Nagano by Car

October 16th, 2015 by
Category: Information, Sightseeing

It's not the destination, but the journey!

I have lived in Nagano for about three years now and have been lucky to have a car for most of my time here. Unfortunately, that vehicle is currently rusting away in its expensive parking spot (it’s overdue for an inspection…), so I can sympathize with people visiting Nagano only by bus and train. While Nagano’s most famous attractions are accessible by public transportation, there are some areas that are just out of reach. But even though my car-wings are clipped, yours don’t have to be. There are many places to rent cars throughout Nagano for visitors looking to experience the prefecture at their own pace. While you’re driving around Nagano, check out some of these places:

Maguse Onsen

A outdoor onsen bath overlooks beautiful green valleys.

What a view.

This hot spring spa is tucked away in the mountains of Kijima-daira, near Yamanouchi (the Snow Monkey Park) and Iiyama (new shinkansen station!). While some tour buses make the trek up to it, there is no public transportation that runs there.

It is renowned for its wintertime views from the outdoor bath, which have been rated as the best winter hot spring views in all of Japan. While I sometimes don’t trust Japan’s various ‘Top 3’ categorizations, this one has to be seen to be believed. Afterwards, you can try their unpasteurized milk soft-serve ice cream. It sounds strange, but it’s actually quite delicious. It’s so airy that I imagine it’s what clouds taste like.

Update: A friend recently told me about a bus that runs between Iiyama station and Maguse Onsen! More details below.

The Venus line

Fields of flowers and seas of clouds

For fans of scenic drives, this road is a must -see. The Venus line connects three highland areas in central Nagano: Utsukushigahara, Tateshina and Kirigamine-kogen. Beginning in either Matsumoto city or Chino city, you drive through wooded groves, mountainsides and highland plains. The scenery is wonderful any time of year, and you may lucky enough to see a sea of clouds, called ‘Unkai’ in Japanese, while you’re driving along. You’ll also pass the Utsukushigahara open-air art museum, a sculpture park of over 350 large scale pieces arranged on a grassy highland plain. The Venus line is very popular with Sunday drivers and bikers, so be sure to start early if you’re driving it on the weekend!

Shiga-Kusatsu Route

One of the views on the Nagano-side of the drive.

This route begins in Yamanouchi and ends in the onsen town of Kusatsu (in Gunma). Like the Venus line, this road travels over a highland area and has beautiful sights. It also passes an active volcano, Kusatsu-Shirane-san. Its sulfurous caldera glows an eerie aquamarine color and never freezes. Drivers can park at the rest stop and hike up to the viewing platform to see it. *However, as of now, the viewing platform is closed due to volcanic activity.* You’ll reach Kusatsu after a pleasant 1.5 to 2 hour drive. While you’re there, you can bathe in its many hot springs known for their medicinal properties. Or, you could watch yu-momi, a traditional ‘massage’ technique to lower the temperature of the water (it sounds boring, but it’s actually quite cool!). Even though it’s not in Nagano, it’s still a great place to visit. I would know—I’ve been there three times already. Be aware that this road closes in late October/early November due to snowfall.

Kusatsu's central hot spring source, 'Yu-batake.'

Takayama Village and the Matsukawa Gorge

The Matsukawa ravine in winter

Takayama village is to the east of Nagano city on the far side of Suzaka city. It is accessible by bus, but taking a car is much more convenient. Throughout the village are a variety of hot springs featuring stunning views of ravines and waterfalls, as well as hot springs where men and women can soak together ( in Japanese: kon-yoku onsen). In spring, gigantic weeping cherry trees blossom among the farmers’ fields and in fall the Matsukawa Gorge turns shades of red, yellow and gold. The many waterfalls along the Gorge make for great pictures any time of year. As you drive through it, you’ll pass the Yamada farm and eventually reach the Shiga-Kusatsu road. From there, you can continue to Yamanouchi or Kusatsu.

While Nagano’s many sights are accessible by bus and train, having a car allows you to visit sights that most tourists (and even some locals) never see! Nagano is well-connected from north to south, but can be surprisingly difficult to navigate from east to west (and vice versa).For anyone living in Nagano, a car is a must-have. And with more rental centers, Nagano is becoming a more convenient place for tourists to rent cars as well.

Additional Info

For more information about renting a car in Nagano, look at the Toyota rent-a-car
You can also find more information about places to visit by car by looking at the Good Luck! Nagano magazine, linked on our front page.

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Kijimadaira-mura Shuttle Bus

The bus travels between Iiyama Station (飯山駅(4番のりば)) and Maguse Onsen (馬曲温泉 望郷の湯) six times a day, first bus towards the onsen at 8:50 and last bus returning to the station at 17:35. Board the bus at station platform #4 and ride it to the end of the line. One-way fare is 700 yen.

See this link for a map and bus timetable (Japanese).

56 Responses to “Nagano by Car

  1. Hi Blair,

    Thank you for the informative review.
    We will be travelling around Nagano and Matsumoto in late April (22/23) by car. I would like to know the road condition (especially the route to Jigokudani snow monkey park) during this period. Are snow tires still required? Are the roads open?


  2. Hi Denise,

    You’re welcome and I’m glad that you found it useful in your planning.

    The weather has been sunny and warm recently and there is no snow on the roads anymore. You won’t need snow tires to drive around now, and you can reach the Jigokudani Snow Monkey park parking area with ease. See more about access to the Snow Monkey park on their website.

    By the way, the road between Shigakogen and Kusatsu, Rte. 292, will open from April 21st this year (2017). Due to the nearby Shirane volcano the road is only open between 8:00 and 17:00 daily.

    The Venus Line will also be fully opened by noon on April 21st, 2017.

    Let me know if I can help you with anything else!


  3. Hi,
    We are going Nagano but driving from Narita. Is it safe to drive during winter around 27 December 2017. We are from Singapore, never had experience driving in winter.
    Hear from you:)

  4. Hi Marilyn,

    It depends on the roads that you will be using. Highway roads and city roads should be clear, but rural roads and mountain roads may have snow or ice. Generally, Nagano area roads are plowed quickly and frequently salted to prevent icing, so you shouldn’t have trouble driving during winter. Still, I recommend reading a bit about winter driving before you arrive. Also, rent a vehicle with 4WD and make sure it comes with snow tires.

    Let me know if you have any other questions, and have a safe trip!


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