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When the weather turns cold, the powder-covered mountains around Nagano make it a top location for snow sports in Japan. But that isn’t the only reason to visit Nagano in winter – there are also delicious mountain cuisine, seasonal festivals and the ultimate in après-ski relaxation: onsen. Culture Trip spoke to regional expert Phil Yarbrough for his take on the best things to do in Nagano in the winter.
“Nagano is home to the northern Japanese Alps, many of which stand taller than 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) in elevation,” says Phil, an employee of Northstar Lodge, one of Nagano’s winter lodging locations. “The mountainsides are dotted with snow resorts aplenty and enough backcountry snowshoeing and skiing opportunities to keep you busy all winter.”
In the spring and summer months, Nagano’s natural surroundings are characterised by wildflower meadows and clear alpine lakes. Phil explains, in winter, the landscape completely changes. “When winter hits, the mountains transform dramatically from fiery autumn foliage to mountains blanketed in snow.” At this time of year, Nagano prefecture’s large ski resort areas, such as Hakuba and Nozawa, are particularly popular. “Nagano’s focus is on winter tourism and sport so wherever you decide to stay you won’t be far from access to the slopes, good soba and steamy onsen,” he says.
Phil suggests that travellers looking for an off-the-beaten-track winter experience should take a Little Peaks snowshoeing tour around Kamikochi. On these walks, you’ll wear snow shoes, which allow access to areas of Kamikochi’s dusted slopes that you might otherwise miss. The tours are led by an informative guide, with the opportunity to see winter wildlife unique to Nagano’s Alps along the way.
Take in the beautiful alpine scenery as you wander the slopes, including mountainside ranch trails, frozen ponds and icefalls – it’s a great way to spend a winter afternoon in Nagano.
Norikura Kogen is a nature preserve in Matsumoto, Nagano, that is famous for its gorgeous waterfalls. Two must-visit falls are Zengorou and Sanbon – both of which freeze during the winter months. Make a trip out to the falls to take in the magical view – and perhaps admire some icy entertainment. The falls alone are a picturesque sight, with the icy surroundings creating a mystical atmosphere. But while only professional climbers are permitted to scale the falls, if you’re lucky, you might see a pro climber scrambling up the frozen cascade.
Onsen bathing is a centuries-old tradition in Japanese culture, with the earliest written records of it dating back to AD 600. In Nagano, it’s not only the people who bathe in the area’s hot springs, but also the wildlife.
Phil recommends a visit to Jigokudani during your visit to Nagano, home to the most hygienic and health-conscious monkeys in the world. Here, peaceful, snow-dusted landscapes provide a spectacular backdrop to watch the humorous monkeys freely taking part in communal hot-spring bathing. The reserve also offers good walking or hiking, but make sure that you wear waterproof boots as the trails can get really muddy.
Set against the majestic sight of Matsumoto Castle, Matsumoto Ice Sculpture Festival is an annual event that usually occurs in January. The festival lasts Friday through Sunday, during which time you can watch sculptors create pristine ice creations, eat regional snacks, drink local Japanese sake and take part in family-friendly activities. Look out for creative sculptures of dragons, mermaids and horsemen.
Pro tip: Time your visit as the sun is setting to watch the sculptures light up with colourful illuminations.
A Shinto site that consists of five shrines (all of which may be reached by a path lined with Japanese cedar trees), Togakushi offers a serene escape for nature lovers. “Visiting Togakushi Shrine is especially beautiful in the snow – though you may need snowshoes for the trek,” says Phil. Enjoy the reverent ambience of the sacred Shinto site and bask in the elven-like forest that surrounds it, among cedar trees that are more than 500 years old. From here, walk along a cedar-lined trail to see if you can spot the frozen waterfall nearby.
One of the most popular sports to try in Nagano during the winter is skiing – and what place better to do this than at arguably the best ski area in Nagano? Equipped with every convenience for families and serious skiers alike, Hakuba Goryu Snow Resort offers both beginner and advanced slopes, rental gear, an adjacent Escal Plaza filled with food and drink options and well-groomed slopes and lifts that make access around the resort a breeze. For families who are visiting the resort with children, Hakuba Goryu Snow Resort has both indoor and outdoor areas for kids to enjoy, and there’s also the opportunity to sled down the small slopes or play indoors in a woodland-inspired play area.
After a long day of skiing on Nagano’s excellent powder, making your joints stiff from both the exercise and the cold, a bubbly-hot dip in a natural spring is in order. For a hot bath in Nagano, Phil suggests a trip to Nozawa – a traditional Japanese onsen village. With over 30 onsen to choose from, life in this village revolves around bathing culture. There are even a variety of free onsen to choose from, including Ōyu Hot Spring, which is located in central Nozawa, and is famous for being housed in a wooden, Edo-style bath house. On the way there, stop by one of the village’s many street vendors selling fresh oyaki (steamed buns filled with veggies and cooked with onsen water). A word of warning from Phil, “be careful with the onsen in Nozawa as many of them have very hot water!”
“If you can catch Matsumoto Castle with snow on it, it’s amazingly beautiful,” Phil says. Matsumoto Castle has been well preserved, with much of its keep being in its original, 16th-century form. The castle grounds are free to wander year-round, but they make a particularly picture-perfect location to explore in the snow. If you visit Matsumoto Castle during a popular time, you might be lucky enough to jump on a free guided tour – which local experts offer in different languages. The castle’s surrounding area is worth exploring too, as Phil adds, “on top of that, Matsumoto has its own brewery and a bar in the downtown area – meaning that after a day of sightseeing and admiring the castle, you can take to the brewery and socialise with other travellers.”
If you’ve visited Shigakigen to see the onsen bathing snow monkeys, Phil suggests that travellers stop at Enza Café for a bite to eat surrounded by gorgeous views of the surrounding snow-covered forest. Sit on the terrace or by a window to soak up the natural scene while enjoying a hot drink or meal. A mix between a cosy café and an intimate restaurant, Enza Café is the perfect place to warm yourself up from the winter cold with a bowl of chicken ramen, a salmon avocado sushi roll or a miso broth – or perhaps splurge on a piece of the café’s popular apple pie.