Surrounded by fruit orchards and snowcapped peaks, Nagano (長野), capital of Nagano-ken, had its moment in the international spotlight back in 1998 when it hosted the Winter Olympics. For the Japanese, however, this modern, compact city some 200km northwest of Tokyo has been on the tourist map for centuries. Every year, millions of pilgrims descend on Nagano to pay homage at Zenkō-ji (善光寺), home of a legendary sixth-century image of Buddha.
The temple’s popularity is linked to the fact that it has traditionally welcomed believers of all Buddhist sects, has never barred women and is run alternately by an abbot of the Tendai sect and an abbess of the Jōdo sect. Visitors can join the hundreds of daily petitioners searching for the “key to paradise” which lies beneath Zenkō-ji’s main temple building; find it and you’ll have earned eternal salvation.
This temple aside, there’s little else special to see in the city itself, although it’s a very handy base for trips to surrounding destinations such as Karuizawa, Togakushi, Obuse, Nozawa Onsen, Hakuba and Kanbayashi Onsen, home to Japan’s famed snow monkeys.
The traditional way to approach Zenkō-ji is on foot. Head north along Chūō-dōri, west of the JR station, and you’ll first pass Saikō-ji (西光寺), a small temple tucked away in a quiet courtyard. Also known as Karukaya-san, after the Buddhist saint who founded it in 1199, the main temple building contains two wooden statues of Jizō, the guardian of children, one carved by Karukaya, and the other by his son Ishidō.
Continuing along Chūō-dōri, the road begins to narrow around the area known as Daimon (大門), where you’ll find many gift shops and restaurants. On the left is the Daihongan (大本願), the nunnery and residence of the high priestess of Zenkō-ji, who is usually a member of the imperial family. In the courtyard, look out for the fountain with a statue of Mizuko Jizō, the patron saint of aborted and stillborn babies – little dolls and toys are left as offerings around the base.
Passing through the impressive 13.6m-tall gate Niō-mon (仁王門) and a short precinct lined with more souvenir stalls and lodgings, you’ll see the Roku-Jizō on the right, a row of six large metal statues symbolizing the guardians of the six worlds through which Buddhists believe the soul must pass: hell, starvation, beasts, carnage, human beings and heavenly beings. On the left is Daikanjin (大勧進), the home of the high priest; the entrance is reached by crossing an attractive arched bridge and there is a pretty garden inside.
At the top of the precinct stands the San-mon (山門), the huge, double-storey wooden gateway into Zenkō-ji’s central courtyard, a gathering place not only for pilgrims but also pigeons, which have their own elaborate metal coop on the left-hand side. On the same side is the Kyōzō, or sutra repository, an elegant wooden building that is only open occasionally. In the centre of the courtyard stands a large metal cauldron decorated with a lion whose mouth exhales the perfumed smoke of incense sticks. A charm for health and good fortune, pilgrims waft the smoke around their bodies before moving on to the vast, imposing main hall, the Hondō, which dates from 1707.
If you’re at all uncomfortable in the dark, don’t enter the Okaidan, a pitch-black passage that runs beneath the Hondō’s innermost sanctum. This is the resting place of the revered Ikkō Sanzon Amida Nyorai, and pilgrims come down here to grope around in the dark tunnel for the metaphorical “key to paradise” – the closest they will ever get to this sacred object. Buy a ticket from one of the machines to the right of Binzuru’s statue, and follow the chattering crowds plunging into the darkness. Once you’re in, keep your right hand on the wall and chances are you’ll find the key (it actually feels more like a door knob) towards the end of the passage.
Back in the light, enter the outer sanctuary of the hall and look straight ahead for the worn-out statue of Binzuru, a physician and fallen follower of Buddha; pilgrims rub the statue in the hope of curing their ailments. Just beyond is the awesome worshipper’s hall, a vast space with golden ornaments dangling from the high ceiling, where pilgrims used to bed down on futons for the night.
People traditionally come for the morning service, which starts around 5.30am; it’s worth making the effort to attend in order to witness Zenkō-ji at its most mystical, with the priests wailing, drums pounding and hundreds of pilgrims joined in fervent prayer. Afterwards, the Ojuzu Chōdai ceremony takes place in the courtyard in front of the Hondō. Pilgrims kneel while the high priest or priestess rustles by in their colourful robes, shaded by a giant red paper umbrella; as they pass, they bless the pilgrims by tapping them on the head with prayer beads.
A couple of minutes east of Zenkō-ji, across Joyama-kōen, is the Prefectural Shinano Art Museum (長野県信濃美術館), worth popping into mainly for the modern gallery devoted to the vivid, dreamy landscape paintings of celebrated local artist Higashiyama Kaii (1908–99).
Zenkō-ji’s most sacred object is the Ikkō Sanzon Amida Nyorai, a triad of Amida Buddha images sharing one halo. This golden statue is believed to have been made by Buddha himself in the sixth century BC and is said to have arrived in Japan some 1200 years later as a gift from Korea to the emperor. For a while, the image was kept in a specially built temple near Ōsaka, where it became the focus of a clan feud. The temple was eventually destroyed and the statue dumped in a nearby canal, from where it was later rescued by Honda Yoshimitsu, a poor man who was passing by and apparently heard Buddha call. Honda brought the image back to his home in Nagano (then called Shinano). When news of its recovery reached Empress Kōgyoku, she ordered a temple to be built in its honour and called it Zenkō-ji after the Chinese reading of Honda’s name. The empress also ordered that the image should never be publicly viewed again, so a copy was made and it is this that is displayed once every six years in the grand Gokaichō festival, held from early April to late May. The next festival is in 2016.
In the heart of the Japan Alps, and often dubbed “the rooftop of Japan”, the area around Nagano boasts dramatic scenery which provides a perfect location for nature-based activities. It is also worth taking time to visit some of the area’s small towns for their distinctive attractions. Togakushi, the training ground for the legendary ninja warriors, makes an enjoyable trip, while the lovely little town of Obuse is a centre for refined culture and cuisine.
Famous for its connection with the artist Hokusai and its production of chestnuts, OBUSE (小布施), some 20km northeast of Nagano, is one of Japan’s most attractive small towns. The streets around the venerable Ichimura estate and brewery in the centre of town have been beautified and many residents take part in an open garden scheme. Pavements have been relaid with blocks of chestnut wood and old buildings have been spruced up and turned into excellent restaurants, bars and a super-stylish hotel. Casually exploring Obuse, surrounded by orchards and vineyards and dotted with traditional houses, temples, small museums and craft galleries, is a wonderful way to pass a day; even better is to stay overnight and use Obuse as a base for trips around the area, including to nearby Yudanaka Onsen.
The Hokusai-kan (北斎館), about ten minutes’ walk southeast of the station, is devoted to the master of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, Katsushika Hokusai. In 1842, the 83-year-old artist was invited to live and work in Obuse by Takai Kōzan, the town’s leading merchant and art lover. A special studio, the thatched roofed Hekiiken, was built for Hokusai, and it was here that he completed four paintings for the ceilings of two large festival floats and a giant mural of a phoenix for the ceiling of the Ganshōin temple. The beautiful floats, decorated with dragons, seascapes and intricate carvings, are displayed in the museum along with some forty other works, including painted scrolls, delicate watercolours and woodblock prints. The red-roofed Ganshōin (岩松院), housing the beguiling phoenix mural (the Great Ho-o), is a pleasant walk or bicycle ride 1km east, towards the hills.
Near the Hokusai-kan, amid the Masuichi-Ichimura compound, is the Takai Kōzan Kinenkan (高井鴻山記念館), the atmospheric home of Hokusai’s patron, who was also an accomplished artist and calligrapher. His drawings of ghosts and goblins are meant as ironic comments on the turbulent early Meiji-era years and are quite intriguing, as is the sketch of a giant mammoth. In one of the rooms you can see long banners inscribed with kanji characters as well as the 2.5m-long brush used to paint them.
A ¥1000 combination ticket allows entry to both of the previous museums and the delightful Obuse Museum (おぶせミュージアム), which includes the Nakajima Chinami Gallery, an exhibition of this highly regarded artist’s colourful works. Also on display are five more of the town’s traditional festival floats, along with regularly changing art exhibitions.
Look out for a couple of attractive temples as you explore the compact town. Gensho-ji (玄照寺), on the west side of Obuse, has an elaborately carved gate dating from 1799 and some very glitzy gilded chandeliers. In stylistic contrast is Jōkō-ji (浄光寺) on the east side of town, near Ganshōin. This simple, squat, thatch-roofed structure at the top of a flight of rocky steps seems as old as time.
You can sample the four excellent sakes of Masuichi-Ichimura brewery, and a few others, at the teppa counter in the brewery’s shop (daily 9am–7pm; ¥150–320). Try Hakkin, the only sake in Japan to be brewed in huge cedar barrels the old-fashioned, labour-intensive way – hence its high price. Around the corner you can also sip some award-winning sake for free at Obuse’s other brewery Matsubaya (松葉屋本店).
Mauichi’s sister company Obusedō is just one of several chestnut confectioners in town battling it out for the public’s sweet tooth. Others are Chikufudō and Kanseidō, both of which have restaurants serving meals featuring the sweet nut.
Nagano-ken’s mountains are home to several wonderful ski resorts and onsen villages, including the delightful Nozawa Onsen, self-proclaimed home of Japanese skiing; Hakuba, a valley with seven different ski resorts; and Shiga Kōgen, Japan’s biggest skiing area, lying within the Jōshinetsu Kōgen National Park, which is also home to Yudanaka Onsen, famous for its snow monkeys, which splash about in their very own rotemburo.
Situated in the dramatic northern Japanese Alps, 60km northwest of Nagano, Hakuba (白馬) is one of Japan’s top ski destinations, featuring six resorts. The largest and most popular is HAPPŌ-ONE (八方尾根), site of the 1998 Nagano Olympics downhill course. The valley is perfect for skiers and snowboarders who prefer a variety of terrain and plenty of après ski fun.
With two very pretty lakes – Aoki and Kizaki – the Hakuba valley also makes a fine base for a whole range of outdoor pursuits in summer. The reliable Evergreen Outdoor Centre offers everything from rafting and mountain biking in summer to backcountry ski expeditions and avalanche-awareness courses in the winter.
Even though international word is out on how great the skiing is at NOZAWA ONSEN (野沢温泉), this village of four thousand people, nestled at the base of Kenashi-yama (1650m), 50km northeast of Nagano, maintains a traditional atmosphere. Dotted along the narrow, twisting streets, you’ll find thirteen free bathhouses, all lovingly tended by the locals. Most impressive is Ōyu bathhouse, housed in a temple-like wooden building in the centre of the village; each side has two pools, one of which is so hot that it’s almost impossible to get into.
Nozawa claims to be the birthplace of Japanese skiing since it was here, in 1930, that Hannes Schneider – an Austrian who popularized the two-pole technique – gave skiing demonstrations to an awestruck audience. One of the resort’s most difficult runs is named after Schneider, and photos of the man in action, impeccably dressed in suit and tie, can be seen in the Japan Museum of Skiing (daily except Tues 9am–4pm; ¥300), housed in a white, church-like building at the bottom of the Hikage slope.
The ski resort (open late Nov to early May) is family friendly, has lots of English signs and varied terrain that will put all levels through their paces. Time your visit to coincide with the spectacular Dōso-jin fire festival, held every January 15.
The complaint that Japanese ski resorts are too small certainly doesn’t apply to mammoth SHIGA KŌGEN (志賀高原), eighteen resorts strung out along the Shiga plateau in the Jōshinetsu Kōgen National Park, 20km northeast of Nagano. The huge variety of terrain makes the one-day ¥4800 lift pass, which covers the entire lift network, terrific value. It takes several days to ski the whole area; if you’re short of time head for the northern end of the mountain range to the resorts at Okushiga-kōgen (奥志賀高原) and Yakebitai-yama (焼額山), where the slalom events of the 1998 Olympics were held.
On the western fringes of the Jōshinetsu Kōgen National Park is a string of onsen villages, kicking off with Yudanaka (湯田中), from where you can catch the bus to see the famous “snow monkeys” at nearby Kambayashi Onsen (上林温泉). Yudanaka is also the access point for the well-groomed and quiet slopes of Gorin Kōgen (ごりん高原) and Kita-Shiga Kōgen Heights (北志賀高原), which are especially popular with snowboarders.
The Nagano–Dentetsu train line from Nagano terminates in Yudanaka (express 40min, ¥1230; local 1hr, ¥1130). From the station, it’s a fifteen-minute bus journey to Kanbayashi Onsen. There’s also a direct bus from Nagano to Kanbayashi Onsen (40min; ¥1300). To reach the monkey park, walk uphill from the bus stop until you find a sign for a trail leading through the woods for around 2km.
Beside the monkey park is Kōrakukan (後楽館), a rambling wooden ryokan offering homely Japanese-style accommodation; rates include two meals. Take a dip in their rotemburo for ¥500 and it’s possible that the monkeys will join you. Alternatively, there’s the elegant Kanbayashi Hotel Senjukaku (上林ホテル仙壽閣), set amid the trees in Kanbayashi Onsen.
Yudanaka’s star attraction is a troupe of some two hundred Japanese long-tailed monkeys (Nihon-zaru) that like to bathe in the rotemburo at the Monkey Park, Jigokudani Yaen-kōen (地獄谷野猿公苑), a twenty-minute walk from Kambayashi Onsen. Legend goes that they started to take dips in the hot pools during the 1960s, when a local ryokan owner took pity on them and left food out in winter. A special rotemburo was eventually built for them, dubbed “snow monkeys” by Life magazine, even though they live beside the onsen year-round. It’s curiously addictive watching these primates wallowing and fooling around by the pool; get a preview via webcam at jigokudani-yaenkoen.jp. The monkeys are so used to humans that they act with dignified nonchalance in the face of the paparazzi-style snapping from hordes of tourists.