NAGANO, JAPAN: First time Guide to Zenkoji Temple and Snow Monkeys for Filipinos
Once people discover the beauty of Nagano, they won’t be able to resist this dynamic prefecture. This compelling destination not only challenges other major cities in Japan in terms of culture and tourist destinations, it also defies expectations. It is high time travelers from all over the Philippines to fall in love with the Nagano prefecture.
From historical towns to cosmopolitan cities, Nagano offers a thoroughly engaging mix of tradition and modernity. Located in the central part of Honshu or Japan’s main island, Nagano prefecture is about an hour and a half ride via the new shinkansen or Japan’s bullet train. Through this, tourists from around the world will be able to see other parts of Japan whilst traversing to Nagano.
This 2-month special travel guide will give visitors a brief run-down on Nagano’s must-do, must-see, and must-eat to help them have an incredibly diverse range of experiences.
How to go to Nagano?
If you are coming from Narita Airport, get on the NEX train to Tokyo station. The trip takes only about an hour. Once you reach Tokyo, buy a train ticket that will take you to anywhere you want to visit first—be it Karuizawa, Nagano City or Matsumoto City.
When to go to Nagano?
Nagano is beautiful all-year round. Some people enjoy the clarity of summer and autumn, but since Nagano is known for having the longest winter in Japan, it’s best for tourists to visit in April and May; it is when people can experience blooming flowers and snow at the same time.
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
It’s a monkey’s business paradise. Located in the Valley of Yokoyu River in the northern part of Nagano prefecture, the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park would perhaps be the best highlight when you visit Japan this year. This park is known worldwide as a place where you can observe Japanese macaques or “snow monkeys.” While in the park, it is recommended to stay for about an hour to witness the fascinating interactions of the snow monkeys and how they demonstrate social hierarchy. A word of caution: hold on to your camera or any personal belongings as the snow monkeys can easily take them away.
Bring warm clothing and appropriate footwear for walking 1.8km in snow, ice and/or mud, depending on the weather condition. Don’t worry! The walk to Jigokudani is worth the visit.
Strolling the streets of Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza
Karuizawa: Gate to Nagano
This beautiful resort town in Nagano is the first stop on your way to Nagano. Karuizawa is just a little over an hour away from Tokyo via Shinkansen. This classy resort area is the favorite summer destination of Japan’s imperial family and international celebrities.
The majestic view of Shiraito Falls with snow backdrop
We started the day by going to Shiraito Falls, ranked among the most beautiful waterfalls in Japan. True to its name the short walk going to the falls feels like it was taken out of a painting. The white snow surrounding the area added drama to an already beautiful place. There is no river anywhere close to the falls, it’s fascinating that the water comes from inside the mountain and is weather independent.
Also nearby is Kyu-Mikasa Hotel, Karuizawa’s oldest hotel and an important cultural property which now operates as a museum. After having heard that Karuizawa is famous as Japan’s original wedding resort, we visited the churches like St. Paul, the only Catholic Church in Karuizawa and the Union Church for the Protestants.
Inside St. Paul Catholic Church, the only Catholic church in Karuizawa
After walking down from the falls to check out some churches, we reached the most beautiful place in all Karuizawa – the Usui Pass Observation Platform. Straddling the border of Gunma and Nagano Prefectures, the beautiful views over the mountains of Gunma Prefecture on one side and Mount Asama on the other can be enjoyed from the observation platform.
Standing on the border of Gunma and Nagano Prefecture
We also had a short visit to Shigenoya Café, a 300-year-old café frequented by Japan’s royal family, emperor, and prime minister. According to the shrine master, Mr. Takafumi Mizusawa, the café is closed every winter, from December to March.
Mr. Takafumi Mizusawa, the shrine master at Shinegoya Cafe
Salad Panache at Hotel Otowa No Mori
For lunch, we stopped by Hotel Otowa No Mori, a great venue for those planning a countryside wedding. Inside the hotel, our team headed to Keiki, a restaurant that serves delicious French dishes inspired by local flavors. We started our course meal with Salad Panache which was absolutely delicious, followed by Fukumi Tori (chicken) with rosemary leaves. Everything was delicious, and the presentation was done well. The delicious course prepared the group for an afternoon walking tour through the hills of Karuizawa.
After a sumptuous meal in the mountains we headed downtown to visit the Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza. It is an old part of the town and the main center of Karuizawa. The strip of establishments houses popular brands, souvenir shops, and local desserts. We also passed by the French bakery that The Beatles band member John Lennon used to frequent when he and his wife Yoko Ono stayed in Karuizawa.
Outlet shops in Karuiza Shopping Plaza
Karuizawa Shopping Plaza
After strolling around Kyu-Karuizawa, our team visited the Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza, one of the biggest outlet malls in Japan. This eco-friendly mall is conveniently located right beside the South Exit of Karuizawa Station which made souvenir shopping a lot easier because of its location. With over 240 shops inside the shopping plaza, it will take 2 to 3 hours to be able to do a complete tour of the place. Some of the luxury brands are found in Tree Mall and Garden Mall while other local brands are situated in the east and west wings. The mall’s pleasant surroundings make it a lovely destination for a walk even if shopping is not on your agenda.
While Karuizawa was pretty much deserted on our winter morning visit, it was a lovely place to walk around for a few hours.
(L-R) The Prince Villa Karuizawa Center House; Kids aged 3-9 can learn to ski at the Pandaruman Kids, School, Karuizawa Prince Hotel Ski Area; a room inside the villa, private onsen
Karuizawa Prince Hotels
Strategically located near the south station, Karuizawa Prince Hotel is a summer and winter destination to travellers who would like to discover the beauty of Karuizawa. Prince Grand Hotel is divided into 4 properties: the Karuizawa Prince Hotel West, Karuizawa Prince Hotel East, The Prince Villa, and The Prince Hotel. The resort is at the base of the mountain, with everything you need easily accessible under one roof. With over 240 cottages, 6 golf courses, villas, ski area, shopping mall, and skiing ground, it was no wonder that the Prince properties take up the southern part of Karuizawa town. There are plenty of options when it comes to accommodation. If you like to get the service of a hotel, choose The Prince Hotel. If you want easy access to the resorts, we recommend Karuizawa West or Karuizawa East. Stay in one of their villas especially if you are travelling with family. Prince Grand Hotel is the earliest ski resort in Karuizawa to open during the winter. Guests, especially kids, can learn how to ski in their ski school as early as November. Karuizawa Prince Hotel pampers you with deluxe service and amenities in a serene and exclusive family-friendly setting.
Address: Karuizawa-machi, Kitasaku-gun Nagano, Japan
AN URBAN AND TRADITIONAL MARVEL. Nagano City is Nagano Prefecture’s largest city and it’s prefectural capital. After a wonderful start in Karuizawa, it seems like a good time to introduce some of the must-visit places in Nagano City. Visitors of Nagano usually make the day trip out from Karuizawa or Yamanouchi to Nagano City to visit the famous Zenko-ji Temple.
(L-R) the statue hidden behind the curtain on the left side of the temple; it
In Nagano City, you’ll find lots of restaurants that cater to your cravings. Before heading to the temple, our team dined at a Japanese restaurant called Torizo Azumaya Bettei, a traditional home restaurant that was formerly a sugar factory. Here, we had a warm meal after a long journey. We sampled the traditional Oyakodon served in obento meal wrapped in furoshiki, a square-shaped cloth used in Japan to wrap items. Lunch was indeed delicious. Excited to visit the temple, our team made our way to Zenko-ji temple, Nagano’s must-see attraction and is among Japan’s most-visited temples. The temple is one of the first Buddhists statues to ever come in Japan in the 6th century. The statue is hidden in public viewing which no one has ever seen and has been kept behind the curtain, although a replica of the statue was displayed to public every 6 years. The next opportunity to see it is in 2021. While inside the temple, people can pay to get closer to where the replica of the statue is hidden. After paying our respect, we explored the underground tunnel to find the ‘key’ to paradise. Even though it was pitch black and quite cold inside, the experience was definitely something we won’t forget. Zenko-ji is a non-sectarian temple; people, regardless of religious denomination, are welcome to enjoy the stunning pieces of architecture inside the temple. There are 2 ways to reach the Zenko-ji temple from the station: you can either walk for 30 minutes or ride a bus going to the temple for 10 to 15 minutes.
(L-R) Kaleidoscope-making at Galera Reml; Charm bracelet-making from scratch; one of the staff changes the position of each box; the wooden tray is loaded with freshly picked, locally sourced Nagano vegetables
After a long day of exploring the city, we then explored the stone-paved street of Zenko-ji Nakamise-dori to try to make kaleidoscope and bracelet charms at an art shop called Galerie Ren. Our creativity was definitely challenged as we were instructed to make a bracelet from scratch (¥2,160). This activity was a fun experience and the items were cool souvenirs to bring home to. For dinner, we visited a homey 150-year old shop, specializing in seiro mushi, a steamed way of cooking of different kinds of ingredients in a wooden box. The recipe called “steamed,” had been done since the Haruya Yayoi era. It draws out the original taste of the food. Yayoi-za restaurant emphasizes on using Shinshu (Nagano) ingredients into home food. We were told that people of Nagano have been eating healthy cuisines because of the teachings of the nearby Zenko-ji temple.
(L-R) Imperial suite; shinano yamasachi, a teppanyaki restaurant; inside the Japanese-Western suite
Hotel Metropolitan Nagano
Hotel Metropolitan Nagano is a business hotel and is just a stone’s throw away from the Zenko-ji exit of JR Nagano station. The hotel provides excellent service and easy-to-understand instructions for international travellers. The lobby and facilities are quite impressive while the rooms are modern and spacious. Enjoy the comfort of the specially designed Japanese and Western suite bedroom which has tatami area and modern beds. The hotel also houses to a teppanyaki restaurant “Shinano Yamasachi,”Japanese Restaurant “Shinano” and a Chinese restaurant called Fan-Fahr. Aside from its excellent service, guests choose Hotel Metropolitan because of its accessibility to every location in Nagano. The hotel acts as a jump-off point to Hakuba, Matsumoto, or Snow Monkey up north.
Address: 1346 Minami-ishido-cho, Nagano City, Japan
Biyu No Yado, hospitality at its finest. Home of the famed snow monkey (page 20), the town of Yamanouchi is also known for its onsen or hot springs and ski resorts. Our team stayed at Biyu No Yado hotel, an onsen hotel located in Yudanaka, the center of Yamamouchi. The hotel has 2 public baths and a top roof onsen which you can book privately. Apart from the standard rooms, the Ryokan Biyu offers special rooms with traditional Japanese tatami floor (futons on the floor), and Western-Japanese style with one queen-sized bed. These rooms have private onsen outside which tourists should totally try. The view, too, was absolutely breathtaking. The traditional dinner and breakfast are outstanding and most enjoyable as the host presented every single dish. We especially enjoyed the grilled home-grown shitake mushroom taken fresh from the bark. The hospitality of the staff was commendable! Each of the guests was treated as a VIP from their reception until their check out. Biyu No Yado not only offers comfort but also a cultural immersive experience.
(L-R) Homegrown shitake mushroom served at dinner is part of the Kaseiki meal; Japanese-Western room with 2 single beds; Japanese traditional room
To get to Yamanouchi, tourists should take a local train from Nagano to Yudanaka station for about an hour. From there, ask the hotel to pick you up from the train station.
Address: 2951-1 Hirao Yudanaka Onsen Shimotakai-gun , Yamanouchi-machi Nagano Japan
The Miso wonder
Different kinds of miso paste
Just beside Biyu No Yado Hotel is the Miso shop and family-owned factory in Yudanaka, which has been operating for more than 120 years. Inside the factory, we were told about the process of making a miso paste, a traditional Japanese seasoning, and how the taste differs according to how long it is fermented. At the shop, we tried the miso soup, which was really good. We then took home their famous miso caramel candy (¥360) which we munched on the road heading to our next destination. If ever you are in Yudanaka, learn a thing or two and visit this factory.
Mont blanc topped with chestnut cream
Chasing the Chestnut at Obuse. Going back to Nagano City, our team made a quick stop at the quaint town of Obuse. Aside from confections, Obuse is famous for having the Hokusai-kan museum. Hokusai-kan is for one of Japan’s most well-known artists “Katsushika Hokusai”. Obuse’s biggest claim to fame is its chestnuts, so our team explored the town to find one. It’s easy to walk around as you will see nicely maintained traditional houses and museums. It is interesting to know that the home owners open their garden to the public for them to see and explore. We first visited the oldest chestnut shop, Sakurai Kanseido and Sensekitei that specialize in chestnut. We rounded off our tour to Obuse town with a visit to a well known patisserie called Kurinoki Terrace, where we sampled mont blanc (chesnut cream cake), a delicious and pillow-y mound of chestnut cream topped with strands of chestnut puree, heaven! If you don’t know your way around, visit the tourism center just beside the station. It’s 20 minutes down the tracks from Yudanaka station and 30 minutes to Nagano via local train.
Hotel Otowa No Mori
Address: Kyukaruizawa, Karuizawa-machi, Kitasaku-gun, Nagano, Japan
Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza
Address: Karuizawa, Karuizawa-machi, Kitasaku-gun, Nagono, Japan
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
Address: 6845 Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun, Nagano, Japan
Address: 491, Motoyoshi-cho, Nagano City, Japan
Address: Motoyoshi-cho, Nagano City, Japan
Address: 503, Daimon-cho, Nagano,380-0841
Opening hour: 1130 am – 830 pm, Closed Tuesdays and the 2nd Wednesday of each month
Biyu No Yado
Address: 2951-1 Hirao Yudanaka Onsen Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun, Nagano Japan
784 Obuse-machi, Kamitakai-gun, Nagano, Japan
This feature was sponsored by by GO! Nagano (Nagano Prefecture Official Tourism Guide)
First appeared in Philippine Primer Magazine January 2017 Issue