Japan City Guides: Nagano
- prefectural capital of Nagano Prefecture.
- population approximately 380,000.
- gateway to the Japan Alps region.
- main attraction Zenkoji Temple.
- hosted 1998 Winter Olympics.
- formerly known as Shinano.
- good base for visiting nearby Matsushiro, Obuse, Yudanaka, Hakuba and Nozawa Onsen.
- direct trains from Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo.
Nagano is Nagano Prefecture's largest city and the prefectural capital. Nagano is an entrance point to the Japan Alps area for skiing and hot springs in the winter and hiking and walking in the summer.
Nagano is a low-rise, spread out city, which enjoys cooler weather in Japan's hot summers. For the winter snow, there are a number of interesting hot spring resorts within easy reach of Nagano including Yudanaka - home to Japan's "snow monkeys" and Nozawa Onsen, which is also a famous ski resort as are the slopes at Hakuba.
Zenkoji Temple, is Nagano's must-see attraction and is among Japan's most-visited temples. Dating from the 7th century, Zenkoji houses the Ikko-Sanzon Amida Nyorai, according to legend, the first Buddhist image to arrive in Japan (from Korea in the 6th century). A copy of the image is displayed to the public every six years in the Gokaicho Festival, the next is in 2009. The original is kept behind a curtain and cannot be viewed. The temple complex also includes some impressive wooden gates - Sanmon and Niomon.
Underneath Zenkoji's main hall is a winding, pitch-black tunnel (okaidan) that represents the road to enlightenment. On the way through the darkness, you should discover a metal handle, which is the "key" to salvation. Admission to the tunnel is 500 yen and the experiece is not for the claustrophobic.
It is possible to stay at on of the 39 temple lodgings - shukubo - which offer shojin ryori vegetarian food for guests.
Joyama Park on the east side of the temple is planted with cherry trees and is Nagano's best spot for hanami. Near the park are the Higashiyama Kaii Gallery and the Prefectural Shinano Art Museum (Tel: 026 232 0052). Over 700 works of the 20th century master painter Higashiyama Kaii (1908-1999) are housed in the Higashiyama Kaii Gallery, an annex of the Prefectural Shinano Art Museum, which exhibits works mostly by local artists.
Zenkoji Temple, Nagano
Nagano's other main temple of interest is Saiko-ji (Tel: 026 226 8436), a small temple with two wooden statues of Jizo, the guardian god of children, carved by the Buddhist recluse Karukaya and his son Ishido. The temple was founded by Karukaya in 1199.
Nagano's other sites of interest include the buildings constructed for the Winter Olympics in 1998: M-Wave and Big Hat.
The M-Wave (Tel: 026 293 4062) building was the venue for Olympic speed skating. M-Wave now has an Olympic museum, which can be viewed on weekends and national holidays and, as well as the superb ice rink, the venue can be converted for use for other sports and concerts.
Big Hat (Tel: 026 223 2223) was the venue for the Olympic ice-hockey tournament and is now a multi-purpose hall frequently hosting concerts.
Big Hat, Nagano
Matsumoto Castle, Nagano Prefecture.
Nagano Prefecture has much to offer. In addition to the prefectural capital of Nagano city and Zenkoji Temple, visitors flock to Matsumoto with its beautiful castle and numerous art museums, the hilly resort of Karuizawa, the artistic town of Obuse, historic Matsushiro with its many Edo Period wooden buildings, the popular ski resort of Hakuba and the onsen region around Iida including Hirugami Onsen. Other places of interest in Nagano Prefecture include Lake Nojiri, Akakura Spa, Kurohima, Joetsu, Naotsu and Yudanaka Spa.
Bunbu School, Matsushiro; Sanada Treasure Museum, Matsushiro, Nagano Prefecture
Getting Around Nagano
It is relatively easy to get around central Nagano to Zenkoji on foot. For the Olympic sites take a bus from the bus platforms outside the station. Buses from platform #1 go to Zenkoji and M-Wave and buses from #3 go to Matsushiro.
There is a Tourist Information Office (Tel: 026 226 5626) inside the modern JR Nagano Station has internet access. The Nagano City Hall International Relations Section (Tel: 026 224 5447) on Showa dori has more tourist information as does ANPIE (Association of Nagano Prefecture for Promoting International Exchange; Tel: 026 235 7186) in the Prefectural Office. The Nagano Convention & Visitors Bureau is on the 4th floor of Monzen Plaza (Tel: 026 223 6050). English-language newspapers can be found at the station.
Nagano manhole cover; Nagano Station, Japan
Hokusai Museum and the Takai Kozan Memorial Museum, Obuse, Nagano, Japan
Shopping/Eating in Nagano
Nagano's main shooping street is Chuo dori, which leads up to Zenkoji from Nagano Station. Nakamise dori inside the grounds of Zenkoji has a number of souvenir shops and local soba noodle restaurants. There's a selection of bars and izakaya also on Chuo dori.
Nagano has a wide variety of places to stay with many in the area of Nagano Station. Recommendations include the Smile Hotel Nagano, the historic Chuokan Shimizuya Ryokan and the convenient Toyoko Inn right at the station.
Festivals in Nagano 祭り
Nagano's best festivals include the Tomyo Festival in February when Zenkoji is illuminated in five different colored lights symbolizing the Olympic rings.
The Maedachi Honzon (lit.'icon standing in front') is displayed every six years in a ceremony called go-kaicho (the unveiling). The festival takes places in April and May and the thread attached to the statue's hand is replaced. Huge crowds attend.
Nagano Station and the Shinano train