In this week’s Exploring Japan, we return to central Japan with the mountainous prefecture Nagano.
Nagano Prefecture is located in the central part of Honshu in the Chubu region. It’s very mountainous, so has little room for habitation. It has a population of 2,148,425. The capital city is Nagano. The 5 largest cities are:
- Nagano (387,146)
- Matsumoto (243,571)
- Ueda (158,187)
- Iida (104,877)
- Saku (100,552)
The population of Nagano is slowly declining, with most cities losing people. However, Matsumoto seems to be growing steadily.
Matsumoto Castle in Matsumoto is considered one of Japan’s top 3 castles. It’s an original, and the appearance is unique due to its black and white colour. This is one castle I want to see very much.
Takashima Castle in Suwa is a reconstruction, and it’s in a unique location, on an island. It was reconstructed in 1970, and is apparently pretty decent.
Matsushiro Castle in Nagano city is a partially reconstructed castle. Many buildings have been reconstructed, though the main tower has not. From what I can tell, it looks pretty nice.
Ueda Castle in Ueda consists mainly of gates, buildings and walls. It appears to be fairly well-kept.
Komoro Castle in Komoro has a couple of gates and some ruins. Inside the castle grounds, there’s an amusement park and zoo.
Takato Castle in Ina has a couple gates and a reconstructed turret. It also has a park that’s good for cherry blossom viewing.
Matsumoto Yamaga F.C. is Nagano’s representative of J League soccer. They’re in division 2.
Things to see and do
Nagano is famous for a few things, especially its ski and hot spring resorts, as well as Matsumoto Castle. It’s the location of the 1998 Winter Olympics, of course.
Nagano City has a few attractions, but most people go there because of the nearby ski resorts outside the city. In the city, the biggest attraction would be Zenkoji, a very old temple with a street lined with old houses and restaurants leading to the gate. Nishi-no-Mon is a sake brewery and restaurant that’s nearby. Also nearby is the Nagano Prefectural Shinano Art Museum. Binzuru is Nagano’s biggest summer festival and it leads up to Zenkoji. Kagai Onsen Ichiyoukan is an interesting hot spring with brown water. Men and women can bathe separately or together. Omura Onsen Makibanoyu is another hot spring with a great view of the valley. Sports facilities from the Olympics also remain open, including M-Wave (the speed skating arena), Big Hat arena, and Aqua Wing arena (now an aquatics centre).
Matsumoto, the second largest city, has some attractions, but like Nagano, most attractions are outside the city in surrounding towns. But in the city, other than Matsumoto Castle, you can also visit a couple museums. The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum is a very large museum of the traditional form of art. Also, there’s the Matsumoto Folkcraft Museum, which isn’t very large. Kaichi School Museum is dedicated to Japan’s first junior high school. Nawate-dori is a traditional shopping street along the river. Saito Kinen Festival Matsumoto is a classical music festival founded by the famous conductor, Seiji Ozawa.
Azumino city is known for wasabi. Daio Wasabi Farm and Water Mills is Japan’s largest wasabi farm. Hotaka Shrine has an incredibly long 100 metre shrine building. Todoriki Residence is an Edo period hunting lodge. Hot air balloon rides are available through Azumino Kisen Hot Air Balloon Rides.
Chikuma city has an incredible amount of historic sites despite its small size. Temples and shrines include the beautiful Chourakuji, the large Zenkoji Daihongan Branch temple, the small Chishikiji, Fukeiji and its beautiful gate, and the big Takemizuwake shrine. Joyama Historic Park and Arata-jo Mountain Castle feature castle ruins. Mori Shogunzuka Burial Chamber features a 1600 year old tomb, the Shinano no Sato Historic Park with a replica village from that time, and the Nagano Prefectural Museum of History. Other museums include Nishizawa Piggy Bank Museum, Togura Kamiyamada Onsen Museum, Shuzo Collection Sake Museum, Kurashikan Museum (in a restored traditional building), and the Koshoku Furusato Cartoon Museum. Enjoy the Kamiyamada Onsen Summer Festival, the Togura Fireworks Festival, and Jomon Festival. There are numerous hot springs to experience, though Zuisho has a beautiful garden. Lots of hiking and cycling is also available.
Komagane is a small city with a couple interesting features. Kozenji temple seems worth a visit. Komagane Kogen Art Museum features Japanese art. Komagatake Ropeway takes you up Mt. Komagatake with a possible view of Mt. Fuji.
Shiojiri city has a couple things to experience. It’s known for its wine, so you can enjoy drinking. It also has the Hiraide ruins archaeological site with a museum.
Suwa is a small resort city that has plenty to do. Suwa Taisha is a major shrine and hosts the Onbashira festival. This is one of the most dangerous festivals in Japan, where logs are pulled down into the valley and men try to ride the logs. Suwa Geyser Center has an hourly geyser eruption of about 10 metres. Hiking the Yatsugatake is popular, as is biking around Lake Suwa. Suwakoland is a great place for swimming, exercising and enjoying hot springs. The Suwa Fireworks Festival is considered one of Japan’s top fireworks displays every year on August 15.
Ueda city has a few good things to see. Anrakuji temple is a beautiful temple that has Japan’s only remaining octagonal pagoda. Ueda City Museum has some well-preserved samurai armour. Yamamoto Kanae Memorial Gallery celebrates the art of Kanae Yamamoto and his support of allowing children to do art freely. For more art outdoors, visit Utsukushigahara Open-air Museum.
Hakuba is famous for its ski resorts. There are 7 main ski areas.
Karuizawa is a small town famous for its summer resort. It has plenty of shopping, including an outlet shopping mall and the Old Karuizawa Main Street (or Old Karuizawa Ginza) with its high class shops.
Joshin’etsu-kogen National Park is the second largest national park in Japan. It’s known for Shiga Kogen, the largest ski resort in Japan. Mount Asama is in this park, and is the most active volcano on Honshu. Jigokudani Yaen-koen is where you can see Japanese macaque monkeys enjoying hot springs.
Kiso Valley has some interesting small post towns to see. Magome is the most touristy, and gets pretty crowded on its historic main street. Tsumago is a wonderfully preserved and restored village with Edo period buildings. Narai is quieter than the other two villages, but you can see an original section of the Nakasendo trail. The hike between Magome and Tsumago is one of the most famous in Japan.
Obuse is home to the famous Hokusai Museum. It features art of the famous artist Katsushika Hokusai, who painted the well-known The Great Wave off Kanagawa, part of the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.
Nagano’s most famous foods include soba, especially Shinano soba. It’s also known to have the second best apples in the country. You can also get wasabi in Nagano, as it has the largest wasabi farm in Japan. And for the adventurous, try inago, which is stewed grasshoppers.
Have you been to Nagano? What would you recommend? Please leave a comment!