name mean 'month with no gods' because in October all the gods assembled in Izumo for an annual meeting."

Timothy: “Izumo is the hometown of Takeminakata, isn’t it?”

Morita: “Yes. People in Izumo, on the other hand, don't call October Kannazuki, but instead Kamiarizuki, which means 'the month in which there are gods'. Actually, the people here in Suwa also referred to October as Kamiarizuki just like the people in Izumo. The reason for that is because Takeminakata was driven into exile in Suwa. For that reason he is never invited to the annual meeting of the gods in Izumo.”

Timothy: “That’s really interesting!! Mythology is still alive today in the hearts of many Japanese, isn’t it?”

  • Suwa Grand Shrine Kamisha Hongu
    諏訪大社 上社 本宮
    • Address 1 Nakasu Miyayama, Suwa City, Nagano Prefecture 392-0015
    • Phone Number 0266-52-1919

■ Tokoro Terrace, where you can enjoy the specialty of Suwa, tokoroten and agar

■ Tokoro Terrace, where you can enjoy the specialty of Suwa, tokoroten and agar

Our intrepid trekkers decided to take a break after visiting the shrine.

They went to Tokoro Terrace, a shop and cafe located next to a tokoroten factory. Near the entrance the manufacturing process of tokoroten can be observed through a large, glass partition.

Tokoroten and agar are products for which Nagano is famous and dishes and desserts made with them can be enjoyed at the cafe in the rear.

Mr. Morita ordered the Original Tokoroten Made only with Tengusa. Tengusa is a type of red algae.

Timothy ordered the Espresso Anmitsu; espresso poured over ice cream and agar like an affogato.

Timothy: “I had heard that tokoroten is a specialty of Suwa, but it’s rather far from the ocean. How is it that Suwa became famous for something made from seaweed?”

Morita: “A Suwa merchant who went to Kyoto on business heard about agar, which was still unusual at that time, from a chef there who used it and that gave him the idea that it could become a good winter business for the Suwa region. It seems that he trained for three years, mastered the method of making agar, and through his efforts this technology spread throughout the Suwa area.”

Morita: “What the Suwa merchant realized was that winter in the Suwa region was very cold and it is relatively good with many sunny and dry days, that made it suitable for making agar. In the old days, farmers in the Suwa area often went to work in Edo during the winter. If they did not go out to find work during the winter, there was nothing for them to do at home. So it is easy to imagine why the merchant did what he did.”

Inside the shop you can purchase Original Tokoroten made with 100% tengusa, Nationally Produced Natural Agar Squares, for which the Suwa region is famous, and sweets made with agar.

  • Tokoro Terrace
    トコロテラス
    • Address 1545-1 Shiga Akanuma, Suwa City, Nagano Prefecture 392-0012
    • Phone Number 0266-52-1056

■ Enjoy rustic artwork at the edge of Lake Suwa at the Harmo Museum

■ Enjoy rustic artwork at the edge of Lake Suwa at the Harmo Museum

After leaving the Tokoro Terrace they went along the north shore of Lake Suwa to the Harmo Museum. Looking out over Lake Suwa from the Harmo Museum you can see Mt. Fuji between other mountains. Here they spoke with the director, Mr. Seki, and the curator, Mr. Mori.

Morita: “The view from the museum is magnificent.”

Director Seki: “Yes, here at the Harmo Museum we wanted our guests to be able to not only enjoy the artwork but also the view. We have created a cafe space especially for that purpose.”

Timothy: “Being able to leisurely enjoy a cup of coffee while admiring the view is a great idea.”

Director Seki: “The theme of the museum is ‘art and simplicity’ and towards that end we have collected naïve artwork, such as that by Henri Rousseau. We have nine works by Henri Rousseau in our collection. In addition, there are other works by such artists as Grandma Moses, who began painting in earnest after the age of 70, and André Bauchant, a gardener who became a painter."

Timothy: “The 'harmony of man and nature' very aptly describes the works of Grandma Moses. I find her paintings of country scenes of the eastern United States to be very nostalgic.”

Mr. Mori: “If you look closely at their works, you may notice that flowers in the background are strangely large or that there are shadows in one place but not in another, so from the standpoint of perspective they seem strange, but that it is exactly what makes them so interesting.”

Morita: “Come to the Suwa district, think of Japanese myths, and stop at the museum located at the edge of the lake. Admiring naive artwork from around the world while admiring the spectacular scenery here is truly a rich experience.”

  • Harmo Museum
    ハーモ美術館
    • Address 10616-540 Shimosuwa, Suwa District, Nagano 393-0045
    • Phone Number 0266-28-3636

■ The magnificent Thousand-person Bath! Katakurakan, made by the silk emperor

Their final destination in Suwa was the Katakurakan. It is a retro Western-style building set along the eastern shore of Lake Suwa.

Morita: “Sericulture and the silk industry once prospered in the Suwa area, mainly around Okaya City. Here Kentaro Katakura (1862-1934) created a spinning company for the sericulture industry. He built and managed the largest spinning company in the Orient. And that gave rise to him being called the silk emperor. When Kentaro Katakura was traveling around the world he was deeply impressed by the welfare facility in Karlsberg, the Czech Republic. He wanted to use the profits from his business not only for the benefit of his employees but also the people living in the area so in 1928 he built the Katakurakan, a large bathhouse.”

Katakurakan was built for the welfare of the community as well as a place for socializing. It has a 1.1-meter deep pool called Senninburo, which means "Thousand-person bath," as well as other large rooms in the annex building.

The director, Mr. Yamazaki, showed them around the hall annex. Every part of the interior has been decorated with elaborate designs by skilled craftsmen.

Mr. Yamazaki: “Marshal-Admiral Togo Heihachiro personally wrote this celebratory message when construction of the building had been completed.”

Morita: “I seem to remember hearing that the silk industry earned foreign currency used to buy the warships that defeated the Russian navy.”

Mr. Yamazaki: “Yes, that’s right. Togo Hehachiro probably also conveyed his gratitude to Kentaro Katakura in his message.”

Mr. Yamazaki: “This large room has 204 tatami mats. That this large room does not have any columns makes it very unique, I think.”

Timothy: “Most definitely. Seeing so many tatami mats in one room is really spectacular.”

Katakurakan is famous for its Sennin bath, but unfortunately there was not enough time to take a bath because it was getting close to the time to take the express bus back to the city.

* Photos provided by Katakurakan

Mr. Yamazaki: “Sorry you did not have enough time to experience the bath. It is 1.1 meters deep and the bottom is covered with round pebbles. It can accommodate about one hundred people at one time.”

Timothy: “I’d like to bring my family here in the near future!!”

  • Katakurakan
    片倉館
    • Address 4-1-9 Kogandori, Suwa City, Nagano Prefecture 392-0027
    • Phone Number 0266-52-0604

Regretfully leaving the Katakurakan Thousand-person Bath without being able to enter it, Mr. Morita and Timothy safely made their way to Kamisuwa Station where they boarded the Suwa Okaya Line Keio Express Bus going back to Shinjuku.

This was an excellent leisurely stroll seeing the various attractions of the Suwa region, from the ruins of the Jomon period, to street scenes on the Nakasendo evoking the Edo period, a state-of-the-art bathhouse of the Meiji period, and artwork praising the beauty of nature.

During that time they learned more about the worship of giant trees since the Jomon period around Lake Suwa and the fight for hegemony over the region between the Moriya Clan and gods that came from Izumo and their Japanese-style reconciliation.

Written by Matsumura Chiemi. Photos by Yoshikazu Ishikawa.

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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