In 1998, the city of Nagano ( 長野市) was the host of the eighteenth Winter Olympics. It immediately put the city and the region on the map and everyone could see how beautiful the Japanese Alps looked. Still, not many tourists visit this area and that is a pity. Because in addition to the beautiful nature, Nagano has much to offer tourists: culture, relaxation in the Onsen and interesting historical sights. Okay, the beach is missing, but in Japan a beach is never far away. Would you like to know more about this interesting city? Then read on and find out what you can do in Nagano and the Japanese Alps…
What would you like to know about Nagano?
- History – 5 historical facts – Did you know…?
- Sightseeing – 8 interesting places in Nagano
- Accommodation – Where to stay?
- Transport – How to get there
History – 5 historical facts – Did you know…?
- Nagano originated with a temple in the 7th century, and only after that did the construction of houses begin. This shrine is by the way the Zenkoji Temple, the most important temple of the city.
- In 1561, the surroundings of Nagano were the scene of a real battle between two rival families. Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin fought various wars with each other on the Kawanakajima plain, during which they suffered heavy losses. In the end, the Shinge family won.
- In 1847, a large earthquake took place in which more than 10,000 people lost their lives.
- Nagano was founded as a city in 1889 by merging a number of small villages.
- In 1998, a major event took place: the Winter Olympics. The Paralympic Winter Games were also held here.
Sightseeing – 8 historical sites in Nagano
How many days do you need to explore Nagano city? In general, one day is enough, unless you want to explore the surrounding area. Nagano is ideally suited as a base from which to go on beautiful hikes in the Japanese Alps. But are you looking for culture and history? Then read on, because below I will give you 8 nice possibilities to improve your knowledge of art and culture of this region.
1. Zenkoji Temple: Find the key to paradise
The Zenkoji Temple is the city’s main attraction. In this temple, you will find the oldest Buddha statue ever brought to Japan. Okay, you will not be allowed to see it personally, but besides that, this shrine is historically important for the city of Nagano. This is how this city came into existence after the Zenkoji Temple was established. What is also special is that this temple strives for equal treatment of men and women. This is why more than 8 million people visit this shrine every year. And finally, here you can go in search of the key to paradise. Doesn’t that sound like music to your ears?
How to find it? Read more about it in the article Zenkoji Temple, Nagano | Find the key to paradise!
2. Take a walk to the Togakushi Jinja Shrine
Located 30 kilometres northwest of Nagano are the Togakushi-Jinja Shrine. These are three shrines in the beautiful mountains and are ideal if you want to take a nice walk. The story behind these temples is that the Goddess of the Sun hid in a cave in Takachico after her brother misbehaved. Because of this, the world was shrouded in darkness. Several other gods tried to lure her out of that cave by, among other things, holding exciting dance performances. When the goddess secretly opened the door to take a look, another god took the stone door and threw it away… to Togakushi. Hence the meaning ‘door of refuge‘. There are three shrines to visit that can be done by bus or by walking.
3. Meet the Japanese macaques at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
Have you ever seen one of those photos of bathing monkeys with snow in the background? These pictures were taken at the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park near Yudanaka. The park is a 45-minute train ride from Nagano and is a great destination to get a closer look at those crazy monkeys. Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park came about after a man called Sogo Hara was impressed by the monkeys on a hike and saw that their habitat was threatened by logging, deforestation and the accompanying construction of ski resorts. Since 1964, the park has been called this, and even in summer it is nice to visit.
Read the article Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park: Meet Japanese Macaques in Hell Valley for more information and historical background of the Japanese macaques.
4. The Olympic Idea
In 1998, the city of Nagano really gained worldwide attention when it hosted the Winter Olympics. References to this event can be found regularly in the city. In the M-Wave Olympic Museum, which is still used as a skating rink, you can learn more about the Olympic Games in Nagano. The museum is located east of the city centre and is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm. Admission is free. For more information from the M-Wave Olympic Museum.
5. The Castle of Matsumoto
Matsumoto (松本) is about an hour by train from Nagano Station. The Limited Express Shinano train runs between Nagano and Nagoya and has a number of interesting places. Matsumoto is one of them. The main attraction is the Matsumoto Castle. Together with two other castles in Japan, it is on the Unesco World Heritage List. Did you know that in the 19th century, the local population ensured that this beautiful castle would not be demolished? Want to know more? Read the article The Castle of Matsumoto | The original black castle of Japan.
6. Nakasendo Trail: Hike the route of the Samurai
Are you looking for a fun hike with great historical significance? Then hike the old road that many samurai walked when they went from Tokyo to Kyoto or the other way around. This road, called the Nakasendo Trail was over 500 kilometres long, but you can get a small impression by walking the shortened version of 8 kilometres. The villages of Magome and Tsumago have remained so ‘traditional’ that you feel you are 200 years back in time. Okay, the walk is popular among tourists, but it is also very beautiful.
From Nagano, this walk is not suitable as a day trip. By train it takes 2.5 hours to get there, but it might be a nice next destination for you in the direction of Nagoya and Kyoto.
Read more about the Nakasendo Trail in the article Nakasendo Trail, Japan: Walk the Way of the Samurai
7. Visit the ancient battlefield of Kawanakajima
Are you a big fan of Samurai movies? Then go to the old battlefield of Kawanakajima. This is where a number of battles between rival families took place in the sixteenth century. Nowadays, this is a relaxed park with statues and you can take a historical walk that tells you more about these battles. Besides the park (Hachimanpara), you can also visit the Nagano City Museum for more information about the battles. For more information, visit the website of Kawanakajima Kosenjo.
8. Go to Obuse town for woodcuts by Hokusai
Obuse is located north-east of Nagano and is the site of a number of museums about the artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). He stayed in Obuse for a number of years and made a number of woodcut prints here that we know by the name of ukiyo-e. His best-known work is The Great Wave of Kanagawa, an original print of which was sold in 2019 for 130,000 euros at the Amsterdam auction. If you look closely, you can see an image of the holy Mount Fuji in the background. To visit Obuse, be sure to visit the Hokusai Museum and the Buddhist temple Gansho-In, where the ceiling was painted by Hokusai.
Accommodation – Where to stay in Nagano?
Planning to visit Nagano alone? Then book a hotel in the city centre. I myself stayed two nights at Guesthouse Aun. An advantage of this guesthouse is that it is within walking distance of JR Nagano Station. The owner is nice, the beds are good, only the rooms are rather small. But that makes it cosy on the other hand. But an important addition is that it has a small kitchen and there is a supermarket around the corner. And finally, it is within walking distance of the city’s main attraction, the Zenkoji Temple.
If you want to visit Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, you can also book accommodation in the Yamanouchi region (Yudanaka or Shibu Onsen). This region is known for its many onsen, the hot springs. A place to relax for a while.
Transport – How to get there?
From Tokyo, it takes about 2 hours by bullet train, the Shinkansen to Nagano. You leave from Ueno Station or Tokyo Station. Once you arrive at JR Nagano Station, it is about a 25-minute walk to the Zenkoji Temple. It takes about 3 hours by car from Tokyo to Nagano.
Next destination in Japan?
Looking for your next destination in Japan? Continue your trip to the east for Nikko National Park or Tokyo. Or go south to Matsumoto, the Kiso Valley or Mount Fuji. Or head west for Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Nara.
Do you have any tips, remarks or ideas about Nagano? Then feel free to leave a message below!