Visiting Japan? 5 Reasons You Should Go to Nagano

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Chances are, most western travelers never heard of Nagano.  Maybe it sounds slightly familiar thanks to its hosting of the 1998 winter Olympics, which actually helped put Nagano on the map.  For the most part, howeverit 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.

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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 country–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)

Downtown Matsumoto City

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 through the city and for being home-city of the Seiko watch… it’s also famous for this:

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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.

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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.

2.  Kamikochi

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.

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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).

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I’ve been to this national park three times and let me tell you: it never gets old.

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It feels like walking into a fairy tale.

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3. Nagano City (Zenkoji)

Ah, Nagano City.  You can’t go through the prefecture without stopping through its capital city, right?

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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.

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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.

4. Karuizawa nagano - karuizawa

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 their original fashion, organically harvested honey, and furniture stores run by local artists.

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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.

Celebrating Christmas in Karuizawa

Celebrating Christmas in Karuizawa

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.

Nagano - soba

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, or hot buckweat noodles with 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

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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.

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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!

19 thoughts on “Visiting Japan? 5 Reasons You Should Go to Nagano

  1. yueni says:

    That castle looks like a castle I’d want to see! I’ve seen so many European castles, I’m jaded. I don’t know why I didn’t realise Japan had castles too!

    I’m going to take Autumn’s lead and just say no to the monkeys, though. o.O

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      Yeah, Japanese castles are AWESOME! You definitely need to go!

      The two best castles are Matsumoto and Himeji (black and white). They’re both completely intact and hardly suffered any damage in the last few centuries. The beautiful gardens surrounding the castles also makes it a great draw 🙂

      Have you been to Japan? I hope you can go soon!

      • yueni says:

        I don’t know why it’s not letting me reply directly to your comment, but I do plan to go visit Japan as I’ll be working in Asia for the foreseeable future.

        I’ve actually been in Japan before (for less than a day because I missed my connecting flight), so I got to see Izumisano (the town where the Kansai airport is). I had an awesome time, and got by on the four Japanese words I could remember: arigato, sumimasen, sushi, & ramen. =P

        If things work out, I hope to go to Japan for hanami season in 2016. Not sure yet! We’ll see!

  2. Marta says:

    Ugh, I hate monkeys. There is no way I would bathe with one (don’t they have fleas or something?).
    That forest looks gorgeous though.

    I am actually going to Japan in February (can’t remember if I told you before!), but only to Osaka and Kyoto, any special suggestions? 🙂

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      I don’t think they have fleas? They’re quite clean, but like I mentioned, they can be quite dangerous! Before we went into the park we were given a laundry list of instructions for how to deal with the monkeys (don’t look them in the eye, feed them, get within 10 feet of them). Yeah.

      WOW You’re going to Japan!?! I’m so excited for you!!!!!

      For Osaka, you should definitely go to Dotonbori and Nama, since it’s the main road of Osaka where all the action happens. It’s a foodie town, so there’s a lot of good stuff. Definitely try okonomiyaki (Japanese pizza) and takoyaki (octopus balls). You can also go to Shin sekai , another foodie spot full of old school Japanese shops. “Kushi katsu” is also famous here (kushi katsu shops are everywhere). It’s a dish that’s basically fried stuff on a stick. There’s also Osaka castle, which is pretty on the outside but is actually a rebuilt castle. If you go inside there’s elevators and other modern things (not as intact as Matsumoto).

      Kyoto has so much to see, I’m sure you’ll have no problems finding things to do. My favorite spot is Fushimi Inari (the place with all the red Japanese gates). It’s on the outskirts of Kyoto and DEFINITELY WORTH IT. There’s another forest area in Kyoto called Arashiyama. Lots of bamboo, green and temples. It’s also a bit further out from the city so it feels more remote.

      Let me know if you need anymore tips!

      • Marta says:

        THANKS a lot Mary!! I still didn’t do much research but yes, I read that there are many interesting sites in Kyoto. I will definitely check your suggestions 🙂 And I better start dieting now so I can eat my weight in Japanese pizza and octopus balls in February 😀

  3. hcyip says:

    Good post; seems there is a lot to see in Nagano. I’ve only been to Matsumoto, to visit Tateyama, but I also visited the black crow castle.

  4. Cat says:

    Love Nagano! My Chinese fiance and I have been there twice – Matsumoto castle is definitely a highlight and while a lot of people seem to not be a fan of the monkeys they were my favourite part! We also spent quite a while in Nozawa Onsen – the fire festival was on while we were there and that was definitely a pretty cool highlight.

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      WOW! You went there twice!?! You must really love it!! Matsumoto castle is AWESOME! It’s as real as it gets when it comes to relics… I could stare at it all day, it’s really so beautiful and majestic.

      I actually haven’t been to Nozawa onsen (gasp) but I’ve been to a number of onsens around Nagano… they’re so great!

      Did you used to live in Japan?

  5. Jim says:

    I just decided yesterday that I was going to run the Nagano marathon so I’m glad to see there are multiple reasons to visit this place apart from the marathon, where would you recommend I stay in Nagano city?

    • rubymary says:
      Profile photo of rubymary

      It really depends on your budget. If you’re looking for something private and cheap, business hotel chains (like Sunroute) are good. Nagano Daiichi Hotel seems like a pretty good deal in terms of cheap hotel/motel (has a bath on the top too!).

      Airbnb probably allows a more intimate and traditional experience (especially since your host will be a local). Again, this might be a little cheaper than a business hotel, but you won’t have the same level of privacy (and will probably sleep on a tatami). Like, this one seems pretty good.

      If you have an extremely high budget and want to spend a night at a hot spring/ryokan somewhere nearby then let me know and I can help you find one.

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