Ninjas, Soba, and Buddhism

So I’ve been remiss in updating this blog, especially considering the fact that the whole family spent two weeks in Japan over the summer. It practically provided me with years of material, but where to begin? We saw so much! We ate so much!

Friends and relatives, the vast majority of whom had never been to Japan, asked us what we liked best and what we ate there. Between Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagano, and our Nagomi Visit,  it was all amazing – 14 solid days of great experiences and meals. (Okay, maybe the freezing, rain-soaked night climb of Mt. Fuji could have been more pleasant).

The thing about Japan -something you’ve probably heard before – is that it’s a heady blend of the familiar and alien, the modern and traditional. That struck all of us, but the experience that resonated most with me was a one day detour we made to a place that felt traditional period. We took a bullet train to Nagano, a lovely, medium-sized city three-and-a-half hours northwest of Tokyo – and then a one hour bus ride into the misty, volcanic hills to Togakushi Village.

After dragging the kids to lots of temples, the local ninja school was going to be their reward. The famous local soba noodles were going to be the adults’ consolation prize. Before we got to the ninja school, though, we walked through the village with thatched roof houses and to the Togakushi Shrine. Actually consisting of three separate Buddhist shrines dating back to the first millennium AD, the whole place felt serene and, dare I say, holy.

An explanation of the mythology behind the shrines from

The shrines are related to an important story in Japanese mythology in which the Sun Goddess hid herself in a cave in present dayTakachiho on Kyushu after her brother had misbehaved, thereby bringing darkness to the world. In order to get the sunlight back, the other deities tried to lure the Sun Goddess out of the cave by performing spectacular dance performances in front of it. As the Sun Goddess took a peek out, one of the deities grabbed the cave’s stone door and threw it away to prevent her from hiding again. The stone door flew all the way to Togakushi in Nagano Prefecture, which is also how the area got its name: Togakushi literally means “hiding door”. Today, the upper shrine worships the deity who grabbed and threw away the stone door, while the middle shrine enshrines the deity who organized the dance performances in front of the cave.

The ninja school down the road felt kitschy by contrast, but the kids had fun shooting blow darts, throwing stars, and having a mock sword fight. There was even a nice, albeit small, collection of arms and armor.Toga7

On the way to the ninja school, though, we passed a restaurant next to ancient trees that I had seen in a blog post at bigontrips. I had little hope of finding it but, as we were walking by, recognized the proprietor from that post. Bigontrips said lunch was first-come, first-served, so we put our names on a waiting list and got a spot later that afternoon. We got back a little early and watched the owner hand-roll noodles through the ground floor window.


The food was well worth the wait. I ordered the soba with mountain radish and a quail egg, washed won with some unfiltered sake.


The kids liked the food but didn’t appreciate it as much as the adults. Still, they were hungry enough from playing ninja to slurp down their noodles.


Off the beaten path but simply amazing and well worth a detour if you ever find yourself in Japan.


About SJ

I rite good.
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