Nagano, the Door to the Japanese Alps
Updated: Nov 19
A winter sports wonderland, Nagano is best known for hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics, but beyond the slopes lie an array of attractions begging to be explored, including: snow-clad temple complexes, ancient alpine shrines, and the world-famous Snow Monkey Park.
At its heart is the sprawling Zenko-ji Temple complex, a 7th century masterpiece constructed before Buddhism was separated into its various sects; as such, the temple has the rare distinction of belonging to both the Tendai & Jodo branches of Buddhism. It is said that the temple’s main object of worship is in fact the first Buddhist statue to ever reach the shores of Japan, but the effigy has never been seen by outsiders as the monks of Zenko-ji long ago swore to never show the statue to a soul. Regardless, today the compound is home to an array of charming shops, lodgings, eateries and historically significant buildings, ensuring that a stroll through the grounds of the temple is as enlightening as it was for those who first made the pilgrimage in the Nara Era.
Outside of Zenko-ji, other highlights include Togakushi Shrine, an ancient collection of five separate shrines placed at the base of Mt. Togakushi; the must-see shrine is the upper shrine, which travelers come across after walking through a cedar-lined trail that harkens back to the shrine’s 9th century origins.
Venture even further and you will come across what is perhaps the region’s most famous attraction – the legendary Snow Monkey Park. Located in the forested foothills outside of the city, those who visit are treated to one of the world’s most captivating sights: a band of Japanese macaques unwinding in an ever-enchanting hot spring. What makes this area so special is that there are no barriers between the humans and monkeys, allowing for the unique opportunity to view the monkeys going about their daily activities in a nearly natural state.
Whether you visit ancient pilgrimage sites, fantasy-esque mountain shrines or bathing monkeys, the memories made in Nagano are sure to last a lifetime.