This past October, I went on my twice-yearly pilgrimage to Tokyo. I was determined to see something new this time. My husband suggested to do a road trip out Nagano, so I did a quick research and realized it’s the perfect choice for my criteria! I wanted to visit a place outside Tokyo and I also wanted to be in nature, which I can’t really find back home in Singapore. Nagano ticks both of those boxes perfectly.
My 5-day Nagano Prefecture Itinerary
Here is the five day itinerary when I went to Nagano. I think it’s a great itinerary as it combines both city exploration and nature! You can easily stretch this to more days too if you have more time than I did. I’ll include other places worthy of visiting that I didn’t get to go.
- Day 1: Karuizawa
- Day 2: Matsumoto
- Day 3: Kamikochi (Japanese Alps)
- Day 4: Omachi – Lake Kisaki and Kurobe Dam
- Day 5: Kusatsu Onsen town
- What else can you see in Nagano?
How to get around Nagano prefecture
- Self Driving – Nagano prefecture is a large area to explore. If you have an international driver’s license and are comfortable with driving in a foreign country, this is the most convenient and flexible option since you won’t have to be dependent on public transport. You can book a car rental from Tokyo here, which you can pick up from the airport or the city:
- By Train – If you can’t / don’t want to drive, then getting a JR Pass is still a great option. You can use the unlimited JR Pass, or if you’re only planning to visit Nagano then you can opt for the cheaper 5-day JR East Nagano pass, which will cover most of the itineraries below. Keep in mind JR Pass MUST be bought from outside of Japan, so get this before your trip!
Tips for Roadtripping in Nagano Prefecture
- It’s worth noting most restaurants seem to close rather early here (8-8:30pm) so make sure you’re well fed by then, unless you don’t mind eating at an Izakaya or meals from the Konbini (convenience store), which is really not that bad.
Food to try in Nagano
Due to the mountainous terrain of Nagano prefecture, it is difficult to successfully grow rice. Instead, soba (buckwheat) became the main produce of Nagano!
1. Soba Noodles
The most popular form of buckwheat is of course, Soba noodles! I’m sure most of us are already familiar with this noodle, but in Nagano you definitely can’t miss it. It’s served in almost every traditional restaurant. You can have Soba noodles in a hot soup or served cold with a broth on the side, and with various toppings.
2. Oyaki (Savory or Sweet Dumpling)
Oyaki is a Japanese savory dumpling, traditionally stuffed with roasted local vegetables. Oyaki is super popular and widely available in Nagano. Like Soba noodles, It’s a great representation of the prefecture – Oyaki skin is made from buckwheat flour. I tried one near Matsumoto Castle which had was leek, mushroom and potatoes. Apples and other fruits are also commonly used to make the sweet version!
And now without further ado, here’s what you can expect from each stops in my Nagano Itinerary:
Day 1: Karuizawa
Our first stop is a small town called Karuizawa. Although small, Karuizawa is hardly unknown to Japanese people. And especially to people from Tokyo, Karuizawa is known as an idyllic mountain town and an escape from the summer heat. It is also famous as the place where many celebrities bought their second homes (including Bill Gates according to rumors!). Most recently, Karuizawa gained global popularity as the filming location of the beloved Japanese reality show Terrace House.
So what makes Karuizawa a worthy stop? Let’s take a look at what you can find here:
1. Harunire Terrace
On paper Harunire Terrace might just be a shopping strip, but it’s really more than that! It’s special due to its location right next to Yu river and its warm wooden architecture covered in lush green trees. All of the shops here are also local Japanese brand, not big names that you can just find anywhere else.
Definitely stop by Harunire Terrace for a hot chocolate, some sweets or even a meal if you’re up for it. There is a dedicated area with chair and benches where you can sit by the river, if you need to relax for a little while.
2. Kogen Church & Stone Church
Not far from Harunire Terrace is Kogen Church and Karuizawa Stone Church. The churches are part of Hoshino resort, and it is evidently quite popular for a wedding. We saw at least 5 couples scouting out wedding venue and there was even a wedding going on as we were passing by.
3. Kumoba Pond
Kumoba Pond is a nice relaxing pond close to the center of Karuizawa. A walk circling around this pond takes about 30-40 minutes, if you’re not in a hurry. You can cycle here but you have to dismount your bike and leave it at the parking area by the entrance.
Also near the entrance of the pond is a cute restaurant called Kumobatei, which serves Japanese-western dishes like corn soup, Japanese curry, and dishes made from local veggies.
4. Hoshino Onsen
Hoshino Onsen is my favorite onsen (Japanese hot spring) from this entire trip. Hoshino is also the nicest one I’ve visited so far even if it’s a bit small. Entrance ticket to enjoy Hoshino Onsen was 1350 yen, which is about double to triple regular onsen. That said, I didn’t think it was too expensive for the experience!
As with anything traditional in Japan, going to an Onsen does come with its own set of etiquette which might not be clear to foreigners like us. If you’re curious about onsen and want to check them out, please read my guide to Onsen! I’ve included everything I knew about visiting onsen in that article.
One thing to keep in mind is if you have a tattoo. Hoshino Onsen is a tattoo-friendly establishment, as long as your tattoo is not too big (maximum 8×10 cm). They’ll ask you to purchase a skin-colored plaster to cover up your tattoo for 250 yen each – this is what I had to do since I have a small tattoo on my back.
When you are done bathing, don’t forget to check out the cozy restaurant outside Hoshino Onsen – called Sonmin-Shokudo. They serve all kinds of washoku (Japanese dishes) including a miso karaage (deep fried chicken) that is prepared locally.
5. Onioshidashi Park (30-min bus ride from Karuizawa)
Technically, Onioshidashi Park is not in Karuizawa but it’s pretty accessible from town! It’s only a 30-minute car ride or bus from Karuizawa and Naka-Karuizawa station and operates hourly.
Onioshidashi literally means “Pushing out the devil”. This park is famous due to the rugged terrain of volcanic rocks, which was formed when the nearby volcano Mount Asama erupted in 1783. If the weather is clear, you can see Mount Asama from the park! When i visited it was really foggy so I could only see the base of the mountain.
At Onioshidashi Park, you can take the trekking trails around the park which will take you roughly an hour. There is a temple you can check out, as well as various restaurants and souvenir shops at the beginning of the trail.
6. Kyukaruizawa Ginza-dori (Old Karuizawa Shopping street)
A little bit bigger than Harunire Terrace, this is a cozy shopping street where you can shop for souvenir and local handcraft, or get a nice meal. It’s a famous visitor spot, but definitely you can still find charming products here. I walked away with a ceramic plate from Meiji period!
7. Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza
Alright, want to know what Japanese REALLY do when they visit Karuizawa? They go to shop at Prince shopping plaza. This shopping plaza is actually what Americans would call outlet mall, and it’s absolutely fantastic if you’re in the mood for shopping. You might think – I’ve gone all the way to Japan, why would I want to shop? Well, I can assure you shopping in Japan is something you must try at least once. AS the Japanese consumer market is unique, even the big brands like Adidas or Nike might carry something a bit different than what they would stock in the rest of the world.
Where to eat in Karuizawa
- Cheesecake from Izumiya Saku at Harunire Terrace
- Sonmin-Shokudo at Hoshino Onsen
- Kumobatei next to Kumoba Pond
- SASA Japanese Cuisine – famous as the curry shop of one of the Terrace House participant
Where to stay in Karuizawa
- Karuizawa Pension Sato is where we stayed in Karuizawa. It’s a super cute 2-story house, located deep inside the foresty streets of Karuizawa, where you can pick rooms with either shared bathroom or private bathroom ensuite. Their price is the most affordable I could find in Karuizawa.
- Hotel Wellies – a cute british style cabin hotel located in the resort area of Karuizawa
- APA Hotel Karuizawa Ekimae – If convenience is what you’re after, this hotel is only 2 mins walk from the station with easy access to Karuizawa tourist spots.
Day 2: Matsumoto
From Karuizawa, we drove approximately 2 hours to Matsumoto. Honestly, the only reason why we made a stop here is because it is the closest point to Kamikochi, which is next on our itinerary.
1. Matsumoto Castle & Matsumoto City Museum
Matsumoto Castle is difficult to avoid when you are in Matsumoto. It’s definitely a must-do. Unlike the rest of the castles in Japan, Matsumoto Castle is unique due to its black exterior, which has earned its nickname “Crow Castle”. It is said the cost of the maintenance for this castle is high due to the material and man hour needed to keep up the black paint exterior.
At the castle, you can opt to go inside and explore all 5 floors which I totally recommend. The castle gets more and more narrow as you reach to the top and the stairs gets steeper, but you get a nice view at the top where you can really see how this area is surrounded by mountains.
Next to the entrance to the castle is the city museum, which you can explore after the castle.
2. Matsumoto City Museum of Art
Matsumoto City Museum of Art is a must-stop if you’re a fan of the works of Yayoi Kusama, arguably one of Japan’s most famous contemporary artist who was born and raised in Matsumoto. Heck, even if you have no idea who Yayoi Kusama is, I still think the permanent exhibition is worth a visit! It only costs 400 yen to enter and you can go through it in less than an hour. Keep in mind the museum is closed on Mondays.
In this museum, you can see permanent collection of her works. While you won’t see the famous “Infinity Mirrored Rooms” (which has gone viral thanks to Instagram and commanded hours of queue at The Broad in Los Angeles) you’ll get to see many of her early works and an insight into her quirky mind.
3. Former Kaichi School
Kaichi school was one of the first schools in Japan. If you are interested in seeing how schooling was done, I suggest visiting this place. However if you are out of time you can give it a miss.
4. Nawate Dori
Nawate Dori is a shopping strip where the style of the shops are preserved to look like how it would back when Matsumoto was a castle town. You can find souvenir shops, vintage goods shops, and most importantly, please stop by Furusato for a delicious treat of Taiyaki!
5. Asama Onsen
What is Nagano without daily visit to the onsen? Okay, fine, maybe it’s not normal to go to Onsen every day, but we made a point to try an Onsen in each of the places we stopped by. Asama Onsen is out of the way from the city, so you don’t have to stop by here if you’ve done / planning to do onsen elsewhere (Kusatsu might have been the better choice).
Anyway, compared to Hoshino Onsen from Karuizawa, Asama Onsen is much more simple. Their price is very simple too – more than half of Hoshino at 600 yen per adult. Inside, you can find one cold pool, one hot pool and one outdoor pool. I suggest trying the hot/cold bathing method – first, take a shower and then dip yourself into the hot pool. Once you feel that your body temperature is high enough, go to the cold pool and dip yourself. Then go back to the hot pool. It sounds crazy, but I’ve been told this builds immunity!
Where and where to eat in Matsumoto
- Miyota Soba
- Matsumoto Fried Chicken at Matsumoto Karaage Center
- Furusato Taiyaki at Nawate-dori
Where to stay in Matsumoto
- We stayed at L-BASE Fuchian Mura, and got one of their mountain lodge / holiday home. It’s a super small yet cozy wooden lodge with the bed located on the second floor. I posted this on Instagram and got so many requests to reveal the location, so here you go! L-BASE isn’t located in the city itself though, so it might be a bit inconvenient if you aren’t driving – but it’s still within walking distance to one of the train stations.
- Premier Hotel Cabin Matsumoto – If you need to stay close to the train station, this hotel is a great choice. It’s close to the Matsumoto castle and city center.
- Dormy Inn Matsumoto – Also a great option for staying near the city center.
Day 3: Kamikochi
Kamikochi is part of the Chubu Sangaku National Park, also known as the Northern Japanese alps. It has also been referred to as the “Japanese Yosemite Valley”, due to similarity of the terrains that can be found in Kamikochi.
I gotta admit – this entire itinerary was built around our plan to hike in Kamikochi! I saw one photo of Kappabashi (below) and I was sold. As there are a lot to say about this place, I’ve written a separate guide on hiking in Kamikochi. This includes what to expect and places to stay, as well as day trip options if you’re not in the mood to hike.
Keep in mind though, Kamikochi is only open from April 15 – November 15. You need check their official website at kamikochi.org for exact dates, as it may change on yearly basis. The park closes down for winter and you cannot visit, so it’s best to skip if you’re here during the winter months.
Day 4: Omachi – Lake Kisaki & Kurobe Dam
I designated this day as our rest day after the insane 10 hours hike / walk we did in Kamikochi, but we still ended up walking around plenty!
1. Lake Kisaki & Kizakiko Camping Ground
If you did the same hike as we did and stayed in Kamikochi, then you have the option to go straight to Lake Kisaki once you’ve left Kamikochi. It’s about 2 hours drive from Kamikochi.
Lake Kisaki is a fairly small lake – walking the perimeter of this lake takes about an hour, and it’s mostly lined by holiday houses and farms. There isn’t much to do here, but relax. That’s the main reason why we came here! To stay at one of the lake side lodge and rest after our Kamikochi trek.
If you feel like going to an onsen, there’s (of course) one nearby the camping ground called Yupuru. This one is the most basic out of all the onsen I’ve visited so far, with only one indoor pool and a washing area. It costs 700 yen per adult to enter.
2. Kurobe Dam
Kurobe Dam is one of the marvel of Japanese engineering, built in the post-WWII era to resolve drought and power shortage in the area. It is the tallest dam in Japan at 186m high, completed in 1963 after an arduous 7 years of construction which claimed the lives of 171 workers.
Kurobe Dam station is only about 30 minutes drive from Lake Kisaki. From the station, you need to take one of their electric buses through Kanden Tunnel to continue your way up to the dam itself. You get to pass through the famed “fracture zone” which made the construction of this dam so difficult. The temperature in this tunnel is very cold regarding the outside temperature – it always remains around 10C.
If you happen to be here on a beautiful day, a visit to the dam is totally worth it. It’s also part of the Japanese Alpine hiking route (the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route to be exact), so you might see hikers in their gear and bear bells walking across the dam!
What and where to eat
- Kurobe Dam Curry – This dish is technically just a Japanese curry dish, which is already delicious on its own, what makes the dish an Omachi specialty is the way it’s served. The Japanese white rice is moulded to the shape of Kurobe Dam, and the sauce is green (from Spinach) to represent the color of the water in Kurobe dam. Two pieces of nuggets are also served to represent the boats that you can take during certain months in Kurobe Dam. You can have this dish at the Kurobe Dam restaurant or at Yupuru onsen restaurant near Lake Kisaki.
Where to stay
- Kizakiko Camping Ground – We booked a lake side bungalow at this camping ground. It was not cheap by any means (8000 yen a night!), especially for how simple the bungalow is, but the location couldn’t be better. It’s literally by the lake side! The only issue is that booking needs to be done in Japanese.
- Hotel Yume-no-yu – A ryokan with private bathroom and its own onsen in the vicinity.
- Nanakuraso – Ryokan located conveniently in Omachi town.
Day 5: Kusatsu
Kusatsu is such a charming little town. The entire vibe of the city reminds me of Spirited Away, and it’s made extra whimsical on cold nights since the natural hot spring would occasionally stir up steam into the air.
The hot spring water in Kusatsu famous as it is high in acidity and bacterial power, which is believed to be beneficial for skin. Many visitors would dress up in a Yukata (japanese summer wear) ang Geta (wooden slipper) while going to an onsen.
1. Yubatake / Kusatsu Town Center
At the center of Kusatsu is Yubatake, a hot spring field and the source of the resort town’s hot spring water. You can definitely smell the strong sulfuric smell around here! At Yubatake, the hot spring water gets filtered and cooled down by being passed through these wooden structure. The water then gets distributed to the ryokan and bath houses around the city.
Eventually, these wooden boxes would be filled with all the good minerals that came naturally with the hot spring water. This mineral deposit is called “Yu no Hana” (literal translation “flower of water”), which you can purchase all over the town and use later by adding it to a hot bath at home.
The Yubatake area is nicely lit up at night with different colored lights, so I recommend visiting both at night and during day light!
2. Ashi no Yu
All over town you’ll see a small hut with shallow hot spring water and people dipping their feet into the water. This is called Ashi no Yu (literal translation “Foot water”), and it’s free of charge! Just remove your shoes and enjoy a foot bath. And yes, the water here is the same water that gets distributed to the bath houses so it has the same mineral benefits!
3. Netsu no yu and Yumomi Performance
Tucked in one corner right next to Yubatake is Netsu no Yu, a place you should visit for its unique Yumomi performance (water stirring dance).
What is Yumomi? It all started with how the water that naturally comes out of the source in Kusatsu could be as high as 95C, which as you can imagine is too hot for bathing. Since the edo period, a ritual is performed to manually cool down the water to a suitable temperature by stirring it with a huge wooden paddle. Eventually, this ritual evolved into a singing performance called Yumomi!
Yumomi is performed in the morning and afternoon at Netsu no Yu, and costs 600 yen (check schedule here). You can’t book the tickets online, so be sure to be there before the performance time. You can also choose to participate in the dance!
4. Sainokarawa Open-air Bath House
You won’t be short of option for bath houses in Kusatsu, but the most memorable one has to be Sainokarawa Rotenburo (Open-air bath house). It’s about 15 mins walk from Yubatake, but the way there is beautiful! First, you walk through the beautiful side streets of Kusatsu, lined with local shops selling Onsen Tamago (eggs cooked in hot onsen water) and Manju (sweet buns).
You will pass through the beautiful Sainokawara Park, a beautiful area where you can learn a little bit about the history of Kusatsu while walking on a stone path. There are also some natural pools called “the demon’s pool”, based on the past belief that the boiling water came from the kettle of a demon, and an Ashi no Yu at the end of the path.
The entry fee to Sainokawara Rotenburo is 600 yen. This is the only bath house I’ve been to where they don’t have a proper showering area, but there is still a small tub with ladle where you are expected to wash yourself before and after entering the pool.
What and where to eat in Kusatsu
- Manju at Chojuten (長寿店)
- Onsen Tamago
- Mikuni Soba (三國家)
- Yume Hana (旬彩茶屋 夢花)
Where to stay in Kusatsu
- We stayed at an Airbnb a little outside Kusatsu. It turned out to be a super charming 3-story western-style lodge and the owner is such a darling. I recommend this airbnb if you are driving, since it’s about 10-15 mins drive to town. PS: If you are new to Airbnb, you can sign up with my link for some discounts!
- Ryokan Tamura – If staying near the town center is your priority, then this ryokan fits the bill. It’s a cute Japanese-style inn and located minutes to the town center.
- Hananigen – Similar to Tamura, Hananigen is also a ryokan located within minutes to Kusatsu town center.
- Kusatsu Onsen Eidaya – Slightly cheaper ryokan as the location is a bit further away to the town center, but still within walking distance!
What else you can see in Nagano Prefecture
If you have more time in Nagano and wondering what else to do, here are some recommendation you can check out.
- Jigokudani Monkey Park – You’ve probably seen photos of Japanese Macaque (monkeys) taking a bath in an onsen.
- Mount Kusatsu-Shirane – I really wanted to check out this mountain, but unfortunately it was closed during the time I visited as it is an active volcano and there was a lot of activities observed around the mountain.
- Nagano City – Nagano city is the capital of Nagano prefecture. Most famous for hosting the 1998 winter olympics, you can still see the remnants of olympics architecture around town.
- Hakuba – Most famous as a ski resort, Hakuba is best visited during winter.
So that’s all my itinerary for Nagano prefecture! After leaving Kusatsu, we drove straight back to Tokyo.
A little trivia: I was actually there right on the day before Typhoon Hagibis was set to hit the center of Tokyo. It was rated as the biggest Typhoon of the year, and we could already see the weather being affected by the incoming typhoon – it started to rain, whereas the previous days were clear sunny days. It was also my first time hunkering down for a typhoon. Thankfully for us, the typhoon did not cause too much damage in Tokyo itself. However we heard Nagano prefecture were flooded and we were lucky to have gotten out just in time.
As usual, feel free to leave comments if you have any questions! I will always reply 🙂