Since hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics, Nagano City has become a world-famous hub for snow sports. Look beyond the powder, however, and there’s so much more on offer in and around the city. An ancient pilgrimage destination since the early 12th century, when it was a temple town centred around the magnificent Zenkoji temple, Nagano is surrounded by lush green mountains that offer excellent hiking in the warmer months. This city of 377,000 is also the place to come for Japan’s best soba noodles, and to see one of the country’s most heart-melting sights: snow monkeys relaxing in mountain hot springs.
Nagano’s 1400-year-old Zenkoji Buddhist temple welcomes more than 4 million visitors each year, and for good reason. Founded in the seventh century, it’s one of Japan’s most important and popular temples, which is a big deal in a country with over 77,000 of the things. Take your time to walk up Omotesando Street, stretching from Nagano Station to the temple gate, checking out the shops, guesthouses, old merchant houses, Buddhist statues and eateries (including ice-creameries selling soba and miso-flavoured soft serves) along the way. Once you enter, make sure to visit the Obinzuru-sama statue at the entrance: rub the statue’s body in an area that corresponds to an ailment you have, and it’s said you will be cured.
Nagano Prefecture is the birthplace of the Japanese soba noodle, so it should be your culinary focus. Omotesando Street is lined with soba restaurants; Sobatei Aburaya, across the road from Nagano station, is very good. Don’t miss stopping in at Yawataya Isogoro on Omotesando Street to stock up on shichimi togarashi, a seven-spice blend made in Japan by traditional methods for more than 280 years.
Art and food lovers should take the one-hour journey out of the city to Azumino. The gateway to the Japanese alps is home to a handful of good contemporary galleries, including the Chihiro Art Museum, which showcases the charming watercolour illustrations of renowned Japanese picture book illustrator Chihiro Iwasaki. The nearby Daio wasabi farm, where you can see how the spicy root is farmed, is worth a visit. You can try the real thing, which is mostly unavailable in Japanese restaurants in Australia, as well as tasting wasabi-flavoured ice cream and beer. See chihiro.jp/en
We’ve all seen those wanderlust-inducing photos of red-faced Japanese macaques, also known as snow monkeys, luxuriating in Japan’s steaming outdoor hot springs. You can see them in the flesh at Nagano’s Jigokudani monkey park, about an hour’s drive from the city. A caveat: as tempting as it might be to join them, you can’t. See en.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp
Set in an excellent location across the road from the station, Nagano’s Tokyu REI Hotel is small but (almost) perfectly formed. The lobby and restaurant have a chic, minimal design, and the squeezy rooms (not unusual in Japan) offer good coffee machines and free smartphones to use while out exploring. See tokyuhotelsjapan.com
Nagano’s ski season typically runs from mid-December to early April. Come from mid-July to mid-September, however, and you’ll see the fields of buckwheat (which soba noodles are made from) in bloom. Watching the pure white blossoms swaying in the breeze is quite magical.
Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organisation. See jnto.go.jp