Freaking Japanese snow monkeys. Post a picture of these pink-faced fuzzballs relaxing in a hot spring with snow falling softly around them, and everyone instantly gushes. The free-roaming monkeys at Nagano’s Jigokudani Monkey Park are ridiculously cute, yes.
They aren’t the only reason to visit this snowy prefecture in central Japan during winter, though. Skiing, or pretending to ski while repeatedly falling on your behind, is another good reason.
A secret Hokusai Musem where you can pose in a life-size cutout of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa and a traditional Japanese village known for chestnuts sweeten the deal.
Ski or snowboard at Ryuoo Ski Park
Most winter sports enthusiasts who come to Japan seeking pristine powder snow are already familiar with Niseko—the cream of the ski crop in Japan’s far north, Hokkaido. Nagano is much closer to major cities like Tokyo and Nagoya than Niseko, and the snow here is just as smooth.
Do you hear that? It’s the quiet sound of the great outdoors, the way they’re meant to be experienced.
Ryuoo Ski Park is a great choice for all levels of ski and snowboarders, even absolute beginners who haven’t gotten their ski legs yet. Despite its scenic backdrop of endless mountains and evergreen trees painted in thick snowflakes, the ski park has yet to become well-known amongst travelers. This is a good thing—it means you can ski without heaps of crowds and enjoy the still silence of the frozen world around you. Do you hear that? It’s the quiet sound of the great outdoors, the way they’re meant to be experienced.
Groups of friends throw snowballs at each other as they sled down a hill on one end of the park, while skiers practice on the beginner slopes on the other. Elsewhere, visitors ride up into the sky on one of the largest ropeway gondolas in the world.
At the top of the gondola ride is a literal sea of clouds at the Ryuoo Sora Terrace Observation Deck. Standing 1,770 meters above sea level with the clouds rolling in at the summit of Mount Ryuoo feels like peering over the heavens.
There’s not much in the way of nightlife around the ski park but that’s not why you came here. You’re here for a refreshing reprieve from big city noise and to fill your lungs with fresh mountain air.
For those aforementioned beginners, ski lessons are available in a variety of languages with experienced instructors to make sure you don’t break a leg. Next stop, snow monkeys.
Chill with Nagano’s snow monkeys
Sitting in a steamy bath with their eyes closed and heads cocked back, the monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park are the definition of chill. As they interact and groom one another, they seem almost human.
This is no doubt one of Nagano’s most well-known attractions. After driving up a winding road, you have to walk along an icy forest trail for about 15 minutes to actually reach the monkeys. Being in the park is basically like watching live-action Animal Planet. Just recently, in fact, these babies were featured on an episode of the Netflix nature documentary, A Night on Earth. How cool to actually see them in person!
After you’ve snapped enough pictures of monkey business, you’ll probably want to take a dip in an onsen (hot spring) yourself. Bathing with the monkeys is probably a bad idea, but there are plenty of hot springs for us humans nearby.
Head to Shibu Onsen town which is just down the road. Ghibli fans will be thrilled to know this hot spring town was supposedly one of the inspirations for Spirited Away. Kanaguya Ryokan, a 250-year-old inn with beautiful wooden hallways and tatami floors, is rumored to be the model for the iconic film’s bathhouse. Although the list of “bathhouses that inspired Spirited Away” is long and superfluous at best, this ryokan does provide that quintessential “traditional Japan” experience. Do it for the culture.
Step into the Edo era at Obuse Chestnut Village
Continuing with the traditional theme is a quaint town called Obuse whose quiet streets are lined with local shops selling artisan crafts and sweets. It’s reminiscent of Kawagoe, the “Little Edo” of Saitama, and Kyoto’s Ninenzaka. Unlike Kyoto’s tourist-laden streets, however, Obuse is a peaceful step back in time.
It’s a place where tourists can support small businesses and use their yen to help fuel the local economy. The nickname “Chestnut Village” is an apt one—you’ll find chestnut wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets), ice cream, and cakes galore.
You could wander into any cafe, but we recommend Obusedo, one of the town’s oldest confectionery shops. Steaming cups of matcha tea and decadent Mont Blanc cakes can be found behind the wooden doors and noren flag flapping in the wind.
Are matcha and wagashi just a little too Japanese for you? How about some sake instead? Take a seat at the dimly-lit counter in Masuichi Brewery—a few doors down from Obusedo—for a swig. This small-batch brewery has been around for 19 generations and is something of a town favorite. Poured carefully into a metal tumbler until it’s just ready to overflow, the shop’s popular Square One goes down smooth.
With its peaceful atmosphere, it’s no wonder legendary woodblock painter Hokusai made the village his home in the final years of his life. We’ll learn more about this at the next stop, the Hokusai Museum.
Immerse yourself in the Hokusai Museum, Obuse
You know Katsushika Hokusai. Even if you don’t know the profound woodblock painter by name, you’ve definitely seen this painting before.
When he was 80 years old, Hokusai walked from Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to Obuse on foot to meet an old friend. This friend, a wealthy merchant named Kozan, gave the aging painter a peaceful place to devote his later years to his art. While in Obuse, Hokusai created some of his largest and most vibrant paintings, including a triumphant phoenix on top of a festival float which is displayed in the museum.
A poetic self-portrait of sorts, the dragon symbolizes Hokusai as his spirit ascended into the heavens.
The last painting Hokusai completed, the same year as his death, was a smoky dragon rising from the peak of Mount Fuji. A poetic self-portrait of sorts, the dragon symbolizes Hokusai as his spirit ascended into the heavens. Visiting the museum is an idyllic end to your Nagano trip.
Getting to Ryuoo Ski Park and where to stay
There are many hotels situated in and around Ryuoo Ski Park. One of the more modern choices is T Hotel which is a convenient base for your stay. The hotel is located only a five-minute walk from the ski and snowboard gear rental office! If you’re totally lazy, just hop on the hotel shuttle bus to get there.
Friendly, English-speaking staff make foreign guests feel right at home. Since there aren’t many restaurants around, most of your meals will come from the hotel itself. Thankfully, T Hotel’s onsite restaurant has an extravagant menu that blends French and Japanese cuisine. Indulge in the five-course dinner complete with salmon tartare, duck in red wine sauce, and sea bream topped with a Genovese sauce for a grandiose experience.
Not feeling French? Teppanyaki Aoi is another restaurant in the hotel serving heaps of meat fresh off the grill. The morning breakfast buffet is also a bit less bougie, but still satisfying.
If you’ve got the cash to fork out on the executive suite room, you’ll be rewarded with a stunning view of the mountains from a private hot spring tub. Now that’s living the high life.
Should you chose to stay at the aforementioned T Hotel, your chariot will pick you up from Yudanaka Station. Should you chose to stay elsewhere, a shuttle bus outside Yudanaka Station will take you to the park.