The Art of Doing Nothing in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture

The Art of Doing Nothing in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture

For Vol. 30: Health, one writer seeks a sense of peace born of nature and moonlight in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture.

This article first appears in Vol. 30: Health.

all its many advantages – the nightlife and constant
novelty, the thrill of having some of the world’s greatest cultural
landmarks on your doorstep – the reality of living in a major city
like London
means that moments of calm are often hard to come by. In between
battling a packed tube carriage and hastily gulping a sandwich on
the go, the occasional pockets of quiet one does manage to find are
to be treasured.

It’s in search of peace and quiet – and slightly exhausted from
the hoopla of the festive season – that I head to Japan’s Nagano
Prefecture. Unlike high-octane Tokyo, with
its frenetic pace and neon-tinged streets, Nagano is known for its
slower pace of life and a focus on health and wellness. Many of its
wellbeing practices are rooted in traditional Japanese culture and
history – spirituality, ritual, mindfulness – that still inform the
nation’s contemporary lifestyles, making it an ideal long-weekend
destination for topping or tailing a lengthy trip around Japan, or
a place in which to spend a little more time if, as I did, you want
to fully decompress.

Having landed in Tokyo I hop on the Shinkansen, one of Japan’s
famous high-speed bullet trains, which delivers me to Nagano City
in less than 90 minutes. I’m up early the next morning for my first
experience of shinrin-yoku – forest bathing – in the nearby village
of Togakushi. Contrary to what the name might suggest, there is no
bathing, nor indeed any water, involved in my excursion. Rather,
“forest bathing” is a cornerstone of preventative health care in
Japan, a practice developed in the 1980s which marries mindfulness
and spending time outdoors. Alongside the more obvious
mood-enhancing perks one might expect from spending time in nature,
its benefits are believed to be as wide-ranging as lowering one’s
blood pressure and boosting the immune system.

Nagano has the greatest number of officially designated
forest-bathing areas in Japan and as I embark on the Five Shrines
walk, a 2.5-hour walking route at the base of Mount Togakushi that
takes in (as the name suggests) five Shinto shrines, it’s easy to
see why. Giant cedar trees stretching hundreds of feet into the
bright-blue sky flank each side of the path and shallow streams
zigzag off into the distance. The forest has been freshly coated in
a thick layer of snow that silences the already dense quiet and I
pause a few times to appreciate the novelty of near-total silence,
interrupted only by the sound of snow crunching satisfyingly
underfoot. Though I’m here in winter, the area around Togakushi is
also popular between spring and autumn due to its abundance of
hiking trails and campsites. I’m struck by the sheer scale of
everything I encounter, from the ancient trees to the distant
mountains that jut into wide skies. Even the moon here is
super-sized – one evening I watch it slowly emerge from behind the
mountains to rest on cotton-candy clouds, something I later find
out is known as a “moon illusion”.

Togakushi also has an abundance of soba restaurants, thanks to
the quality of buckwheat grown in Nagano. Soba noodles are
something of a local specialty, and given their buckwheat
foundation also count as a bona-fide health food. For lunch I head
to Yamaguchiya to try my hand at noodle-making, kneading buckwheat
flour and fresh mountain water into a thick dough before attempting
to fashion thin strips as demonstrated by my instructor, who just
happens to be a trained ninja. Thankfully I’m not destined to eat
my own distinctly sub-par creations. Instead, I’m whisked upstairs
for a meal of assorted soba-based dishes including freshly prepared
noodles with dipping sauces and a dessert of steamed dough balls
soaked in a sticky caramel that leaves me greedily eyeing my fellow
diners’ plates. Much of what I eat in Nagano is sourced or created
locally, from the miso paste and sake made in one of its many
breweries to the apples (the region is abundant with them) that
turn up in everything from pies to jam.

Nagano City is also home to the Zenkō-ji temple, the popularity
of which is a prime example of how spirituality and traditional
customs pervade modern Japanese culture. Visits to major temples
such as this are a regular among many Japanese people, even those
who aren’t strictly religious. Even for neophytes like myself,
guided by one of the temple’s monks, Zenkō-ji reveals the
mind-clearing potential of Buddhist activities such as Zazen
meditation and Shakyo, a form of traditional calligraphy in which
one copies Buddhist sutras – it requires keen concentration, but is
surprisingly soothing.

Most visitors to Zenkō-ji will join the O-Asaji, the monks’
daily sunrise service – it’s well worth the early start. A high
priest leads a procession through the streets to the temple,
offering blessings to those lining his path. Then it’s into the
temple’s main hall for the ceremony, around half an hour of monks
chanting sutras and offering devotions. As they sit cross-legged in
the candlelit hall, the monks’ deep voices and sonorous chanting
take on an almost hypnotic quality.

There are around 36 smaller temples clustered around Zenkō-ji,
many of which offer accommodation for tourists, and I opt to stay
at Fuchinobo. Here the rooms are simple but cosy and
well-maintained, laid out in the traditional Japanese style with a
separate sitting room attached to my bedroom. The highlight of my
stay is the shojin ryori meal served for dinner, shojin ryori being
the traditional vegetarian style of cooking commonly practiced by
Buddhist monks. One might expect such a meal to veer towards the
austere, but in fact it’s a colourful array of thoughtfully
prepared vegetables and seasonal dishes: fried turnip stuffed with
miso, winter greens cultivated in snow and a panna cotta-esque dish
topped with slices of kiwi fruit.

Before arriving in Japan,
I’d heard plenty about its famously welcoming attitude to visitors
– and the reality doesn’t disappoint. Everyone I encounter is so
hospitable that it would be hard for even the most hardened city
slicker to find a reason to work up a steam – that is, unless
you’re bathing in one of the country’s many onsens. As a
volcanically active country, Japan has thousands
of natural hot springs, many of which are used for bathing by
residents and tourists alike. The ritual of onsen bathing is a big
part of Japan’s leisure culture, with the mineral-rich hot-spring
water believed to have therapeutic benefits. One of the best – and
most famous – destinations to enjoy an onsen in Japan is Bessho
Onsen, a hot-spring town easily accessible by train from Nagano

My accommodation for the night is the plush Kashiwaya Ryokan (a
ryokan being a type of traditional Japanese inn). Upon arrival I’m
greeted with a large mug of matcha tea in a shade of green so deep
that it’s immediately clear that this is the real, fresh deal, not
the stale stuff I sometimes drink at home. My suite is palatial and
comes with its own patio, sitting room and private outdoor onsen,
although like most onsen resorts Kashiwaya also houses an array of
large communal baths. I sit immersed in the water leafing through a
book until it’s time for dinner, which is an unsurprisingly
indulgent affair: a 12-course meal served in one of the hotel’s
private dining rooms. By this point I am comfortable enough to
float around in a yukata, a light-cotton kimono helpfully tied for
me by a member of staff. Plate after plate of roasted yellowtail
snapper, sweet fish stew and assorted sashimi ensues.

Kashiwaya is luxurious enough that it would be entirely possible
to stay ensconced there for the length of your time in Bessho
Onsen, but it’s worth prising yourself out of its comforts for a
stroll around town, where quaint shops and cafés nestle between two
elegant Buddhist temples: Anrakuji and Kitamuki Kannon. Stopping by
Café Garden Berry to grab a coffee one morning, I’m easily
persuaded to try a few slices of Japanese- style toast covered in
honey and soy-bean powder – the café’s owner reassures me of soy’s
health benefits while plating up seconds.

Onwards to Karuizawa, my final stop. Well-heeled Tokyoites have
long kept second homes here as an escape from the capital’s steamy
summers and for easy access to nearby ski resorts in the winter.
Accordingly, the town is well-served by a selection of cocktail
bars, restaurants and artisan shops selling everything from upscale
homeware to locally produced honey. Nevertheless, Karuizawa has
maintained its peaceful quality and abundance of greenery thanks to
strict local development regulations. At the end of the high street
I find a rustic open-air restaurant, where I sit by a wood-burning
stove sipping a local beer as snow starts to fall. Karuizawa’s best
lunch spot is undoubtedly Log Tei, another cabin-style restaurant
that operates a traditional Japanese barbecue. No sooner have I
settled in at its low dining table than a platter of prime wagyu
beef and vegetables is presented. I spend the next hour or so
happily grilling my own lunch in the sunken pit before me.

Karuizawa is the perfect jumping-off point from which to explore
Onioshidashi Park, an area of volcanic rock formed by solidified
magma from the last major eruption of nearby Mount Asama which, on
sunny days, is visible in the distance. The forest surrounding the
town is rich in wildlife – on the drive from Onioshidashi back into
town a trio of wild boar skip across the road in front of me,
disappearing into the bushes as quickly as they appeared. Perhaps
they’re on an outing from Karuizawa’s Wild Bird Sanctuary, an area
of protected forest managed by wildlife conservation centre
Picchio. On my final morning I opt for a birdwatching tour led by
one of its extremely knowledgeable guides, who explains the
forest’s delicate ecosystem of predator and prey as we weave
through wisteria and camphor trees scattered along the trail.

I travel around Nagano with a copy of artist Jenny Odell’s
critically acclaimed How to Do Nothing in tow and I’m constantly
surprised by how closely my activities mirror her recommendations
for “doing nothing”, which she defines as the act of reclaiming
one’s attention from the rabbit hole of social media and the
relentless mandate of workplace productivity. Connecting with
nature. Check. Meditation. Check. Birdwatching. Check. Nagano’s
greatest hits just so happen to offer plenty of opportunity for
restful contemplation. This is as far from the commercial wellness
scene as it gets, too – no gimmicky treatments or pointless
elixirs, just the basic ingredients of good health. Fresh air.
Nature. Space. Time. The only challenge I anticipate is maintaining
the sense of calm when I get back home to London. I’ll let you know
how I get on.

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