Iiyama: Little Kyoto of Nagano

SNA Travel (Iiyama) — Iiyama City is located in the northern region of the Nagano Prefecture, central Japan. It is a region filled with a rich natural environment suitable for numerous kinds of outdoor and indoor activities, ranging from visiting the Mayumi Takahashi Museum of Doll Art to hiking the mountain ranges of the Shinetsu Trail. The city is also filled with a warm and friendly community, welcoming travelers and showcasing their cultural traditions through activities such as fruit and vegetable picking as well as the various festivals that take place throughout the year.

Depending on the season you travel to Iiyama, you will either be met with a magical snow kingdom with igloos set up and ski slopes in action; or, you will be met with the lush environment of blossoming fruits and vegetables. Either way, whichever season you wish to visit Iiyama, you can expect to experience some invigorating activities and view some wonderful sights.

Mayumi Takahashi Museum of Doll Art

Mayumi Takahashi, a renowned artist portraying the lifestyles of citizens from rural Japan in her dolls, opened the Museum of Doll Art in Iiyama City, Nagano Prefecture, in 2010. The dolls that are displayed for viewing in the three galleries within the museum represent different stories which correspond to events that have traditionally taken place across the nation The focus is rural more than urban.

Some of her stories allow visitors to learn about the Japanese countryside of the past and the present, including the influence of the samurais in rural Japan and other cultural legacies.

There is a doll presenting a tale about a stubborn old grandma who had left home due to an argument with her daughter-in-law. Mayumi Takahashi’s favorite doll, however, was of two elderly farmers sitting together on the floor and enjoying each others’ company.

Visitors are also able to watch a video about how these dolls are created. The artist states that it usually takes between 3-4 weeks to create one doll, ensuring that each one is detailed enough to create a warmth of expression in its face and body.

After finishing the tour of the gallery, visitors are encouraged to check out the souvenir shop and the café if they are in need of postcards and other items to remember their trip.

Just outside of the Doll Art Museum, there is a restaurant called Ajukura Tsukiakari, serving numerous Japanese dishes and only using fresh ingredients. These dishes being centered around the local area’s traditional specialities, including rice balls as well as sasazushi, which is made from Iiyama’s very own home-grown rice.

The admission price for the Museum of Doll Art is ¥610 for adults and ¥410 for elementary/junior high school students at the time of writing.

Iiyama Cultural Hall Natura

The Iiyama City Cultural Hall Natura first opened in 2016. It was designed to be used as a community hall for the local residents and for visitors traveling to Iiyama, whether as a holiday or for an event that is taking place. The building consists of several rooms and studios, as well as two main halls that are utilized for larger concerts and events.

The main hall in particular is to be used for plays and concerts, as well as exhibitions and parties. The walls which surround the hall are made from Nagano’s own wood, displaying Iiyama’s initiative of using their own local materials, not only for food, but also for décor purposes and construction.

Five hundred people can fit into the main hall, and there are also facilities available for people with hearing difficulties, as well as spaces for wheelchair users.

The second main hall, also known as the recital hall, has a different décor. This hall has local Uchiyama paper spread across the room. It is sometimes called the ‘Snow Hall’ due to the white glow it gives off. However, unlike the main hall, the recital hall can only hold about 170 people.

Renting these rooms or halls is not overly expensive, thus allowing the local community to use these facilities for a variety of events or activities.

Handmade Paper Workshop

Travelers to Iiyama also have the opportunity to produce their own Uchiyama Paper like that found at the Iiyama City Cultural Hall Natura. This special type of paper is made with traditional ingredients, leaving out the chemicals used in western paper production industries.

When making your own Uchiyama Paper, you will be required to mix water with neri, a glutinous, starch-like substance, as the base of the paper. This form of material is scooped into a square-shaped tray, a motion which usually requires a few attempts until you have a good layer of pulp covering the tray.

Visitors also get the chance to decorate their own paper, adding in leaves, flowers, and feathers, according to their own choices. This paper can also be made into a postcard to be sent back to family and friends.

Metal Engraving

One local metal engraving workshop allows visitors to participate in the work. It is led by craftsman Toshio Washimori. Participants will first be shown how to design their own piece of metal with delicate chisels. Each chisel has its own design, allowing the participant to be as creative as they wish. It can take as little as half an hour to make a small metal sculpture.

Nabekura Kogen Heights Mori-no-le

Located at an altitude of 550 meters, this beautiful lodge resort can host a number of families who wish to relax and enjoy the natural surroundings. Visitors can take part in a number of activities, such as walks through the forest and barbeques. This is also the perfect resort to base yourself in if you wish to trek the Shinetsu Trail. Bikes and hiking gear is prepared for rental if needed.

The lodges themselves are well furnished, offering residents comfortable accommodation with western beds, as well as futons if needed.

The area is also extremely clean and safe. In the management house, residents can relax and purchase food and drinks.

Shikisai no Yado Kanoe

This lodge is situated near a landscape of rice fields, mountain ranges, and a vegetable farm. Similar to the previous lodge, this accommodation is also an excellent base if you wish to hike the Shinetsu Trail. The location is also ideal for canoeing, skiing, and other seasonal outdoor activities. Guests sleep on futons, a more traditional Japanese style of bedding. Each meal at the lodge is also cooked fresh, often with the vegetables coming straight from the back garden.

The Shinetsu Trail

The Shinetsu Trail runs along Sekida Mountain, situated around one thousand meters above sea level. It is highly recommended to go on a hike along this trail, especially if you are a nature lover and enjoy going on long walks. With beautiful sights all along the path, this would be one activity to not miss out on.

As noted by the Shinshu-Iiyama Tourism Bureau, this particular trail has a lot of historical significance as well. The warlord Kenshin Uesugi led tens of thousands of his men through these passages to fight in the Battle of Kawanakajima in the 16th century.

It takes approximately six days and five nights to hike all the courses. Tents are available for hire if visitors would rather camp at night rather than stay at lodges. However, if you are looking for a shorter hike, routes are available where visitors can hike for just an hour or two.

Tour guides are available upon request at reasonable rates.

Shiozaki Fruit Farm

Shiozaki Farm has been in operation for the past 45 years, specializing in grape and apple picking. Visitors are able to come, pick, and eat as much fruit as they wish, and also have the opportunity to take some home for them to enjoy.

The best season is between August to October, a period which allows visitors to enjoy both the grapes and the apples. Weekdays and Sunday afternoons are the best times to visit, offering a relaxing, less crowded experience.

Narazawa Shrine Festival

This festival is also known as the “dance of the long-nosed goblin” which is one of the more popular celebrations in Iiyama, attracting people of all ages.

Sarutahiko, the great long-nosed goblin, prays for peace during the festival and is seen dancing with a katana and a large torch, each having its own significance. The torch is lit in the evening, producing a huge ball of fire, a spectacular view during the night.

This festival has a three hundred year history, attracting more visitors every year.

Kosuge Village

Kosuge Village is a small community where people known as the ‘Yamabushi’ live and train as mountain monks. They are quite self-disciplined and avoid all forms of indulgence.

Every year on July 15, the Kosuge Gion Festival takes place.

Once every three years this includes the Hashira-Matsusaito Shinji celebration, in which two wooden pillars are erected upon which two children race to the top to see who can light their fire first. According to the festival tradition, if the older child sets the fire first, then it signifies a coming of peace and tranquillity. However, if the younger child wins, then there will be an abundant harvest in the region.

Iiyama City

Iiyama City has been called ‘snow country’s little Kyoto,’ first described as such by Toson Shimazaki, a Meiji period novelist. The city also helped host the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Iiyama has carried on rich cultural traditions throughout recent centuries. The local festivals attract high school and university students from across Japan. Guests are increasing year by year. Its numerous sightseeing spots also include the Chikuma River, which is known as Japan’s longest.

Iiyama City is a must-see travel destination for both international and domestic travelers.

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