Monkey business in the Japanese mountains
World-class winter sports, hot springs (occasionally monkey-filled), delicious local food and a foreigner-friendly vibe.
Nagano hosted the Winter Olympics back in 1998 and the various ski resorts bear the hallmark of international public interest, equipped with a diverse range of accommodation, restaurants and other facilities that cater to foreign visitors while working hard to offer a distinct Japanese winter experience.
The Hakuba valley comprises nine ski resorts with over 200 runs, the most popular being Happo-one, with a season lasting from early December right until May. Shiga Kogen is Japan’s largest ski area with over 21 interconnecting resorts especially suited to beginners. The resort attracts tourists thanks to a great choice of off-the-slope activities, including the nearby Jigokudani Monkey Park where you can spot wild monkeys bathing in the hot springs. If you’re not comfortable getting in a bath with a monkey, there are a number of picturesque onsen (hot spring) resort towns in the Yamanouchi area. Nozawa is a lesser-known ski resort where you’ll have a better chance of avoiding the crowds.
In the summer, Nagano provides plenty of opportunity for outdoor activities. Hiking, rafting, canyoning and camping all come with a jaw-dropping backdrop. National parks abound; namely the Joshinetsu Kogen, the Minami-Alps and the Chubu Sangaku. Kamikochi basin is beautiful in the spring and summer, while the Matsukawa ravine is a riot of reds, oranges and greens in the fall. The prefectural capital of Nagano city is home to the venerated Zenko-ji temple. In central Matsumoto is one of Japan’s most stunning original castles, Matsumoto-jo.
Nagano is credited for its high-quality soba noodles, grown in the prefecture’s fertile highlands, as well as the less appetizing tsukudani, a dish of boiled locusts that was an important source of protein in the isolated hills before 7/11 came along.