Do you know that people in Nagano Prefecture are so polite that they rank number 1 in Japan for stopping while driving for pedestrians on a crossroad? Isn’t it just amazing? I tested it so many times in Nagano City and I can confirm it is totally true. Also, do you know that not only is Nagano famous for winter sports and onsen because of its amazing ski resorts on snow-covered mountains, but it also hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics and became the southernmost city in the Northern Hemisphere to host it?
Recently, I had the chance to visit Nagano Prefecture with a Japanese friend. It was an unplanned trip, and we decided to go with the flow. Little did we know that it would be such an unforgettable experience. I never imagined eating a Wasabi ice cream or going through the pitch-black underground passage in Zenko temple to find the key to paradise, or walking in the woods where God breathes! Yatta!
Nagano City – A City of Surprises
We spent two days in Nagano City and another two days in Matsumoto (stay tuned for an upcoming Matsumoto blog!) For me, the three main reasons to choose Nagano were: its close location to Tokyo, the presence of one of 12 original surviving castles in Japan, the Matsumoto Castle, and the delicious food, especially the tasty soba noodles it promises to offer.
I would be lying if I said the trip was lacking anything in comparison to my visit to mainstream tourist destinations like Kyoto or Osaka. I had surprise after surprise right from the beginning. The huge station of Nagano City welcomed us with the big 1998 Nagano Olympics Emblem, and our hotel, Kokusai 21 turned out to be the one where members of the International Olympic Committee stayed during the Olympics in downtown Nagano. Woah! I can’t describe how magnificent the ambiance was and how delicious the food in their restaurant was.
Before talking about the tourist places in Nagano, I want to take a moment to talk about the Oishii Melonpan shop near Kokusai 21 Hotel. The shop offers a batch variety of freshly baked melonpan, from chocolate to matcha flavors; also, you can get it customized with whipped cream and choco chips. I can close my eyes and still feel the delicious fragrance of those warm melonpan straight out of the oven on that cold rainy day. After seeing the hotel and eating the melonpan, I was already in love with the city. Considering it as a good omen, we head towards what we actually came to this city for, i.e. to see the Zenkoji temple.
Zenkoji Temple- A Must-Visit Buddhist Temple in Japan
Zenkoji is very popular and one of the most important Buddhist temples to visit in Japan. It is special because they say the Buddha placed in Zenkoji was the first one in Japan. Its breathtaking ornamental main hall left me in awe, I felt a sudden sense of peace when I entered the inner chamber to take a closer look at the statue. Though entry to the temple is free, you need to pay 600 yen to enter the inner chamber and the underground passage, which I highly recommend you try. The underground passage is basically the basement of the inner chamber where visitors are supposed to walk in complete darkness without using mobile phones or torches and try to find the key to paradise. Here’s a tip, try to search for it at your waist level. It is believed that whoever touches the key gets salvation. Luckily, we managed to find it; yay!
Nagano Prefectural Art Museum
After having this unique experience, we headed toward Nagano Prefectural Art Museum. It had many paintings by the famous painter Higashiyama Kaii with its theme being the beautiful nature, mountains, onsens, and flowers of Nagano. Followed by that, we took a walk in the streets of Nagano City, especially the Gondo shopping street. On our way, we also bought some souvenirs for our friends. We recommend you buy Shichimi, a combination of seven types of spices, along with some Kurikanoko, as Nagano is famous for its chestnuts too.
Togakushi Kodo – A Mystical Pilgrimage Route to Okusha Shrine in Nagano
We started our next day by catching the first bus near Nagano station to Togakushi. It is a legendary ten kilometers trail connecting five sacred shrines. They say the forest has mystical powers, and Gods breathe in these woods. From the departure point, Ichi no Dori to reach Okusha Shrine takes almost three to four hours. There are signboards everywhere, but we recommend you carry a physical map that you can get around easier once you arrive. The deep, luxurious cedar forests will give you a sense of calm, and you can genuinely feel the change in the air once you enter the Tori gate. If you would rather not walk the trail, the bus service is available to get you to the top, and all you have to do is the 2 km remaining trail by yourself which is actually the most amazing part. The Soba noodles that I ate there are one of the best I ate in Japan. We really recommend you visit Okusha Shrine on your trip to Nagano City.
When Are You Going to Nagano City?
You can visit Nagano City in any season, any weather! We went during Golden Week, but my friends visited Nagano during winter time to enjoy skiing and onsen, which is my next plan too. Nagano has so much to offer in every season. You can also do Tatoyema Kurobe Alpine Route and much more. If you plan to visit Nagano after reading this blog, please let us know by commenting below. Also, If you have already been there, then please share your Nagano experiences with us so that we can include that, too, during our next trip. If you liked this blog, please feel free to follow us on Instagram at @guidablejapan , and don’t forget to read more such articles that we post very regularly on our website.
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Featured image credits: Author