Exploring Nagano, gateway to Japan Alps

Photos by Sarah B. Hodge
Photos by Sarah B. Hodge

Exploring Nagano, gateway to Japan Alps

by Sarah B. Hodge
Stripes Japan

Nagano is synonymous with the 1998 Winter Olympics and as a haven for skiers and snowboarders chasing powder snow, but this landlocked prefecture offers many other unique charms as well. Gateway to the Japan Alps, Nagano offers visitors the chance to step back in time, from a stunning 16th-century castle and an Edo-era superhighway to National Treasure Zenkoji, a 1400-year-old temple that over seven million Japanese pilgrims visit each year.


Boasting Japan’s oldest castle, nicknamed “Crow Castle” for its striking black appearance, Matsumoto was home to powerful feudal lords. Matsumoto Castle was built by Tokugawa General Kazumasa Ishikawa from 1590-1592, with additional construction through 1614. There were 23 rulers from 6 different clans based in Matsumoto Castle. The castle is a “hirajiro” – a castle built on plains instead of a hill or mountain, with several unique features including a moon-viewing tower.

The Matsumoto Castle Hospitality Team, dressed in period attire as feudal lords, princesses and armored warriors (including third castle ruler Hidemasa Ogasawara and his wife, Toku-hime), will happily pose with visitors for memorable photo ops in front of Matsumoto Castle. Although the castle closes to visitors at 1700, the castle and grounds are illuminated every evening to spectacular effect.

The area also offers two well-preserved Edo-era streets, Nakamichi (featuring beautifully preserved Edo-era warehouses) and Nawate Dori, with cute frog-themed sculptures and souvenirs. Matsumoto is also home to several art museums including the Matsumoto Museum of Art, which features installations by renowned Matsumoto artist Yayoi Kusama and her signature polka dots.

Matsumoto Castle
Address: 4-1 Marunouchi, Matsumoto 390-0873, Nagano Prefecture
Tel: +81 263-32-2902
Hours: 8:30 a.m.– 5 p.m. (last entry at 4:30 p.m.), *Aug 6-16: 8 a.m. - 6 p.m.
Admission: 700 yen for adults, 300 yen for children
Access: Approximately 15 minutes’ walk from Matsumoto Station  or Matsumoto Tour Bus “Town Sneaker” North Course from Matsumoto Station to Matsumotojo-Shiyakushomae stop, approximately 10 mins’. ride

Matsumoto City Museum of Art
Address: 4-2-22 Chuo, Matsumoto 390-0811, Nagano Prefecture
Tel: +81 263-39-7400
Hours: 9 a.m. -  5 p.m. (Admission is until 4:30 p.m.)
Admission: 410 yen for Adults (Group Admission Fee: 310 yen), 200 yen for University and High School Student

Some like it hot…

Matsumoto is famous for cultivating the notoriously potent wasabi, which is fed by clear mountain waters kept at a temperature of 13 degrees Celsius year-round. Wasabi is said to be the most difficult plant in the world to grow commercially as it requires very specific growing conditions. Most wasabi served overseas and in lower-end Japanese restaurants is not real wasabi at all, but regular horseradish tinted green. Daio Wasabi Farm has been in business since 1915 and offers visitors the chance to sample a wide range of products made with the farm’s wasabi, including wasabi cheese, pickles, soba, soft serve ice cream, and even chocolate. An interesting side note is that the farm and its wooden waterwheels featured in Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 film “Dreams.”

Daio Wasabi Farm

Address: 3640 Hodaka, Azumino-shi, Nagano Pref.
Tel: +81 263-82-2118
Hours: 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Shinshu Soba

Nagano is Japan’s heartland for soba (buckwheat) noodles. Due to its high elevation and cold temperatures, Nagano was not well suited to cultivate rice, but buckwheat flourished here. Togakushi and Kaita are both famous buckwheat-growing areas in the region. Soba has a long history in Japan, although the modern preparation of sobakiri (soba dough cut into noodles) dates only to the Edo Period. Soba noodles must contain at least 40% buckwheat flour to be labeled as Shinshu Soba (Shinshu was the old name of Nagano Prefecture), which in addition to enjoying at local soba shops can be purchased as fresh / semi-dried noodles to be cooked at home or given as souvenirs.

Alpine Cuisine

Nagano’s landlocked, mountainous terrain and cold climate has resulted in a unique cuisine. As protein was difficult to come by, traditional sources that can still be found today include boiled baby bees, silk pupae, and grasshoppers cooked in soy sauce. One of the more unusual specialties of the Japan Alps is horsemeat, which is also known colloquially as sakura due to its color. Horse is served in a variety of preparations, from raw sashimi-style (basashi) to sakura nabe, shabu shabu, sushi, and grilled. Matsumoto in particular is famed for the quality of its horsemeat.


Oyaki are Nagano’s answer to Chinese-style steamed buns (nikuman) popular in convenience stores, from street vendors, and as a late-night snack: steamed fermented buckwheat dough encases your choice of sweet or savory fillings, including local vegetable nozawana, pumpkin, eggplant, kinpira, sweet bean, or fruit (including Nagano apples). This recipe from Just One Cookbook will help you to make the perfect oyaki at home.

To make your own oyaki, check out here.

Nakasendo – Tsumago / Narai Juku

Nakasendo was an Edo-era “highway” connecting Tokyo (Edo) with Kyoto; many of the 69 stations along the Nakasendo have gone to great lengths to preserve the unique architecture of the road’s many inns, watering holes (literal and figurative), and unique Edo-era charms. One of the best-preserved sections is in the Kiso Valley between Tsumago (Nagano) and Magome (Gifu); the 8-kilometer trail, which leads through sections of forests, fields, and waterfalls, takes approximately 2 to 3 hours to hike. Another well-preserved post town is Narai Juku (Nagano); the 34th station along the Nakasendo is approximately one hour from Matsumoto Station and offers a 1.2 km-long section of beautifully preserved shops, inns, temples and shrines in addition to a striking wooden bridge (Kiso Ohashi). Interestingly, Taihoji Temple contains a defaced statue that many consider to be the Virgin Mary, hinting at the presence of “hidden Christians” in this part of Japan.

From Matsumoto Station or Nagano Station, take JR Chuo line to Narai (local train only; limited express trains do not stop at Narai Juku). Be aware that there are only several trains a day that stop at this station. If you are planning on hiking the section between Tsumago and Magome, check train and bus schedules in advance to avoid surprises.



Nagano Apples

Although many in Japan automatically think of Aomori (and more specifically Hirosaki) when it comes to Japanese apples, Nagano is the second-largest producer of apples in Japan. Varieties include Tsugaru, Fuji, the tart heritage variety Kogyoku and unique-to- Nagano Shinano Sweet and Shinano Gold. Products (including liqueurs) made with Nagano apples are popular souvenirs. In addition, Nagano is a major producer of grapes, pears, peaches, prunes, apricots, plums, persimmons, walnuts and blueberries.

Zenkoji (Nagano)

Unlike many Japanese towns that sprang up around castles, Nagano grew up around Zenkoji Temple, founded in the 600s by Yoshimitsu Honda (whose name was cleverly incorporated into the temple’s kanji, which can be read as “Virtuous Light Temple” or “Yoshimitsu’s Temple”). In 1998, the bells of Zenkoji rang in the start of the Winter Olympics in a wish for world peace. It is the largest temple in Eastern Japan and attracts over seven million visitors annually, and there is even a famous Japanese saying about following a cow to Zenkoji (meaning to receive an unexpected benefit).

Zenkoji is unique in that it is nonsectarian, with two different Buddhist sects acting as caretakers. Half of the complex is presided over by the Jodo (“Pure Land”) sect, and the other by the Tendai sect. Both sects perform morning prayer services (oasaji) that pilgrims and worshippers are welcome to attend, including receiving a rosary blessing from the head priest and priestess.

Zenkoji’s main image is a hidden statue of the Amida Golden Triad. The central Amida Nyorai statue is flanked by Kannon Bosatsu (personifying compassion) and Seishi Bosatsu (representing wisdom).  It is said to be the first (and thus oldest) Buddhist statue brought to Japan and has been hidden from public view since the 600s.The hibutsu (“hidden Buddha”) is encased in a special container that no one is allowed to open, including the head priest. However, a replica of the statue is displayed in a ceremony called Gokaichō every six years to great crowds of faithful.

Zenkoji also contains a wooden statue of Binzuru, one of Buddha’s followers who was a physician, and rubbing the well-worn statue is said to cure physical ailments. Underneath the temple’s main hall is a winding pitch-black tunnel that symbolizes the difficult path to reach enlightenment. Keeping one hand on the wall to guide you, you will encounter a metal latch called the “Key to Paradise”; touching the key is said to be the key to salvation.

Zenkoji offers 39 temple lodgings (shukubo) with vegetarian meals (shojin ryori), as well as the opportunity to experience zazen (seated meditation), shakyo (Buddhist prayer calligraphy) and making Buddhist prayer bead bracelets (all require advance reservations).

Zenkoji Temple
Address: 491 Motoyoshi-cho, Nagano
Tel: +81 026-234-3591
Hours: From about one hour before sunrise to 4:30 p.m. (until 4 p.m. from December to February, until 4:15 p.m. in March and November); History Museum opens from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Admission: 600 yen (inner chamber, underground passage and history museum)
Access: Take a public bus (150 yen) from bus stop #1 outside Nagano Station.

Bonsho no Kai  – Nagano volunteer guides –

My visit to Nagano / Zenkoji was made far more memorable for my encounters with my three volunteer guides from local organization Bonsho no Kai, which pairs up international visitors with Japanese locals fluent in English, Chinese and German. All three were absolutely outstanding ambassadors for Nagano and gave so many wonderful details about Zenkoji and Nagano history, architecture, and deeper insights into the practices of Japanese Buddhism and Shintoism in daily life. My guides helped to arrange for lunch reservations, shakyo (copying sutras), and went above and beyond to ensure my visit to Nagano was a memorable one. To arrange for a volunteer guide, e-mail bonshonokai@yahoo.co.jp or visit here.

Shojin Ryori  – “Devotional Cuisine”–

Like many large Buddhist temples in Japan, Zenkoji offers visitors the chance to try shojin ryori, vegetarian temple meals with centuries of history. Shojin ryori was introduced to Japan from China by Dogen Zenji, the founder of Zen Buddhism. It is believed to aid in meditation (the act of preparing food is considered meditation in itself) and avoids the use of strong flavors like garlic, onion, or alcohol. It incorporates five colors, flavors, and cooking methods to produce beautiful meals that are totally balanced in flavors, textures, and in harmony with the season.

On my visit to Zenkoji, I had lunch at Fuchinobo that included beautifully plated and prepared dishes including shishito peppers, candied walnuts, konnyaku topped with a delicate miso-sesame sauce, sesame tofu, a delicate dumpling featuring mushroom slices suspended in a thick broth, and a special sakura rice served on a bed of grated yam. I have tried shojin ryori in Kyoto, Koyasan, Kamakura, and Tokyo, and Fuchinobo easily ranked as one of my top shojin ryori meals in Japan. Be sure to try this delicious and unique cuisine on your next visit to Nagano!

Fuchinobo Shukubo
Address: 462 Motoyoshicho Nagano 380-0851
Tel: +81 026-232-3669

Subscribe to our Stripes Pacific newsletter and receive amazing travel stories, great event info, cultural information, interesting lifestyle articles and more directly in your inbox!

Follow us on social media!

Facebook: Stars and Stripes Pacific
Flipboard: Stars and Stripes Community Sites

Looking to travel while stationed abroad? Check out our other Pacific community sites!
Stripes Okinawa
Stripes Korea
Stripes Guam

Related Content

Recommended Content

Around the Web