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Nagano side trips: Exploring the best of Bessho Onsen

Nagano side trips: Exploring the best of Bessho Onsen

A mountainous prefecture filled with breathtaking nature and an endless list of places to visit, Nagano Prefecture (長野県 Nagano-ken) is one of my favourite prefectures in Japan. From scenic beauty to delicious food, amazing hot springs to interesting history, there is so much to see and do in Nagano.


In this second part of a two-part series where I will introduce convenient day trips to take from Nagano City, I will be introducing Bessho Onsen (別所温泉), the oldest hot spring village in Nagano, with a history of over 1,400 years. My colleague Julia and I visited in late September, when the weather was perfect, so read on if you’re planning a visit!


Beautiful day at Bessho Onsen, the “Kamakura of Shinshu”. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)


Bessho Onsen is a compact area, and other than hot springs, it is also home to many majestic temples built centuries ago. With many structures designated National Treasures (国宝 Kokuhо̄) and Important Cultural Properties (重要文化財 Jūyо̄bunkazai), Bessho Onsen is sometimes referred to as the “Kamakura of Shinshu” (信州の鎌倉 Shinshū no Kamakura), with Shinshu being the old name of Nagano.


Exterior of Ueda Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)


To get to Bessho Onsen, you need to first take a 10-minute ride on the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Nagano Station (長野駅 Nagano-eki) to Ueda Station (上田駅 Ueda-eki). At Ueda Station, transfer to the Uedadentetsu Bessho Line (上田電鉄別所線) and take a 30-minute ride to Bessho Onsen Station (別所温泉駅 Bessho-onsen-eki).


Four seasons at Ueda Castle. (Image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center)


Ueda (上田) is a compact samurai town known for being the homeland of one of Japan’s most prominent samurai clans, the Sanada Clan (真田家 Sanada-ke). A must-visit is Ueda Castle, famous for having repelled not one, but two attacks from the Tokugawa army. If you’d like to know more about what there is to explore in Ueda, check out my previous article here.


Riding the train to Bessho Onsen. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)


From Nagano Station, we took the bullet train to Ueda Station, and explored the station while waiting for the Uedadentetsu Bessho Line train to come. Ueda Station is home to three railway lines:

  • JR East’s Hokuriku Shinkansen, which we used to reach Ueda from Nagano
  • Uedadentetsu’s Bessho Line, which we took to Bessho Onsen
  • Shinano Railway’s Shinano Line, which we would take to Komoro later in the day to ride the HIGH RAIL 1375 (For our trip on the HIGH RAIL 1375, you can check out Julia’s article here)


As it neared the time for the train to depart, we headed to the platform to take some photos with the train. What a beauty, we got to ride a colourful train with beautiful teal and red designs.


View from the train window. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)


The Uedadentetsu Bessho Line passes through Nagano’s beautiful countryside, an area where you can see scenic rice fields and mountains in the distance. When we visited in September, the rice fields were a gleaming golden yellow, which was absolutely stunning against the clear blue skies.


We arrived at Bessho Onsen. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)


Time went by in a flash, and before we knew it, we had arrived at Bessho Onsen. As Bessho Onsen is a compact town, many of its main attractions can be reached by foot, making it a convenient day trip.


Nanakuri footbath

Soothing our feet at the Nanakuri footbath. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)


Don’t worry about tired feet from walking around Bessho Onsen; you’ll be glad to know that there are two public footbaths (足湯 ashiyu) for visitors to use: Nanakuri (ななくり) and О̄yu Yakushi-no-Yu (大湯薬師の湯). The Nanakuri footbath is made of wood and has a unique octagonal shape, which pays homage to Anrakuji, a special temple that’s a must-visit while at Bessho Onsen.


Tip: You can buy a special towel from Ueda Station to use to dry your feet from the footbath. The towel comes with a design of an Uedadentetsu train, and makes for a functional and cute souvenir!



Anrakuj’s wooden octagonal pagoda. (Image credit: photoAC)


Bessho Onsen is filled with so many temples and historical structures, and if you’re on a limited time, one you shouldn’t miss out on is Anrakuji (安楽寺). The oldest Zen temple in Nagano, Anrakuji is famed for its wooden octagonal three-storey pagoda (八角三重塔 Hakkaku Sanjū-no-Tо̄), the only octagonal pagoda left in Japan. Anrakuji is estimated to have been built during the Kamakura Period, when it served as a centre of culture and education.


Short but scenic walk up to Anrakuji’s octagonal pagoda. (Image credit: photoAC)


The octagonal pagoda is located on a hillside behind Anrakuji’s main hall, amongst the lush greenery of pine trees. It’s a short climb up a few flights of stairs, but the scenery of the tall pine trees with bright blues skies peeking through the leaves is beautiful. Due to its importance, Anrakuji’s octagonal three-storey pagoda has been designated as a National Treasure of Japan.


Anrakuji (安楽寺)
Address: 2361 Bessho Onsen, Ueda-shi, Nagano 386-1431
Access: 10-minute walk from Bessho Onsen Station (別所温泉駅) on the Uedadentetsu Bessho Line.
Opening hours: 08:00–17:00 (March to October) / 08:00–16:00 (November to February)
Admission: ¥300/adult


Kitamuki Kannon

Kitamuki Kannon. (Image credit: photoAC)

Said to be a power spot for love and relationship luck, another must-visit temple at Bessho Onsen is Kitamuki Kannon (北向観音). “Kannon” is the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, while “kitamuki” means “north-facing”. Most temples face the south, but Kitamuki Kannon faces the north, in the direction of Zenkoji Temple (善光寺 Zenkо̄ji) in Nagano City.


Zenkoji is said to fulfil wishes for the next life, while Kitamuki Kannon is said to grant wishes for the current life. Thus, people believe that visiting both temples will give the best luck. If you have been to Zenkoji, don’t forget to drop by Kitamuki Kannon one day.


Goshuin calligraphy stamp (left) and omikuji fortune slip (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)


Admission to Kitamuki Kannon is free, but as a memento of our visit, we got goshuin (御朱印calligraphy stamps) and omikuji (おみくじ fortune slips).


Kitamuki Kannon (北向観音)
Address: 1666 Bessho Onsen, Ueda-shi, Nagano 386-1431
Access: 10-minute walk from Bessho Onsen Station (別所温泉駅) on the Uedadentetsu Bessho Line.
Admission: Free


Mushrooms galore

Off to feast on mushrooms. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)


Blessed with a mountainous terrain and ample rainfall, Nagano Prefecture has so many different varieties of delicious mushrooms, and is one of Japan’s largest producers of both wild and cultivated mushrooms. While you’re visiting Bessho Onsen, be sure to check out some mushroom dishes!


Different types of mushrooms. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)


One of our Japanese colleagues introduced a wonderful restaurant—Kinokomura Shinzan (きのこむら深山)—that served mushroom dishes, and we were full of anticipation and eager to try it out. Before being seated, staff showed us the various mushrooms they were growing, and it was so exciting to see the different types and shapes of mushrooms available.


Pluck your own mushrooms. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)


Something special about this restaurant: you can try plucking your own mushrooms for eating! The mushrooms come on a cylinder, and you pluck them off to add to your ceramic dish to cook. This hands-on dining experience was a fun and memorable activity that made the whole meal even more enjoyable.


Matsutake is best enjoyed grilled. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)


Speaking of mushrooms, if you have the chance, you shouldn’t miss the king of mushrooms—matsutake (松茸). Matsutake is Japan’s most expensive mushroom, and for good reason. Unlike common mushrooms like enoki or shimeji, despite trying for years, farmers are still unable to cultivate matsutake. Matsutake can only be foraged from the wild, and are highly prized for their rich and deeply aromatic flavour.


The area around Bessho Onsen produces a lot of matsutake, so if you’re visiting, I highly recommend trying matsutake. Matsutake can be enjoyed in many ways, but grilling is recommended to really bring out its unique flavour. We were lucky to have visited during the harvest season for matsutake, and did not miss out on our chance to give it a try.


Kinokomura Shinzan (きのこむら深山)
Address: 710-2 Maeyama, Ueda-shi, Nagano 386-1436
Access: 5-minute drive from the Bessho Onsen Station (別所温泉駅)
Opening hours: Weekdays: 11:30–14:00 / Weekends and public holidays 11:30–14:30 / Evenings: 17:00–21:00 (reservation required) 


Getting there

Bessho Onsen Station in spring. (Image credit: Ueda City Multimedia Information Center)


Bessho Onsen is just a short 30-minute ride from Ueda Station, which is a mere 10 minutes by shinkansen from Nagano, so do head over for a visit out on your next trip to Nagano.


JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)


If you are thinking of visiting Bessho Onsen and other parts of Nagano Prefecture, check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days at only ¥27,000. You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.


The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)


The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.


Note that the Uedadentetsu is not covered by the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area). It costs ¥590 one-way from Ueda Station to Bessho Onsen Station on Uedadentetsu.


Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh


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