Holy log-riding, the accidental castle, and a fire-breathing stone dragon

This month’s destination: Suwa City, Nagano Prefecture

Autumn leaves at Suwa Taisha Akimiya in Suwa City Nagano
The reason I’m taking us on a virtual visit to Suwa City this time of year is because autumn really begins to blaze in Nagano Prefecture during the month of October, much earlier than it does in Tokyo

Suwa City? Who ever heard of Suwa City? That doesn’t sound like a must-see Japan destination to me! If I saw that on my itinerary, I’d be messaging my travel planner pronto, demanding they find me somewhere more traditional and Insta-worthy. But I’d be SO WRONG. Despite its blah, modern-sounding name, this town on the shores of Lake Suwa is home to one of the most spectacular and venerable shrines in Japan, it hosts the famously dangerous tradition of riding a freakin’ log down a steep mountainside, and right in the middle of town is a castle that hides a fabulous garden within its gates.

Autumn leaves at Suwa Taisha Akimiya in Suwa City Nagano
It’s home to the venerable Suwa Shrine, whose four outposts are completely resplendent with changing leaves…
Suwa Taisha Akimiya in Suwa City Nagano
…especially (no surprise) the one known as The Autumn Shrine. But it’s not just the leaves I love here. I’m a complete sucker for this super-chonky style of shimenawa rice straw rope
Fat rice straw shimenawa at Suwa Taisha Akimiya in Suwa City Nagano
I have about six thousand more pictures of it, but you get the idea. Shimenawa are what define the border between the sacred and the mundane at Shinto shrines…
Log used in Onbashira festival to ride down a mountain at Suwa Taisha Akimiya in Suwa City Nagano
…and here there’s plenty of sacred to define! These gigantic logs are enshrined all over the grounds, a testament to the brave souls who have been riding them down down the hella steep nearby mountainside during the Onbashira Festival for twelve hundred years. This festival is well known as the most dangerous in Japan—reckoned by how many have died trying—even though it only takes place every six years
Steam-breathing stone dragon at Suwa Taisha Akimiya in Suwa City Nagano
Appropriate to a shrine that hosts such a death-defying feat, even the spring where visitors purify their hands before entering is guarded by a fire-breathing dragon! The water here isn’t cold, like most shrine springs—it comes out steamin’ hot
Autumn leaves frame bridge over moat at Takashima castle in Suwa City Nagano
But the Suwa Shrine isn’t the only game in town—rounding a corner while driving through the nondescript center of town, suddenly there’s…A CASTLE
Gate to garden with autumn leaves at Takashima castle in Suwa City Nagano
Across the Takashima Castle moat lies a gate…
Autumn leaves in garden at Tateshima castle in Suwa City Nagano
…and inside the walls is a garden so beautiful, it almost doesn’t look real. Truly great Japanese garden designers take into account what each shrub and tree looks like in every season of the year, and this designer’s genius was on full display with the harmonious variety of brilliant autumn leafery
Autumn leaves in garden at Takashima castle in Suwa City Nagano
The garden went on and on, with new and gorgeous views across every bridge, each blazing tree more spectacular than the last
Autumn leaves in garden at Takashima castle in Suwa City Nagano
The garden designer even considered what each view would look like when the leaves begin to fall, and created a rocky pond that would trap them in a spreading orange cape before allowing them to slowly trickle down the waterfall. And oh, did I mention? It’s FREE.
Masumi artist label sake 2018
And no Japanese destination would be complete without some local delicacies—in this case, the delicious sake brewed at the Masumi brewery. This happens to be the special annual bottling—the sake and the artist lable changes each year. After 27 generations, it’s pretty clear they know how to brew a fine bottle o’ booze, but they’re unusual for another reason—the current heir traveled all over the world, showing chefs at top restaurants how to pair this very traditional Japanese libation with Western food (seafood and pork are especially good with it)…
Masumi sake tasting chart
…and their tasting room not only makes it easy to find your own favorites among their offerings, you leave knowing why you like what you like. The next time I was at a restaurant and confronted with a long list of unknown sake brands, I asked the right questions like a BOSS!

Here’s where Suwa City is:

Map of Japan showing Suwa City

Here are the places where my pictures were taken:

Map of Suwa City showing suwa Autumn Shrine, Takashima Castle, and the Masumi Sake Tasting Cellar

Here’s how to get to Suwa City from Tokyo:

This route shows you how to get to both train stations that are closest to the three places I took photos in Suwa City:

Train route from Tokyo to Suwa City

I used the Japan Navigation phone app to figure out this route, and you can use it too, with your actual date and the time you’d like to leave or arrive. It’s also good for finding the easiest way to get to Shinjuku Station from where you’re staying. Here’s where to get the app and how to use it and here’s where to buy a Japanese transit card and how to use it. (I searched the route from Shinjuku Station because that’s where the train that goes to Suwa departs from, but you can start from the station closest to where you’re staying, to plan your entire itinerary.)

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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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