Visit Nagano: Everything You Need To Know
Lying in the centre of Honshu, Japan’s largest island, Nagano is the country’s fourth largest prefecture. Completely landlocked, Nagano is known for its mountains, natural landscapes, liveability, abundant farmlands, wildlife and of course, many ski resorts.
Host of the 1998 Winter Olympics, Nagano is home to around 80 independent ski resorts, several of which hosted events during the ’98 Games along with venues and arenas in Nagano City.
Today, the region attracts visitors from all over world each winter to enjoy some of Japan’s best skiing and snowboarding at popular resorts including Togakushi, Shiga Kogen, Nozawa Onsen and Hakuba Valley (just to name a few).
Many if not most visitors to the region will pass through Nagano City at some point. As a convenient stop on the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line running from Tokyo to Kanazawa, Nagano Station is a primary transport hub and gateway to the region.
Nagano’s most popular ski resorts can be accessed from the station while other popular nearby destinations including Togakushi, Matsushiro and the Jigokudani Monkey Park can be reached using public transport and tours from the station.
Visitors to Nagano City will discover a pleasant and historic city with lots to offer. Boasting a near-1400 year history, Zenko-ji is the city’s spiritual heart and one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan.
The nearby forests and mountains of Togakushi cradle some of the country’s most important Shinto shrines along with Togakushi Ski Resort, while nearby Matsushiro has a strong samurai heritage and open secret beneath its feet…
With so much on offer, let’s start with the most obvious question:
WHERE IS NAGANO?
Nagano Prefecture is the centre Honshu, surrounded by the prefectures of Niigata, Gunma, Yamanashi, Shizouka, Aichi, Gifu, Ishikawa and Toyama. While it is the 4th largest prefecture in terms of size, Nagano ranks only 16th in terms of population and 38th in terms of population density out of Japan’s 47 prefectures. With a great standard of living and agreeable climate, Nagano is considered one of Japan’s most attractive regions to visit, live and work given its relative close proximity to major cities including Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka.
As the capital city of the prefecture, Nagano City is around 245km north-west of Tokyo (the city of Shiojiri lies in the approximate middle of Nagano, around 215km to the west of Tokyo).
Nagano City is the largest and most populous urban area in the region. Boasting a long history including host city of the 1998 Olympics, Nagano is readily accessible from Tokyo and beyond via Nagano Station and as such, is one of Central Japan’s primary transport hubs.
STAY & EXPLORE NAGANO CITY
As the capital of the prefecture, Nagano City is largest city in the region. Nagano Station lies in the centre of the city with a large number of hotels, restaurants, and shopping precincts located in and around the station.
The station itself is small and easy to navigate. Multiple train lines and services run to the station including the Hokuriku Shinkansen – running from Tokyo to Kanazawa all services from Tokyo stop at Nagano – along with the Limited Express Shinano to Matsumoto and onto Nagoya and the Nagano Dentetsu (Nagaden) Line bound for Yamanouchi – home of the snow monkeys and Shiga Kogen – Japan’s largest ski resort.
Express bus services connect the station to popular destinations including the Snow Monkey/Shiga Kogen Express Bus and services to Hakuba Valley; while local bus services cover multiple routes in Nagano City including to Togaksuhi and Matsushiro.
As Nagano’s No.1-rated tour and charter operator, our group tours start and finish at the station – our office is located just outside the East Exit (under 2-minutes walk).
For guests booking private tours and charters, we can arrange transport to and from any regional destinations with pick-up and/or drop-off at the station being a convenient option for many guests, especially those coming from or heading directly to Tokyo, Karuizawa, Kanazawa or other stops on the Hokuriku Shinakansen line.
RECOMMENDED HIGHLIGHTS OF NAGANO CITY
One of Japan’s most livable and enjoyable cities, these are some of the highlights waiting to be discovered:
Zenko-ji Temple – Nagano’s Ancient Heart
Founded in 642, Zenko-ji is one of the oldest and most important Buddhist temples in Japan. Under 20-minutes walk from the station, follow the city’s historic thoroughfare – the ‘Omotesando’ or ‘Pilgrim’s Way’ all the way to the temple.
Along the way you will discover the many smaller temples, restaurants, cafes and shops that make Nagano is enjoyable to explore on-foot. Arriving at Zenko-ji, visitors discover one of the most welcoming and open temples in Japan. 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 – see below for details.
In every way, Zenko-ji is the spiritual and cultural heart of Nagano.
Togakushi – Forest Shrines, Ninja Schools & Nagano’s Closest Ski Resort
Sitting quietly in the mountains bordering Nagano City, Togakushi is home to some of Japan’s most important Shinto shrines set among a beautiful forested landscape.
The five major shrines that make-up the Togakushi complex are spaced-out at intervals through the forest and against the dramatic background of mountains rising above.
Accessible via well-maintained walking tracks, Togakushi continues to draw Shinto practitioners and nature enthusiasts who revel in its tranquillity, beauty, and purity.
On the literal doorstep of the city, Togkuashi is also home to the Togakure ninja school, Togakushi Ski Resort and famous for its ‘soba’ (buckwheat noodles), traditional bamboo craft and stunning autumn leaves making it an ideal destination when planning a day-trip from Nagano.
Matsuhiro – Nagano City’s Samurai Town
Around 12km to the south of central Nagano City, Matsushiro is a small town known firstly for its samurai heritage while also home to an open-secret beneath its feet. Once the stronghold of the ruling Sanada clan, Matsushiro was established as an important strategic base during the Sengoku (Warring States) Period and thriving domain of the samurai class during the latter Edo Period.
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.
Yet it is what lies beneath Matsushiro that increasingly attracts as much attention as its heralded samurai past…
Festivals of Nagano City
Nagano City hosts a busy calendar of events throughout the year. These are some of the best:
Held from November to December, the ‘Zenko-ji Omotesando 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 third Saturday of January sees Togakushi host its annual ‘Dondo-Yaki Festival’, an event that sees the local community come together for a quiet and welcoming fire festival with families and friends enjoying traditional snacks and food, fireworks and drum performances.
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.
With light installations in place in the ‘shukubo’ (temple lodgings) in the surrounding streets and hundreds of ‘kiri-e’ (cut paper lanterns) leading up to the temple, this is a subdued by beautiful festival in the heart of the city.
The second Saturday of April sees Matsuhiro celebrate its beautiful blossoms with the ‘Matsushiro Spring Cherry Blossom Festival’ in and around the historic grounds of Matsushiro Castle Park.
Soon after, the ‘Nagano Marathon’ takes place in mid-April, with the city welcoming competitors from all over Japan and the world.
In July, Nagano plays host to its annual ‘Gion Festival’ before one of the largest events in August – the ‘Binzuru Dance Festival’. The 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.
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.
In October, Matsushiro plays host to its autumn ‘Sanada Clan Jumangoku Festival’ – a spectacular celebration of the town’s samurai heritage.
Finally, 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.
Taking place in the last week of November, the fireworks farewell to autumn and welcome the coming snows of winter.
Discover Nagano’s Olympic Heritage
Host of the 1998 Winter Olympic Games, Nagano is proud of its heritage and pedigree as one of Japan’s premier winter destintations. With multiple Olympic venues located in Nagano City – including M-Wave Arena and the Olympic Museum – visitors can relive and discover the Olympic spirit at any time of year.
Of course, in winter, ski resorts that hosted Olympic events – including Shiga Kogen, Hakuba Valley and Nozawa Onsen – open for skiers and snowboarders to challenge themselves on the Olympic courses – most of which are clearly marked and waiting to test you.
Cherry Blossoms & Autumn Leaves in Nagano
Visitors to Nagano can enjoy the stunning blossoms of spring at a couple of great spots in the city.
Typically blooming from early-April onward, Joyama Park behind Zenko-ji Temple is known for the abundance and beauty of its blossom trees, while Matsushiro celebrates spring with its ‘Matsushiro Spring Cherry Blossom Festival’ in and around the historic grounds of Matsushiro Castle Park – see above for details.
For information about where to find the best blossoms, see our ‘Cherry Blossoms in Nagano’ page.
From October onward, Nagano City’s Togakushi area is regarded as one of Central Japan’s best viewing spots for autumn leaves.
Known as ‘koyo’ in Japan, the autumn leaves colour the landscape all sahdes of yellow and red, amber and brown – a truly stunning sight and perhaps the most beautiful time of year in Nagano. For information about where to find the best spots, see our ‘Autumn Leaves in Nagano’ page.
FOOD, DRINK & DINING IN NAGANO
Nagano is one of Japan’s true food bowls. Blessed with abundant pure water and fertile soil, the region produces some of Japan’s best fruit, vegetables, meat and rice – all of which can be enjoyed at the many restaurants in Nagano City.
Local specialities include Shinshu beef, ‘soba’ (buckwheat) noodles, ‘oyaki’ (steamed buns), ‘basashi’ (horse), different types of ‘jibei’ (wild meats), ‘nozawana’ (a green-leaf vegetable), ‘wasabi’, ‘miso’ and some of Japan’s best rice, apples, grapes and peaches.
For information about all the tasty treats of Nagano, please see our ‘Famous Food of Nagano’ page.
Nagano is also Japan’s second-largest producers of ‘sake’. Known in Japan as ‘nihonshu’, enjoying a glass or bottle of sake while in the region is something of a must-do. Please see our ‘Enjoy Sake in Nagano’ page.
ACCOMMODATION IN NAGANO
Nagano City has a large range of accommodation spread throughout the city including large hotels to mid-range, along with backpackers and budget options. For accommodation listings, see our ‘Nagano City Area’ hotel page.
For visitors heading to areas outside of Nagano City, accommodation listings are also available for: Yamanouchi inc. Snow Monkey Area / Shiga Kogen Ski Resort / Hakuba Village / Hakuba Goryu & 47 Area / Hakuba Cortina & Norikura Area / Matsumoto / Hotaka Onsen-kyo / Karuizawa / Kamkochi / Nozawa Onsen / Iiyama & Madarao
OFFERS & DEALS IN NAGANO
Operating all year round, Snow Monkey Resorts is based in Nagano and a registered travel agent. We are happy to offer our guests a range of services and great deals including packages and bookings under the national ‘Go To Travel’ campaign. We are also proud to partner with other local operators, hotels, restaurants and agencies in offering some great deals in Nagano – see our ‘Offers & Deals’ page for current promotions.
TOURS & TRAVEL PACKAGES IN NAGANO
We are Nagano’s No.1-rated tour and charter operator, offering group tours, private tours, charters and travel packages across all seasons including ski packages in winter. For details, please see our ‘Tours’ page.
GETTING TO & FROM NAGANO CITY: TRAIN SERVICES
For detailed information as to how to reach Nagano, see our ‘How To Get To Nagano City’ page. Several major train lines and services run to and from Nagano Station including:
1 / Hokuriku Shinkansen Line: running from Tokyo to Kanazawa (in Ishikawa), the Hokuriku is the only shinkansen line in Nagano and includes the following stops in Nagano: Karuizawa / Sakuradaira / Ueda / Nagano / Iiyama / Joetsu-Myoko.
2 / Limited Express Shinano: runs from Nagano to Nagoya (in Aichi) via Matsumoto and several small stations providing access to Kiso Valley and the Nakasendo Trail. The line is known for its scenic beauty.
3 / Nagano Dentetsu (Nagaden) Line: running from Nagano Station to Yudanaka Station, this is the primary train line for heading to the Yamanouchi area including the Jigokudani Monkey Park and Shiga Kogen Ski Resort. Nagaden also operates express bus services from Nagano Station to the monkey park and Shiga Kogen.
4 / Iiyama Line: running Nagano Station to Echigo-Kawaguchi (in Niigata), local services can be used to reach Iiyama Station from where ski resorts including Nozawa Onsen and Madarao are accessible. Please note however that Iiyama Station is also a stop on the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line – a faster and more convenient service.
SUGGESTED DAY-TRIPS & NEXT DESTINATIONS FROM NAGANO CITY
The name Yamanouchi Town isn’t immediately known to many however several of its attractions are some of the most popular in Nagano. Including the Jigokudani Monkey Park, the skis resorts of Shiga Kogen – Japan’s largest and highest resort – and Kita-Shiga Kogen, and hot spring towns of Kanbayashi, Shibu and Yudanaka, Yamanouchi town offers visitors plenty to see and do throughout the year.
Yamanouch is only 45 minutes from Nagano City using the Nagano Dentetsu (Nagaden) Railway Line or Nagaden Express Bus services – see below for details.
Matsumoto is the second largest city and home to one of Japan’s last remaining original castles. This pleasant historic city and be reached using the Limited Express Azusa service from Tokyo or the Limited Express Shinano from Nagano City – see below for details.
Matsumoto City includes the stunning alpine valley of Kamikochi within its outer limits.
Azumino is a small rural enclave nearby Matsumoto. Known for its beautiful views of the North Alps, farmlands, galleries and museums, Azumino can be reached using the Oito Line from Matsumoto Station – see below for details.
Also along the Oito Line or using bus services from Nagano Station, Hakuba is home of some of Japan’s best ski resorts and green season sports destinations. Collectively known as ‘Hakuba Valley’, the ten resorts of Hakuba are Nagano’s most popular and international.
Karuizawa is a small but popular mountain resort town and stop on the Hokuriku Shinkansen. Popular with Tokyo-ites, Karuizawa is known for its pleasant ‘small-town’ feel, shopping, ski resort and range of fine dining and high-end hotels.