“Karakoro, karakoro…” The echo of geta (traditional wooden sandals) against the paved cement fits seamlessly into the soundscape at Togura Kamiyamada.
A thriving center for successful Japanese businessmen in the 70s, this unassuming village tucked away in the foothills outside of Nagano City continues to keep its local charm and roots as place for hot springs, geisha and traditional music.
Togura Kamiyamada isn’t the kind of place you’d easily discover in a guidebook. Cycling across the main bridge entering the town, you pass through an arched gate boasting the logos of the town’s ryokan (traditional inns) and public baths. Located a little south of central Nagano, this town used to serve as an overnight stop for businessmen and traders that flourished into a hot spring resort until the end of the bubble period in the early 90s.
At one point, business was booming here, to the point you could line geisha from one end of the 300-meter bridge to the other (a famous photograph taken in 1980 attests to this). Today, 30 ryokan and a small population of geisha continue the tradition.
Divided by Japan’s longest river, the Chikuma-gawa, Togura Kamiyamada is nestled between small hills, more suitable for quick walks or cycling rather than long hikes. As the sun sets, the town’s kanji characters “戸倉上山田温泉” put off a red glow in the surrounding hills; it’s reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” film.
Arato-jo (Arato Castle) looms above. It’s one of many fortresses purely built for defense across Japan during the 1400s. While most were destroyed, Arato-jo is the only one of its kind to be recently fully reconstructed. Visitors can drive (10 minutes) or walk (25 minutes) to the lookout and see the jagged peaks of Togakushi to the north.
If you’re looking to immerse yourself into a local Japanese community, this is the place. The population is just 18,000, with few visitors (much less foreigners) even during the off season. The Chikuma River Cycling Path connecting Nagano and Ueda makes Togura Kamiyamada a popular in-between spot for cyclists and day-trippers looking for a quick bite and bath.
The onsen water here is prized for its high sulfur content: even locals consistently opt for the public baths rather than their showers at home. While it’s recommended to stay at a local ryokan, if you don’t have the time or the budget, Togura Kamiyamada has seven public baths and some inns will allow visitors for about ¥500 to ¥1,000. The town’s newest addition, the Karakoro footbath, is located conveniently next to the local ice cream shop so you can rest your feet while enjoying a treat. You’ll also find a water fountain to drink onsen water (if you don’t mind the sulfuric flavor).
Togura Kamiyamada has no chain stores or restaurants. Nearly every restaurant and izakaya is family run. The authentic local fare is not to be missed. While you’ll find your usual yakitori, ramen, soba, yakiniku and tonkatsu, there are a few lesser known delicacies. Tucked away in the backstreets you’ll find oyaki. A Nagano specialty, oyaki is made from fermented buckwheat dough wrapped around a stuffing of various vegetables, red bean paste and even apples, then roasted. Think of it as a glorified dumpling. You’d normally find oyaki in roadside stalls, but Shichifuku is one of the few restaurants serving these dumplings as their main dish.
A personal favorite is Kohaku, one of the few places in Japan serving oshibori udon. The broth consists of grated nezumi daikon radish, smaller than a regular daikon but with a sweeter, spicier flavor. This is paired with miso paste, bonito flakes and udon.
Nighttime transforms Togura Kamiyamada. Old-school shateki booths (shooting salons often found in traditional onsen resorts) are still open for business. Red-faced patrons walk (or stagger) around the old bar district in post-bath yukata where karaoke “snack” bars and izakayas light up the streets. While it may not be for everyone, it’s definitely a peek into what an onsen town in the 70s looked like.
When strolling around the village, chances are you’ll run into Tyler Lynch. Standing two meters tall and wearing the traditional jinbei pants-and-jacket combo, the Seattle native is hard to miss.
After his father-in-law passed away, Kamesei, the family ryokan, was to be demolished and turned into a parking lot. Not wanting to abruptly end the ryokan’s 50-year history, Lynch and his Japanese wife moved back to Japan to continue the family business. Today, Lynch spearheads the town’s tourism plans, representing Togura Kamiyamada to the outside world and regularly appearing on TV as the gaijin (foreigner) ryokan owner.
“We’re truly blessed by nature, especially since our town is in a valley along the Chikuma River, surrounded nearly 360 degrees by mountains and onsen water with strong mineral content,” Lynch says. When he’s not running the inn, he hosts Zukudashi Eco Tours, taking his visitors cycling around the neighboring farms, apple orchards, mountain temples and along the river, stopping to chat with locals along the way and sharing stories about the town’s history. If the season’s right, you’ll get a chance to participate in the rice harvest and apple or apricot picking.
For a traditional break from all the outdoor activities Nagano has to offer, visit Togura Kamiyamada’s narrow, compact town streets offering a nostalgic, authentic experience.
Take the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Ueda Station, then transfer to the Shinano Railway for Togura Station. The one-way trip takes approximately two hours from Tokyo.
From Nagano Station, take the Shinano Railway to Togura Station (25 minutes). Togura Station is a 5-10 minute drive from Togura Kamiyamada Onsen town center.
For more information, visit www facebook com/JapanTraveler for our “How-To” video series set in Togura Kamiyamada showing how to enjoy an authentic Japanese onsen town.