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Winter splendour in Nagano!

Winter splendour in Nagano!

I have been to Japan many times before, and yet there remains so many prefectures I have not stepped foot on. The ones I have been to repeatedly include Tokyo, Hokkaido, Miyagi, Osaka, and Fukuoka, and I make it an imperative to venture out further into new prefectures as much as possible. Luckily, I got to strike off yet another prefecture from my bucket list, and that one was Nagano prefecture!

 

Nagano is in the Chubu region of Honshu, bordering Niigata on the north, Saitama to the east, Shizuoka and Aichi to the south, and Gifu and Toyama to the west. It is also relatively close to Tokyoーa bullet train trip from Tokyo to Nagano takes less than 90 minutesーand the prefecture is known for many wonderful things, all related to the main reasons for Singaporeans wanting to travel to Japan: food, sightseeing, and hot springs!

 

I have never been to Nagano before, despite having been selling travel products to the area for some time as a travel service professional. I know the place, yet I do not understand it; I only know about Nagano on paper, but to experience it with my senses is a completely different thing. In February, I got the opportunity to see it for myself and I was quite enchanted by it. For this article I will show you why I find Nagano amazing especially during winter, and of course I will showcase some of the region’s finest foods!

 

Kamakura Snow Dome Village (かまくらの里)

If you mention ‘igloo’, the first thing that comes to mind for many people would be something they would only see inhibited by Eskimos, or to be seen only in freezing regions such as the Artic. More so if you were to ask those from tropical regions such as Singapore; it is a foreign concept that people from regions with tropical weather cannot intimately relate to. But what if they do not have to go all the way to the far North to see igloos? In fact, they can do so in Nagano, which is easily accessible from Tokyo!

 

Kamakura Snow Dome Village. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Kamakura Snow Dome Village (かまくらの里 Kamakura-no-sato) is a hidden wonderland in Iiyama, where visitors can witness snow huts / igloosーin fact, "Kamakura" means snow hut in Japaneseーconstructed exclusively for the winter season. There are around 15 to 20 snow domes in total, with various sizes to accommodate different group sizes. Not only can visitors see and enter the domes, but nearby there is even a small snow slide that they can experience snow sledding!

 

Kamakura Shrine. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The one thing that is not to be missed here: food! More precisely, it is here where you can experience having hotpot (なべ nabe) inside a snow dome! Noroshi-nabe (のろしなべ) is a local specialty of Nagano that includes plenty of local mountain vegetables and mushrooms, and ‘Miyuki pork’, a truly special meat of the city of Iiyama. To have something this hearty inside a dome made from snow is a heavenly experience that is hard to describe in words!

 

Noroshi-nabe. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

How to get to Kamakura Snow Dome Village

Visitors can take a taxi from JR Iiyama Station (JR飯山駅 Iiyama-eki), and the journey would take only 15 minutes. Alternatively, they can take the bus from JR Iiyama Station or Togari Onsen Ski Resort to the village.

 

Nabekura Kogen Heights (なべくら高原)

Nagano is famously known for their snow. It boasts impressive snowfall year by year, thereby making it one of the most popular destinations for winter activities for both local and foreign visitors. In fact, it is also home to the mighty Japanese Alps, a series of mountain ranges that spans several prefectures and is split into Northern, Central, and Southern ranges.

 

Cottage houses at Nabekura Kogen Heights's Mori no Ie. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Many visitors come to Nagano mostly to engage in winter activities, but it need not necessarily mean skiing, snowboarding, or other similarly vigorous activities. Others might want to experience something slower and more leisurely, and for them a place like Nabekura Kogen Heights’s Mori no Ie (なべくら高原・森の家 Nabekura-Kōgen Mori-no-Ie) is the perfect place to be.

 

Cottage houses at Nabekura Kogen Heights's Mori no Ie. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Visitors can rent one of the many cottage houses here to spend a few days away from home, in the midst of the pristine snowfields. Though the houses are open throughout the year, I personally feel that it would be best during the winter; having a whole cottage home to yourself during the cold winter is not something you get to experience very often.

 

Snowshoes for walking on snow. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Plus, visitors can take part in optional tours as well! The one I got to experience is hiking with snowshoes, which I initially imagined would be a strenuous exercise. Thankfully, it was not; it was a pleasantly active experience as I get to hike at my own pace with a pair of specially footwear that enabled me to walk on thick snow without sinking. But I must admit, it needs a bit of getting used to; visitors will learn that walking in big strides will go a long way.

 

Walking on snow. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

How to get to Nabekura Kogen Heights

Visitors coming from Tokyo can take the bullet train from JR Tokyo Station to JR Iiyama Station, and then take the local train on the Iiyama Line to JR Togarinozawa-Onsen Station (JR戸狩野沢温泉駅 Togarinozawa-onsen-eki). From there, they can take a taxiーapproximate ¥4,000 for taxi fareーto Nabekura Kogen Heights. Pick-up service for guests is available too (advance booking required).

 

HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR

Visitors who fancy the idea of being amidst the mountains of Nagano can do so, with a visit to the HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR. Here visitors can witness and immerse themselves the grandiose Sanzan mountains of Shirouma, Shakushi and Hakuba Yari. Best of all, they can witness a panoramic view of the mountains while being high up at 1,289 metres (word of caution: probably not for acrophobes or the faint-hearted!).

 

View at HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

One thing I will reveal about myself: I am terribly afraid of heights, and I actively avoid anything that involves me having to see steep drops right below me. Usually when something involves high elevations, it must be something so impressive I could take my mind off my fear. This is one of them; I was so busy gawking at the majestic mountains that I forget just how high I was up in the air!

 

The pastries and coffees at The City Bakery. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Better yet, the terrace here serves amazing coffees and pastries! The City Bakery, a café originating from New York City, has a branch right here overlooking the mountains, serving wonderful pastries and hot drinks that visitors enjoy while being sheltered from the snow. That is another thing heavenly about winter: being able to enjoy hot coffee and fluffy pastries while gazing at the pristine snow outside is something I always relish whenever I travel during the winter season!

 

How to get to HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR

Visitors can get off at JR Nagano Station and take the Alpico Bus to Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort, then take the gondola "Noah" up. HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR is a short walk from the top gondola station. Alternatively, they can get off at JR Hakuba Station (白馬駅 Hakuba-eki) on the JR Oito Line (JR大糸線 Ōito-sen) and then take a bus to Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort (白馬岩岳マウンテンリゾート).

 

Bonus: SHINSHU APPLE BEEF!

I cannot end this article without mentioning perhaps the best food that Nagano has to offer, and that is Shinshu beef!

 

Japan is home to some of the best quality beef in the world, and their names are tied to the origins. Think Kobe beef (Kobe, Hyogo), Matsusaka beef (Matsusaka, Mie), and Yonezawa beef (Yonezawa, Yamagata), for example. Nagano has its very own specialty as well, in the form of Shinshu apple beef. What makes Shinshu apple beef special is how the cows are raised: they are fed with Nagano apples (Nagano is also known for their amazing fruits, which include apples!), which makes their meats sweet and tender.

 

Shinshu apple beef at Japanese Restaurant Shinano Yamasachi. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

I have never had Shinshu apple beef, and I am, bluntly speaking, quite a carnivore. I love my meats, and I have to say, I was simply mesmerised when I tried Shinshu beef for the first time. It was simply decadent; the melt-in-your-mouth tenderness and subtle sweetness of the beef was something I have never experienced before.

 

Shinshu apple beef served medium-rare. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Best of all, this restaurant offers Muslim-friendly / no-pork options for Muslim visitors! Nagano is actively looking for ways to attract visitors worldwide, including Muslims visitors with dietary restrictions. This restaurant can accommodate to Muslim visitors; they only need to make reservations with them so that they can prepare in advance.

 

Shinshu apple beef served medium-rare. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Japanese Restaurant Shinano Yamasachi (Teppanyaki)
Hotel Metropolitan Nagano, 1346 Minami-ishi,
Dou-chō, Nagano-shi, Nagano 380-0824

 

Nagano is a place I will never forget. It has some of the most amazing views in winter, scrumptious food (fruits and meats!), and it is even convenient access. It is particularly magical during winter, and visitors can easily make a trip here from major cities by train. Better yet, if they have the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), all their train trips and seat reservations will be free. Make a trip to Nagano soon! I vouch for it personally; it is a place unlike any other.

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The new JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥27,000, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

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

 

Header image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang

 

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