by Dave Maat
Winter will soon be upon us, and for just about everyone this means one thing: winter vacation. For people who decide to travel within Japan this often means going to places like Hokkaido and Nagano to take advantage of the cold weather and the great skiing/snowboarding conditions. Nagano especially is known as a great winter destination due to its location in the Japanese Alps. Hakuba is widely considered to be one of the best places in Japan for skiing, with people coming from inside and outside the country during the winter season.
Now, if you are not a big fan of either skiing or winter you may be thinking that there is nothing of interest for you there, but Nagano is not so one-dimensional. In fact, Nagano prefecture has many attractions and is a great place to visit at any time of the year. Besides winter activities, Nagano features onsen, hiking, traditional crafts, beautiful castles, and snow monkeys!
I myself am not a fan of snow or winter sports (which makes me something of an anomaly in Canada) so I decided to visit Nagano prefecture this spring before the new school year began.
From Hiroshima, Nagano is a bit of a trek by train. After traveling by shinkansento Nagoya, I switched to a limited express for the two hour ride to Matsumoto. Matsumoto is famed for the beautiful Matsumoto Castle and the Nakamachi area of traditional Japanese buildings. The city is also renowned for its basashi (“horse sashimi”) and no visit to the Matsumoto should be made without trying this delicacy.
Matsumoto Castle, or Karasu-jo (“Crow Castle”) is Japan’s oldest wooden castle.
The black façade gives the castle an imposing look, which is beautifully contrasted by the blossoms of the surrounding park in spring.
South of the castle is a street of traditional buildings, called Nakamachi-dori. Matsumoto is very big on crafts and a lot of local goods can be found at the many shops here.
One of the other draws of Matsumoto for me was the art museums. The famous artist Yayoi Kusawa was born in Matsumoto and the City Museum of Art has a large number of her works in their collection.
Yayoi Kusawa’s ‘The Visionary Flowers’ in front of the Museum of Art.
Just outside the city is the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum. If you are even remotely interested in this traditional art form a visit to this museum is a must. The museum holds the largest collection of prints in the world, but only a few of the 100,000 prints are on display at any given time. Nonetheless, the museum contains some incredibly rare prints, some of which are the only known copies left in existence.
The museum may not be much to look at from the outside, but remember: it’s what is on the inside that counts.
Few places have the right conditions for large-scale wasabi production. However, Nagano Prefecture happens to be one of them. So, after seeing the sights in the city, I decided to take the local train a few stops to visit the wasabifarm in the small town of Hotaka. The farm is a bit touristy but the scenery is lovely and visiting a wasabi farm is a uniquely Japanese experience. Naturally, if you are a fan of wasabi like I am, you’ll want to stock up on various wasabi products, and maybe even try the wasabi-flavoured beer at the restaurant.
Wasabi needs to be grown in constantly flowing water
A wasabi field
After leaving Matsumoto I traveled further north to a small town called Obuse. Obuse has experienced a renaissance in the past number of years and the revitalized town is popular with tourists. Three main things bring people to Obuse: Hokusai, nihonshu, and chestnut confections.
Some of the town’s sidewalks are paved in chestnut wood.
Some wooden brewing casks on display outside Masuichi Brewery.
Most nihonshu is brewed in stainless steel vats, but Masuichi brews some of their nihonshu in traditional wooden casks.
Obuse features a beautiful collection of Hokusai prints in their museum. Hokusai also painted a magnificent phoenix on the ceiling of a temple in Obuse.
A small temple in the hills near Obuse.
My final destination in Nagano was the northern town of Yudanaka. Yudanaka is famous as an onsen resort, but it is also the nearest town to Jigokudani Monkey Park, home to the famous Snow Monkeys. Despite the fact that the onsen-bathing monkeys are quite well known, the location is a bit off the beaten path. So, unlike a few other onsen towns I’ve visited, Yudanaka had relatively few tourists. Not only did this mean that I didn’t have to compete with huge crowds at the monkey park, but it also meant I was able to relax in the town’s nine public onsen baths in complete solitude.
The road to the monkey park. During winter this road is closed and the park can only be reached by bus on another route.
Monkeying around at Jigokudani Monkey Park.
Yudanaka Onsen baths.
After trekking through the woods you can relax by putting on your geta and yukata and enjoying all the public baths in town.
While you can simply visit Yudanaka for the day to see the monkeys, you can only use the baths if you are spending the night in town. Anyone staying overnight gets a key at their hotel to access the onsen baths.
Each bath has a stamp that you can use to stamp your special towel. Here is mine after a successful outing.
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