Nagano Prefecture Overview
Nagano is rarely part of the popular travel routes through Japan except for skiers or those in search of the snow monkeys in Jigokudani Park in Yudanaka.
This often overlooked prefecture is the perfect place for travelers looking to experience nature, amazing food, and rural life in Japan. The best part is it’s only a short bullet train ride from Tokyo.
There is so much to do in Nagano. We will focus this blog on the outdoors. Read our travel stories for more information on food and cities.
Nature in Nagano
Nagano is the 4th largest prefecture in Japan and is one of the least populated regions of the country. The terrain is mountainous with the Japanese Alps running through. Nagano was home to the 1998 Winter Olympic Games. Clearly, skiing and winter sports are a major attraction to the region with 85 ski resorts. Most notably is the Hakuba Valley which participates in the Epic Pass and gets you in to 10 ski resorts in the area.
The main Nagano areas for skiing are Nozawa, Hakuba, and Shiga Kogen. For best connections, head through Nagano City for Hakuba and Shiga Kogen. To reach Nozawa, head to Iiyama.
If you are looking to see current ski conditions in Japan, click here.
Hakuba oustide of ski season
If you are in the Hakuba Valley from April to November, another great way to see the area is from overhead in a hot air balloon.
There 215 hot spring sources across Nagano. Proximity to Tokyo makes many of the onsen resort towns like Nozawa, very popular with Tokyoites escaping for the weekend. It is also a great pairing to spend some quiet time in an onsen town like Yudanaka paired with other regional activities. Yudanaka is a short train ride from Nagano City. Spend the night and head out to the see the snow monkeys of Jigokudani Park in the morning.
Photo by Luke Hahn
Many onsen are believed to have healing properties becuase of water purity and minerals in their sources. Onsen resort towns usually have a number of ways to experience the hot springs from free foot baths near train stations and town centers to public baths to private options in hotels.
We strongly recommend going to a rotenburo, an outdoor bath, where you can enjoy the mix of cool air and warm water to truly relax. For tattooed travelers, check out our blog on tattoos and Japanese baths for more guidance.
Hiking and Exploring the Mountains
Togakushi Walkway to Shrine
Just out of Nagano City are the three shrines of Togakushi Jinja. Walking the trail to the upper shrine is a great part of visiting Nagano City. Official records date the shrine back to the 9th century but it is rumored to date back to 200 B.C.
The walk through the tall cedar trees is reminiscent of strolling by the giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park in California. In Togakushi, there are over 300 cedars trees that are over 800 years old. This area plays into a number of Japanese mythical tales.
Mt. Kurumayama summit and shrine
This is a great day trip. In the central Alps, Mt. Kurumayama and surrounding area offers hiking, the wetlands, and iconic views. Best experienced in spring through fall, you are walking in the clouds with uninterrupted views. This makes it a special stop for fall foliage.
There ae buses from Kamisuwa and Chino to the Kirigamine Interchange bus stop (approx. 40 minutes). All in all, it is about a three journey if heading out from Tokyo but the landscape would suggest you had been traveling longer.
Kamikochi in the northen Japan Alps
Part of Chūbu-Sangaku National Park, the area surrounding Kamikochi is pristine and relatively undeveloped. There are only a handful of hotels in the area and vehicle access is limited to bus and taxi. The best way in would be a bus from Matsumoto station (a little under 2 hours).
If you have some time to explore and want to get find beautiful solitude, this is a good place to seek out. Full of wildlife, this plateau sits 1,500 meters above sea level and offers a totally different perspective of a country better known for it’s population density and urban centers.
Shiraito Falls in Karuizawa
A very popular spot for Japanese travelers, Karuizawa is only 70 minutes from Tokyo by shinkansen. The town is noted for its art, great food, and accessibility to nature. While this post focuses on the outdoors, the Hiroshi Senju Museuem is a must see for art and architecture afficionados.
Further outside Karuizawa are the Shiraito Falls. The area is popular year round for its nearby ski resorts, it’s outstanding fall foliage, and for the cool mountain summers.
Rent a bike and cycle the area. The best soba I have ever had was a fortuitous stop on a cycling day. I have been back on subsequent trips and it lives up to my memory. Ask me about when we talk.
Make time for Nagano
The mountainous prefecture has some of the purest water sources which makes it an onsen destination as well as a top spot for sake, wine, and beer making.
If you are looking to escape the cities or see a Japanese culture untied to urban life, this is a great spot that is not out of the way.
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