Ninja time in the mountains.
If you find yourself in Nagano City, take a day trip to nearby Togakushi Village, which is just a 45 minutes drive away. With a shrine in a sacred forest, top-notch soba noodles, and a hint of ninja intrigue, the village ranks among Japan’s great “off the beaten path” destinations.
Though modest in scale, Togakushi is surrounded by hills and mountains which come to life with dazzling colors in the autumn, plus kid-friendly ninja parks offer welcome diversions for families. The undisputed highlight, however, is the hike along a path lined with towering cryptomeria trees to the Togakushi Okusha Shrine in the foothills of Mount Togakushi.
With a trailhead conveniently near one of the main bus stops, the hike to Togakushi’s Okusha Shrine (Map) neatly encapsulates the relationship between Japan’s Shinto and the divine nature that it venerates. Okusha, also known as the upper shrine, is one of five that make up the Togakuchi shrine complex and is the best spot to start your journey around the village.
On the hike there, you’ll be joined by the more than 300 ancient trees lining the path standing imperiously like primordial pillars holding up the sky. You’ll experience a mixture of awe and tranquility as you walk among them. The shrine itself is overlooked by the craggy peaks of Mount Togakushi which is a popular destination for mountain walking enthusiasts.
Nearby, visitors with a taste for skullduggery and arcane martial arts will want to check out some of Togakushi Village’s ninja-themed facilities. The Togakure Ninpo Museum features a collection of photos and artifacts of Togakure school of ninja techniques, a derivative of the famed Iga school.
You will find Togakushi Ninja Karakuri Yashiki (also known as Ninja Trick House) that is made up of secret passages and hidden doors, and vertigo-inducing slanted floors. Getting momentarily lost while trying to negotiate the labyrinthine structure with friends or family is all part of the fun. Elsewhere on the grounds, are various obstacle courses and more ninja skills to acquire.
Down the road from the museum, the Chibiko Ninja Mura (or Kids’ Ninja Village) is a different facility more geared toward young visitors. At this ninja theme park, you will get the chance to don ninja garb and partake in physical activities like climbing towers, zipping down long slides, and traversing rickety bridges—just the thing for families with restless children!
After all that ninja-ing, it’s time for a hearty meal. Whatever one makes of the claim that Togakushi is the birthplace of soba noodles, the best shops in the area definitely offer a superior soba experience. The signature dish comes in a number of styles, with cold zaru soba being the very definition of what the Japanese call sappari shita (light, clean, and refreshing). If cold noodles aren’t to your taste, opt for kake soba, served hot with a variety of toppings.