Nagano’s Path to the Pure Land

Foot detail of guardian god at the Zenkoji Niomon

In Nagano, all paths lead to Zenkoji. Possibly one of the most important and influential Buddhist centres of worship in Japan and a pilgrimage site, Zenkoji has had a long and important history in Nagano. In fact, with Zenkoji being founded somewhere in the 7th century, Nagano grew up around it. For centuries Zenkoji was Nagano’s sustenance and fortune, drawing pilgrims from the humble commoner to the powerful shoguns alike.

So imagine if you can, as if viewing a time-lapse scene in reverse – where the roads, the cars and the buildings, and even JR Nagano station disappears, there stands a glorious temple, its broad path paved with large stones, heralded by magnificent gates and lined by the soft glow of candles lit in 48 wooden lanterns. On each lantern, a prayer is etched on stone tablets – the first of which is to save all people and the last of which is the hope that the path to the pure land begins and ends at Zenkoji for the hopeful thousands who find their way to Zenkoji.

We walked the path in reverse that day – from Zenkoji down the broad avenue of Chuo dori to JR Nagano and along the way, discovered Nagano’s quirky little details. If you know me, you know I love finding the tiny details in a place I visit – they give the city an identity beyond the usual tourist attractions. 
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Togakushi: Soba, Ninjas and Shrines

As with any pilgrimage, it is often the journey that is just as, if not more important than the destination. In the magnificent tree-lined path leading to the innermost sanctuary of one of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines, there is time for lots of reflection. The 2km approach starts innocuously enough – from a carpark and a shop selling green tea ice-cream. But that’s the last of the 20th century you’d see for a long time as you start on the approach to the shrine.

Few know about Togakushi, a small village hidden in the hills behind Nagano. It is not on the mainstream tourist radar. Togakushi’s little-known secrets are intriguing and worth a day trip at least. Combine the mystery of a ninja clan, the air of holiness surrounding an ancient shrine and probably some of the best soba you could find anywhere in Japan and I’d say Togakushi is definitely worth a trip.  Continue reading

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In the shadow of Beijing’s towers

Before the skyscrapers on the outer ring roads sprang up, in the heart of the inner city, the tallest buildings around Beijing’s hutongs were the Bell Tower and Drum Tower. These are no tall, spindly needles but short fat hulks which dominated the skyline for several hundred years. Standing in a straight north-south axis, forming up with Jingshan Hill and the Forbidden City beyond that, the towers faced each other and together kept their roles as Beijing’s timekeepers.

The towers still keep watch over the hustle and bustle of the hutongs – today the tourist-friendly lanes of Yandai Jie or Tobacco Pouch Alley and a bit further on the hipster hangout and shopping alleys surrounding Nanluoguxiang. We wandered from our hutong hotel in the Houhai district, to the twin towers and around the shopping belt, covering in a day’s walk both historical landmarks as well as Beijing’s trendy restaurants and shops.  Continue reading

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Frogs, Springs and Shrines: Matsumoto’s little discoveries

I was glad to return to Matsumoto. The last time I was here was in 2011 and while we covered the major sights the last time ie the black castle, this time I was happy to just wander around and soak in the town’s laidback vibes. Even back then in that earlier visit, Matsumoto had come across as a town with more of a communal, village feel than a city. It’s the sort of place where you slow down your pace, throw out the schedule and just go with the flow.

Matsumoto has wide boulevards but these have little vehicular traffic. Most of these are intercut in a grid with smaller lanes. These lanes are a rewarding afternoon’s exploration. Moving away from the train station especially, in the older sections near the river and the castle, you’re likely to see old restored warehouses or kura, with a hidden shrine or two in the backlanes or maybe a street dedicated to frogs? Keep your eyes peeled and your level of curiosity high and you might find a surprise or two. As I did.  Continue reading

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Kurobe Alpine Route 2

These are the famous snow walls in the snow corridor near Murodo. This road is snowed over every year from November to April. In April, the road is cleared with great fanfare, with the event broadcast on national television! The route is usually cleared and ready for passage by mid April. When we were here in early May, the walls were about 18m tall, towering over the buses that trundle the route between Murodo and Bijodaira. 

Walking the 500m-long snow corridor, or Yuki no Otani was just one of the highlights in a day filled with jaw-dropping gorgeous mountain scenery, this time cutting across and under the Tateyama massif and down towards Nagano.  Continue reading

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Kurobe Alpine Route 1

This picture was taken in late April. Well into spring already but up here on the Midagahara plateau, I am still standing on ice and snow at least eight metres deep. Only the tips of the trees can be seen. All around is a wintry landscape of white and blue. The 90km-long Kurobe Alpine Route is one of Japan’s most interesting itineraries. Not least because it boasts breath-taking scenery in the short time when it is open, but also for the sheer variety of transport options that bring to life the saying that it’s not so much the destination that counts but the journey.

For couch potatoes like me, this is probably also the easiest and most accessible way to get up this high into the Japanese Alps without breaking a sweat. For serious hikers or skiers (depending on the season), the Kurobe Alpine Route is a good way to get up to those high elevations, a start point for many rewarding hikes in the alpine meadows or a good downhill run. You could ‘do’ the alpine route in one day but why rush? We savoured the route slowly with an overnight stop at Midagahara.  Continue reading

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The ancient city of Pingyao

On Pingyao’s impressive city walls, surveying the grey rooftops of the town below, a lone rickshaw rider takes a break. The imposing wall is probably one of China’s last Ming city walls still mostly intact, encircling a cityscape that has not changed in the last few hundred years. You could probably walk the 6km circumference of the wall and I would have liked to do this but we were short on time. Regrettably, we did not allot Pingyao more time. I underestimated the size of this town. There were places that I would have wanted to see but could not.

The World Heritage Site is one of four ancient cities in China designated as Historic and Cultural Cities by the Chinese government and wholly under protection for preservation. If you consider that Pingyao has survived 2,700 years of war, revolution and ideology change mostly intact, this is no mean feat.  Continue reading

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