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While Nagano might not top people’s lists of must-visit places in Japan, it has many great spots. Nagano City is quite famous for hosting the 1998 Winter Olympic Games and the prefecture overall has many charms, being home to centenarian temples and shrines, and many onsen and ski resorts as well.
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Are you a winter person? Do you enjoy winter sports and activities? Or do you love soaking in hot baths in a cold and snowy place? Or all of the above?? Then Nagano in Japan is the perfect place for you. This must-visit city and prefecture in central Honshu will bring you a winter wonderland experience that will complete your Japan vacation.
Back in the Nara Period, Nagano grew as a temple town - a town that flourishes due to the number of people visiting a particular temple in it - outside of Zenko-Ji, one of the most popular temples in Japan. In modern day, it has been designated a core city - a city that has over 200,000 in population with some delegated responsibilities. It also developed into a mecca of outdoor sports and activities. In fact, the city hosted the XVIII Winter Olympics Games in 1998, and some of the facilities used during this historic event are still standing and functioning to this day.
Nagano Prefecture is often referred to as 日本の屋根 (Nihon no Yane, the “roof of Japan”) because this is where the highest mountain ranges in Japan are located. The city of Nagano fits in perfectly into this picture as the prefectural capital city with the highest elevation in Japan. The breath-taking landscape of the area combined with the abundant and well-preserved historical sites, diverse cuisine, and infinite list of activities are some of the reasons why you should take a detour here during your Japan trip and/or if you want to check out a new place after having hit up all the major tourist spots.
Nagano City is the capital of Nagano Prefecture which is located at the heart of Japan and in the center of Honshu Island. Although it is a little bit far from some of the major cities in Japan, getting here is not a problem at all. The most basic and fastest way is to take the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Nagano Station which takes about an hour and a half. There are direct buses that depart from Tokyo’s major stations such as Shinjuku Station. If you are not coming from Tokyo, there are many highway buses that travel from different cities in Japan, or you could take the trains that eventually connect to the Hokuriku Shinkansen or Nagoya’s local lines. From Nagano Station, other places in the prefecture can be easily accessed.
To give you a teaser of what to expect in Nagano, here are some of the highly recommended destinations that you shouldn’t miss in the city.
Zenkoji is one of the oldest temples and most significant pilgrimage sites in Japan. This 1,400 years old temple is considered one of the National Treasures in the country. This is where the very first Buddhist statue brought to Japan has been kept for centuries. And every six years, a replica of the statue is shown to the public. The next public viewing of the statue will be in 2022.
※ Zenkoji Temple ※ Japan National Tourism Organization, "Zenkoji Temple"
Although there is no public viewing of the famous Buddhist statue most of the time, this does not mean that the temple is not a good place to visit. The Zenkoji Temple in itself is such a cultural and historical masterpiece that deserves time and attention.
As mentioned earlier, Nagano City was able to grow into the city that it is from its start as a temple town of Zenkoji. So, coming here to Zenkoji Temple feels like going back to the roots of this fascinating city.
After the successful 1998 Winter Olympic Games held in Nagano, some of the Olympic facilities are still standing and functioning. The unique architectural designs of the facilities remain to give a world-class and ultramodern element to the city. Aside from being popular tourist destinations, these facilities are still used as venues for sports and concert events. Some of these Olympic facilities are the M-Wave (speed skating), Nagano Olympic Stadium (renamed Minami Nagano Sports Park), White Ring (figure skating), and Big Hat (ice hockey).
The next two locations are located outside of Nagano City in Togakushi but the best access is from Nagano Station (an hour by bus) and therefore included here.
One of the most enchanting shrines in Nagano is the famous Togakushi Shrine. This place consists of five shrines namely Kuzuryusha, Hino Mikosha, Okusha (upper shrine), Chusha (middle shrine), and Hokosha (lower shrine). Many tourists visit Togakushi Shrine to pray because it is believed that they will be answered. Aside from this, the intricate designs of the shrines and the forested landscape around the place also make it a real enchantment. The walkways are lined up with gigantic trees and there are long staircases that lead to each shrine. Walking around the area would give visitors a serene and tranquil feeling while absorbing the beauty of culture and nature.
Many of us are familiar with ninjas who are featured in many Japanese films and anime. But have you ever dreamed of meeting a real ninja or experiencing what it feels to become one? Then you have to visit the Kids Ninja Village - a ninja-inspired amusement park in Nagano. This is a favorite destination especially for those traveling with their kids.
You can find real ninja houses and you can even meet real-life ninja who are more than happy to show you some tricks that will make your jaws drop. If you’re not content with just looking, there are short workshops and classes that will teach you some ninja moves and tricks including knife-throwing and bamboo sword-fighting. The Kids Ninja Village is the place to relive your dreams of becoming a ninja.
There are also ninja-related activities and attractions for adults nearby such as the Ninpo Museum.
Aside from the abundant number of iconic sites to visit, here are other activities that you should try out to maximize your Nagano trip.
Being the venue of the 1998 Winter Olympics Games, Nagano will never disappoint you when it comes to different winter activities like skiing. There are a lot of ski resorts here in Nagano that are all accessible and popular for their white powdery snow and beautiful landscapes. Some of the popular ski resorts in Nagano are Hakuba, Shiga Kogen, and Nozawa Onsen.
Who doesn’t want a relaxing bath? Well, Nagano has numerous natural hot springs (onsen) in different areas of the prefecture where you can treat your body to a few hours of pampering from the long and tiring adventures you have enjoyed so far. There are also different types of onsen here like outdoor ones where you can relax while enjoying a panoramic view of nature outside and there are indoor types as well.
Some of the most famous onsens here in Nagano are Kanbayashi Onsen, Shibu Onsen, Yomase Onsen, Kagai Onsen Ichiyoukan, and Omuro Onsen Makibanoyu.
One of the main reasons why tourists flock to Nagano especially during the winter season is the rare sight of snow monkeys bathing in natural hot springs. You can find these adorable creatures in Jigokudani Monkey Park where during winter months, these Japanese macaques will dip themselves in a hot spring bath to relieve themselves of the cold. These snow monkeys are also used to humans so you can come somewhat near them and take pictures of them. You can also see them in seasons apart from winter, but they won’t necessarily be bathing; thus most people come to see them in the winter months.
A destination that you should never skip is the well-known Matsumoto Castle. What sets Matsumoto Castle apart from the rest is the fact that the castle remains untouched and original. Because it was not damaged during World War II, the castle did not need any reconstruction or renovations thus preserving its original structure. So, if you are looking for an original Japanese castle, you have to check out this Japanese National Treasure. Aside from the castle, there are many other things and activities you can try as well here in Matsumoto City such as visiting museums or side-tripping to the Japanese Alps.
※ Matsumoto Castle, "About Matsumoto Castle"
The places and activities mentioned in this article are only some of the countless experiences you can expect in Nagano. We didn’t even get to mention places like Karuizawa, Tsumago and the Japanese Alps so there’s always more to explore. A visit here will give a combination of historical, cultural, and adventure-filled experiences. So, what are you waiting for? Don’t miss out on the fun and include Nagano in your Japan itinerary now!
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