Review of "Nagano (Japan)"
(note - this review refers to Nagano City, Nagano Prefecture)Nagano, where I've called home for the last six years, sits two hours from Tokyo by bullet train and is considered the doorway to the Japan Alps. Within an hour of the city you can find the best skiing and hiking in Japan, jagged mountains, historic temples, ninjas and World War 2 relics.
The city itself centres around Zenkoji Temple, a twenty-minute walk uphill from the train station or a ten minute ride on a bus (100yen). The area around the temple is full of quaint souvenir shops, traditional restaurants and Japanese-style inns, although there is little open after 9pm. There is also a youth hostel with (last I heard) a pretty brutal 9pm doors locked curfew.You can wander around the grounds at your leisure, but to get into the temple's most famous part, a pitch black tunnel supposed to contain the "key to enlightenment" you have to pay an entry fee of 500yen. (if anyone's interested, the "key" feels rather like a door handle and is about halfway up on the right hand side. While you're following the hordes of grandmothers through the dark listen for them jostling it back and forth).
In wartime Nagano was a collection of rural villages that have since merged into one city, and today the city looks very modern with little pockets of traditional houses in its outlying areas. For this reason, despite a compact shopping area around the station many other historical sites of interest are rather spread out and require you to use public transport.10km from the city centre to the south is Matsushiro Town, which is home to the Zozan Underground Headquarters, a surprisingly little-known remnant of World War 2 (see picture below). This vast, extensive tunnel network was dug (mostly by Korean slaves) at the end of WW2 to house the government, the Imperial family and the army's communications centre in the event of a full scale land invasion by America. It was never finished, but you can wander though a section of the several kilometres that were dug. English speaking volunteer guides can be contacted through the International Centre in Monzen Plaza not far from Nagano station. The picture below is of the entrance to the main network of tunnels. There are two others in the same area not viewable by the public.
Roughly the same distance to the east are the quaint temple towns of Obuse and Suzaka. Obuse in particular is famous for Hokusai, a wood-block painter, and there is a museum showcasing his work, among several other museums showcasing such things as bonsai and Japanese lanterns. Obuse also has the best ice-cream shop in the area, but its difficult to find without a car. Suzaka has a nice park for cherry blossom viewing and a little zoo (though its star attraction, a kangaroo, died earlier this year).
Monkeys and Fire FestivalsBoth Obuse and Suzaka are linked to Nagano by the Dentetsu, or electric railway, Nagano's only attempt at a subway. There is only one line and only the first four stations are underground. Suzaka is 30min out while Obuse is the next stop along. If you ride the line to the end (1hr) you end up in Yudanaka, at the foot of the Shiga Kogen ski area, famous for the wild monkey park where Japanese monkeys come to dip in an outdoor hot spring. This is famous throughout Japan, and is about a 40min walk from the train station, or there are buses available. I've been there perhaps ten times (everytime someone from out of town visits) and the best time is definitely in winter when there's snow on the ground. There are also a lot of good hikes in the area.
Further to the north east is Nozawa Onsen, a pretty little hot spring town with good skiing in winter. Every February it holds a fire festival (see picture) where a mock up shrine is battled over by the elders (protecting it) and the young men (attacking it with fire) of the village. It's a vibrant event which attracts a big crowd, most of whom are drunk on sake, sliding around on the icy ground. Eventually the shrine is always set alight and topples over, but the fire brigade are on hand so it's perfectly safe. It's quite a spectacle, but dress up warm because it takes place during the coldest part of winter.
1998 Winter OlympicsBack in the city, Nagano's claim to fame (and it is quite a big one in fact) is for hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics (slightly less well known is that it hosted the Paralympics in 2006. This is the reason for the wonderfully convenient (if expensive) bullet train line to Tokyo. There are also several Olympic relics scattered around the suburbs of the city, including M-Wave - which looks like a fan of playing cards and was used for speed skating, the Big Hat ice hockey stadium, the Olympic Stadium itself (now used for baseball) and the White Ring, which looks, um, like part of a lady's anatomy (used for figure skating). These days they still get a bit of use (mostly for exhibitions) but in truth they stand as a memorial to more economically successful days. The rusty medal podiums at the back of a car park halfway up the hill to Zenkoji are a sad testiment to this.
During the Olympics, most of the skiing events were held at Hakuba Village, an hour by car or bus over the foothills to the west, at the base of the Japanese Alps. Still a thriving ski resort town, this is where Japan's best skiing is to be had, but in winter its overrun by tourists and a lot of Nagano City residents (myself included) prefer the ski areas of Togakushi and Myoko to the north, which while not quite as extensive are a little closer, cheap and quieter, with (slightly) less stringent rules about going off-piste (basically they'll just shout at you rather than steal your lift ticket or season pass).
Ant Walks and NinjasTogakushi Village, in the mountains to the north of the city, 45min by car or 1hr by bus, deserves a review of its own. Here you will find the origins of the Togakure school of Ninpo (otherwise known as ninjutsu), three linked shrines, the third of which is found at the end of a 2km walk through giant cedar trees, and perhaps the toughest day hike in Japan, Togakushi mountain. To reach the peak at 1911m you must negotiate several difficult chain sections and finally the infamous "ant-walk", a thin crumbly wall of rock with a 50m near-sheer drop on either side. Two people have fallen to their deaths this year alone, but it remains a popular hike. If you survive, you can get good soba (buckwheat) noodles at many restaurants in the village. One, Yamaguchi-ya, is owned and run by a local ninja practicioner, as is a nearby souvenir shop, Matsuhashi-ya. Unfortunately, while both will happily show you some moves (painful!), neither speak any English.
Food, Drink and Entertainments
Eating out in Nagano City is a pretty easy business. In the maze of little streets opposite the station there are literally hundreds of restaurants, from American chains like MacDonalds and Subway to traditional Japanese pubs (izakaya) and restaurants. If you want to meet a ninja who speaks near-fluent English, head to Tokutei, a Japanese restaurant which is right out of the station then left then right again, then down some stairs (in truth its a pain to find - email me).To get more local food like Oyaki (doughy balls with various fillings) or soba noodles, you should head up to Zenkoji, although the restaurants tend to close earlier than those around the station. On the way you'll pass the Gondo shopping arcade, which although known as the seedy part of town certainly isn't dangerous and has another ton of restaurants. Here you'll find less English though and in a lot of these restaurants you'll be struggling if you don't speak any Japanese. Gondo is also the place if you want to drop a small fortune in hostess (or host!) bars, although few, particuarly those staffed by Japanese, will let foreigners in.
Like restaurants, Nagano is chock-a-block with bars, from the seedy variety to straight up drinking holes. Here, however, is where Nagano starts to lose its appeal, because chances are you're unlikely to find anywhere to drink where there are more than a handful of other customers, if any at all. Quite frankly, Nagano has too many bars for its drinking population, and most Japanese tend to go out in groups anyway, while foreigners tend to congregate at pre-arranged parties. If you're looking for conversation its best to open a few doors and look in before committing to anywhere, because bars in Japan (even regular ones) are good at soaking up money.Your best chances of meeting other foreigners are at Winds (down a staircase outside the Starbucks opposite the station), Sechi (up a spiral staircase down the thin street directly opposite the station) and at Nagano's long-term foreigner bar Liberty. To get there turn right outside the station and walk about a kilometer until you get to a big crossing with a Royal Host on the opposite corner. Go across the street and turn right, walking away from the Royal Host. Liberty is about 100m down in front of you. You might find some other customers, or you might not, it's pot-luck. It's safe to say that if its been raining or snowing heavily it'll be empty and it's probably not worth the hike from the station.
Nagano is a great little city to live in, but with the exception of Zenkoji temple, there is little in the city centre to hold the tourist. It is however, a great place to base yourself. Getting around without a car can be difficult, though. There is just the one local train line, and while there are buses they tend to be expensive, infrequent and open stop running stupidly early, like 7pm in some areas. For example, if you want to visit Togakushi, while you can get a bus up there that leaves Nagano station at 6am (designed for skiiers), the last bus back is at about 4.30pm. Be warned, buses in Japan, except during times of heavy snow (and even then rarely) are never late. If it says 4.30 on the timetable, it'll be there at 4.30. Miss it and its 20km walk (although its mostly downhill!). Having a car is a major advantage, and it is possible to rent one outside the station. Prices start (I think, having never done it) at about 5000yen (currently about 40 pounds) per day.Winter is what most people come for and some ski resorts at Hakuba offer free buses from Nagano Station (as there is no direct train link - you have to go via Matsumoto, an hour to the south) but these often don't arrive until 10am and leave the ski resorts as early as 3pm. They are also at the mercy of the weather. A friend was stuck on one for three hours one morning last winter after a heavy snow fall.
A note on the climate - like most of Japan, Nagano has four clear seasons, a cool spring with lots of pink cherry and plum trees (the park behind Zenkoji is particularly nice for flower-viewing parties although it gets cold early at that time of the year, which probably explains why we all get so drunk!), summer is hot and humid, autumn is cool and pretty with the changing leaves in the surrounding mountains, while winter is cold and can offer up a couple of metres of snow (much more in the mountains). It can be hard sometimes working in a school with antique heating and cooling systems, but there is no doubt that each turn of the seasons brings interesting times, new moods and new experiences.
OverallI've gone on long enough now so I'll conclude, but please feel free to message me if you want further information. In conclusion, then, Nagano is a great place to base yourself for a visit to the area, with numerous attractions to suit all tastes. On the downside, public transport around town isn't the best and the nightlife, while varied, can be a little slow. It's a great place for families and those interested in nature, but a bit of a let down for hardcore night owls.
(note - the photos are my own. I plan to add more as I dig them out of the hard-drive).
Product Information : Nagano (Japan)
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Listed on Ciao since: 26/09/2001