Japan is one of the many countries in Asia that is blessed with countless scenic spots and stunning destinations. The beauty of its nature is seen all over the country on all four seasons. But do you know that somewhere in the heart of Japan, a precious gem sparkles even during the cold winter days and nights?
In the Chubu region, lies the mountainous prefecture of Nagano known to be the home of the 1998 Winter Olympics. During summer, spring or fall, it is the paradise for hikers, whether professional or beginners, and nature lovers because of the thrill its picturesque mountains and landscapes gives. But during winter, it transforms into a haven of winter sports enthusiasts who thirst for deep powder snow and adrenaline rush!
But winter sports are not the only thing you could do and ski resorts are not the only place you could see in Nagano during winter. Wondering what else are out there? Check out this list of the top five places to visit in Nagano this season!
5. Shibu Onsen
Photo : David McKelvey on FlickrShibu Onsen is a famous hot spring resort in Yamanouchi Town that has a history of 1,300 years. Its cobblestone lanes surrounded by traditional wooden inns called “ryokan” give its visitors a nostalgic aura of the old Japanese times. Guests of the ryokan can take a stroll around the town with the traditional onsen robes called, “yukata” and geta sandals provided to them.
One of the highlights in visiting this old town is taking a dip in its nine communal baths which come from different sources and said to provide healing. The locals believe that visiting all these would protect one from evil and be given good fortune. As these public bath houses are only accessible by locals, overnight guests are given a key so they may access the bath houses and experience what these can offer.
Shibu Onsen is the home for Kanaguya Inn, one of Japan’s oldest inns with over two and a half centuries if history. It is also believed to have been the inspiration of Hayao Miyazaki’s internationally known film, “Spirited Away”. Make sure to check in at this hotel if you would love to live out your “Spirited Away” fantasies!
4. Kiso Valley
Photo : Josh on FlickrIf you are someone who gets enchanted with places that bring you back in the past, then you should not miss this!
Kiso Valley is probably one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in Nagano. It is located in the southwestern part of the prefecture and runs alongside the mountains of the Central Alps. From the old historic times up to the present, many small post towns can be seen in the valley that were part of Nakasendo, the trade route that used to connect Kyoto and Tokyo. These post towns, including the famous Magome, Tsumago and Narai, provided old travelers accommodation and lodging. Fortunately, most of them have been preserved up to now giving its visitors a taste of what it was like walking on the stone-paved roads the samurai used to take and the traditional wooden inns they used to stay in.
Nowadays, visitors can enjoy the valley by walking from one post town to another. In winter, the white snow adds more to the stunning scenery of Kiso Valley creating a picture of serenity. The snow-covered traditional buildings in the post towns and trees in the hills are surely a great treat to anyone visiting!
3. Iiyama Snow Festival and Kamakura Village
Photo : SteFou! on FlickrLocated in the north of Nagano, Iiyama City is one of the places in Japan that has the highest snow accumulations. Appropriately, this city holds an annual Snow Festival that attracts over 50,000 people. Featured in this city’s largest winter event are creative snow sculptures of every size made by students and locals. Some of which are entries for the large-scale snow sculpture contest which is one of the highlights of the festival. There is also a procession of the Japanese portable shrine called, “mikoshi” in snow during this festival, one of the only ones in the country that is done in winter.
Another interesting attraction you should not miss in Iiyama is the Kamakura Village. It boasts a number of roughly 20 kamakura (snow huts) where visitors can enjoy hot-pot dishes and other food cooked on portable clay stoves inside them. At night, the entire area becomes a romantic dreamland as the lights start to light up.
Photo : Ben Christian on FlickrIf you are looking for some action in snow, then a visit in Hakuba is a must for you! Located in Northern Nagano, Hakuba takes pride of its quality snow and internationally renowned ski resorts. This small village is known to be one of the most sought-after winter sports destinations in all over Japan making it one of the most visited not only by the Japanese but also by foreigners. It was also, in fact, the main event venue of the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Hakuba is located west of Tokyo and north of Nagoya. It is easily accessible by shinkansen, or by bus from Tokyo. During winter, long-distance express buses heading to Hakuba are available from Narita Airport. For more convenience, Chuo Taxi which also comes from Narita Airport, also offers door-to-door services going to Hakuba.
1. Jigokudani Monkey Park
Photo : Douglas Sprott on FlickrEver wanted to see how monkeys chill?
One of Nagano’s prides is the famous Jigokudani Monkey Park located in Yamanouchi Town near Shibu Onsen. It is home to over 100 Japanese macaques that attract the interest not only of people all over Japan by even foreigners abroad. Their human-like behavior of relaxing like a boss in the hot springs is mainly one of the reasons why the park gets crowded most especially during winter. Many tourists wait for the right moment to snap many shots capturing the best angle of these little friends of ours. And I am pretty sure you will too.
Make sure to visit the park on early morning during weekdays to avoid the crowd!
Nagano is indeed a pride of Japan. With all its majestic sceneries and stunning attractions, anyone would surely fall in love at first sight! Winter is never an exemption for travels and discoveries, so start packing your bag now and get ready to experience these undeniably awesome places yourself in 3, 2, 1!