40 Things To Do In & Around Nagano
As the proud host of the 1998 Winter Olympics and home to the now world-famous Jigokudani Monkey Park, Nagano has a strong association with winter. It’s for good reason! Home to around 80 ski resorts and boasting the majority of Japan’s tallest mountains, Nagano is indeed a land of heavy snow and deep cold each winter – a combination that attracts skiiers and snowboarders from all over the world.
Yet there’s just as much to do outside of winter! As the snow melts in spring, a fertile and lush landscape is revealed offering some of Japan’s best hiking and mountaineering, along with other outdoor pursuits and plenty of great food. Through summer and autumn, the abundant farmlands of the region produce some of Japan’s best food while Nagano’s countless hot springs, entice visitors to come throughout the year.
We are proud to call Nagano our home and hope this page entices you to visit. As a registered travel agent and Nagano’s No.1-rated tour and charter operator, we offer both group and private tours, ski and travel packages, accommodation, private charters and more! For further details, scroll to the bottom of the page.
We hope you find the following page helpful in planning your visit, starting with our recommednation of 40 Things To Do In & Around Nagano:
1 / Zenko-ji Temple – Nagano’s Ancient Heart / all year round
Founded in 642, Zenko-ji is one of the oldest and most important Buddhist temples in Japan. Less than 20-minutes walk from Nagano Station, follow the city’s historic thoroughfare – the ‘Omotesando’ or ‘Pilgrim’s Way’ all the way to the temple.
Arriving at Zenko-ji, visitors discover one of the most welcoming temples in Japan. Housing the oldest known Buddhist statue in Japan, the main temple is a registered National Treasure and the spiritual heart of the region. A morning ceremony takes place every day of the year, with visitors of all faiths and backgrounds welcome, with the temple also hosting several major festivals each year.
2 / Buddhist Experiences at Zenko-ji / all year round
Known as one of Japan’s most open and welcoming temples, Zenko-ji offers visitors of any faith and background the opportunity to try several key Buddhist practices
All led by resident monks, ‘goma’ prayer (fire ceremony), ‘shakyo’ (calligraphy) and ‘zazen’ (seated meditation) experiences are available upon request. Experiences take different lengths of time and can be booked on most days, as long as you provide adequate notice. Visitors wanting to extend their knowledge of the temple might also like to consider booking a tour with us – see below, 14 / ‘Experience the Best of Nagano on a Guided Tour’ for details.
3 / The Shinto Shrines of Togakushi / all year round
Japan’s native religion of Shintoism has its roots in nature worship and a belief that notable natural features are imbued with divinity. This belief is on grand display in Togakushi, where the five shrines making up the Shinto complex are spread through the forest with trails leading from one to the next.
Of the five, the ‘Okusha’ (Upper Shrine) is the best known due to the avenue of giant cedars leading to it. Many of the huge trees are between 400 to 800 years old and considered inhabited by ‘kami’ or ‘the divine’, meaning that they have as much importance as the shrine itself.
Approaching the Okusha from Nagano, you will pass the largest of the five srhines – the ‘Chuusha’ (Middle Shrine). Accessible via walking trails or directly via car or local bus, the shrine is dedicated to wisdom and famous for several enormous cedars that estimated to be around 800 years old. Surrounding the middle shrine, several ‘soba’ restaurants and bamboo craft shops are within easy walking distance. For further details, see our ‘Togakushi’ activity page and our ’15 Things To Do In & Around Togakushi’ page.
4 / Release Your Inner Ninja / April to November
For more than 800 years, Togakushi has had a strong association with Japan’s fabled ninjas. Established in the 12th century, the Togakure school of ninja was founded in the mountains of Togakushi and though practicing ninja maybe few and far between these days – believe it or not there are still some – the mountains and forests of Togakushi now play host to a ninja museum and kids village.
Located directly across from the cedar avenue leading to the Okusha, the Togakure Ninpo Museum showcases the local Togakure school of ninja including exhibits of tools and weapons used. Visitors can try their hand at essential ninja skills such as throwing ‘shuriken’ (ninja stars) while the highlight of the museum lies in wait at the Ninja House. Rigged with secret doors, passages and traps to confuse those who enter, the aim is simple – get yourself back out of the house! The house is a true maze, equally fun for adults as it is children
The ‘Chibiko Ninja Mura’ (Kids Ninja Village) is located within 15 minutes walk of the Chuusha (Middle Shrine) and designed for children with obstacle courses and everything they need for ninja training. Activities including blow darts and shuriken are available at an extra charge. Children can also dress-up in ninja outfits for the duration of their visit. Two ninja mansions include trapdoors and contraptions, to confuse and delightful the kids as they attempt to escape. For further details, see our ‘Togakushi’ activity page and our ’15 Things To Do In & Around Togakushi’ page.
5 / Togakushi: Soba, Tradition and So Much More! / all year round
A place of purity, Togakushi is also well-known for its delicious ‘soba’ (buckwheat noodles). The pure water of the mountains impart a fresh taste to the noodles which some claim, are the best in Japan. Numerous restaurants will happily serve you their own handmade soba with most conveniently located nearby the major shrines or trail heads. When visiting Togakushi, enjoying a soba meal is without doubt a requirement!
6 / Matsushiro: Nagano’s Samurai Town / all year round
Located 12km to the south of central Nagano City, Matsushiro is a small enclave known for its samurai heritage and as the former stronghold of the Sanada clan.
Originally from Ueda, the Sanada clan relocated to Matsushiro during the 17th century. Today, the town’s samurai heritage lives on many excellent Edo Period attractions including Matsushiro Castle Park, the former Sanada Residence and Bunbu Military Academy, other samurai residences, temples, shrines and museums. For further details, see our ‘Discover Matsushrio – Nagano’s Samurai Town’ page and see our ‘15 Things To Do In Matsushiro’ page.
7 / Matsushiro: Zozan Imperial Wartime Tunnels / all year round
Less apparent than Matsushiro’s celebrated samurai heritage, the town is also home to an open secret beneath its feet. Excavated in the final months of WWII, the Zozan Imperial Wartime Tunnels were the intended headquarters of the Japanese military and government during the expected invasion by the Allied Forces.
An extensive network of tunnels and subterranean bunkers were around 75% completed when the war came to an end and were as a result, never used. Formally referred to as ‘Matsushiro Daihonei’ or the ‘Matsushiro Underground Imperial Headquarters’, a 500 metre tunnel remains open to the public. For further details, see our ‘Discover Matsushrio – Nagano’s Samurai Town’ page and see our ‘15 Things To Do In Matsushiro’ page.
8 / Jigokudani Monkey Park / all year round
Located in the Yamanocuhi area of Nagano, the Jigokudani Monkey Park is one of the region’s most popular destinations. Most famous for their hot spring-loving antics of winter, the monkeys actually come to the park all year round. Each season provides its own unique reasons to visit the park; from the curious sight of the monkeys enjoying life in the snow through winter, to the cherry blossoms and baby monkeys of spring, hot and lush surroundings of summer and the beauty of the leaves in autumn.
Want to turn your visit to the monkeys into a real experience? Why not join one of our tours to the park! Operating through the year all tours are led by locally-based, English-speaking guides and include entry to the park, all transport costs, lunch and other activities.
For details, see below – 14 / ‘Experience the Best of Nagano on a Guided Tour’.
9 / Explore Yamanouchi – Home of the Snow Monkeys / all year round
Home to the Jigokudani Monkey Park and ski resorts of Shiga Kogen and Kita-Shiga Kogen, Yamanouchi is at its most popular in winter yet offers just as many reasons to visit through spring, summer and autumn.
Blessed with abundant farmlands, pristine nature, numerous hot springs and heavy snow in winter, Yamanouchi has a strong association with healing, refuge and renewal and Yamanouchi is divided into three areas – Yudanaka & Shibu Onsen, Shiga Kogen and Kita-Shiga Kogen.
Staying a one of Yamanouchi’s many guesthouses is an ideal way to enjoy Japan’s renowned traditional service – including traditional ‘kaiseki’ (multi-course) dining that showcases the abundant produce of the region. For further information, see our ‘Discover Yamanouchi – Home of the Snow Monkeys’ page.
10 / Shiga Kogen: Japan’s Largest & Highest Ski Resort / late-November to May
Located a short distance from the Jigokdani Monkey Park, Shiga Kogen is Japan’s largest and highest ski resort. The resort is comprised of 18 ski areas – some large, some small – spread over more than 600 hectares of terrain and offering more than 80km of ski runs.
Spread between five mountain peaks, Shiga offers visitors an unparalleled expanse of interconnected terrain with free shuttle buses running around the resort to the few areas that are not connected. Shiga Kogen’s higher altitude means it receives snow earlier than nearby resorts and keeps it for longer, blessing the resort with the longest season and best spring skiing in Nagano.
Nearby but not connected to Shiga Kogen, the four ski resorts making-up Kita-Shiga Kogen live in the shadow of their much larger neigbhour, but also win lots of fans including locals. Of the four resorts, Ryuoo Ski Park has the most to offer with some excellent powder up top and long runs all the way back down. Across from Ryuoo, the joint resorts of X-Jam Takaifuji and Yomase Onsen Ski Resort combine to offer around 100 hectares of terrain including X-JAM’s large terrain park including two half-pipes. Finally, set back from Ryuoo the small Kita-Shiga Komaruyama Ski Resort doesn’t have a lot to offer other than to newbies wanting to practice on wide, gentle runs. For further information, see our ‘Discover Yamanouchi – Home of the Snow Monkeys’ page.
11 / Other Winter Activities in Shiga Kogen / December to April
Outside of skiing and snowboarding, Shiga Kogen offers a range of family-friendly facilities for visitors. If you are visiting the resort with children or don’t have much experience and looking for a fun and easy activity, Maruike Snow Activity Park – located in the Maruike ski fields – is a great option for you!
The activity area is fenced-off and provides you with a various gear including sledges, snow-tubes, snowscoots and snowdrives andlots of snow to make a snowman or have a snowball fight. Further into the resort, the Yakebitaiyama Family Snow Park is located directly outside of Prince Hotel West, offering a similar range of activities for kids, families, or anyone wanting to release their inner-child!
Visitors can also enjoy snowmobiling in the Yakebitaiyama ski fields each winter. Guided by a certified instructor you will be led on a course through some of Shiga’s most picturesque areas, with the choice of both single and tandem ride.
Want to enjoy either activity on a guided tour in combination with a visit to the Jigokudani Monkey Park? Our winter tours are available each year from December to March – see below 14 / ‘Experience the Best of Nagano on a Guided Tour’.
12 / Hakuba Valley: Nagano’s Most International Resorts / December to April
Located between 60 to 90-minutes drive from Nagano Station, the ski resorts making-up the Hakuba Valley are considered some of the best in Japan. In total, ten resorts make the area collectively referred to as ‘Hakuba Valley’, offering skiers and snowboarders a vast amount of terrain and spectacular alpine views.
Having hosted several events during the 1998 Winter Olympics, Hakuba Happo One Snow Resort is the best known and largest of the lot. Within walking distance of the Hakuba Happo Bus Terminal, Happo One has a fantastic range of terrain including epic backcountry.
Nearby Hakuba Goryu Snow Resort and Hakuba 47 Winter Sports Park are connected and can be enjoyed on a single all-mountain pass. Rivalling Happo One in size and boasting Hakuba’s longest season, these resorts always popular with international visitors. These are only three of the many fantastic resorts of Hakuba!
13 / Nozawa Onsen, Madarao & Beyond! Enjoy Any of Nagano’s Ski Resorts / December to April
Around 70-minutes drive from Nagano Station or only 20-minutes from Iiyama Station, Nozawa Onsen Snow Resort is one of Nagano’s most popular resorts – offering skiers and boarders around 300 hectares of train between 565 and 1650 metres. Also known for its great powder and setup for snowboarders, Nozawa is a lively resort serviced by a large village full of accommodation, restaurants and bars and ‘onsen’ (hot springs), Nozawa’s reputation is as much based on what happens off the mountain as what happens on it.
Across the valley from Nozawa Onsen, Madarao Mountain Resort has quickly found popularity due to its heavy snowfall, great powder and super enjoyable tree runs.
Only 30-minutes drive over the backside of Madarao, the resorts of Myoko Kogen are quickly coming to the attention of international visitors who have discovered its epic powder. Actually located in Niigata rather than Nagano and nearby the coast, Myoko receives a massive amount of snow each year. The resorts making-up the area collectively known as ‘Myoko Kogen’ are less developed than resorts such as Nozawa Onsen and have pretty liberal policies when it comes to backcountry, making Myoko the up-and-coming destination for international powderhounds.
14 / Experience the Best of Nagano on a Guided Tour / all year round
Operating all year round, we are Nagano’s No.1 tour provider. Throughout the year we offer a range of group tours, many of which combine a visit to the monkeys with some of Nagano’s best experiences and destinations.
Our longest running and most popular tour – 1-Day Snow Monkeys, Zenko-ji Temple & Sake Tour – combines a visit to Nagano’s near-1400 year old temple, followed by a guided ‘sake’ tasting experience and lunch, and early afternoon visit to the monkeys.
For visitors in spring, enjoy a visit to the monkeys with an afternoon wandering beneath Nagano’s beautiful cherry blossoms on our 1-Day Snow Monkey & Cherry Blossoms in Nagano Tour.
Visitors in winter can enjoy the best of Shiga Kogen on both our 1-Day Snow Monkeys & Snow Fun in Shiga Kogen Tour or 1-Day Snow Monkeys & Snowmobiling in Shiga Kogen Tour, from December to March each year.
Of course, not all of our tours head to the monkeys with other options including the stunning alpine valley of Kamikochi or fabled Snow Walls of the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route. All tours are led by locally-based, English-speaking guides and include all transport and entry costs. See our ‘Tours’ page for a complete listing of our tours throughout the year.
15 / Enjoy Some of Japan’s Best Hot Spring Towns / all year round
Home to countless natural hot springs, enjoying an ‘onsen’ while in Nagano really is a must-do activity! In the cold months of winter and cooler months of autumn, dipping into a thermal bath feels fantastic whereas in the warmer months of spring and summer, the initial heat of onsen leads your body to cool itself – a truly pleasurable feeling.
Spread throughout the region, the historic onsen towns of Nagano – including nearby Yudanaka Onsen and Shibu Onsen, Nozawa Onsen, – have numerous ‘ryokan’ (traditional guesthouses) with their own in-house onsen.
Our ‘Onsen In & Around Nagano’ page introduces everything you need to know about using an onsen, the benefits and where to find them.
16 / Stay & Unwind at a Traditional Guesthouse / all year round
When visiting Japan or for those who live here and in need of a relaxing getaway, we encourage everyone to spend at least one night at a traditional guesthouse. Known as ‘ryokan’ in Japanese, guesthouses pride themselves on their comfort, hot springs and seasonal ‘kaiseki’ (multi-course) meal service.
The type and range of guesthouses is huge in scope, from family-run and homely inns to luxurious hotels with high prices. Staying at a ryokan is all about escaping the troubles of daily life and indulging in the refinement of traditional Japanese service. Most ryokan will offer the option of dinner and breakfast, with traditional ‘kaiseki’ meal service making use of local and seasonal ingredients to create unique and changing menus.
Of course, many guesthouses also pride themselves on their in-house ‘onsen’ and the unique properties of their water. Enjoying a hot spring in the comfort and quiet of a ryokan is without question one of the most quintessential Japanese experience and a must-do while here.
With so many to choose from, why not start with the hot springs of Kanbayashi Onsen, Yudanaka Onsen and historic Shibu Onsen in ‘Yamanouchi – Home of the Snow Monkeys’.
17 / The Cherry Blossoms & Baby Monkeys of Spring / best: April
Blooming every spring, the cherry blossoms of Nagano and Central Japan transform the atmosphere and character of the region and banish all thoughts of winter. Known as ‘sakura’ in Japan, the blossoms are viewed as symbolic of the fleeting beauty and fragility of life itself and Japanese look forward to ‘hanami’ (flower-viewing) each spring.
Our ‘Cherry Blossoms’ page introduces everything you need to know about the importance of the flowers and where to find them in Nagano.
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 lunch and afternoon of blossom-viewing, this above all of other tours showcases Nagano at its best; while our 1-Day Takato Castle Park Cherry Blossom Tour combines cherry blossom-viewing at Takato Castle Park – considered one of Japan’s top sakura spots. below.
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. 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.
18 / Historic Obuse & Hokusai – the Old Man Mad About Art / all year round
Only a short train-ride from Nagano Station, Obuse is a small but historic town known for its chestnut confectionary shops, sake and miso breweries and – perhaps most famously as home of the Obuse Hokusai Museum.
Having spent some of his final years painting in Obuse, the museum is dedicated to the life and work of Japan’s most famous artist, Katsushika Hokusai, and offers an engaging and informative experience.
Combined with a visit to the nearby Takai Kozan Memorial Museum – at which you can enter and take in the atmosphere of Hokusai’s actual studio – along with Ganshoin Temple – the ceiling of which is adorned with Hokusai’s last great masterpiece – a visit to Obuse offers a unique glimpse into the life and work of Japan’s greatest artist.
19 / Explore Matsumoto Castle / all year round
Standing around 30 meters tall, the black and white façade of Matsumoto Castle is an impressive sight. A registered National Treasure, the 5-tower, 6-storey structure is the pride of this pleasant city. Fondly referred to as the ‘Karasu-jyo’ or ‘Crows Castle’ due to its distinctive splayed black tiles that evoke imagery of a bird taking flight, Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan’s best preserved castles – and one of only two 6-storey castles in the country.
For more information as to what’s on offer, see our ’25 Thing To Do In & Around Matsumoto’ page.
20 / Matsumoto: Kusama Yayoi Inspires a Vibrant City / all year round
Most famous for its iconic castle, Matsumoto is also quickly developing a reputation as one of Japan’s most liveable cities. Hometown to the country’s most famous contemporary artist, Kusama Yayoi, Matsumoto has a thriving arts scene along with plenty of great restaurants, bars, cafes and nightlife.
The Matsumoto City Museum of Art is best known for its permanent exhibition of artwork by Matsumoto-native Kusama Yayoi. The museum also features an exhibit of works by local artists and visiting exhibitions of other Japanese and international artists. But for international visitors, it is Kusama’s collection which is likely to hold the greatest interest.
Although classically trained, Kusama’s defining style is heavily-influenced by avant-garde, pop and conceptual art movements– of which, she is now a celebrated and pioneering artist. While you might not know her name, there’s a good chance you will recognise her artwork which is bright, playful and bold and uplifting. For more information as to what’s on offer, see our ’25 Thing To Do In & Around Matsumoto’ page.
21 / Plan Your Rural Getaway to Azumino / all year round
Located just outside of Matsumoto, Azumino is a tranquil rural enclave in the shadow of the North Alps. Home to scenic farmlands producing some of Nagano’s best fruit and vegetables, exploring Azumino through summer and autumn is a great way to enjoy the harvest including fruit-picking at one of the many local farms.
Azumino’s Daio Wasabi Farm is one of Japan’s largest produces of wasabi and in itself, a beautiful destination well-worth visiting. Wasabi requires large amounts of clear water to grow and the streams and pools that flow across the farm create a picturesque and idyllic setting in which to wander. The surrounding region is home to numerous art galleries, museums, local cafes, and restaurants and the hot spring village of Hotaka Onsen-kyo. For more information about everything on offer in the area, see our ’20 Things To Do In & Around Azumino’ page.
22 / Experience the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route / April to November
Heralded as one of Japan’s best experiences, traversing the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route takes approximately 6 hours including time to stop and enjoy all of its stunning sights. Open from mid-April to mid-November, the Alpine Route is most famous for its immense snow walls which, at their peak, ascend 20 meters above the road below. The snow walls are at their best from the opening day in April until mid-June, after which outstanding hiking is available through summer and autumn, climaxing with stunning autumn colours in October until the route closes again in November.
Visitors can start from the Nagano-side via Ogizawa Station (or the Toyama-side via Tateyama Station) and choose to finish on the other side or return to their point of origin. A series of mountain transports including trolley buses, cable cars, a ropeway, and coaches carry visitors to and from Ogizawa Station and Murodo Station – which at 2540 meters is the highest station in Japan.
If you would like to visit the Snow Walls on a guided tour, our 1-Day Snow Walls of Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route Tour operates from April to June. Our tour operates to and from Nagano Station via Ogizawa Station including the option of pickup and drop-off in Hakuba. For further suggestions of what to do while there, see our ’15 Things To Do In & Around the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route’ page.
23 / Explore Kamikochi & the North Alps / April to November
Traversing the country’s highest mountain range, the Tatehyama-Kurobe Alpine Route is part of the expansive Chubu Sangaku National Park. Lying to the south within the same national park, Kamikochi is a pristine and beautiful alpine valley open to the public from mid-April until mid-November each year. The valley follows the Azusa River while some of Japan’s tallest mountain peaks rise to over 3000 meters above.
Considered the jewel of the Chubu Sangaku National Park, visiting Kamikochi is one of Nagano’s most memorable experiences – a truly special place of natural and spiritual importance.
Want to visit Kamikochi from Nagano City? Our 1-Day Kamikochi Alpine Valley Tour runs from May until November and combines a visit to the stunning mountain oasis with morning visit to rural Azumino. With pick-up available in both Matsumoto and Nagano – and the option of drop-off in Kamikochi, Matsumoto or Nagano – this tour takes you deep into Japan’s mountainous heartland.
24 / Nagano’s Green Season: Hiking & Mountaineering / May to November
Home to the majority of Japan’s tallest mountains, Nagano’s ‘green season’ – between May and November – offers outstanding hiking and mountaineering. Countless trails range in length and difficulty, from leisurely strolls suitable for anyone to expert trails and paths only suited to experienced mountaineers. Starting with the two destinations mentioned above, both Mountt Tate – accessible using the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route – and Kamikochi offer a range of trails, from easy strolls of an hour or less to advanced multiday undertakings.
Less well-known but just as beautiful, we also recommend nearby Norikura. Within easy reach of Kamikochi, Mount Norikura – or Norikura-dake – stands at 3026 metres above sea level yet offers comfortable and leisurely walking trails for anyone of reasonable fitness. From late-spring through to summer the receding snow then reveals a beautiful landscape of walking trails surrounded by lush alpine meadows and flowers. For other great options, see our ‘Best Trails in Nagano’ page along with the suggestions below.
25 / Nagano’s Green Season: Head Back to Shiga Kogen / late-May to November
Nestled within the expansive area of Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, Shiga Kogen offers some of Central Japan’s best hiking and alpine walking from late-May until November. Already afforded status as a national park, Shiga Highland was declared a UNESCO Biopshere Reserve in 1981. Formed by volcanic eruptions that occurred 3 million years ago, the area comprises of rough terrain, mountain ranges and forests with ponds, swamps, high-moors, and rivers, making it a suitable environment for a wide variety of animals, plants, and insects to coexist.
Shiga Kogen is cross-crossed by numerous walking trails with most being suitable to anyone of reasonable fitness. Several areas include raised walkway to preserve fragile ecosystems, with more intensive trails leading to multiple mountain peaks over 2000 metres. The highlands offer both fantastic hiking and nature photography opportunities, with autumn and the changing leaves being a particularly stunning time to explore the highlands.
In recent years, Shiga Kogen has become popular with trail-runners and now hosts a couple of popular events each year. The Shiga Kogen Mountain Trail Run is one of two such events taking place each summer with races including a 40km, 14.8km and 1-3km kids course in July. Complementing this event, the Shiga Kogen Extreme Trail Run is held in October and takes things that little bit further with 54km, 32km and 8km races, along with shorter 1-3km kids event. These are serious alpine races attracting both professional and semi-professional athletes. Running across mixed terrain and unsealed tracks, participants need to be of very high fitness. For further suggestions of things to do in Shiga all year round, see our ‘Activities in Shiga Kogen’ page.
26 / Nagano’s Green Season: Hakuba Valley / May to November
Most famous for its fantastic ski resorts, the mountains of Hakuba are just as big in green season and offer lots of reasons to visit. Busy ferrying skiers and snowboarders up the ski resorts in winter, several of Hakuba’s gondolas continue to operate from late-spring to autumn (with brief periods closed either side of winter). The following are some the best:
Operating from Hakuba Goryu Snow Resort, Hakuba Goryu Alpine Botanical Garden is accessible using the main gondola. Taking 10 minutes to climb to around 1500 metres above sea level, visitors can enjoy the alpine garden of more than 300 varieties of plants, leisurely walking trails and the ‘ALPS 360’ restaurant.
The ‘Noah’ gondola at Hakuba Iwatake operates from early-June to mid-November and transports visitors to the Hakuba Mountain Harbor (pictured above) including City Bakery and walking trails. Known for its outstanding view of the North Alps and stunning autumn leaves, the Mountain Harbor has quickly established itself as one of Hakuba’s most popular all-year-round destinations.
Happo Pond can be accessed using the ‘Adam’ gondola at Hakuba Happo One. Located around 2000 metres above sea level, the pond is around 90-minutes walk from the upper gondola station and blessed with one of Hakuba’s most iconic vistas. Trails lead onto the pond further into the mountains – more serious undertakings that require appropriate experience, preparation and gear – however, for anyone of reasonable fitness, Happo Pond is a beautiful and rewarding destination.
Accessible using the Tsuigake ‘Eve’ Gondola followed by the shorter ropeway, the Tsugaike Nature Park sits at around 1900 metres above sea level and offers a series of leisurely yet beautiful alpine trails. Courses ranging from 1km to 5.5km / 1 to 4 hours walk provide access over 100 hectares of alpine landscape, known for its beauty, variety of mountain plants and flowers, and panoramic views of the North Alps rising another 1000 metres above.
In recent years, Hakuba has established itself as Central Japan’s biggest and best green season sports destination with mountain-biking and trail running both becoming hugely popular. See our ‘Guided Outdoor Experiences in Hakuba’ page for information as to what’s available and our ’25 Things To Do In & Around Hakuba’ page for suggestions of what’s on offer all year round.
27 / Kiso Ontake Mountain Range & Kiso Valley / all year round
The Kiso Ontake Mountain Range is one of several dramatic and beautiful alpine areas covering Central Japan. Dominated by the imposing volcanic peak of Mount Ontake – Japan’s second highest volcano behind Fuji – the region is known for its pristine nature, lush landscapes and stunningly-coloured water of its rivers and gorges.
Blessed with rare natural beauty the Kiso Ontake Mountain Range includes the stunning Kiso Valley and the most famous section of the Nakasendo, including the beautiful postal towns of Narai, Magome and Tsumago, which can still be walked today. Still somewhat undiscovered by international visitors, exploring Kiso Ontake and the Kiso Valley takes you deep into the heart of Central Japan.
For more information, see our ’25 Things To Do Around the Nakasendo & Kiso Valley’ page.
28 / Walk the Historic Nakasendo / best: spring and autumn
The Nakasendo Trail traces a historic trade route that once connected Tokyo – then called Edo – and Kyoto during the Edo Period (1603-1868). Though much of the route is now gone, several sections can still be walked including the picturesque ‘Kisoji’, the section of road that runs through the Kiso Valley. Serviced by many ‘juku’ or post towns, Kisoji is known for the historic preservation of Narai-juku, Magome-juku and Tsumago-juku. These picturesque little towns are cared for by local residents who strive to maintain their traditional aesthetic and ways of life, and are lined with traditional guesthouses, restaurants and craft stores. Walking the Nakasendo is best enjoyed in spring and autumn.
For more information, see our ’25 Things To Do Around the Nakasendo & Kiso Valley’ page.
29 / Karuizawa: Mountain Resort Town / all year round
Once also a post town on the Nakasendo, Karuizawa is a popular mountain resort town located around 1000 metres above sea level. Blessed with a cool climate in summer and snow in winter, Karuizawa is a popular year-round destination for Japanese and an increasingly popular for international visitors.
The expansive Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza – boasting more than 200 stores and restaurants – is immediately accessible from Karuizawa Station while in winter, Karuizawa Prince Hotel Snow Resort is popular with Tokyo-ites and families. Within walking distance of the station, the old area of Ginza Street is home to many excellent stores, galleries and restaurants while nearby attractions including Hoshino Terrace and Shiraito Falls are always popular.
For suggestions of things to do while there, see our’’25 Things To Do In & Around Karuizawa’ page.
30 / Autumn Leaves of Nagano / late-September to November
As a place of mountains and abundant forests, Nagano is one of the best places to enjoy the beautiful autumn leaves of Japan. Known as ‘koyo’ in Japanese, the stunning colours of the autumn leaves are cherished and valued, much like the cherry blossoms of spring. The exact timing of the leaves varies from year-to-year and depending on the altitude and location of each area.
From late-September onward, the landscape will start to turn and soon be awash with colour – a mosaic of red, gold, amber and brown – as the autumn leaves fill the forests, valleys and mountains through October and November. Needless to say, the higher altitude of Nagano provides the perfect conditions for some of Japan’s most stunning autumn leaves.
For information about ‘koyo’ season and the best places to find the leaves, see our ‘Autumn Leaves in Nagano’ page.
31 / The Taste of Nagano: Soba, Miso, Apples & More! / all year round
Nagano is one of Japan’s true food bowls. Situated at the heart of the main island of Honshu, Nagano is a region of dramatic mountains and bountiful farmlands. Blessed with abundant pure water and fertile soil, the region produces some of Japan’s best fruit, vegetables, meat and rice.
Nagano produces some of Japan’s best ‘soba’ (buckwheat noodles), ‘miso’ (fermented soybean paste), rice, and most famously, apples and grapes. From the mountains, many types of ‘gibie’ (wild meat) are procured including deer, boar, rabbit and even bear, while ‘basashi’ (horse) is a traditional delicacy.
32 / The Taste of Nagano: Sake, Beer, Wine & More! / all year round
While in Nagano, visitors are spoiled for choice when it comes to finding something to drink. Most famously, Nagano is home to the second largest number of ‘sake’ breweries in Japan. The tradition of sake production in Nagano stretches back countless years and is as fundamental to the identity of the region as the mountains, snow and monkeys. In recent years, Nagano has also seen a boom in craft beer with many excellent breweries and a burgeoning cider and wine industry starting to attract global attention.
For further information about diving into the warm world of ‘sake’ while in Nagano, see our ‘Enjoy Sake in Nagano’ page.
33 / Autumn Festivals of Nagano / September to November
Known as ‘matsuri’, festivals play an important role in bringing communities together to celebrate all types of weird and wonderful things. While in Nagano, visitors can join many fantastic festivals including:
Taking place at the end of September, the ‘Azumino O-Fune Matsuri’ or ‘Ship Festival’ celebrates the founding to the Azumino region with a climatic ship fight, propelled by local residents.
In October, the historic town of Matsushiro – part of Nagano City – plays host to its autumn ‘Sanada Clan Jumangoku Festival’ – a spectacular celebration of the town’s samurai heritage.
In November, Nagano City hosts the stunning and huge ‘Ebisu-ko Fireworks Festival’.
Attracting an estimated crowd of around 400,000 people, more than 15,000 fireworks explode in the crisp autumn sky in thanks for a good harvest and heralding the winter to come – and one of our most popular tours of the year. Want to join these festivals including Ebisu-ko Fireworks on a guided tour? See our ‘Tours’ page for what’s available and when and our ‘Events’ page for a complete listing of Nagano’s upcoming festivals.
34 / Winter Festivals of Nagano / December to March
Visitors to Nagano can enjoy some great festivals each winter, starting with the ‘Zenko-ji Omotesando Illumination’ in Nagano City. Held each December, the illumination sees the city’s famous temple come to light and life, awash with colour as it and the ‘Omotesando’ (avenue leading to temple) are lit-up in the cold winter night.
The ‘Nozawa Onsen Dosonjin Matsuri’, or commonly referred to as the ‘Nozawa Fire Festival’, is one of Japan’s three great fire festivals. The festival is held annually on January 15 but preparation starts in October and involves hundreds of villagers, who build a huge wooden shrine which is then – on the night of the festival – simultaneously attacked and defended by men of the village. Always popular and raucous, the festival ends with the shrine being set ablaze – a remarkable sight and unforgettable night!
In the first week of February, the ‘Tomyo Lantern Festival’ again sees Nagano City’s historic temple come to light, as light installations and projects offer thanks to the Buddha – an important act in Buddhism – while also commemorating Nagano’s role as host to the 1998 Winter Olympics.
We offer group tours to all three festivals in combination with a visit to the Jigokudani Monkey Park – see our ‘Tours’ page for details.
Finally, for three days in the middle of March, ‘Snow Monkey Beer Live’ kick-offs in Shiga Kogen Ski Resort. As Japan’s largest and highest ski resort, Shiga is blessed with Nagano’s longest season and just many other resorts – including many in Hakuba – are winding-down for the season, Snow Monkey Beer Live heralds the start of Shiga’s spring-skiing season.
35 / Spring Festivals of Nagano / April to June
Spring is always a big event in Japan, with Japanese traveling the country to see the best cherry blossoms. One of the best cherry blossom spots is the Takato Castle Park, a park which lays on the ruins of Takato Castle. Instead of a castle keep, the park now has numerous ‘sakura’ trees which all bloom bright in beginning to mid-April and host one of Japan’s most famous spring festivals – the Takato Castle Park Cherry Blossom Festival.
Wander among the 1,500 cherry blossom trees and enjoy the festive atmosphere; you’ll see people lounging on picnic blankets looking at the blossoms above them, vendors selling everything from ‘yakitori’ to ice cream, and amazing views over the surrounding alpine mountains. Want to join the festival on a guided tour? Our Special Event Takato Castle Park Cherry Blossom Tour offers the chance to witness some of Japan’s most beautiful ‘sakura’ displays each April.
The Matsushiro Spring Cherry Blossom Festival takes place on the second Saturday of April, within the grounds of Matsushiro Castle Park. Typically blooming in the first week of April, the festival is planned to coincide with the expected peak bloom – referred to as ‘mankai’ in Japanese – with events and performances celebrating the samurai heritage of Matsushiro.
36 / Summer Festival of Nagano / July to August
In August, Nagano City’s ‘Binzuru Dance Festival’ sees troupes of dancers take over the streets, totaling around 200 groups and thousands of onlookers. In the heat of summer, the festival attracts a big crowd and great atmosphere.
Matsumoto’s ‘Bon Bon’ Dance Festival also takes place in early-August, just one of the many festivals in a busy calendar of events in the famous castle town. Located just outside of Matsumoto, the ‘Azumino Fireworks Festival’ takes place on August 14th each year. This decidedly local festival attracts a big crowd to see the warm summer night burst into light with around 12,000 fireworks exploding in the sky above.
The ‘Zenko-ji Summer Ennichi Festival’ takes place at the Nagano’s historic Zenko-ji Temple in mid-August. This event draws visitors from far and wide – a spectacular display of the continued importance of the temple to the people of Nagano.
The third weekend of August sees Shiga Kogen’s three-day ‘Daija Festival’ take place in the beautiful surroundings of Joshinetsu Kogen National Park.
For more information, see our ‘Events’ page for a complete listing of Nagano’s upcoming festivals.
37 / Head South: Southern Nagano, Mount Fuji & Tokyo / all year round
As one of Japan’s largest prefectures, there’s plenty to explore as you head south and into the Southern Alps, starting with the Kiso-Ontake – see above for details – and onto Mount Fuji.
Standing 3776 metres in height, Fuji is Japan’s tallest and most iconic mountain. An active volcano, Fuji has long been revered, feared, and held in awe by the Japanese people. It holds huge spiritual and cultural importance for Japan and rising high above the surrounding plateau is a constant presence in the daily life of the country.
For suggestions on the many things to do and see around Fuji, see our ’30 Things To Do Around Mount Fuji & Central Japan’ page.
Offering great views of the mountain and some of Japan’s best hot springs, guesthouses and museums, Hakone is another hugely popular destination. For further information, see our ’10 Things To Do In Hakone’ page.
From either Hakone or Fuji, Tokyo is within easy reach. As Japan’s expansive capital, Tokyo offers something for everyone – from world-class dining to tiny eateries, brand stores to the super cool, traditional arts and crafts to the most obscure subcultures.
For first-time visitors – and even seasoned veterans of travel to Japan – planning your visit to Tokyo can be somewhat confusing given its size. Our ‘Where to Stay in Tokyo’ page provides information about some of the most convenient and popular areas to base yourself and from where to tackle the city.
38 / Head West: Takayama, Nagoya & the Kii Peninsula / all year round
For visitors heading to destinations including Matsumoto and Kamikochi, it’s an easy onward journey to the historic old town of Takayama. Famous for the excellent preservation of its Edo Period (1603-1868) historic centre, Takayama draws large crowds. Equally famous for its food scene including Hida beef and Takayama ramen, Takayama attracts visitors as much for its food as it does for its historic streetscapes.
Easily accessible by bus from Takayama by bus, the villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama were inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1995. Actually consisting of three villages, they are known for this distinctive ‘gassho-style’ thatch-roofed houses set in a beautiful alpine setting of rice fields and high mountains above. World Heritage-listing has ensured that the villages are hugely popular with both domestic and international tourists but don’t let that put you off.
Our ’25 Things To Do In & Around Takayama’ page has some great tips and suggestions of what’s on offer.
From Nagano, Matsumoto and the Kiso Valley it’s an equally easy journey to the south-west and onto Nagoya. One of Japan’s great metropolises and an industrial powerhouse, Nagoya is a modern and youthful city with a rich history and great food scene, making it an ideal stop as you move west toward Kyoto and Osaka. The city’s industrial, youthful and energetic atmosphere blends with a fascinating history as seen in Nagoya’s famous castle, Atsuta Shrine, Toyota Commemorative Museum, the Central Japan Railways Museum, Tokugawa Art Museum and more.
From Nagoya, the Kii Peninsula is easily accessible using public transport. Blessed with three of Japan’s most important religious destinations – the Ise Grand Shrine complex, the pilgrimage trails of the Kumano Kodo and the temple mountain of Koyasan – the Kii Peninsula can lay claim to be Japan’s most sacred and engaging areas. For further information, see our ’25 Things To Do In & Around Nagoya’ page.
39 / Head North: Toyama, Kanazawa & Fukui / all year round
Visitors heading to the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route or using the Hokuriku Shinkansen line onward from Nagano, can head onto Toyama.
Nestled between Toyama Bay and the North Alps, Toyama is known throughout Japan for its fantastic seafood. One of the great pleasures of visiting the city is trying its famous seafood, best experienced at the seafood markets on the coast. But if you don’t have time to explore and are just passing through, it’s worth noting that there are excellent seafood restaurants inside Toyama Station or in the nearby precinct, which also includes Toyama Castle Park and Toyama Glass Art Museum. For tips and suggestions of what’s on offer in Toyama, see our ’25 Things To Do In & Around Toyama’ page.
A short onward train-ride from Toyama, Kanazawa is a well-established, popular destination for international visitors. Kanazawa is a relatively small city with an attractive mix of historic areas, modern museums and great food. Part of the ancient Kaga Province, the name Kanazawa literally translates as ‘marsh of gold’. Under the rule of the Maeda clan during the Edo Period (1603-1868), Kanazawa developed into one of Japan’s most important cities, accumulating great wealth and attracting artisans through a series of policies designed to consolidate the power, and services the needs, of the samurai class. Today, Kanazawa remains a city of historic districts, fantastic museums and great food. For more information, see our ’25 Things To Do In & Around Kanazawa’ page.
Moving on from Kanazawa, Fukui is often overlooked by international visitors but should not be. Home to two of Central Japan’s best destinations – Daihonzan Eihei-ji Temple and the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum – Fukui is well-worth including on any itinerary. For more information, see our ’10 Things To Do In Fukui’ page.
40 / Head East: Kusatsu Onsen, Yuzawa & Niigata / all year round
Visitors heading west have just as much to choose from starting with Kusaatsu Onsen in Gunma Prefecture. One of Japan’s most famous hot spring towns, Kusatsu can be reached using public buses from Karuizawa or – in green season – is accessible by car using the Shiga Kusatsu Kogen Route. One of many fantastic hot spring towns in Gunma, the region has loads to entice you.
For further suggestions, see our ’25 Things To Do In & Around Kusatsu Onsen’ page.
Finally, bordering Nagano to the north-west and of similar character, Niigata is a large prefecture known for its mountains and heavy snow. Fondly referred to as ‘yukiguni’ or ‘snow country’, Yuzawa and the surrounding area is subject to exceptionally heavy snowfall and many excellent ski resorts. Best known as a winter destination, summer events including Fuji Rock Festival – Japan’s largest music festival – and the increasingly popular Echigo-Tsumari Art Field mean that Yuzawa and Niigata are quickly becoming all-year-round destinations.
For tips and suggestions of what’s on offer, see our ’15 Things To Do In Yuzawa & Niigata’ page.
PLAN & PACKAGE YOUR TRIP TO NAGANO WITH US!
Based in Nagano and operating all year round, we are a registered travel agent, tour and charter operator. We have the expertise and experience to help you get the most out of your time in the region including any destination or activity listed above.
We can package your trip to Nagano and Central Japan including group and private tours, ski packages, accommodation, private charters, restaurants, ticketing and more!
Our drivers and vehicles are fully certified, allowing us to transport you to and from your preferred destinations, in combination with any activity that suits your interests and schedule.
We can arrange both private tours with an English-speaking guide or a private charter, including a private vehicle and driver but without a guide – whichever works best for you!
Why choose us?
Awarded a 2019 TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Award for our 1-Day Snow Monkeys, Zenko-ji Temple & Sake Tour – recognised as one of the Top 10 Experiences in Japan – Snow Monkey Resorts is Nagano’s No.1 tour and charter operator.
Locally-based and operating all year round, we offer the local knowledge, support, and service that you need to get the most out of your adventure in Japan. Got a question about visiting Nagano? Feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s get planning together!