9 Things to do in Nagano this Winter
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 world known to naturally bathe in hot springs, the Jigokudani Monkey Park – often referred to as the Snow 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.
Here are our tips and suggestions for getting the most out of your visit to the Jigokudani Monkey Park.
2. Visit Shiga Kogen: Japan’s largest ski resort
As host of the 1998 Winter Olympics, Nagano’s credentials as a winter sports destination are well-known. Offering world-class conditions and huge amounts of powder, Nagano is home to around 80 ski resorts. Of those, Shiga Kogen is the closest to the Jigokudani Monkey Park, only 80 minutes from JR Nagano Station.
Also boasting the longest season and most reliable snow in Nagano, here are our tips for getting the most out of your winter visit to Shiga Kogen.
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. Located nearby the Jigokudani Monkey Park, Shiga Kogen offers visitors and unmatched amount of interconnected terrain and courses.
To help take the hassle out of arranging your winter adventure in Shiga, we are happy to offer ski packages in Shiga Kogen for winter 2020/21.
Packages include accommodation and lift passes for the duration of your stay, with option extras included transport, rental, ski and snowboard lessons, meal packages and and more!
For further information, please refer to our ‘Ski Packages in Shiga Kogen’ page.
3. Try any of Nagano’s fantastic ski resorts
Home to around 80 ski resorts, visitors to Nagano in winter are spoiled for choice. While we are big fans of Shiga Kogen, we are just as keen on many of the other fantastic resorts dotted throughout the region.
Around an hours drive from Shiga Kogen, Nozawa Onsen is a popular resort with a lively village. Particularly well-suited to snowboarders, the resort has a youthful atmosphere with lots of restaurants and facilities catering to international visitors.
Of course if you want resorts setup for international visitors, then head to Hakuba. Home to several resorts, Hakuba’s reputation as Nagano’s most international mountain area is well-established. Blessed with some great terrain including epic backcountry, Hakuba is popular for many reasons. But be warned, it is popular… you won’t find the quiet runs of Shiga Kogen here!
4. Don’t go quietly into the night… attend one of Japan’s great fire festivals!
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…
Taking place every year on January 15th, the ‘Nozawa Onsen Dosojin Matsuri’ or ‘Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival’ 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!
This extremely popular event attracts thousands of visitors so you need to plan ahead, especially if you want to stay in Nozawa on the day around the festival. Accommodation is fully booked well in advance of the festival so make sure to book early to avoid disappointment!
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!
5. Experience the highlights of Nagano in winter on a guided 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 pick-up and drop-off in Hakuba, lunch and guided ‘sake’ tasting experience followed -by an early afternoon visit to the hot spring-bathing snow monkeys of Jigokudani, this tour lets you get the most out of your visit to Nagano!
6. 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!
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 morning of snow activities in Shiga before lunch and early afternoon visit to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. While at the resort, you can enjoy 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!
7. Combine your visit to the monkeys with snowmobiling in Shiga Kogen
For guests wanting an even faster experience, join our 1-Day Snow Monkeys & Snowmobiling in Shiga Kogen tour and combine a morning of snowmobiling with an afternoon visit to the monkeys. Guests can choose between single ride and tandem with a friend or family member.
Guided by a certified instructor, you will be lead on a winter circuit through Japan’s largest resort before heading out of the mountains for lunch and an early afternoon visit to the monkeys – a truly fantastic day out in Nagano!
The minimum age to join this tour is 6 years of age (to ride tandem) or 13 and above to ride single.
8. Explore Nagano’s spiritual heart at night
From late November to late December, the Zenko-ji Omotesando Illumination brings the temple and ancient thoroughfare leading to it into radiant light and vivid color. Starting with the road leading to the temple, and then the temple itself, the historic centre of the city will be bathed in purple, violet and silver – an illumination of the mind and imagined Buddhist paradise on Earth.
The highlight of the event will take place between December 15th and 25th 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!
Our 1-Day 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!
In the first week of 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 combines the evening festival with an earlier visit to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park and both lunch and diner in a fantastic day trip which highlights some of Nagano’s most unique winter experiences.
Both events are well-suited to families and groups of friends wanting to experience a tranquil and welcoming community festival in the heart of the city.
9. Soak in a natural hot spring
Nagano is blessed with numerous ‘onsen’ (natural hot springs) which can be enjoyed in the many historic onsen towns spread throughout the region. Taking inspiration from the monkeys, when visiting Nagano in winter why not try an onsen for yourself?
Located nearby the monkey park, the historic hot spring towns of Yudanaka Onsen and Shibu Onsen are home to many ‘ryokan’ (traditional guesthouses) and blessed with numerous hot spring sources. Shibu Onsen is particularly charming. With a history stretching back 1300 years, this quaint town is full of surprises with many ryokan family-run.
For visitors wanting a truly memorable onsen-experience, Hotel Senjukaku is located within walking distance of the monkey park. Popular with members of the Japanese Royal Family, Senjukaku is known for its comfort, indulgent indoor and outdoor onsen, and outstanding ‘kaiseki’ (traditional multi-course) meal service. A great choice for guests wanting to experience traditional Japanese service, cuisine, and a truly fantastic onsen.
For further tips and suggestions regarding hot springs in Nagano, please refer to our ‘Onsen In & Around Nagano’ page.
Finally… a sneaky tenth suggestion. 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. A great experience if you happen to be in Nagano City on December 31st!
Recommendations when in Nagano City 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 2020 to March 31st 2021, 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!