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).

111 Responses to “Nagano by Car

  1. Hi Blair,

    Thank you for making such a useful website.
    I will be traveling to Karuizawa, Matsumoto, Jigokudani , Kusatsu from Tokyo by car during Mar 30 – Apr 1. Regarding closed route between Jigokudani and Kusatsu that you mentioned, will it be open during my visit. I also would like to ask if there’s any expressway pass that covers mentioned area.

    Thank you in advance.
    All the best,

  2. Hi Satit,

    Unfortunately, the Shiga-Kusatsu Route is closed between mid-November to the 19th of April for winter.

    Regarding expressway passes, there is a 7 or 14-day pass that covers expressway fees, but it would most likely not be worth it for your trip. The 7-day pass is 20,000 yen, and looking at your itinerary, I think your total tolls will come to about 15,000 yen.

    Let me know if you have any other questions.


  3. Hi Mr Blair,

    My girlfriend and I will be travelling to Nagano next year around end of February 2020. We are planning to travel entire trip with a car but is it more convenience and economical if we start the journey with car when we reach Nagano afterward? Below is my plan and would you mind to let me know if it is reasonable? and please add on any detail that would make my trip more compact

    Day 1- Arrive at Tokyo- Rest one day at Tokyo

    Day 2- Departure to Nagano with car/ train

    Day 3- Togakushi Shrine

    Day 4- NozawaOnsen

    Day 5- Jigokudani

    Day 6- Karuizawa & Shiraito waterfall

    Day 7-9- Kiso valley

    Day 10 – Takayama- Shirakawago-Ogimachi

    Day 11- ShirahoneOnsen

    Day 12- Back to Nagano then Tokyo


  4. Hi Pavarit,

    If you’re traveling with more than one person, then renting a car in Tokyo and driving to Nagano would be less expensive than taking the train. However, the train will be about twice as fast and you wouldn’t have to deal with driving around the big city. In this case, it depends on what you prefer: cheaper transportation or convenience.

    The only change I would make to your itinerary is putting your visit to Karuizawa first or last. It is on the way between Tokyo and Nagano, so it would make more sense to visit it when you’re first heading to Nagano or when you’re returning to Tokyo.

    Let me know if you have any other questions!


  5. Hi there,
    We will be in Japan for 15 days in July, planning to go to Nagano, I heard that this is a perfect region mountain bike. My husband is an experienced rider but never done MTB in Japan, I am wondering if you could recommend any guided MTB rides or any places where there is MTB hire and close the rails. We are also looking for recommendations for some easy hikes that are suitable for children. Thank you in advance

  6. Hi Coco,

    Thanks for your question.

    Hakuba Iwatake, Fujimi Panorama, and Nozawa Onsen all offer mountain biking courses.

    For guided MTB tours, you can contact Evergreen Outdoor Center in Hakuba or Yatsugatake Cycling in the Yatsugatake mountains (central Nagano).

    For hiking, highland areas such as Kamikochi and Tsugaike Nature Park have great views and are relatively flat. The 90-minute hike to Happo Pond is also quite beautiful.

    I hope that helps answer your question.


  7. Thanks Blair,

    can you recommend some rent car website to me? and it is fine to travel by end of February 2020 as I know there will be winter season over there? by the way, when is the best time to visit the snow monkey at Nagano?cheers


  8. Hi Pavarit,

    You can see information about different rental agencies around Nagano and their websites on our Renting a Car in Japan post.

    February is winter here, so I recommend getting a vehicle with 4WD. Snow tires are necessary, as highways and certain mountain roads will not let you pass without them. If you have both of those and drive carefully, you should have no issues.

    As for the snow monkeys, anytime during winter is good. Park staff members also recommend getting to the park around 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning.

    I hope that helps!


  9. hi blair ,
    i do really need yr help and advise .
    me and my friend will going to Osaka on 17jan -23 jan 2020 .
    so i was planning to go to Nagano .
    is there any way that you can suggest .
    i dont know how to go to nagano the chepest way .
    we are going 12 pax .

  10. Hi Suraya,

    Thanks for your comment.

    The cheapest and most convenient way to travel between Osaka and Nagano would be by bus. Alpico Kotsu offers buses between Osaka and Nagano, and Osaka and Matsumoto. See the links below for more information.

    Osaka–Nagano City Bus (6,200-7,600 yen)

    Osaka–Matsumoto City (5,400-6,700 yen)

    I hope that helps answer your question


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