Unsure between autumn foliage or snow in your next vacation? What if you can experience both at the same time? If you are like me who wanted to experience the best of both seasons in one trip, then Nagano is the place to be!
Nagano is located west of Tokyo and it only takes about 90 minutes to come here by Shinkansen from Tokyo Station. The temperatures in this part of Japan gets cold a little bit earlier than Tokyo so the last week of October is just about the right time to take this trip. Here is how we spent two days in Nagano with each day in different seasons.
Our first destination was Matsumoto City. There’s a lot of interesting things to do here but what’s not to miss is definitely visiting one of the three most beautiful castles in Japan, the Matsumoto Castle which is also known as the “Crow Castle” due to its black exterior.
It is one of the five castles designated as “National Treasures of Japan”. It was specially stunning when decorated with the red and golden colors of autumn on its wide castle grounds. I have been to several castles in Japan and without a doubt, Matsumoto Castle lives up to its title.
The castle is just 10 minutes away on foot from Matsumoto Station. For an admission fee of 610 yen, visitors can enter the castle keep and discover ancient artifacts carefully preserved for its historical significance. Among them are the samurai armors and katana to name a few.
Another remarkable thing that sets it apart from other castles in Japan is the presence of a moon-viewing room. I came here during the day so I did not get to experience it myself but I could imagine how it would feel like gazing at the moon at such a wondrous setting. The top of the castle offers a commanding view of the city and what’s more interesting is that the interior of the castle is fully constructed of wood which made it feel like really getting back in time.
What better way to enjoy the autumn foliage than to walk among nature? Just outside the castle is a beautiful garden which transforms into rich blends of gold and red in the autumn season. Despite the popularity of this area, it was remarkably quiet when we got there. Though Nagano is easily accessible from Tokyo, it is not as famous as Kyoto or Osaka where most tourists flock.
That being said, anyone who visit this place can guarantee to enjoy the tranquility and intimate experience with the environment. You will surely find it relaxing as you feast your eyes with the colors of nature and may just be the perfect place to get as many creative shots as you want.
For our lunch, there’s nothing more soothing than eating a delicious hot ramen to beat the cold. The Sakura ramen restaurant in Matsumoto is very popular to the locals not only for its miso ramen but also because of its exceptionally rich tasting gyoza topped with mayonnaise. That got me curious so we made sure to check it out and voila! I’ve tasted the most delicious gyoza I ever had.
Sakura ramen restaurant is just a 5-minute walk from Matsumoto station. It is easily recognizable as it is housed in a traditional Japanese storehouse with white exterior. It is said that locals usually flock here but we were very lucky to have the place all for ourselves when we came here. However, if I ever had to fall in line in order to get a delicious set of ramen and gyoza as this one, I definitely wouldn’t mind at all.
Mensho Sakura Access
This was originally not part of our itinerary. But surely discovering new places unknown from the greater crowd is as equally exciting! Especially if it is so much worth the detour. That is exactly how I will describe this place. It isn’t extravagant but it makes you feel like you really are walking in the old streets of Japan.
Nawate street or better known as the Frog Street is an Edo Era-themed shopping street along the Metoba river located just 5 minutes on foot south of Matsumoto Castle. This 200-meter old-fashioned street has a story behind its quirky name.
It was once bustling with activities and commerce but amidst the vibrant lives of the locals were the unusual charm of the frogs dwelling the area. The tranquil sound of the stream together with the quaint sound of the frogs made this place special.
However, due to flooding in the past, the frogs left for a higher ground and never came back even after locals cleaned the river. Now, various parts of the street are decorated with frog statues in remembrance to what was once there. The street may not be as bustling as what it used to be but the relaxing sound of the stream, the various shops and its refreshing old edo era atmosphere remains.
After a day of exploring the area which pretty much embodies the traditional and cultural side of Japan, we decided to go all out by staying at a ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese guest house. Here, you can experience superb Japanese hospitality and culture, not to mention it was our first ryokan experience and it was just amazing!
We booked at Ryokan Matsukaze. It’s one of those standard ryokans which provides same comfort at a more affordable price. Though it only takes 15 minutes on foot from Matsumoto station, it was situated in a very peaceful part of the city near the river like it has more of the countryside vibes.
Staying in a ryokan is an experience itself. Usually, they provide yukata, a type of kimono which is traditionally worn by Japanese people before and after taking a bath. If you want to try one of the most loved custom by Japanese people which is bathing in a hot spring but you don’t feel like getting naked with strangers, then your best bet is to go in a ryokan and experience bathing in a private indoor onsen.
Japan is known for its very advanced comfort rooms and ryokans take their comfort rooms to a higher level. I’d say everything is automatic from the moment you enter the toilet even the opening of the toilet seat lid is by sensor! Well, what I love most about Japan is how they make convenience out of ordinary things which most people take for granted.
Our stay was maximized with the traditional tatami mat flooring room supplemented with the sliding paper doors and the comfortable futons which all contribute to a notable traditional experience. You can’t possibly go wrong upon staying in a ryokan.
While the whole prefecture of Nagano is in the peak of showcasing their beautiful autumn colors, the top of the mountains has already been covered in snow. Nagano is a mountainous and landlocked prefecture of Japan. Along its borders is where the Northern Japanese Alps lie which is a natural playground for outdoor and winter sports enthusiasts.
Among these mountain ranges is where the picturesque 90-km Kurobe Alpine Route runs which is dubbed as the “Roof of Japan”. It passes through the gorgeous scenery of Mt. Tateyama and stretches from Toyama City to as far as Omachi Town in Nagano. But don’t worry, we didn’t climb with our feet all the way to the top of the mountain. The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route offers a scenic and comfortable way for tourists to experience the mountain’s natural wonder and made it possible to venture in a day’s time.
The next morning, we took the first train from Matsumoto Station to Shinano-Omachi Station for about an hour. It was freezing cold when we arrived and outside the station was all covered in fog. It’s a must to have the proper clothing and a pair of gloves. As we were heading directly to Kyoto that night after reaching the opposite end of the route, we were bringing with us bulky travel bags.
It would have been impossible for us to carry on with this plan but thankfully, Japan was more than ready for this sort of things. Just beside the train station was the baggage forwarding service where you can have your baggage delivered to Dentetsu Toyama Station or other points along the route at reasonable prices.
A one-way ticket for the whole route is worth 9,000 Yen. From Shinano-Omachi Station, we commenced our Kurobe Alpine Route traverse. It was very interesting how the scenery slowly changed from autumn to snow covered mountains. One unique thing about this route is that you will be able to enjoy the sceneries using the different forms of transportation, from bus to cable car to ropeway and train.
There’s a lot of things to enjoy along the Kurobe Alpine Route. Though they are part of the same sightseeing route, I would like to emphasize the highlights of my day trip here. I am referring to the things that gave me the most wow factor which everyone should look forward to upon coming here.
One of the most exciting part of the traverse was the Tateyama ropeway. It is a 7-minute ride that feeds nothing short of stunning alpine vistas. This particular ropeway also is Japan’s longest one-span ropeway as it operates without any support towers between the main stations. Well that is certainly a thrill but there’s absolutely nothing to worry about as it travels very smoothly and securely.
I was once on board and the moment the ropeway moved, I forgot everything other than the spectacular sights that was unraveled before my very eyes. I literally walked around the vessel to get a good view of the beautiful landscape from all sides.
The climax of the whole journey would be in Murodo. It is the highest point of the route where you can hike to the nearby Mikurigaike pond and enjoy the white scenery while walking on the snow. This was not the first time I experienced snow so maybe I wasn’t as excited as my two friends who were obviously very enthusiastic about touching them. Still, the scenery was so rewarding especially when the fog clears up! If you ever come here while the fog is still lurking around, I suggest you should be patient and wait a little for it to clear up. It happened during our visit so chances are, it will do the same during yours.
Piece of advice, it would be very helpful if you wear sunglasses upon coming here. Snow reflects ultraviolet rays very efficiently so it would be a bit painful to the eyes if you walk without filter. Because of this, though you’re in the highest point, other parts of the route lower than Murodo would seem colder. The snow has already piled up pretty deep but there’s nothing to worry since there’s an obvious trail that they have readily flatten for people to walk easily.
After our stroll around Murodo, it was now time to eat lunch. Inside Mikurigaike Inn, there is a restaurant that serves some of the local specialties of Nagano. The three of us ordered different set meals. If you’re traveling with your friends, I would recommend that you do the same so that you can taste different cuisines without unnecessarily spending extra money. In my case, I ordered the fried white shrimp on rice set meal which is the most popular meal set in Murodo and I totally loved it! For a price of only 1,650 Yen, you get to enjoy a large serving of this dish at the roof of Japan.
The path from Murodo down to Toyama Station was for me the most picturesque among all the rides! It’s what I’ll describe as jaw-dropping and I mean it literally. Honestly, I was not able to take a lot of pictures in this area as I was just enjoying the whole ride and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. You can see the distant gorgeous high mountains covered in snow and the white carpeted landscapes from inside the bus.
You can choose to take several stops and do short walks in between before arriving at the end of the route. You can also start your journey from the opposite direction and spend more time on this area. I honestly think this side of the route is more scenic.
Though the whole trip was somewhat tiring due to the several transfers and getting exposed to a lot of sunlight at the peak of Mt. Tateyama, still it was all worth it! The scenery in Kurobe Alpine Route is truly exceptional. This route is not only noteworthy when covered with snow, it is equally stunning during the other three seasons.
You wouldn’t run out of things to enjoy in Nagano. If you search a little bit more, you’ll find out this place has a lot more to offer. Your experiences will get more special and interesting when you can do it at two different seasons in just two days.