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.

(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).

102 Responses to “Nagano by Car

  1. Hi Blair, I am extremely excited to read your blog as I am planning to visit this part of Japan. We are 5 ladies around 60years old and have booked to fly into Osaka on 30th March 2016 for 12 days. I greatly appreciated if you could enlighten me my tentative itinerary whether its feasible.

    30March – Osaka
    31March – Osaka
    1April – Leave Osaka to Nagano by train – Overnight in Nagano – Is it worthwhile to stay a night here?
    2April – Leave Nagano to Yamanouchi by train or bus to stay in a onsen ryokan to visit snow monkey
    3April – Leave Yamanouchi for Kusatsu by rental car for a day trip and then to Karuizawa for a night
    4April – Leave Karuizawa to Nikko for a night. Will leave rental car in Nikko
    5 to 7Apr- Leave Nikko for Tokyo (3nights) by train – Activate 7day JR Pass
    8 to 11Apr -Leave Tokyo to Kyoto (4nights) by train
    12Apri – Leave Kyoto to Osaka International Airport for home

    Please advise on the following:
    a) Is the itinerary ok?
    b) Is there any rental car company in Yamanouchi?
    c) Is driving along the routes you covered above tricky/slippery to drive?
    d) Will there be snow on the roads and that I need snow tires

    Greatly appreciate your input. Thank you very much. Julie

  2. Hi Julie,

    I’m glad you enjoyed it! And that sounds like a great trip. There is one problem though: the road from Yamanouchi to Kusatsu doesn’t reopen until the 25th of April! So, instead of going to Kusatsu on April 3rd, go to Karuizawa instead. Then, the next day you can drive without problem from Karuizawa to Kusatsu. I would also recommend staying in Matsumoto for a night on the 1st (instead of Nagano city), then you can see Matsumoto castle. On the 2nd, you can see Zenko-ji temple in Nagano and pick up a rental car; there don’t seem to be any rental car companies in Yamanouchi.

    There shouldn’t be much snow but the weather can be tempermental. Your rental car agency should provide you a car with snow tires, so you shouldn’t have to worry.

    I hope that helps to answer your question, if you’d like to know anything else I’m here!

    -Blair Guardia

  3. Thank you very much Blair! Your info has been most helpful!

    1st April – Osaka To Matsumoto – Overnight
    2nd April – Matsumoto to Nagano to pick up rental car, visit Zenko-ji temple and then to Yamanouchi – stay a nite in onsen ryokan and to visit snow monkey

    3rd April – Yamanouchi to Karuizawa – overnight
    4th April – Karuizawa to Kusatsu – Please advise if its worthwhile to stay a nite in Kusatsu,
    5th April – Kusatsu to Nikko – overnight
    6th april – Nikko to Tokyo

    To be honest, I am very nervous with the idea to drive as I have no experience to do so in Japan.
    Is the GPS in English and is it easy to key in our locations?

    Thank you again!

  4. Yes, I think it’s worth staying the night in Kusatsu! I was just there the other weekend actually. It’s a cool little town that’s easy to walk around, with plenty of good cafes and restaurants. The hot springs there, particularly Otaki no yu and Sai no wara, are amazing.

    Driving in Japan isn’t so bad. Most people get used to it pretty quickly, even those of us who grew up driving on the opposite side of the road. Drivers are generally patient and make room for you on the road. Rental car GPS have plenty of language options, and in Japan you can search locations with phone numbers, making it very easy to find hotels and restaurants.

    -Blair Guardia

  5. Thank you Blair again for your quick response! I am most grateful. We will definately stop for a nite in Kusatsu.

    I was trying to book the Yudanaka Seifuso Ryokan for our stay on the 2nd April based on the very good reviews but was not able to do so as Agoda,, Japanican have no room available on this date. I am wondering if its because its fully booked out or the roykan is not opened for booking yet. Would you be able to recommend an alternative ryokan of similar set up with a reasonable rate. We would very much like to experience the Japanese breakfast and the kaiseki dinner.

  6. Hi Julie,

    I checked Seifuso’s website and it looks like their schedule for April isn’t up yet. If you try booking again in December you should have no problem getting a room. You may also be interested in trying Sakaeya or Shibu hotel.

  7. Dear sir,

    I am planning to visit Nagoya and around arriving late Dec 24 and leaving Jan 1. This is my first trip with my friend (2 of us). I try to plan but not sure what should we visit at this season. Where should be the place to visit. Definitely can’t miss Shirakawago. My iten is below. I would appreciate your comment if I pick the right place for the season? would it be a better idea for me to start with Shizuoka to Nagano to Kanazawa and back home?? I can’t find the best website to guide me for a long trip.

    Your advise is much appreciated.

    Dec 24 Arrive and stay at Nagoya
    Dec 25 Visiting places in Nagoya
    Dec 26 Day trip in Shirakawago
    Dec 27 travel to Kanazawa
    Dec 28 Toyama
    Dec 29 Shizuoka (fuji)
    Dec 30 ….still deciding for 2 days location
    Dec 31….
    Jan 1 Depart

  8. Hello,

    Thank you for your interest in Nagano prefecture! I’m not very knowledgable about Shizuoka or Kanazawa, but it looks like the Shizuoka -> Nagano -> Kanazawa -> Shirakawago -> Nagoya route is best. Winter is a great time to visit the Snow Monkeys in Yamanouchi and leisurely soak in hot spring baths. You can stay the night in nearby Shibu onsen in a traditional ryokan and soak in 100% natural mineral baths. Since you’ll be traveling up from Shizuoka, on the way to the Snow Monkeys you can stop in Matsumoto city and see Matsumoto castle, or stop in Nagano city to see Zenko-ji, and try some local foods like buckwheat soba or oyaki. Another option, while somewhat out of the way,is the Kiso valley. It is very beautiful and has many traditional post-towns from the Edo era (read more about post-towns here and here)

    I hope that helps!

    -Blair Guardia

  9. Hi Blair,
    Planning to head to the Japanese Alps late March but now so confused after reading all the literature!
    Are you able to assist?

    Plan is for two couples to land in Tokyo, take the Shinkansen to Nagano and spend four days in the Nagano prefecture then either head west to Tomaya or straight down to Kyoto.

    I’m unsure if we can get around the Alps at this time due to road closures..will the best places be inaccesable (TK Alpine route/dams/gorges)? Or can we see enough of the countryside by taking alternative routes?
    Your thoughts re hire cars out of Nagano appreciated.

    Is four days enough in this prefecture?
    We prefer the natural beauty, avoid cities and too many temples.

    Thanks for your response!

  10. Hi there,

    Thanks for your interest in Nagano! There are several road closures but they won’t prevent you from traveling to Toyama if you so desire.

    The main road closures are the Shiga-Kusatsu (Rt. 292) and Yamaboku routes between Nagano and Gunma, the road leading to Ogizawa station (Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route) and the Venus line. All remain closed until late April.

    To reach Toyama from Nagano via car, take the Joshinetsu Expressway towards Joetsu, then take the Hokuriku Expressway towards Toyama. To reach Toyama city it’s about 2.5 hours.

    For a more leisurely route, you can take Rt. 19 south from Nagano and take Rt. 31 to Hakuba. Head north to Itoigawa city. There you can choose to take the Hokuriku Expressway or drive along the Japan Sea coast on Rt. 8. This should take about 3.5 hours.

    Or, you can take the Joshinetsu Expressway to Matsumoto and turn right onto Rt. 158. When you reach Rt. 471, take it all the way north to Toyama. This one’s about 4 hours.

    Driving is one of the best ways to see the Japanese countryside, and if that’s what you’re looking for I would recommend taking one of the longer routes. The expressways don’t have the best views, excepting the rest stop at Obasute between Nagano city and Matsumoto–that’s beautiful! As for how long to stay in Nagano, that depends on what you’re interested in doing here. What are your current plans for Nagano?

    -Blair Guardia

  11. Dear Blair,

    We are a family with a 4 year old child. We are considering going Nagano in mid Feb for a week. We are concerned whether the weather will be too cold as we are from the tropics and whether it is advisable to drive since we have no experience driving in winter. If we don’t drive, is it easy to move from place to place? We are interested in snow monkey, visiting onsen town, visiting the old castle and see some mountain and cultural stuff.

    Please kindly advise. Thanks.

    Regards, Wan Yee

  12. Hi Wan Yee,

    It does get pretty cold in Nagano prefecture during the winter months, but it’s not so harsh that it’ll negatively affect your trip. Average temperatures in February range from 4°C to -6°C, so you’ll want to bring warm jackets, gloves and boots with you.

    Most roads are well-maintained, but sudden snow showers can make for difficult driving. Some of the most enjoyable roads to drive, like the Venus line and the Shiga-Kusatsu route, are closed in winter, so driving isn’t as enjoyable as it is in Spring through Fall. Public transportation is convenient enough and should be able to take you wherever you want to go.

    You may be interested in the Nagano Snow Resort pass for your trip. It is a two-day pass that covers transportation between many of Nagano’s winter sights, including the Snow Monkey park, Nagano city, Togakushi, Hakuba and Nozawa Onsen. The Snow Resort pass page includes timetables and information for how to reach each destination. (Matsumoto castle is not part of the Snow Resort pass, but can easily be reached from Nagano city via the Shinonoi line train or the Limited Express Shinano).

    Please let me know if you have any questions about where to visit and how to get there!

    -Blair Guardia

  13. Hi Blair

    I have read your recommendations and are all very helpful. I am planning for a trip to Japan 2nd weeks of May. I would like to cover Nagoya, toyama and Nagano thoroughly. Please kindly advice.

    Thanks, Tay

  14. Hi Tay,

    I’d say to start from Nagoya, travel through Nagano and then head to Toyama. While you’re in Nagano, your schedule may look like this:

    Day 1)
    Spend the morning in Nagoya
    Drive from Nagoya towards Iida (100 minutes)
    Enjoy Peach Blossoms and Onsen in Hirugami Onsen, Achi Village.
    Stay in Hirugami Onsen or Iida city.

    Day 2)
    Drive from Iida to Komagane (45 minutes)
    Take the Komagatake Ropeway to the top of Mt. Komagatake
    Drive from Komagane to Narai-juku (50 minutes)
    Stay in Narai-juku or Kisofukushima

    Day 3)
    Drive to Chino (60 minutes)
    Enter the Venus Line and drive to Matsumoto city (120-180 minutes)
    Visit Matsumoto Castle
    Stay in Matsumoto city

    Day 4)
    Drive from Matsumoto to Yamanouchi (90 minutes)
    See the Snow Monkeys
    Drive to Nagano city (60 minutes)
    Return your rental car*
    See Zenkoji
    Stay in Nagano city

    Day 5)
    Bus to the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route (Timetable here)
    Traveling along the route takes 6 to 7 hours!
    Arrive in Toyama

    *Private vehicles cannot be driven across the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine route. It is easier to return your rental car and pick up a new one when you arrive in Toyama.

    I hope that gives you some idea of how you can spend your time traveling through Nagano. If you have any other questions please let me know!


  15. Hi Blair, I will be travelling to nikko and karuizawa on the 19/3. Is snow tire need at this period of time? Tq!

  16. Hi Geraldine,

    This winter’s been pretty warm so there hasn’t been too much snow on the roads, but winter tires help you from slipping on wet or icy roads. It still snows occasionally in March and sometimes in April as well, so using winter tires is a safer option (even if you don’t really need them).

    I hope that helps!


  17. Hi Blair,

    I’m Staying in Kusatsu Onsen on 23rd March one night. It possible to travel to snow monkey park ? I purchased JR rail pass. Or any bus can reach there ? Please advise, thanks.

  18. Hi Blair,

    Pleasure reading your recommendations so far. I am planning on driving around Nagano in early April and since it’s a first for me, I wonder if there’s anything I should note (eg road closures?). My driving itinerary is as such:

    5 April – drive from Nagano station to yudanaka Onsen to see the snow monkeys and stay a night
    6 April – drive from yudanaka to Matsumoto (stay 2 nights). Will be exploring kiso village area using Matsumoto as a base.
    8 April – drive from Matsumoto to takayama (stay 2 nights), possible day trip to shirakawa-go
    10 April – drive from takayama to Nagoya to drop off car and take train to Kyoto.

  19. Hi Joanne,

    Because the Shiga-Kusatsu route is closed until late April, the easiest way to reach the Snow Monkey park is via Karuizawa. There is a bus that runs between Kusatsu Onsen and Karuizawa several times a day (~80 minutes from Kusatsu to Karuizawa). You can see the timetable here, it’s all in Japanese, but you’ll want the first and last stops (Karuizawa is 軽井沢 and Kusatsu Onsen is 草津温泉).

    Once you’re in Karuizawa, you can take the Shinkansen to Nagano station (~30 minutes). From there, take the Nagano Dentetsu train line to Yudanaka station or the Nagano Dentetsu Shigakogen line bus to the Snow Monkey Park stop (~45 minutes).

    The Shinkansen ride is covered under the JR East Nagano/Niigata pass, but the Nagano Dentetsu trains and buses are not. If you purchase the Snow Monkey Pass you can ride their trains and buses as much as you’d like for one day, and your entrance to the Park is covered. The pass is 2,900 yen and can be purchased at the Nagano Dentetsu station in the basement of Nagano station.

    The trip is doable in a day, but I think it’d be a bit busy. Why not spend some time on Karuizawa’s shopping streets or visiting Zenko-ji in Nagano city? Another popular spot on the way to the snow monkeys is Obuse, a pretty little town with plenty of museums and cafes in which to relax. It’s famous as the residence of Katsushika Hokusai, the creator of “The Great Wave off Kanagawa!”

    I hope that helps, let me know if you have any other questions!


  20. Hi Renjie,

    Your itinerary looks good, there aren’t any road closures that should affect your travel plans! You may have already read all about the Kiso valley here, but check out this link for a list of articles related to the Nakasendo. Also, you’ll be in Nagano right around Cherry Blossom season, the Matsumoto area has some great places to enjoy them, and during your travels around Kiso you may want to visit Ina and see Takato Castle Park, one of Japan’s top sakura spots!

    Let me know if you have any other questions.


  21. Hi Blair,
    We have a party of 5 driving from Tokyo to Nagano on 24 April. We are planning to go to visit
    The Snow Monkey & Matsumoto in 1 day on 25 April
    I would appreciate your reply on
    1. Is it still a good time to see the Snow Monkey
    2. Time to drive from Nagano to snow Monkey Park
    3. Time to drive from Snow Monkey park to Matsumoto
    4. Time to drive from Matsumoto to Nagano
    If this plan seem to tight , is there other option? We are leaving on
    26 April for Kurobe Alpine route. What is a good time to leave from Nagano station
    As we will not be carrying our luggage but have to send it to Toyoma
    Station is there any luggage service co near the station
    Thanks for helping to plan my journey

  22. Hi there,

    I’d be happy to answer your questions about Nagano.

    First, the Snow Monkeys are a great experience anytime of year. People love watching the monkeys relax in the hot springs, but during Spring and Summer they spend more time outside of the baths and are therefore much closer to the guests. There will also be plenty of adorable little baby monkeys around!

    Second, driving times will depend on what route you’ll take to travel. If you’re in a rush I would recommend using the IC toll road. In that case, they’ll look something like this:

    Nagano city to Snow Monkey Park (50 minutes)

    Matsumoto city to Snow Monkey Park (95 minutes)

    Matsumoto city to Nagano city (75 minutes)

    Your plan does seem tight. Since you’re not visiting any sights in Nagano city itself, maybe it would be more convenient to stay in Matsumoto city instead. Then, you could visit the Snow Monkey park first in the morning and drive to Matsumoto to view the castle in the afternoon. From Matsumoto, you can take a train to Shin-Omachi station to begin your journey across the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route.

    To forward your luggage to Toyama station, check it in at the counter in Shin-Omachi station before 9 a.m. It will arrive at Toyama on the same day between 3:30 and 6:00 p.m. For more information, see the official Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route website here.

    I hope that answers your question.


  23. Hi
    I’m planning a trip for late July along the Romantic Road. I live in Takenezawa and plan to head to Nikko and then stay the night in Shima Onsen. The next day, either stay in Kusatsu or Karuizawa (your advice appreciated) and then stay the night in Matsumoto. Your advice appreciated.

  24. Hi Andrew,

    I’m not exactly sure what your question is. If it’s deciding between staying in Kusatsu or Karuizawa, I would recommend the former for its great atmosphere and hot springs. Then you could take the Shiga-Kusatsu route the next day into Nagano, possibly stop at the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Yamanouchi, or Maguse Onsen in Kijima on your way down to Matsumoto. If you’re heading south after Matsumoto, you could also travel along the Venus Line towards lake Suwa.

    If you have any specific questions about driving around Nagano or lodging, etc, please let me know. Hope that helps.


  25. Hi Blair! I’m travelling with my parents who have a bit of mobility issues hence we are doing a road trip around Nagano. Are there any activities in the area that you’ll recommend which does not require much walking and any recommendations for scenic drives in late august – early sept?

  26. Hi Erin,

    My favorite scenic drive is definitely the Venus Line. During summer a wide variety of flowers bloom along the hills, and you can see blue skies and seas of clouds. The Kitayatsugatake ropeway and Kurumayama Sky Lift are along the Venus line, so you can reach beautiful views without having to walk very far. I just wrote a bit about the latter here (also has clearer directions for getting on the Venus Line).

    There are plenty of other ropeways around Nagano. The Ontake Ropeway, Chuo Alps Ropeway, Ryuo Ski Park Ropeway (see more here) have very beautiful views of the valleys below and nearby mountains.

    If your parents are interested in Hot Springs, the Shiga-Kusatsu route will take you to Kusatsu Onsen (Gunma prefecture), one of the most popular hot spring areas in Japan. It’s also a very pretty drive.

    I hope that helps answer your question. Let me know if you’d like advice on visiting any specific areas.


  27. Thanks for the tips Blair!

    My 12 days are looking something like this ->

    3 days – Hakone or Fuji Five lakes as base – Which would u recommend?
    – Do you have any recommendations for safari parks (i.e. Fuji safari or gunma safari)?

    4 days – Takayama, Shirakawago, Shinhotaka ropeway, any fruit farms that you’ll recommend which will be in season during last week of Aug and first week of Sep?

    4 days – Nagano (your website has provided a great deal of info!)
    – Is it worth going to Kamikochi if my parents can’t walk much – are there landmarks there that they could visit without much walking?
    – Matsumoto castle
    – Wasabi farm
    – Miharashi farm
    – Narai-juku
    – Venus line day trip
    – Senjojiki Cirque (is this worth seeing during first week of sept)?
    – Lake suwa fireworks on 3rd sept, as thats my last night at Nagano before driving back to Narita for an evening flight on 4th Sept

    Your advice will be greatly appreciated as I’m trying to plan the route such that my parents can still visit the areas without much walking and at the same time, trying to ensure that driving/parking will not be too difficult/expensive in the above areas!


  28. Hi Erin,

    I apologize that I don’t know too much about sightseeing outside of Nagano; I’m a bit of a Nagano hermit and spend most of my time around here. I’ve always wanted to go to Hakone but haven’t had a chance to visit yet. My only worry about Hakone in late August is that it’ll be too hot and humid to want to get in the hot springs. I think the Fuji Five Lakes are a higher altitude and may be a more pleasant temperature at that time of year.

    It looks like your parents will be able to enjoy the areas you’ve listed without having to walk too far. Parking also shouldn’t be a problem for most of your trip.

    Matsumoto can be a difficult place to find a parking spot, especially if you want to park near Matsumoto castle. I’d recommend taking a look at the City Office’s parking lot if you’ll be there on the weekend, if not, you’ll have better luck parking near the station at one of the malls like Parco. From there you can take the Town Sneaker bus (north course) towards the castle.

    Also, when traveling to Senjojiki Cirque be aware that part of the road is closed to private vehicles. Park at the Suganodai Bus Center, then take the bus from there to the Ropeway station.

    Kamikochi has some beautiful views that aren’t far from the bus terminal. The view of the Northern Alps behind Kappa bridge is one of Kamikochi’s most famous, and is about 25 minutes from the terminal. If that’s too far for your parents, then it might be better to skip Kamikochi.

    Finally, regarding the fireworks at Suwa on the 3rd, just remember that it will be a small-scale event for about 15 minutes (20:30~20:45). I’m sure the fireworks will be enjoyable, but I wouldn’t travel too far out of your way for the nightly firework shows. The main Suwa Fireworks Festival takes place on September 15th.

    Looks like a fun trip! I hope I was able to answer your questions.


  29. Hi Blair,

    We are planning a trip to visit Nagano from September 20 to 29 and would like to cover Toyama, Tateyama Kurobe alpine route, shiga/kusatsu highland route, snow monkey, Venus line, yubatake, kamikochi. Need your advise on whether we should fly in to Toyama or Nagoya airport? Where should we stay to conveniently visit all places. We are planning to rent a car. My biggest headache is the Tateyama Kurobe alpine route which takes 6 to 7 hours and we will be leaving from Matsumoto to Hokkaido on September 29. Please help

  30. Hi Julia,

    This is my suggestion for a smooth trip based on your itinerary. I’ve tried my best to put you in the same area for as many nights as possible, but some parts of your trip are too far away for a day-trip. You can see everything on your list in six days, so you can add in the other days wherever you’d like more downtime. I’ve included some other references for activities to do in each area you’ll be visiting.

    Sep. 20th
    (Stay in Toyama City)
    Fly into Toyama Airport.
    (See Toyama’s Official Tourism Website for sightseeing information.

    Sep. 21st to 23rd
    (Staying in Matsumoto)
    (21st) Travel the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. From Shinano-Omachi station, take the Oito line to Matsumoto. Visit Matsumoto Castle or some of Matsumoto’s traditional streets.
    (22nd) Rent a car in Matsumoto.
    Drive the Venus line from Matsumoto to Suwa.
    (Optional: visit the Utsukushigahara Open Air Museum at the beginning of the Venus line.)
    (Optional: enjoy the panoramic views from the top of Mt. Kurumayama at the end of the Venus line.)
    (Reference: Activities in the lake Suwa Area)
    Return to Matsumoto.
    (23rd) Visit Kamikochi.

    Sep. 24th
    (Stay in Yamanouchi)
    Drive north to Yamanouchi. Visit the Snow Monkeys and enjoy the local hot springs. For more to do in Yamanouchi, see here.

    Sep. 25th
    (Stay in Kusatsu Onsen)
    Drive over the Shiga/Kusatsu Highland Route, Visit Yubatake in Kusatsu Onsen. Enjoy hot springs, see the Yumomi performance, etc. ( Kusatsu Onsen Tourism Website).

    By the 25th you’ll have seen everything on your itinerary, so you can add another day in Yamanouchi, Kusatsu or Matsumoto as you like. When you return from Kusatsu and head back to Matsumoto for your flight, you may be interested in stopping in Karuizawa for Shiraito falls, the Prince Hotel outlet shopping mall, or the classic Kyu-karuizawa Ginza street.
    You can also head back to Matsumoto right away and then head down south to the Kiso Valley to see the post towns of the Nakasendo road, like Tsumago-juku and Magome-juku.

    I hope that helps answer your question, let me know if there’s anything else I can help you with.


  31. Pingback: Yamanouchi’s Not Just For Snow Monkeys – Go! Nagano

  32. Dear Blair,

    Thanks so much for your help on our itinerary. Really help me a lot when planning my trip.

  33. Hi Blair,

    I’m planning a 4d3n trip to Nagano in late September. We would like to visit Achi Village, Kamikochi and Jigokudani monkey Park. We plan to take train from Tokyo and rent a car in Nagano. We did some research online but most infomation are in Japanese… Would appreciate if you can give us some clue about the itinerary. Thank you!

  34. Hi there,

    Toyota Rent-a-car has 13 stores across Nagano, and you can rent cars “One-way,” renting them at one store and returning them at another. If you rent and return your vehicle within Nagano prefecture, there’s no additional charge. Your car should also include a GPS that you can use to find your accommodations and sightseeing spots (by address or phone number). I recommend taking the Limited Express Azusa train directly from Shinjuku to Matsumoto and renting your vehicle there.

    From Matsumoto, I would head directly to Achi Village. Take the Nagano Expressway from Matsumoto south towards Tokyo/Nagoya. At the Okaya Junction, head towards Iida (bearing right), and get off the expressway at the Iida-Yamamoto Exit. It takes about 85 minutes to reach Achi from Matsumoto. Spend the night there and enjoy the hot springs of Hirugami Onsen.

    On your next day, I recommend taking the scenic route through the Kiso Valley. You can reach it via Routes 153 and 256. You’ll pass several beautifully preserved towns of the Nakasendo trail, like Tsumago, Kiso-Fukushima and Narai-juku. The valley itself is also picturesque, and you’ll have great views of Kiso’s forests and rivers. Nezame-no-Toko is a natural rock feature along the river that is very popular with tourists. It takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes to reach Matsumoto through the Kiso Valley, but the views are definitely worth the longer drive. You can spend a full day enjoying the many sights in Kiso, and when you arrive in Matsumoto you can visit the castle after checking into your hotel.

    On Day 3, head to Kamikochi. Vehicles are prohibited from driving into the park itself, so you should either park your car at Shinshimashima Station or take the train from Matsumoto station. From the terminal, take the bus to Kamikochi. Stay the night in Matsumoto.

    On your last day, drive from Matsumoto to Yamanouchi using the Nagano Expressway. This time head towards Nagano City/Joetsu. At the Koshoku Junction, keep heading straight towards Nagano city. Get off at the Shinshu Nakano Exit and head straight through the tollway tunnel. You can direct yourself to the Snow Monkey Park parking lot using this phone number: 0269-33-5733. The lot is just 15 minutes away from the Snow Monkey Park and is only open during the Green Season.

    Finally, bring your car to Nagano city and return it to the Toyota service center.

    I hope this example helps in your planning. If you have any other questions let me know!


  35. Hi Blair,

    Thank you for the informative review and replies.
    I would like to ask if it’s easy to drive in January around Nagano, Liyama , and from Shiga Kogen to Nozawa? Mainly a ski trip
    We will be arriving Tokyo , end of Jan 2017
    Then take train to Nagano and going to Shiga Kogen first then to Nozawa and then back to Tokyo by train.
    Where should be the best car rental pick up ? Liyama?
    And return it at Nagano ? Or Liyama?
    If they give us snow tires , will they suffice?
    Approx dates
    22 Jan are Tokyo early morning and to Shiga Kogen
    25 leave Shiga Kogen travel to Nozawa Onsen
    28 leave Nozawa back to Tokyo
    Was thinking if we have a car whilst in the area can go to other places /nearby ski resorts



  36. Hi Eugene,

    Driving around Nagano during winter is not too diffucult, but snow tires or chains are definitely a neccessity. As you approach ski resort areas, particularly Shigakogen, you’ll face steeper and icier roads which often have open gutters on either side to drain water. Be cafeful not to slip into any of these “gaijin traps” and drive cautiously on icy roads.

    Also, you may find the roads quite narrow during your trip. Nozawa Onsen is very pedestrian friendly, but not so friendly to vehicles. When arranging your accommodations make sure there’s enough room to park your vehicle during your stay. Town is quite small, so it’s easy to walk to restaurants and bars even if you’re on the outskirts.

    Either Toyota or Nissan Rentacar should work; they offer English assistance and have a variety of options for your rental. You can see Toyota’s website here and Nissan’s website here. They have many locations throughout the prefecture. Both have a location near Nagano station, and Nissan Rentacar has a location next to Iiyama Station. Iiyama is certainly closer to your destination, but depending on each carrier’s available rentals and options you may be inclined to choose Toyota and rent from Nagano station instead.

    When you reserve your vehicle, you can choose to return it to the same or a different location. Nissan has a branch at both Iiyama and Nagano stations, so you can pick up in Iiyama and return it Nagano if you would like to visit Zenko-ji before you leave. Or, you could return your vehicle in Matsumoto and visit the Castle before your return. (From Matsumoto, take the Limited Express Azusa to Shinjuku, approx. 2.5 hours.)

    I hope that answers your questions. Let me know if I can help you with anything else!


  37. Hi Blair,

    I’ll be travelling to Japan and Hokkaido / Hakodate, before taking bullet train to Tokyo.

    From Tokyo, I intend to first visit Nagano (snow monkeys/ Alpine Route / Matsumoto Castle / Tenryukuo Valley) -> Takayama / Gifu -> Mt Fuji -> Tokyo

    Is Nagano easy to drive during winter? Also where / which area do you suggest we stay so that it is quite central when we travel?

    How many days will be good?

    Thanks a lot


  38. Hi Michelle,

    Thanks for your question. Depending on your experience driving in snow winter driving may be uncomfortable for you at first. As long as you have snow tires, a 4WD vehicle and patience you should be alright. The Interchange highway system and large roads are well-plowed, just be aware that if you use a GPS it may take you down small roads that aren’t, and sometimes gutters are hiding under snow on either side of the road.

    The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is closed during winter so you won’t be able to see it during your stay. It is open during the green season from mid-April to late November. Mid-April is the best time to see the snow walls.

    Matsumoto City is centrally located in Nagano prefecture and has plenty of restaurants, hotels and onsens to enjoy. Utsukushigara Onsen or Asama Onsen may be good choices for you since you have the freedom of a car to drive in and out of the city. You can check our accommodations page for places to stay as well as the Unique Nagano website.

    I think that three or four days should work for your trip through Nagano. Your plan may look something like this:

    Day 1)
    Drive into Nagano.
    Head north to Yamanouchi to see the Snow Monkeys.
    Lunch in Yamanouchi. See Snow Monkeys.
    Stop in Obuse or Nagano City on the way to Matsumoto.
    Check into Hotel.

    Day 2)
    Visit Matsumoto Castle, and Nawate-dori and Nakamachi-dori streets.
    Eat lunch in Matsumoto.
    Visit Matsumoto Museum of Art or Ukiyoe Museum. Or, try a soba-making lesson near Matsumoto Castle.

    Day 3)
    Drive South to Narai-juku in Shiojiri City.
    Continue on to Tenryukyou.
    Return to Matsumoto. Stay one more night, Or, head towards Takayama.

    I hope that answers your question! Sorry for the delay.


  39. Hi Blair

    Love your reviews and all info on the blog.

    My wife and I will be travelling with our 9-month-old baby to Japan in March 2017 for 3 weeks. This is a 2-part trip: Part 1 – staying in Tokyo for about a week and Part 2 – doing a road trip starting and finishing at Nozawa Onsen.

    1. For Part 2, we were thinking about doing an anti-clockwise loop from Nozawa Onsen – Toyama – Kanazawa – Shirakawago – Gero – Kiso – Matsumoto – Nozawa Onsen.
    2. Would this plan be too much for a 13-day road trip with a baby?
    3. What itinerary and where would you suggest for a night stay to enjoy onsen, food and serenity of small villages?


  40. Hi Nat,

    Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m glad that I can be of help.

    I don’t know so much about Toyama, Ishikawa or Gifu prefectures unfortunately. I have visited Toyama before but only for a day or two (I still haven’t been to the Gokayama or Shirokawago villages!). I can, however, recommend places for you to stay and things to do while you’re in Nagano.

    I think your road trip plan looks good so far. I’m not sure where you are planning to visit in Toyama, but the drive between Nozawa Onsen and there will probably be your longest. You can drive up into Niigata, take the scenic coastal road and reach your destination in about 2.5 to 3.5 hours. The other locations on your itinerary are between 1 to 2 hours apart each.

    Your itinerary may look something like this:

    Day 1 & 2
    Stay in Nozawa Onsen
    Enjoy walking around town and taking a dip in the sotoyu baths
    Take a day trip to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey park
    Snowshoeing in Nabekura Kogen

    Day 3, 4 & 5
    Stay in Kanazawa
    Drive from Nozawa Onsen to Toyama Destination (?) through to Kanazawa
    Enjoy Kanazawa Townscape, Kenrokuen garden, Goldleaf workshop, etc.

    Day 6 & 7
    Stay in Gero Onsen
    Drive to from Kanazawa to Shirakawago through to Gero
    Enjoy Onsen and relax

    Day 8, 9 & 10
    Stay in Matsumoto
    (Central Matsumoto or farther out in Utsukushigahara Onsen, Asama Onsen, etc.)
    See Tsumago-juku, Narai-juku in Kiso on way from Gero Onsen
    See Matsumoto Castle, Nawate-dori and Nakamachi-dori streets
    Try Soba Making at Takagi
    Visit Matsumoto City Museum of Art, Japan Ukiyoe Museum

    Day 11 & 12
    Another onsen area in Nagano like Togura Kamiyamada Onsen or Yudanaka/Shibu Onsen

    Day 13
    Return to Nozawa

    I hope that helps you in your planning. Let me know if you have any other questions about Nagano prefecture.


  41. Hi Blair,

    I’m Maria from ‘Italy. Thanks so much for your blog very helpful and full of information.
    I am planning a trip to Japan and 5 \ 6 days away from the big cities ..

    My only concern is about the road condition around Nagano prefecture.
    On days 7 \ 8 \ 9 \ April 2017 my journey will touch Yudanaka (via Matsumoto) to the monkey park, Kegon Falls- Chuzenji and Nikko (via Liyama-Yuzawa).

    Are these roads open in April?

    Thank you so much for your help.



  42. Hi Blair, this blog has been so helpful!

    Im taking the train from Tokyo on 28th morning to Nagano and will have 4 full days/nights before I head out.
    Id like to experience snow (Shiga Kogen), an onsen (Maguse Onsen), Togakushi Shrine, The Venus Line, and also see a bit of the old towns Karuizawa/Matsumoto and mostly good drives in rural Japan.

    Id like to know the foll:
    1. Which station do I come to from Tokyo? Matsumoto, Nagano or Ilayama?
    2. Im thinking of doing a round trip so I don’t pay one way drop off charges
    3. Do you know a farmstay/homestay that I could use as a base from where I could cover these places?

    Thanks so much for your time!

  43. Hi Blair!

    We wish to come to Nagano on 28th December from tokyo.

    1. Please could you advise the best station to land in which we could use as a base to explore Nagano and the surrounding by car , we have the JR pass.
    2. Please advise the best itinerary and the time required to cover the following places with your recommended place as base. As you can see there are many places so your recommendations are very valuable:
    Matsumoto, Karuizawa/Yamanouchi, Hakuba, Omaichi Onsen, can we enter the Azumino park?,Kanazawa, fishing, takayama , the Tsumago trail, Kurobe Gorge, Jigokudani snow monkeys etc.
    3. we wish to rent a car for these 3-4 days. Can you advise best possible way? Is it snowing there already?
    4. I really like the drives you recommended so kindly suggest similar routes/destinations to help me narrow it down to must do places please?
    5. Any homestay/onsen/farm stay you would recommend?

    I know its pretty late to ask, but I just chanced upon your wonderful blog so Ill keep checking for your reply until Tokyo:)
    Thanks so much!

  44. Hi Blair

    We will be travelling by car from Shirahone Onsen via Matsumoto to Kusatsu and then to Shibu Onsen in late March.

    I have now been advised by the ryokan in Shibu Onsen that the “shortest” path between Kusatsu and Shibu Onsen is closed in winter. After a quick research, i believe it is Route 292 that is closed. If so, what directions i should drive from Kusatsu to Shibu?


  45. Hi Nat,

    Yes, the closest road between Shibu Onsen and Kusatsu, Rt. 292 or the Shiga-Kusatsu Road, is closed during the winter (usually between mid-Nov. and mid to late Apr.). The other way to travel between them is to drive through Karuizawa.

    Take Rt. 146 from Kusatsu to Karuizawa, then head towards Komoro on Rt. 80 and get onto the IC heading north for Nagano. Get off at Shinshu Nakano and head straight until you arrive in Yamanouchi/Shibu Onsen. It will take about 2.5 hours.

    I hope that answers your question!


  46. Thanks Blair, appreciate your quick response as always.

    BTW from Shirahone Onsen to Kusatsu, can I take Route 144 instead of Route 146 via Karuizawa? Cheers

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