The Great Outdoors – What's It Like to Camp in the Mountains of Nagano?
Have you thought about trying camping in Japan? It can be a fun way to bond with friends or family, and even meet new friends. A great spot for camping is Togakushi, which is located in Nagano, Japan.
How To Get There
To get to Togakushi, take a bus from Nagano station (bus stop across the street from Nagano station), which is reachable by Shinkansen. You can either buy a one-way fare to Togakushi, or the Togakushi Kogen Free Kippu ticket, which includes a round trip ticket from Nagano station, as well as unlimited rides around Togakushi. This is the most useful because there are many attractions to see in Togakushi. The bus ride is about 70 minutes one way. However, the easiest way to go when camping is by car. Though keep in mind it will cost extra to camp with a car.
At Togakushi Campground, it is also possible to camp in comfort or, as it is known abroad, “glamp.” There are cottages, bungalows, and log cabins available to rent. The group I went with were all Japanese folks who spoke no English, so when they asked me the difference in English between a cottage, a bungalow, and a log cabin, that was fun to explain. We were there for the true camping experience, however, so we opted for the car camp option. Prices range from 1000 yen (for a small 1-2 person tent) to 9000 yen (for a log cabin). Basic English is spoken as well. Check out their website here.
Check-in is at 8:30 am and check-out is 10 am. The campsite is open from around April to November. Last year, I went the last weekend of October and that was the last weekend the campsite was open. It was a chilly weekend with temperatures in the single digits (Celsius) at night. I was pretty jealous of the people in the warm cottages, bungalows, and log cabins. In addition, a few groups had tents shaped like teepees with a burner inside them. A pipe comes out of the tent to let out the smoke. That kind of tent seemed like the best option for camping in the mountains of Japan in the fall. My group had a regular tent and it was cold at night. I recommend lots of layers and a warm sleeping bag. In addition, we slept on silver mats inside the tent to reduce the heat loss by our bodies.
The best part of this campground is the view. The campsite is situated right at the foot of Takatsuma Mountain (the trailhead starts at the campsite), with an incredible view of Togakushi Mountain. The site can accommodate 350 cars which makes it one of the largest campsites in Japan!
For dinner we cut up vegetables such as cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and daikon and cooked them with soup stock to make a vegetable soup. We also made ramen and naan with curry. Unfortunately, there are no fire pits, so we brought a portable firewood holder in which we built our fire. Another amazing feature of campgrounds in Japan is that, not only do they have a garbage area and toilets and showers, there is a wash area with sinks and a sponge and dish soap that is free to use. I have camped a lot in the States, but I have never seen anywhere that provides materials to wash your camp gear.
As it got dark, temperatures dropped and we all huddled around the fire, drank alcohol, and roasted marshmallows. In Japan it seems that s’mores are not really a thing. People opt for just toasting marshmallows and eating them plain. When everyone got tired, we headed into the tent which was a tad warmer than outside and settled in to sleep. It is definitely a necessity–if camping towards the end of the season–to bring lots and lots of layers or thick clothes.
In the morning we decided to explore. The biggest shrine in Togakushi, the upper part of Togakushi shrine is reachable from the campground by walking. It is about a 60-minute walk through a forest. The fall leaves were vibrant while we were there which made for nice scenery. In addition, you will pass a wooden bridge over a stream and a lot of bamboo plants.
Finally, we made it to the entrance to the Upper Togakushi Shrine, called the Zuishinmon Gate. From there, we walked along a walkway lined with over 300 Cryptomeria trees until we reached Oku-sha, the upper shrine. This is referred to as a “power spot” by the Japanese. It is a beautiful shrine with a gold roof that sparkles in the sun. After we prayed here, we began the hour trek back to the campsite.
Before checking out, we had a quick snack of mini hot dogs and ramen before visiting one of the soba restaurants located in the campground. Nagano is famous for soba and the soba in Togakushi is the best in Japan. So, it’s a must to have soba while camping in Togakushi and it’s super convenient to get it when the restaurants are located inside the campground. There are also cafes so some of us stopped for soft serve as dessert.
It was a great weekend for my first camping experience in Japan. I liked the amenities that are available at Japanese campgrounds which are not offered in the States. In addition, the scenery was spectacular and the ability to access tourist spots by foot was a plus. The famous Kagami Ike pond (“Mirror Pond” in English because it reflects the trees that grow along the edge) is another 30 minutes on foot past the Upper Shrine. We traveled there by car because we were short on time, but if you have time, it is possible to walk about a 2.5-hour loop that goes to both the Upper Shrine and Kagami Ike. The only downside was having to bring something to hold the firewood as the campground had no fire pits. However, as it is possible to cook meals, have a campfire, clean all your dishes, shower, and throw away your trash at Japanese campsites, there is nothing stopping you from trying it out!