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If you’re planning a trip to Tokyo, you might want to make a side trip to one of Japan’s best kept secrets!

Nagano Prefecture, besides having the most accessible snow resort in Japan, is surrounded by sought after attractions like the famed 400-year-old Matsumoto Castle, Zenkoji Temple and the cute wild snow monkeys!

Here are 10 reasons why Nagano is worth checking out.

NAGANO SERIES:
• MATSUMOTO CITY GUIDE: TOP 10 ACTIVITIES!
• MATSUMOTO CASTLE: Guide & Tips for Tourists!
• SUWA, NAGANO: Guide to Nagano’s Lakeside City!
• Zenkoji: Guide To Nagano’s 1400-Year-Old Temple!
• NAGANO, JAPAN: Top 10 Things To Do!

HOW TO GET THERE

The Fastest way is by Train
Tokyo and Nagano are connected to each other by the Hokuriku Shinkansen. The one-way trip, fully covered by the Japan Rail Pass and JR East Nagano Niigata Area Pass, takes 80-100 minutes and costs about 8,000 yen. There are multiple trains per hour.

Fun Fact: Nagano, known as the prefecture of longevity, is blessed with fresh air and clean water from the soaring 3,000-meter high Japan Alps. It is believed that this beautiful environment and fresh produce from the mountains have something to do with the highest average life expectancy rate in Nagano.

 

1. MATSUMOTO CASTLE (Matsumoto City)

It’s Japan’s oldest castle!

Matsumoto Castle is one of the five castles designated as National Treasures of Japan. It’s over 400 years old, making it the oldest castle donjon remaining in the country. Unlike many palaces in Japan, its original structure was, fortunately, not bombed during WWII. That’s why it was able to keep most of its original wooden donjons and walls intact.

It is nicknamed as the “crow castle” for its contrasting black and white color. It’s currently my favorite castle in Japan because I find it exceedingly rare to find a Japanese castle so well preserved in its original state.

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You can also visit the Matsumoto City Museum which sits in the castle grounds and offers you an overview of the history of the city.

Look, it still has its original wooden frames and flooring! There is also a great gallery here which has a collection of historical materials and weaponry, including samurai armors and muskets.

Tip: The stairs can be really steep going to the higher level floors, but the ground floor is senior-friendly.

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There are cool staff, roaming around the castle wearing samurai, ninja and kimono outfits, with whom you can take a picture for free!

Sugoi (Cool)!

Read more: MATSUMOTO CASTLE: Guide & Tips for Tourists!

Matsumoto Castle Entrance: 
4-1 Marunochi, Matsumoto-shi, Nagano
Saturday (8:30 AM ~ 5:0 PM)
Sunday (8:30 AM ~ 5:0 PM)
Weekdays (8:30 AM ~ 5:0 PM)
Museum Price: Adult: 610 YEN
Children: 300 YEN
6 years old or under: Free
Phone: (0263) 32-2902

How To Get There
The castle is about a 15-minute walk from Matsumoto Station.

 

 

2. HAKUBA VILLAGE

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Did you know that Hakuba was the venue of the 1998 Winter Olympics?

Nagano prefecture offers one of the most accessible ski areas via Tokyo. With a total of seven ski resorts, its powdery white snow, varied terrain and range of snow activities are sure to please any snow enthusiast!

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(Hakuba Goryu Snow Resort)

Ski against the breathtaking background of the 300m peak Japan Alps or enjoy onsen bathing, snow-shoeing, sledding, snowmobile and other winter activities.

How to Get There:
The fastest way is via bullet train (Shinkansen) from Tokyo Station to Nagano Station. Transfer to the bus from Nagano to Hakuba.
Shinkansen (3 hours, ¥10,000 per adult)
At Nagano Station, go to the east exit and find bus stop #26. The bus bound for Hakuba destinations leaves roughly every hour from 8:20 to 20:00 and costs ¥1800.

 

 

3. JIGOKUDANI SNOW MONKEY PARK 

23 Jigokudani Yaen Koen

Have you seen the adorable snow monkeys bathing in the natural onsen (hot spring)?

Take a visit to Jigokudani Monkey Park, where these monkeys called Japanese Macaques, are so accustomed to humans you can watch them closely in their natural habitat.

I heard it’s best to visit in winter from December to March when the park is covered in white snow, so you can see your buddies dipping in the hot spring because of the cold.

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The park is about a 20-minute scenic walk with a few stairs. Make sure to bring shoes fit for slippery snow.
Tip: Bring shoes fit for slippery snow or you can rent boots before the entrance for just Y500.
Jigokidani Snow Monkey Park
Winter hours (9:00am to 4:00pm)
Entrance: Adult: Y800, Child: Y400
How To Get There:

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4. ZENKOJI TEMPLE (Nagano City)

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The Japanese have long been told to visit Zenkoji Temple at least once in their lifetime. The 1400-year-old temple is one of Japan’s most important pilgrimage sites since the 7th century and is regarded as a National Treasure.

Walk from the main streets of Nagano Station towards Zenkoji temple called the “Chuo Dori,” and you’ll find plenty of restaurants, souvenir shops and lodging that’s very convenient for pilgrims and tourists from all over Japan!

Walk until you reach the bustling stone paved street shopping area called Nakamise. Treat yourself to local specialties such as soba, oyaki and miso-flavored soft cream. You’ll make tons of discoveries along the way!

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Inside the temple, you can rub the worn wooden statue of the ancient doctor Binzuru believed to miraculously relieve aches and pains whichever of its body parts you touched.

Of course, silly me touched the head because of the headache I had from having so many deadlines.

What attracts most of the visitors is the stairway pilgrimage. It was an exciting experience descending into the pitch-black tunnel in the basement in search of the “key to paradise” that’s said to free you from all your sins. We loved it plus we believed we came out of the temple sin-free!

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Zenkoji Temple
491, Motozen-machi, Nagano City
Opening Hours: 9:00 to 16:00
Admission: Y500 (Inner chamber)

How To Get There:
To reach Matsumoto from Nagano City, you may take the Shinonoi line train or the Limited Express Wide View Shinano train. The former costs 1,140 yen and takes about 80 minutes while the latter costs 2,320 yen and takes about 50 minutes.

Good walkers can reach the temple approach in about half an hour from Nagano Station. Alternatively, you may take a train from the underground Nagaden Nagano Station next to JR Nagano Station and go down at Zenkojishita Station (4 minutes, 170 yen, 2-3 trains per hour), from which it is a 5-10 minute walk to the temple.

 

5. LAKE SUWA (Suwa City)

103 Suwa Tateishi Park

This is the lake from Kimi no Na wa!

While the lake is fictional in the movie, it is based on Lake Suwa, a body of water in the central region of Nagano Prefecture, Japan.

Lake Suwa, located in the middle of the city, is one of Japan’s most famous lakes. It is known for its hot springs (onsens) and the spectacular Suwa Fireworks Festival where dazzling lights reflect over the water like fiery flowers. I heard that every day in the month of August, 800 fireworks are set off until the grand finale on August 15 when 40,000 fireworks light the sky to amaze a multitude of visitors!

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Cricket ice cream anyone?

If you are feeling adventuresome with food, there is an ice cream shop near Lake Suwa that sells soft serve ice cream topped with grasshopper that was simmered in soy sauce. The taste? It was actually really good. Imagine a soft cream topped with fried candied grasshopper, the perfect combination of salty and sweet! Oishi!

Now, this is how you scream “Ice cream!” (Budget:¥450)

HOW TO GET THERE:

Suwa City is located on the JR Chuo line that provides easy access from Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya.

From Shinjuku (Tokyo) via JR Chuo Line (Limited Express Super Asuza) -> Kami-Suwa (2.2hr travel time)

 

 

6. SUWA TAISHA (Suwa City)

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When visiting Japan, a stop at some of the most beautiful temples and shrines that this country has to offer is certainly high up on most travelers’ lists.

Suwa city is famous for its 1,200-year-old Shinto Shrines, the main one being Suwa Taisha (Suwa Grand Shrine) of Shinto origin. It is one of the oldest shrines in Japan.

The deity worshipped here is Takeminakata-no-kami, the main god of the eastern provinces who commands over wind, water, agriculture and hunting.

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Suwa Taisha is the head shrine among 10,000 or so Suwa sub-shrines located throughout Japan, including a famous Suwa Shrine in Nagasaki. It consists of four shrine complexes that include the Maemiya (old shrine), Honmiya (main shrine), Harumiya (spring shrine) and Akimiya (autumn shrine).

Suwa-taisha Upper Shrine, Main Building
TEL:+81-266-52-1919

 

 

7. DAIO WASABI FARM (Matsumoto)

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This is where real wasabi comes from! (Unlike the ones we have in tubes that are made of horseradish!)

So what’s the difference? Real wasabi tastes smoother, cleaner and more plant-like than its commonly used substitute that has a harsher lingering after taste.

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Daio Wasabi farm, located 20km from Matsumoto, is the largest wasabi farm in Japan! With natural spring water from the Northern Alps running 120,000t per day, the farm is able to yield 150t of quality grown wasabi, and that’s not even enough to supply the whole of Nagano!

Besides the wasabi, the farm has gorgeous watermills with a colorful stream and a souvenir shop that offers everything wasabi, even soft cream!!! (Wasabi soft cream Y360)

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The taste? Who would have imagined converting the green paste into ice cream? The wasabi soft cream has a sweetness similar to vanilla with a distinct spicy aftertaste.

Daio Wasabi Farm
Hours 9:00 to 17:20 (until 16:30 from November to February)
Admission: Free
How to Get There: From Shinanno-Omachi Station, take the Oito Line heading to Matsumoto. Get off at Hotaka Station. From there, you can take a taxi that takes around 10 minutes to the farm.

 

 

8. CHERRY BLOSSOMS

47 Matsumoto Castle in Spring
It’s impossible to think of spring time in Japan without the image of a sea of cherry trees with perfect pink blooms coming to mind.
One of the best places to see the cherry blossoms is at the iconic Matsumoto Castle grounds. There are about 300 cherry trees planted around the castle moats and inside the paid inner grounds of the castle. Make sure to visit the moon viewing room in the castle where you can see a panoramic view of the castle grounds with the cherry blossoms in full bloom!

From April 13th, the trees are illuminated at night for about 10 days. During the first week of illuminations, you can also enter the castle grounds at night. (Blooms: Early to Late April)

 

 

9. STRAWBERRY FARM (Suwa City)

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Nagano Prefecture is a fruit paradise! The big difference of temperature between night and day coupled with a lot of sunlight produces a variety of fresh fruits, including apples, grapes, strawberries and peaches—all available for picking and tasting at farms around the prefecture.

That day, I got to pick strawberries at Suwako Ichigo-en (Suwako Strawberry Farm) near Nagano Prefecture’s Lake Suwa.

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We had the 30-minute all-you-can-eat course available for ¥800 -¥1,700 depending on the farm and season (January – late June).

We got to roam around the fields, choosing our own strawberries and dipping them into yummy condensed milk. It was a sweet treat for a fruit lover like myself!

Getting there: From JR Kamisuwa Station, an approximately 20-minute ride by Swan Bus to Garasu-no-Sato, 5 minutes on foot from there.

 

 

10. SOBA MAKING WORKSHOP

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Nagano is synonymous with soba noodles. The fresh air, clean water and climate make it perfect to grow the buckwheat used in making this deliciously fresh soba.

What makes Nagano’s soba different? Apart from being prepared traditionally, their noodles are especially chewy, slippery, bouncy and fragrant compared to the regular soba.

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My first attempt at making soba. I obviously need more practice. You can try your hands in the art of soba noodle making and get to taste them in the workshop.

We had ours prepared in a simple mori style soba dish. It’s chilled soba on a tray dipped in tsuyu (soy sauce, mirin, rice wine, katsuobushi, seaweed, sugar). I love simple flavors where the noodles are the highlight of the dish. (Meijin Tei/Soba Noodles 700-1200yen)

 

Live an Awesome Life,


ABI of Team Our Awesome Planet

Disclosure: We were media guests of  Nagano Tourism. I wrote this article with my biases, opinions and insights.