The city of Nagano is located in the Nagano Prefecture and this is known as one of the premium destinations to visit on Honshu if you are looking for some winter fun.
To that end you will find a number of ski slopes here that are perfect if you fancy going skiing or snowboarding, and you can also come here to check out the famous ‘snow monkeys’ that like to bath in the local hot springs when the temperatures drop.
As well as the monkeys and the snow however you will also find a range of other interesting sights in Nagano such as temples, gardens and museums, and this is also a good place to base yourself if you want to get out into the wider region.
There are some idyllic day trips on offer here that let you see a less visited side of Japan and this is one of the less touristy parts of the country that lets you see how people truly live and work in places outside the main hubs like Tokyo and Osaka.
Here are the 15 best things to do in Nagano…
1. Visit Zenkoji
Zenkoji is a temple that was built in the 7th century and this is also one of the most famous pilgrimage sites in Japan for the Buddhist community.
There is a hibutsu here which is known as a hidden Buddha and this is show to the public every six years and the next showing will be in 2022, and then every six years after that.
As such you need to time your visit carefully if you want to get a glimpse of the Buddha statue and you can also take in the serene grounds here and walk along the rows of shops in front of the temple that also sell lucky charms and talismans.
2. Explore Nishi-no-Mon
Nishi-no-Mon is the name for a sake brewery which is located in Nagano and also has a gift shop, museum and restaurant attached.
You can tour the brewery and museum where you can see a range of old photographs that tell the story of the brewery and you can also check out some ancient as well as modern brewing equipment on site.
At the end of the tour you can also sample some of the sake which is a kind of Japanese rice wine and buy a few bottles as souvenirs of your trip.
3. Try the onsen
Nagano is known for its onsen which are traditional Japanese hot springs where you can bathe both inside and outside which is a great way to relax at the end of a hot day.
One of the most famous onsen in Nagano is the Kagai onsen Ichiyoukan which has baths filled with brown water which are separated according to gender.
Another is the Omuro Onsen Makibanoyu which has a large bath located out of doors which is known as a rotenburo and allows you to look out over the neighboring Zenkouji Plain.
4. Try the local delicacies
Nagano is not one of the major food capitals of Japan but that doesn’t mean that you can’t still sample the local delicacies here.
Some of the favorites in this part of the country include oyaki which are Japanese dumplings that are steamed and come in both sweet and savory varieties.
Some of the various fillings used include pumpkin, eggplant and red bean paste, or you can also get them with pickled vegetables and mushrooms.
Also make sure you try the oden which is a stew made with white radishes, hard boiled eggs and fish cakes.
5. Visit the Nagano Prefectural Shinano Art Museum
Nagano Prefectural Shinano Art Museum is known as one of the most important museums in this part of Japan and art lovers flock here from all over the country.
There are a number of galleries here which are known for their pretty landscape paintings and you will find a range of European art on show as well as pieces from around Japan.
There are also a number of traditional nihon-ga paintings which show off one of the most famous styles of Japanese painting.
6. Go skiing
The Nagano region is known for its ski resorts so if you are in Nagano City then you can easily go outside the city center and head to some of the most famous resorts in Japan.
These include Yabuhara Heights as well as Shiga Kogen Heights and Nozawa Onsen.
All these resorts have a range of slopes that you can try in the winter months and they also have a selection of ski lifts, ropeways and gondolas that you can ride to take in the scenery.
If you prefer then you can also go hiking around the resorts and in the winter time snow shoeing is also a popular activity.
7. Experience Binzuru
Binzuru is the main summer event in Nagano and takes place on the first Saturday of August every year.
There are some 200 musical and dance groups that attend the festival every year and you there is also a procession here that honors the Indian Buddhist saint which was known as Pindola Bharadvaja.
To the end, people walk through the streets of Nagano to the Zenkoji temple where they then rub the statue of Binzuru which is meant to bring them good luck.
8. Visit Togakushi Shrine
Togakushi Shrine is known for being one of the most beautiful shrines in Nagano and is there are actually several small shrines here as well as some hiking trails that take you out to the surrounding areas.
There are also signature features here such as the Kagami Pond which is known for its calming waters and you can also visit the famous noodle shop across the street which locals flock to for its toothsome soba noodles.
9. Check out the snow monkeys
One of the main reasons why people come to Nagano is to check out the famous ‘snow monkeys’ that live here.
The monkeys live in a place called Jigokudani in the valley which is part of the Yokoyu River and you can get there from Shiga Heights and the Shibu-Yudanaka Onsens.
There are more than two hundred monkeys here that are called snow monkeys as when the weather gets cold they flock to the local onsens or hot springs for a dip in the warm waters.
10. Try horse meat sashimi
If you are feeling brave when you are in Nagano then you may want to try one of its more unusual specialties which is horse meat.
The twist on this dish however is that the meat is known as basashi and is actually raw to make a kind of sashimi, but made out of thin slices of horse meat.
You will find this served up all over the city and local rave about the deep gamey flavor.
11. Visit Chibikko Ninja Village
If you like the ninja culture or are traveling with children then make sure that you check out the Chibikko Ninja Village.
Ninja were known across Japan in the 15th and 16th centuries when they worked as mercenaries and you can now find a ninja house here which has real life ninja who will show off a range of tricks around the home.
You can also have a go at training to be a ninja yourself and there are classes on how to throw knives as well as fight using a bamboo sword.
The classes may sound a bit alarming but many of them are also designed with children in mind so don’t be afraid to bring the family and make a day of it!
12. Visit the Sanada Treasure Museum
The Sanada Treasure Museum is known in Nagano for housing some of the memorabilia and antiques of the Sanada family who lived during the Edo period and were originally from humble beginnings before becoming more affluent as the years went on.
Nowadays you can see all the treasures that they accumulated during their lifetime and you can also walk around the scenic grounds where you will get a feel for how people would have lived in this part of Japan in the days of old.
This is one of the smaller museums in Nagano but it is well worth stopping by especially if you like antiques and old photographs.
13. Take a trip to Matsushiro
If you want to get out of Nagano for the day then you need to head to Matsushiro which is around 12 kilometers to the south of the city.
This part of Japan is known for its pretty little samurai houses which date from the days of old and will transport you back in time.
A huge number of the buildings here are still in the traditional style and you will also find a wealth of gorgeous Japanese Zen gardens here.
There are also some small museums here and dainty temples dotted around making this a great picturesque day trip if you have the time.
14. Togakushi Forest Botanical Garden
Togakushi Forest Botanical Garden stretches for some 771 hectares and is known for its amazing pine forests.
If you like bird watching then this is one of the best places to go it as the forests are the home to a huge range of avians and you can also enjoy checking out other flora and fauna here.
There are a number of cycling paths all over the garden and you can also spend time walking around the inner pathways and savoring the relaxing atmosphere and the colorful plants.
15. Stock up on Shichimi
Shichimi is the name for a famous Japanese condiment which is known as ‘Seven Flavors’ as it is made of a heady blend of different herbs and spices such as ground chilies, sesame seeds and citrus leaves.
This condiment is usually served on top of food such as soba noodle soup in order to give it a bit of a kick and you can buy it at Yawayata Isogoro which is a local store in Nagano that has been producing Shichimi for over 280 years.
If you want a taste of Japan long after you have gone home then this is the place to find it.