Beautiful temples, stunning natural sceneries, and soothing hot springs—Nagano is one of the most idyllic and relaxing destinations in the highlands of Japan.
As the capital and largest city of the Nagano Prefecture, this town is brimming with historical sights, nature-related attractions, and modern structures.
The past and the present blend seamlessly in this city, resulting in a community that celebrates tradition and embraces modernity.
Nagano is true as Japanese as can be.
So for your next international vacation, why not spend a week or two exploring all that this city has in store?
Here are the 15 best things to do in Nagano, Japan:
Walk the Scenic Paths to Togakushi-Jinja Shrines
Shintoism is the original religion of Japan, and one of the places that celebrate this faith is the fairytale-like Togakushi-Jinja complex.
Exploring the place is like being in a Ghibli film—forested walks, wide staircases, traditional Japanese gates, and so many other iconic features dot the location.
Togakushi-Jinja comprises five shrines, and you can explore all these by following the Togakushi Shrine Path.
The route to the upper shrine is one of the most picturesque routes imaginable, with tall cypress trees creating a wall of brown and green that makes it feel as though you're walking in a magical place.
During winter, the whole path is usually covered in snow, adding a soft and immaculate
ambiance to the incredible landscape of the entire complex.
Find the Hidden Key at Zenkō-ji Temple
Buddhism is one of the main religions in the country, and Nagano is one of the places where this belief system is still very much alive.
In fact, the most prominent Buddhist temple anywhere in the country is located here.
Zenkoji Temple has been around since the 7th century, and it is the home of the first Buddhist statue brought to Japan.
The city of Nagano itself is built around the temple, a unique trait that is unlike other cities of Japan.
Visiting here is quite the cultural experience, as you will have plenty of opportunities to explore the wide grounds, a lovely garden, and a pagoda that also serves as a museum.
Entering the inner chamber requires a fee, but you will get a chance to look at the temple's main altar and other unique wonders.
One of these is the underground passage, where you can try your hand at locating a hidden key that is believed to symbolize the path to salvation.
Relax at the Serene Kagami ike Pond
While you're in Togakushi village, you shouldn't miss the stunning Kagami ike Pond.
This lake is located south of the shrines, and it is surrounded by the lush forests of the village and mountains in the area.
Due to the generally calm weather here, the lake's waters remain undisturbed for several hours in a day, resulting in a mirror-like surface that reflects the scenic landscape of the surroundings.
One of the best times to visit the place is during fall, as the trees changing their foliage add another layer of beauty to the already stunning scenery.
While there, you can sit back on the verdant grounds on one side of the lake and enjoy the view.
You can also take amazing landscape photos to show off to your loved ones when you return from your trip.
See the Snow Monkeys of Jigokudani Yaen Kōen
It's not only humans who have learned the benefits of relaxing in a hot spring.
The monkeys of Jigokudani Yaen Kōen also know that a dip in the soothing waters of these geothermal streams can result in a heavenly feeling, especially for sore body parts.
And that's exactly why they descend from the mountains and visit the springs of Jigokudani.
With their pinkish faces and creamy fur, Japanese macaques are famous for their human-like behavior of relaxing in hot water.
Many visitors come here to see this unusual and undeniably cute wildlife display.
It's your chance to see them too while in Japan, so make sure to make a stop here if you're around during winter.
If you want a dip into the warm waters, then find an onsen in the village and enjoy the Japanese tradition of communal bathing.
Ski Down the Slopes of Karuizawa
Karuizawa is a high-altitude resort town and one of the favorite places in Japan for skiing.
Situated around 1000 meters above sea level, the location's temperatures are seldom warm, so the village is also a popular summer getaway.
You can go on bike trips and nature walks within the forests surrounding the village, with destinations like the famous Shiraito Waterfall, waiting in every corner.
During winter, people flock to Karuizawa for the mild and easy slopes for skiing.
Even inexperienced kids will have a grand time sliding on the gentle mountainside.
So if you're a fan of winter sports, then Karuizawa is a must-add in your Nagano itinerary.
See Incredible Works at Nagano Prefectural Art Museum
Japanese art has a brand of its own, and one of the best places to see authentic pieces is at the Nagano Prefectural Art Museum.
The flowing, modern architecture complemented by traditional Japanese landscaping adds to the overall "man and nature" theme of the facility, and the main building is already a sight to behold on its own.
Inside, you'll find various exhibits, collections, and works of fine art by famous artists of Japan, especially those who originate from the Nagano Prefecture.
Adjacent to the museum is the Higashiyama Kaii Gallery, with exhibits that celebrate the sceneries and culture of the city itself.
Since the museum is only a few minute's walk from Zenkō-ji Temple, the Nagano Prefectural Art Museum is an excellent place to visit after your spiritual adventure in the temple.
Hang Out With Friendly Animals at Chausuyama Zoo
Animals lovers will have a great time exploring the panoramic views of Chausuyama Zoo and, of course, its friendly inhabitants.
This zoo is located in Mt. Chausu in Shinonoiutabi, and its 15-acre grounds are divided into several themed areas housing various animals.
By utilizing the terrain of the area, the developers of the zoo were able to maintain a natural feel to everything, making the whole place an ideal setting for the 700 animals living here.
One of the favorite attractions is the petting zoo, where children can interact with native Japanese animals like red pandas and the pink-faced snow macaques.
There are other exotic animals here, such as lions, elephants, and koalas, all kept in comfortable habitats.
Marvel at the Beauty of Matsumoto Castle
Japanese castles are unique because defense and fortification blend seamlessly with aesthetics, resulting in majestic structures that have become some of the most iconic symbols of Japan.
Matsumoto Castle is one such example, and it is one of the country's premier historic castles.
The intimidating black exterior is the reason why it's also called Crow Castle, and the colors add to the regal grandeur of this important historical landmark.
While touring, you'll find a large shallow lake surrounding most of the castle, making the whole complex a playground for photographers.
When spring comes, cherry blossoms surrounding the pond add another layer of magical beauty that will have you wanting to stay and marvel at everything.
It's an unforgettable scene that will make your trip to Nagano worth every penny.
Be One With Nature at Kamikochi
For some real outdoor experience, a trip to the western highlands of Nagano is a must.
Kamikochi is the chief destination in these parts, a remote valley often compared to California's Yosemite National Park because of the grand sceneries.
Blue rivers, snowcapped mountains, and swaths of pine forests all combine to make a post-card perfect attraction that attracts thousands of tourists no matter the season.
While there, you'll walk over wooden bridges that cross the Azusa River, traverse marshes, and occasionally spot the local wildlife who call the area home.
And since motor vehicles are banned here, walking remains the top method to explore the whole location.
Hiking during fall is especially scenic, as the changing foliage of the alpine forests creates enchanting scenery over the calm and wide rivers.
Let the Sakura Flowers Fall All Over You at Garyu Park
When spring comes, and cherry blossoms start showing off their delicate pink flowers, one of the best places to be is in Garyu Park.
The lake is ringed with these trees, and when March arrives, the pink blooms turn the whole scenery into something out of a painting.
And with the red bridge as the perfect background, you can take some of the most stunning photos that will surely make anyone envious.
It's no wonder that this place is included as one of the best places to see sakura trees in the whole of Japan.
There are other sites to see in Garyu Park aside from the lake, such as a small zoo, scenic forested trails, and cafes.
After marveling at the flowers, take your time to explore the rest of the picturesque grounds and talk to a local or two.
Learn the Ways of the Ninja at Togakure Ninpo Museum
No trip to Nagano would be complete without exploring the heritage of the world-famous ninjas.
One place that celebrates this heritage is the Togakure Ninpo Museum.
Located near the Togakushi-Jinja Shrines, this historic facility was once used as a school for ninjas.
It stands today as a museum with multiple buildings that exhibit Japan's minimalist yet highly functional architecture.
Here, you'll find artifacts, photographs, real weapons, and other collections that showcase the ancient ninja way of life.
One of the favorite buildings in the complex is the Ninja House, which has secret paths and contraptions that challenge visitors with their espionage and problem-solving skills.
Overall, the museum is an exciting place to learn the origins of the famed assassins and try some of their weapons yourself.
Commune With Nature at Togakushi Forest Botanical Garden
This 71-hectare attraction is another one of Togakushi's attractions, and it's the perfect place for plant lovers.
Togakushi Forest Botanical Garden is teeming with plant life such as alpine trees, mizubashio (skunk cabbage) gardens, wild grasses, lush ferns, and other native flora.
You can view all of these by taking the beautiful wooden path through the facility, which happens to pass along the towing cypress trees similar to those found in the Togakushi-Jinja Shrine route.
The garden itself is part of the Togakushi Small Bird Forest, so there are plenty of opportunities to spot the local avian species of Nagano.
Try to see wild ducks, tiny songbirds, cedar waxwings, and other colorful birds as they flit about in the branches of the trees to hunt and feed.
Explore the Interiors of Matsushiro Castle Ruins
Another historic destination within Nagano is the Matsushiro Castle Ruins.
Formerly called Kaizu Castle, this structure was built during the 1500s and has since endured many battles and natural calamities that resulted in its degradation.
It was fully restored in 2003 and now stands as a proud relic of an important era in Japan.
The most striking feature you'll see upon arriving is the shallow moat that surrounds all of the castle, as well as the thick stone walls that defend the outermost borders.
Within the castle itself, you'll find traditional architecture and structures like stairs and arrow holes that were integral in defense of the fortification.
It's also another favorite spot for cherry blossom viewing, as the body of water and magnificent castle make for incredible subjects framed by a pink haze of flowers.
Tour the Magnificent Galleries of Hokusai-kan Museum
Hokusai Katsushika is a famed Japanese artist that lived in the Edo period.
One of the country's most famous paintings—the iconic Great Wave off Kanagawa wood print—was his work.
He was born in Nagano, so it only made sense that the premier museum for his many accomplishments is constructed here.
Hokusai-kan Museum houses some of his most famous works in the Ukiyo-e genre, depicting everyday life scenes, scenic landscapes, and beautiful women.
Because of the original works and the traditional feel of the facility, visiting here is truly an art aficionados' dream.
See the Warring Statues on Kawanakajima Battleground
Kawanakajima Battleground is a large park that depicts famous battles that occurred during the 1500s.
It's a famous event that is said to be one of the most cherished tales of chivalry and romance in Japan's past, so history buffs will have a great time learning all about it.
The park itself has sculptures that depict scenes of the battle in epic detail.
You'll find Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshi in the heat of a fight, one on a horse about to strike down the other with a katana.
But the peaceful ambiance here is far from the bloody events that happened years ago.
So enjoy exploring the serene trails or grab a snack from a local concessionaire after you've admired the statues.
Steeped with history, beautiful natural attractions, and long-standing traditions, Nagano perfectly encapsulates what most visitors might imagine as "Japan."
So if you're one of those who want an authentic experience in the Land of the Rising Sun, then this city should be on top of your itinerary.
Reference this list when you're planning so you won't miss the top spots!