Tokyo is a god of a city, but as far as beaten paths go, it’s fairly beaten. While the multiple interconnecting railway lines can be intimidating at first, they are the cheapest, easiest way to escape the metropolis and uncover sights that most visitors miss. Japan truly is one of those countries that shines no matter what season you visit in and nowhere is that better reflected than in the less-explored heartlands.
Northwest of Tokyo, Nagano can be reached in less than two hours by bullet train, for which I suggest getting the JR East-Nagano Niigata Pass. The small city is home to modern gems, such as the facilities from the 1998 Olympic and Paralympic Games, as well as ancient ones like Zenkōji Temple. Founded in the 7th century, the temple is home to the first Buddha statue ever brought to Japan.
As capital of the mountainous Nagano prefecture, Nagano City also makes for an excellent base for day trips to a host of destinations for nature-lovers, art fanatics, history buffs and foodies. And all are less than 90 minutes by train from the city center.
As expected from a city that hosted a Winter Olympics, there is excellent skiing to be found nearby. Nagano falls squarely inside the region affectionately nicknamed “the Japanese Alps” and there’s a broad selection of ski resorts for all skill levels. I recommend the town of Hakuba, where a mere 20-minute taxi ride will get you from the train station to the slopes of Happo-One Snow Resort. Also in easy reach is the Evergreen Outdoor Center, which offers snowshoe tours in winter and backcountry hiking in green seasons.
At the heart of the city of Matsumoto lies one of Japan’s most intact historical castles, Matsumoto Castle, known for its distinctive black exterior. Surrounded by a moat and cherry blossom trees, it’s gorgeous in spring, but the snowy mountains looming in the background make it worth visiting in any season. For foodies, the Ishii Miso Brewery (founded in 1868) shouldn’t be missed. The Timepiece Museum exhibits over 300 clocks (most of them still ticking) and is a fascinating intersection of history and art.
Famous for its locally-grown chestnuts, the small town of Obuse was also where Hokusai, the painter of the famous ukiyo-e print The Great Wave off Kanagawa, spent the last years of his life. Unsurprisingly, a museum featuring his work is one of the town’s main attractions. Ganshoin Temple is an easy stroll away (about 30 minutes from the station). Its lovely gardens are best viewed in spring or summer but the phoenix Hokusai painted on the temple ceiling is worth visiting no matter the weather. A tasting tour at the Masuichi-Ichimura Sake Brewery makes for a relaxing end to the day.
For outdoorsy adventurers really looking to get off the beaten path, there are a few enchanting destinations only reachable by bus. Only an hour outside of Nagano City, the forested Togakushi Shrine area has been a pilgrimage site for over eight centuries and features several kilometers of tranquil walking trails. For a more family-friendly adventure, Jigokudani Yaen Koen is the home of Japan’s famous hot springs-dwelling snow monkeys. As the park is somewhat difficult to access, it’s recommended that you book a tour.
If you’d like to craft your own train or bus itinerary, check out HyperDia for specific times and prices.
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An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.