Surrounded by forests, mountains, and in the winter, plenty of snow, Nagano is a great sightseeing area northwest of Tokyo. If you are visiting Japan for winter sports, than Nagano offers plenty, as it played host to the Winter Olympics in 1998. But, Nagano is not without its history, as many great temples, shrines, and the stunning Matsumoto Castle can be found here. So, why not visit Nagano, take a walk in the Japanese Northern Alps, or even take a dip in a hot spring bath; the perfect way to relax after a day of sightseeing:
1. Matsumoto Castle
(image by flickr.com)
Since its construction in the latter half of the 16th century, Matsumoto Castle has kept its noble appearance. Painted in jet-black, the castle is not a completely showy structure, but it evokes a dignity that survived the turbulent times of the harsh Sengoku Era from its unwasted beauty. However, there is a history for the castle that was brought about by the passion of the local citizens. When the castle was auctioned off, those citizens along with people of influence saved it. Even afterwards, it was not demolished and through restoration and reconstruction, the castle has continued to be preserved as it was when it had been first built. Since it is one of the rare oldest existing castles in Japan, it was designated as a National Treasure and was selected to be one of Japan’s Top 100 Castles.
One of the characteristics of Matsumoto Castle is its construction on a plain. To protect a castle from enemies during the Sengoku Era, castles were frequently built on mountain tops. However, this was inconvenient for the development of commerce and industry for the town. For that reason, Matsumoto Castle was erected on a plain in the hopes for town development and countermeasures against enemy attack were rigorously developed. Around the castle, three layers of moats were built which prevented enemy invasion. Within the castle grounds, there were strong steps on the slopes and many small windows known as hazama. From those windows, rocks and firearms were able to be used while making it difficult for attack from the outside. Matsumoto Castle as seen from the outer moat was viewed as a fortress floating on the water which inspired fear. But looking at it from the other side, it is interesting that it is admired for having a gentle appearance among the beautiful pine.
The castle tower, consisting of 5 layers but 6 floors, is currently a museum and the interior exhibits weapons and equipment used at that time. Once you climb the extremely steep and narrow stairs, you should be able to realize traces of the various efforts made to make things difficult for invading enemies. However, when you reach the top floor, you will recover from the fatigue after seeing the beautiful mountains of the Japanese Northern Alps and the pretty landscape of Matsumoto spreading out in front of your eyes.
Admission: Adult: ¥ 610 / Child: ¥ 300
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Matsumoto Castle
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Matsumoto Castle
- Tours of Matsumoto Castle
2. Jigokudani Monkey Park
(image by flickr.com)
Jigokudani Monkey Park is located in the beautiful Yokoyugawa Valley in northern NaganoPrefecture. At an altitude of 850m and surrounded by steep cliffs which are covered in plenty of snow in winter, the area is so desolate that it has been referred to as being “hellish” due to the spewing steam from the fountains. The wild macaques have been living here in this mountain area since long ago, but with the felling of the forests, their natural habitat was eroded and damage was done to their diet which brought the monkeys to the verge of extinction. To save them, the first director of the park, Sogo Hara, actually tried feeding the monkeys, and from the development of an environment where Man and monkeys could co-exist, the beginnings of the park were seeded. Since the park’s opening in 1964, it has gone through its ups and downs but it has become a popular spot for people from around the world as a paradise where wild monkeys can be seen up close.
Macaques soaking away in an onsen Due to the artificial feeding, the rich lifestyle at the monkey park where the worries of famine have disappeared has given way to a lot of free time for the macaques. One day, a nearby open-air bath used by humans became accessible to baby monkeys which started the story of “The Onsen Monkeys”. As with Man, the soothing phenomenon of the bath spread around to the other macaques and it was passed down the generations so that a hot spring environment for Japanese macaques, the only one of its kind in the world, was born. The appearance of the monkeys enjoying a spa in the harsh snowscape of winter and in a dreamy state of mind is enough to captivate anyone. Incidentally, the hair and sweat glands of the monkeys have been formed such that they don’t get a chill once they leave the bath. Also, there are plenty of leisure activities such as onsen, winter sports and highland trekking in the surrounding areas. And besides the winter scenery, the area is also surrounded by the beautiful highland scenery of summer, so get your fill of holiday by spending a relaxing time with the monkeys.
Admission: Adult: ¥ 500 / Child: ¥ 250
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Jigokudani Monkey Park
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Jigokudani Monkey Park
- Tours of Jigokudani Monkey Park
3. Daio Wasabi Farm
(image by 写真提供：信州・長野県観光協会)
Daio Wasabi Farm is a popular tourist spot in the Azumino area. On its huge grounds, wasabi horseradish is cultivated using spring water from the Northern Alps whose quantities reach 12 tonnes per day. A stroll through the wasabi farm is one of the charms as you enjoy the pristine scenery of Azumino. But there are plenty of other things to enjoy on the farm. At the pickled wasabi workshop, you can try your hand at making these pickles (separate fee is necessary) which can be done in about 20 minutes so that you can take them home right on the same day. Also, you can sample some of the spring water which supports the farm that has been selected as one of the Top 100 Famous Sources of Water in Japan. You will definitely want to have that famous fresh taste of the water and wasabi.
The first thing that draws your attention on the farm is the water mill that stands alongside the Tate River. The area was chosen by the late director Akira Kurosawa to be the site for his film “Dreams” (1989). The sight of the 3 water wheels turning slowly has remained the same since those days. If you would like to fully enjoy the clear waters of the Tate River, then it’s recommended to board the Clear Boat from the dock close to the mill (separate admission required). The boat has a transparent bottom so that the bottom of the river can be seen. You can view the sight of river fish swimming and river grass swaying.
Genuine wasabi ice cream is the most popular item on the farm. Since there is the image of wasabi adorning sushi, it’s hard to imagine it in something like ice cream, but it is exceptionally tasty with a refreshing sweetness. What is also interesting is the slight pungency that hits your nose as you continue to eat it. There are plenty of other examples of wasabi cuisine with dishes such as wasabi stem croquettes and emerald-green wasabi beer! At the soba restaurant, you can enjoy Shinshu soba along with fresh raw wasabi, so if you want to enjoy Japanese horseradish in a more orthodox manner, then this is recommended.
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Daio Wasabi Farm
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Daio Wasabi Farm
- Tours in Daio Wasabi Farm
4. Shirahone Onsen
(image by 写真提供：信州・長野県観光協会)
Matsumoto City is located in the heart of Nagano Prefecture, and to its west on the eastern side of the sacred mountain of Mt. Norikura is Shirahone Onsen. The hot spring is said to have started bubbling forth in the Kamakura Era and has a history of more than 600 years. The quality of the spring has a mild acidity that is easy on the skin, and the white cloudy water is a special feature. The water is clear when it comes out of the spring but over time it takes on an unusual cloudy-white color. The water, which contains a lot of sulfur and sodium carbonate among other elements, is effective in improving blood circulation and warming the body from inside. In particular, it is supposed to be beneficial for gastrointestinal ailments, and there is the saying that if one enters the bath for 3 days, then he will not get a cold for 3 years. Also, it is recommended that the water be drunk, since it aids the organs of the digestive system and eliminates constipation.
At Shirahone Onsen, there are 10 springs, each to be enjoyed for subtle differences in quality, color and scent. In the town, there are 9 hotels and ryokan (Japanese inns) along with a shared open-air bath so that a tour of the waters can also be suggested. However, since there is the possibility of dizziness due to staying in the springs too long, aim to enter the water 3 times per day. When it comes to onsen, it’s usually the case that the baths are separated for men and women, but at Awanoyu (Bubble Bath) Ryokan, you can enjoy mixed bathing in the large outdoor bath with no worries about being seen since the water is an opaque white. But there is a women’s entrance that is directly linked with a stairway that leads into the bath so that women can enter the water easily. After enjoying the waters outside, also enjoy them inside. The 37-degree Celsius free-flowing waters of the spring are so comfortable that you’ll end up sleeping. As the name“Awanoyu”indicates, this is a pleasant hot spring whose effervescent bubbles surround you as soon as you enter the bath.
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Shirahone Onsen
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Shirahone Onsen
- Tours of Shirahone Onsen
5. Togakushi Shrine
(image by flickr.com)
Oku-sha, Kuzuryu-sha, Chu-sha, Hinomiko-sha and Hoko-sha make up Togakushi Shrine which is very famous as the holy site for enshrining the gods behind The Opening of the Cave of Heaven which returned the light to the world. Mt. Togakushi happens to be the site where the rock door to the Cave of Heaven was flung after the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, had hidden there. During the age when Shinto and Buddhism were taught together, it is said that the mountain was a sacred place of religious practice alongside Mt. Koya and Mt. Hiei. The 5 shrines of Togakushi are located in separate places so that if time is short, you will want to visit Oku-sha, Chu-sha and Kuzuryu-sha, which is where the local folk deities of the mountain reside, as the famed power spots.
It’s recommended to first visit Oku-sha and Kuzuryu-sha when arriving at Togakushi. From the entrance, it’s a 2km hike to the two shrines. The path which is deep in the mountain can only be traversed on foot. Going beyond the path lined with giant cedar trees that are over 400 years old, you will catch sight of the torii gate for Oku-sha at the bottom of the mountain, as well as the shaden main building of the shrine. When the Sun Goddess was hiding in the Cave of Heaven, it was the God of Strength, Amenotajikarao-no-mikoto, who wrested the door open, and it is dedication to him that was the origin of the Oku-sha. From this, it is said that this shrine has become a power spot to grant the life-changing of power of action and actualization. Near Oku-sha is Kuzuryu-sha which is the oldest of the 5 shrines that enshrined the local folk deities even before the establishment of Togakushi Shrine in 210 BC. A visit to Kuzuryu-sha is known as a spot to grant the power of Aratama which makes things come true.
Chu-sha, which was established as a counterpart to Oku-sha, currently is the center for the five shrines, as it houses the administrative office for Togakushi Shrine. It also enshrines the deity Amenoyagokoroomoikane-no-mikoto who suggested the idea of opening up the Cave of Heaven, and grants wishes on things such as academic success. On the shrine grounds, there is a sacred tree of over 700 years of age and three cedar trees which are over 800 years old which are also known to be power spots. In addition, it is said that the waterfall just behind and to the right of the main building provides strong purification. Also nearby, there is a restaurant which serves the local dish of Togakushi soba. The Togakushi area is famous within Nagano Prefecture for having the tastiest soba. You will want to try some when you visit Togakushi Shrine.
- Guidebook from Planetyze about Togakushi Shrine
- Reviews from TripAdvisor about Togakushi Shrine
- Tours of Togakushi Shrine
6. Zenko-ji Temple
(image by flickr.com)
Built about 1400 years ago, Zenko-ji Temple has garnered wide worship as a base for the hearts of the people. Founded in Japan before Buddhism was split into different sects, it has become famous as a temple that doesn’t ascribe to one particular denomination. Also, it became well known nationwide during the Heian Era as a temple that rescued women which was unusual in Old Buddhism when temples wouldn’t allow women to enter. Regardless of social position or gender, a visit to Zenko-ji would mean that anyone could rise to Heaven, and even now, it is visited by young and old and by men and women from all over Japan.
The No. 1 highlight of Zenko-ji is the principal image of Buddha, Ikkou Sanzon Amida Nyorai, which is enshrined in the Hondomain hall. The Daigaran temple edifice which has an entrance width of 23.89m and a depth of 53.67m has been designated as a National Treasure. As a wooden structure, it boasts a scale on a national level that marks it alongside Nara’s Todai-ji’s Great Buddha Hall and Kyoto’s Sanjusangendo Temple. Since ancient times, it was a custom associated with a visit to Zenko-ji for the many visitors to stay at the main hall (inner temple) that lasted until the middle of the Meiji Era but no longer exists. In the inner temple which boasts a size of about 250㎡, the vestiges of those times can be glimpsed.
Zenko-ji is most famous for its Gokaicho ceremony that is held every 7 years. The ceremony takes place over about 50 days ranging from early April to late May. In place of the principal image of Buddha that is never shown, a replica known as the Maedachi Honzon which is normally enshrined in a repository is opened to the public. During the period of the Gokaicho, a sacred pillar is established in front of the main hall, and many worshipers gather at the pillar to touch it. With a thread attached to the image, this pillar is linked to the Maedachi Honzon. For this reason, when the pillar is touched, it is believed that an act of piety has been performed similar to directly touching the Maedachi Honzon itself.
Admission: Adult: ¥ 500 / Child: ¥ 50