Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Visit Nagano for the Ultimate Japan Experience: What to See, Do and Eat?

       I came here just for the snow monkey. Initially (Pardon me!). and I thought I would be back in Tokyo right after. I am glad someone persuaded me to stay longer.  
       Surrounded by soaring high mountains and highlands, Nagano is not short of beautiful sceneries. Reasons to visit Nagano can be summarized into 5 words: Skies, Forest, Times, Hot Spring and Food. In two days time, I am going to experience all 5. Challenging, but possible. 

How to get there?

      Nagano station is easily accessible from Japan’s major cities by bus, ordinary trains and bullet train. In my case, I hopped on a direct train from Omiya Station (Saitama).
From Tokyo
  • A Hokuriku bullet train from Tokyo Station (Tokyo) takes 1 hour 20 minutes (8200 Yen), which is the fastest way and most convenient way to reach Nagano from the capital. 
  • For more budget conscious travelers, you can take a highway bus (Alpico/Keio) from Shinjuku Station or (Nagaden/ Seibu) from Ikebukuro. It will takes 3 and a half to 4 hours and cost 2600-2900 Yen.   
From Osaka
  • A highway bus ride from Umeda Station (Alpico/ Hankyu) takes 6 hours 40 min and cost 6000 Yen while from Namba station (Nagaden/ Nankai), it takes 7 hours 40 min and cost 6300 Yen. These options doesn’t sound budget friendly but judging from the fact that you can take a night bus to save on accommodation, it can be an option… we all know how expensive a hotel stay can be!
From Nagoya 
  • Highway bus from Meitetsu Bus Center (Alpico/ Meitetsu) cost 3600 Yen.  

What is the best pass to travel to Nagano?

JR pass
The Options: 
       I am using the JR Wide Country Pass to travel to Nagano, which is awesome to have.
       For those who would like to explore the North-east in depth, JR East Pass is the best pass to have. The pass is sold outside of Japan at 17000 Yen and it is valid for 5 flexible day.
       While the JR Tokyo Wide Pass also offers a similar route at a cheaper price (3 consecutive days 1000 Yen).
The Verdict: 
       I feel like having a JR Pass East is much more worth it because for 7000 you can have the advantage of flexible days, meaning you can use the pass to travel to Nagano on day 1, and stop using the pass for 2 days (since you are spending a night and Dentetsu isn’t included in the pass)… and at the end of the day, you’ll still have 4 days validity on your JREast Pass. If you are using Tokyo Wide Pass on the other hand, 2 days will go to waste if you are staying overnight.
       So in conclusion, if you decide to spend a night, pay more for a JR East Pass and if you intended to hop from one place to another making all destinations day trips then a Tokyo Wide Pass is beneficial.


The Attractions 

Hot Spring: Yudanaka and Shibu Onsen

       There are no better way to start a trip in Nagano. So before you set foot into the snow monkey park to see the wild Japanese Macaque soaking in the hot spring, reward yourself with your very own hot spring moment for making the right decision spending a night in town.
       Yudanaka and Shibu onsen resort refers to 9 hot spring resorts dotted throughout the Yomase River System: Jigokudani, Kanbayashi, Shibu, Andai, Yudanaka, Shin-yudanaka, Hoshikawa, Honami and Kakuma. Once you’ve reached Yudanaka station, you can already enjoy a free footpath at Kaede no Yu located just at the back of the station. There are a lot of onsen Ryokans in Yudanaka itself, but to up my onsen game, I had chosen to stay at Shibu Onsen instead.
       During our onsen session, which we literally had the whole bathhouse to our own, we notices some “white furs” in the water and i jokingly told my mum that they are the fur of the snow monkeys (which i highly suspected as well). The next day when we visited the Snow Moneky Park, we bought the issue up and had our misconception corrected. The white fur turns out to be a natural phenomena which means the water of the onsen are from natural spring!
Shibu Onsen, Nagano
Shibu Onsen, Nagano

  • Overnight guests at Ryokans will get a wooden key to access all 9 public bathhouses in the area for FREE. It is fun to hop from one onsen to another collecting exclusive stamps. 
  • Even if you don’t stay in a Ryokan, it doesn’t mean that you’ll miss out all the fun. You can buy a onsen card at Kaede no Yu and enjoy some of the onsens. 

How to go
From Nagano Station, take an Express Nagano Dentetsu train to Yudanaka station. The Limited express train (1260 Yen) cost slightly more than ordinary train (1160 Yen) but you wouldn’t need to change train. The train will transfer you right to Yudanaka in 45 minutes. Note that this leg of the trip isn’t included in any pass mentioned above.
Yudanaka Onsen, Nagano

Forrest: Jigokudani Yaen-Koen

       Nestled at the foot of Shiga Highlands, the famed Snow Monkey Park is a 30 minutes hike away from Kanbayashi Onsen. During winter, the first part of the hike at Yumichi Forrest Trail Head might be slippery with piles of snow covering the steps so be sure to wear suitable shoes. There are no best season to visit the place, and there are no guarantee that you’ll see any monkeys soaking in the hot spring. Visitors need to understand that the monkeys are unpredictable wild creatures, so although they are known to start their 9-5 onsen day (they will come down from the mountain at 8.30 and go back when night falls) during colder days in Winter, there may be no monkey even during winter months.
       If you are lucky enough to see the monkeys with their unusual behaviors, I can guarantee you that this will be the most magical and some say the most significant experience in Japan, as there is no where else in the world that you can observe such behavior in the wild.
Snow Monkey Nagano
Snow Monkey Nagano
Snow Monkey Nagano
  • You can see baby monkeys born in Spring or early-summer, so even it is not that cold, monkeys will bring their babies here for their first onsen-experiences. They are very cute to watch!   Snow Monkey NaganoHow to go
  • From Yudanaka Dentetsu Station, there are 2 bus routes to Jigokudani Yaen-Koen, one stops at Kanbayashi onsen (Kanyabashi line) and another at Snow Monkey Park (Shiga Kogen line) in 10 minutes time. 
  • From Nagano Train Station, there is also Shiga Koen Express Line bus to Snow Monkey Park (47 minutes). 
  • In the winter, there is a special pass that includes bus fare and the snow monkey park entrance fee. It could be worth it for day-trippers. 

Sky: Ryuoo Ski Park

       Ryuoo Ski Park is conveniently located in Yamanouchi Town (the same town as the Snow Monkey), hence you can enjoy both in a day if you start your day early! Here you can enjoy various snow activities such as snow tubing, snow buggy and snow sled boat… for those who prefer skiing and snowboarding, you can rent the whole suit, equipments and a trainer (available in English and Chinese for only 8000 Yen, 2 hours). New to skiing? No problem, the ski school is designed for all levels so go and pick up your gears now!
Ryuoo Ski Park, Nagano

       Family with elderly and toddlers can enjoy Ryuoo Ski Park without the adrenaline. The World biggest ropeway in the park will transfer you up to the 1770m submit where you can gasp at the mesmerizing view from SORA terrace with a cup of hot chocolate in your hand. If you are lucky, you can even enjoy the spectacular view of the sea of clouds phenomena from the terrace.
Ryuoo Ski Park, Nagano
Ryuoo Ski Park, Nagano
Hungry visitors should not hesitate trying some dishes at the cafe. We’ve tried most of the dishes on the menu and our absolute favorite is the creamy cloud soup on the sky and the apple pie!  Ryuoo Ski Park, Nagano

How to go
  • In winter (December to March), free shuttle is available from Yudanaka Station to Ryuoo Ski Park. The ride takes 20 minutes with 7 departing times per day (9:10, 10:15, 11:30, 13:00, 14:30, 15:30, 16:30). 

Times: Zenkoji

       No one should exit Nagano without paying a visit to Zenkoji Temple. Zenkoji Temple is a 1,400 year old historic temple that is drawing worshipers to obtain eternity bliss. The temple main hall is the 3rd largest in all of Japan, just next to Nara and Kyoto. Zenkoji Temple is a very unique temple… the first of its kind. The main Buddha image (Ikko Manzon Amida Nyorai) is a hibutsu, a hidden Buddha Statue that has never been on public display. Besides, It is said that anyone who prays here sincerely can be sent to Amida Buddha’s paradise after death, regardless of religion affiliation, gender, statues or creeds.
Zenkoji Nagano
Zenkoji Nagano
Zenkoji Nagano

      Here, visitors can also take part in a secret challenge and those who succeed will be promised to be taken to the Buddhist Pure Land… but this activity involves some level of insecurity and total darkness. Read the next post to find out more.
       Before entering Zenkoji Complex, stop by the Nio-mon Gate where 2 huge statues stand guard. One of the statues has its mouth wide open, saying Ahh while another has its mouth shut, saying hmm and this bears a meaning. Ahh-Hmm actually means the whole life of a mortal: with Ahh meaning the born of a baby (we cry during birth) and Hmm meaning the death of a mortal (we close our mouths as we die in peace. )
Zenkoji Nagano

       After your visit to the Zenkoji Temple , spend sometime at the stone-paved Zenko-ji Nakamise Shopping Street where you can most certainly find the perfect souvenir to bring back. Munch on apple custard pies and Oyaki (local delicacies) as you roam the street.
       We took sometime creating our own Kaleidoscope at Galerie Ren, one of the cultural experiences we were thrilled to take part in. If time allows, you may also travel back in time at Daimon-cho to explore the street lined with stone-lanterns and old merchant houses from the Taisho era…
Zenkoji Nagano
How to go
  • From Nagano Station, take the Nagano Dentetsu Line to Gondo (2 stations away) or Zenkojishita station (3 stations away).  
  • You can also ride on a Zenkoji Line bus from Nagano Station, whether it is a Binzuru-go (clockwise) or Gururin-go (anti-clockwise). 
  • A single ride fare is 150 Yen or you can buy a Zenkoji Temple, Matsushiro one day pass at 1400 Yen.   

Food: Too many to list! 

       Believe me or not, Soba noodles originated from Shinshu and it gained popularity from there onwards. Nowadays, Shinshu has the highest number of Soba restaurant in Japan. In Yudanaka, try Sugakawa Soba (Buckwheat Noodles), while in Nagano city, search for Fuji or Shinano- Gold Apple and premium Shinshu beef.
Shinshu Soba

       Some notes about Shinshu beef, while it is not as famous as Kobe beef, you should not give it a miss, and I’ll tell you why. Shinshu is not famous for apples for nothing. Shinshu battles are fed with apples for marbled beef with a soft texture and there is a natural sweetness in the flesh.
       After the meal, wash everything down with a glass of wine (Nagano prefecture is currently Japan’s leading producer of wine grapes and is home to a large number of wineries) and end it with a bang by ordering a Wasabi soft-serve Ice cream (if its available).
       Before leaving Nagano, get the final taste of Nagano at Ramen Miso-ya (steps away from Nagano Station), where the pride soup of Nagano is served only using the best Daiginjo Shinshu Miso.
Click here to read more about specialties in Nagano and what to buy as souvenir


       I’ve spent a little more than 24 hours in Nagano and honestly, I secretly regretted my decision. 
       If only I knew what Nagano can offer, I should have spent a week, or even longer. During this visit, I only manage to cover Yamanouchi and Nagano City. 
       If anyone of you have more time to spare, I highly recommend you to check out Liyama, Matsumoto, Hakuba, Ina or Lida. No I’ve not been to any of them but during my visit in Nagano City, I picked up a free copy of Good Luck Trip Nagano Magazine and found out about the other parts of Nagano Prefecture.
Matsumoto castle
       Liyama drawn my attention with their picturesque kamakura snow hut in the winter and Nanohana Park during Spring, while a page about Matsumoto left me dreaming about the black castle and Norikura Kogen. Hakuba is the place I intended to visit during this trip but failed due to my schedule, and I am fascinated with the beautiful nature in Ina and Lida
       Well hopefully we’ll get to explore more of Nagano next time and introduce you more about the places we love!

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Thank You for Reading!
This post is made possible by the Nagano Tourism Board, based solely on my honest opinion or personal experience.
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