The Top Places to Visit in Nagano: The Heart of the Japanese Alps
For those visiting Tokyo, Nagano is the perfect side trip, reachable in under a few hours by car or train. A stark contrast to the capital, this largely mountainous prefecture stretches across the heart of the Japanese alps, offering some of the most incredible scenery around the island. Here are some destinations perfect for making a trip to while visiting the region of Nagano.
The Top Places to Visit in Nagano: The Heart of the Japanese Alps:table of contents
A picturesque city completely surrounded by mountains, Matsumoto is particularly famous for its incredible castle. Often remarked as one of the most beautiful castles in Japan with its stark black exterior and iconic bright-red bridge, the castle is easily reachable by just a short walk from the city's main station. Climb the wooden stairs to the top and you'll be rewarded with stunning views out across the city and towards the surrounding mountain scenery.
The Kiso Valley is full of quaint traditional Japanese towns that make you feel like you've been whisked back to 18th-century Japan. The 'post-towns' as they are called, were once used as places to stop and rest for travelers walking through the mountains from Tokyo to Kyoto on the famous Nakasendo trail. Apart from the beautiful traditional buildings, the scenery here is incredibly beautiful, perfect for spending a few days hiking around the area.
This picturesque lake-side city is full of ancient shrines, mouth-watering restaurants and relaxing hot springs. Popular among locals as a hot spring town, many of the traditional inns or ryokans at the south of the lake have their own baths for guests to relax in. The larger of which often have outside pools on the upper levels which give a beautiful view over the lake while you're chilling in the mineral-rich waters.
Be sure to try one of the numerous eel or unagi restaurants dotted around the towns here, the lake is full of eels which supplies an endless supply of these succulent treats. The mountains around the lake provide a number of great hikes, especially around the Takabotchi Highlands (pictured above) where on clear days you can see across the lake and as far as Mount Fuji.
Nagano's famous residents, the 'snow monkeys' can be seen bathing in the hot springs around Jigokudani. A short hour train ride from Nagano city, Jigokudani is translated as 'Hell's Valley' due to steam billowing out of cracks in the ground, which is frozen throughout winter.
The hot springs were built after the monkeys would often come down into the town causing a nuisance and bathing in the hot springs of nearby guesthouse, thus it was decided to give them their own bathing spot to keep them away. Make sure to pay a visit to Shibu Onsen, the nearby hot spring town full of traditional Japanese houses, inns and baths perfect for relaxing in after trekking through the mountains.
There are a number of popular ski resorts found around Nagano Prefecture, but our favorite of them would have to be Nozawa Onsen. High up at the edge of the Japanese Alps, it's one of the biggest resorts in the country with 36 ski slopes and a long snow season that usually lasts till the end of May. Our favorite thing about Nozawa however is the abundance of Japanese hot springs known as onsen, which are perfect for soaking away the tires of a day spent on the slopes.
A popular weekend getaway and resort town for people living around the Kantou area, Karuizawa is a beautiful town nestled in the mountains, just an hours bullet train away form Tokyo. The town is seen as one of the most desirable places to live in and numerous wealthy residents of Tokyo own a second home there. In the vicinity you'll find numerous spots for bathing in hot springs and skiing along with other activities like hiking and golfing.
With some of the most incredible scenery in Japan, Nagano's Kamikochi region is the perfect spot for escaping into nature and hiking along some of the numerous trails you'll find in the area. Kamikochi is particularly stunning in the fall season when the foliage is a pretty spread of different colors, although it's beautiful throughout the year, with a distinct charm in each season.
If you're looking to see Japan's incredible natural wilderness, hike around beautiful landscape or get a thrill skiing on perfect powdery snow, then Nagano is probably the best place in the country to visit. Apart from the stunning scenery, the region is dotted with picturesque rural mountain towns and cities full of history.