The Nagano Prefecture is a highland area in central Japan which is famous for its temple history, scenic natural beauty and world-class winter sports. It’s the perfect place to head for if you want to do something completely different in the snow. Easy to access from Tokyo by high-speed Skinkansen train in less than 2.5 hours, Nagano provides an exciting getaway for city visitors.
Meet the Snow Monkeys
Macaques are normally associated with tropical jungle, but Nagano is home to a family of about 160 native Japanese Macaques, known as snow monkeys. They live in Nagano close to the onsen (hot springs) in the Jigokudani Yaenkoen Park in the Yokoyu River Valley. Living wild on a diet of fruit, seeds, berries and bark, these grey-brown furry primates have a red face and a short tail. They hang out bathing in the steaming hot springs and make a fascinating sight against the deep snow.
Take a Dip at Shibu Onsen
Hot springs are the perfect antidote to snowy conditions, particularly at the Shibu Onsen in the stunning Nagano Prefecture. This natural onsen has been a resort for over 1,300 years. The quaint old town has cobblestone lanes lined with traditional wood-built ryoken (inns) where you can stay overnight to enjoy the hot springs in a choice of public baths. After breakfast, walk to the onsen in the kimono provided and you’ll fit right in!
Experience a Snow Festival
Nagano hosts some of the best snow festivals in Japan. The Shimotsuki Matsuri celebrates winter snow in early December with steaming outdoor baths which are meant to purify bathers as they look forward to the New Year. During the festival, Shinto priests invite masked bathers to come to the shrine and receive boiling water from a cauldron, splashing it over themselves with bare hands.
The Ice Lantern Festival is a magical event set in woods around Kakeyu Onsen in Ueda. The area is known for its healing waters, so don’t let the cold air stop you jumping in!
Another famous Nagano snow event is the Iiyama Snow and Kamakura Festival in early February. Cosy igloos and snow sculptures are built to host visitors and the festival includes fire dances, carnival games, musical performances and fireworks beneath the night sky. One of the rituals is the Narasawa Daitengu when a white-robed tengu wields a huge fiery torch and purifies the ground, leaving a wake of melted ice in its wake.
For the ultimate experience, dine on Naroshi nabe (a stew of mushrooms and vegetables) in one of the temporary kamakura snow hut restaurants.
Matsumoto Castle and Illuminations
Matsumoto Castle is a national treasure at any time of year, but it looks truly enchanting when the pointed pagoda roofs and surrounding moat are adorned with snow. Matsumoto boasts the oldest castle keep in Japan and has a remarkable wooden interior with wooden ladders between floors. Expect to remove your shoes and wear the provided slippers for the grand tour. You’ll see historic weaponry and fantastic views from the lofty lookout.
The castle is surrounded by historic black-and-white structures, temples, shrines and residences making it a magical winter destination, especially after dark when the illuminations come on.
Sledding, Tubing and Striding
Just a snowball’s thrown from the Snow Monkey area of the Shiga Highlands are the Maruike Kids Snow Park and the Ichinose Diamond Area. This is the mecca for all types of snow fun activities. Sledding and tubing provide plenty of action down the snowy slopes. Striding is a small bicycle for kids to ride/ski through the snow – a sort of non-motorised snowmobile.
Adults can enjoy more adrenaline activity by Zipyfying down the luge, feet first, or you may prefer to try Snow Driving – a type of scooter on a snowboard. You can sit aboard and steer the vehicle down the fun descent.
Another magnificent Japanese temple, Zenko-ji is a tourist hotspot with a complex of 30 buildings on a sprawling 7th century site which grew up as a town around the temple. The main Buddha (Ikko-Sanzon-Amida-Nyoral) is too holy to ever be put on public display but every six years a replica statue is available for public viewing (next due in 2021). What you can enjoy on your winter visit is the magnificent main temple – the fourth largest wooden structure in Japan – an underground passage where the key to paradise lies in darkness, and the opportunity to see the ceremonial rites of the priests. A modern pagoda hosts the Zenkoji History Museum and the Sanmon Gate is not to be missed.
Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route
Perhaps the most spectacular snowy attraction in Nagano is the scenic Japanese Alpine Route connecting Nagano Prefecture with the Sea of Japan. The road opens in mid-May and a route is cut through the 10 metre-deep snow to allow special hybrid buses to access sacred Mount Tateyama. After an incredible journey through the snow-walled tunnel, ride the cable car and ropeway to the huge Kurobe Dam to complete this extraordinary alpine adventure.
All these fun snow activities make Japan a truly exciting and unique destination, particularly in winter. Tempted?