Beautiful Winter Phenomena

January 19th, 2018 by
Category: Information, Seasonal Topics

Nagano’s forests covered in frost.

Winter is at once harsh, unforgiving, and mysteriously beautiful. While snow falls relentlessly on you, your precious baggage and the streets around you, it covers the landscape in pure, unifying white. While the cold seeps through your down jacket and numerous sweaters, it also freezes waterfalls and lakes in time, creating gleaming columns and plates of ice. While the wind burns and turns your face the color of ripe strawberries, it also covers trees in sparkling layers of frost. If you can brave the elements, the wonders of winter far outweigh the cold.

You can see winter’s charm all around Nagano, from beautiful snowy plains and white-capped mountains to frozen lakes and waterfalls. But there are some unique phenomena that are especially captivating during these chilly months.

Snow Monsters in Shigakogen

Trees in Shigakogen’s heights are buffeted by snow and wind, becoming towering, white beasts.


There are many legends of abominable snowmen, yeti, and other creatures ready to gobble up unsuspecting skiers and hikers during winter. Luckily, Japan’s snow monsters pose no such threat.

In Shigakogen’s Mt. Yokoteyama area, the tallest part of the highlands at 2,307 meters high, trees are swallowed up by mounds of snow and become amorphous, white monsters. Herds of them sit motionlessly on the mountain. Waiting for what? We do not know. You can view them from the mountaintop’s crumpet café, which sells delicious baked goods and coffee to warm up with while enjoying the scenery, or ski by them on your way down the mountain.

Utsukushigahara Highland’s Diamond Dust

Tiny snow crystals sparkle like diamonds in the morning sunlight.


Central Nagano faces the brunt of winter’s cruelty, regularly faced with subzero temperatures that freeze lakes, water pipes, and even your shampoo. But these frigid temps give rise to a fantastic sight called “Diamond Dust.” On very calm, cold mornings—around -15 degrees Celsius—the air is filled with millions of tiny snow crystals, which sparkle like diamonds when hit with the morning sun’s rays.

One of the best places to see this phenomenon is in the Utsukushigahara Highlands. Access to the highlands is very difficult during winter, but if you stay at Utsukushigahara’s Ougatou Hotel, you can enjoy this and other winter experiences first-hand.

The Omiwatari Lake Crossing

Lake Suwa’s Omiwatari is a rare phenomenon where ridges of jagged ice appear above the lake.


Lake Suwa in central Nagano has been a center of Shinto faith for over a millennia, being home of the shrines of Suwa Taisha (internationally known for their once-in-seven-year Onbashira Festival). Possibly due to the spiritual nature of this location, the lake has experienced a phenomenon called “Omiwatari” (roughly translated: the God’s crossing) for hundreds of years. When the lake freezes, sheets of ice expand and contract with changing temperatures, eventually cracking and forming a long, continuous ridge across the lake, usually between 30 centimeters and 1 meter in height.

Omiwatari usually occurs in late January or early February, but due to climate change there have been many years recently where it has not occurred. The last year in which the Omiwatari was seen was in 2013. Will it return in 2018?

Share your Favorite Winter Scenes of Nagano!

Did you have a chance to see some of these beautiful spectacles while traveling in Nagano? Share them with us on Instagram of Facebook with the hashtag #gonagano. If you have any other beautiful sights that we haven’t included, please let us know in the comments.

And if you enjoyed this topic, take a look at an earlier blog about five ways to enjoy the snow in Nagano.

Five Ways to Enjoy the Snow

December 1st, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Winter is a wonderful playground.

The winters in Nagano, while cold, are picturesque. The mountains and valleys are covered in a carpet of snow, trees are frosted with ice, and fine diamond dust shimmers in the air. Japanese macaques warm themselves in steamy hot springs and solitary kamoshika (Japanese Serow) plow through the snowy woods foraging for food.

Most travelers flock to Nagano this time of year to enjoy its plentiful powder snow on the ski slopes, but there are plenty of activities for those interested in connecting with nature and playing in snow. See a new side of Nagano while snowshoeing through the woods or enjoy an exhilarating ride on a snowmobile. See our recommended winter activities below!
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A Haven for Craft Beer in the Japanese Alps

April 7th, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Information, Shopping

Specialty beer spotted during last year’s Onbashira Festival. (Reijin Brewery)

While beer is a relatively new beverage in Japan, it wasn’t long before locals embraced it and created the crisp, refreshing lagers that its major breweries are known for today. The Sapporo, Kirin, Asahi, and Suntory brands can be found in grocery and convenience stores around the world, and one by one, new breweries are making their international debuts.
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Beating the Summer Heat in Shigakogen

August 26th, 2016 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

One of Shigakogen’s many jewels in summer.

In another attempt to beat the summer heat, I headed up to Shigakogen with a group of friends to enjoy the highland weather and the area’s unspoilt nature. There are a total of 19 trails around Shigakogen that climb its many peaks, wander its marshlands and cut through its forests. In addition to its beautiful ponds and mountains, the views of the Nagano Plain below are stunning.
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The State of Nagano Skiing this December

December 18th, 2015 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Report, Seasonal Topics
The beautiful northern alps are covered in snow, but green still shows in the valley.

Hakuba's mountains are beautifully covered in white.

Areas around the globe have been experiencing some crazy weather over the past month due to the dreaded El Niño effect. Wintery parts of the world have been unusually warm and green, and some areas of Japan have been reaching highs of 25℃ or more. It has also meant a late winter for Nagano prefecture, but don’t fear, folks: winter is here. The mountains are capped in white and ski resorts are open for business. Soon enough, your breath will be visible in your apartment and your shampoo will be freezing overnight.

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Shiga Heights Ski Resorts after 2 ft Big Snowfall Downtown

March 15th, 2014 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

I went skiing in Shiga Heights Ski Resorts February 22. It was one week after big snowfall in Nagano, so the ski courses were covered with wonderful natural snow. We (five Japanese, one from America, and one from Britain) really enjoyed skiing and snowboarding in the best condition.

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Shigakogen 50km Trail Run

August 4th, 2011 by
Category: Events, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities

For information visit the PowerSports OSJ webpage

Nagano mountains are....beautiful

Nagano mountains are....beautiful

“BANZAI BANZAI BANZAI”
Clouds parted after torrential rain moments before – 7hours30minutes into the race… feelings of conradmanship & luck.
Just happy to be there.
This time Lake Onuma, but many other rewarding places waiting for you around Nagano, Mount Asama & Shigakogen, the Northern Alps.
This event was almost completely un-advertisied but still 400 participants:
Hope to see more of you running & walking in Nagano soon^-^
Around 20 new friends & 4 toe-nails later…it was amazing.
Better than NZ Ironman, or Obuse Marathon (which is also great fun – see here)

For more information about hikes around Shigakogen ask the Guide-KUMIAI (registered guides) at 98 Hall – Olympic Memorial & Conservation Center (see Tylers entry)

Shiga Kogen’s Nature Preservation Center and Olympic Memorial Hall

March 10th, 2011 by
Category: Outdoor Activities

People come to Nagano from far and wide to enjoy its natural beauty.  And within Nagano, it doesn’t get much better than Shiga Kogen.  With its majestic mountains and deep forests, not to mention the famous snow monkeys and other wildlife, Shiga Kogen’s wilderness is sure to delight your senses and instill a sense of awe. 
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Secret river-onsen: Kiriake

September 28th, 2010 by
Category: Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Onsen water coming up out of a river bed?
You take a shovel to make your own bath?
And you adjust the water temperature by mixing in river water?

Sounds like something out of an onsen legend. But it’s not just a myth — it actually exists: Kiriake Onsen in the northern corner of Nagano Prefecture near the borders with Niigata and Gunma Prefectures.

Relaxing in the Kiriake river-onsen

Relaxing in the Kiriake river-onsen

You park your car at the lone ryokan, Yusenkaku, grab a shovel, cross the suspension bridge, walk down to the river, take care to avoid the onsen hot spots (the onsen temperature is supposedly a toe-tingling 57 deg C), find an area where the temperature is to your liking and move the rocks around until you have your own little onsen pool.

The other day, after we visited the snow monkeys, our family and some friends drove up and through Shiga Kogen and Oku-Shiga Kogen along the windy mountain road to Kiriake (approx. 45km and 2hours from Shibu-Yudanaka Onsen area).

Actually, I’d come here about 17 years ago. Back then, the road to Kiriake was a bumpy gravel one. It’s been paved since then, which may be the reason it’s lost some of it’s ‘hidden’ charm. Judging by the number of celebrity signatures, and by how many other people were there that day, the secret is out.

I had always wanted to have our kids experience this onsen-in-the-middle-of-a-river where you build a bath yourself. Plus, I was needing a relaxing break from the summer holiday rush. For me, this combination of natural setting and onsen is perfectly sublime.

Kiriake Onsen:
You do actually use a shovel to make your own bath.
The onsen water does actually bubble up right in the middle of the river.
You do actually adjust the temperature yourself by mixing in river water.
And, being that it’s an all-natural phenomenom, the onsen keeps bubbling up in different spots. First over there, then over here, then, Ooh la la!, right here!

Onsen water bubbling up

Onsen water bubbling up

Grab a shovel...

Grab a shovel...

 

...Cross the bridge...

...Cross the bridge...

...and dig your own onsen bath

...and dig your own onsen bath

 

 

 

 

Although Kiriake is enjoyable any time of the year, being that it is located in the Akiyama (“autumn mountain”) District, it’s is probably at its prettiest when the fall leaves are in color. It’s location is very inconvenient, but that makes finding it that much more enjoyable. There really isn’t any bus access, so a car is highly recommended.  Or, if you book a stay at Yusenkaku, they provided limited pick-up service.

Click here for the Kiriake Onsen / Yusenkaku Ryokan website.

The Shiga-Kusatsu-Karuizawa Loop

October 13th, 2009 by
Category: Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics
The colors of Shiga Kogen in Autumn

The colors of Shiga Kogen in Autumn

I was all prepared to write about seeing the autumn leaves in Shiga Kogen and then noticed that Zeno beat me to it a week earlier and came back with some beautiful photos!  So rather than try to steal the spotlight, I will tell of the wonderful drive I took my family on today — a drive up to Shiga Kogen, heading into Gunma and back into Nagano at Karuizawa.

As has been the trend in my family lately, we packed up the hiking boots, the day packs and the kids and headed to the mountains for some short hikes with beautiful views.  We drove up from Nakano on Route 292 and continued on that road past the junction of Route 471.  There are a number of marshes with boardwalks built over them in this area, as well as some nice little trails heading off into the autumn foliage.  We took a stroll along a small trail near an onsen that you can clearly see belching steam on the right side of the road as you head in the direction of Gunma Prefecture.  You’ll see lots of reds, oranges and yellows here, as well as the white birch trees and the green pines scattered throughout.

The view from Yokote-yama

The view from Yokote-yama

Back in the car, we head further uphill.  And before long, we found ourselves in Gunma Prefecture, but not before reaching the highest point of the trip, on the slope of Yokote-yama, where the view down toward the rest of Shiga-Kogen, Nakano and Nagano City is absolutely spectacular!

Continuing on, we arrived at Shirane-san in Gunma (yeah, I know, this is a Nagano blog, but Shirane-san is in Shiga-Kogen and really is most easily accessible from Nagano, so let’s leave it be).  Shirane-san is an active volcano that has a rather unique feature:  a poisonous, acid pond in its crater.  The sulfur and other gases in the area turn the water in the crater a light, pastel blue and it is great to see. 

Shirane-san

Shirane-san

However, due to recent volcanic activity(yikes!) it is no longer safe to take the nearer course up to the crater.  We walked up the, slightly farther away route available, but still got to enjoy the view.  Our five-year-old was afraid the mountain would start erupting fire, and she was anxious to get off the mountain as soon as possible, but other than that, it was a great hike up.  Our almost-three-year-old daughter was able to walk all the way up on her own, but as always, she wanted to be carried back down.  Whatever course you take, it is steep in places, but paved, either with concrete or with round stones, as was the route we took today.

Later, we headed down to Kusatsu, an onsen village well-known to people in Japan and one that always seems to be jammed with traffic whenever we go.  Kusatsu has a very large, yet delightful public rotenburo (or, outdoor bath) in a park you can visit.  Its town center features a large area devoted to gathering sulfer and other minerals found in the water there (more info on Kusatsu here).  Aside from picking up some onsen manju, we didn’t stop in Kusatsu on this trip, and instead headed on, passing through lots of rolling forest land and back into Nagano along the Shiraito Toll Road to Karuizawa.  There was a lot of wonderful autumn colors along the Shiraito Toll Road, and it looked as if that area has yet to reach its peak as of this posting. 

It was a great day trip, and I recommend it, even if you are too late for the autumn colors.  Our course was the Nagano Expressway to Shinshu Nakano Interchange.  Then Route 292 all the way through Shiga Kogen and beyond Kusatsu Onsen.  After that, we took Route 146 back into Nagano Prefecture and then turned left onto the Shiraito Toll Road, which took us straight into the center of Karuizawa.

Only one word of warning:  Be sure to dress warmly!  It is cold up there, and the one word I heard most that day was “Samui!”