Before the 1998 Winter Olympics, Nagano wasn’t exactly one of Japan’s tourist hotspots. This sleepy little city, the capital of the prefecture of the same name, was just another small- to medium-sized Japanese city in the middle of nowhere.
Since hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics, Nagano city has become a world-famous hub for snow sports. It is an entrance point to the Japanese Alps area for skiing and hot springs in the winter. But there’s a whole lot more to Nagano than just snowboarding or bathing.
- Nagano was host city for the 1998 Winter Olympics.
- Zenkoji is one of Japan’s most famous Buddhist temples.
- Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park is the only place in the world where you can see wild monkeys bathing in an onsen.
- Nozawa Onsen is a quaint mountain village with an onsen that according to legend dates back to the 8th Century.
- M-Wave is the best place to experience Nagano's Olympic past, as it houses the Nagano Olympic Museum.
Travel to Nagano
Nagano is Nagano Prefecture's capital and largest city. Its buildings are low-rise and spread out, and population about 380,000.
In the early 12th century, it was a temple town centered on the magnificent Zenkoji temple, a destination for pilgrims. It is surrounded by lush green mountains that offer excellent hiking in the warmer months...
Nagano was host city for the 1998 Winter Olympics. Some of the former Olympic facilities can still be seen around town. The city is an entrance point for the Japanese Alps, used for skiing and hot springs in the winter. A number of good hot spring resorts are within easy reach of Nagano.
Today Nagano is a popular tourist spot and is full of fun things to do. It enjoys cooler-than-average weather during Japan's hot summers, so it is very popular for hiking and walking in the summer.
The 1998 Winter Olympics, commonly known as Nagano 1998, was a winter multi-sport event celebrated from 7 to 22 February 1998. On the first day of the event, 50,000 spectators and 2,176 athletes representing 72 nations filled the Minami-Nagano Sports Park to witness Emperor Akihito officially open the XVIII Olympic Winter Games.
The historic event saw the Winter Games debut of women’s ice hockey, the first participation of National Hockey League players, and the return of curling as an official medal event for the first time in 70 years. In addition, the first-ever snowboarding halfpipe and giant slalom medal events were convened, for both women and men.
While the Nagano Games carved many sports-related firsts into the record books, they also positioned the bustling Japanese city and the greater Chūbu region as a premiere global destination for winter sports. The result was a strong, sustainable legacy that lives on today.
Nagano has a hot-summer humid continental climate, bordering on a humid subtropical climate. Its location in a sheltered inland valley means it receives less precipitation than any other part of Japan, except Hokkaidō.
The city experiences heavy winter snow from December to March, but it is less gloomy during these cold months than the coast from Hagi to Wakkanai.
Nagano is one of the coldest regions in Japan, with an average daily high temperature of only 18 degrees centigrade. The climate resembles Central European weather conditions. It is cold and wet, with a few beautiful summer months each year. Due to the warmer temperatures, the best time to travel here is from May to September.
Top Attractions in Nagano
While Japan's most famous sightseeing spots are Tokyo and Kyoto, it has many beautiful spots besides these. Among those is Nagano, which sits almost exactly in the center of the Japanese archipelago. The city has its own unique nature, with its own special characteristics and peculiarities.
Nagano is home to one of Japan’s most famous Buddhist temples, Zenkoji. This is Nagano's must-see attraction, and is among Japan's most-visited temples. Zenkoji was built in the 7th century and is one of the favorite pilgrimage sites for the Buddhist community in Japan.
The temple stores the first Buddhist statue ever to be brought into Japan, when Buddhism was first introduced in the 6th century. The original statue is hidden away, while a copy is shown to the public for a few weeks every six years.
Zenkoji Omotesando Shopping Street
To reach Zenko-ji temple from Nagano station, one can walk on Chuo Dori all the way north until in front of the temple. Many stores are located on that street just north of the first gate of the temple. It is a great place to buy Omiyage for family or friends.
This scenic street is lined with historic buildings housing cafes, inns, galleries and other shops. Enjoy a stroll taking you past gift shops, handicraft vendors and stores that have been selling shichimi togarashi, a famous local spice blend, for generations. Through the windows of restaurants, you can see buckwheat soba noodles being handmade.
Togakushi Shrine is known for being one of the most beautiful shrines in Nagano. It consists of a lower, middle and an upper shrine in the forested mountains northwest of the city center. The shrines are related to an important story about the Sun Goddess from Japanese mythology.
There are actually several small shrines there, as well as some hiking trails that take you out to the surrounding areas. Special features include Kagami Pond, known for its calming waters, and the famous noodle shop across the street, where locals gather for delicious soba noodles.
The Togakure Ninpo Museum is devoted to the local Togakure school of ninja. During the 12th century, a warrior from Nagano fled to Iga after being on the losing side of a war between the Minamoto and Taira clans. The warrior learned ninja skills there before returning to Nagano and starting his own ninja school.
The museum is located in the forested mountains about an hour by bus northwest of Nagano's city center, just across from the entrance to the Upper Togakushi Shrine.
At the museum, actual ninja weapons such as shuriken and arrows, and ninja tools, such as spiked rings for climbing earthen walls, are on display, as well as valuable photographs contributed by Masaaki Hatsumi, the 34th Togakure Master.
In 1998, the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games were successfully hosted in Nagano. It was the third time Japan had hosted the Olympics. The various events were held in Nagano city and the nearby mountain towns, including Hakuba, Karuizawa, Nozawa and Shiga Kogen.
Today, many of the former Olympic facilities can still be viewed around the city. They are now used as sports and concert venues, or serve the local community as sports facilities.
They include the M-Wave, which houses the Nagano Olympic Museum, the Olympic Stadium itself, the White Ring, which hosted figure skating and short track speed skating events, and the Big Hat which hosted ice hockey games.
Side Trips from Nagano
In addition to attractions offered by Nagano itself, places nearby can also make for a wonderful visit. Here are some other places in the vicinity you can go to, as side trips from Nagano.
Yamanouchi Jigokudani Monkey Park
Yamanouchi is a municipality in northern Nagano Prefecture with a variety of tourist attractions. One of the main reasons people go to Nagano is to check out the famous ‘snow monkeys’ that live here.
The area's Jigokudani Monkey Park draws many visitors because of its unique, wild monkeys who bathe in the park's natural hot springs. There are more than two hundred snow monkeys here.When the weather gets cold they flock to the local onsens or hot springs for a dip in the warm waters.
Matsumoto is the second largest city in Nagano Prefecture. It is most renowned for Matsumotojo, one of Japan's most beautiful original castles. It is also a gateway to the Japanese Alps, for skiing and hot springs in the winter, and hiking and walking in the mountains of Shinshu in the summer.
Matsumoto enjoys cooler weather than the rest of Japan during the country’s humid summer. There are a number of interesting hot spring resorts in and around Matsumoto, popular in winter when it snows, including Yokota, Asama and Utsukushigahara, all to the east of Matsumoto Castle.
Karuizawa is a mountain resort town only an hour from Tokyo via the Nagano shinkansen bullet train. At an altitude of 1,000 meters, the town provides a pleasant escape from the summer heat. In the late 1800s, it was promoted as a mountain resort by Western residents of Japan, and today many wealthy urbanites own a second home there.
Karuizawa draws visitors all year round with various outdoor activities; such as tennis, hiking, cycling, and golfing in summer and skiing and ice skating in winter.
Nozawa Onsen, located in the northern part of Nagano Prefecture, is a hot spring and ski resort of 5,000 inhabitants. Renowned for its onsen since the Edo period, the village also played a major role in the history of skiing in Japan.
The town really comes alive in winter when visitors arrive to enjoy the town's excellent ski resort. The resort hosted the biathlon events during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics and is rather foreigner friendly with English menus, maps and signs available.
Japan is one of the most volcanically active countries in the world, endowing it with thousands of naturally heated mineral springs. These hot springs, or onsen, have served an important role in Japanese daily life for hundreds of years. Locals come to cleanse themselves and socialize, and foreigners come to soak in springs that might cure their ills.
Among Japan’s 47 prefectures, Nagano has the second highest number of hot spring areas and the most day-use hot spring facilities in the country. You can find hot springs of all shapes, sizes, colors and styles here.
One of the most enjoyable ways to experience onsen is to travel to an onsen town. In these areas you’ll be able to find ashi-yu foot baths and soto-yu public baths. Foot baths are free and soto-yu usually are as well. When not free they only cost between 100 to 300 yen.
Onsen towns include Nozawa Onsen which is a quaint mountain village north of Nagano with an onsen that according to legend dates back to the 8th Century; and Yudanaka Shibu Onsen which is one of Nagano’s classic onsen resort areas set at the base of Shiga Kogen.
Tourists go to Nagano for its scenery and bountiful history, but it also has some unique cuisine not to be missed while traveling to famous places like Matsumoto City or the Jigokudani Monkey Park. Here are some foods worth trying.
Soba Buckwheat Noodles
Soba, or buckwheat, noodles are found nationwide. Nagano’s landscape of rich soil is excellent for producing buckwheat, which gives the noodles a rich, earthy color and flavor.
Togakushi and Kaita are just two of the more famous growing areas and in shops and households throughout the prefecture people put their own personal styles into “soba-uchi”, making the noodles.
Traditionally served cold with dashi, grated daikon and green onion, Shinshu soba can also be served hot, making it a delightful staple all year round.
Shinshu Brand Original Foods
The agricultural products and livestock supported in the nature and climate Shinshu has to offer are called “Shinshu Produce”.
This is classified into 3 standards which are ‘Premium’, ‘Original’ and ‘Heritage’.
‘Premium’ refers to fastidiously selected produce of Shinshu. ‘Original’ refers to produce either developed in Shinshu, or selected as one of the highest ranking products in Japan. Lastly, ‘Heritage’ refers to the produce such as traditional vegetables in Shinshu and produce used in local diets.
There are 3 price points to choose from. These prices are generally 10-50% cheaper than enjoying the food a la carte, so we feel that people have high satisfaction after enjoying these plans.
Made from fermented buckwheat dough, and stuffed with anything ranging from anko, a sweet red bean paste, to meat, fruit or vegetables; oyaki is the heart of Nagano.
Pan fried and then steamed or boiled, the piping hot oyaki is far more than meets the eye. Each hearty and juicy parcel is slightly crunchy yet pleasantly chewy. These homemade delicacies are often found in street stalls, and partner well in fall or winter with a hot cup of amazake, a traditional sweet, fermented rice drink with little-to-no alcohol content.
Getting to and Around Nagano
Nagano has convenient rail and expressway access to Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto and other major cities, and is in close proximity to such premier sightseeing spots as Mt. Fuji, Hida-Takayama and the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route.
Tokyo and Nagano are connected by the Hokuriku Shinkansen. A one-way trip takes 80-100 minutes, and costs about 8,000 yen.
The easiest and most comfortable way to travel from Kanazawa to Nagano is on the shinkansen bullet train. The trip will take about an hour and 30 minutes and will cost about 10,000 to 13,000 yen.
Limited “Shinano” express trains run between Nagano and Nagoya. The journey takes 2 hours 55 minutes and will cost between 8,500 and 12,500 yen.
The Limited Express Shinano runs from Nagano, on the Hokuriku Shinkansen, to Matsumoto, before continuing on to Nagoya. It takes about an hour and costs around 4,000 yen.
Jigokudani Monkey Park Guided Tour
In this guided tour, you will make a visit to the Jigokudani Monkey Park.
Jigokudani Onsen is the only hot spring in the world where monkeys are allowed to enter. During warm days the monkeys roam around the vicinity, and in winter they climb down from the mountains to get into the hot spring water. If you are lucky enough, you might be able to see them having a hot bath in the outdoor area.
The sight of monkeys taking a rest in hot springs on cold winter days, while showing signs of human-like hierarchies and social structures, is enjoyable and incredible, heartwarming and relaxing.
Half-Day Nagano Highlights Tour
Today, you will head to the Zenkoji Omotesando Shopping Street for a nice 20-minute stroll up the road leading to the historic Zenkoji Temple.
This area contains many shops selling traditional goods. Take time to stop by any stores that catch your fancy. Try the famous local snack called oyaki, a steamed dumpling available with a variety of fillings to choose from, such as seasoned vegetables, curry, fruit, and even chocolate.
At the top of the slope is Zenkoji Temple. The temple stores what many believe to be the first Buddhist statue ever brought to Japan. A copy of the statue is shown to the public for a few weeks every six years.
Most recently rebuilt in 1707, Zenkoji's main hall has a tunnel in its basement in which visitors try in complete darkness to find and touch the "key to paradise". The key is attached to the wall and grants enlightenment to anyone who touches it.
After your visit to Zenkoji, you will have a lunch of traditional soba noodles, which is a popular dish in the area.
Full-Day Jigokudani Monkey Park and Obuse Tour from Nagano
Today, you will go to Jigokudani Yaen Koen to see the famous snow monkeys.
Jigokudani literally means ‘hell’s valley’, due to the steam and boiling water that bubbles out of small cracks in the frozen ground, and this is where the resident Japanese macaques like to bathe.
The monkeys live in large social groups, and it can be quite entertaining to watch their interactions. Familiar with humans, they can be observed from very close up and almost completely ignore the people watching them. Whilst the monkeys are most numerous during the colder months, they can be observed all year round.
In the afternoon, you will go to the nearby town of Obuse, filled with traditional houses, stores and streets. The town is known for its delicious chestnuts and as the home of Hokusai, the famous painter and printmaker from Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868). A visit to his museum here is a must.
Over 100 houses in the town participate in an ‘Open Garden’ scheme. If you see the ‘Open Garden’ sign in front of the house, it means you can enter the property and enjoy the gardens, giving you a unique insight into Japanese houses.
No visit to Obuse would be complete without stopping in at a local sake brewery for a taste of their delicious sake, made from the high-quality local rice.
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Explore Nagano with Asia Highlights
Nagano is a city filled with a great history and great scenery. It is known as one of the premier destinations to visit on Honshu if you are looking for some winter fun. At Asia Highlights, we’ll make sure that your visit to Nagano will be unforgettable.