Chances are, most travelers never heard of Nagano. Some people know it as that place in Japan that hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics–but other than that, Nagano, unfortunately, still remains widely unknown.
Nagano is one of Japan’s larger prefectures located in the Shinshu region directly west of Tokyo (about a one hour bullet train ride away). It is one of the most mountainous regions in Japan and is known for its snow, great peaks and amazing forests.
Nagano is special to me, because it’s the first place I ever went to in Japan. I did a one month study abroad program here, and it was nothing less than magical. The mountains, the food, and most of all the kind hearts of the people in the countryside are what made me fall in love with this place–and convinced me to come back.
Since my first trip to Japan, I’ve been to countless prefectures and cities in the country–yet Nagano still remains my favorite. It has charm. It has tradition. It has nature. It’s the best prefecture to visit because of its close proximity to Tokyo and countless sights.
This is why you should go to Nagano:
1. Matsumoto City (and castle)
Matsumoto City is located in southeast Nagano and is the second largest city in the prefecture. It’s not only famous for the Shinano river which runs throughout the city and for being the home-base of the Seiko watch… it’s also famous for this:
Japan’s most authentic and intact castle: Matsumoto-jo.
Smack center in the middle of the city is this masterpiece. This is one of the few castles in Japan which was not destroyed by wars or fires. It’s almost exactly the same as it was 400 years ago. Built in the karasu-jo (crow castle) style, this castle design is in stark contrast to its counterpart Himeji Castle (in hakuro-jo style, white egret) in Himeji city way down south.
With a cheap ticket (10 USD or less if I remember), you can enter the castle and climb up the crazy, steep stairs used to keep intruders out.
The castle gardens are also the best place to watch the sunset, go for a romantic stroll, or perhaps even catch a festival.
Kamikochi is one of Japan’s national parks and a UNESCO world heritage site. Only a quick one hour bus ride away from Matsumoto City is an immensely green forest covered in trees that reach up to the heavens.
At the top of Kamikochi is a shinto shrine, where you can wish for safe travels, a long and healthy life, or to pass the college entrance exams (by far the most popular request of Shinto temples in Japan).
I’ve been to this national park three times and let me tell you: it never gets old.
It feels like walking into a fairy tale.
3. Nagano City (Zenkoji)
Ah, Nagano City. You can’t go through the prefecture without stopping through its capital city, right?
The main highlight of Nagano City is Zenkoji Temple, one of the few remaining pilgrimage sites left in Japan, rumored to hold the first Buddha statue ever brought to the country.
I’ve seen a lot of temples in Japan: and trust me, Zenkoji does not disappoint.
You can also go through the underground sanctuary beneath the temple for a tour in the dark. Guests are supposed to feel their way around the passage through the guiding light of Buddha–but mainly, it’s dark and and somewhat creepy. Still, an experience nevertheless.
Nagano City is also a lovely, medium-sized city that is much more manageable than crazy and crowded Tokyo. It has a slew of bars, restaurants, and good food that are very friendly and open to foreigners. Nagano is also known for its apples and wasabi, so don’t forget to pick up your apple themed omiyage (souvenir) before leaving.
Just in time for the holidays.
Karuizawa is a trendy, hip mountain town located on the western most edge of Nagano prefecture (closest to Tokyo). It’s famous for its western churches (one of the first built in the region), which is where many Japanese couples dream of tying the knot. These two churches are: St. John Paul the Baptist’s church and the modern stone wall church built into the side of a mountain.
Karuizawa is mainly a place for the rich to buy a cool mountain retreat to escape the unbearable heat of Tokyo summers. Yet despite its high-profile, short-term tenants, the place has managed to retain its small town charm. A quick stroll down main street and you’ll find dozens of local shops selling local Nagano fashion, organically harvested honey, and furniture stores run by local artists.
While Japan doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas, Karuizawa is one of the few places in Japan where the Christmas spirit felt authentic. Christmas lights, cold weather and snow? Yes please.
5. Hot Springs and Soba
In Japan, the best hot springs (or onsen) are located in the middle of nowhere–and lucky for you, Nagano prefecture is in the middle of nowhere.
A short ride away from Kamikochi is Jigokudani, a snow monkey park where, yes, you can actually bathe with the monkeys. This is actually horrifically dangerous (I have done it–eye contact with a monkey could result in multiple flesh wounds and the loss of an eyeball), so I recommend taking photos of the monkeys from afar and not bathing with them.
The most famous hot spring (without monkeys) is Nozawa onsen located near Nozawa Ski Resort in the middle of nowhere (aka, Nozawa village in Nagano). It’s a great place to relax, soak in some natural mineral waters, and sip some hot sake as you enjoy a snowy winter day in the comforts of a bath.
But honestly, there’s an onsen almost anywhere in Nagano. Whether you’re in Nagano city or Matsumoto City, there is usually one hot spring a short bus or train ride away.
In Togakuchi, a mountain village located one hour away from Nagano City, is a soba school. Nagano is famous for its zaru-soba, or buckwheat noodles. You cannot leave Nagano without sampling its cold/hot buckwheat noodles alongside some crisp and flaky tempura. Hell, at Togakushi Tonkururin, a famous soba restaurant, you can learn how to make soba AND eat it all in one go.
The Spirit of Japan
After wandering around Matsumoto Castle, I returned to the garden entrance to find the 65th annual Obon festival dance in full motion.
The beat of the taiko drum. The chanting of the dancers singing the familiar festival songs that reverberate across Japan throughout summer. The red and white striped lanterns. The familiar “yokosoi” dance for summer festivals, where men and women in kimonos and yukatas flick their hands up, dip down and twirl around in perfect unity and precision. The humid summer air. The smell of yakisoba (fried noodles) wafting up from the food stalls nearby. The gathered community. People laughing.
I felt it. This is Japan. What it means to be Japanese.
A small slice of Japanese life in the countryside. In Nagano. The heart of Japan.
Where, when, and how?
If you’re planning a trip to Japan, definitely stop by Nagano! It’s easy to tack onto any Japan trip because of its close proximity to Tokyo. If you’re a skiier or snowboarder, it’s a must.
If you’re planning a trip, the official Nagano website is the best place to get tips. They’ll give you advice on how to get where.
Also, the best website/app to look up train directions in Japan is Hyperdia and Google Maps. Japan is a super easy country to navigate, and almost ANYWHERE is accessible by train (even Kamikochi and other extremely remote national parks)!
And of course, use Airbnb and hostels when you can, since accommodation is usually the most expensive thing in Japan. Matsumoto has a slew of great Japanese B&Bs!