Mystical Forests, Ninja Adventures, WWII Tunnels and Mountains Galore
Many Japanese associate Nagano City with the iconic Zenkoji Temple, home to the oldest Buddha image in Japan. For non-Japanese, this temple is certainly worth a visit, to appreciate its soaring architecture, and grope around in its pitch-black underground tunnel where you may be lucky enough to touch the key of enlightenment. Another common piece of knowledge is that Nagano City was the main site of the 1998 Winter Olympics, and the major venues are still in use today.
However, Nagano City has a number of fascinating but lesser-known attractions which make the city a great place for a two or three day break.
About one hour north of downtown Nagano City by car, the Togakushi Highlands offer a range of activities for all the family. You can take a walk in the forest to see the beautiful reflections in Kagami Pond and the giant cedar trees along the path to Okusha Shrine (pictured above). The kids will love testing their skills at the Ninja Adventure Park.
As WWII was coming to a climax, the Japanese government and military started making contingency plans in case there was an invasion of Honshu Island. One major part of these plans involved moving key military departments, the government, and the Imperial Family to the safety of a series of tunnels to be built in the hills of Matsushiro, in what is now the south of Nagano City. Although the tunnels were never completed or occupied by their intended residents, some of the tunnels still remain and are open to the public. You can walk hundreds of meters through the tunnels under Mt Zou for free.
It is a moving and for some even a spooky experience. Outside the tunnels is a memorial to all the Japanese and foreign laborers who died constructing the tunnels. Matsushiro also has a very well-preserved historical precinct. Places worth visiting include the Bunbu School for Military Arts, the Sanada Treasures Museum, and the former castle site, which has a pretty garden replete with cherry trees.
To the west of Nagano City lie Japan’s Northern Alps, a long range of mountains with many peaks approaching 3,000m in height. Snow remains on these peaks well into summer. There is a number of great vantage points in Nagano City from which to view this impressive range. One which requires only a little walking is the former site of Hagino Castle, near Mt Jinbadaira in the west of the city. A more strenuous climb up Mt Iizuna also provides fabulous views of the Alps. Another great spot is Mt Kimyo, near Matsushiro, which also affords great vistas across the Zenkoji Plain on which downtown Nagano City lies.
If you have a bit more time, there are another couple of fun things to do:
Details about all of these sites and courses, and many others, can be found in the newly-released book
Peter Ninnes is an educational consultant and travel writer based in Chikuma City, Nagano. His books include “Nagano Onsen Guide: The Top 100 Day-Use Hot Springs” and the other books in the “Hiking, Walking and Biking Nagano” series, covering Karuizawa Town, Ueda City and Chikuma City.