Nagano Travel Guide
Best known for hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics, Nagano is more than just a winter sports hub.
With nationally significant temples, castles, and museums, the culture hound is just as likely to enjoy themselves as the outdoor enthusiast.
Come check out our Nagano travel guide as we cover the best things to do in Nagano, Japan.
Begin your visit to Nagano on a spiritual note by dropping by Togakushi Shrine. A Shinto hall of worship that is divided into three separate structures on the side of a mountain, each offers visuals that tell an intriguing story based in Japanese mythology.
According to it, the Sun Goddess, mortified at the conduct of her misbehaving brother, hid in a cave on the island of Kyushu, covering Japan in darkness. After being lured out by other deities performing dances in front of the cave where she was hiding, they ripped off the stone that was covering the entrance.
This rock flew all the way to Central Honshu, landing on the side of a mountain near Nagano. On this site, three shrines were built, with the top one honouring the one who threw the stone, while the middle one recognizes the deity who performed the dances; the bottom merely contains a praying hall.
The trails between each of the shrines head uphill, so those walking should take water and possess a reasonable level of fitness. However, those unable to trek can still visit all of the mentioned shrines, as each can be accessed by car.
Nagano is also home to Zenkoji Temple, a nationally significant Buddhist place of worship. Completed in the 7th century AD, it hosted the first Buddha statue brought into Japan from the Asian mainland. It is considered to be such a sacred object, that not only is the original statue permanently hidden from view, the replica created to replace it is only shown to the public for a few weeks every six years.
The next opportunity to see it is in 2021, but if you will be visiting the Nagano area before then, the temple still contains enough attractions to make a visit worthwhile. In addition to the usual statues and decor typical of a Buddhist temple, there is a passageway in the basement where you can search for the ‘Key to Paradise’.
Shrouded in complete darkness, it is said those who manage to touch the key are granted eternal salvation – regardless of your religious beliefs, it can’t hurt to try!
Learn about the history of Nagano being a hotbed for ninjas by touring the Togakure Ninpo Museum. Located in a building that was once a ninja school, you’ll find displays that show off weapons, tools of the trade, and pictures that describe various stealth techniques that these warriors used to sneak up on their targets.
The best aspect of this museum is its depiction of a ninja house. Built with secret doors, hidden passageways, and traps, it will delight the child within you. That’s not all, though – there is also a range where you can practice your shuriken throwing skills – for real.
Not to be outdone, samurais have their own attraction in Nagano – the Sanada Treasure Museum. Showing off artifacts related to the Sanada clan, you’ll get a feel for how important these warriors were for retaining order during the Edo Period.
Of the 50,000 pieces it contains, some are officially deemed as culturally important artifacts by the Japanese government, so be sure to spend at least an hour here.
Some of the northernmost species of primates in Asia can be found in Japan. Check out these hardy macaques paying a visit to Jigokudani Monkey Park during your time in Nagano. Also known as snow monkeys, they tolerate the winter cold by bathing in hot springs (or Onsen) found on site.
In the steamy bliss, they groom each other, play around, and soak in the good feels. After watching them live, do the same thing at an Onsen pool set aside for humans.
Next, travel back to medieval times in Nagano by wandering the grounds of Matsushiro Castle. Completed in 1560, this was the domain of the Sanada clan – however, it was destroyed several times over the years by earthquakes, fire, and attacks, with its destruction being complete after a blaze as the Meiji Period started.
It was partially reconstructed in recent times, with the present structure being finished in 2003. While not original, the refurbishers took great care to adhere to traditional construction methods, thereby making this reproduction an authentic one.
Visiting in winter? If so, be sure to partake in some skiing or snowboarding while in the Nagano area. In 1998, the city and the surrounding alpine areas hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics – as such, you can be assured that snow resorts like Cortina and Shiga Kogen are sure to offer pistes that will challenge and thrill you.