Top 20 Things To Do In Nagano, a Prefecture with Majestic Nature and Unique Culture
Nagano Prefecture is covered in a range of mountains that top out around 3,000 meters in height. The prefecture is full of majestic nature, and there is no shortage of activities to do, including skiing. As for food, Nagano is famous for its wasabi and soba (buckwheat noodles). This article will introduce 20 things you have to do when you visit Nagano.
Where is Nagano?
Nagano Prefecture is in the center of Honshu, the main island of Japan. It takes about 90 minutes to travel from Tokyo Station to the centrally-located Nagano Station on the Hokuriku Shinkansen (bullet train), and it takes about 3 hours to travel from Nagoya Station in the Chubu region of Japan on the JR Special Rapid Train. When traveling to Nagano from further away in Japan, we recommend flying into Shinshu Matsumoto Airport. For example, it is 1 hour away from Itami Airport in Kansai by plane, and about 1 hour 50 minutes away from both New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido and Fukuoka Airport in Kyushu.
There are 4 main areas in the prefecture, each with their own individual cultures, and this article will introduce some essential activities that you can do in each one.
The Hokushin Area covers the northern part of Nagano Prefecture. This area includes Nagano City, which is home to the famous Zenkoji Temple, Togakushi, which is known as the Hometown of Ninjas, Obuse, which is famous for its chestnuts, and many other unique locations. The area is also characterized by its many onsen (hot springs), including Yudanaka, Shibu, and Nozawa.
Visit Zenkoji Temple and Buy Souvenirs at the Zenkoji Omotesando Shotengai
Zenkoji Temple is a very popular temple, and it has long been said in Japan that everyone has to visit Zenkoji Temple at least once in their life. This temple has a history spanning around 1,400 years, and it is known for answering prayers about disaster prevention, among other things. Its most impressive site is the hondo (main hall), which has been officially designated as a National Treasure. With a width of 24m, a length of 54m, and a height of 29m, it is one of the largest wooden structures in Japan.
After visiting the temple, why not enjoy some shopping at the Zenkoji Omotesando Shotengai (shopping street), located between the temple and Nagano Station? You can get your hands on unique and special locally produced souvenirs. An old shop called Kongen Yawataya Isogoro is especially popular. The shop is famous for a Japanese-style spicy seasoning called Shichimi Togarashi, and it's a must-visit location for lovers of spicy food.
Visit Togakushi Shrine
Togakushi Shrine is actually the collective name for a group of 5 shrines including Central Shine and the Upper Shrine, all located at the base of the sacred mountain known as Mt. Togakushi. Togakushi Shrine is connected to the Japanese myth of Ama-no-Iwato, and is said to have been built over 2,000 years ago. It is also known as a place with mystical energies, where people go to pray for fruitful business profits, romantic relationships, sports victories, and other things specific to each individual shrine. It's quite a long walk if one wishes to visit all five shrines, but the pathway that connects them is lined with lush 400-year-old cedar trees, which creates a refreshing and sacred atmosphere.
*The image is of Chu-sha (Central Shrine)
Experience the Ninja Lifestyle at the Togakushi Ninja Museum
Togakushi is a place where descendants of the Togakushi-ryu school of Ninjutsu live and teach others about ninja techniques. The Togakushi Ninja Museum is the place to go to to learn about Ninjutsu in this area, which has a rich ninja-related history. There are roughly 500 ninja tools and weapons such as shuriken (ninja star), and about 200 pictures demonstrating Ninjutsu techniques displayed at the museum. With the Ninja Trick Mansion, filled with mechanisms that demonstrate ninja tricks, and the Shuriken Dojo, where one can practice throwing shuriken, this is a great place to take children.
Togakushi Folk Museum, Togakushi Ninja Museum, Ninja Trick Mansion combined entrance fee: General: 600 JPY / Junior high school students and under: 400 JPY
Explore a Hot Spring Village and Enjoy a Hot Spring Bath in Shibu Onsen
This is a hot spring village with abundant hot spring water and a variety of hot spring water types. Those who stay in this hot spring village are able to use any of the 9 public baths, each of which is of a different type of hot spring water. One can even enjoy traveling from bath to bath while wearing a traditional yukata (robe).
In addition to the baths, make sure to take some time to enjoy the town itself. Retro buildings line the stone-paved streets, and one can enjoy the feeling and atmosphere of old Japan. Kanaguya, an old inn that was used as inspiration for the well-known animated film Spirited Away, is especially popular among tourists as a very photogenic spot. Of course you can spend the night there too, as well as take a dip in their outdoor bath called "Bihada no Yu" (literally translates to "hot water for beautiful skin").
See the Monkeys in the Hot Springs of Jigokudani Yaen-Koen in the winter
Located at an elevation of 850m and surrounded by steep cliffs, Jigokudani, meaning "Hell Valley", is home to a large number of Japanese macaques. In the winter, one can see the only monkeys in Japan who bathe in hot springs. The monkeys look both cute and comical while bathing in the hot spring water, and the place is often packed with tourists who have come to take photos of them.
Entrance fee: General (age 18 and older): 800 JPY / Child (elementary to high school age): 400 JPY / Age 6 and under: free
Taste Togakushi Soba
Soba (buckwheat noodles) is the most characteristic noodle dish of Nagano Prefecture. The high temperature difference between day and night is suitable for growing buckwheat, and the buckwheat grown in Nagano is said to be especially fragrant. Togakushi Soba is famous, even compared to other soba from Nagano. Due to the local fresh water that is used in their production, the noodles have an enjoyably firm yet springy texture. Togakushi Soba is also known for its serving style known as "bocchi mori," in which 5-6 bite-sized bundles of the noodles are served on a bamboo serving tray in a visually appealing manner.
Visit in the Fall and Taste Obuse Chestnuts
Obuse is a town where an old-fashioned atmosphere still lingers. The area is also famous for their chestnuts. In the fall, visitors can taste dishes made using freshly harvested chestnuts at several restaurants around the town. The restaurant Obuse-do is particularly popular. You may have to queue, but it is definitely worth it. Their famous item is the Kuri-no-Tenshin Suzaku, a visually impressive autumn-only sweet that looks like noodles. The sweet feels incredibly light when you pick it up with chopsticks, and the fluffy texture is a perfect match for the natural sweetness that comes from the chestnuts.
This area lies in the eastern part of Nagano Prefecture, and is characterized by its many castle ruins and inn towns with historical atmospheres. Additionally, it also contains popular summer resorts such as Karuizawa.
Go Shopping at Kyu Karuizawa Ginza
Kyu Karuizawa Ginza, one of the must-visit travel destinations in Nagano, used to be a summer resort for foreigners. Visitors can enjoy shopping while looking around at the stylish townscape around them. There are many goods that you will want to snap up as a souvenir, such as the strawberry jam from Sawaya. Additionally, there are stores like Tenguya Youhouten, where you can taste around 20 varieties of honey, and Neko no Mise, a store specializing in cat merchandise. With so many unique stores, you can have a great time just window shopping.
Buy Some Wasabi, a Nagano Specialty, from Daio Wasabi Farm in Azumino
Wasabi is a seasoning ingredient unique to Japanese cuisine that is eaten with sushi, sashimi, and other dishes. The city of Azumino in Nagano Prefecture is an area famous for producing wasabi, with its characteristic tingling spiciness. It is also home to the largest wasabi farm in the world, Daio Wasabi Farm, which has an area of 15 hectares. Here, you can enjoy wasabi soft serve ice cream, wasabi croquettes, and other original recipes chock-full of freshly harvested wasabi. Even just seeing the wasabi fields themselves is quite fascinating. The three water turbines that turn slowly in the fields are famous for having appeared in the film "Dreams" by director Akira Kurosawa.
Take a Stroll Through Ueda Castle
Ueda Castle, built in 1583, was known for being impenetrable. You can see what it looked like back in the day by its West Tower, which was built between 1926-1626, and the earthen and stone walls that cover the landscape. The Higashi Koguchiyagura Gate, which lead to the inside of the castle, is famous for being the inspiration for a house gate in the animated film "Summer Wars". Many visitors like to take photographs with the majestic and impressive gate in the background.
Ueda Castle South Tower, North Tower, and Tower Gate admission fee: General: 300 JPY / Student (high school age and above): 200 JPY / Junior high school student and younger: 100 JPY
View the Old-fashioned Townscape of Tsumago-juku
Tsumago-juku is an inn town located along the Nakasendo, one of the main roadways used during the Edo period (1603-1867). Here, the old-fashioned Japanese townscape has been restored and preserved, and you can enjoy the historical atmosphere of the town. The shops that line the streets are full of Japanese goods, traditional crafts, and other goods that hearken back to times gone by. All of the stores close at 5:00pm, but it's recommended to see the dimly lit and atmospheric scene of the town after sunset. There are minshuku (guest houses) in the area, so it is also possible to spend the night and get a taste of what it was like to be a traveler in the olden days.
Ski or Snowboard at Hakuba in the Winter
Hakuba is an area popular for skiing and snowboarding, and is surrounded by 3,000m tall mountain peaks. The slopes are covered in high quality, powdery snow, which allows visitors to have a smooth ride as they ski or snowboard. In all, there are 10 different ski resorts in the Hakuba area, including the Hakuba Happo-one Winter Resort, where visitors can ski for up to 8km along their long cruising course. You can choose the best course for your level from among many various courses in the area. With easy access from Narita Airport on the highway bus, and many restaurants with English menus as well as several places to stay, this area has quite a few foreign visitors who come back again and again.
This area is in the center of Nagano Prefecture, and is most famous for its majestic natural spots such as Kamikochi and Utsukushigahara Kogen. Furthermore, Matsumoto Castle, in the city of Matsumoto, is a designated National Treasure known for being a beautiful castle surrounded by lush nature and traditional culture.
Take in the Beautiful Nature of Kamikochi
Kamikochi is a picturesque mountain area with an elevation of around 1,500m above sea level. It is a truly superb landscape full of grand mountains, beautiful lakes, ponds, and lush forests. Taisho Pond is an especially popular location, as its mirror-like surface reflects the surrounding mountains, making it the perfect photo-taking spot. There are many other interesting sites to see, such as Kappa Bridge, which is considered to be the symbol of Kamikochi, the Myojin District surrounding Mt. Myojin, which used to be a Shinto shrine precinct, and more.
Admire the Beauty of Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto Castle is one of 12 remaining castle towers in Japan, and among all the five-story castle towers, it is the oldest. The walls of the castle are painted black, and the gables (upper, triangular part of the walls connecting to the roof) are painted white, creating a wonderful contrast that looks great against the mountains in the background. The details of the castle design are also impressive. Although the castle has a rustic design overall to make it suitable for battle, there are still unique decorations here and there that display a sense of sophistication.
Admission fee: General: 610 JPY / Junior high school and elementary school student: 300 JPY / Children younger than elementary school age: free
Go Hiking at Utsukushigahara Kogen
Utsukushigahara Kogen is a plateau with an area of around 600 hectares at an elevation of around 2,000m above sea level. You can enjoy some pastoral views, such as cows grazing on the grass or fields of beautiful blooming flowers, all while surrounded by a 360-degree view of majestic mountains. One recommended place within the area is the Utsukushi-ga-hara Open-air Museum, where around 350 items, including sculptures, are displayed outdoors. Furthermore, the night-time view of a star-filled sky, and the view of the morning sunrise coloring the clouds are breathtaking. If you stay at one of the campgrounds or cottages in the area, you might encounter three different gorgeous views all within one day.
Ride on the Uniquely Nagano-style Sightseeing Train Known as Rokumon
Rokumon is a sightseeing train that travels between Nagano Station and Karuizawa Station. The interior makes use of a lot of wood, and has a warm, inviting atmosphere. All of the cars are dining cars, and passengers can look out of the window at various sights such as Mt. Asama and the Chikuma River while enjoying a meal made with local ingredients from the regions along the train line. There are various meal plans to choose from, including Western-style food, kaiseki cuisine (traditional Japanese course cuisine), and creative cuisine. Reservations can be made by phone, in person at the train stations, or online through the official homepage.
Sample price: Dining plan, Rokumon No.1: 14,800 JPY
This area covers the southern part of Nagano Prefecture, and consists of beautiful nature surrounded on the east and west by steep mountains. It is popular for having many experience-based sightseeing spots, such as taking a boat down Tenryu River, viewing the stars in Achi-mura, watching the fireworks over Lake Suwa, hiking up to the Senjojiki Cirque, and more.
Ride a Boat Downstream at Tenryu River
This is an activity that consists of riding a small boat down swift currents at the Garyukyo Prefectural Park. This is a thrilling ride, where visitors depend on the deft oar-handling of the boat captain, while being sprayed with the river water as the boat races downstream. The river course, which runs between Benten and Tokitama, is about 6km long and takes around 35 minutes to complete. Tourists who would rather go slowly down the river while enjoying the scenery have the option of taking the Tenryu Line Kudari course instead. This course runs between Tenryukyo Onsen and Karakasa Port, taking around 50 minutes in total. Visitors can enjoy different scenery depending on the season.
Tenryu Funa-kudari Boat Cruise admission fee: General: 2,400 JPY, Elementary school student and younger: 1,200 JPY
Relax at Hirugami Onsen
The town of Achi is said to be the place where you can see the most beautiful night sky in all of Japan. Here, you can spend an unforgettable night surrounded by bountiful nature and looking up at a sky full of countless twinkling stars.
In addition to stars, Achi is also known for Hirugami Onsen, a hot spring village that is said to represent southern Nagano prefecture. Soak in the smooth hot spring water known as "Bijin no Yu" ("hot water for beautiful people") and let time slip away. Enjoy a luxurious time as you gaze at the stars while relaxing in the famous hot spring water.
Watch the Fireworks show at Lake Suwa
When visiting Lake Suwa in the summer, you have to make sure you see the fireworks. For example, the Lake Suwa Fireworks Festival is held every year on August 15th. This is one of the largest firework displays in Japan, in which around 40,000 individual fireworks are set off, lighting up the night sky and the surface of the lake in extravagant colors. Furthermore, the All Japan New Fireworks Tournament is held at Lake Suwa every year on the first Saturday of September, where you can see artistic firework displays as well as demonstrations of brand-new types of fireworks. Additionally, there is a mini firework display of about 15 minutes held each night from the end of July to the end of August, so make sure to see some fireworks if you ever visit Lake Suwa in the summer!
Ride the Komagatake Ropeway up to Senjojiki Cirque
Senjojiki Cirque spreads out in front of Senjojiki Station, the highest station in Japan at an elevation of 2,612m above sea level, which is accessible by a 7.5-minute ride in a cable car. This area has a unique landscape that was shaped by glaciers during the Ice Age, and is covered with small alpine plants, creating a beautiful scenery. The best time to visit is from the end of September to the beginning of December, when autumn colors are on full display. The view from the ropeway at this time, in which the gold leaves completely cover the mountain range below, is particularly gorgeous.
Ropeway fare (round-trip): General: 2,260 JPY / Elementary school student and younger: 1,130 JPY
As you can see, Nagano is full of unique charm, and there are even more locations to see that weren't covered in this list, such as Suwa Grand Shrine and Nozawa Onsen. Use this list as a guide when planning your trip to Nagano Prefecture.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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