Turning Japanese: Autumnal Trails and Traditional Crafts in Iiyama

Just three hours north-west of Tokyo by shinkansen, the modest city of Iiyama sits in the heart of the Nagano ski area. Although a largely overlooked area, Iiyama has something to offer the more adventurous traveller at any time of the year. With just a short connection from our Kanazawa day trip we had a beautiful, and relaxing, couple of days in ‘Japan’s Hometown’.

A city of the seasons, spring brings beautiful blossom to the area and flowering oilseed crops that blanket the valley of the Chikuma river (the longest in Japan) a bright yellow. The summer is hot and green and the firefly (Hotaru) can be found dancing above streams in the night. During autumn there is a showcase of maples turning whole mountains vibrant red. In the winter Iiyama is a hub for great skiing and boasts the temple where skiing was introduced to Nagano by a travelling monk. Surrounded by mountains of the Japan Alps there are a number of resorts all within easy driving distance of the city, some of the most well-known being Nozawa Onsen, Myoko Kogen and Madarao Kogen.

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One temple of interest, the 1300-year-old Kosuge shrine, is a short drive from the city and a scenic but challenging hours hike through cedar forest and up uneven steps

In Iiyama we enjoyed the city known as ‘little Kyoto of snow country’, named for its numerous temples. The area is famous for producing the temple altars, with ornate carving and metal work decoration, and it was this crafty side of town that we had come to experience a bit more of.

Meeting our wonderful local experts, we first tried our hand at the traditional Japanese washi paper making process. The paper here is made from the mulch of stripped, and sun-bleached, Mulberry bush branches. Diving a shaped sieve into the fibre filled water we attempted to make our paper, dredging and draining the sieve to create layers of mulch. Although expertly demonstrated, it turned out getting an even layer is trickier than it looked but we managed to even out our layers into a soggy sheet. Decorating the page with leaves and coloured tissue paper we added a final layer to seal our creations. Next step is the drying process, sped up by use of a vacuum cleaner to suck out the water. We were quite pleased with our final creations but they are perhaps too nice to write on!

Next up was metal work, our teacher was an elderly gentleman who works on the metal decoration of the temple altars, and he was a dab hand with chisel and hammer. After a few practices and some tips for our technique we chose our chisels, all with beautiful patterns or shapes, to emboss onto our copper bookmarks. Hammering away at the copper took a good deal of concentration but was also very cathartic. Tapping into our creative sides we tried to come up with some designs to reflect Japan in our new-found talents, Guy opting for an artistic impression of Fuji-san and myself a depiction of the seasons. Turns out we were quite good at this and we ended up with some beautiful and truly unique souvenirs to treasure.

Despite the famous Japanese powder having not yet arrived, we were staying at Madarao Kogen Hotel for our time in these enchanting mountains. High up above the city the resort is a small village with just a handful of hotels and restaurants, everything you need is provided at the hotel, including a wonderful onsen (natural hot springs).

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How to use the onsen!

Madarao Kogen Hotel is the starting point for the Shinetsu trail, a 6-day hike over 80km of mountain and through forest. Having just a short stay we managed a short hike from Lake Akoki to the serene Lake Nozomi. A pleasant, and easy to follow trail, lead through forest, gently undulating as we went. In the valley and marsh, the high pampas grass rose either side of the boardwalks, and at the highest viewpoint we could see for miles to the surrounding mountains, and all the way to the Sea of Japan in the west. A lovely way to spend the afternoon before retreating to the onsen to recover.

A short but relaxing visit, we had enjoyed the local feel of Iiyama, the friendly locals we had met who are so proud of their home, and the wonderful food and activities on offer in and around the city. A beautiful end to our fantastic visit to Japan, as we hopped back on the shinkansen and returned to the airport.

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