A history-packed northern Nagano castle town
Ueda is a charming castle town located southeast of Nagano City, straddling the Chikuma River. Known for its rich history, majestic temples, and historic hot spring area, Ueda offers visitors a glimpse into the samurai era and the traditional Japanese way of life.
One of the main attractions in Ueda is Ueda Johseki Park, which exudes a samurai-inspired atmosphere. The park is home to reproductions of Ueda Castle’s three turrets and main gate tower, offering visitors a chance to step back in time and experience the grandeur of the castle. The park is particularly beautiful in spring when the cherry trees bloom, and the Ueda Castle Sen-Bon Sakura Matsuri, also known as the 1,000 Cherry Tree Festival, takes place. During this festival, visitors can enjoy flower viewing and witness the cherry blossoms illuminated at night. Ueda Johseki Park also hosts many other festivals and events throughout the year, including the fall foliage season when the park’s Japanese maple trees turn a vibrant shade of red.
Another must-visit attraction in Ueda is Bessho Onsen, the oldest hot spring area in the Nagano prefecture. With a history dating back over 1,000 years, Bessho Onsen boasts a rustic charm and offers visitors a chance to relax and rejuvenate in its traditional hot spring baths. The area is home to three separate springs with varying properties, and day trippers can enjoy the old-school charm of Oyu, Ishiyu, and Taishiyu Onsen. In addition to its hot springs, Bessho Onsen is also known for its impressive temples, including Zenzan-ji with its picturesque three-tiered pagoda. Visitors can explore the many temples in the middle of the town, with each offering its own unique charm and history. Kitamuki Kannon Temple, located near the village center, provides spectacular views from its bell tower, while Anraku-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Nagano, boasts the only octagonal three-tiered pagoda in the country.
For those interested in history, Ueda Castle is a must-visit attraction. Built in the 16th century by the leaders of the Sanada samurai clan, Ueda Castle played a significant role in Japanese history. The Sanada clan famously repelled the nation-building Tokugawa clan not once, but twice, making Ueda Castle a symbol of their resilience and strength. Today, visitors can explore the castle grounds, which feature reproductions of the castle’s three turrets and main gate tower. The castle area is surrounded by a lovely park, making it a popular spot for cherry blossom viewing during the spring season.
Aside from its historical and cultural attractions, Ueda also offers scenic landscapes and outdoor activities. The rice terraces that hug the hillside outside of town provide stunning views of the surrounding scenery. Walking along the narrow lanes between the fields gives visitors a glimpse into the traditional rural life of the area. Additionally, Mugonkan, or the “Silent Museum,” is a moving tribute that displays the works of art students who perished during World War II. The neighboring city of Chikuma is home to Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, an international traveler-friendly resort with several bathing facilities and a mountain fort.
Throughout the year, Ueda hosts numerous events and festivals that showcase its rich cultural heritage. The Ueda Sanada Festival, held at the castle area, honors the city’s famous warrior clan and features a procession of hundreds of people dressed in period costumes. The festival also includes taiko drumming, demonstrations with replica guns, and other traditional performances. Noh performances are held in August, adding to the vibrant atmosphere of the castle area during the summertime festivals. The Shinshu Ueda Gion Festival and the Ueda Wasshoi Festival are two lively events held in late July that feature parades of Omikoshi portable shrines and transform the center of Ueda into a festive scene. Additionally, the Shinshu Ueda Fireworks Festival takes place on the shores of the Chikuma River in August, providing a spectacular display of fireworks.
For those looking to explore beyond Ueda, the nearby city of Nagano is just a short distance away. Nagano is home to the famous Zenko-ji Temple, one of japan‘s most important Buddhist temples. The shinkansen also passes through the resort area of Karuizawa, known for its shopping, historic district, and views of Mount Asama. If you have access to a car, Ueda marks the start of the Japan Romantic Road, a scenic route that takes you through the mountains and onsen towns of Gunma and Tochigi Prefectures, all the way to Nikko.
To reach Ueda, you can take the Hokuriku Shinkansen line from Tokyo Station, which takes approximately one hour and 30 minutes. From Nagano, it’s just a 12-minute journey on the shinkansen or about 45 minutes on the Shinetsu Main Line or Shinano Railway local trains. For further exploration in the Ueda area, renting a car is recommended.
In conclusion, Ueda is a history-packed castle town in northern Nagano that offers visitors a chance to immerse themselves in the rich cultural heritage of Japan. From its majestic temples and historic hot spring area to its charming castle and scenic landscapes, Ueda has something to offer every traveler. Whether you’re interested in history, nature, or traditional Japanese culture, Ueda is a destination that should not be missed.
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