A drive on scenic on Venus Line in Nagano

Photos by Takahiro Takiguchi
Photos by Takahiro Takiguchi

A drive on scenic on Venus Line in Nagano

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

As the high temps and pandemic continue, there’s nothing better than a quick escape to get some cool air in the beautiful country landscape. Lately, my wife and I have been experiencing some cabin fever since we’ve been cooped up at home for the better part of the 18 months. So, we decided to head toward Nagano Prefecture’s nice, cool mountainous terrain.

Scenic highway in Nagano Prefecture

On a Saturday morning in late August, we left our home in Yokosuka City around 5 a.m. looking forward to getting a view of Nagano’s beautiful mountains and breathing in the fresh, cool highland breeze. The traffic was unexpectedly smooth, and we made great time getting to Suwa IC via the Yoko-Yoko, Tomei, Ken-o and Chuo Expressways. From there, we stopped for a coffee at a 7-Eleven and made our way on the Venus Line highway, known for the exquisite views of Nagano’s landscapes.

The Venus Line is a 47-mile-long stretch connecting Chino City and Utsukushigahara Heights, and besides the views, also features beautiful parks and a large open-air museum perfect for breaks along the way.

We enjoyed the drive along the Venus Line and were able to spot bright green hills, lush forests of pine trees, the majestic Southern Alps of Japan and the crystal-clear lakes from the road. Although it was a bit cloudy, the complicated colors and shapes of clouds added a kind of nice effect on the celestial landscape and made us feel as if we were dreaming. 

Two beautiful lakes

Our first stop on the Venus Line was Lake Tateshinako, a tiny man-made lake located 4,100 feet above sea level. We took a brisk walk on the lakeside promenade surrounded by white birch and pine trees.

Next, we took a short 10-minute drive to Lake Shirakabako, much larger and surrounded by dozens of hotels and restaurants. Unfortunately, most of the businesses here were closed due to the state of emergency. From the lake’s observation deck, we got a view of the water and a fountain splashing at its center.

Exploring the hills of Mt. Kirigamine

Next stop on our Venus Line trip we stopped at Fujimidai parking lot for a view of Mt. Kirigamine. The temperature here was below 65 degrees Fahrenheit, so my wife wore her jacket as we took a short hike up a hill to get a look at the foliage. As the name Fujimidai (literally, Mt. Fuji viewing spot) indicates, we could see Mt. Fuji standing high over the tall mountain ranges of the Southern Alps. No words could describe the great view!

Nearby, Kurumayamagata is another parking lot featuring a couple of restaurants and lodging facilities, and also serves as a mountain hiker station. We weren’t here to hike as we are not hardcore hikers, but we did take a leisurely walk for 30 minutes to check out the large marsh and wooden trails and enjoy the fresh, cool mountain breeze.

Open-air museum like ruins of old civilization

Utsukushigahara (literally, beautiful field) is a plateau 6,562-feet high above sea level and marks the end of the Venus Line. On this plateau, the open-air museum greets visitors with 350 modern sculptures and artwork. Walking amongst the beautiful pieces in this “museum in the sky” made us feel as if we were exploring in the ruins of an old civilization.

Yamabe Town – home to tasty grapes, veggies

After we spent a couple of hours taking in the fresh air and complex art, we drove to Yamabe Town, famous for its grapes and highland vegetables. We parked the car at a town winery and local farmer’s market and purchased a lot of fresh vegetables. 

 The elegant city of Matsumoto

Back on the road, it took us 30 minutes to reach Matsumoto, an old castle city with plenty of rich history and culture. By this time, it was already 4 p.m. so we avoided crowded restaurants and enjoyed bento lunch boxes in our car.

Compared to other old castle towns, Matsumoto is an elegant city despite its traditional atmosphere. Since it was too late to visit the castle or museums, we explored Nakamachidori and Nawatedori Streets. Lined with clay-walled and tiled-roof buildings, the architecture and ambiance here were great and very telling of why Matsumoto is a popular tourist destination.

One block from Nawatedori Street, we made a stop at Yoikana Shuzo, an old sake brewery we’ve visited before. We were driving and were not able to sample sake products this time. But, if you are not the designated driver, don’t forget to sample the brewery’s high-end sake brand “Metoba-no-izumi,” as the extremely mellow and smooth flavor pairs well with any food.

Yoikana Shuzo didn’t let us go home empty-handed. Instead of sampling sake, the staff filled up a large bottle with Metoba water, spring water drawn from their well which is used for brewing high-end sake.

It was 6 p.m. when we left Matsumoto and began our journey back to Yokosuka. We had smooth traffic on the way home as well and were back home by 10 p.m.

Our one-day drive along the Venus Line recharged us enough to last until the next time we’re able to go out for a drive. It’s only four hours from Tokyo and many of the Kanto Plain’s U.S. military bases. If you’re due for some recharging, plan your own trip to the mountains via the scenic and refreshing Venus Line.

Venusline: website

Lake Tateshinake: website (Japanese)

Lake Shirakabako: website

Fujimidai (Kirigamine): website

Utsukushigahara Open-Air Museum: website

Yamabe Winery: website

Yoikana Brewery: website (Japanese)

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