Nagano Prefecture – Mountains, Monkeys, Ninjas and More
Nagano Prefecture – and its many mountains – have many (sometimes surprising) delights to offer. It holds nine of Japan’s 12 tallest peaks and encompasses much of the areas of the Kita-Alps, Chuo-Alps and Minami-Alps.
Situated in Chubu Region on the main island of Honshu, inland Nagano Prefecture (長野県) is surrounded by more prefectures than any other place in Japan. The region consists of 19 cities and received its name from the prefectural capital, Nagano City (長野市).
Nagano-ken is prominent for its “mountainous prowess” and the assets that that affords. It holds nine of Japan’s 12 tallest peaks and encompasses much of the areas of the Kita-Alps, Chuo-Alps and Minami-Alps.
The extensive highlands of Nagano offer respite during the sticky months with summer resorts such as Kamikochi, world-class winter sport opportunities at ski resorts like Hakuba, and year-round enchantment with the monkey-enticing hot springs of Yamanouchi.
Nagano City (長野市)
Nagano City is located in the north of the prefecture and started to develop during the Nara period after the construction of its first Buddhist Temple. Similarly, to Sapporo, Nagano gained worldwide recognition from hosting the Winter Olympic Games. Since then it has become a popular tourist attraction for its religious sites and – – attractions linked to a former Ninja School!
Supposedly, the Togakure Ninja School was founded after a warrior fled to Mie Prefecture’s Iga City – Japan’s “ninja capital” – to escape a losing war. It was there that he was able to acquire his ninja knowledge before setting up camp in Nagano and establishing the The Togakure Ninja School. Presently, his legacy is commemorated at The Togakure Ninpo Museum (戸隠流忍法資料館) and The Kid’s Ninja Village (チビッ子忍者村).
The most prominent religious sites of Nagano City are Buddhist temple, Zenko-ji (善光寺), and Shinto shrine, Togakushi-jinja (戸隠神社). Buddhism was first practised in Japan shortly after Koreans brought Buddhist sutras into the country in the 6th century. At that time, there was only one sect of Buddhism, but this rapidly changed during the Nara period – when six schools of Buddhism emerged. Zenko-ji temple was constructed before Buddhism in Japan split into sects and is famous for housing the first Buddhist statue every brought to Japan.
Togakushi-jinja is about 20km from Zenko-ji and Nagano City’s centre. It consists of a lower, upper and middle shrine which are dispersed along Mount Togakushi in approximate 2 km intervals. The name “戸隠” means “hiding door” and this name was allocated to the shrine, the town and the mountain based upon a famous legend concerning Sun Goddess Amaterasu.
Matsumoto Castle (松本市)
Matsumoto Castle (松本城) can be found in the centre of the prefecture in Matsumoto City (松本市). There are five castles in Japan that have structures designated as “National Treasures” and 松本城 is one of them. Its construction started in 592 and took around 20 years to complete. Despite being built on flatland, instead of elevated on a hill or mountain, the castle captures your attention even at worst of times. Its striking black exterior and vibrant red bridge juxtapositioned against the mountains really is something special.
Kamikochi is a popular mountain valley resort located within Chubu-Sangaku National Park, in the Hida Mountain Range. Due to its breathtaking and well-preserved scenery it has been awarded various titles including one of “Japan’s National Cultural Assests” and a Special Place of Scenic Beauty. The resort is open between mid-April and mid-November and offers numerous hiking trails in and around the Azusa River Valley.
Yamanouchi and Hakuba (山内 と 白馬)
Yamanouchi (山内 – “inside mountains”) and Hakuba (白馬, “white place”) are both popular winter sport locations in Nagano-ken, approximately 80 km apart.
Hakuba gained worldwide recognition after hosting several of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Yamanouchi on the other hand, does have Japan’s biggest ski resort (志賀高原), but seems to be more famous for the wild monkeys which bathe in the onsen of Jigokudani Monkey Park (地獄谷野猿公苑)!
Side note: If you’re a Studio Ghibli (スタジオジブリ fan), you may also like to know that Nagano Prefecture was the birthplace of world-famous composer Joe Hisashi (one of my all time favourites), who has been composing music for them since 1984.
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