The ancient-modern cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto tend to dominate the itineraries of travellers seeking out the Land of the Rising Sun, but for the more intrepid adventurer, Nagano Prefecture could be just the ticket. Located in the central mountainous region of Honshu, the country’s largest island, its main city of Nagano is the highest prefecture capital in Japan. Lying some 245km from Tokyo, it can easily be reached by Shinkansen in about 90 minutes.
Situated at the confluence of the Chikuma and Sai rivers and enveloped by towering mountains, Nagano’s unique landscape offers a plethora of outdoor activities, gorgeous scenery and hot springs. Beyond the charms of this 377,000-strong city itself, however, are the historic towns and world-class skiing resorts that punctuate its surrounds, so base yourself here and venutre out each day to explore. Here, we highlight some of the most visit-worthy sights of Nagano in winter.
The powdered peaks surrounding Nagano are not just for show. In fact, roughly 80 ski resorts lie in the vicinity of the city that hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics. Each year, thousands upon thousands of avid skiers of every skill set descend upon the region to take part in the thrilling winter sport.
One of the best spots to bring your skis is Hakuba Goryu Snow Resort, which offers well-groomed slopes of various difficulties with ski-lift access, rental gear, and an adjacent plaza packed with dining options. In addition to bunny slopes and sledding, there are also indoor and outdoor play areas to keep the little ones amused for hours.
After a full day of skiing, a dip in one of Nagano’s many natural hot springs will tend to your sore muscles and provide rejuvenation. If you’re an onsen purist, make sure to include Nozawaonsen – just an hour northeast of the city – on your itinerary. This small town boasts a staggering 30 different springs, and life in the village very much revolves around Japanese bathing culture.
If you’re not in the mood to splurge out on some of the pricier options, Nozawa even offers a handful of free onsen, including Ōyu Hot Spring, which is located near the centre of town, and is famous for the wooden, Edo-style architecture of its bathhouse. Along the way, sample some of the snacks sold by street vendors, including fresh oyaki – buns with vegetable stuffing that are steamed using the piping hot water of the local onsen.
Nagano’s onsen hotspots are not limited to Nozawa. Roughly 30km to the south lies the Jigokudani Monkey Park, one of the prefecture’s most popular tourist attractions, which also boasts a number of trails for keen hikers. Here, waterproof footwear are advised as the paths can get quite muddy.
In addition to steaming springs and spectacular vistas of the snow-dusted peaks, the park – as its name suggests – affords visitors the opportunity to cosy up to the indigenous monkeys, which are known to share a hot-spring dip alongside their homosapien guests.
Roughly an hour south of Nagano lies the stunning Matsumoto Castle, a government-listed national treasure. Care has been taken to preserve its original form, so the 30m-high, six-storey structure stands almost identical to when it was first raised in the late 16th century. The black-and-white façade calls to mind a bird taking flight, hence it has been fondly dubbed ‘Karasu-jo’, or ‘Crow Castle’ by locals.
While the castle grounds are free to wander year-round, they appear particularly picture-perfect in the snow. If you visit during peak season, you may even be able to jump on one of the free guided tours. The surrounding area is also well worth exploring, as the town boasts its own brewery and a downtown bar where weary travellers can rest their feet and sip a pint or two.
With the majestic Crow Castle as its backdrop, the Matsumoto Ice Sculpture Festival is another major Nagano attraction during the winter season. An annual event that is usually held in late January or early February, the festival spans a weekend, during which visitors can watch amateur and professional sculptors alike carve beautiful ice sculptures of all sizes.
The main competition begins at 6pm, when participating teams are given 12 hours to complete their frozen works of art, with the winners announced the following morning. The festival is also a welcome excuse, if any were needed, to overload on regional culinary treats, down copious amounts of sake and mingle with the locals in a convivial atmosphere.
Enter the Ninja
Ninjas hold a special place in Japanese culture. The deadly, fleet-footed covert agents of feudal times were instrumental in waging surprise attacks. Today, their military relevance may have disappeared, yet they still capture the imagination, as seen in myriad movies and TV shows.
Kids Ninja Village, a small ninja-related theme park set amid the forest of Nagano’s Mount Togakushi, is designed to educate a new generation on the ancient warrior art. Some of this ‘ninja training’ requires an additional fee, but it’s worth the expense to watch your wannabe spies try their hand at blow darting or shooting throwing stars (shuriken). There are also two mansions, brimming with labyrinths, trapdoors and contraptions, that will have visitors of all ages on edge.
The nearby Togakure Ninpo Museum is interesting, too, with showcases of tools and weapons once used by the Togakure school of ninja, as well as photographs of the black-shrouded assassins practising various warfare and infiltration techniques. The museum also features a Ninja House, which may look like an ordinary building but reveals an interior of secret doors, passages and traps.
Sharing the same compound is the Museum of Togakushi Folklore, which exhibits tools, clothing, receptacles and furniture used by the local inhabitants of yesteryear for whom Nagano’s breathtaking snowy mountains and exhilarating hot springs were simple, everyday pleasures.
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