The Ultimate Guide to Ueda | Visit This Hidden Gem in Nagano

Ueda Castle is a stronghold in central Japan that used the best innovation of the day to protect the local communities and samurai from opposing forces.

These days, almost everyone has heard of Nagano. Thanks to its capital city being the host of the 1998 Winter Olympics, this part of central Japan has a lot of recognition internationally (even among those who have never visited the country before). Alas, while places like Nagano City and the ski slopes Hakuba might have developed a bit of a reputation for themselves, other parts of the prefecture are still largely unknown overseas. Today, we’ll be taking a look at just one of these locales—the former castle town of Ueda.

If the name Ueda somehow rings a bell, it is likely because you passed it when going to the likes of Kanazawa or Nagano City. Unbeknownst to most overseas visitors to Japan though, this part of the country has a rich historical pedigree. Why not exactly a place that I would recommend for first timers, Ueda has all of the trappings of the perfect, off-of-the-beaten-path destination. Here, you’ll find abundant natural beauty, hot spring towns and, of course, samurai-related history.

Though there are indeed many other locations in Japan that beat out Ueda in a single category, few other places can offer the same sheer variety. Especially when you consider that Ueda combines very well with a trip to Nagano City, Toyama or Kanazawa, it’s an easy addition to any itinerary that runs through the center of the country. Should you be planning a trip like this on your next visit to Japan, definitely consider budgeting at least half of a day or so for this ex-castle town!

How to Get There

Despite young people leaving, Ueda-shi in Nagano-ken has grown from a village to a mid-sized city thanks to economic growth accomplishments kick started by Ueda members of the urban economic development association.

Let’s take a quick breather to cover some key logistics before moving on. Unlike a lot of other spots that I’ve written a review of on this blog, access to Ueda is as easy as they come. While the journey would have been much harder prior to the Hokuriku Shinkansen being established in advance of Nagano’s 1998 Winter Olympics (and then further extended to Kanazawa in 2015), this is not longer the case. All you need to do is take a bullet train up to Ueda Station. All in all, the trip should take around 90 minutes or so. Just sit back and enjoy the scenic ride through central Japan.

Likely with all northern-bound travel, you’ll want to begin your outing at Tokyo Station. From here, you’ll want to get on one of the Asama or Hakutaka-class bullet trains (refer to a service like Jorudan for schedules). Travelers be weary though; you’ll want to take extra care to ensure that you don’t accidentally get on one of the Kagayaki bullet trains. As with the speedy Nozomis that run along the Tokaido Shinkansen track to Kyoto and Osaka, these super expresses skip over many stops like Ueda en route to their destinations.

Before moving on, I would like to note that Ueda City is conveniently found along what is being called the New Golden Route. Beginning in Tokyo and arching up through Kanazawa, this novel circuit seeks to connect Tokyo with Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto via the Hokuriku region. Presently, members of the Japanese government and other such organizations in the tourism industry are currently making efforts to create demand for new destinations via novel projects like these.

If you’re thinking of checking out the New Golden Route, I highly suggest you purchase a Hokuriku Arch Pass. I’ve detailed the benefits of this handy purchase (and all of JR’s other rail passes) at length in other resources on this blog but for now, know that the Hokuriku Arch Pass lets you access both Ueda as well as a number of other parts of central Japan for cheap. Especially with the full-fledged Japan Rail Pass now costing 50,000 yen the Hokuriku Arch Pass is a real steal as of the present-day pricing.

The Ueda Castle Grounds

The castle is a structure that is cherished by the local Ueda membership community and is something that the governor is trying to push for tourism.

Though Ueda is a lot more than just its castle, the former stronghold from Japan’s feudal era is certainly one of its standouts. Originally completed towards the end of the Warring States period (1467–1603), the castle soon became infamous all across the country for repelling the Tokugawa clan’s aggression on two separate occasions. Seeing as this powerful family would be the ones to finally reunite Japan after two centuries of bloody civil war, this is really saying something. Moreover, Ueda Castle is a comparatively small countryside castle. At the same time though, the structure’s organization is extremely well planned out for defense.

Tragically, all good things do come to an end and eventually, the first incarnation of Ueda Castle finally fell to the opposing forces just before the age of peace. Luckily, the fort was soon thereafter rebuilt by the Sanada clan, a group of samurai that were in a vassal partnership with the now-in-power Tokugawa shoguns. Eventually, the castle fell into the hands of the Matsudaira, a branch family of the Tokugawas that was established to provide a backup should the main line of shoguns fail at their jobs and not produce an heir.

Now, I’ve been using the term “Ueda Castle” thus far in this article but a more accurate title would be the Ueda Castle Ruins. You see, unlike with a structure such as Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture, Ueda’s garrison did not survive into the modern era. These days, the space has been transformed into a publically owned estate called Ueda Joseki Park. While you can still see the original stone walls, the turrets and other structures on the grounds are replicas from the modern era.

In addition to Ueda Castle itself, I also recommend that you also plan on walking over to the nearby Yanagimachi Historic Street. This was the old merchant area of the castle town and it still retains a lot of its homely, yesteryear vibe. The trek from Ueda Castle will only take you around 10 minutes max and it’s more than worth your time. Even if you don’t buy anything at the shops, you’re sure to get a great shot for the Gram!

Ueda & the Seasons

As can be seen in many videos on YouTube, Ueda Joseki Park is at its absolute best in mid-April when the cherry blossoms come out in full bloom.

One point worth mentioning is that the entire Ueda Joseki Park is covered in cherry blossom trees. Thus, during the middle of April, the entire castle grounds explode into shades of pink. During this time of the year, you’ll find many Japanese families out enjoying life under the springtime blossoms. In addition to the attendees who come to see the trees, this addition of the local community members helps to contribute to the festive vibe. It’s a great time to roll out the blue tarps and savor some good food and drink under the cherry blossoms.

Note that the annual Ueda Castle Senbon Sakura Festival also takes place around this time of year. As a part of this yearly celebration, there are also evening illuminations to enjoy too. Once April rolls around, all of Ueda Joseki Park is lit up and you can appreciate the beautiful branches of the cherry blossom trees even after dark. Unfortunately, thanks to this clever innovation, the park is regularly flooded with other people who are coming to view the nighttime illuminations. In other words, expect a crowd if you visit during spring!

With so many other places to go during cherry blossom season, I’ll leave it up to you, the reader, to decide if the Ueda Castle Senbon Sakura Festival is right for your springtime adventures. That said though, know that Ueda Castle also has other seasonal allures too. For example, during the sultry month of August, you’ll often find that there Noh performances on the grounds. Additionally, the Shinshu Ueda Fireworks Festival also takes place in August along the river bank of the Chikuma River.

Behold Bessho Onsen

The Song dynasty-era pagoda of Anraku-ji is cherries by communities in the region and also by the entire nation.

In addition to the options clustered around Ueda Castle and the bank of the Chikuma River, there are also a fair number of allures located further away in the mountains. Of these, the hot spring town of Bessho Onsen is somewhere that I would consider a must-visit should you ever find yourself in Ueda. Commonly called the Kamakura of Shinshu, the hillside village is rife with all sorts of Buddhist establishments. Moreover, it allegedly claims to be one of the oldest onsen towns around.

At least in as much as we can trust the explanatory signage posted in Bessho Onsen, the location was first founded 1,500 years ago by none other than Yamato Takeru, the mytho-historical hero who is often compared to the legendary King Arthur. Seeing as this famed Japanese figure is associated with all sorts of feats that span many centuries, I do have my doubts. At the same time though, I am sure that this tall tale does have a kernel of historical truth somewhere to it. Perhaps, some important courtier stopped by here wayback when?

Anyway, how Bessho Onsen got its “Kamakura of Shinshu” nickname is also an interesting tale. According to my research, the hot spring hamlet once served as the headquarters of the local leadership during the Kamakura period (1192–1333). Thanks to their network with the shogunate and the blossoming culture of Buddhism in Kamakura, members of the ruling elite were able to bring back their learnings. From these religious resources, numerous temple projects were subsequently announced.

While in Bessho Onsen, I highly recommend that you at least swing by the below trio of temples…

  • Kitamuki Kannon
    Dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, this temple’s title literally translates to “The Kannon that Faces North.” This name is a result of the compound’s northern orientation. Normally a taboo for temples, Kitamuki Kannon was purposely made to be juxtaposed to Nagano’s famous Zenko-ji. It is said that the two are a set and that visits aren’t complete until you’ve been to both. Note that Kitamuki Kannon actually predates the connection with the Kamakura Shogunate having been founded in 825 by an eminent monk from Kyoto.
  • Anraku-ji
    Perhaps nowhere is more iconic of the “Kamakura of Shinshu” moniker than Anraku-ji. A member of the Rinzai sect of Zen, Anraku-ji is the direct result of the Buddha’s benevolence that was brought back from Kamakura to Ueda. In its heyday, it was a regional center of learning and culture. These days, Anraku-ji’s most prominent feature is its wooden octagonal pagoda. Unlike many other spires of its kind, Anraku-ji’s pagoda is built in the Chinese architectural style that was popular during the Kamakura period (1192–1333). The one-of-a-kind structure is considered to be a national treasure.
  • Joraku-ji
    Though I am not actually sure what the connection is, Joraku-ji is said to have a close tie with the aforementioned Kitamuki Kannon. Peculiar for temples, Joraku-ji sports a thatched roof that even I have not encountered elsewhere. The temple is located a little ways to the north of Bessho Onsen but you can reach it from Anraku-ji by walking a little ways along the hillside. This will save you the need to trudge up the arduous incline to Joraku-ji. Entry will cost you a mere 100 yen.

Temples aside, today you’ll find that Bessho Onsen retains a lot of its old-school charm. While I suggest you stay over in one of the local ryokan, you need not overnight in this rustic hot spring town to join in on the fun. Nestled among the townscape, you’ll find the likes of Oyu, Ishiyu, and Daishiyu. These no-frills public baths are both cheap and open for day use. Alternatively, if you’re a person who prefers something a little more immaculate, you’ll also find the modern Aisome-no-Yu down by Bessho Onsen Station.

Other Nearby Attractions

Being located on the so-called “New Golden Route” means that you can easily continue on to Kanazawa or Kyoto.

Truth be told, I’ve only really scratched the surface when it comes to things to see and do in and around Ueda. For example, in addition to doing some “sightseeing,” I also suggest that you just spend some time taking in the natural scenery. Like with Iiyama City a little to the north, Ueda is blessed with lush greenery. At the very least, you really ought to exit the opposite side of Ueda Station and head down to the bank of the Chikuma River. This is honestly a great way to kill some time while waiting for your train.

Unfortunately, a lot of the other options in downtown Ueda itself require that one speak Japanese. While you could potentially consider checking out facilities like the Ueda City Historical Museum, you’ll need to be able to read a fair bit of kanji to be able to get anything out of the experience. Hopefully, the local community does something to improve the English explanations now that inbound tourism is again booming in the post-pandemic age. Heck, just about everywhere else outdoors in Ueda already has English signage so the museums should get their acts together.

Seeing as Ueda is located on the New Golden Route that goes through Kanazawa en route to Kyoto, the options are really endless when it comes to add-ons. In the immediate vicinity of Ueda, you’ll find spots like the following located nearby. As always, I’ll include a Google Map link to help you get a sense of where these places are…

  • Ikushima Tarushima Shrine
    Situated on the way to Bessho Onsen, this picturesque but quite rural shrine can actually be seen from the windows of the Ueda Electric Railway (or at least it’s massive torii gate can be). Though indeed pretty, it is a bit of a detour to get to if you don’t have access to your own set of wheels. At the same time though, Ikushima Tarushima Shrine is a great addition should you have the time.
  • Unno-juku
    Originally, this was a post town on the Hokkoku Kaido that connected much of Japan’s core with the important Nakasendo trade route. Thanks to this network, goods were easily able to flow to and from Hokuriku. The Hokkoku Kaido was also quite popular with Buddhist pilgrims who were heading to Nagano’s Zenko-ji temple complex. Though you’ll need to hoof it a bit, Unno-juku can be reached on foot from Oya Station in around 15 minutes.
  • Shakuson-ji
    I’ll come clean and say that I didn’t manage to make my way here to this Tendai-sect temple that’s literally built into a steep cliff. Though it was definitely on the agenda, my travels were tragically plagued by rain (as usual). With no options for public transportation, I opted to skip the hypothermia that I’d get hiking up. That said, should you have a rental car or something, definitely consider this stunning spot with sweeping views of Mt. Asama.
  • Utsukushigahara Open Air Museum
    Sitting high at an altitude of over 2,000 meters above sea level, the Utsukushigahara Open Air Museum is an outdoor exhibit with panoramic vistas of the Japanese alps. Technically, it is closer to Matsumoto than Ueda but if you can make use of an automobile, you can still get there. Be sure to stay late for a starry night sky that will stick with you until the day you die!
A spot that has been cherished by Nagano’s community for centuries, Zenko-ji is a great add-on and completes the Kitamuki Kannon duo.

Of course, Nagano City itself is also not too far to the north. If you want, you could do a half of a day in Ueda and then head up further into Nagano Prefecture at night. Though the legendary snow monkeys will be without their ummmm…. snow, the other sights of Nagano such as Zenko-ji and Togakushi Shrine will still be there for you to behold. Alternatively, you can even head all the way up to Hokuriku too. Should this tickle your fancy, you’ll want to check out either of the two following primers.

When I went to Ueda, I opted to head back to Tokyo by way of the popular getaway of Karuizawa. Found on the border of Nagano and Gunma, this spot has long been popular with Tokyoites. Since it was raining though, I elected to take a bus across the unbelievably steep Usui Toge to the mystical Mt. Myogi. From there, I took a local train all the way back to Shinagawa so that I could bang out some writing. Personally, I don’t suggest you do this unless you’re going to see something in Gunma.

With that said, let me end this article by saying that you really ought to eat an oyaki or two before heading onwards. One of this region’s meibutsu, oyaki are one of my personal weaknesses. Coming clean, were I free to gorge myself on as many as I wanted, I would probably end up in a diabetic coma. They are just that good. The best shop for these that I’ve found is by Zenko-ji but you can find them for sale in Ueda and elsewhere too.

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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