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.

Nagano’s Hidden Ski Resorts

December 22nd, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities

Excellent glades and powder at one of Nagano’s hidden ski resorts: Madarao Kogen.

If you’ve ever considered a ski trip to Nagano, chances are you’ve heard of Hakuba Valley and Nozawa Onsen. But what about the others? While there’s certainly a lot of fun to be had at some of the more popular resorts, the recent spike in tourism has led to crowded lifts. Besides, you never know what you’ll find if you trek off the beaten path. If you’re thinking of making a trip to the land of the rising sun, here are a few lesser known resorts you need to visit.

Madarao Kogen: King of the Glades

Madarao Kogen Ski Resort offers ski runs that suit people of all levels.

Overview

Madarao is a mid-sized, lesser known (to foreigners, at least) resort that provides a unique and authentic experience of Japan’s famous ski scene. Here you’ll find the same fluffy powder that Japan is known for, but without the crowds and lines to hold you back. With 30 runs, 15 lifts, and a vertical drop of 440m, you’ll have no problem spending a day or two (or even seven) exploring the incredible terrain.

Unique to Japanese resorts, 60% of the runs are ungroomed, making way for some of the best off-piste skiing in the country. Whether you’re addicted to the glades or just looking for some fresh terrain to make your mark, Madarao has you covered. With that being said, Madarao is considered one of the best places in Japan to sate your needs for tree-skiing.

Both Madarao and adjacent Tangram have plentiful, ungroomed tree runs.

Not only is tree-skiing allowed in Madarao, it is actively promoted. The resort was the first one in Japan to clear trees to create designated glades. The tree lines are wide to accommodate skiers and snowboarders of all levels. There are also a few shots of steep tree slopes for the adrenaline junkies.

The resort opens on the 16th December 2017 and is expected to close on the 1st April 2018.

Places to eat

Once it’s time to refuel after a day on the slopes, your options are as diverse as they are abundant. The area boasts some of the most amazing cuisine we’ve ever had; here are some of our favorites.

Honda: Specializes in Unagi/Grilled Eel dishes.
Address: 1117 Iiyama, Iiyama 389-2253, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-62-2213

Jazzy: A classic Jazz themed restaurant with western and Japanese dishes
Address: 1101-78 Madaraokogen, Iiyama 389-2257, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-64-3767

Restaurant Rudolf: Mouthwatering pizza and pasta right on the Madarao Slopes
Address: 1101-152 Madaraokogen, Iiyama 389-2257, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-64-3153

If you’re willing to explore, the local town of Iiyama is a 10 minute drive or a 35 minute bus away from Madarao resort. Iiyama provides more dining options than the resort, and it’s also a great destination to visit local temples and enjoy other cultural activities.

Rate

Lift Tickets (One Day): 4,500 yen for adults, 1,500 yen for children

Add 500 yen per day for the Mountain Pass to access neighboring resort of Tangram Ski Circus (you can ski/board through the top areas of Madarao).

Location / Access

Located between Myoko Kogen and Nozawa Onsen, the mountain is roughly 170km from Toyama Airport and 100km from Matsumoto Airport. You can travel from the mountain to Nozawa using the No-To-Mar Bus, which usually takes about an hour each way.

By Bus: If you’re coming from Narita Airport in Tokyo, Japan Ski Bus takes about 5-6 hours, costing 8,500 yen one way or 15,000 yen for a return trip. This is your only option if you arrived in Narita at night, unless you’re planning on staying overnight in Tokyo.

By Train: A faster option (4 hours total) is the Narita express train to Tokyo Station and then the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Iiyama, followed by bus service to Madarao Ski Resort.

Ryuoo Ski Park: Dragon King!

On a powder day, Ryuoo’s steep kiotoshi courses can’t be beat.

Overview

Ryuoo has some of Japan’s richest snowboarding history as it was one of the first resorts in the country to allow it, though skiers will love it here too. The resort is family friendly and features an adventure park where non-skiers and boarders can enjoy other snow activities such as tubing, sledding and tobogganing.

The mountain has one of the largest vertical drops in Nagano at 1,080m, and it features one of Japan’s longest ungroomed runs; the 1.4km Kiotoshi Course (you’ll need a helmet if you intend to tackle this course!) Kiotoshi is serviced by a 166 person capacity ropeway, one of the world’s biggest gondolas. At the top of the ropeway, visitors can take in the spectacular view from the Sky Terrace atop the Kiotoshi section. Despite only having 15 runs, the resort is separated into three sections:

  • The Valley contains beginner and green runs.
  • The middle ‘Kiotoshi’ section is best suited for intermediate and advanced riders. This area is the main draw for those seeking powder, but you’ll also find many steep ungroomed runs and a variety of glades to enjoy.
  • The top section is the Sky land area which is accessed via a chairlift from top of the Ropeway to the summit of Mt Ryuo (1,930m above sea level). The area can be enjoyed by confident beginners and intermediate riders. Expect softer and drier snow than the lower valley area, but make sure to close all your vents and rug up as it gets much colder at the higher altitude.

Ryuoo Ski Park’s adventure park has sledding, snow rafting, and snow buggy rides.

The resort also has two terrain parks; Dragon Park is their more advanced park, complete with rails, boxes, kickers and walls. Those who are new to park skiing can visit the Cherry Park for smaller features and a more gradual incline. The park opens on the 23 November 2017 and closes on 06 May 2018. Just make sure to check the snow conditions as some of the steeper runs are closed during early season due to lack of snow coverage.

The resort is a great day trip from Shiga Kogen or Nozawa Onsen, but there’s also plenty to see and do nearby.

Where to stay & eat

There a number of hotels around the Ryuoo Ski Park providing ski-in/ski-out experience such as Ryuo Park Hotel and Hotel North Shiga. Alternatively, you can stay in local town Yudanaka or try the authentic Ryokans (traditional inns) in Shibu Onsen. When you get hungry, check out a few of our favorite spots to grab a quick bite:

Enza Cafe: A popular restaurant located near the Snow Monkey park, serving a mix of Japanese and western dishes
Address: 1421-1 Hirao Kamibayashi, Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun 381-0401, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-38-1736

Japanese Dining GOEN: Conveniently located near the Yudanaka Station, you’ll find delicious Japanese cuisine including sushi and sake!
Address: 3227-1 Hirao, Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun 381-0401, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-38-0550

HAKKO beerbar & restaurant: A mix of traditional wooden design with a modern touch. This restaurant provides a great environment to enjoy some locally brewed beer with Japanese-Western Fusion cuisines.
Address: 381-0401, 3010 Hirao, Yamanouchi, Shimotakai District, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-38-8500

Rate

Lift Tickets (One Day): 4,600 yen for adults, 3,000 yen for children

Location / Access

The mountain is located about 300km from Tokyo and sits about 25 minutes drive outside a small town called Nakano.

By Train: Take the Shinkansen from Tokyo station to Nagano city (90 minutes). Change at Nagano and take the Nagano Dentetsu Line to Yudanaka Station (50 minutes). From Yudanaka Station, take the Ryuoo shuttle bus or taxi to Ryuoo Ski Park, 7 km away.

Togari Onsen – Nozawa Onsen’s quiet little brother

Togari is in Iiyama, just across from Nozawa Onsen ski resort, and enjoys similar powder without all the lines.

If you are staying a few days in the Iiyama and Nagano region, make a day trip to Togari Onsen to experience the famous Nagano powder without the crowd. Togari Onsen is Nozawa Onsen’s more laid back, less crowded younger brother. The mountain is great for those looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of it’s more internationally well-known neighbor, while still taking advantage of the region’s notorious fluffy powder. Not to mention the more than reasonable prices.

The resort is smaller than Nozawa with 18 runs, 650 meters of vertical and 7 lifts including 4 quad chairs. Togari is beginner friendly, home to many low angled and groomed runs, so intermediate skiers will find the entire mountain accessible without fear of getting stuck in steep and unmanageable terrain. The only drawback, however, is that there aren’t many steep, heart sinking runs for highly skilled skiers and snowboarders. With that being said, ungroomed runs in the upper side of the mountain provide a great opportunity to experience the famous Nagano Powder. Those who want to experience the best powder Togari has to offer can try the private back country guiding service, which we highly recommend.

Togari Onsen, as the name suggests, also has a number of rejuvenating hot springs.

Where to stay & eat

If you want more of a resort feel, there is a small resort-style hotel near the bottom of the slopes called Alpen Plaza. However, if you’re looking for a more authentic experience, there are many Ryokans in the town of Togari. If you’re in the area, here are a few eateries you’ve got to try:

Grilled Chicken Hashiba: Authentic Japanese cuisine, specializing in chicken
Address: 6792 Toyoda, Iiyama 389-2411, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-65-2666

Cafe & Bar & Music Ambis: Great live music and a wide selection of drinks
Address: 6796 Toyota, Iiyama 389-2411, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 50-1492-2910

Penticton: Their claim to fame is yaki-curry in a big bowl with melted cheese
Address: 6543-1 Toyoda, Iiyama, Nagano Prefecture
Phone: +81 269-65-4611

Rate

Lift Tickets (One Day): 4,200 yen for adults, 2,800 yen for JHS students, and 1,500 yen for younger children

Location / Access

Togari Onsen is located just over 40km northeast of Nagano, featuring two base areas about 1km apart. Pegasus side is on the southwest, while the northern base is called Orion. Two onsens (hot springs) sit at the base of the mountain; Akatsuki on the Pegasus slope and Nozomi on the Orion Slope. Known for their landscaping, Nozomi’s outdoor views shouldn’t be missed.

By Train: From Tokyo Station take the Shinkansen to Iiyama, followed by bus service to Togari Onsen

By Bus: JP Mountain also provides an over-night shuttle service to the resort from Shinjuku Station (leaves at 23:00 Shinjuku) for 10,000 yen.


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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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Hakuba Happo One Ski Resort and the 2017 IVSI Congress

March 29th, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Report

Ski instructors from around the world train together during IVSI.

While the slopes are relatively quiet during late March, the Hakuba area welcomed delegations of ski instructors from around the world during the 2017 IVSI Congress (International Federation of Snowsport Instructors) for a week of skiing workshops, demonstrations, and lectures. Held every four years, this was the 13th congress and the second one to be held in Japan (Shigakogen in 1989).
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Sunny Saturday on the Nakasendo Trail

February 9th, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Sightseeing

Last weekend, a few of us traveled from the Northern area of Nagano into the Kiso Valley to walk part of the Nakasendo trail. It was one of five major roads used during the Edo era and connected the former capital of Kyoto to the new capital of Edo (now Tokyo). While it may take weeks to travel the whole thing, we just walked between two post towns: Magome and Tsumago.

Saturday was a beautiful day so I’d like to share some of the photographs we took along the way!
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“Madapow” at Madarao Kogen and Tangram

January 27th, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Report, Seasonal Topics

The Northern Nagano valley opens up behind the Madarao Kogen hotel.

The Madarao and Tangram ski resorts sit between Iiyama City and Shinano-machi in Northern Nagano prefecture on opposite faces of Mt. Madarao. They are interconnected and you can ride both resorts in the same day with the 5,000 yen “Mountain Pass.” They resorts are medium-sized with well-rounded courses that suit all levels of skiers and snowboarders. Smooth pistes, moguls, and terrain parks are all available, but these resorts’ specialties are trees and powder, often referred to locally as “Madapow.”
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5 Great Winter Festivals in Nagano

December 9th, 2016 by
Category: Events, Information, Seasonal Topics

Enjoy fire festivals, illuminations and more in this winter wonderland.

Winter is here. Snow is falling steadily up in the mountains and people around Nagano are bringing out their kotatsu tables, kerosene heaters and nabe pots. Once again, it’s that time of year for skiing, hot springs and great winter festivals. Why stay inside when you could warm up in front of a magnificent fire festival or in the company of Japan’s many spirits?

Make some wonderful memories this winter with some of the festivals below!
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Winter 2016 Illuminations and Festivals

January 29th, 2016 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Areas of Nagano prefecture are getting ready for a series of festivals in February, and in that spirit I thought I would put together a list of current and upcoming events for the Winter season. Tear yourself away from the ski resorts for a night and visit some of Nagano’s other scenic spots!

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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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Japanese-Style Illumination Has Started at Asama Hot Spring, Matsumoto

December 26th, 2014 by
Category: Accomodations, Events, Onsens (Hot Springs)

In Japan, the winter is a season of “illumination”. There are some beautiful illumination spots lighted up by LEDs. In Nagano, Karuizawa, Azumino, and Suzaka’s ​illumination events are famous.

This winter, not large but unique illumination has started at Asama Hot Springs in Matsumoto. It is Japanese taste design lighting in front of Hot Plaza Asama, a day trip hot spring​ facility. You can watch the “healing illumination” while soaking your feet in the free foot hot spring.

Japanese-style illumination of origami cranes and Matsumoto temari balls, made and played in the castle in Edo period.

The lights on trees are designed to twinkle by natural wind, like stars in the sky.

Because of the M 6.7 earthquake that occurred on 22nd November and damaged some portions in Hakuba and Northern Nagano, even hotels in Asama Hot Springs suffered from cancellations, even though Matsumoto is in the center of Nagano Prefecture and didn’t have any direct damage.

Now, there are no problems at all sightseeing spots and ski resorts in Nagano, including transportation.

Kick-off ceremony of illumination

People in Asama Onsen hope this beautiful illumination will overcome the quake.​

Asama Hot Spring is located in a convenient place in Matsumoto, Nagano. It is just a ten minute bus ride from Matsumoto Castle. It also has a very long history, 1,300 years or more and feudal lords of the Castle visited there in the Edo period (17th century).

All the lights are LEDs using small amounts of electricity

The illumination​ is shining 5pm to 0am until April 19.

More than twenty traditional Japanese ryokans in Asama Onsen and the illumination​ are wating for you.