Nagano: A Small Prefecture With a Big Impact
When I say to you “Nagano, Japan”, assuming you are new to Japan or are just considering coming to visit here for the first time, your initial reaction will, most likely be, “Oh, didn’t they host the Winter Olympics a while ago?”
Since then, Nagano has, outside Japan at least, been synonymous with winter sports, and more specifically skiing. I'm not much of a skier though; the main reason I go is because I have a good friend who lives in Nagano and frequently invites me to visit.
So, what can someone like me who utterly detests winter sports find to do in an area surrounded by the Japanese Alps?
Whilst the Alps do, as one would expect, give rise to a huge amount of winter sports tourism, they also have the added benefit of limiting the number of inhabitable areas within the prefecture. This means that Nagano is one of the least populated prefectures in Central Japan. However, the cities of Matsumoto, and the prefectural capital, also called Nagano, offer plenty of sites for an avid tourist to see.
Castle lovers will take a lot from viewing the stunning Matsumoto Castle. Built in 1504 by one of Japan’s lesser known Feudal Lords, Shimadachi Sadanaga, it is a designated national treasure of Japan and stands alongside Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture, and Kumamoto Castle, in Southern Kyushu, as the 3 most popular historic castles in Japan.
The castle’s sleek, black exterior gives it a unique aesthetic and has led to it being given the colloquial nickname “Karasu-Jo” meaning “Crow Castle”. Also, unlike many of Japan’s other popular castles, Matsumoto Castle is a flatland castle, in that it is not built atop any natural hill or mountain, making it a lot easier to reach for tourists.
If you like your historical sites with just a touch of spookiness, then Matsumoto Castle may also be worth a visit. According to legend, the castle is haunted by the cursed spirit of Tada Kasuke, who was wrongly executed for tax evasion during the Jokyo Uprising.
Suwa Taisha Shrine
Having been around since at least the 8th century, possibly a lot more, as this was its first documented mention, not its date of construction, Suwa Grand Shrine (to give its full English title) is one of the oldest shrines in Japan that is still in daily use.
As is common with most of Japan’s older shrines, Suwa Taisha does not have the gold and ornate Kami (interpretations of the gods) that are characteristic of modern shrines. In ancient Japan, rather than utilize man-made kami, shrines from this period of Japanese history would instead worship natural features around the shrine itself. In the case of Suwa Taisha these objects of worship are the mountain on which the shrine is built and the sacred tree, known as Shinboku, which sits withing the Shrine’s grounds.
Things to Do in Suwa City
Do you like waterfalls? If so, then how about the opposite of a waterfall? Do you enjoy watching water being sprayed high into the air from beneath the Earth’s crust? Suwa is also home to some of the world’s most powerful geysers. These awesome natural spectacles spray water as high as 40 or 50 meters into the air. Definitely a sight to behold!
While in Suwa City, if it’s not too cold, then you can also enjoy some beautiful hiking and rest and relaxation in and around the banks of Lake Suwa.
Indeed, if you are a fan of hiking and nature, it may also be worthwhile to have a look around the Yashima Wetlands, one of Japan’s most beautiful, natural wetland areas. While you’re in the area why not also take a ski-lift to the top of Mount Kirigamine, one of the areas many active volcanoes, and currently host to a weather observatory.
Heading over to Nagano City itself, the prefectural capital, the Zenkoji Temple serves as the centerpiece of the Zenkoji Plain, a large parkland area in the city which also plays host to the Municipal Museum of History. Of particular interest are the number of exhibits covering the legendarily bloody Battles of Kawanakajima, which were fought on the very spot where the museum now stands.
Activities With the Family
Battles may not exactly make for family viewing, so as an alternative, why not head over to the Shinano District, where you will find The Chausuyama Zoo, botanical gardens and Museum of Natural History. You’ll also find a dinosaur park, which makes for a great deal of fun both for little kids and parents alike!
Sticking with animals, if you head over to the North of the city, you’ll find the famous Jigokudani Monkey Park, home to a number of wild Japanese macaques. On cold days, you may even find the macaques kicking back and enjoying themselves in the warm glow of the park’s many hot springs.
Whilst the aforementioned activities can be enjoyed at anytime throughout the year, I especially recommend a visit to Nagano in wintertime. Yes, it’s cold, but with the snow, the mountains and the beautiful clear night skies, there are few better places to spend a winter night in Japan than the beautiful prefecture of Nagano!