Nagano Travel Blog: Temples, Monkeys and Onsens at Japanese Alps.

Nagano travel blog featue image showing Zenkoji temple during snowfall

Our Japan trip planning revolved around getting a perfect travel plan for Nagano. As insane as it sounds, it is true – Nagano’s winter is precious because that is when you can see monkeys in the Snow.

Until we went there, we thought it was just another temple town. Little did we know that this humble town is a true gem of Japan that miraculously managed not to lose its charm and preserve its heritage despite being a famous destination.

This post shows you some beautiful landscapes in and around town, an itinerary and how to travel around Nagano for an incredible experience.

nagano travel blog image showing 3 monkeys in snow sitting in hotwater spring


Is Nagano worth going?

Absolutely! Nagano is a landlocked town. You may not find it secluded when you enter their JR Station. But indeed, it is different from the other cities of Japan. There are no flashy skyscrapers. It is that developed small town having an old-world charm with many sparsely populated rural areas.

The pine trees line your pathway, and Maki houses hide between these trees. It s a village but has the conveniences of a town.

What is Nagano Japan known for?

nagano winter olympics memorial partially covered in snow

Apart from the monkeys meditating in the hot water spring, Nagano is known for hosting the Winter Olympics in 1998. This may mean nothing to ordinary tourists like us who travel to Nagano for leisure. But the event led to a drastic development of the region. The famous Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagano was established during the 1998’s winter Olympics.

Then comes Zenko-ji, one of the most important Buddhist temples in Japan. Well, why should I bother about one more temple in Japan? But you must! Because you can stay on the temple premise and be part of the Buddhist monk lifestyle for a day or two.

Wait there are more reasons on why you should travel to Nagano

japanese alps with pine trees covered in snow and sky turned pinkish orange near Nagano

The best part of Nagano is the Alps Mountains surrounding it! You read it right. I am talking about Alps in an Asian country!

Where are Japanese Alps?

The Japanese Alps is a mountain range located in central Japan, running from north to south and stretching approximately 400 kilometres. The range consists of three main mountain groups, and Nagano is surrounded by one of them. Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest mountain, is just outside the Japanese Alps. So travel to Nagano to fall in love with the Japanese Alps.

Is it worth going to Nagano in Summer?

lake at hakuba during summer surrounded by snow capped mountain
PC – Photo by Sunil Naik on Unsplash. Location : Hakuba

After hearing so much about snow monkeys and skiing, you may wonder if it is worth visiting Nagano in the summer! The answer is yes! Nagano is surrounded by hills and isn’t just about snow monkeys. Many lakes and shrines are hiding on those slopes. The natural hot water spring baths are a great idea, even during summer.

What is the best season to visit Nagano?

lake surrounded by forest with yellow autumn leaves at Shiga Kogen near Nagan

Nagano is an all-year-round destination except for rainy reasons. When there is no Sakura, there will be autumn foliage. When neither of the seasonal wonders exists, there will be snowfall! So if your idea of Nagano is seeing monkeys in the snow, pick winter. Temperatures drop down to -10*C. So it is important that you wear warm layers and use Japan’s headpads “Kairo” regularly.

vacaywork co author Ashrith shetty standing infront of zenkoji temple at nagano during snowfall
SeasonsWhat can you do?Is it a good time to see monkeys in Snow?
September to NovemberColourful foliage and a great season to hike to near by lakes, temples and explore villages.No.
December 2nd week to February With snowfall Nagano becomes a fine place for skiing and seeing snow monkeys.Best time to see Snow Monkeys.
March to MayHit mountain hiking trails and enjoy cherry blossoms, Worst time to see snow monkeys.

How many days do you need in Nagano

You need at least two days in Nagano to see the cultural highlights and visit snow monkey park. We stayed in Nagano for three days and made a day trip to Shirakwago. So anywhere between two to four days is an ideal time to travel in and around Nagano.

Is Nagano a day trip from Tokyo?

The bullet train ride from Tokyo to Nagano takes less than 1.45 hours. This is because so many think a day trip to Nagano from Tokyo is doable. It is possible if only you plan to visit Zenko ji temple, see a bit of town and not visit Monkey Park.

How do I get to Nagano?

The rural town of Nagano may be landlocked. But it isn’t devoid of public transport. Getting to Nagano is easier than we initially thought.

Where do you fly into for Nagano?

The nearest airport to Nagano is the Matsumoto Airport (MMJ), located 70 km from Nagano city. However, Matsumoto Airport has limited international flights, so it is better to fly into Tokyo Narita(NRT) or Haneda Airport (HND) and then travel to Nagano by train.

Does the bullet train go to Nagano?

Yes. Nagano is directly connected by Tokyo, Kanazawa, and Takayama bullet trains.

How to get from Tokyo Haneda airport to Nagano station?

tokyo metro

You can get to Nagano from Haneda airport either by train or bus. We recommend taking the train.

Can I use JR Pass from Tokyo to Nagano?

Yes. Follow the below route to travel to Nagano, covered under JR Pass.

  • Take Tokyo Monorail from Haneda airport to Hamamatsucho Station. From there, transfer to the JR Yamanote line to Tokyo station.
  •  Then, transfer to the Hokuriku Shinkansen to get to Nagano Station. The journey takes about 3 hours.

Can I take bus to Nagano?

If you don’t want to take Shinkansen to save money and have more time, take an express bus to Nagano from Tokyo/Osaka/Kyoto/Nagoya. Some of these highway buses are even equipped with toilets.

How to get to Nagano from Nagoya?

Take Shinano Limited Express (not a shinkansen) to get to Nagano from Nagoya. These trains depart from Nagoya station almost at one train per hour frequency. So it is better to reserve seats, and it is covered under JR Pass.

How do you get around in Nagano?

Nagano is a small town. So walking is the best way to explore Nagano. However, Nagaden underground lines (covered under Snowmonkey pass & not JR Pass) connect the town to neighbouring places.

Then plenty of flat-price buses run throughout the city. These are reliable, and you won’t have to worry about getting stuck in traffic in the small town of Nagano.

Is buying Snow Monkey Pass worth it?

Buying a snow monkey pass is worth your money, even if you stay for a night. Here is why.

Snow Monkey Pass gives unrestricted access to express and local train services on the Nagano Dentetsu Line for 2 days. You can use this pass to get to any station between Nagano and Jigokudani Monkey Park. And Yudanka station. Plus, it also includes your entrance fees to Monkey Park.

Price in Yen per person
Two way express bus to Jigokudani Monkey Park by express bus 3000
One time admission to Jigokudani Monkey Park800
Cost of one Snow Monkey Pass3600
Your savings200

So even if you use the pass just to get to snow monkey park and come back, it is worth your money.

Where to stay in Nagano.

Photo by Chloe Evans on Unsplash

It is surprising how a small town like Nagano can give you a dozen varieties of areas for a traveller to stay. This is because there are diverse activities and things to do in and around Nagano.

  •  Ski regions in Nagano: Shiga Kogen on the east and Hakuba on the west of Nagano are the most famous ski regions. Both are located around 45km from Nagano station.
  •  Onsen towns near Nagano: Yudanaka and Shibu Onsen areas are the most famous towns for Hot springs. Many guesthouses here have private Onsens located around 26km for Nagano. In addition, the Nagaden buses connect these towns to Nagano.
  •  Kanbayashi Onsen is a small village near Snow Monkey park. A personal opinion – Staying here may feel very secluded and cold!

Best neighbourhood to stay in Nagano is the city area

This is the most convenient area to stay. Unlike other areas, you are closer to many palaces than just one. Therefore, you can save money on your accommodation and transportation. Furthermore, your accommodation cost can decrease drastically if you choose business hotels like we did.

 We stayed at Chisun Grand Nagano. Though it is an old Business hotel, the rooms were spacious. In fact, this was the largest room we ever got during our 19-night stay in Japan. The hotel is just a 400m walk from the JR Station, and we highly recommend it.

Can I stay in a temple in Nagano?

Yes! I have read many people travel to Nagano to stay in the temple of Zenkoji. Temple stays in Japan are called “Shukubo.” If you are fine with paying 9000yen+tax per adult for one night stay, staying at Shukubo can be a great experience.

What is “Shukubo” AKA Temple lodge in Japan?


A “shukubo” is a traditional guesthouse like “ryokan which provides accommodation to visitors of nearby temples and shrines. Historically, they served as lodging for pilgrims and still serve that purpose today. However, you don’t have to be a follower of a specific faith or on a pilgrimage to enjoy staying at a shukubo.


These temple lodges give traditional comforts and vegetarian meals for the guests. When you stay there, you also have the option of participating in temple rituals like “goma” prayer (fire ceremony), “shakyo” (brush meditation), or “zazen” (seated meditation), and attend the temple’s daily “O-Asaji” morning ceremony.

How to book Shukubo at Zenko-ji temple in Nagano?

One of the Shubukos of Zenkoji temple seen from outside

Zenkoji has 39 temple lodgings. You can’t book Shukubo through regular sites like Go through temple’s official website to know more in detail. The bookings are accepted through phone calls. Any other means will be explained to you over the phone.

Best things to do in Nagano.

I often feel that Nagano was the best place we visited in Japan! There was Snow, shrines with Snow, onsens, hiking trails and monkeys. So we went with the vibe and took slow travel in Nagano in December. And here goes the list of the best things to do in Nagano, especially in winter, over three days.

1. Visit Zenko ji temple

While on the last leg of the Japan trip, we said one more temple won’t hurt anyone. And walked into Zenkoji temple casually without many expectations. But thank god, we did so! Because this place was unique, ethereal, spiritual and the best place to watch people.

What are the top attractions to visit in Nagano?

Before you enter the temple, you go through a wooden entrance gate. This venue is filled with souvenir and restaurant shops. Trust me, this doesn’t feel tacky. At a distance, you see a burning incense pot taller than humans. The thick smoke fades into thin air while a white blanket of Snow on the traditional wooden architecture makes it look mystic.

As you enter, you see a line of buddha statues sitting in meditation posture wearing a red scarf. The snow droppings take the path of green tree branches to create a pattern you can’t take your eyes off. You feel you are in Lord Buddha’s Narnia.

What is the significance of the Zenkoji Temple?

Zenko-ji Temple is one of the most significant historical landmarks in Japan. Its origins date back to the 6th century. So Zenkoji is the heart of Nagano and the most famous place that all tourists visit.

The temple houses a large Buddha statue inside. It is one of the first statues brought to Japan when Buddhism was introduced in the 6th century. And Guess from where? My homeland – India.

There are lamps, more incense-burning pots and corridors at the temple. The rear side of the temple houses tall pagodas and a cemetery. The light blue sky, Snow white, pine tree green leaves, and brown of the barks and the temple look like a palette carefully crafted to create harmony and pleasantness. A 3 hour of wandering here felt like 30 minutes!

Don’t forget to buy your Omikuji Fortune Papers from the temple shops at the entrance.

What is written on omikuji?

Omikuji are small strips of paper that contain a written fortune or prediction. They include a brief message or prediction about one’s future, such as good luck, bad luck, success, love, health, and so on. The omikuji may also provide advice or guidance on achieving a desired outcome or avoiding a negative one. It is written in vertical Kanji.

How to translate omikuji?

Ask your fellow Japanese visitors. They happily translate it for you if you both share a common tongue. Otherwise, you have your google translator!

My omikuji said – “Don’t set your sights too high, and it is ok for little ones to come later…!!!!!”

2. Wander in the streets of Nagano.

Nagano streets have a charm that other Japan’s cities don’t have. Thee footpaths are wider and lined with public plazas with seating by the streetside. A pocket of open space dots the packed neighbourhood.

What makes Nagano streets feel homely?

The structures on either side of the streets don’t overpower; they aren’t tall. An avenue of pine trees merges at the street end! And you are always looked upon by the rugged and sloppy Japanese alps.

The beauty of trees with snow droppings doubles by night under winter illuminations adorning some streets. And the rest of the lane shines with traditional Japanese lamps or cast iron street lights. It feels like you are part of a Ghibli movie combining warm lights and Snow.

The streets have a variety of small cafes and kiosks. Instead of big shrines, smaller shrines rarely pop up. More than the shrines, you find cute and wicked snowmen made by locals and tourists. So you can go on rating the best snowman in Nagano.

The Dog-Friendly Nagano

After travelling through Japan for 19 days, I can’t declare if Nagano is the most pet-friendly place in Japan. But, it looked like so. Of course, we spotted people with dogs in Tokyo and Nagoya. But in Nagano, we saw more than anywhere else!

People took them to Zenkoji temple and even fanned and waved the smoke to their pets! Playful dogs and friendly people smiling at you make walking on Nagano’s streets even more pleasant.

3. Make a day trip to nearby villages.

The mountainous region of Nagano hides many picturesque villages in its womb. Nagano’s sightseeing buses connect most of these towns and make it easy for you to explore. Pick one village per day to explore rural Japan’s beauty at your own pace.

Which are the beautiful villages near Nagano?

©JNTO. LOCATION :Togakushi
  • Obuse: This historic town is known for its beautiful architecture, hot springs, Hokusai Museum and best chestnuts in Japan.
  •  Togakushi: famous beautiful nature trails through the forest that lead to moss-covered Shinro shrines. This is a good trail to pick in summer.
  •  Matsumoto: Although not technically a village, Matsumoto is a charming city with a beautiful castle, historic streets, and stunning mountain views.
©JNTO. LOCATION :Narai-juku
  •  Narai-juku and Nakasendo: The prettiest post town built in the 1600s is the best place to witness how a historical settlement provided lodging, food, and other services to travellers and their horses during the Edo period. The brown and black houses with sloped roofs adorn the narrow street and remind you of Machiya streets.

We made a day trip to Japan’s most beautiful village Shirakawago which looks too magical to believe it exists in reality. Though Nagano isn’t the best base to make a day trip to Shirakawago, we had to! Read the post Saga of Shirakwago” to know what all circus we did to reach there.

4. Devour Nagano Delicacies.

The farmlands in Nagano are blessed with abundant water and fertile soil. So Nagano grows juicy apples, grapes and peaches. If you have wondered where they grow Wasabi, it is in Nagano. Hence, be prepared to have a gastronomical gala in Nagano with Soba noodles, rice-based food, milk cakes and any dessert with fruits and dairy. Plus, you will find many Irish bars here serving traditional Nagano food.

The food joints at JR Station were much cheaper than the ones outside. So most of our culinary exploration happened at JR Nagano station.

Some of the best places for food in Nagano are :

  • Cafe Terra – The Italian gelato made by pure, homegrown products ice cream is a thrill to eat even during cold winter.
  •  Hanamaru Udon – The healthy fast food joint serving fresh udon at a lower price. They even have a vegetarian variety!
  •  Gyunyu Pan – Rich cream is sandwiched between two pieces of fluffy bread and cut into rectangular loaves.
  •  Arteria Bakery – Fresh hot and super cheap melon pan and sesame balls.

5. Treat yourself at an Onsen in Nagano.

©JNTO Location : Kuntantsu ptivate onsen

In Nagano, you don’t look for a foot massage but a hot spring bath at Onsens, AKA Hot water springs. Onsen bathing has been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, and it is considered a communal activity where people can socialize and bond with one another.

After a long day of hiking and walking, trust me, these onsens feel like a godsend! When rich in mineral hot water touches the body, you may get confused about whether it is healing your body ache or the soul! It is that relaxing. So if you travel to Nagano just for the Onsen experience, you won’t regret it.

Now, there are more than a dozen Onsen resort towns around Nagano. But they are expensive and give entry to their staying guests only. But don’t be disheartened. The budget-oriented tourists like us also can go to affordable Onsens in and around Nagano.

Are there any Public Onsens in Nagano

Yes! Kaede-no -Yu hot spring at Yudanaka is a public onsen. It is located right behind Yudanaka station.

Plus, Yudanaka town is scenic. The view of the Japanese alps is beyond your imagination. Ensure you wander around the city before you go to the bath – It makes you feel relaxed and sleepy afterwards.

Once you finish the Onsen and must wait for your train, head to the foot dip Onsen in front of Kaede-no-Yu. You meet locals here who come with their thermos flasks full of tea to relax in the free-foot-dip Onsen and even offer you to have some.

What do I need to know before going to Kaede-no-Yu onsen?

  1. All public Onsen in Japan will always have separate baths for men and women.
  2. Bring your own towel. Else you have to pay extra to rent the towels at Onsen.
  3. You can store your backpack in the locker given.
  4. You must wash yourself first before getting into the bath.
  5.  Don’t wear swimwear. You get into the Onsen in your birth suit AKA naked. You may initially feel weird if you are new to nude public bathing. But you will get used to it once you see many others like you.
  6.  Hide your tattoos with plasters, as tattoos are traditionally associated with the yakuza (Japanese mafia). Otherwise, you may not be allowed inside the bath.
  7.  Bring cash: IC Cards and credit cards don’t work here.
  8.  Kaede no Yu is open from 10:00 to 21:00, and the entrance fee is 300 yen per adult for an hour.

6. Meet the monkeys in snow!

The main attraction and the reason why most people travel to Nagano in winter is to see the snow monkeys! And they are doing the right thing.

Here furry little creatures soak in hot springs and steal our hearts. The hike to the park is no less thrilling; because you walk through the forest by the cliffs on the bridges through a scenic route.

The monkeys glide into the hot water like they were born to be pampered and relax there. That satisfaction on their face when the hot water touches them is such a surreal thing to watch, and you will be jealous of them.

Is it Ethical to Visit Japan’s Snow Monkeys?

You may have encountered several other posts where people call Snow Monkey Park of Nagano an unethical place. Those who visited the park have come in utter disappointment. Then, of course, you want to know how to get there. There is a lot to tell in the case of Jigokudani Monkey Park. The history, our experience, and information on getting there and eating there are listed in a separate post here.

But trust me, if you plan to travel to Nagano in winter solely to see the monkeys in Snow, you won’t be disappointed. 

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Published by Sahana Kulur

Traveller | Blogger | Architecture and history

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