One of the great things about getting out of Japanese cities is that you will ultimately find some wonderful and little known gems all over the countryside. One such treasure is Iiyama's so-called "Ajisai-dera", a small, mountainside Buddhist temple boasting hundreds of hydrangea flowers.
Located in the Togari Onsen area of Iiyama City, in Northern Nagano Prefecture, this temple, officially named Kogen-in, is well off the beaten path for the average overseas tourist visiting Japan. It is much like the more well-known temple in Kamakura, a spot visited not really for the temple itself, but for its garden full of blue hydrangea flowers best seen in the months of June and July.
But Kogen-in is a surprise for those lucky enough to stumble upon it. There is little in the way of signage or advertising for this place. I would never have known about it had it not been shown to me by a representative from the Shinshu-Iiyama Tourism Bureau. The temple, with its current main hall dating to 1719, is found right beside the south-western base of Togari Onsen Ski Area. Park your car near the ski area's Rest House Togari (a dining lodge open in the winter) and walk the few steps to the start of the path leading up to the temple. Here you will have two wonderful and memorable vantage points. The first is directly ahead -- the main walkway, lined with tall cedars and hydrangeas growing at their bases. The other spot is slightly off to the right side, along a narrow, paved road by the stream. Here you will see hundreds of blue hydrangea flowers spread out across the uphill slope, with the temple's red roof in the distance.
I visited this temple on a weekday morning in July and not only was it the perfect time to see the flowers, but nobody else was around. I had the place to myself! That will likely change soon, however. The Shinshu-Iiyama Tourism Bureau has been very busy lately, in anticipation of the completion of the Hokuriku Shinkansen, the new Iiyama Station and the potential tourism these will bring to the area. They have been producing literature in both print form and online detailing the various places to visit. The whole Iiyama area has breathtakingly beautiful scenery and its settlements feature a kind of old-Japan charm that you won't easily find in the big cities.
This area is going to get touristy soon. Better hurry!
For those traveling by public transportation, take the Iiyama Line from Nagano Station to Togari Nozawa Onsen Station. From there, either walk or take a taxi to the Togari Onsen Ski Area. The temple is next door. The time to visit for the hydrangeas is in June-July.