Japan is a modern, thriving democracy, yet it has retained a long and esteemed imperial tradition. The island country consists of four main islands: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, along with a plethora of smaller islands, and is separated from the Asian mainland by the Sea of Japan and bordered on the east by the Pacific Ocean. Nearly 75 percent of the country’s land surface is covered by mountains, and the climate, although generally humid, ranges from cool in the north to subtropical in the south.
Nagano Prefecture is located in the central part of Honshu and is surrounded on all four sides by tall mountains, earning it the nickname of the “Roof of Japan”. The prefecture spreads out to the north and south over 13,562 square kilometers, making it Japan’s fourth largest in size. Approximately 20% of the area is designated as Natural Parks. Besides being a treasure trove of nature, history and culture, Nagano is also home to countless natural hot springs, making it the king of onsens (Japanese for hot springs). The Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park is very famous and it is the only place in the world where you can see wild monkeys bathing in an onsen.
During our second visit to Japan we ventured into Shirakabako, Nagano where the Shirakaba Resort Ikenotaira Hotel is located. Situated near Lake Shirakaba it is the largest leisure hotel in Nagano! The hotel is classified as a “Ryokan” which is a type of traditional Japanese inn that originated in the Edo period (1600s – 1800s). These traditional inns served travelers along Japan’s highways and featured tatami-matted rooms, communal baths and public areas where visitors were allowed to wear yukatas. Shirakaba Resort Ikenotaira Hotel provides onsen baths, tennis, bowling, swimming and golfing. The restaurant is buffet-style which typically serves 50 different menus featuring Japanese, Western and Chinese cuisine.
In 1998, Nagano hosted the Winter Olympics. The world-class resorts of Hakuba, Shiga Kogen Heights and Nozawa Onsen continue to attract winter sports enthusiasts every year
With convenient rail and expressway access to Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto and other major cities, Nagano draws a million tourists annually, making it the gateway to a variety of sightseeing spots .
Nagano is a top tourist destination in its own right with beautiful scenic spots such as the Joestu Kogen National Park, Minami Alps National Park, and the Chubu Sangaku National Park. The affluent Karuizawa, is one of the most famous summer resorts in Japan. Easily accessible with the Nagano Shinkansen (just a little over one hour from central Tokyo) it offers ample opportunities for golfing, tennis, hiking, cycling, shopping and skiing and skating in the winter months. Many wealthy urbanites own second homes here.
Nagano City is the capital of Nagano Prefecture. It evolved as a temple town around Zenkoji, one of Japan’s most popular temples.
The temple was built in the 7th century and its compound contains many interesting and historically significant buildings. The layout of the compound is arranged in a linear fashion, from the south to the north, so that worshipers and visitors can see the buildings in that order. To the right of the Daikanjin (the residence of the priest) you will find the Rokujizo. The Rokujizos are statues of the six Bodhisattvas, who gave up Buddhist enlightenment, in order to provide salvation to others.
In the forested mountains northwest of the city center lies the Togakushi area which attracts tourists with its popular shrines and as the legendary home of the Togakure Ninja School. The Togakushi Ninpo Museum and the Kids Ninja Village provide a glimpse into the area’s ninja past.
About an hour south of Nagano city is Matsumoto city, the second largest city in the Nagano Prefecture and home to the Matsumoto Castle. The castle is one of Japan’s most beautiful “original” castles and is a designated national treasure. Its black and white stucco siding provides a striking contrast with the beautiful Japan Alps in the background. Matsumoto City boasts a surprisingly metropolitan atmosphere while maintaining its historical sites and traditions. The streets leading to and from the castle are lined with small shops and the people are friendly. In one of these shops, we purchased several bottles of Shinshu (Shinshu is the traditional name for the Nagano Prefecture) local wine to bring with us to the Shirakaba Resort. The wine was surprisingly light and fruity and very pleasing to the palette. The region is also famous for delicious apples and soba (buckwheat noodles).
Located strategically by the Chikuma river within the borders of Shinano Province is Matsushiro Castle. This castle served many clans during the time that it was in use (1553-1872) including the famed Takeda clan and later the Sanada clan. By 1873 only the stone foundations remained but in 2003, much of the castle was restored according to traditional designs and methods.
In the southern part of present day Nagano city is the Kawanakajima Battlefield where Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin clashed. Actually, there were five major battles that took place between 1553 – 1564 with the best known and most severe among them was fought on September 10, 1561. The battles started after Takeda Shingen conquered Shinano Province, expelling Murakami Yoshiharu and Ogasawara Nagatoki, who subsequently turned to Kenshin for help.
Approximately two hours away in the Gunma Prefecture you will find Onioshidashi, a huge volcanic park created after the catastrophic eruption of Mt. Asama in 1783. Its name comes from the impressions of the people of the time, who said it looked as if the devil (Oni) residing in the volcano’s crater had violently pushed out the rocks. The Onioshidashi park is 7.5 miles long, 1.9 miles wide and located over 4265 ft. above sea level. It is considered to be one of the three greatest volcanic sights in the world.
There is so much nature, history and culture to immerse yourself in that we keep returning to this beautiful place every two years and we still have not covered it all. Our next trip is planned for later this year, stay tuned for more updates and photos!
Nagano Official Tourism Webpage: http://www.go-nagano.net/