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Land of mountains: A guide to enjoying Nagano's great outdoors

Land of mountains: A guide to enjoying Nagano's great outdoors

Ranking #1 for “the prefecture I want to move to”, and having the highest life expectancy in Japan for both men and women, the mountainous Nagano Prefecture (長野県 Nagano-ken) is full of enchanting nature, beautiful scenery, and great outdoor adventures. Another claim to fame? Of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains (百名山 hyakumeizan), a whopping 29 are in Nagano Prefecture! One of the reasons why Nagano Prefecture is my favourite in Japan is the amazing backdrops that these mountains provide, and being able to climb them is a bonus.

 

Also known by its old name of Shinshu (信州 Shinshū), Nagano became a popular winter destination for foreigners after hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics, as it has beautiful powder snow at its many ski resorts. However, outside of winter, there are so many more amazing things to experience and do during the green season (May to October), which is when Nagano's scenery really shines.

 

In this article, I will introduce various places around Nagano within the JR East network, as well as the captivating views and fun activities you can enjoy there during the green season. Are you ready? Let’s go!

 

Up above the world so high

With so many beautiful mountains dotted around, Nagano is also the prefecture with the highest average elevation (1,132m) in Japan, and is definitely the place to go if you are looking for great alpine views! Whether you enjoy hiking, or just want to gaze at the scenery, there’s something for everyone.

 

Hakuba

First up, we have the village of Hakuba (白馬). Located at the foot of an impressive mountain range, Hakuba offers mesmerising mountain views from all over the village. Although Hakuba is well-renowned as a premier winter destination due to its beautiful powder snow, it offers even more fun during the green season.

 

Tsuugaike Gondola Lift “Eve”. (Image credit: Xtrem Aventures Hakuba Tsugaike Wow)

 

The numerous gondolas and lifts around Hakuba bring you closer to Nature, and let you experience expansive views from higher altitudes. Let’s check out some of the highlights you can experience after going up three of the gondolas!

 

Happo Pond

The first gondola, the Happo-One Gondola Lift “Adam”, is just a 10-minute walk from the Happo Bus Terminal. This is the start of the journey to Happo Pond (八方池 Happо̄-ike), one of the highlights at Hakuba, and definitely a must-see.

 

The picturesque Happo Pond. (Image credit: Tourism Commission of Hakuba Village / JNTO)

 

At an altitude of 2,060m, the view of the Hakuba Sanzan mountains reflected in the pond will take your breath away! To get there, take a ride up the Adam Gondola, transfer to the Alpen Quad Lift, and finally to the Grat Quad Lift. After getting off, it’s a 90-minute hike to Happo Pond.

 

It takes 3.5 hours from Happo Pond to the peak of Mount Karamatsu. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori and Carissa Loh)

 

If you’re an avid climber, you can take a further 3-hour climb up to the peak of Mount Karamatsu, and for real climbing enthusiasts, you can traverse the mountains from Mount Karamatsu to Mount Goryu, spending the night at a mountain hut (山小屋 yamagoya).

 

Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort

If you’re not really a fan of hiking or climbing, but still want to enjoy mountain views or exciting outdoor activities, this next place is for you. The next gondola is the Iwatake Gondola Lift “Noah”, which will bring you up to Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort.

 

Panoramic view from HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR. (Image credit: Hakuba IWATAKE)

 

Just a 3-minute walk after getting off the gondola is HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR, an amazing outdoor terrace where you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the view of the mountains. At an elevation of 1,289m, HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR offers unobstructed, panoramic views of the Northern Alps and Hakuba’s impressive mountains.

 

Exciting activities to enjoy at Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort. (Image credit: Hakuba IWATAKE)

 

Other than the terrace, Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort offers many fun outdoor activities. From buggy cruises to mountain biking to 8–12m high obstacle courses, these activities are perfect for adrenaline junkies looking to enjoy the scenery in a more thrilling way. Not for the faint of heart, the latest addition to the activity line-up is a swing from which you can take in a panoramic view of the mountain

 

Tsugaike Nature Park

Rounding up this short introduction of just a few of the fantastic places you can check out at Hakuba in summer is Tsugaike Nature Park (栂池自然園 Tsugaike Shizen’en). To get there, you’ll need to take a ride up the Tsugaike Gondola Lift “Eve”, then transfer to the Tsugaike Ropeway.

 

Boardwalks make hiking at Tsugaike Nature Park a breeze. (Image credit: Hotel Hakuba)

 

At at elevation of 1,900m above sea level, Tsugaike is one of Japan’s highest marshlands. The park has boardwalks which make hiking a breeze, offering a variety of courses ranging from 1–3.5 hours to suit different fitness levels and itineraries. Walking along the boardwalks, you can enjoy the majestic view of Hakuba’s mountains.

 

Family-friendly fun at Xtrem Aventures Hakuba Tsugaike WOW. (Image credit: Xtrem Aventures Hakuba Tsugaike WOW)

 

Looking for some activities to do? For some exciting family-friendly fun that you can enjoy with children, check out Xtrem Adventures Hakuba Tsugaike WOW, near the top of the Eve Gondola. Hailing from France, Xtrem Adventures is an adventure facility with over 150 locations worldwide, and Hakuba is their first location in Japan. At the facility, you can try out an assortment of net adventures, bouncy obstacle courses, high obstacle courses, and more.

 

Access to Hakuba

Hakuba is a 1-hour bus ride (¥2,200 one-way) from Nagano City. If coming by train, it takes about 3 hours from JR Nagano Station, 1 hour by Limited Express from JR Matsumoto Station, or 3 hours 40 minutes by direct Limited Express train from JR Shinjuku Station.

 

If you want a peek at how you can enjoy a 3D2N trip to Hakuba in summer, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of our previous articles about cycling around Hakuba in summer.

 

Kamikochi

If you ask me what my favourite place in Japan is, without hesitation my answer will always be Kamikochi. Nestled among soaring peaks and deep valleys, the Northern Alps region is a mecca for climbers, with Kamikochi (上高地 Kamikōchi) being the gateway for various hikes into these mountains.

 

Kamikochi’s iconic Kappa Bridge. (Image credit: Matsumoto City / JNTO)

 

At an altitude of 1,500m, Kamikochi is a beautiful, pristine highland region where the view of the clear blue Azusa River flowing in front of the Hotaka mountain range is simply mesmerising.

 

Summer at Kamikochi. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Kamikochi is usually open to the public from mid-April to mid-November each year, but the best times to visit are definitely in early summer (late May to early June) when the mountains erupt in lush greenery with lingering snow capping the peaks, and in autumn (late September to early October) when leaves burst into a symphony of warm colours.

 

Although you can easily enjoy spectacular views at Kappa Bridge, just a 5-minute walk from the bus terminal, there’s also the option of hiking to explore even more amazing scenery. For more about the magnificent views and hiking trails you can experience at Kamikochi, check out my previous article.

 

Access to Kamikochi

Kamikochi banned the entry of private cars to preserve its pristine beauty, so you can only get here by authorized buses and taxis. It takes 90 minutes by train and bus (¥2,710 one-way) from Matsumoto City.

 

Mount Tsubakuro

Mount Tsubakuro is known for the craggy rocks peeking through the vegetation on its peak. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Affectionately known as the "Queen of the Northern Alps", Mount Tsubakuro (燕岳 Tsubakuro-dake) is a must-hike for any climbing enthusiast. Reaching the top of the 2,763m summit and overlooking some of the highest peaks in Japan is truly a sublime experience, and the dramatic views from the top are breathtaking, spectacular, and unrivalled.

 

Panoramic view from the summit of Mount Otensho. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)

 

Did you know? Many middle schools in Nagano bring their students to climb Mount Tsubakuro in the hopes of nurturing the students’ love for the mountains. Mount Tsubakuro is also the starting point for many trails into the Northern Alps. Intermediate climbers can continue onto Mount Otensho and Mount Jonen, while advanced hikers can go further to the iconic spearhead-shaped Mount Yari. If you’re interested in climbing Mount Tsubakuro, check out my previous article.

 

Access to Mount Tsubakuro

Mount Tsubakuro’s Nakabusa Trailhead is a 55-minute bus ride (¥1,800 one-way) from JR Hotaka Station (穂高駅).

 

Fujimi Panorama Resort

So far, the mountains I’ve mentioned have been part of the Northern Alps. Our next location, Fujimi Panorama Resort (富士見パノラマリゾート), is located near the border of Nagano Prefecture and Yamanashi Prefecture, and is perfect for those of you who want to enjoy mountain views, but not so much hiking. A gondola brings you up to an elevation of 1,780m. As its name suggests, Fujimi Parorama Resort is a place from which you can see Mount Fuji and enjoy panoramic views.

 

Enjoy panoramic views from Fujimi Panorama Resort. (Image credit: Fujimi Panorama Resort)

 

Right next to the upper gondola station is Nyukasa Suzuran Park, where you can enjoy over 100 varieties of alpine flowers blooming between spring and autumn. From there, it’s just a 5-minute walk to the Lover’s Sanctuary Observation Deck (恋人の聖地八ヶ岳展望台), where you can get a bird’s eye view of Fujimi Town below.

 

A 60-minute walk from the upper gondola station will bring you to the 1,955m-high summit of Mount Nyukasa (入笠山 Nyūkasa-yama), where you can enjoy a sweeping 360-degree view of the surrounding mountain ranges, including Mount Fuji and the Northern Alps, Central Alps, and Southern Alps. A total of 22 of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains can be seen from the summit!

 

Try paragliding and mountain biking. (Image credit: Fujimi Panorama Resort)

 

If you’re craving adventure and love heights, try paragliding! While paragliding, you can get an amazing view of Fujimi town, the Yatsugatake mountain range, the Southern Alps, and even Mount Fuji on clear days. Cycling enthusiasts can also enjoy the mountain biking field, one of the largest in Japan. Fujimi Panorama Resort’s mountain biking field features a huge variety of trails, ranging from flatter ones for beginners, to more advanced, steep downhill trails.

 

Access to Fujimi Panorama Resort

Fujimi Panorama Resort can be reached via free shuttle bus from JR Fujimi Station (富士見駅) on the JR Chuo Line.

 

Have a wheelie good time cycling

If you prefer to enjoy the views of the mountains from the ground, another great way to explore Nagano’s scenic countryside is on two wheels—on a bicycle! There are many places to rent bicycles, be it regular bikes, electrical assist bikes (e-bikes), or mountain bikes. Nagano has so many wonderful areas to explore by bicycle, let’s check out two of them: Azumino (安曇野) and Iiyama (飯山).

 

Azumino

Rice paddies with snow-capped mountains in the background. (Image credit: 安曇野市観光協会)

 

Located between Hakuba and Matsumoto, Azumino is a place where you can enjoy the lush countryside scenery against a backdrop of the Northern Alps, and hopping on a bicycle is the best way to explore the area.

 

Cycling is the best way to enjoy Azumino. (Image credit: 安曇野市観光協会)

 

For regular tourists, I recommend Azumino Tourist Association’s Course A, an 11km route which takes you to some of the popular locations near JR Hotaka Station, like Hotaka Shrine, Swiss Village, and Daio Wasabi Farm.

 

Wasabi fields and wasabi-flavoured items at Daio Wasabi Farm. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Did you know? Wasabi requires very clear and clean water to grow, and at Daio Wasabi Farm (大王わさび農場 Daiо̄ Wasabi Nо̄jо̄), this water comes from the melted snow water from the nearby Northern Alps. At Daio Wasabi Farm, you can roam around the wasabi fields freely, and try wasabi-flavoured food like wasabi soba, wasabi croquette, wasabi ice cream, or even wasabi-flavoured drinks like wasabi beer and wasabi juice!

 

A ride on the Azumino Clear Boat. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Only available during the green season, the Azumino Clear Boat (安曇野クリアーボート) is a relaxing 20-minute boat ride you can enjoy at Daio Wasabi Farm, passing by picturesque water wheels. You’re free to dip your fingers and toes into the water, and you will be amazed at just how clear and cool the water is! On sunny days, the water glistens and glitters like a diamond as it reflects the sunlight.

 

Access to Azumino

JR Hotaka Station (穂高駅) is a 30-minute ride on the JR Oito Line from JR Matsumoto Station, or a 70-minute ride on the JR Oito Line from JR Hakuba Station. Daio Wasabi Farm is a 20-minute bike ride or 10-minute bus ride from JR Hotaka Station.

 

Iiyama

Located in the northern part of Nagano Prefecture, Iiyama is a quiet region rich in natural landscape and steeped in history. Although Iiyama is known for having some of the heaviest snowfall in Japan, after the snow melts, a whole new world is unveiled!

 

Cycling around Iiyama. (Image credit: Todd Fong)

 

Known to be a biking paradise for cycling enthusiasts, Iiyama has a variety of cycling routes to cater to different levels. Bicycles can be rented from the Shinetsu-shizenkyo Activity Center, which is located on the first floor of JR Iiyama Station, and you can even book cycling tours with English-speaking guides. For more information about cycling in Iiyama, check out this article.

 

The Shinetsu-shizenkyo Activity Center. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

A one-stop hub for outdoor activities, at the Shinetsu-shizenkyo Activity Center you can rent all sorts of outdoor clothing and equipment, as well as book a variety of outdoor activities. The Tourist Information Center next door offers detailed information and maps on Iiyama’s sights, and the friendly staff are always ready to help visitors.

 

Views along the Shinetsu Trail. (Image credit: 信州いいやま観光局)

 

Other than being a biking paradise, Iiyama is also a gateway to the Shinetsu Trail (信越トレイル), an 80km trail running along the border of Nagano Prefecture and Niigata Prefecture. Fun fact: Shinetsu (信越) refers to Nagano and Niigata, and comes from the first characters of Shinshu (信州 Nagano's old name) and Echigo (越後 Niigata's old name). Modelled after America’s Appalachian Trail, the Shinetsu Trail is best known for its beautiful beech forests, which turn an exceptionally brilliant green in May to June. Undertaking the entire trail in one trip will take about 6D5N, but you can also opt to do the trail in sections over multiple trips, giving you a reason to return to Iiyama again.

 

Access to Iiyama

JR Iiyama Station (飯山駅) is a 10-minute ride on the Hokuriku Shinkansen or a 50-minute ride on the JR Iiyama Line from JR Nagano Station. The Shinetsu-shizenkyo Activity Center is located inside JR Iiyama Station.

 

At ease with the lake breeze

As a mountainous, landlocked prefecture, Nagano does not meet the sea. It does however have a large lake near the middle of the prefecture—Lake Suwa (諏訪湖 Suwako).

 

View of Lake Suwa from a boat. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

To fully enjoy the lake, I recommend taking a sightseeing boat or a pedal boat. Did you know? Lake Suwa is said to be the inspiration for the lake in Your Name (君の名は Kimi no Na wa), Shinkai Makoto’s popular animated film. Let’s check out two of Lake Suwa’s lakeside towns: Kamisuwa (上諏訪) and Shimosuwa (下諏訪).

 

Kamisuwa

Outdoor hot springs at Kamisuwa Onsen. (Image credit: SUHAKU (left) and Hotel SAGINOYU (right))

 

Located on the eastern shores of Lake Suwa, Kamisuwa is home to Kamisuwa Onsen (上諏訪温泉), a hot spring resort representative of Nagano Prefecture. Here you can enjoy the resort atmosphere and relax at the hot springs of its many modern accommodations with well-equipped facilities. Some of the hot spring accommodations even have outdoor baths offering fantastic views of Lake Suwa and the surrounding mountains.

 

Summer fireworks over Lake Suwa. (Image credit: 諏訪市)

 

In summer, a dazzling large-scale fireworks festival is held over Lake Suwa, and due to its proximity to the mountains, you can feel the reverberations from the fireworks, which create an amazing "4D" experience! Other than during the festival, shorter 15-minute fireworks show are also held every night for about a month in summer, so you can enjoy the sights and sounds when you stay overnight at Kamisuwa Onsen.

 

For more information about what you can do at Kamisuwa, check out our Nagano branch’s previous article.

 

Shimosuwa

Over on the northern shores of Lake Suwa is Shimosuwa, which is best known for housing Shimosha (下社 lower shrine) of Suwa Taisha (諏訪大社 Suwa Grand Shrine), one of the oldest and most important shrines in Japan.

 

Get a glimpse of Mount Fuji from the northern shore of Lake Suwa. (Image credit: 下諏訪観光協会)

 

Though small, Shimosuwa is a charming town filled with a mix of historic sites and modern cafés. Being compact, you can walk to most of its attractions without the need for vehicles, making it a great side trip while you’re in Nagano Prefecture.

 

For more information about what you can do at Shimosuwa, check out our Nagano branch’s previous article.

 

Access to Lake Suwa

JR Kami-Suwa Station (上諏訪駅) is around 2 hours by Limited Express Azusa from JR Shinjuku Station, or less than 30 minutes by Limited Express Azusa from JR Matsumoto Station. JR Shimo-Suwa Station (下諏訪駅) is one stop (4 minutes) from JR Kami-Suwa Station on the JR Chuo Line.

 

Take a break in the cities

Although Nagano Prefecture is filled with so much beautiful nature and amazing outdoor adventures, it also has cosy cities filled with comfortable hotels that make great bases for your trips, shops and stores filled with souvenirs and local products, and tasty eateries to satiate your food cravings. Let’s check out two of Nagano’s major cities: Nagano City and Matsumoto City. 

 

Nagano City

Zenkoji Temple. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The capital city of Nagano Prefecture, Nagano City (長野市 Nagano-shi) is a former temple town built around the historic Zenkoji Temple (善光寺). From Nagano City, you can easily access many of the other places previously mentioned in this article, as it is widely connected by a network of both railways and buses.

 

Hotel Metropolitan Nagano is the perfect choice when staying in Nagano City. (Image credit: Hotel Metropolitan Nagano)

 

When staying in Nagano City, Hotel Metropolitan Nagano is a convenient and value-for-money choice. Directly connected to JR Nagano Station through the station mall MIDORI, you can travel comfortably without worrying about getting wet in the rain or carrying your luggage across the street. Another bonus: their breakfast spread contains a mix of Japanese selections, Western selections, AND local Nagano selections like nozawana oyaki (traditional vegetable dumplings), Shinshu soba (buckwheat noodles), sake (rice wine), and more! Stay tuned for my next article, which will introduce some of Nagano's delicious traditional foods.

 

Snow monkeys in the green season. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

An easy day trip from Nagano City is the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park (地獄谷野猿公園 Jigokudani Yaen Kо̄en), where you can see wild Japanese macaques up close. Although this place is more well-known in winter, if you come during the green season you can see cute baby monkeys, which are usually born after late April!

 

If you enjoy history, you can take a short day trip to the castle town of Matsushiro, and if you’re a fan of Demon Slayer (鬼滅の刃 Kimetsu no Yaiba), you can check out five Demon Slayer related locations in Nagano.

 

Access to Nagano City

JR Nagano Station (長野駅) is 90 minutes from Tokyo on the Hokuriku Shinkansen, and 50 minutes from JR Matsumoto Station on the Limited Express Shinano. Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is a 40-minute bus ride (¥1,500 one-way) from JR Nagano Station’s East Exit.

 

Matsumoto City

Another major city in Nagano Prefecture, and one of my favourite in Japan, is the charming Matsumoto City (松本市 Matsumoto-shi), which has the Northern Alps as its backdrop. Like Nagano City, Matsumoto also provides easy access to other parts of Nagano Prefecture via a robust network of railway lines and bus lines.

 

Various views of Matsumoto Castle during the green season. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Perhaps what Matsumoto City is best known for is the stunning black Matsumoto Castle, my favourite castle in Japan and a National Treasure. An amazing feat of architecture, Matsumoto Castle has the oldest five-tiered castle tower in Japan, and was built during the Bunroku Era (1592–1596). For more about Matsumoto Castle and other iconic Japanese castles, check out my previous article.

 

Enjoy Matsumoto’s cool spring water. (Image credit: JR East / Chie Matsubara)

 

Matsumoto is also known for having fresh spring water. Spring water flows all over the city, and you will notice that there are natural springs and wells along the streets. The Matsumoto Tourism and Convention Association even made a map of them. You can take a drink to quench your thirst, fill up your water bottles, and wash your hands—for free!

 

For more about Matsumoto City, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of our Nagano branch’s previous articles.

 

Access to Matsumoto City

JR Matsumoto Station (松本駅) is 2.5 hours from JR Shinjuku Station on the Limited Express Azusa, and 50 minutes from JR Nagano Station on the Limited Express Shinano.

 

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 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 ¥18,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Narita Airport and Nagano (~¥22,000). 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, here.

 

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.

 

Header image credit: Tourism Commission of Hakuba Village / JNTO

 

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