10 THINGS TO DO IN NAGANO IN SPRING & SUMMER
As host of the 1998 Winter Olympics and home to around 80 ski resorts, Nagano is known as a winter destination. While the region certainly has a lot to offer during the colder months, there’s just as much to do and just as many reasons to visit in spring and summer. With that, we recommend the following 10 things to do while in Nagano:
Cherry Blossom & Baby Monkeys
In terms of blossoms, this one is purely spring. Known as “sakura” in Japan, wandering below the pink and white canopy of the cherry blossoms in spring is perhaps the quintessential Japanese experience. The beautiful blossoms bloom late in Nagano due to the region’s higher altitude, and while each season is different, you can expect the flowers to be at their best from early to mid-April.
Around the same time, the expecting mothers of the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park will begin to give birth to the years adorable babies. Witnessing these awkward bundles of fur, with their long limbs and glassy eyes, begin their first stumbling exploration of the world is a true highlight of spring.
Our 1-Day Snow Monkeys & Cherry Blossoms in Nagano Tour is one of our most popular tours of the year. Combining a morning visit to the monkeys – you just might see that first baby of the season – with lunch and afternoon of blossom-viewing, this above all of other tours showcases Nagano at its best!
Typically born from mid-April until mid-June, the baby monkeys grow in confidence quickly, and by summer and scurrying around the park trying to keep up with their brothers, sisters, and cousins.
We can honestly say, this is one of the best times to visit the monkey park!
Snow Walls of the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route
One of Japan’s most iconic landscapes, the Snow Walls of the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route are a sight to behold. Inaccessible through winter, a road is carved through the massive snowfall each spring resulting in immense snow walls – up to 20 meters in height – towering above the road.
Access to the route is via different alpine transports from Ogisawa Station (on the Nagano side of the mountain) or Tateyama Station (on the Toyama side). Reaching the summit is all part of the experience, especially from Ogisawa Station, as your ride subterranean trolley buses, a rope ways, and cable cars to reach Murodo, the highest station in Japan.
Once there you are free to walk beneath the snow walls or a little field over the snowfall in search of a “raicho” (rock ptarmgain) – a mountain-dwelling bird consider messengers of the gods. Endlessly curious and non-threatened by the presence of humans, these curious birds are a wonderful and lucky sight should you find one!
If you’d like to experience the wonder of the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, our 1-day tour is a great option. Led by an English-speaking guide, we transport you there and back and ensure you get the most out of your time on “The Roof of Japan”.
Closer to Nagano City, Togakushi is accessible by public bus – taking approximately 1 hour from JR Nagano Station – but a world away from the modernity of the city. Home to some of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan and the birthplace of an important school of ninjitsu – that’s right, real ninjas! – Togakushi is a beautiful and tranquil getaway right next to Nagano City.
As the native religion of Japan, Shintoism is fundamental to the beliefs, thinking and culture of the Japanese people. Closely related to the origin stories of Japan the shrines of Togakushi hold special importance. Spread across a forested area, the shrines can be walked between along trails with the “Okusha” or Upper Shrine accessed via an avenue of giant cedars.
Nearby the Okusha, the Togakure Ninja Museum showcases the folklore surrounding the local Togakure school of ninjitsu that in Togakushi in the 12th century. The Ninja House, a trap-laden building from which you must find your way out, is a highlight of any visit – equally fun for adults and kids!
For kids and families, the Chibiko Ninja Mura (Kids Ninja Village) is located nearby the “Chusha” or Middle Shrine and includes adventure courses for kids and the chance to dress-up as a ninja. Follow the Togakushi Ninja Trail into the past and discover your inner ninja!
Located 2.5 hours from Nagano City, Kamikochi is a stunning alpine valley – located between 1400 to 1600 metres above sea level – at the southern end of the Chubu Sangaku National Park. With mountains of the North Japan Alps rising to 3000 metres above, Kamikochi is considered a true alpine oasis known for its pristine character and outstanding hiking and mountaineering.
Inaccessible through winter, Kamikochi opens to the public on April 15th and remains open until November 15th. Though relatively close to Nagano City, accessing Kamikochi requires use of multiple forms of transport making an organised tour a great option for visitors seeking an easy, enjoyable and informative as possible.
Considered the jewel of the Chubu Sangaku National Park, Kamikochi can truly be spoken of as one of Japan’s best outdoor experiences. Our 1-Day Matsumoto Castle & Kamikochi Alpine Valley Tour runs from May until October, a great way to combine two of the region’s most iconic destinations.
Festivals & Fireworks
Known as “matsuri”, Japanese love a festival and barely a week goes by in Japan without a matsuri celebrating one thing or another. A fundamental part of life here, matsuri are a chance for friends, families and communities to come together. Matsuri occur throughout the year but are most frequent in summer.
Visitors coming to Nagano through the warmer months of the year will enjoy the following festival and fireworks displays. The Nagano Gion Festival takes place of the second Sunday every July at the city’s near-1400 year old Zenko-ji Temple and includes traditional events and performances and ubiquitous food stands.
Taking place on the first Saturday every August, the Nagano Binzuru Dance Festival is the city’s largest matsuri. Dating back to 1971, the festival sees numerous dance groups moving down the main thoroughfare of the city with great enthusiasm and noise.
Iizuna Fire Festival takes places on August 10th. An enjoyable and very local festival which climaxes with the burning of a large bonfire preceded by traditional music and dancing and ending with a display of around 2000 fireworks.
Speaking of fireworks, the Azumino Fireworks Festival is held on August 14th and includes an impressive 12000 fireworks. Another truly local, enjoyable, and boisterous summer festival. Want to join a tour and let us take care of the planning? Our 1-Day Azumino Fireworks Festival & Snow Monkeys Tour might just be what you’re looking for!
On September 27th, things get raucous again with the annual Azumino O-Fune Matsuri. Taking place each year in September, the festival is a spirited and raucous celebration of the rural community’s mythical origins which climaxes with an epic battle between two ships, carried and parried by local residents – another unique event we have covered with our 1-Day Snow Monkeys & Local O-Fune Festival in Nagano Tour.
Things get very serious on November 23rd when the Nagano Ebisu-ko Fireworks Festival illuminates the night sky with more than 15000 fireworks – a stunning display which attracts more than 400,00 visitors each year!
Navigating the crowds can be tough! Our 1-Day Ebisu-ko Fireworks & Snow Monkey Tour includes reserved seating at the event and transport to and from JR Nagano Station.
Experience the Tradition & Heritage of Zenko-ji
Nagano’s Zenko-ji Temple is one of the oldest, largest and most important Buddhist temples in Japan. Built in dedication to the oldest known Buddhist statue in Japan, the temple is spiritual heart of the region. The temple was established in 642 and to this day, continues to house the statue now hidden from human eyes.
The temple is accessible throughout the year and is regarded as one of the most open and welcoming temples in Japan, offering a morning ceremony everyday. Visitors of any faith are welcome to attend the ceremony and be blessed by the head monk and nun of the temple.
For guests wanting an information and enjoyable experience at the temple, our 1-Day Snow Monkeys, Zenko-ji Temple & Sake Tour combines a guided visit to the temple with an early afternoon trip to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. A great way to turn your visit into a real experience!
Nearby the temple, Patio Daimon is a picturesque corner of Nagano where several “kura” (traditional warehouses) have been converted for use as sake tasting venues, crafts workshops, cafés, restaurants and more. Workshops include origami, traditional paper-making, mizuhiki and more – fun activities for both children and adults.
While in the area, we recommend Monzen Terrace Enya. This popular and friendly restaurant serves both Japanese and Western cuisine with both indoor and outdoor dining. In the warmer months take advantage of Enya’s outdoor terrace – a great place to eat, drink and talk the day away.
Local Food & Drink
Nagano is one of the true food bowls of Japan. Most famous for its huge apples and grapes, Nagano is renowned for the quality of its produce. Blessed with fertile a landscape and agreeable alpine climate, the fruit and vegetables of Nagano are known for their size and delicious flavours.
But what’s a good meal when not accompanied by a good drink! Nagano is also Japan’s second largest producer of “nihonshu” (sake) with an increasingly popular craft beer scene. So as the temperature rises it’s time to get outdoors and get amongst it!
As mentioned, Monzen Terrace Enya is one of the city’s most popular restaurants. Each summer, Enya makes full use of its outdoor dining and terrace with their summer beer garden. Offering free-flow beer and a great array of sushi, grilled meats and seafood, and plenty of Western staples, there’s no better place to enjoy the summer heat.
Nagano is also known for its soba (buckwheat noodles), especially light and refreshing in the warm summer months. The city and wider region boasts countless soba restaurants but if you want to go right to the source, day trips to nearby Togakushi and Matsumoto City (a little further afield) are well-worth it particularly if you want to try your hand at making your own soba!
For visitors wanting to try their hand at making soba, our 1-Day Matsumoto Castle & Local Food Experience Tour includes an English-speaking soba-making experience, in combination with a visit to Daio Wasabi Farm, Kametaya Sake Brewery and Matsumoto Castle.
One of the few remaining original castles in Japan and a registered National Treasure, Matsumoto Castle is one of the region’s most iconic attractions. Located 15-20 minutes walk from Mastumoto Station, the castle is readily accessible and makes for a great day trip from Nagano City.
The photogenic castle is as interesting as it is pretty, affording visitors the chance to go inside and (should they wish to) climb all the way to the top of its six storeys.
Matsumoto is an enjoyable, relaxed city with a thriving arts scene along with great dining options. Nearby the castle, historic streets have been well-preserved with buildings converted for use as restaurants, cafes, galleries, beer breweries and more. Nakamachi Street and Kaeru Michi (Frog Street) are positioned between the station and the castle, making for an enjoyable stroll through the city, best experienced in spring, summer or autumn
Relax & Unwind in an Onsen
Nagano is home to numerous “onsen” (natural hot springs), scattered throughout the region. Indeed the hot spring-bathing monkeys of the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park are the region’s most famous ambassadors and expect nothing less than while in Nagano, you follow their lead and try an onsen.
Uruoikan is Nagano City’s only onsen. This large and comfortable hot spring includes segregated public baths and relaxation area along with a café and restaurant. Strictly speaking, guests with visible tattoos are not permitted access however if you are able to cover any body art with a band aid, you are welcome to enter and enjoy. Located approximately 25 minutes walk from JR Nagano Station, the onsen can also be reached using their free shuttle bus from the station or private taxi.
For guests headed to the monkeys, Kanbayashi Onsen, Yudanaka Onsen and Shibu Onsen are home to numerous guesthouses with their own hot springs. Our recommendation in the are is Hotel Senjukaku. Known for its indulgent hot spring and outstanding “kaiseki” (traditional multicourse) meal service, Senjakuku offers an unmatched experience for guests wanting to the full Japanese onsen experience.
Another great option outside of Nagano City, Yamada Onsen is a quaint hot spring village nestled in the picturesque Matsukawa Valley. For visitors headed to Yamada Onsen, we recommend Fujiiso – another outstanding traditional guesthouse known for its luxurious hot springs, inspired meal service and stylish blend of Japanese and Western design.
Get Outdoors & Get Active – Green Season Sports in Nagano
Known for its dramatic mountains, outstanding snow and numerous ski resorts, Nagano can lay claim – along with Hokkaido – to being one of Japan’s two premier winter sports destinations. But those mountains are just as big and even more accessible in green season making green season sports our final recommendation for things to do in spring and summer!
From Nagano City, the mountains of Togaksuhi, Nozawa Onsen, Madarao, Shiga Kogen and Hakuba all offer the chance to head up high and escape of the heat of the valley below. Hakuba is quickly establishing itself as Japan’s leading green season sports destinations offering fantastic hiking, trail running, mountain-biking, SUP (standup paddling) and more!
Located in the North Japan Alps or “Hida Mountains”, Hakuba offers an outstanding alpine experience including hiking and mountaineering. Trails range from leisurely strolls to expert undertakings taking weeks to complete. Nestled in the same mountain range, Kamikochi and Tateyama-Kurobe are two highlights for any avid hiker.
Nozawa Onsen is also enjoying a burst of activity in green season, with sports including trail running and yoga proving popular with both international visitors and Japanese. Cycling to and from Nozawa is another great option, with a particularly scenic backroad through heavy forest leading to Shiga Kogen.
Nestled in the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, Shiga Kogen offers fantastic hiking, cycling and nature photography through the green season. Recognised as a UNESCO Biodiversity Reserve, Shiga Kogen is home to unique and important plants and animals – a paradise of nature lovers.
When staying in Shiga, we recommend Hotel Grand Phenix. Located in Okushiga, Grand Phenix offers old-world comfort, character and service in one of the most picturesque areas of the national park. Fine dining, relaxing public baths, spacious lounge and indoor swimming pool are just some of the features that make Hotel Grand Phenix our recommendation when staying in Shiga Kogen.