This past weekend was yet another small festival in Matsumoto, this time high up in the Utsukushigahara Highlands where the Utsukushigahara Pasture is located. Though the festival itself is quite young (this year was the ninth time), use of the Utsukushigahara Pasture for cows and horses dates back to the Heian times (794-1185 AD)! The pasture is located at an elevation of about 2,000 meters, so the views of the surrounding mountains are a-ma-zing. You can see Mt. Norikura and the Japan Alps, Yatsugatake and even Mt. Fuji on a fine day.
Unlike other festivals in Japan, there are no rows of food and games stands lined up along the streets and no spectacular main events. The ranch festival is more like a big family event and is held to celebrate the release of the cows into the pasture in the spring. The great thing is that it’s not crowded, you can bring your picnic blanket for relaxing, you get to see (and may pet) cows, goats and mini-horse, and the food is provided for free! Also, there are a lot of trails and walking paths where you could spend the entire day exploring and enjoying the scenery.
As I mentioned, the food, which includes curry rice made with deer meat, mochi (pounded sticky rice cakes), is provided for free, but you do have to grab one of the food tickets handed out at the tent in front of the the Utsukushi Tower. Also, every year they give out a little carton of local milk to all the festival visitors and the event is officially kicked off by doing a big, group “toast” with everyone and their boxes of milk!
After the toast, the ranch workers release some of the cows in to the pasture, and the mini-horses in spot where you can actually pet them. There’s also a few games like a huge came of rock, paper, scissors that the entire crowd participates in (and kids have a chance to win a deer antler), and a performance by one of Matsumoto’s alpenhorn groups. The mochi rice is actually pounded on premises so it will be super fresh when you get to eat it, plus you might even have a chance to try your hand at pounding the rice with one of the giant, wooden mochi mallets. Another fun thing for kids is the cow-milking activity where they can experience what it’s like to milk a cow with a “model” cow with fake utters (too bad it’s not a real cow!).
When the activities have died down, then it’s fun to walk around the pasture and trails, or walk to the nearby Ogato Hotel where you can get a cone of milk-flavored soft-serve ice cream. The hotel is easy to spot because it’s surrounded by a few communications towers for TV, cellphone service, etc. Walking up the trail toward the Utsukushigahara Open-Air Art Museum, you’ll find some neat stone “sculptures” that have been created by countless people piling up stones on top of one another.
Since the area is located so high up, you’ll definitely want to bring/wear removal layers, especially a windbreaker and cap, and don’t forget the sunscreen! It can be quite chilly but the sun is harsher.
Unfortunately, the bus to Utsukushigahara only operates in the summer, so you would need a car or friend with a car to actually go to the festival. In the summer the bus to Utsukushigahara departs from Matsumoto Station and goes all the way to the art museum, or there’s an option to get off the bus earlier at Sanjiro bus stop and do a little hike to the top. See more info about that on the Utsukushigahara page here.