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
webpage.
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.


(Back to text)

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).


67 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?

    Thanks

  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!

    -Blair

  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!

    -Blair

  5. Hi Blair!

    My friends and I are going on a Nagano-Takayama route this coming Feb1-5. Is it safe to drive around that time? We already booked a car with snow tires but not 4WD. I would really appreciate it if you can give us additional pointers on driving up there.

  6. 2/2 Drive from Tokyo To Nagano
    Jigokudani Monkey Park
    Shibu Onsen &Kiso Valley
    2/3 Drive to Matsumoto
    Visit Matsumot Castle
    Drive to Takayama
    Hida Folk Village
    2/4 Explore Historical Museums
    Daytrip to Shirakawa-Go
    2/5 Drive from Takayama to Fuji
    Fuji to Tokyo

    This is roughly our itinerary. If you have any more suggestions we can add or modify it would be great. Thanks~

  7. Hi Paula,

    While I recommend both snow tires and 4WD, as long as you aren’t planning to drive in the mountains (to Shigakogen, Madarao, or other ski resorts) then you should be fine without 4WD. Snow tires are a must.

    It still snows in February but the expressways and major roads remain relatively clear.

    One thing that I noticed in your itinerary is that you listed Shibu Onsen and the Kiso Valley on the same day. Those are at least 2 hours apart by car. I would recommend visiting the Kiso Valley on the 3rd after visiting Matsumoto as it’s much closer. From the Kiso Valley, you can then take Route 361 to Takayama City.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have personal experience traveling around Toyama or Gifu, so you may also want to inquire with their tourism departments about driving in winter. I cannot say for sure what road conditions are like there. If you have any other questions about Nagano, please don’t hesitate to ask.

    -Blair

  8. Hi Blair!

    Thank you so much for your quick reply and suggestions.
    I have readjusted the itinerary below as follows. Do you think its feasible, time-wise?

    2/2
    Nagano Station to Jigokudani Monkey Park
    Zenkoji temple then sake tasting at local sake brewery
    Go back to Nagano station then travel to Matsumoto
    2/3
    Matsumoto Castle
    Travel to Kiso Valley
    Take Tsumago-Magome hike trail
    Take bus to Narai
    Go back to Matsumoto and take bus/train to Takayama

    If you have any other suggestions as to how we can maximize and enjoy our quick time in Nagano i would really appreciate it.

  9. Hi Paula,

    Will you be driving or taking public transportation during your visit? If you’ll be driving, just be aware that Japan has a zero-tolerance policy on drinking and driving, so sake tasting will have to wait until you’re finished traveling in the evening. And since these areas are all located along the train lines, a car won’t be necessary anyway.

    Feb. 2nd looks fine, but the next day may be a bit tight. Matsumoto and Magome are about two hours apart, and the hike between Tsumago and Magome takes about three hours, so you will already spend seven hours traveling around that day. The last bus from Matsumoto to Takayama (see timetable here) leaves at 5:05 PM, so I recommend getting an early start. Your second day may look like this:

    • Day 2
      7:14 AM> Take the Wide View Shinano No. 2 train from Matsumoto to Nakatsugawa. (Arrive 8:22 AM.)
      8:22 AM> Take a taxi to Magome-juku, or wait for the 9:10 AM bus.
      9:00 AM> Walk through Magome-juku and begin Nakasendo hike.
      12:30 PM> Arrive in Tsumago-juku. Have lunch. When finished, take a taxi or Magome bus to Nagiso Station.
      2:44 PM> Take the train to Matsumoto. Arrive at 4:41 PM.
      5:05 PM> Board the bus bound for Takayama.

    As you can see, the schedule is tight and there’s no time to fit in Narai-juku here. If you were driving and left very early in the morning it may be possible to visit them all, but the 5:05 bus to Takayama makes it difficult to manage.

    Let me know if you have any other questions.

    -Blair

  10. Hi Blair

    I’m thinking of visiting Snow Monkey Park and Shibu Onsen after leaving Karuizawa before I head back to Tokyo. Do you know how long it takes to drive from Karuizawa to Snow Monkey Park /Shibu Onsen?

    I hope to be able to return my car at Shibu Onsen/Yukanada station before I take the Shinakensen back to Toyko.

    Sounds workable?

    Appreciate your tips.
    Julia

  11. Hi Julia,

    Driving from Karuizawa to Shibu Onsen will take just over 1.5 hours via the Joshin’etsu Expressway. Taking the 18 and 80 to the Komoro IC Entrance, get on the expressway heading towards Nagano/Joetsu. Get off at the Shinshu Nakano IC exit and head straight. From the exit to your destination is about 15-20 minutes.

    For returning your car, Toyota Rent-a-car accepts drop-offs at any location within Nagano prefecture for no extra charge. There is no location in Shibu Onsen, so I recommend driving to Nagano City after your trip to the snow monkeys and returning it there. From Nagano City, you can get directly on the shinkansen back to Tokyo.

    Toyota Rent-a-car Japan website:
    https://rent.toyota.co.jp/eng/

    I hope that helps!

    -Blair

  12. Hi Blair

    Your write up has gotten me excited about driving in Nagano 🙂 .
    I love the venus line especially !

    We’ll (2 adults, 2 kids –>1-17 y.o, 1-12y.o) be arriving at Nagano on 15 Dec 17 & leaving on 17 Dec 17 morning for Tokyo.

    We’ll be taking Shinkansen from Tokyo and should arrive Nagano 12 noon.
    We’ll be staying at Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

    My current plan is
    – 15 Dec – Snow Monkey Park
    – 15 Dec – Zenko ji temple

    – 16 Dec – Shiga Kogen Ski
    – 16 Dec – Onsen

    I’m interested in going around in a rented car but my husband does not have any experience in driving in winter.

    1) Do you think it’ll be ok during that period of our trip to drive?

    2) Which Onsen will you recommend that is convenient for us?

    3) Any suggestion as to where / what else we can do?

    Thank you very much Blair. 🙂

  13. Hi Rina,

    I’m glad to hear that! Driving around Nagano opens up many new possibilities that you can’t reach with public transportation. I’ve answered your questions below.

    1) The driving shouldn’t be too difficult near the city, but as you approach the mountains it may become treacherous. Make sure to rent a car with 4-wheel-drive and snow tires. The road up to Shigakogen is particularly difficult in winter, and I wouldn’t recommend it to new winter drivers if there’s snow/ice on the road. Instead, you may want to visit Ryuo Ski Park for skiing as the drive is much easier.

    2) Some other places nearby that you may want to visit include:

    • Obuse
      Quaint town with traditional buildings, cafes and art museums. Famous for chestnuts and chestnut sweets.
    • Togakushi
      A plateau above Nagano City covered in forest. There are five shrines scattered throughout the woods. The Okusha shrine is at the base of Mt. Togakushi and is at the end of a beautiful 30-min. walk past 400-year-old trees (may be covered in snow at that time).
    • Soba-making
      Make your own soba noodles at a large soba restaurant in Southern Nagano City (Shinshu Soba Kura Drive-in).

    3) For Onsen, I still think Maguse Onsen is one of the most scenic hot springs you’ll find in Northern Nagano. Also not far away is Hotel Selan’s Toomi no Yu, another outdoor hot spring with a great view.

    I hope that answers your question!

    -Blair

  14. Hi Blair,

    I’m excited to be able to return back to Japan (have been visited Osaka, Kyoto,nara, Sapporo previously-self drive trip).

    This round, I plan to self drive with my husband and 2 toddlers(6&4years old). The trip will start from:
    4 till 9 Feb 2018 – Tokyo & surrounding
    9till 12Feb18 – pick up rental car & drive up to Toyama (plan to visit Shirakawago & snow monkey)
    12till 15Feb18 – Toyama to Nagoya
    Nagoya back to Haneda Airport (return car)

    FYI, I have never had any experience driving during winter. Will it be ok to drive along these road during winter (with snow tires & chain)?
    I have received few comment that the road will be slippery and narrow and not safe to drive during winter. But I really want to explore outskirt area rather than town.

    Please give your thought.

    thanks,

  15. Hi Aza,

    Unfortunately, I’m not an expert on the Toyama area so I don’t know the road conditions there during winter. But the expressway has an exit outside of Shirakawago, making the journey there relatively easy by car.

    Where exactly will you be staying in Toyama? Shirakawago is technically in Gifu Prefecture, and Takayama City, Gifu is closer to Shirakawago than Toyama City is. If you want to visit the Snow Monkeys in Nagano, this may affect your travel.

    For example, from Takayama City, the only way to Nagano would be through the mountains (via Route 158), and if there’s snow on the road it may be a difficult journey for someone who isn’t used to winter driving. From Toyama City, you would take the Hokuriku Expressway towards Niigata, eventually merging onto the Joshinetsu Expressway at Joetsu. Using the expressway from Toyama City would be a safer option (roads are wide, relatively straight, and well-plowed).

    I hope that helps you with your planning for your trip. Let me know if you have any other questions!

    -Blair

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