Translated by Lester Somera
Nagano Travel Guide: Sightseeing, Ski Resorts, Local Food And More!
Nagano is the perfect place to go for winter sports. Learn about how to get there from Tokyo, 23 of the best spots to visit, ski resort information and other useful information on traveling in Nagano.
Written by MATCHA
What Kind of Place Is Nagano?
The prefecture of Nagano has abundant natural beauty, and is famed for its ski resorts and hot springs.
Nagano became a popular travel destination after it hosted the 1998 Winter Olypics. A particularly popular tourist spot is the Jigokudani Monkey Park, where visitors can see monkeys taking dips in the hot springs.
Another famous sightseeing destination is Matsumoto Castle, or the Crow Castle, so nicknamed for the black color of its walls and roof. Ueda Castle, a notable landmark, received renewed attention in 2016 as the setting for the NHK historical drama "Sanadamaru".
Another spot we recommend for tourists is the holiday getaway, Karuizawa. Karuizawa is dotted with resorts, hotels, tea rooms, museums and other places that give off a wafting scent of Japanese culture.
Nagano has many areas and many faces. Let’s discover a few of its charms.
Table Of Contents:
1. Nagano Area Guide
2. Traveling To Nagano
3. Traveling Around Nagano Prefecture
4. 23 Places You Should See In Nagano
5. Top 10 Nagano Ski Resorts
6. Dining And Buying Souvenirs In Nagano
7. Nagano Hotels, Weather And What To Wear
8. Helpful Information For Your Trip
Nagano's Main Areas
Nagano (Nagano/Iyama) Area
The representative tourist destinations of Nagano and Iyama are the Buddhist temples Zenkoji and Togakushi. The area surrounding Togakushi is well-known as a great location to see the autumn foliage. Another famous spot is Nozawa Onsen, which gets 100% of its hot water supply from natural springs.
Ueda, Saku and Karuizawa are in the eastern Nagano Prefecture.
They are home to various sightseeing spots in the genres of historical landmarks, onsen and art. A few notable examples are the site of Ueda Castle - which appears in the NHK period drama “Sanadamaru” - as well as Bessho Onsen and the Utsukushigahara Open-Air Museum.
Suwa/Ida (Ina/Chino/Komagane/Ida) Area
Nagano Prefecture’s southern region is home to the natural beauty of the Kirigamine plateau and Lake Shirakaba, as well as the famous Suwa Grand Shrine and the allegedly impregnable Takashima Castle. The area is very much worth a visit.
Matsumoto (Matsumoto/Shiojiri/Omachi) Area
The western part of Nagano Prefecture is rich with picturesque scenery, with sites like Kamikochi, Yarigatake and Lake Suwa. If you want a super view of the Japanese alps, visit Matsumoto.
If you’re looking for things to see, Matsumoto is where you will find the symbol of Nagano, Matsumoto Castle, as well as the small galleries of Azumino, the scenic views from Hakuba, and the Takatojoshi Park.
How to Get to Nagano
This travel information in this article is current as of June 2016.
The Hokuriku Shinkansen Is the Fastest Option
The quickest way to get to Nagano Station from Tokyo Station is the Hokuriku Shinkansen.
The Hokuriku Shinkansen line is brand-new, having begun operations in 2015, and runs from Kanazawa Station in Ishikawa Prefecture to Tokyo Station, passing through Nagano Prefecture. Thanks to the Hokuriku, it is now much easier to access Nagano Prefecture than it was in the past.
The Hokuriku shinkansen line has three kinds of trains: Kagayaki, Hakutaka, and Asama, all of which stop in Nagano.
Kagayaki is the fastest, making the journey to Nagano Station in one hour and 20 minutes. A ticket in unreserved seating or a standard reserved seat will cost around 8000 yen.
Highway Buses Are a Budget Alternative
Highway buses run from Shinjuku Station’s south exit to Nagano Station. Fares can range from 1000 yen to 5000 yen; generally, you can expect to pay around 3000 yen. The trip is 3 hours and 45 minutes to 5 hours, and you can get to Nagano by lunchtime if you take a morning bus.
Get a Rental Car If You Want to Venture Off the Beaten Path
Renting a car is a great idea. The drive to Tokyo to Nagano is not far, and won’t consume much gasoline.
Assuming that you leave from Shinjuku Station and take the highway, you can get to Nagano Station in 3 hours and 20 minutes at the most. You can expect to spend an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 yen on highways; add in the cost of gas and the rental car fee, which can cost 5,000 to 8,000 yen per day.
Your itinerary will affect how you decide to spend your travel money. Enjoy a better trip by choosing the best transportation method for you.
Traveling Around Nagano Prefecture
We’ll explain the transportation options for getting around Nagano Prefecture.
JR and the Nagano Electric Railway Company (Nagaden) operate routes throughout most of Nagano. However, in secluded mountain areas, particularly hot spring resorts, train access is infrequent, so a rental car is highly recommended if you want to travel at your own pace.
You can take buses from Nagano Station to visit sightseeing destinations like Zenkoji, Togakushi, the ancient Kawanagajima battlefield and Matsushiro.
・The City Central Loop Bus, Gururin-go
This bus runs a loop of the area between Nagano Station’s Zenkoji exit to Zenkoji Temple itself and is very useful for sightseeing within Nagano City.
・The Tourism Train, Rokumon
If you’re traveling in Nagano, by all means, take a ride on Shinano Railway’s Rokumon. This enjoyable train runs the route from Karuizawa to Nagano, where Ueda and Zenkoji are located. You can appreciate the scenery while you dine on a delicious meal prepared by one of Karuizawa’s famous restaurants.
There is also a teatime service during the ride. However, note that if you want to get a ticket plan with lunch included, you should make a reservation one week in advance, and it costs 12,800 yen. You can buy a ticket in the reserved seating areas at any ticket counter. If you only have a standard passenger ticket, there is a ticket counter aboard the train which you can use.
The train’s warm interior space is due to the plentiful Nagano-harvested lumber used in its construction. Enjoy a relaxing ride on the Rokumon while traveling around Nagano.
By Rental Car or Bicycle
By renting a car or bicycle, you can leisurely enjoy Nagano’s beautiful vistas. Be careful in the winter, as snow can be hazardous; don’t forget to have chains affixed to your tires.
Bargain All-You-Can-Ride Passes
You can save a lot of fare money when traveling in Nagano by using the following passes.
Togakushi Kogen Unlimited Pass
This pass (2,600 yen for adults; 1,300 yen for children) allows holders unlimited rides on the bus routes operating in Togakushi Kogen and Izuna Kogen. You can buy it at the tourist information center in front of Nagano Station, the Nagano bus terminal, or at major travel agency branches.
Zenkoji - Matsushiro One-Day Pass
This pass (1,400 yen for adults; 700 yen for children) allows holders unlimited rides on the bus routes that go through Nagano City’s most well-known tourist spots, such as Zenkoji Temple, the Sanada Treasure Museum, the ancient battlefield of Kawanagajima and more. You can buy it at the tourist information center in front of Nagano Station, the Nagano bus terminal, or at major travel agency branches.
Omotesando Bus One-Day Unlimited Ride Pass
This pass (410 yen for adults; 210 yen for children) allows holders unlimited rides between Nagano and Zenkoji, and can be purchased at the tourist information center in front of Nagano Station.
23 Places You Should See In Nagano
1. Matsumoto Castle
Designated a national treasure, Matsumoto Castle is famous for its magnificent keep tower, as well as for its jet-black exterior which brought it the nickname of "Crow Castle". The sight of the castle against the northern Alps spreading out in the distance is an ideal photo opportunity.
Matsumoto Castle can be visited all around the year, except for three days before New Year's, between 8:30 AM and 5 PM. (Admission costs 610 yen.)
Address: Nagano, Matsumoto, Marunouchi 4-1
For a detailed description of the highlights of Matsumoto Castle, check out our article on it: Matsumoto Castle In Nagano - Explore The ”Crow Castle”!
2. Daio Wasabi Farm (Japanese Horseradish Farm)
Established in 1917, visitors to this farm can visit the wasabi fields and try pickling some for themselves. Another popular activity is cruising the Tadegawa River, which flows through the farm grounds, in an inflatable boat. There is a plentiful menu of food items exclusive to the farm, such as wasabi-don, real wasabi soft serve ice cream, wasabi croquettes and more.
Address: Nagano, Azumino Shihodaka 1692
3. Happo-one Nature Study Course
The Happo-one Nature Study Course is a popular hiking trail in Hakuba. Hikers can enjoy the picturesque landscape of the northern Alps as they get the chance to examine rare mountain vegetation.
Address: Nagano, Hakuba Village, Kitajo Happo
4. Tsugaike Nature Park
Tsugaike is the leading nature park with high-elevation wetlands in Japan. Walking paths have been set up over five and a half kilometers, allowing visitors to stroll around and look at Hakuba’s mountain scenes as well as unusual high-altitude vegetation.
Address: Nagano, Kita Azumi, Otarimura Chikuniotsu
5. Zenkoji Temple
This non-sectarian temple in Motoyoshi-cho was built sometime around the 7th century, and was a pillar of faith for both the masses and the ruling samurai class.
Zenkoji is famous for having been one of the bases of operations for Uesugi Kenshin during his battles against Takeda Shingen, in Japan's Warring States period (Sengoku jidai).
Nowadays, restaurants and souvenir shops line the Omotesando street around Zenkoji, as well as the temple passageways. After paying your respects at the temple, how about taking a leisurely stroll in this area?
Address: Nagano, Nagano City, Motoyoshi-cho 491
6. Hakuba Village
Hakuba Village, located at the foot of Mt. Hakuba, is sacred ground for people who love mountain sports like climbing and skiing. Hakuba served as an ski venue during the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998, and its Happo-one Ski Resort is the largest in Japan. Dare to challenge paddle boating, hot air balloon riding, or rafting. There is also the Hakuba Art Museum, which has a collection of Japanese iris art prints.
Address: Nagano, Kita Azumi, Hakuba Village
7. Nozawa Onsen
Nozawa Onsen is in Nozawa Onsen Town, which has 13 open-air baths available to the public. Locals make use of the baths daily. While admission is free, there are donation boxes at each bath, so drop in some coins according to how satisfied you were. Be sure to practice proper bathing etiquette.
Address: Nagano, Shimotakai, Nozawa Onsen Town
8. Jigokudani Monkey Park
Jigokudani Monkey Park protects wild Japanese monkeys and keeps them under observation. In the wintertime, you can see the monkeys taking dips in the hot springs.
Address: Nagano, Shimotakaido, Yamanouchi-machi, Hirao 6845
9. Kagami Pond
This pond is surrounded by the Togakushi mountains. The spectacle of the pond’s mirror-like surface, reflecting the ring of mountains, is a must-see.
Address: Nagano, Nagano City, Togakushi
10. Togakushi Shrine
A shrine with over two millennia of history, Togakushi once prospered as a place for priests to pursue knowledge. A few of the highlights at Togakushi include a holy tree which is over 700 years old; a rear shrine that venerates Ame-no-Tajikarao-no-Mikoto, a Japanese god of legend; and the Kuzuryu shrine, where the god of good harvests and cavities, Kuzuryu-Okami, is deified.
Address: Nagano, Nagano City, Togakushi 3506
11. Lake Shirakaba
Visitors to this man-made lake within the Tateshina plateau, which belongs to the Mt. Yatsugatake Quasi-National Park, can enjoy outdoor activities like canoeing, paragliding, and more.
Homepage: Nagano, Chino City, Kitayama, Lake Shirakaba 3419−3
12. Ikushima Tarushima Shrine
This shrine venerates two gods: Ikushima-no-Okami, god of birth, and Tarushima-no-Okami, god of satisfaction. The shrine’s main sanctuary, built atop a small island floating in a lake, is notable for its superb construction, even within Japan.
Address: Nagano, Ueda City, Shimono-go, Naka-ikenishi 701
13.Shinano Kokubunji Temple
Shinano Kokubunji is a Tendai Buddhist temple in the Kokubun area of Ueda City. Its must-see attractions include the main temple building (Yakushi-do), the pagoda, the bell tower, the Kanon-do Hall and Daikokuten-do Hall. The three-story pagoda has been designated as an important cultural property by the national government.
Address: Nagano, Ueda City, Kokubun 1049
14. Komagatake Ropeway
This ropeway connects Miyada Village in Kami-ina District with Komagane City. The ride is seven minutes and 30 seconds, and is a straight shot for more than two kilometers over mountain trails. From the window, you can get a spectacular view of Mt. Fuji, the southern Alps, Mt. Mitake, Mt. Norikura, and the northern Alps.
Address: Nagano, Komagane City, Ako 759-489
15. Goshiki (Five-Color) Onsen
Depending on the climate and time of year, the hot spring waters here can be clear, white, blue, green, or grey, which is how the onsen got its name. The feeling of soaking in an open-air bath as you gaze up at the Shinshu mountains is nothing short of spectacular.
Address: Nagano, Kamitakai, Takayama, Okuyamada, Goshiki Onsen Homepage: http://www.goshikinoyu.com/main.html
16. Mt. Sannosawa
Many unusual plants and other vegetation, such as Edelweiss flowers, thrive in the high-altitude environment of this mountain. From the summit, you can see Mt. Kisogoma, Mt. Utsugi, Mt. Norikura and Mt. Ontake.
Address: Nagano, Kiso, Agematsu-machi, Okuwamura
17. Lake Suwa
This lake straddles the territories of Okaya City, Suwa City and Shimosuwa Town. Whooper swans and tundra swans are a few of the native birds that inhabit this lush habitat, which is also home to various species of fish and shellfish. You can also take a pleasure cruise around the lake.
18. Ueda Castle
This castle has become the focus of renewed attention thanks to the NHK historical drama "Sanadamaru". Nobushige Sanada, the show’s protagonist, played a large role in the history of Ueda Castle, which was built in 1583 by his father Masayuki. In 1600, the Sanadas went to war with the Tokugawas and were defeated at the Battle of Sekigahara. Their castle was also badly damaged as a result, unable to hold onto its former glory.
In 1626, the new lord of Ueda Castle, Hidehisa Sengoku, launched a project to rebuild it. The currently existing Ueda Castle is a segment of the reconstructed castle, which served as a battleground for conflicts with the architect of the Edo period - Ieyasu Tokugawa - and also suffered damage wreaked by earthquakes and floods. Ueda castle is an integral part of Japanese history and is a must-see for visitors.
Address: Nagano, Ueda City, Ninomaru 6263-I
19. Bessho Onsen
Th 100% natural hot springs at this resort are said to be the oldest in the Shinshu area, to which Nagano belongs. There are also museums and temples in the vicinity, making it a good place for a two-day getaway. While most of the hot springs are indoor installations for inn guests, there are also three outdoor baths which you can use without staying at an inn, all of which cost 150 yen for admission. There are also two hot springs which have free admission.
Address: Nagano, Ueda City, Bessho Onsen 1853-3
Designated a national cultural property in 1952, Japanese people are well-acquainted with this deep mountain resort, which is said to have been on the ocean floor 300 million years ago. Eons of mountain activity and river erosion have formed the mysterious natural beauty of the area, which is also called the “Descent of Gods,” a homonym for Kami-kochi in kanji.
Address: Nagano, Matsumoto City, Azumi Kamikochi
For more information, check out our Kamikochi article.
21. Okuhida Onsen Town
This onsen town has close to 20 hot spring facilities, such as Shin-Hotaka Onsen, with river-sourced springs, and Hirayu-no-Mori, with 16 open-air baths on a 50,000 square-meter plot of land. The Shin-Hotaka Ropeway and the Hida Grotto, two tourist spots, are located close by.
Address: Gifu Prefecture, Takayama City, Okuhida Onsen-go
During the Edo period, Nagano’s Kisoji road was a key route connecting Edo (now Tokyo) with Kyoto. The inns and tea houses lining the road lifted the spirits of tired travelers. Even in modern times, some of the buildings retain their classic appearance, creating a doorway back in time.
Address: Nagano, Kiso, Kiso-cho
23. Takato Castle Park
This park consists of Takato Castle and the surrounding areas. The castle grounds are home to 1500 higan cherry trees, an unusual breed of sakura. Crowds of people come to see them during the annual sakura festival.
Address: Nagano, Ina, Takato-cho, Higashi-Takato
Top 10 Ski Resorts in Nagano
If you’re in Nagano in the winter, you’re going to want to hit the slopes! We’ll introduce the best area spots for skiers.
1. Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort
This ski resort features 100% natural snow, and the Hikage main slope is fully equipped with amenities, including a ski school, ski center, nursery, kids’ park and more. During the season, there is a free shuttle which goes from the village to the ski resort. After your ski runs are over, a long soak in one of Nozawa Onsen’s hot springs is just what the doctor ordered. For more information, check out our Nozawa Onsen Town article.
Address: Nagano, Shimotakai, Nozawa Onsen Town, Toyosato 7653
Open from: 11/28 to 5/8 (2015-2016 calendar)
2. Kurohime Plateau Snow Park
Featuring 100% natural snow, this park’s 11 courses feature a plethora of variations, making them excellent for skiing. During the offseason, the ski slopes transform into a flower park, with cosmos, dahlias and more in full bloom.
Address: Nagano, Kamiminochi, Shinano-machi, Nojiri 3807
3. Togakushi Ski Resort
The appeal of this ski resort is the sight of the Togakushi mountains looming ahead as you race down the slopes. The resort is also fully equipped with a nursery, nap areas, changing rooms, break spaces, and a kids’ park.
Address: Nagano, Nagano City, Togakushi3682
4. Shiga Kogen Plateau
One of Nagano’s most popular ski resorts, Shiga Kogen is actually comprised of 19 ski areas of varying sizes and is said to be one of the largest in Japan The powdery natural snow has received great reviews for its quality.
Address: Nagano, Shimotakai, Yama-no-Uchi, Shiga Kogen
5. Tsugaike Ski Resort
While Tsugaike is relatively compact in comparison to other resorts, you can enjoy some uncommon activities next to the regular ski slopes: snow biking, snowshoeing, heli-skiing and snowboarding. The resort has 10 courses in total, and you’ll be happy to know that the snow is all-natural.
Address: Nagano, Kita-Azumi, Otari Village, Chikuniotsu
6. Hakuba Goryu Ski Resort
The vast Hakuba Goryu Ski Resort has over 45 courses tailored to various skill levels, so that beginners and experts alike can fully enjoy the slopes. There are also ski lessons taught by foreign instructors, conducted in English and German.
Address: Nagano, Kita-Azumi, Hakuba Village, Kamishiro 22184−10
7. Hakuba Happo-one Ski Resort
Well-regarded for its long ski runs and the quality of its snow, Happo-one is one of the biggest ski resorts in Japan. Race down the slopes as you behold the beautiful mountain surroundings.
Address: Nagano, Kita-Azumi, Hakuba Village, Oazahokujo 5713
8. Fujimi Panorama Resort
This popular resort has long courses and also offers ski and snowboard lessons. In the springtime, visitors can enjoy trekking and mountain biking.
Address: Nagano, Suwa, Fujimi-machi, Fujimi 6666−703
9. Hakuba Cortina Ski Resort
Cortina’s slopes, laden with powdery natural snow, are the main attraction for the groups of tourists who visit. You can get a stellar view of the five mountains in Nagano’s Hokushin region, including Mt. Ushirotateyama and Mt. Myoko.
Address: Nagano, Kita-Azumi, Otari Town, Chikuniotsu 12860−1
10. Lake Shirakaba Royal Hill
Operated by the Lake Shirakaba Royal Hill Hotel, this ski resort uses man-made snow to keep the weather from influencing snow conditions. Guests can ski down the slopes from early December to the end of March. The hotel is directly in front of the slope, making it very convenient.
Address: Nagano, Chino City, Kitayama 419
Dining in Nagano
Nagano is famous for its soba (buckwheat) noodles; Shinshu soba and Togakushi soba both exist as superb examples of the natural flavor profile of soba. If you have the chance, by all means, visit Nagano’s soba towns and try out the real thing for yourself. There are also cafes which serve galette cookies made with soba flour.
Horse meat is another dish with a long and fond history in Nagano. Basashi (raw horse meat) is particularly well-regarded for its tenderness and its lack of a strong odor.
Nagano can also boast about the presence of leading Japanese wineries, such as St. Cousair, Azumino, Izutsu, Obuse, and Shinano. You can can take tours of grape vineyards and factories, and also sample some of the wine.
Nagano Prefecture’s notable exports are apples and wasabi. Whole apple pies from Chikuma Seika, and wasabi chocolates and wasabi rice crackers from the Daio Wasabi Factory, are sure to become delicious souvenirs of your travels.
We recommend trying oyaki from Irohado, a dumpling made by wrapping soba dough around a filling such as Nozawa vegetables, wild vegetables or anko, then grilling the dumpling. There are also exclusive seasonal varieties. Enjoy the simple taste of Japan with an oyaki.
If you want more personal souvenirs, Nagano has many handicrafts. Beautifully grained Nagiso wooden crafts made with lathes, elegant Kiso lacquerware, 400-year old Uchiyama paper, and the bamboo pieces made in Togakushi and Ina are all famous.
Nagano Hotels, Weather And What To Wear
While onsen areas like Togakushi have traditional onsen inns, getaway destination areas like Hakuba are rife with Western-style vacation villas. You can expect to pay 10,000 a night to stay at these various places.
There are also several business hotels around Nagano Station where rooms start at 6,000 yen. Choose the accommodations that are right for you, depending on your budget and where you want to go.
Also, there are plenty of places to stay in the areas around various tourist destinations, but make advance reservations to avoid any unnecessary hassle.
Weather And Clothing
With its relatively high elevation and low humidity, Nagano has cool summers and cold winters. Summer nights can get a bit chilly. It’s a good idea to bring a shawl or a thin outer garment.
You will absolutely need a down coat, gloves and a hat to fend off the winter chill, and if you plan on going to the mountains for skiing, it would be prudent to get spiked snow boots. It is also said that snow glare can cause UV damage to the eyes, so remember to bring sunglasses.
If you’re coming to Nagano in winter, prepare for the snow and the cold, and enjoy your travels!
Helpful Information For Your Trip
These articles could be helpful on your travels.
How much can you expect to spend on food while traveling in Japan? Figure out your budget before you set out on your journey.
Where can you exchange foreign currency? Head to a bank or 7-Eleven ATM.
When you’re out of pocket money, look for any ATM with a Plus insignia to use cashing services with no hassle.
Here are some useful Japanese phrases you can use when you’re staying at a hotel.
To use the convenient free wi-fi services in Japan, download this app beforehand.