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  • The 15 Best Things To Do & Places to Visit in Nagano Japan in Winter

    August 18, 2022 12 min read

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    The 15 Best Things To Do & Places to Visit in Nagano Japan in Winter

    The 15 Best Things To Do & Places to Visit in Nagano in Winter

    Written for Auski by Pink Lemonade Social

    Among the many countries in Asia, Japan is one of the most abundantly endowed with breathtaking landscapes and tourist attractions and is loved by Aussie travellers. Although Japan is beautiful in all four seasons due to its varied landscape, winter in Nagano is particularly stunning. Nagano, in Japan's Chubu region, is home to beautiful mountains and landscapes, and is known as a popular destination for winter sports thanks to its mild climate and abundance of snow. During the warmer months of the year (summer, spring, and fall), Nagano becomes a mecca for the many hikers and outdoor enthusiasts who flock there for the thrill of its beautiful mountains and landscapes. In winter it is a mecca for those seeking deep powder snow and an adrenaline rush and offers some of the best slopes in the country because of the area's powdery mountains. Nagano is home to the northern Japanese Alps, many of which stand taller than 10,000 feet (3,048 metres) in elevation. The large ski resorts of Hakuba and Nozawa in Nagano prefecture are always bustling with visitors. There are plenty of snow resorts in the mountains, as well as opportunities for backcountry snowshoeing and skiing.

    However, that's not the only reason to travel to Nagano in the winter; the city is also known for its delicious mountain cuisine, seasonal festivals, and onsen, the pinnacle of après-ski relaxation. Below are the best things to do in Nagano in winter.


    The 15 Best Things to Do in Winter in Nagano


    Visit the Historical Kiso Valley

    Kiso Valley, located in southwestern Nagano, is an enchanted place and one of the city's most popular tourist attractions. Visit the valley's sacred Mt. Ontake, charming historic towns, and the well-preserved section of the ancient Nakasendo merchant trail for a fascinating journey back in time. There are a few post towns along the Kiso Valley that have been preserved to look as they did when they served Nakasendo travellers, and three of these towns stand out in particular: Magome, Tsumago, and Narai. The wooden structures and cobblestone streets transport guests to a time gone by. The Kiso Valley, a mountain valley in Nagano Prefecture that borders the Central Alps features the Kisoji, a 70-kilometer-long ancient trade route, established along the valley and played a crucial role in the region's economic development.

    Beginning in the Edo period, when the Kisoji was combined with other routes to form the 500 km long Nakasendo, it assumed even greater significance. The Nakasendo (which literally means "path through mountains") was one of the two main roads that linked Edo and Kyoto.

    All over the valley are breathtaking gorges, rivers, waterfalls, and mountain trails that will captivate your imagination and calm your spirit. If you love being transported back in time, you should definitely check out the ancient towns of Kiso Valley that have been preserved so well under a blanket of snow.

    Kiso Valley, Nagano Japan

    Image: Instagram/visitjapanau

    Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival in Winter in Nagano Japan

    Image: Instagram/skijapanholidays

    Experience the Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival

    The Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival is one of the best three fire festivals in all of Japan. The celebration is held annually in the middle of winter on January 15th. As night falls in Nozawa Onsen, men light up the night with their fierce battles in celebration of the festival. The story focuses on a group of unfortunate Japanese men between the ages of 25 and 42 who live in a rural village. Many residents of Nozawa Onsen attempt to destroy a temporary shrine known as a shaden by lighting torches and storming the structure, but a group of 42-year-olds and 25-year-olds stand guard at its top and bottom, respectively. The festival's goals are twofold: to rid the unlucky men of their misfortune and to pray for their health and success. Despite the mayhem and fierce competition, the festival is a good time and a great addition to any trip to Japan.

    Enjoy the Iiyama Snow Festival

    Iiyama City, located in northern Nagano Prefecture, is one of Japan's regions that receives significant snowfall every winter. In the middle of February, during the snowy winter season, this city hosts the Iiyama Snow Festival, drawing in thousands of visitors from all over the world. At this winter festival, enormous snow sculptures serve as the showpiece, while smaller ones line the streets of the city centre. The competition and evaluation of sculptures is a central part of this festival. Wonderful snow sculptures depicting a wide variety of Japanese themes will be on display here.

    Iiyama Snow Festival Nagano Japan

    Image: Instagram/stb.gb_lover

    Nagano Tomyo Festival Japan

    Image: Instagram/nishizawa.215

    Soak up the Culture at Nagano Tomyo Festival

    As a commemoration of the city's Buddhist heritage and the 1998 Winter Olympics, Nagano Tomyo has been celebrated annually for a full week in the middle of February since 2004. One of the most well-attended events in Nagano involves lighting the city in the five Olympic colours and adorning the main street leading to the temple with hundreds of gorgeous handmade paper lanterns. Besides the lighting ceremony, there will be other events going on, such as a sake tasting, live music, and an art show. This is a great festival to enjoy if you are in the region in February.

    Enjoy a Magical Meal at Restaurant Kamakura Village

    What is Restaurant Kamakura Village? Well in Nagano, it’s an intimate igloo village which is actually a restaurant with all the enchantment of a snowy landscape. Eat a nabe hot pot in the comfort of your own igloo at the temporary Restaurant Kamakura Village in Iiyama. The magical Restaurant Kamakura Village, comprised of more than 20 pop-up igloos, is not to be missed if you like to plan your trips around meals. Located in the picturesque town of Iiyama in the prefecture of Nagano, Japan, the restaurant boasts a picturesque setting amidst the snowy Japanese Alps. The seasonal restaurant opens every winter for a little over a month. Visitors can warm their bodies and minds with hot-pot dishes and Liyama specialities cooked over portable clay stoves. The village becomes a romantic dreamscape as night falls and the lights come on. Noroshi nabe, a hot pot made with miso, pork, and local vegetables, will be served to groups of up to four in each of the igloos. The igloos are perfect for enjoying a hearty meal for lunch or dinner, or a quick snack like amazake or soup. You'll find a chilly Shinto shrine in an igloo behind a tiny red torii gate. The area immediately outside the restaurant is ideal for sledding, and those visiting the area's ski resorts might want to stop in for a bite to eat before or after their runs. The cost of lunch in Kamakura Village is 3,700 yen (2,400 yen for children), while dinner for two with noroshi nabe, onigiri rice balls, and exclusive use of an igloo is 4,200 yen (2,800 yen for children). For 1,800 yen (1,200 for kids), you can rent a private igloo between 3 and 4 p.m., enjoy a cup of amazake or soup, and ride in a snow car.

    Kamakura Village Nagano
    Kamakura Village, Igloo Village Dinner Nagano

    Image: Instagram/@visitjapan.ru

    Zenko-ji Omotesando, Zenko Omotesando Nagano

    Discover Zenko-ji Omotesando

    Over 1400 years have passed since Zenkoji's original construction, and it has since become a true temple of the common people, welcoming all visitors from across the nation and around the world, regardless of their religious affiliation.

    The Zenko-ji Omotesando Illumination takes place every winter and transforms the road leading to the temple, known as the Omotesando or 'Pilgrims Path,' into a dazzling spectacle. Beginning in early November and continuing through mid-February, the Omotesando will be lit up to create a glowing path to the temple. Then, beginning in the middle of December, the temple's precinct will be illuminated with lighting and projections that will transform the building into a phantasmal Buddhist paradise of purple and violet, silver and gold.

    There is no admission fee to enter any part of the temple, including the holy inner sanctuary. Despite its popularity, the festival is not overrun with people, so attendees can take in the sights without being squished and get great photos without waiting in long lines. Many shops along the Nakamise, the historic street within the temple complex, will extend their hours during the festival. This is a great way to see the city after dark, especially in the brightly lit up Omotesando district.

    See the Great Ho-O at Ganshoin Temple

    The ancient Ganshoin Temple can be found hidden away in Obuse, located in northern Nagano Prefecture, and hosts one of the finest examples of Japanese art can. In 1848, at the age of 89, a painter by the name of Hokusai created a masterpiece that is still widely recognised and appreciated today. The ceiling of the temple is still covered with his final masterpiece, which has been carefully preserved over the years.

    About thirty years after the last reconstruction of Ganshoin, one of Japan's greatest artists, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), painted a beautiful ceiling picture called "The Great Ho-O" (Phoenix Staring in eight Directions). Since the bird appears to stare directly at the viewer from any angle, the painting is also known as "Ho-O Staring in eight directions."

    There have been nearly three reconstructions of this ancient temple, the most recent of which was 180 years ago. The artwork measures a massive 584 by 636 cm. Twelve panels of cypress wood were painted directly, then raised and mounted to the ceiling. Colours of red, green, blue, brown, and gold shine brightly in this high-calibre masterpiece.

    Ganshoin Temple, The Great Ho-O, Nagano, Japan

    Image: Instagram/ayako2190

    Kamikochi, Nagano, Japan

    Image: Instagram/y_hobby.attyon_y

    Go Snowshoeing in the Japanese Alps

    Travellers looking for an off-the-beaten-track winter experience should take a snowshoeing tour around Kamikochi, Nagano's most well-known national park. On these walks, you’ll wear snow shoes, which allow access to areas of Kamikochi’s dusted slopes that you might otherwise miss. The tours are led by informative guides. There is a chance to see winter wildlife that is only found in the Nagano Alps and take in the stunning alpine scenery, which includes mountainside ranch trails, frozen ponds, and icefalls. The city of Nagano undergoes a dramatic transformation in the winter. Many people find this season to be one of the most beautiful despite the fact that it can feel particularly cold and harsh. This untouched valley at the foot of the Japanese Alps offers breathtaking views of the Hotaka Mountains. There are no buses to Kamikochi and no facilities open in the winter at the park, but the beautiful scenery is still there if you're willing to walk. Walking two kilometres through the Kama Tunnel and then snowshoeing along the riverbank is the only way to see the mountains and the crystal clear Azusa River. Having the lakes, forests, and mountains of Kamikochi to yourself is a challenge, but it is well worth it.

    Watch Climbers Scale Frozen Waterfalls

    One of Nagano Prefecture's most popular tourist attractions is Norikura Kogen, a nature preserve in Matsumoto known for its stunning waterfalls. Zengorou and Sanbon waterfalls are two that you absolutely must see, and they both freeze over in the winter. Take a trip to the falls and marvel at the enchanting scenery, as well as the possibility of viewing some icy entertainment. The falls themselves are a picturesque sight, and the icy landscape adds a sense of mystery to the scene. If you're lucky, though, you might catch a glimpse of a professional climber making their way up the frozen cascade in spite of the fact that only they are allowed to do so. You can also partake in a snowshoe tour to Sanbon waterfall (7,000 yen per adult / 5,000 yen per child for a half-day tour).

    Zengorou Frozen Waterfall, Nagano, Japan

    Image: Instagram/guesthouse_raicho

    Shibu Onsen, Nagano, Japan

    Image: Instagram/naonao_tokyo_oshare_cafe

    Soak it up at Shibu Onsen

    Shibu Onsen is a mountainous town in Nagano known for its traditional onsens. Going to Shibu Onsen is like taking a time machine back in history. Historic buildings and a laid-back vibe characterise this charming hot springs community. You can feel like you've stepped back in time as you stroll along the cobblestone streets lined with traditional wooden Japanese inns and dotted with shrines. Shibu Onsen is a well-known hot springs resort that has been around for more than a thousand years. There are nine sotoyu, or public baths, in Shibu Onsen, and if you're staying at one of them, you can use any of the baths for free. There are a wide variety of therapeutic and preventative baths available. Staying at one of these establishments will allow you to take a soothing dip in the cloudy, milky-white waters of a natural hot spring. You will also have the opportunity to sample some of the regional specialities. You can relax your body and mind by taking a dip in a cloudy hot spring after a day of exploring the town. Evenings are best spent wandering the narrow streets in a yukata robe and geta wooden sandals, hopping from onsen to izakaya. The Tamamura Brewery, located close to Shibu Onsen, produces some excellent local sake which is worth a stop.

    See the Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park

    Jigokudani Monkey Park, one of Nagano's most popular tourist destinations, is located not far from Shibu Onsen. Tourists from all over the world visit this park specifically to see the nearly one hundred Japanese macaques that call it home that enjoy soaking in hot springs. There are no fences separating the monkeys and the visitors, so it's easy to get a good look at them as they soak in the hot tub in the middle of a snowy park. Japanese onsen bathing has a long and storied history, with the earliest records dating back to around AD 600. It is not just humans who enjoy soaking in the hot springs of Nagano; local wildlife does as well. The reserve is also a great place to go walking or hiking, but the trails can get muddy, so be sure to bring a pair of waterproof boots.

    Jigokudani Monkey Park, Nagano, Japan

    Image: Instagram/nirro04

    Togakushi Shrine, Nagano, Japan

    Image: Instagram/nagano_japan

    Visit Togakushi Shrine in the Snow

    Togakushi is a Shinto site with five shrines that can be reached by walking along a path lined with Japanese cedar trees, making it a tranquil getaway for those who enjoy being one with nature. Visitng Togakushi Shrine in the winter is stunning, though you might need snowshoes to get there. Relax in the mystical atmosphere of the ancient forest surrounding the Shinto shrine, where the cedar trees are over 500 years old. Following the cedar-lined path, you might be able to spot the frozen waterfall not far away.

    Go Skiing at Hakuba Goryu Snow Resort

    When visiting Nagano in the winter, skiing is a must, and the best place to do it is at what is widely considered to be the city's finest ski resort. The Hakuba Goryu Snow Resort is fully stocked with everything a family or serious skier could need, including beginner and advanced slopes, rental equipment, the Escal Plaza, which is adjacent to the resort and is home to numerous dining and drinking establishments, and convenient lifts and slopes. Families can take advantage of the resort's indoor play area inspired by a forest setting, as well as the outdoor sledding hills and small slopes, during their stay at Hakuba Goryu Snow Resort.

    Skiers in Nagano often recommend Hakuba Goryu Snow Resort as the best spot to hit the slopes. Hakuba, tucked away in northern Nagano, is a popular winter sports destination thanks to its high-quality snow and world-famous ski resorts. As a matter of fact, the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan were held there. In just under three hours, you can take the train from Tokyo to this location. Some of the best ski resorts in Japan can be found in the Hakuba Valley, where both novices and experts can enjoy snowshoeing, snow biking, snowboarding, and heli-skiing. You can also find a wide variety of bars, restaurants, and shops in this picturesque ski town.

    Hakuba Snow Resort, Nagano, Japan

    Image: Instagram/anni3ban

    Nozawa Onsen Village, Nagano Japan

    Image: Instagram/kamizoh2568

    Visit Nozawa Onsen Village

    After skiing all day on Nagano's excellent powder and getting your joints stiff from the exercise and the cold, a soak in a bubbling hot natural spring is just what the doctor ordered. If you're looking for a place to relax in a hot spring while in Nagano, then there is no better than Nozawa, a town with a long history of onsen bathing in Japan. In this village, where there are more than 30 onsens to choose from, the culture centres on taking a relaxing soak. One of the most well-known free onsen is the Yu Hot Spring, which can be found in the heart of Nozawa and is housed in a traditional wooden bath house in the Edo style. During the Edo period (1603-1867), Nozawa Onsen was a popular destination for those seeking both natural hot spring baths and skiing. Be wary of jumping straight into the onsen, as the temperature of these alkaline waters can reach levels suitable for cooking eggs (seriously!). Public baths, or sotoyu, are usually between 45 and 49 degrees Celsius, but there are special stations in the middle of town where you can boil eggs in spring water that reaches up to 90 degrees Celsius to make your own onsen tamago.

    Visit Matsumoto Castle & the Ice Sculpture Festival

    If you're lucky enough to see Matsumoto Castle when it's covered in snow, it's absolutely stunning, which is why it should be on your list of things to do in winter. The keep of Matsumoto Castle has been meticulously maintained and looks largely as it did when it was built in the 16th century. The grounds of the castle can be explored at no cost at any time of the year, but they look especially magical when blanketed in fresh snow. The locals offer free guided tours of Matsumoto Castle in various languages, and if you happen to visit during a busy time, you might just get lucky and get on one.

    Matsumoto Ice Sculpture Festival is an annual event that takes place in January and is surrounded by the majestic backdrop of Matsumoto Castle. From Friday through Sunday, festivalgoers can watch ice sculptors at work, sample local fare and Japanese sake, and take part in a variety of kid- and adult-friendly events. Keep your eyes open for imaginative sculptures of dragons, mermaids, and horsemen. Visit at dusk to see the sculptures illuminated in vibrant colours, which makes them even more beautiful.

    Matsumoto Ice Sculpture Festival, Nagano Japan

    Image: Instagram/images_and_words_by_petra


    Take A Vacation, Stay Warm, And Recharge

    Nagano is not only a wonderful getaway in summer and autumn, but also in the winter. There is no way a visitor wouldn't fall in love at first sight with all the breathtaking views and amazing activities available. Visiting Nagano in the winter is not discouraged, so get ready to experience the awesomeness of the city for yourself by packing your bags.

    Know another great place to visit in Nagano? Leave a comment below!

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