Togakushi is often overlooked during winter in favor of Jigokudani’s snow monkeys or Hakuba’s ski slopes, but it offers a memorable winter experience you won’t find anywhere else. Walking effortlessly on freshly fallen snow, you can admire the forest’s towering, 400-year-old trees and ancient Shinto shrines—not to mention the precipitous face of Mt. Togakushi itself.
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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In 1998, Nagano City hosted the Winter Olympic Games and introduced the world to the Japanese Alps, the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, and glorious Japanese powder (or, “japow”). But that isn’t all that the area has to offer. With beautiful Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the heart of Japan’s mountains, Nagano City is a hub of spiritual sites and natural splendor.
Take a model 2-day trip around Nagano City and enjoy another side of Japan!
National Treasure Zenkoji
After arriving in Nagano, walk (or ride the colorful Gururingo bus) from the station to Zenkoji, following the wooden lanterns along Chuo-dori street. Eventually you’ll reach Motozen-machi with its cobbled streets and beautiful temple lodges. After passing through the Niomon and Sannomon gates, you’ll see Zenkoji—one of the largest wooden temples in Japan with over 1400 years of history.
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Soba noodles can be eaten throughout Japan but they are especially famous in Nagano. With abundant buckwheat and fresh water from the mountains, Nagano’s artisans make simple yet incredibly aromatic soba. After a plate or two or three, you find yourself hooked on this deceptively delicious dish.
And while it’s not necessarily true that the soba you make yourself is more delicious—let’s be honest, our crudely cut soba noodles pale in comparison to a soba master’s—the experience is a whole lot of fun and makes for a great memory. There are a number of places throughout the prefecture where you can try making soba for yourself and learn to appreciate soba made by the professionals.
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If you ever find yourself in the Togakushi area, be sure to stop by and see the beautiful Kagami-ike. The name, meaning “mirror pond”, is fitting, as it offers a wonderful reflection of the Togakushi Range. Any time of the year is a good time, with autumn being the most popular. And if you go in winter, you won’t regret the views — you’ll just have to get there by snowshoe or cross-country ski.
Located on a perch at the foot of Togakushi Mountain high above the venerable Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City is Togakushi Kogen. Signs of spring are starting to appear throughout Togakushi as it transitions out of winter and into the green season. As the snow melts, the ‘mizubasho’ skunk cabbage and the Togakushi ninjas are coming out of hibernation. Even the bus from Nagano Station has switched destinations from the ski area to the entrance to the fabled Okusha (Inner Shrine). (See the updated Transportation Guide) And for people coming by car, it is only 60 minutes from our onsen town Togura-Kamiyamada to the entrance to Okusha when using the Expressway.
According to my Togukashi ninja connection, Yamaguchi-san of soba restaurant “Yamaguchiya”,
*Snow still remains along the approach to Okusha, but the roads are completely clear.
*The creamy white mizubasho flowers in the Togakushi Forest Reserve look like they’ll blossom a week early this year, around the end of April.
*The two ninja sites have announced their opening dates for 2013: Togakushi Ninpo Center will open on Friday April 19th and the Togakushi Chibikko Kids Ninja Park will start up again on Saturday April 27th.
Nagano Prefecture as a whole is blessed with so much beautiful natural scenery, but within Nagano, Togakushi is special. The massive cedar trees lining the path to Okusha really impart a sense of the power of nature. Lately those famous trees are experiencing a boom of sorts as they have become known as a ‘power spot’ in Japan. But take one step off the path and into the Togakushi Forest Preserve, and you’ll have all that peaceful nature to yourself. The snowy white flowers of the unfortunately named skunk cabbage are especially delightful. And be sure not to miss Kagami-ike, aka ‘Mirror Pond’ which perfectly reflects the grand Togakushi Mountain peaks.
In addition to all the natural beauty, Togakushi is home to some of the best soba noodles in Nagano Prefecture, which itself is Japan’s soba mecca. Besides being a prime growing area for buckwheat, there is just something different about the noodles made here in the refreshingly clean mountain air using the crystal clear mountain spring water.
And, don’t forget the Togakushi ninjas. This is the home of the Togakure-do school of ninjutsu, and there are 2 locations to get a feel for what Togakure-do ninjutsu is like. They are the Togakushi Ninpo Center and the Togakushi Chibikko Kids Ninja Park.
Togakushi is so much more than just nature, soba and ninjas. There’s the spiritual tradition (Chusha, the ‘Middle Shrine’, is especially rich in mysticism), bamboo ware and so much more. This green season, come and check and experience Togakushi yourself. For places to stay, there are some facilities in Togakushi (including ryokans and a Youth Hostel), and/or there are onsen resort towns nearby, including Togura-Kamiyamada.
Not much to write about, today. Just a really great photo of Daiza-hoshi-ike pond that I took on the way back to the house after taking the kids to kindergarten yesterday morning.
For anyone not familiar with where this pond is, it is on the Togakushi Birdline, the main road taking drivers up from Nagano City to Togakushi. If you take the Nana-Magari road from the Zenkoji area, you’ll see this pond on the left just as you reach the uppermost part of the climb up the mountain. If you are coming from the Uematsu area of Nagano City, take the Asakawa Loop Line all the way up and turn left when you get to the Iizuna Kogen Ski Area. Drive past the Arcadia Hotel (currently closed) and at the stop sign, the pond will be across the street in front of you.
If the weather is nice, spend the day here. There are plenty of spots to take a walk and have a picnic.
As the snow in the highlands starts to melt, Nagano shifts from white season to green season.
Many train and bus schedules are adjusted for the green season. I have updated the schedules connecting our onsen town, Togura Kamiyamada with Togakushi and Jigokudani for post-white season.
Note: Togakushi has been undergoing a ‘power spot’ boom from last year resulting in overflowing parking lots. If you go, taking the bus from Nagano Station may actually be more convenient. Feel free to use this schedule.
Note: Jigokudani’s snow monkeys are cute even when there’s no snow. They still soak in the onsen baths in the summer, and the new babies will be born soon so you’ll be able to enjoy seeing the little fur balls running all over the place. Hopefully this schedule will make sense out of the bus and train options.