Though fine to go and visit all the popular locations, occasionally we like to venture off the guidebook a bit. We delved into several of the more bizarre locations in and around the Suwa area of Nagano. The following are a few of the recommended destinations, many of which make for excellent stories and/or photo opportunities. Here is a list of the unique and the memorable in no particular order:
1. Incredibly Hot, Hot Springs
Suwa is known as a hot springs resort, but a few of the area bathhouses are outfitted with extreme temperature pools. Legend says the hot waters of the area were perfect for healing wounded samurai. For those looking to test their mettle, try the extremely high temperature baths at Tanga no Yu that reach up to 52 °C (125 °F). Normal baths are available as well and for the most part people only dare a few seconds or only partially submerge in the super-heated waters.
2. Freshwater Eel (Unagi) Tasting
I hesitated to add this into a unique list as unagi is so wide spread in Japan, but the way Okaya in the Suwa area prepares unagi is interesting and creates an excellent flavor. A healthy population of freshwater eels in the Lake Suwa area ensures that there are many unagi restaurants. In Okaya, unagi is cooked in a unique way, cut from the belly and charcoal-broiled instead of cut from the back and steamed. The texture of crispy skin and fluffy fresh fish pairs perfectly with a sweet sauce poured on the unagi directly. Popular restaurants in the area include Unagikobayashi, Furuhata, Unagisuimon, Unafuji and Tenryu in Okaya. I visited Tenryu myself and was impressed with the quality of the unagi and the overall value of the unagi course. The restaurant interior is traditional style and quite elegant and they even had a few super rarities such as unagi soda and unagi underwear for sale.
3. Playing the Japanese Drums (Taiko)
Osuwa Daiko is a traditional Japanese drum center which contains a factory, a museum and an exhibition area for displaying and practicing the massive percussion instruments. The first floor contains the factory, where you may occasionally find workers creating the drums and could have a chance to try yourself if you want to climb on top of the drum skins. In the lower area, there is a large room with hundreds of drums on display of all sizes. Visitors can arrange a drum practice session and receive some basic training for some exercise and fun rolled into one. The famous drum troupe from Suwa has traveled the world and on the second floor there is a museum that exhibits not only drums and artwork, but a collection of the gifts they have received from a large variety of countries.
4. Spinning Silk
Suwa is closely tied to the silk industry and the neighboring city of Okaya was once Japan’s largest manufacturer and exporter of silks. The modern museum and factory in Okaya serves as a great introduction to the silk world. The displays feature over 30,000 artifacts, including silk reeling machines,fabrics and beautiful kimono. Many of the reeling machines are still running and you can see actual silk workers creating silk right in front of you. The nearby gift shop offers several items for sale and the Cocoon Craft Room off gives visitors a chance to make your own silk-themed souvenir.
5. Making Miso Fun
Miso production in Suwa has flourished due to optimal temperatures and an environment that creates a mild flavored miso unique to the area. There is a factory tour available at Marui Itoh Shoten that includes tasting and miso creating activities as well. There are a huge variety of miso products sold here, including standard bottles, chips, curries, dips and even miso ice cream. Towards the back of the factory is an interesting room dedicated to the onbashira festival and there is a small shrine room.
6. Most Dangerously Designed House in Japan
Here is a strange one. Celebrated by Time Magazine as one of the ten most dangerous dwellings in the world, this scary dwelling was constructed over 10 meters in the air, precariously placed on a few tree branches. The builder and architect, Terunobu Fujimori, also created a nearby tea house which is perhaps even more astonishing. It is suspended in the air by a few wires and can be raised and lowered to the ground. The area nearby is home to both a modern and ancient Japanese graveyard site which is fairly interesting in its own right.
7. Highest Vegetables in the Land
The fresh water and temperatures of the highlands around the Suwa area give the local produce a freshness and flavor that is difficult to match. Located at the edge of the highlands, the Tateshina Jiyu Nouen (Farm) is an excellent location to purchase all the fruits and vegetables (as well as sake and other grocery items) that you will need. There is another building just next door which houses a souvenir shop, bread store and a restaurant. The 808 Kitchen and Table welcomes visitors to sit down and enjoy a meal made fresh with the local ingredients, grown at a high elevation in the surrounding highlands.