Matsumoto Castle tenshukaku main tower and moat against cloudy sky


Extreme Nagano

Superlatives are easy to come by in Japan. Mount Fuji is the country’s tallest mountain. Tokyo is Japan’s largest city, and is home to its tallest structure, the Tokyo SkyTree. Kyoto has more UNESCO sites than any other city in the world. Toyota sells more cars than any other company in the world. The Tsukiji Fish Market handles more fish than any other place in the world. These are all interesting to note, and all worth checking out on your visit to Nippon (with the possible exception of the Toyota plant unless you are really into automobiles).

But Japan offers many other, more subtle superlatives. And seeking them out can add a playful dose of fun to your travels. In Nagano Prefecture, smack in the middle of the country, you’ll find a variety of the highest, longest, furthest, shortest, oldest and even most dangerous places in the country. Go off the beaten path and visit a couple of them. Then wow your friends with your uncommon experiences.

If you arrive in Nagano by plane you may experience your first superlative the moment you touch down. Shinshu-Matsumoto Airport (信州松本空港) is the highest airport in Japan at 657.5 meters above sea level. The airport is also surrounded by a multi-faceted system of parks, which is great news if you want to go for a jog, toss a Frisbee around, have a barbeque or go play on the playground. Otherwise you’ll probably just want to head into town.


And it is here in the middle of Matsumoto where you’ll find Japan’s oldest surviving feudal-era castle, Matsumoto-jo. Centerpiece of the town and a designated National Treasure, Matsumoto Castle is also wildly popular. A short walk down Daimyocho Street and a stroll along the Metoba River will bring you to the town’s other superlative, the Matsumoto Timepiece Museum (松本市時計博物館 – Matsumoto Tokei Hakubutsukan). This museum displays an interesting collection of old (and still operating) clocks and watches on the inside and, on the outside, Japan’s tallest pendulum clock, a proud 5.6 meters of swinging timekeeping precision.

Matsumoto Timepiece Musuem
Matsumoto Timepiece Musuem. Photo: AzumaKyo on Flickr

Nagano Prefecture is well-known for its mountains, so it comes as no surprise that here one would find the country’s highest mountain path, the Hida Nokkoshi (飛騨乗越) path connecting Nagano and Gifu Prefectures over a 3,020-meter pass between Yarigatake and Hotaka Mountains. Nagano also owns part of Japan’s highest road passable via car, the Ōdarumi Pass (大弛峠), which runs up to 2,360 meters on its way into neighboring Yamanashi Prefecture.

View of Odarumi Pass
Odarumi Pass. Photo by Σ64 [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Another of Japan’s superlatives Nagano shares with her neighbors is that of the county’s longest river, the Shinanogawa (信濃川), also known in Nagano as the Chikumagawa (千曲川). The river originates high on Mount Kobushi-ga-dake (甲武信ケ岳), whose peak serves as a dividing point among Saitama, Yamanashi and Nagano Prefectures. From Kobushi-ga-dake’s western slope the waters begin their run, winding for 367 kilometers across Nagano and into Niigata Prefecture, on up to Niigata City where it finally spills into the Sea of Japan.

Shinanogawa River
Shinanogawa River. Photo: boy wakanmuri on Flickr
Nobeyama Station
Nobeyama Station. Photo by Σ64 [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Along this very river system are several more of Japan’s superlatives. Not far from Kobushi-ga-dake is the village of Minamimaki (南牧村) which boasts the highest train station in Japan, Nobeyama Eki (野辺山駅) at 1,345.67 meters above sea level. Jump on a train heading southwest and in a couple quick minutes you will find yourself at 1,375 meters, the highest point on the entire JR train system. From this same area, follow the river leading east up from Tateiwa Lake and you will eventually find yourself staring up at Minamiaiki Dam, standing at an elevation higher than any other dam in Japan: 1,532 meters.

Minamiaiki Dam and Lake (right view)
Minamiaiki Dam and Lake (right view). Photo by Qurren [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Continue north along the river and you will soon arrive in Saku City (佐久市). Find your way west to Sakaki Shrine (榊神社) and you will be standing 114.84 kms from the sea, farther than at any other point in all of Japan — and yes, that includes Hokkaido!

Sakaki Shrine

Float downstream into Nagano City and stop by the M-Wave, the Memorial Arena from the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Not only did this venue see Japan win its only gold medal of those Olympic Games when speed skater Hiroyasu Shimizu won the men’s 500-meter event, but this building sports the world’s largest wooden suspension roof in the world.

M-Wave Rink
M-Wave Rink. Photo by Maclourin [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Further north, and right on the banks of the river next to Morimiyanohara Station (森宮野原駅) on the JR Iiyama (飯山線) Line you’ll find a wooden post memorializing Japan’s highest recorded snow accumulation, 7.85 meters, measured on February 12, 1945. This snowfall distinction seems debatable, however, as governmental records show an overall accumulation record of 11.82 meters recorded on February 14, 1927 at the top of Mount Ibuki, on the border of Shiga and Gifu Prefectures. We can only speculate that the folks at Morimiya Station are claiming the highest accumulated snowfall in an inhabited area.

Morimiyanohara Station and marker showing highest snowfall
Morimiyanohara Station. Photo by Qurren [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Note: the massive 20-meter walls of snow seen in countless photographs of the Kurobe-Tateyama Highway in Japan are formed partly by snow from the road being piled up along the roadsides so these monstrous piles of snow do not count.

Speaking of snow, if you are an avid skier then you are in luck. Japan’s longest ski run can be found right here in Nagano at the Yamaboku Wild Snowpark (ワイルドスノーパーク), east of Nagano City, near the Gunma Prefecture border. The Takkochi Course (タコチコース) here runs for a leg-burning 13 kilometers!

Yamaboku Wild Snowpark

If your interests fall more toward the arts, head back toward Takayama City, smack in between Nagano City and the Yamaboku Snowpark, and visit the ‘Issakan’ (一茶館), a museum dedicated to Nagano/Shinshu native son Kobayashi Issa, one of Japan’s four great Haiku masters and, with a history of penning over 20,000 haiku, perhaps Japan’s most prolific (far outshining the more famed Basho, who wrote a ‘mere’ 2,000). In addition to displaying dioramas with intricately-carved wooden figures, an animated feature giving the story of Issa’s life and an entire thatched roof structure once used as a guest house by one of Issa’s pupils, this museum houses (perhaps not surprisingly) the single largest collection of original Issa works in existence. You can find more information about the museum here (Japanese website).

Issekan. Photo by Sancha [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Chino City (茅野市) is the home of architect Terunobu Fujimori, who has built, among other notable structures, the improbable Takasugi-An (高過庵). This teahouse, located in Fujimori’s hometown, is a one-room teahouse that teeters atop two chestnut trees, and as such has been dubbed one of the World’s 10 Most Dangerous Buildings. Takasugi-An is Japan’s only representative on the list.

Takasugi-An by Terunobu Fujimori. Photo: m-louis via Flickr

Keeping in the artistic realm we go down to tiny Yasuoka Village (泰阜村) to discover Japan’s only art museum housed in a school. Back in the 1930s the teachers at Yasuoka Elementary School contributed (voluntarily or by force we are not sure) 10% of their pay for a fund to buy various pieces of art including paintings, wood carvings and an unnamed foreign film.

But for the very first of Nagano’s superlatives we go to Iida City (飯田市) and Ōikeyama (御池山) where we see evidence — or, more specifically, signs pointing us to the apparent evidence — of Japan’s oldest meteor impact crater. Researchers’ determinations tell us a meteor approximately 45 meters across crashed into the side of Ōikeyama between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago, leaving a crater 900 meters across. To look at the side of Mt. Ōikeyama is to see what looks like most every other mountain in Japan, but the geological history tells us otherwise.

Oikeyama. Photo:

On your way back north hang a left at Komagane City (駒ヶ根市) and you’ll find, at the end of Route 75, the Komagatake Ropeway. This aerial lift brings you up Kisokomagatake (木曽駒ヶ岳), terminating at Japan’s highest station, Senjōjiki (千畳敷), which sits at 2,611.5 m.

And finally, if you have an extra five seconds to spare after visiting all of Nagano’s superlative sights drop by Okaya City (岡谷市) for Japan’s shortest festival. The Enrei Onodachi Memorial Festival (塩嶺御野立記念祭) takes place twice a year, in June and October, and commemorates the visits of Emperor Meiji in June 1880 and Emperor Showa in October 1947. This festival, which consists wholly of everyone lining up and bowing, literally lasts five seconds, although without practice the festival can take as long as 30 seconds. Don’t miss your train.

Enrei Onodachi Memorial Festival
Enrei Onodachi Memorial Festival. Photo:

If you still haven’t had your fill of the highest, longest, oldest, shortest and farthest sights Nagano Prefecture has to offer, or if you just want to soak in a hot spring after all the superlative sightseeing, head for Yamanouchi and the Jigokudani Monkey Park where you will see, very unofficially, the most Japanese Macaques gathered in one natural hot tub.

Japanese macaques relaxing in hot spring
Jigokudani hotspring in Nagano, Japan. Photo by Koji Ishii via Flickr

Japan as a travel destination is chock full of superlatives every direction you go. Nagano just happens to have a whole lot of them. Enjoy!

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