Suwa is a small city located on the southern side of Lake Suwa in Nagano. It is pretty easy to get there as all Azusa and Super Azusa express trains stop at Kamisuwa Station, the main station in the city. I had a full day to explore the city but ended up not doing anything due to the weather. There is a lot to see and do for a day or two but if the weather is not cooperating, you will be out of luck. You can enjoy things such as Lake Suwa, the largest lake in Nagano; visit Suwa Taisha, famous for its “log ride of death”; Takashima Castle, one of the only brown or golden castles in Japan; and for the sake breweries. You may need 2 full days to enjoy all of these things without any rush but it is very doable and a lot easier than you could have imagined.
Kamisuwa Station is just 2-2.5 hours from Shinjuku Station. You can easily take the Shinkansen to Osaka in the same amount of time but sometimes taking the regular train is a lot more enjoyable. The scenery from the Chuo Line is actually more interesting than the relatively boring Tokaido Line as the Chuo Line runs through the mountains. At one point I was considering taking the local trains but if I did I would have been too tired by the time I arrived there. The Azusa and Super Azusa trains stop at Kamisuwa Station and they are great as you can easily relax on them and arrive feeling fresh. The trains tend to be pretty busy from Shinjuku until you reach Kofu. Most people start to exit the train after you pass Hachioji rather than getting on and the train is pretty empty when you reach Kofu. I was lucky enough to have 4 seats to myself from Kofu and could stretch out easily. On the return I was not as lucky as people generally get on as they return to Tokyo. The cars are typical limited express cars and you can freely roam around the train. I had forgotten what it was like to travel at such a “slow” speed when compared to the Shinkansen.
Lake Suwa is probably the biggest attraction of Suwa. When you get out of the station you are on the wrong side of the tracks to get to the lake. There really isn’t anything to see on either side of the station. The entire area is an “inaka” (rural) town. People are helpful and the signage is not so bad, but if you can’t read Japanese it can be a little difficult. I enjoyed walking around the town and the lake was just 10 minutes from the station. When you get there you are in a nice park and there is a large art sculpture in the centre of the park. It is basically a tall silver spire with a mirror finish. I went on a very wet and rainy day so trying to get pictures of everything was not enjoyable but trying to enjoy my time was not difficult. The only down side to the park when I visited was that the lake, while beautiful, was the only attraction. There were a few sculptures in the park but it wasn’t interesting enough for me to want to return again, unless I just want to relax at the lake.
On the east side of the lake is a Geyser Centre. It is a building dedicated to the geyser of Lake Suwa. Several times a day the Geyser brings forth a tall spurt of hot water to relieve pressure from the natural hot springs below. There isn’t a lot of information in the centre and it was surprising to see almost no information about the geyser itself. I might have missed it but the first floor had a big souvenir shop, the second floor had some sort of exhibit on Japanese films, and the third floor had a fireworks exhibit. The first floor was primarily a holding area for people waiting to see the geyser go off and it looked like a converted onsen. The water was drained from the pools but the placement of the windows and interior looked like it used to be an onsen that didn’t work out. The geyser itself is pretty artificial. I’m sure it used to be more natural but they capped it with a metal plug and open it up to release pressure from the underground spring at regular intervals. It helps to add to the tourist aspect of the area and also protects the area from unexpected rushes of water. For such a rainy day it was the best place to go as all of the other sights were just not worth the trip.
Next to the geyser centre is a free foot bath, “ashiyu”. The ashiyu was a life saver for such a terrible day. It wasn’t very cold but it was cold enough with the rain and wind that I didn’t feel comfortable. When I saw the ashiyu I had to go and enjoy it. The area uses the natural hot spring water and they have a nice wood roof to protect you from the rain. The natural stone was also a nice touch and I enjoyed spending several minutes enjoying the hot water on my feet. Because of the rain, there were almost no people there when I was enjoying the ashiyu and it was very peaceful. I’m sure that on a bright sunny day it would be very busy. I enjoyed the bath so much that I went back a second time after watching the geyser. I could have spent a long time there but after a while I started to get a little bored and decided I should go. While this ashiyu was located next to the Geyser Center, about 10 minutes from the station, you can also enjoy a free foot bath inside Kamisuwa Station as well.
The main attraction in Suwa, for me, was the 5 sake breweries. They are located just a short 10 minute walk from the station and it is not easy to get lost. All you have to do is head out of the station, turn right at the street, and keep walking past Suwa 2 Chome intersection and you are there. When it was sunny, it was a nice short walk, but when it was raining hard it was a miserable walk. As you head there, all I could really think of was the sake. I thought of how much I would be able to try and I kept dreaming of the nice cold sake that would help warm my body. After visiting the Geyser Centre and watching the geyser blow its top, the rain started to fall heavily. I had a waterproof jacket but my jeans were not so lucky. I did the best I could to be happy and the free tastings of sake really helped keep me happy. I couldn’t believe how much I spent on sake but for this passionate drinker it shouldn’t be so surprising. I know I’ll have to go back again and enjoy the area as it is just a stone’s throw away from Tokyo.
Suwa is a great place for a weekend trip. You do need a little luck so that the weather is nice. Even though I didn’t get a great experience due to the rain, I still thoroughly enjoyed my trip. I may not be back for the nomiaruki this year but I will definitely be back again in the future. It really depends on my schedule and if my wallet can afford the costs. If I do return for the nomiaruki, I will definitely try to go to either Suwa Taisha or Takashima Castle. I am still a little sad that I couldn’t go to these places but I know that I will be able to go someday. These landmarks are waiting for me and I will be back so that I can experience them.