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Nagano City Guide
Nagano City is Nagano Prefecture's capital and its largest city, low-rise and spread out, with about 380,000 people. Nagano was host city for the 1998 Winter Olympics and is an entrance point to the Japan Alps area for skiing and hot springs in the winter. A number of good hot spring resorts are within easy reach of Nagano, including Yudanaka - home to Japan's "snow monkeys" and Nozawa Onsen, which is also a famous ski resort as are the slopes at Hakuba.
Popularity of Nagano dates back to the construction of Zenkoji temple in the seventh century. National treasure, it would host the first Buddha statue brought to the archipelago by Korean missionaries during a visit in the year 552.
Nagano's other sites of interest include the buildings constructed for the Winter Olympics in 1998: M-Wave and Big Hat. The Nagano Olympic Memorial Arena or M-Wave building was the venue for Olympic speed skating. M-Wave now has an Olympic museum, which can be viewed on weekends and national holidays and, as well as the superb ice rink, the venue can be converted for use for other sports and concerts. Big Hat was the venue for the Olympic ice-hockey tournament and is now a multi-purpose hall frequently hosting concerts.
Nagano enjoys cooler weather in Japan's hot summers, so is popular for hiking and walking in the summer.
In Nagano, skiing and soba noodles
Nagano is above all the Japanese capital of winter sports and mountain hiking, blessed by the peaks of the Japanese Alps that surround it. It is a paradise for skiers and hot spring enthusiasts, and the ideal place to enjoy the Japan of yesteryear, in the "little Kyoto", Takayama, or the stopover towns of the ancient Nakasendô route.
Nagano is also an ideal stopover for winter sports enthusiasts who want to explore the region and discover the various ski resorts. Shiga Kogen, in the east of the city, is one of the most famous ski resorts in the region, with the longest season, sometimes even until May. It hosted some of the events of the 1998 Winter Olympics.
To get your strength back, restaurants in and around Nagano offer the local specialty: shinshû soba, thin buckwheat noodles dipped in hot broth. Another delicious specialty of the city is oyaki, a kind of small buckwheat turnover filled with vegetables or fruits, very typical of the region where rice is scarce.
What to see and do in and around Nagano?
If you're visiting or passing through Nagano, here are the top things to do and places to see :
The Zenkô-ji temple . Address: 491 Naganomotoyoshichō, Nagano, 380-0851
The Jigokudani monkey park . Address: 6845 Hirao, Yamanochi, Shimotakai, Nagano 381-0401
Togakushi-jinja Shrine . Address: Chusha-3506 Togakushi, Nagano, 381-4101
Visit the small town of Chikuma
Visit Sainokawara Park in Kusatsu . Address: 521-3 Kusatsu, 草津 町 Agatsuma District, Gunma 377-1700
Explore Joshin'etsukogen Nature Park
Participate in the Binzuru Dance Festival , the first Saturday of August in Nagano
Zenkoji Temple is Nagano's must-see attraction and is among Japan's most-visited temples. Dating from the 7th century, Zenkoji houses the Ikko-Sanzon Amida Nyorai, according to legend, the first Buddhist image to arrive in Japan (from Korea in the 6th century). A copy of the image is displayed to the public every six years in the Gokaicho Festival. The original is kept behind a curtain and cannot be viewed. The temple complex also includes some impressive wooden gates - Sanmon and Niomon.
Underneath Zenkoji's main hall is a winding, pitch-black tunnel (okaidan) that represents the road to enlightenment. On the way through the darkness, you should discover a metal handle, which is the "key" to salvation. Admission to the tunnel is 500 yen and the experience is not for the claustrophobic.
It is possible to stay at one of the 39 temple lodgings - shukubo - which offer shojin ryori vegetarian food for guests.
Joyama Park on the east side of the temple is planted with cherry trees and is Nagano's best spot for hanami. Near the park are the Higashiyama Kaii Gallery and the Prefectural Shinano Art Museum.
Over 700 works of the 20th century master painter Higashiyama Kaii (1908-1999) are housed in the Higashiyama Kaii Gallery, an annex of the Prefectural Shinano Art Museum, which exhibits works mostly by local artists. Hours: 9 am-5 pm (last entry at 4.30 pm), closed Wednesdays except when Wednesday is a national holiday, when it closes Thursday instead.
Nagano's other main temple of interest is Saiko-ji, a small temple with two wooden statues of Jizo, the guardian god of children, carved by the Buddhist recluse Karukaya and his son Ishido. The temple was founded by Karukaya in 1199.
Shopping/Eating in Nagano
Nagano's main shopping street is Chuo dori, which leads up to Zenkoji from Nagano Station. Nakamise dori inside the grounds of Zenkoji has a number of souvenir shops and local soba noodle restaurants. There's a selection of bars and izakaya also on Chuo dori.
Festivals in Nagano
Nagano's best festivals include the Tohmyo Festival (長野燈明祭り) in February when Zenkoji Temple is illuminated in five different colored lights symbolizing the Olympic rings.
The Maedachi Honzon (lit.'icon standing in front') is displayed every six years in a ceremony called go-kaicho (the unveiling). This event takes place in April and May and the thread attached to the statue's hand is replaced. Huge crowds attend.
Getting Around Nagano
It is relatively easy to get around central Nagano to Zenkoji on foot. For the Olympic sites take a bus from the bus platforms outside the station. Buses from platform #1 go to Zenkoji and M-Wave and buses from #3 go to Matsushiro.
Nagano Access - Getting to Nagano
- By Train - There are JR express Shinano trains from Nagoya (2 hours, 45 minutes) and Osaka (5 hours). Nagano shinkansen trains run twice hourly from Tokyo Station (1 hour, 20 minutes).
- By Bus - There are highway bus services to Shinjuku, Tokyo, Nagoya (3 hours, 10 minutes), Kyoto and Osaka. Highway buses from Nagano Prefecture to Tokyo with buses from Nagano Station to Tokyo and Shinjuku stations in Tokyo. There are also highway buses from Komagane to Shinjuku, Ina and Minowa to Shinjuku, Matsumoto to Shinjuku, Iida to Shinjuku and Nishi Ueda to Shinjuku.
The rest of Nagano Prefecture has much to offer. Visitors flock to Matsumoto with its beautiful castle and numerous art museums, the hilly resort of Karuizawa, the artistic town of Obuse, historic Matsushiro with its many Edo Period wooden buildings, the popular ski resort of Hakuba and the onsen region around Iida including Hirugami Onsen. Other places of interest in Nagano Prefecture include the summer retreat of Lake Nojiri, the alpine Akakura Spa, Kurohime with its famous Kurohime Kogen Snow Park, and Yamanouchi Town with its huge, famous Yudanaka Spa.
Jigokudani Park is thus famous for the monkeys which bathe there in the hot springs. They have also become a major attraction of the city. These Japanese macaques , although living in freedom, still come to bathe in onsens in the heart of a supervised park, where they are even fed. The place is thus quite touristy. It is from January to March that the spectacle is the most beautiful, when the landscape is covered with snow. Please note that the entrance to the park is not free (800 yen, or € 6.38).
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