Less than an hour from Nagano Station, there is a place of tranquillity where orchards and farmlands lead to ravines, waterfalls and mountains beyond, and quiet communities go about their lives under a star-filled canopy at night.
Matsukawa Valley is perhaps Nagano’s best kept secret and for those looking for a convenient getaway nearby Nagano City and not too far from Tokyo, it is the ideal destination to get off the beaten path in Japan and enjoy some of Nagano’s best ‘onsens’ (natural hot springs).
Nestled between mountains rising above 2000 meters in height, Matsukawa Valley is blessed with natural beauty that shifts with each season. Pastoral vistas of farmlands and orchards are set against the alpine scenery of the mountains above, imbuing the region with a feeling of seclusion and secrecy, despite its close proximity to Nagano City.
Home to Yamada Onsen – a small hot spring town set amongst the mountains – and Shinshu-Takayama – officially declared one of the ‘Most Beautiful Villages in Japan’ – the region is dotted by ‘onsens’, bubbling to the surface from deep below. No two hot springs are alike with waters running clear, milky white, and turquoise blue. The 200-year old town of Yamada Onsen has the greatest concentration of hot springs and guesthouses, with others spread further afield in deep valley and mountains offering stunning views and even greater solitude.
Soaking in the thermal waters of Matsukawa Valley, you feel yourself unwind, as a different side of Japan reveals itself – a slower, quieter place, far away from the neon and buzz of the cities. The region’s many traditional ‘ryokans’ (guesthouses) afford the best way to enjoy ‘onsen’ culture and indulge in Japan’s renowned service, comfort, and food culture.
As home to numerous farms, the valley produces some of Nagano’s best vegetables and fruits, most famously, apples and grapes. With an emerging wine culture and established dairy farms producing high-quality cheeses and milk, Matsukawa Valley offers visitors the enticing combination of food, drink and relaxation surrounded by beauty of rural Japan.
A place of four distinct seasons, the passage of time in the valley is marked by different colors and activities, atmospheres and moods. The village of Shinshu-Takayama is home to some of Nagano’s oldest ‘sakura’ (cherry blossom) trees, including the more than 500-year old Kurobe’s Edohigan Cherry Tree. Blooming each spring, ‘hanami’ (flower viewing) is a popular tradition with Japanese and one best enjoyed in the tranquility of its rural heartland.
Through summer, the valley’s cooler climate offers an escape from the heat of the cities, as bountiful crops and orchards mature toward the harvest in early autumn and fruit-picking season. Come October and November the valley turns gold, amber, and red as the autumn leaves, known as ‘koyo’ in Japanese, turn and yet again transform the landscape. Walking the valley and mountain trails of Matsukawa, visitors relish this time of year, hiking to the valley’s waterfalls including Kaminaridaki, Shichimi-otaki and Yataki.
Winter brings heavy snow to the mountains and into the valley, and on clear days, stunning views of the snow-covered Northern Alps span the horizon. Home to Yamaboku Wild Snow Park, winter visitors to Matsukawa Valley can experience untouched fields of powder dotted with excellent accommodation options and hot springs.
Small in size, Yamaboku’s appeal is its ungroomed ski runs, which lie deep in snow through from December to March. Running from the top of Yamaboku, the fabled Tacochi Course descends to the Yamada Onsen Kids Ski Park below – a 13km stretch of ungroomed tree runs and pure powder – Japan’s longest officially recognized ski run and a beacon for intermediate and advanced skiers and snowboarders seeking endless powder days.
Under the star-filled canopy of night – renowned for its brilliance and intensity – the valley displays a rare beauty which visitors can be experience anytime of year. Star-gazers have long been drawn to the higher altitudes of Matsukawa Valley and the clear night skies which sparkle with the distant stars above, often rewarding onlookers with stunning views of the Milky Way, stretched long across the sky.
Located within easy access of Nagano City, the proximity of Matsukawa Valley belies its true nature and attraction. A place of rural tranquility and ebbing seasonal beauty, this is the perfect destination for visitors wanting to get off the beaten path while in Japan and discover that secret onsen, hidden guesthouse, mountain trail, or deep powder course that everyone else missed-out on. Matsukawa Valley is quietly waiting for you to discover it!
Visiting Matsukawa Valley from JR Nagano Station is quick and easy using the Nagano Dentetsu (Nagaden) train line. With regular services departing Nagano to Yudanaka, visitors can disembark at Suzaka Station. From the station take the bus bound for Yamada Onsen, approximately 30 minutes. Get off at the final stop Yamada Onsen.