Before the 1998 Winter Olympics, Nagano wasn’t exactly one of Japan’s tourism hotspots. This sleepy little city, the capital of the prefecture of the same name, was just another small- to medium-sized Japanese city in the middle of nowhere.
However, after hosting those games 18 years ago, Nagano has gone on to become a holiday hotspot that draws tourists to its array of fine winter sport resorts dotted across the Japanese Alps.
But there’s a whole lot more to Nagano than just skiing or snowboarding. After a wonderful weekend in and around Nagano City, it seems like as good a time as any to present my personal top five things to do there, besides winter sports.
1. Bring a bit of Buddhism into your life
Nagano City is home to one of Japan’s most famous Buddhist temples, Zenkoji. These days, most cities have temples and shrines constructed within them to serve the populous. However, in the case of Zenkoji, the exact opposite applies. The temple dates from the 7th century and is said to house the very first Buddha statue ever brought to Japan — though it’s locked away and can never be shown to the public. In comparison, the city of Nagano itself was not formally established until 1897. In this respect, Nagano defies modern convention, the town having been built to service its temple rather than the other way around.
A visit to Zenkoji is particularly recommended if you or a loved one are facing any ongoing health concerns. The temple contains a statue of Binzuru, a doctor and early follower of Buddhism. Touching the statue is said to help cure illness.
2. Walk with dinosaurs
One of the less conventional attractions in Nagano is the Chausuyama Dinosaur Park. At first, this just looks like any other nature preserve or kids play park: you’ll see the usual assortment of winding paths, kids’ swings and slides, as well as a few benches to grab a moment of respite from all the activity.
However, all that changes when you round the first corner and are greeted with the fearsome, yet somehow adorable visage of a triceratops and its cub. A few meters further up the hill, you will see the heavily armored ankylosaurus, a colorful iguanadon and numerous other species. The park, situated at the foot of one of the many mountains that encircle Nagano City, is a bit of a hike from the city center but the views and the beautiful, artistically positioned dinosaur models make it more than worthwhile.
3. Reconnect with nature
Just a cable car-ride away from the dinosaurs, a little further up the mountainside, you’ll find Chausuyama Zoo. The zoo itself is perhaps a little smaller than some of Japan’s more noted zoos like those in Ueno, Tokyo or Oji Koen near Kobe, but its setting, amidst the misty mountain peaks, gives the place a unique character. If you rush, you can probably cover everything this zoo has to offer in little more than an hour or so. However, if you are the sort who likes to really wander among nature this is the kind of place where the minutes can easily blend into hours.
4. Enjoy a good relaxing drink
About seven or eight minutes south of Zenkoji temple (heading back downhill towards JR Nagano station) you’ll find an assortment of handicraft stores, cake shops, bars, restaurants and tea houses. Of all of these, my personal favorite is Hiyori Café. Housed in an old Meiji era-style building, the venue serves as a relaxing basement café during the afternoon and a gentle bar and restaurant in the evening. If you’re going to Nagano with your better half, this makes for an excellent dating spot. Among the usual assortment of Japanese café staples like lattes and royal milk tea, you’ll also find a selection of fruit flavored teas.
5. Go for a very long, challenging walk
Being the hilly, often mountainous region that it is, Nagano offers some excellent routes for hiking and hillwalking. It’s not all mountain ranges and high peaks, though. There’s plenty of woodlands and marshlands that offer a less challenging — albeit slightly muddier — trekking trail. I actually found quite a few of the valleys, hills and mountain views to be very reminiscent of Scotland.
To get to Nagano from Tokyo, take the shinkansen from Ueno station. It will reach Nagano in about 90 minutes. Coming from Osaka, Kobe or Kyoto is a little more complicated. First, you need to take the shinkansen to Nagoya, taking a little over an hour, and then connect to the Shinano limited express. The Shinano takes a spectacular, snaking route through forests and woodlands, getting you to Nagano in just under three hours.