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
The main hall of Zenkoji Temple
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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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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Rich chestnut soft serve from Obuse’s top shop.
Nagano city has plenty of cafes and snack shops where you can stop for a bite and take a break from the heat of the day. Below are five local shops which serve some delicious snacks with a Nagano twist.
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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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Come out to Nagano City and see the flower canvases and tapestry gardens! These works of art are created using flower petals. Various ‘flowers’ are waiting to meet you!
Date: May 3rd (Sat)-May 5th (Sun) 2014
Place: Nagano-City, Chuo-dori (Shinden-cho, from Toigo-machi to Nishigo-machi, Higashigo-machi to Daimon-machi), Gondo Arcade and Gondo Plaza, Tokyu Dept Store
The venerable Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City will once again hold its Toumyou Festival. “Toumyou” refers to votive candles people leave at temples and shrines. For this festival, the main hall and one of the entrance arches are colorfully illuminated in a wish for world peace.
Zenkoji Temple Lit Up in Olympic Colors for the Annual Toumyou Festival
The festival is held in the very coldest middle of winter, and the dates for 2013 are from Saturday 09-Feb to Sunday 17-Feb. The colors for the main illumination are the 5 Olympic colors, in honor of the ’98 Nagano Winter Olympics. In addition to the illumination, during the festival various temple lodging ‘shukubo’ will host special tea functions, numerous lanterns will be displayed (including some made by celebrity artists), shops and restaurants along the main approach to Zenkoji will offer special deals, a live concert will be held, and there will be a stamp rally and other contests. Information can be found in the official guidebook.
Official Guidebook for the 2013 Toumyou Festival
Zenkouji Temple in Nagano City has many legends associated with it. On the east side of the road leading to Zenkouji, just south of the Nioumon Gate and outside one of the pilgrim lodges, is a small statue and sign about a devoted raccoon dog (mujina in Japanese).
The raccoon dog story on the roadside south of Zenkouji Temple
Next to the sign is a small sculpture of the raccoon dog and the monk.
Sculpture of the devoted raccoon dog and the monk
The lantern itself is still in the grounds of Zenkouji Temple. Look for it about 20m west of the southwest corner of the main hall.
Mujina Lantern at Zenkouji Temple
There is another, longer version of this story. A raccoon dog’s parents had died tragically, so the raccoon disguised itself as a human and travelled to Zenkouji. He wanted to dedicate a lantern to comfort his parents’ souls. He checked into the pilgrim’s lodge, and organized the construction of the lantern. After it was completed, he was relaxing in the bath when the landlord discovered he was a raccoon. He ran away. A while later, a samurai came to Zenkouji. Late that night, he went to pray at the temple. Near the lantern, he saw an apparition which was following him. He drew his sword and fought the ghost, and in the battle, he accidentally struck the lantern. Next day, the samurai went back to the temple and saw a scar on the lantern, from which blood had oozed. The lantern photo above shows a diagonal mark on the square stone above the vertical writing. Maybe that is the sword mark? The samurai left town and headed north. While travelling through the deep forest in the mountains, he was buried alive by a sandstorm, and died. Why? Because three years earlier he had needlessly killed the raccoon dog’s parents while travelling over a mountain pass. (Thanks to Miyairi-san for help with the translation.)
Main Hall of Zenko-ji Temple (National Treasure)
Nagano, widely known as the host city of the Winter Olympics in 1998, has always been a Buddhist mecca for Japanese pilgrims since ancient times. This renowned temple, Zenkoji, has a history of 1,400 years and has grand 300 year-old Main Hall (believed to be one of the three largest historical Buddist temple buildings in Japan) designated as a National Treasure complementing its natural environs.
Walking through the pitch-black passageway underneath the altar of the sacred main image of Zenkoji (Amitabha), and touching the ‘Key to Paradise’, will give you a deep insight into what Buddhism has meant to the Japanese people.
Bell Tower of Zenko-ji Temple
Nio-mon (Deva King Gate)
Here, with an advance reservations and according to the number of your party, you can experience traditional Japanse culture such as Kimono, Tea Ceremony, and Zazen. Traditional Buddhist Meals are also available.
Nagano is only 85 min from Tokyo by Shinkansen. Come visit us.
With the Nagano Shinkansen bullet train being so fast and convenient, it may be tempting to come to Nagano just for a daytrip. However, three months ago a guesthouse opened in Nagano City near Zenkoji Temple: 1166 Backpackers. Now visitors to Nagano and the area have an inexpensive option to stay the night and enjoy the city at a more leisurely pace.
With Iimuro-san, the friendly proprietress of 1166 Backpackers
Yesterday I paid a visit and met the owner, Iimuro-san. 1166 Backpackers is Nagano City’s first guesthouse. It is conveniently located near Zenkoji’s Daimon gate. Prices are very reasonable, starting at 2,600 yen for a dormitory bed. Half of their guests are from overseas.
Iimuro-san herself has travelled extensively overseas and thus shares an appreciation for travel with her guests. The facilities are rather simple, but after getting a tour of the rooms the greatest impression I was left with was Iimuro-san’s enthusiasm.
In fact, some of the guests enjoy staying at 1166 so much they stay multiple nights and make day trips in to Tokyo for shopping. With the Nagano Shinkansen making the trip in just 1 hour 40 minutes, that is certainly doable.
When you think about it, it’s surprising that before 1166 there were no guesthouses in Nagano City. Thank you, Iimuro-san, for your contribution.
Click here for 1166’s website.
Starting this Saturday 06-Feb and running through Valentine’s Day, Sunday 14-Feb, the huge Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City will be lit up in Olympic colors. It’s all part of the Zenkoji Lantern Festival, with the illumination scheduled to take place each night from 6 to 9pm. This is the 7th year of the festival. Our family tries to go every year. Zenkoji is impressive with its size and spirituality on a normal day — the illumination makes it even more special.
Zenkoji Lit Up in Olympic Colors
Then in spring, Zenkoji will host a very special guest: the Dalai Lama from Tibet. He is scheduled to give a talk on 20-June (Sun) at the Big Hat Olympic site. Tickets will apparently go on sale on 01-March.
So come the coming week to see Zenkoji lit up, and come again in June to hear the Dalai Lama talk!
Click here for info on the Lantern Festival
Click here for info on the Dalai Lama’s visit.