Welcome to Shimosuwa
Lake Suwa, the largest lake in Nagano, can be found in Shimosuwa. The lake surface sits at a high altitude of 759 m, making for summers that are comfortably cool and less humid. Despite the bitter cold of winter, there are many sunny days and the chance for lucky visitors to witness the mysterious Omiwatari phenomenon. Home to one of Japan's oldest shrines, Suwa Taisha Shrine, this richly historical town flourished as the only post town (a type of rest stop during the Edo along the Nakasendo Highway (a famous transport route) with hot springs. Recently, a younger generation has made the town their home, inspiring a number of specialty and craft shops to start businesses here. Shimosuwa's unique blend of nature, history, the new and the old, means there is always something to enjoy for everyone.
Discover Shimosuwa’s history
Shimosua's history is long and rich. Life here reaches back as far as the Paleolithic era when stone tools which have been discovered in the area were used. The town has flourished and changed through various significant periods in Japan's history. Religion, myth and mystery have always played a role since long ago and still remains to this day. Read on to discover the many ways in which Shimosuwa has developed over time to become the unique town it is today.
Obsidian and the origins of Shimosuwa
People began living in Shimosuwa nearly 20,000 years ago. The site of the Hoshigato Obsidian Mines in Shimosuwa is one of the few remaining locations where people mined this valuable stone. The region surrounding the mine was well-known for its excellent stoneware. The people of the time carried the excavated obsidian out from the mountains, crafted it in the foothills and traded it for goods. Obsidian and other goods reached as far north as Hokkaido via this trade that continued until the introduction of ironware which eventually replaced the stone. The precious artifacts on display at Hoshigato Museum YANONEYA will give visitors a sense of the close relationship ancient people had with this black stone.
A one-of-a-kind hot spring post town
Five main highways connecting Edo (the former name for Tokyo) and other cities were constructed in the Edo Period. The town happened to be located at a key juncture of the Nakasendo Highway (connecting Edo and Kyoto) and the Koshu Kaido Highway (another route that connected Edo and Nakasendo). Moreover, among the sixty-nine post towns along the Nakasendo Highway, Shimosuwa was the only post town boasting hot springs. The Nakasendo still runs through Shimosuwa today, and many historical buildings that preserve this post town atmosphere, such as a Honjin (official inn) and ryokans where only high-ranking officials could stay, can be found alongside this major highway.
Unique rituals and a faith surrounded by mystery
Suwa Taisha is one of the oldest shrines in all of Japan. Details surrounding its origin remain unknown since many ancient documents were lost due to war and other conflicts. Unlike other shrines, Suwa Taisha differs architecturally in that it doesn’t have a honden, or main building which normally houses the shrine’s kami or god. Instead, the upper (Kamisha) and lower (Shimosha) shrines of Suwa Taisha Shrine worship the surrounding nature. Kamisha worships the mountain, and Shimosha the trees. This worship of nature speaks to a more primitive time and reveals just how ancient the shrines are.. Shimosha is home to the ancient Onbashira Festival among other unique religious festivals and rituals that are shrouded in mystery. Those who visit Shimosha will be enveloped by this enduring history and will certainly reflect on the area's unusual religious traditions.
Two legends of Shimosuwa
Shimosuwa is home to two famous legends. The first concerns the creation of the Wata no Yu hot spring. When the goddess who lived in Suwa Taisha’s Kamisha moved to Shimosha, she soaked cotton balls in the hot springs she often used and brought the soaked cotton, or yudama, with her. Upon arriving in Shimosha, she put the soaked cotton on the ground and a hot spring bubbled up at a furious speed. This legend is the origin of Shimosuwa Hot Springs.
Another legend is centered around a phenomenon known as Omiwatari (the crossing of a god). When the entirety of Lake Suwa's surface is frozen, huge streaks of cracked ice run over the frozen lake, which looks like a small range of mountains. However, another cause for this phenomenon is attributed to the god of Kamisha crossing the lake to see the goddess who resided in Shimosha.
Keeping the legend of Wata no Yu and Omiwatari in mind will make your stay in Shimosuwa all the more enriching.
A Day in Shimosuwa
Below is a recommended itinerary for a day in Shimosuwa. Our town is an excellent destination for a daytrip from Tokyo or other areas and a great place to spend a relaxing evening in one of our storied guesthouses. Visitors can expect to spend around 100 minutes strolling through the town and taking in its famous sites.
A morning of shrines, temples, and bubbling hot springs
Many of Shimosuwa’s hot springs open early in the morning. What better way to rise and shine than with a refreshingly steamy hot spring bath followed by breakfast at a local café? Hit the streets after breakfast to visit the shrines and temples in the area. You can feel the morning sun as its rays pierce Jiunji Temple’s tree-lined approach, while Harumiya and Akimiya Shrines in the Shimosha branch of Suwa Taisha are known throughout all of Japan. Be sure to pay them a visit!
Take advantage of the daylight to visit a variety of sightseeing spots around the town. Shimosuwa flourished during the Edo Period, and the townscape of settlements at that time can still be enjoyed today. In addition to walking, the town also offers e-bikes that can be rented and used to cycle around the area. Art galleries, museums, and other artistic spots can be found along the shores of Lake Suwa for visitors to enjoy, while activities like wakasagi (Japanese smelt) fishing and apple picking will let you experience Shimosuwa’s nature firsthand.
Take a dip in the footbath to refresh your mind and body
Visitors can take a quick break and dip their feet in foot bath hot springs found throughout Shimosuwa. These locations are perfect for taking in the evening views of Lake Suwa while resting your tired legs after a long day of walking. There are plenty of high-quality hot springs around, too, so going for a steam wouldn’t be a bad idea either. After refreshing yourself in the town’s hot springs, go out for some excellent local cuisine that will surely fill you up.
Bars, snack bars, and meeting the locals
A number of bars and other dining establishments located in the heart of Shimosuwa are open late into the evening. Some of these establishments are known as “snack bars” where guests can order alcohol and eat light bar food while speaking with the “mama” (the proprietor) across the counter. Locals often congregate at these locations that give visitors a great chance to speak with both the owner and people from the area. Many snack bars are even equipped with karaoke, meaning you can enjoy singing your heart out with other patrons.