The city of Nagano, and surrounding Nagano Prefecture, is an intensely beautiful and historic part of Japan, only a stone’s throw away from the capital city of Tokyo. The city’s Zenko-Ji Temple hides Japan’s first-ever Buddhist statue, while the mountains surrounding the city made it an ideal host for the 1998 Winter Olympics. A mountainous place that transforms with the seasons, Nagano is a place of incredible Shinto and Buddhist history and home to one of Japan’s most iconic castles. While many of Japan’s cities lay claim to an identity of nature-meets-human-invention, that atmosphere can be felt in Nagano better than almost anywhere else in Japan.
Visit Matsumoto Castle
While our minds may land on an image of Osaka Castle—or possibly Himeji Castle—when we think about Japanese castles, Nagano’s Matsumoto Castle is easily as impressive a sight, if not more so. In many ways, it resembles Osaka Castle’s dark twin. It shares a striking resemblance thanks to its moat, high stone walls, and multiple towers, but its black exterior has earned Matsumoto Castle the nickname Karasu-jo or Crow Castle. Two of Japan’s great unifiers had dealings with the castle during the Sengoku period, with Tokugawa Ieyasu ruling the area for a short time before Toyotomi Hideyoshi place the castle in the charge of Ishikawa Kazumasa, who built the towers and keep we can see standing tall today.
Watch the Wild Japanese Macaques
Seeing the Japanese macaque relaxing in a snowy hot spring is a picture many associate with Japan. The snow monkey is a cultural treasure, and within one hour of Nagano city, in the Valley of Yokoyu River, you can watch the wild monkeys bathing in Jigokudani Monkey Park. Visiting between December and March will reward you with those perfect snowy pictures, but the park is well worth a visit any time of year. Not just for the monkeys, visitors can enjoy the hot springs and visit the nearby onsen towns of Shibu and Yudanaka, where you can find ryokan, traditional restaurants, and a selection of baths.
Walk the Roof of Japan
The highest road in Japan, the Norikura Echo Line, with an altitude of 8,800 feet, allows visitors to see the ten-meter high snow walls that make up the Tateyama Snow Corridor. The most famous part of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, the corridor and sweeping views of the surrounding peaks across the horizon make for incredible photo opportunities. Open from late April to the end of June every year, you can get there by taking a bus from Norikura Kogen Tourist Information Center. Once at the top, you’ll be able to hike or have a walk around to look at the snow wall from there. You should bring good boots for walking in the snow, wear warm clothes, and bring sunglasses for the glare.
Wander the Matsumoto City Museum of Art
An unmissable museum, especially for fans of Matsumoto-born Yayoi Kusama who not only donated some of her most notable works to the museum for the permanent “The Place for My Soul’ exhibition, which spans her seventy-year career, but also designed the Matsumoto City Museum of Art’s exterior and outdoor plant sculptures. The museum is dedicated to showcasing local art from Matusomoto city, and the rest of the museum houses the rotating local art exhibitions and a sizeable art and souvenirs shop. The museum is just twenty minutes walk from Matsumoto Station and the impressive Matsumoto Castle.
Visit Zenko-ji Temple
Nagano city is known as a monzen-machi or a town or city developed around a major temple or shrine. Zenko-Ji Temple is incredibly important in Buddhism's history in Japan, founded in the seventh century and home to the first Buddhist statue to ever be brought to the country, attracting pilgrims and visitors to the city for over a thousand years. Despite its importance, Zenko-Ji remains a tranquil place to explore in the city. Zenko-ji’s main hall, designated a National Treasure of Japan in 1908, is beautifully decorated and features Buddhist statues and the temple’s main altar. Behind the main hall is the Zenkoji History Museum, which displays the 100 Rakan, the disciples of Buddha and Buddhas and Bodhisattva statues. Approaching the main entrances of Sanmon Gate and Nioman Gate, you’ll find Chuo-Dori and Nakamise Street, which are lined with small restaurants and shops to enjoy.
Try Oyaki Dumplings
Nagano, being a mountainous and cold region, is known for its wheat production rather than its rice making for wholesome meals and snacks originating in the area – like oyaki dumplings. Thicker and more portable than the typical gyoza style dumpling, these were historically taken out into the farmers' fields for lunch with simple vegetable fillings. Oyaki with richer and sweet fillings adzuki beans were usually served on festive occasions like the new year. Made from soba flour and pan-fried, they are crispy on the outside and soft in the center and typically filled with pumpkin, sliced radish, mushroom, and leek miso—Japanese comfort food at its finest.
Hike Up to Togakushi Shrine
Togakushi Shrine consists of five shrines steeped in Japanese mythology, which are found on Mount Togakushi: Hokosha (lower shrine), Hinomikosha, Chusha (middle shrine), and Kuzuryusha and Okusha (upper shrine). These sacred areas can be reached via five trails taking you through a primeval forest, with the hike up to all five shrines taking around two hours. You will also see small waterfalls, ponds, and flowers and also walk through a botanical garden on the way. To reach the Togakushi Shrine, take bus number 70 from Nagano Station in the direction of Togakushi. You’ll be able to exit at any of the five shrines, depending on how far you want to walk. There’s also a small traditional restaurant near the walkway to Okusha (upper shrine) if you need a rest.
Visit Shiraito Falls
Beautiful all year round, Shirato Falls is an easy day trip from Nagano City or Tokyo, with fall being one of the most popular times to visit due to the surrounding forest. A path leads up to the waterfall and, at the bottom, you will find various amenities, including food stalls and a washroom. The 10-foot waterfall is said to resemble thin ‘white threads’ and is the product of the melting snow from the top of Mount Asama, which appears from underground. To get there, you’ll need to take the train to Karuizawa Station and then the thirty-minute Kusakaru Kotsu bus from there. Be careful not to mix up these falls with Shiraito Falls in Shizuoka prefecture near Mount Fuji.
Located in what is today the greater Nagano city area, Matsushiro was once a powerful stronghold during the Sengoku period of Japanese history. Known once as Matsushiro Town, what remains today is Matsushiro Castle. The town was a stronghold of the powerful Sanada clan, meaning that Matsushiro has a fascinating samurai history tied to it. During the pre-modern Edo period of Japan, this area remained a powerful samurai stronghold. Today, its historic buildings offer tourists the chance to step back in time. Visiting the Sanada clan residence and exploring the Matsushiro Castle Park can be done all year round. In the spring, the area is a popular place for hanami (cherry blossom viewing).
Soak at Shirahone Onsen
Visiting Japan’s onsen towns is one of life’s great pleasures, and Shirahone Onsen, which has a 600-year history, is no exception. Found on the eastern side of the Norikuradake mountains, the hot spring waters are a milky color giving it the name ‘white bone hot spring’—the waters are said to cure several bodily ailments, with one legend saying if you bathe for three days here, you won’t catch a cold for three years. Near natural alpine spots of Kamikochi and Norikura, this escape from city life is refreshing.
Hike Part of the Nakasando Way
The ancient Nakasando Way is ideal for anyone wanting to combine time spent outdoors in nature with small towns of historical significance. The road connected Tokyo and Kyoto during the Edo period (1603-1867) and takes the walker through 335 miles of mountains with 69 post towns on the route. A large part of this runs through Kiso Valley in Nagano Prefecture, known as the Kiso Trail. This route allows you to explore Edo towns such as Narai and Tsumago, famous for cobblestone paths, 300-year-old inns, and a functioning wooden waterwheel in the famous post-town of Magome. As well as sacred spots like Joshoji Temple in Suhara. The hike can take up to five days with stops, but it's not uncommon for people to choose sections they are particularly interested in. A typical starting point is Magome, which can be reached by bus from Nakatsugawa Station.
Get to Know the City of Suwa
Perhaps best known for its lake of the same name, Suwa City in Nagano Prefecture is a beautiful hidden gem in this part of Japan. Lake Suwa is the largest lake in the entire prefecture and can be found within the city limits. Visiting in the spring months means seeing the lake lined with cherry blossoms on every single side. Beyond the lake, Suwa is also home to one of Japan’s oldest Shinto shrines: Suwa Taisha and picturesque gardens surround it. Suwa is also home to a renowned and revered taiko troupe, and in the city, you can find Osuwa Daiko, a museum and exhibition area for the Japanese art of taiko.