We are now officially into winter and while the snow is a little late this year, sooner or later it will begin to fall in abundance. Most famous as a winter destination, Nagano has so much to offer during this season that many international visitors find themselves returning again and again and again. With that in mind, here our 9 suggestions for things to do in Nagano this winter!
1. Visit the world-famous Snow Monkeys of Jigokudani
This one goes without saying! As the only troop of monkeys in the entire world known to bathe in hot springs, the Jigokudani Monkey Park is one of the region’s most popular destinations.
With no barriers separating you and the monkeys, this is a unique chance to observe these curious creatures in close proximity and witness the unusual sight of a Japanese macaque relishing the warm thermal waters of the park.
2. Ski/Snowboard at one of Nagano’s many mountain resorts
Offering world-class conditions and huge amounts of powder, Nagano is home to more than 30 independent ski resorts. Most are within easy access of JR Nagano Station including Shiga Kogen, Hakuba, Nozawa Onsen, Myoko Kogen and more!
As Japan’s largest ski resort and blessed with Nagano’s best powder, Shiga Kogen is our recommendation for visitors looking for a multi-day ski/snowboard adventure within easy access of the city. Snow Monkey Resorts offers a range of multi-day packages including transport to and from Shiga, accommodation, lift passes and more to help you get the most out of your time in Nagano!
3. Attend a winter ‘matsuri’ – Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival & Tomyo Festival
Japan loves a festival and there’s no better (or perhaps crazier) way to do a festival than to do it outside in the middle of winter! Known as ‘matsuri’ in Japanese, two winter festivals in Nagano stand-out for very different reasons…
Held on January 15th each year, Nozawa Onsen’s Fire Festival (or ‘Dosojin Matsuri’) is one of Japan’s three famous fire celebrations and a rowdy affair in which spectators can’t help but get caught-up in the chaos and drinking… lots of drinking.
For visitors wanting to join the craziness with the convenience of an English-speaking guide and transport to and from the festival, our Fire Festival & Snow Monkey Tour includes pick-up and drop-off in both Nagano City and Hakuba in combination with a visit to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park and early dinner, before heading to Nozawa for this entertaining and boisterous night!
Starting on the second Saturday each February, the Nagano Tomyo Festival runs for one week and brings the city’s most important cultural site, Zenko-ji Temple, into vivid light. First held in 2004 in commemoration of the 1998 Winter Olympics, the festival has quickly become a popular event on the city’s calendar. The festival consists of a whole week of nightly events, with the nighttime lighting of the temple an act of ‘tomyo’ or offering light to the Buddha and paper lanterns lining Nakamise Street.
Our 1-Day Snow Monkeys & Zenko-ji Tomyo Lantern Festival Tour operates from February 6th to 11th and combines the evening festival with an earlier visit to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park and both lunch and diner in a fantastic daytrip which highlights some of Nagano’s most unique winter experiences.
4. See the region’s highlights – including the Snow Monkeys and Zenko-ji – on a convenient 1-day tour
Nagano is at its heart – and in every sense of the word – a temple town which grew out from Zenko-ji Temple. Founded in 642, Zenko-ji is one of the oldest, largest, and most significant Buddhist temples in Japan and no visit to Nagano is complete without exploring the precinct and its many legends and myths.
Our 1-Day Snow Monkeys, Zenko-ji Temple & Sake Tour is the best way to turn your visit to the temple into an experience and unlock some of the mystery of Japanese Buddhism with the aid of your guide. Also including lunch and guided ‘sake’ tasting experience followed -by and afternoon visit to the hot spring-bathing snow monkeys of Jigokudani, this tour lets you get the most out of your visit to Nagano!
5. Enjoy the powder at Japan’s largest ski resort on a fun 1-day tour
Shiga Kogen is Japan’s largest ski resort and a favorite with local skiers and boarders. Quickly building a reputation with international visitors, Shiga is an expansive resort that will keep you entertained for days!
But if you don’t have the time or just want to have a couple of hours fun in the powder, our 1-Day Snow Monkeys & Snow Fun in Shiga Kogen combines a visit to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park and lunch with a visit to Shiga Kogen where you have the afternoon to enjoy the snow using snowscoots, sit-down skiing, sleds and tubes. Suitable for both kids and adults these are easy to learn in a tour which is simply, fun!
6. Join our 1-Day Snow Monkey Winter Tour from Hakuba
The resorts that make up the Hakuba Valley are well-established as favorite destinations for international visitors and from December 18th 2019 to March 31st 2020 we will be operating a shuttle service from Hakuba to/from Nagano, allowing guests staying in Hakuba to join our award-winning 1-Day Snow Monkeys, Zenko-ji Temple & Sake Tour. This tour combines a morning visit to Nagano’s near-1400 year old temple – Zenko-ji – and lunch at one of Nagano City’s most popular restaurants – Monzen Terrace Enya – before culminating in an afternoon visit to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park.
7. Soak in a hot spring and experience one of Japan’s most traditional past-times
Located only a short distance from JR Nagano Station, Matsukawa Valley is perhaps Nagano’s best kept secret and a ‘onsen’ (natural hot spring) paradise perfect for couples and those just wanting to get away from the crowds and indulge in the comfort and service of a traditional ‘ryokan’ (guesthouse) in a beautiful and quiet corner of rural Japan.
Matsukawa Valley is blessed with countless ‘onsen’, which since time untold have been sought-out for their medicinal and healing properties – and pure relaxation! Enjoyable any time of year, the hot thermal waters of Matsukawa are perhaps at their most enjoyable through the cold of winter while surrounded by snow.
8. Explore the city at night in the glow of the Zenko-ji Omotesando Illumination
*Please note, the 2019 Zenko-ji Illumination has unfortunately been cancelled and will not take place as scheduled from December 14-25th 2019. The scheduled illumination of the Omotesando will however still go ahead from November 24th onward. The full illumination festival is expected to return in November/December 2020. As a result, our schedule 1-Day Snow Monkeys & Zenko-ji Winter Illumination Tour will not go ahead in 2019 however we hope to offer them in 2020. We apologise for any inconvenience.
From November 24th to December 25th 2018, the inaugural Zenko-ji Omotesando Illumination will bring the heart of Nagano to life as the ancient thoroughfare and then temple itself, radiate in the light and vivid color. The traditional road of pilgrimage and temple will be a place of enchantment; an illumination of the mind reflected in the light and a Buddhist paradise on earth colored purple, violet, and silver.
The highlight of the event will take place between December 15th and 25th 2018 as Zenko-ji Temple is lit each night – between 17:00 and 20:00 – and the precinct is brilliantly illuminated – a great way to explore the city by night! Entry is free and promises to be a popular event in the heart of the city.
From December 15th to 25th 2019, our Snow Monkeys & Zenko-ji Winter Illumination tour combines a visit to the Jigokundani Snow Monkey Park and lunch, with attendance at the illumination followed by dinner in Nagano City – a great way to embrace the winter and festive spirit!
9. Celebrate New Years at Zenko-ji – Nagano’s spiritual and cultural heart
Called ‘O-Shogatsu’ in Japanese, New Years is the most important holiday in Japan, a time to come together with family and as a community and welcome in the year to come. Many Japanese mark the New Year by visiting a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine to wish for a prosperous year and pray to their ancestors to aid in fulfilling their wishes.
The practice of ‘ninenmairi’ is unique to Nagano and involves being at the temple before midnight on December 31st and into January 1st, and special event on Zenkoji and Nagano’s calendar, and one that draws a crowd of thousands at the 350-year old temple bell tolls 108 times – to dispel the 108 worldly desires of Buddhism and the sins of the past year. Make sure you dress warmly, get ready for a huge crowd, and enjoy this truly Japanese and momentous event!
Recommendations when in Nagano this winter
Nagano City is at its heart a temple town and as such, many events through winter and the New Year period revolve around Zenko-ji. Exploring the city’s historic precinct through winter and (particularly at night!) demands a warm meal or tasty snack, sake or local beer, coffee or hot chocolate to keep you keep you going! Located just outside the temple precinct, Monzen Terrace Enya is one the city’s newest and most exciting restaurants and the perfect place to take a break, stay warm, and recharge.
Enya’s menu fuses traditional Japanese classics with Western favorites, with unique modern twists using the best local produce and ingredients. With an extensive sushi and sashimi menu and hearty favorites including ramen and great pizzas, Monzen Terrace Enya caters to all tastes.
Open every through winter, including New Years, from 11:30 to 22:30, Enya has English-speaking staff and menu – a great option when visiting the city’s historic center.
A short stroll from Enya and the temple, Hotel Kokusai 21 is Nagano’s most established international hotel known for its professional English-speaking staff, Western-style facilities, and array of in-house services. As such, Kokusai 21 is our recommendation when staying in Nagano City.
With services including free pick-up and drop-off at JR Nagano Station, in-house Japanese and foreign cuisine restaurants, buffet breakfast, and Western-style rooms, Kokusai 21 is one of Nagano’s most popular hotels for many reasons, and our recommendation when staying in the city.
We are proud to partner with Hotel Kokusai 21 through winter and from December 1st 2018 to March 31st 2019, guests staying at the hotel can join any of our group tours stating in Nagano City, with tour pick-up and drop-off in the lobby of the hotel. This is offered as one of one of 3 alternative pickup points in Nagano through winter, for the comfort and convenience of our guests.
As Nagano’s No.1 rated tour and charter operator, we look forward to welcoming many new and old friends to Nagano this winter. Our groups tours take in some of the region’s most popular sites and experiences, all led by our English-speaking guides – a great way to get the most out of your time here! For guests wanting the convenience of a private tour or charter service, we are happy to customize an itinerary to your needs and interests.
Whether you’re a powder hound and wanting to hit Nagano’s fantastic ski resorts, a foodie wanting to indulge in Japan’s renowned food culture, a history buff seeking the dark tunnels and corners of the region’s iconic castles, temples, and postal towns, or simply a monkey freak, we have you covered and can arrange a private tour or charter service to and from any destination of your choice!
The snow has arrived and we hope to see you in Nagano this winter!