Bet you are all aching to fly over to Japan when the borders fully reopen for general normal tourism. Here’s hoping that you’ll be able to hit the winter slopes for that epic powder! Hakuba in Nagano is famous for its powdery soft snow and its closeness to Central Tokyo, however it's beautiful in all its seasons so take the time to explore more of this region which is filled with amazing historical sites and cultural experiences off the beaten path.
Perfect for a quick croissant toastie lunch at this gorgeous terrace cafe Hakuba Mountain Harbour, where really the highlight is the terrace itself with its stunning views of Iwatake peaks, the Japan Alps and the glacier-certified "Karamatsuzawa Snow Valley. Afterwards grab a hot coffee, tea or chilled drink and either head back up to the mountains, go for a hike in the summer, spring and autumn or watch the skiers and snowboarders glide down the trail below in winter.
If you visit in the “green season”, the snow slopes turn into an epic Mountain Go-Kart and Mountain Bike Trail! Have a blast riding down the trail just up from Hakuba Mountain Harbour and at the end you can enjoy tea and scones at Chavaty; the newest fooding establishment on the mountain with gorgeous terrace views.
Wanting a bit of a change from the typical mountain lodges? Outdoor Hotel TENAR is a mobile house take on the glamping trend with an innovative design that wishes to enhance the connection between the indoors and outdoors. Located on the premises of the Hakuba Tokyu Hotel, you can enjoy dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, then drinks and a campfire on the terrace of your TENAR accommodation in the evening. Bathing and toilets are available in the hotel where one can soak in their lovely outdoor or indoor onsen.
For those who also want to experience some of the historical and cultural sites, the Togakushi Shrine Pilgrimage is one of the most popular hikes to do, however because of its remote location there aren’t crazy crowds. Picturesque throughout all the seasons, winter and autumn are probably the most striking. Togakushi Shrine consists of 5 shrines, and to do the entire distance will take one about 4.5 hours one way. It is renowned and revered for its association with the Sun Goddess: Amaterasu.
To have a more leisurely hike of the Togakushi Shrine area, break up your journey with an overnight stay at a Japanese temple. Temples that allow overnight guests are traditionally called Shukubo. The best location is around the small town that’s surrounding the Chusha (the middle shrine) where there are numerous small lodgings for you to enjoy a delicious local, seasonal feast for dinner and a good night’s sleep. Breakfast is also included. A lovely one to stay at is Tsuji Ryokan.
Togakushi is home to one of Japan’s “Three Great Soba Noodles”; the others being Iwate’s Wanko Soba and Shimane’s Izumo Soba. Drive down to Tonkururin (Togakushi Soba Museum) and you can learn how to create Togakushi’s famed soba from a local soba master! Afterwards your soba will be prepared by the chef downstairs and you will have a filling soba meal paired with local tempura mountain vegetables and ground dashi.
Built in the 7th century, Zenkoji “The Temple of the Benevolent Light” is a Buddhist Temple which most famously hosts the first Buddha statue to arrive in Japan and it’s what the city of Nagano was built around. Every seven years in a ceremony called Gokaichō, the Buddha statue replica Maedachi Honzon is shown to the public. The event attracts many visitors and worshippers. Spring 2022 was the most recent time the Maedachi Honzon was on display. *and when this particular photo was taken, so it was very busy.
When one’s in Japan, one should also try the local sake! You can find sake brewers in most regions of Japan but especially mountainous ones where the water runs clear and pure. Nishinomon Sake Brewery is a short walk from Zenkoji Temple. Established in 1637, the current head of Nishinomon is the ‘Ju-roku-daime’ 16th generation family head, Fujii-san. In their premises, one can visit the sake brewery, see the inner workings and at the end sip the range of their sake to taste all the different flavours.
If you weren’t able to experience a traditional shukubo stay in Togakushi; around Zenkoji are many smaller temples which offer the same type of lodging or you can simply visit to enjoy their temple cuisine at lunchtime. Shinshu Zenkoji Yakuoin was one of the first temples built around and to support Zenkoji. For lunch expect around 8 - 10 dishes, with ingredients changing seasonally.
The easiest way to get from the mountains to Nagano is via a hire car, where once you reach Nagano City, you can drop it off and use the public transport. If you’re travelling in winter, make sure you have a car with snow chains on the tyres.
If you decide to travel via public transport and don’t want to carry your huge luggage/snowboard/skis with you - use Yamato Transport (Kuroneko - the black cat) to send your cumbersome luggage ahead! You can even send it straight to your departing airport and pick it up there. Hotels will be able to help you fill out the forms, and there are forms in English. Do make sure there are enough days for the luggage to arrive! You can also send any omiyage (souvenirs) you’ve bought onwards as well ! Just pack them securely in a box.
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