I was lucky that Japan had a long weekend from January 8th to 10th, so I headed there for the getaway. Why did I choose Nagano? One of my reasons were I wanted to go somewhere that was within the 3 hour radius of where I lived via bullet train. Because it was snow season, heaps of people I knew where posting up photos on facebook of the snow monkeys they saw at the Monkey Park and I wanted to see for my own eyes. Nagano has many national treasures and was the place that hosted the 1998 Olympics. If you haven’t noticed, cities that have hosted the Olympics are very really structured. Hence, for the above reasons, I gave it a shot to explore the place. If you are in Tokyo or in any cities within the 3 hour radius, you can achieve a one-day trip at the least without any issues.
For my trip, I adventured in Nagano City, Yudanaka and Matsumoto. It was a two-night three day trip. I took the bullet train from my city to Nagano city via transfer at Takasaki. It was the cheaper routes, 6400 yen cheap, that googles maps informed me when I was doing my research. By other option was to go to Omiya and then to Nagano. I took that route back home and found it more reasonable, as the transfer time was more forgiving.
Here is what I saw on my trip.
Day One – Zenkoji
The Zenkoji Temple (善光寺) is one of the most important and popular temples in Japan. It is a designed national treasure founded in the 7th century. You can easily walk from Nagano Station to the temple which will take you about 15 minutes. One your way to the temple, there is a main street that connects to the main entrance of the temple. There are a lot of restaurants and souvenir shops along that street. Nagano is known for soba noodles, therefore, do not be alarm to see soba noodle restaurants all over the place. Because I went to the temple just after New Years, there were oceans of people visiting, getting their new year good fortune charms for their houses and this fortunes told for the year. When you get through the entrance, you keep walking up is the Niomon Gate (which I believe is the main main entrance of the temple), after that is a huge incense metal burner. It is a lion incense burner which is said to bring blessings through the released incense. I watched lots of people standing there trying to wave the smoke of the incense to go over their head. As my colleagues explained to me, this action is to get purified or have all your bad luck removed to welcome the new year.
Walking around the temple is high entertaining and very spiritual. If you are a photographer, you will enjoy the pleasure of taking images from all different angels. Pass the burner and towards the main hall of the temple, you get to see a beautiful set of buddha statues sitting in a row with their handmade knitted head piece and scarf by the locals. People are able to walk into the main hall of the temple and there are more buddhist statues to admire. I walked into the main hall for free, but to enter the inner chamber section required a fee. There it is said that visitors can take a look at the temple’s main alter. I didn’t explore this myself, but it is claimed that in the basement of the inner chamber is an underground passage. Visitors would walk through this area in complete darkness with the goal to search for the key to paradise. Unfortunately, I have no idea what that means, so maybe its worth a go to see for yourself.
A Zenkoji history museum does exists as well. It is inside a pagoda which is on the left hand side of the temple, if you are standing on the main entrance path looking at the main building. Inside you will find a collection of intricately carved statues of different Buddhas and Bodhisattva.
Exploring the temple took me a good couple of hours. If you are a history buff then you will enjoy your time there. If you simply want to see one of the national treasures of Japan, then you wouldn’t be disappointed. Leaving the temple, again, you can choose to walk down the main strip and find some good food to eat. Some of the famous foods you should try in Nagano:
- Soba. More specifically, Shinshuu Soba. It is made of two parts wheat and eight parts buckwheat. The name of this soba comes after the old name that the Nagano prefecture was known for. Shinshuu is 信州 in its kanji form.
- Chest nuts. There is a town called Obuse that is filled with chestnuts. The town isn’t that far and you can reach it on a train that takes you to Yukanaka.
- Nozawanazuke (Nozawana Pickles). A type of green pickle that goes well with rice and steamed buns.
Day 2: Snow Monkey Park and Yukanaka
Seeing snow monkey should be on anyone’s agenda when visiting Nagano city. I traveled to the Snow Monkey Park, Yukanaka via bus or train. You can get a timetable from the Travel Information center at Nagano Station, which is what I did and the lady there was very helpful in providing me tips on which way to get to the snow park was better. The advice was to take the bus, the earlier the better, and it will arrive to the closet bus stop to the park. I bought my ticket at the basement level of Nagano station. That purchase included the entrance ticket to the park. I was told that if by train, I would of had to take the bus to the same bus station. Both the train and bus are routes offered by the same transportation company, and the same ticket offered could be used for both routes. Hence, either way they are making money off you, so be smart about your time as to which route you prefer. If you go earlier, at least you can spend the rest of your day doing something more fun.
From the bus station to the park is a good 30-40 minute walk. Because I went to the park during winter, I wore hiking shoes. Turned out to be a good choice even though the shoes were a bit heavy. Some older people had walking sticks with them while some walked in normal shoes. My word of advice is to be smart about which season you are going and whether there was any major snow fall the day before or morning, because it will affect your walk to the park. Once you enter the park, I saw monkeys everywhere. They were smelly, but very cute indeed. I got to take a few good shots like the one below. There are two main areas of the park: one is the onsen where you get to see monkey skinny dipping and the other is closer to the entrance and there is a mini pond and monkeys are sitting on rocks relax there. It is hard to know how many monkeys there are at the park. These are wild animals and the park is a small section of their home. But more the most part, it was worth the trip to see these exquisite animals.
Once I finished up at the park, I took the bus back to Yukanaka station. While waiting for the bus, I saw this view. It was a gorgeous view of solar panels and a nice blue sky. I could not let this image go and not take a photo of it.
Day 3: Matsumoto Castle
On my last and final day of the trip, I went to visit Matsumoto Castle. This castle is one of Japan’s premier historic castles, along with Himeji Castle and Kumamoto Castle. It was about 1 and a half hours train ride from Nagano Station. I took the early train there in hope to see the castle with less people around. I was initially scared by the weather because on my train ride, I saw heaps of snow everywhere and the gloomy sky. Walking from Matsumoto station to the castle in the cold with grey sky above me made me double guess whether I was going to get a good shot of the castle. I arrived to the castle and it was still very grey, but after about an hour from 9am, the sky turned blue and the clouds looks nice and fluffy resulting me to take this beautiful shot of the castle:
I also went and climbed the castle which costed a small fee of 500 yen. Climbing the castle was a little scary because the stairs were quite steep, but you have to admire the detail and cleverness of its architecture. Just before leaving the castle, there were two people, one girl and one boy, which I believe to be part time workers at the castle. The girl was dressed up as a princess and the boy was in a samurai outfit. I took a photo of them with the castle in the background. It was quite a view. Below are more photos of the castle.
Once I was done with Matsumoto castle, I had soba for lunch and then headed back to my home city. I got back home at around 3pm, which was amazing when you think about it. I was on a different side of the country in the morning and then I was back to reality. Gotta love Japan transportation.
I would recommend Nagano to people anytime. People also go there for skiing and snowboarding, which is what my friends from Australia are doing right this moment. Til this point, I haven’t gone snowing yet, but hopefully, I will get to do it soon.