Welcome to Nagano City | Echoes of the 1998 Winter Olympics

Donny Kimball covered in snow amidst massive cedar trees at Nagano Prefecture's Togakushi Shrine

Welcome back to another installment of Japan hidden gem guides. Much like other articles in the collection, I’ll be going into great detail so that you, the reader, can experience this slice of Japan without worry. Today, we’ll be covering the city of Nagano. Well known internationally from the 1998 winter Olympics, Nagano is quite popular amongst foreign enthusiasts of winter sports. Situated within Japan’s Snow Country, Nagano offers a lot more than just great slopes for skiing and snowboarding. In fact, as I hope to prove in the coming sections, Nagano has enough to whet the appetite of any cultural connoisseur.

Before diving into the weeds, let’s first go over some history so that you’re more cognizant of Nagano’s legacy. To begin with, know that this city has roots that date all the way back to the Nara period (710–794) when it coalesced as a temple town. Then, as is the case now, Nagano was centered around the sprawling Zenko-ji temple complex which was established in the mid 600’s. Later on, during the Edo period (1603–1868), Nagano developed into a post town on a critical highway known as the Hokkoku kaido which connected present day Tokyo with the Sea of Japan.

Of course, as alluded to before, Nagano’s real claim to fame these days is that the city hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics and the 1998 Winter Paralympics. Even today, visitors to Nagano can explore a surprising number of facilities that were erected for the 1998 games. While totally not my shtick, their unique architecture may be of interest to some. Though I personally opted to skip it, I’ve read that the M-Wave is well worth a visit. This former skating rink is now a multi-purpose arena that features the Nagano Olympic Museum. Other venues rounding-out the area include the Olympic stadium, the White Ring, and the Big Hat.

How to Get There

Donny Kimball covered in snow amidst massive cedar trees at Nagano Prefecture's Togakushi Shrine

When compared to some of the harder to reach locations I’ve covered in the past on this blog, making the trip to Nagano is mere child’s play. Thanks to the Hokuriku Shinkansen, all you need to do is hop on any of the bullet trains bound for Kanazawa. En route to their final destination, these trains all stop at Nagano. As always, refer to a service like the helpful Jorudan for train schedules. If you’re coming from central Tokyo, the entirety of the journey should clock in at just around eighty minutes or so. The total combined bullet train fare will run you 8,340 yen if you ride all the way from Tokyo Station.

Nagano itself is actually quite easy to reach yet transportation within the confines of the city is a challenge. You see, Nagano sits smack dab in the middle of a very mountainous valley. While there are some trains here and there, the hilly terrain is more conveniently traversed by buses. Of course, this unfortunately means that you’ll need to tackle the task of divining the hard to decipher schedules. For foreign tourists, this usually results in a humongous headache. Luckily for you, Nagano thankfully has all the ample English infrastructure you’d expect from a former Olympic host city.

Nagano’s Zenko-ji

The main approach to Nagano City’s famed Zenko-ji temple complex

Since I will be opting not to cover the Olympic facilities in this article, let’s begin with Nagano’s second most famous attraction. Known as Zenko-ji, this Buddhist temple has some real authentic history to its name. As mentioned in the introduction, much of Nagano grew up around the Zenko-ji complex. The ancient temple compound itself has roots that date all the way back to the 600’s. In fact, Zenko-ji is so old that it predates Buddhism’s separation into its numerous sects. As such, these days, Zenko-ji belongs to both the Tendai and Jodo branches of Buddhism.

As anyone who has visited Zenko-ji before can attest, the temple’s grounds are the epitome of the word sprawling. To begin with, Zenko-ji’s main approach juts out over two kilometers from the temple’s Niomon gate. Along either side of this lengthy lane, you’ll find a number of miscellaneous shops, eateries, and pilgrim lodgings. Once you enter the compound, you’ll be greeted by many historically significant buildings that are arranged linearly from south to north. After purifying yourself at the water ablution pavilion, you’ll want to be sure to snag yourself a combined ticket to all of Zenko-ji’s structures.

As far as I’m concerned here are a few spots you absolutely cannot miss while at Zenko-ji. As always, I’ll provide you with some Google Map links to make telling which is which easier.

  • Sanmon Gate
    Located to the south of the main hall, this is Zenko-ji’s primary gate. The massive archway dates back to the 1700s and has been designated as an important cultural property. The Sanmon gate houses a collection of statues that depict Monju Bodhisattva and the four heavenly kings. Be sure to take advantage of the rare opportunity you’ll have to go inside.
  • The Main Hall
    While I wouldn’t expect any of you to skip the main hall, know that this sanctuary has a special attraction. Located towards the rear of the building, you’ll find a set of stairs that lead down below the primary altar. After descending but a few mere steps, you’ll be plunged into complete darkness. As you meander around this underground passage, you’re encouraged to seek out the so-called “key to paradise” which is attached to one of the corridor walls. Apparently, anyone who touches it will be granted salvation.
  • Zenko-ji History Museum
    A mere few meters away from the main hall, you’ll encounter a relatively modern pagoda. Inside, you’ll find the Zenko-ji History Museum. This facility hosts an impressive collection of Buddhist paraphernalia. These are all displayed without any real obstructions allowing for up-close inspections. Be sure not to miss the one-hundred individually carved statues of the disciples of Buddha.

While there’s a lot here, Zenko-ji’s main object of worship is sadly not on display to the public. This is because the effigy is rumored to be the first Buddhist statue to ever be brought to Japan. Allegedly, the statue made its way to Japan all the way from India but you’ll never get to see it as the Zenko-ji monks long ago swore a solemn oath to not show the artifact to anyone. In fact, not even Zenko-ji’s upper echelons can view the statue. Instead, the temple has wisely created a replica of the relic but unfortunately even this copy is not available for regular viewing. Instead, it is only brought out every six years for a Buddhist ceremony known as Gokaicho.

Neighboring Togakushi

Massive cedar trees line a snowy path to the innermost part of Nagano’s Togakushi Shrine

Truth be told, it was Togakushi that sealed the deal for me when deciding whether or not to cover Nagano. Found in the westernmost extremes of the municipality, this alpine part of the city is located in what’s known as the Kamiminochi district. Getting there from the Nagano valley basin will require you to take a bus that snakes up the mountainous terrain via the Asagawa Loop Line. Built to service the areas that were used for the 1998 Winter Olympics, this winding highway is relatively new. En route, to Togakushi, you’ll pass by a place called the Spiral which marks the site of the 1998 bobsled and luge competitions.

As far as this culture obsessed nomad is concerned, the real reason to visit Togakushi has nothing to do with winter sports. Instead, it was the venerable Togakushi Shrine that convinced me to take the fifty minute bus ride up into the mountains. Situated at the base of Mt. Togakushi, this ancient sepulchre is actually a collection of five distinct shrines. When rendered in English, these get translated as the lower shrine, the Hino-miko Shrine, the middle shrine, the upper shrine, and the Kuzuryu Shrine. A visit to the Togakushi Shrine quinfecta is considered to be something of a pilgrimage with its own commemorative certification seal.

While I’ve visited some truly ancient sites over the years Togakushi Shrine is certainly one of the oldest. Supposedly construction of what is now the upper shrine began in the fifth year of Emperor Kogen’s reign. Seeing as this guy held the throne from 214 to 158 BCE, this means that Togakushi Shrine would be over two millennia old. While that does indeed sound impressive, not everyone buys the story. You see, Togakushi Shrine was a syncretic establishment for most of its history and followed both Buddhism and Shinto traditions. According to the tales told by Buddhists, Togakushi Shrine was founded by a monk in 849 as a retreat to practice mountain asceticism.

Regardless of which history you choose to follow, Togakushi Shrine is about as old as they come. What’s more, this little known spot in Nagano also ranked among the likes of Mie Prefecture’s Ise Jingu as well as Mt. Koya and Enryaku-ji Buddhist bastions. If the significance of this statement is lost on you, know that Togakushi Shrine was basically considered a top tier establishment in terms of eminence all across Japan. Honestly, it’s a real shame the place doesn’t garner more notoriety among overseas foreign visitors. Hopefully, this article will help raise a bit more awareness for this hidden gem.

Anyway, if you want to visit Togakushi Shrine, you’re going to want to budget at least half a day. The journey to the shrine’s location will take you over an hour if you account for the time spent waiting for the bus. Furthermore, once you’re actually in Togakushi, you’ll need to hoof it around two kilometers from each of the five shrines. All in all, this means that you’re going to need a fair bit of time to see everything in the area. While it is certainly a bit of a commitment, Togakushi Shrine is more than worth the effort. This is especially true of the upper shrine and its noble cedar-lined approach that’s portrayed above.

If you’re keen on visiting Togakushi Shrine, I suggest starting your tour at the lower shrine and working your way up. Some other online guides will recommend just the opposite but I’m of the mind that it’s better to save the upper shrine’s jaw dropping approach for last. Seeing as the upper shrine is undoubtedly the most marvelous feature of Togakushi Shrine, doing it first will only ensure that everything else is a disappointment in comparison. While the other four sanctorium that collectively constitute Togakushi Shrine are indeed alluring, nothing is as bewitching as the magnificent cedar lined approach of the upper shrine. So, as they say, you really ought to save the best for last.

By the way, Togakushi Shrine holds an interesting mythological claim. Basically, the deity Susanoo went on a celebratory drunken bender to end all benders after winning a sibling rivalry over his sister, the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami. After one too many, Susanoo destroyed rice fields, pooped in the sun goddess’s palace, and finally flayed a divine pony which he subsequently flung into Amaterasu Omikami’s weaving hall. This was all too much for the sun goddess and she hid herself away in a cave. After successfully luring her out, the remaining deities hurled the stone she had used to seal herself away all the way over to Togakushi, which by the way literally means “hiding door.”

Other Nearby Attractions

A snow monkey waits to get into the hot spring at Nagano’s Snow Monkey Park

OK, OK. I know what you’re going to say. The legendary snow monkeys of Yamanouchi are neither part of Nagano City nor are they what one could consider “off the beaten path.” While these points are both quite valid, I’m going to go ahead and introduce the adorable critters anyway. My reasoning is that many readers of this article will be interested in seeing the snow monkeys and Nagano has the ideal logistics for doing so. What’s more, you can even buy a two-day pass that will cover both travel to and from Yamanouchi as well as entry to the park. Frankly, you really can’t ask for a better deal!

Now, there are two options for getting to the Snow Monkey Park. The first of these is the more expedient and involves taking a bus directly from Nagano Station to the stop closest to the Snow Monkey Park. From there, you’ll need to march a good forty minutes or so through the forested foothills until you finally reach the Snow Monkey Park. Note that there is simply no other way of reaching where the adorable little creatures congregate. Sadly, this means those with mobility impairments or those traveling with elderly family members will need to pass.

The other way of reaching Snow Monkey Park is by taking the Nagano Dentetsu Line to Yudanaka Station. From there, you can either take a bus or trek it all the way to the snow monkeys’ residence. Seeing you’ll need to get off at the same spot as the direct bus from Nagano Station, I’m of the mindset that you should opt for the faster option on the way there. Unfortunately, the Instagrammability of the snow monkeys guarantees that they draw a crowd. Because of this, it’s best to get there as early as possible as the longer you wait, the more bodies you’ll need to contend with.

If you like taking things a bit slower, I suggest you explore the neighboring hot spring towns of Shibu Onsen and Yudanaka Onsen. Both of these can be reached on foot from the Snow Monkey Park and make for good detours on the way back. Of the two, I found Shibu Onsen to be far more attractive. Though there is little difference in the quality between their springs, Shibu Onsen has not seen the same level of modern development as Yudanaka Onsen. As such, it’s the far more enchanting of the two. Regardless though, you’ll need to pass through both towns on your way back as the closest train station is found in Yudanaka Onsen.

Lastly, before bringing this area guide to a close, I have one final suggestion. If you’ve had it up to here with seeing the snow monkeys on social media but still want to add something else to your Nagano itinerary, consider visiting the secret Matsushiro Underground Imperial Headquarters. This subterranean bunker was excavated in the waning years of World War II. The site was designed to house the critical organs of the government as the prospect of an American invasion of mainland Japan became more and more imminent. These days, the site has been transformed into a tourist attraction. While I’ve yet to visit, this venue seems like the type of place that would appeal to you history buffs.

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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