Today, we’ll be getting off the beaten path again to examine Nagano Prefecture’s city of Iiyama. Truth be told, it was only recently that this part of Japan popped up on the radar for me. While I had some vague awareness of Iiyama being the jumping off point to go to Nozawa Onsen, it wasn’t until the local powers that be invited me up that I really got to know the city. After spending the better part of two days in Nagano’s northern reaches, I must say that I am a bit ashamed that I have not recommended Iiyama yet.
What makes Iiyama worth visiting is undoubtedly its abundance of nature. Surrounded by towering mountains and the all-important Chikuma River, Iiyama boasts a smorgasboard of seasonal beauty that is hard to rival. While much of the borough is buried under many meters of snow during winter, the entirety of Iiyama’s ecosystem springs to life as things start to thaw. It’s around this time that one of Iiyama’s most iconic flowers, the bright yellow nanohana, are in bloom.
Speaking of seasonal timings, there really is no wrong time to visit Iiyama. During the winter, the town has two events that are known respectively as the Iiyama Snow Festival and Kamakura Igloo Festival. The former boasts some amazing snow sculptures whereas the latter will allow you to dine on a local nabe variant inside of an illuminated igloo. Not a fan of the cold? Why not head to this part of Nagano in spring for the beautiful Iiyama Nanohana Flower Festival!
Of course, while Iiyama is best known for its copious natural allures, the city can also appeal to history buffs too. Though you’ll need to do a bit of digging, Iiyama is rife with all sorts of hidden narratives to check out. During the Warring States period (1467–1603), Iiyama was a township along a major trade route running through central Japan. As a result, Iiyama was a heavily contested region and the armies of the infamous Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen often clashed here.
Whether you come for the seasonal fun or want to explore a lost side of Japanese history, Iiyama is a city that easily deserves to be on the itinerary of your next visit. Moreover, Iiyama is also a logistically easy add on to any standard Nagano excursion assuming that you can budget an additional day or two.
How to Get There
Before I get into what I recommend you check out in Iiyama, let’s pause for some boring but important logistics. While you’d be forgiven for thinking that a place like Iiyama is hard to get to, nothing could be further from the truth. You see, Iiyama is actually a stop on the Hokuriku Shinkansen. This means that all you need to do to get there is hop on one of the bullet trains bound for Kanazawa Station. As you’ll see if you plug Iiyama Station into Jorudan or a similar service, the entire journey should clock in at around two hours.
Alas, things get a bit more difficult once you actually arrive in Iiyama. Though there are a few options for getting around on public transportation, many of the top locations are best accessed via your own set of wheels. While this often means renting a car elsewhere in Japan, Iiyama is also a city that is very accessible by electrically assisted bicycles. Conveniently, these can be rented via a shop right inside Iiyama Station. Thanks to this, even those who don’t drive can still get around Iiyama (weather permitting).
What to See in IIyama City
In addition to the Iiyama Snow Festival, the Kamakura Igloo Festival and the Iiyama Nanohana Flower Festival that I previously mentioned, the following is a list of locations that I suggest you check out while in the area…
Probably what I would consider to be Iiyama’s crowning jewel, Kosuge used to be a spiritual enclave à la Mt. Koya until it was razed by Takeda Shingen. Luckily, Kosuge quickly recovered and thanks to this, you can still experience its legacy of mountain asceticism. Assuming you’re physically capable, I highly suggest that you make the trek up to the Okusha. As you can see in the above photo, the vibe feels a lot like Togakushi’s Okusha (albeit with a lot more stairs to climb)!
This wide expanse is located along the banks of the Chikuma River. Every year from late April to early May, the entirety of the space is blanketed by the bright yellow nanohana blossoms. If you want a great compliment to the pink cherry blossoms of spring, definitely stop by Nanohana Park!
Buddhist Altar Street
One of the main lines of craftsmanship in Iiyama is the production of Buddhist altars. This 300 meter-long strip is technically called Atago-machi but everyone in Iiyama calls it Buddhist Altar Street due to the many shops peddling , you guessed it, Buddhist altars!
Iiyama Castle Ruins Park
Found just to the east of the city center, this site used to be home to Iiyama’s local stronghold that was built at the behest of the famous warlord, Uesugi Kenshin. These days, the grounds have been transformed into a park but you can still see the castle’s original stone walls.
Considered to be one of the Five Mountains of Northern Shinshu, this peak sits between the valley containing the city of Iiyama and the one to the west where Lake Nojiri and Togakushi reside. Mt. Madarao offers plenty of options for trekking as well as winter spots. Definitely check it out if you’re a fan of the outdoors.
When it comes to accomodations, my troupe and I stayed at a collection of cottages that’s known as Mori-no-Ie. If you want to sample what it’s like to live up in this mountainous part of Nagano Prefecture, I highly suggest you lodge where I did. While you’ll likely need a rental car to get to Mori-no-Ie, it’s a great place to spend the night, especially if you’re traveling with your family or a group of friends who could join you for a good ol’ BBQ!
Other Nearby Attractions
To be frank, there’s an insane amount of content to explore in this part of Nagano. For starters, you have the city of Nagano and the internationally popular Snow Monkey Park. Alternatively, on the other side of Mt. Madarao, you also have Lake Nojiri (seen above), Togakushi and Mt. Myoko to explore. Especially during the wintertime, this part of Japan is truly magical. That said, just be sure not to miss out on the Iiyama Snow Festival and the Kamakura Igloo Festival should you visit during February.
In addition to these recommendations, let’s also not forget that Nozawa Onsen is just a stone’s throw away from Iiyama. In fact, it seems like you can easily hop a shuttle over to Nozawa Onsen from Iiyama Station. While certainly not a must visit, this hot spring town is a convenient add on if you’re not planning to swing by any other onsen during your stint in Japan. Given the simple logistics involved in getting to Nozawa Onsen, you could do a lot worse when it comes to hot springs.
Until next time travelers…