Nagano is a great ski destination, but it has so much more to offer. An adventure here at any time of year will make you rethink what you know about Japan.

Quick Overview

Nagano Prefecture has a population of over 2 million people within 13,562km². The prefecture features the Japan Alps and is internationally recognised as a winter sports tourist destination. Popular destinations include Nagano City, Matsumoto, Karuizawa, Hakuba, Nozawa Onsen, and the Kiso Valley.

About Nagano

Nagano Prefecture is a landlocked prefecture (prefectures are like Japan’s versions of Australia’s states and territories) that sits right in the middle of Japan’s main island of Honshu.

It is home to some of the country’s highest mountain peaks and experiences hefty dumps of snow in winter. As a result, the prefecture has become a place synonymous with world-class skiing and the Aussies that love it. You’ve probably already heard of some of the most famous ski resorts – Hakuba and Nozawa Onsen being the two biggest players.

While, yes, the snow is incredible, this region has so much more to offer year-round, from outdoor adventures to cultural explorations and spectacular nature. So let’s get into it.

Nagano History

Thanks to its central location, Nagano was once a hub for trade, travel, and pilgrimage. Today you can see some of the prefecture’s history still standing, especially in Matsumoto, which was the former capital of Nagano Prefecture during the Edo period (1603 – 1867).

The Nakasendo is the living embodiment of the region’s trade history. This path was constructed during the Edo period and was a main roadway connecting Kyoto (Japan’s former capital) with the new capital, Edo (present-day Tokyo). 69 post-towns were dotted along the road, built to accommodate travellers journeying between the two cities.

In the middle of Nagano City, Zenkoji Temple is a 1400-year-old Buddhist temple that houses one of the first Buddhist statues to come to Japan. The statue solidified the city as a key pilgrimage destination. Togakushi Shrine sits 40 minutes northwest of the city centre and is a central point for mountain ascetics (mountain monks) seeking enlightenment.

In the heart of Matsumoto is Matsumoto Castle, a national treasure of Japan, one of the country’s most iconic castles, and one of the 12 remaining original castles in Japan.


How to Get to Nagano

Nagano City is a central hub to the rest of the prefecture, and it’s easy to access from Tokyo on the Hokuriku Shinkansen in just over an hour and 20 minutes. It takes an additional hour and ten minutes on the JR Shinano Line to Matsumoto. For a more direct route to Matsumoto, the JR ‘Azusa’ limited express train runs from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station to Matsumoto Station in around two hours and 40 minutes. Both of these routes are covered by a Japan Rail Pass or JR East Pass (Nagano, Niigata Area).

Places to Stay in Nagano

In Matsumoto, Tabi Shiro Guesthouse is a top choice for local charm and the chance to meet new friends. This renovated kominka (traditional residential home) offers dorm-style rooms with beds equipped with privacy curtains. There’s also a kitchen, communal living space, and bar, and it’s within walking distance of the city centre.

Northstar Alpine Lodge is an adventure hotel and retreat in southern corner of Chubu-Sangaku National Park, about an hour from Matsumoto. It offers private rooms, communal spaces, and meals, and has access to plenty of outdoor activities including biking, snowshoeing, and hiking tours. There’s even an on-site climbing wall.

For a full-on nature experience, Konashidaira Campground, inside Kamikochi Resort, will guarantee you wake up with some of the region’s best views. The resort is in Chubu-Sangaku National Park and is open from mid-April to mid-November. Pre-setup tents and cabins are available if you don’t want to pack your gear.

Honourable mention goes to Enzanso, Mt Tsubakuro’s mountain hut. Sitting pretty at 2,712m on the crest of a ridge a kilometre from Mt Tusbakuro’s peak, it’s a proper hike to reach, but it’s worth it. This 100-year-old hut services hikers scaling the region’s alps and offers spectacular views of Nagano and beyond. As part of your stay, meals (dinner and breakfast) are included.

Things to Do in Nagano / the Japan Alps

Hiking the Japan Alps

There’s no better place to begin your foray into hiking in Japan than Nagano. Cooler than the rest of Japan in summer, and with plenty of well-marked trails for all levels, the biggest challenge of hiking in Nagano is knowing where to begin.

Beginner: Kamikochi’s Walking Routes

For beginner-level hikers, Kamikochi has plenty of trekking courses that weave throughout the resort, offering new viewpoints of the area and the stunning national park in which it sits. When you arrive, pick up a Kamikochi trail map outlining all the main routes, like the Kappa Bridge to Taisho Pond route, which will take about two hours.

This route is a great way to get a lay of the land; weaving through the grounds, you’ll traverse marshland and witness the volcanic Mt Yakedake and Mt Hotaka captured in the mirror-like waters of Taisho Pond.

If you want to continue, add on a journey from Kappa Bridge to Myojin. This path will take about three hours, leading you to the picturesque and serene Myojin Pond.



Moderate: Mt Tsubakuro

Great for an overnight option, as it’s home to the excellent Enzanso hut, Mt Tsubakuro (2,763m) is also hikeable in a day if you’re relatively fit. The trail starts from Azumino, and if you want to walk it directly, there’s a 9.5km out-and-back route.

Once you summit, you’ll learn why Mt Tsubakuro is known colloquially as ‘Queen of the Alps’. The mountain’s almost-white granite peak contrasts spectacularly with the lush green foliage that carpets the mountain below. A night on top of the mountain guarantees incredible sunrise views, and the chance to witness unkai (the Japanese word for the sea of clouds) as they swirl and dissipate throughout the surrounding peaks.

If you want to go further, add a trek to Mt Daitenso and back.



Advanced: Mt Yarigatake

For the super-ambitious and expert climbers, Mt Yarigatake awaits. This 3,180m mountain is considered one of the country’s ‘must-conquer’ peaks.

One great way to ascend the mountain while in Kamikochi, is via the Mt Yarigatake: Kamikochi Course, but be prepared to put two days aside, as it’s a 39.8km out-and-back trail.

With its spear-like top (yari in Japanese means spear), the mountain doesn’t look that friendly; but surprisingly, the trek is home to plenty of densely forested sections and beautiful freshwater lakes. Along the way, you’ll find Yarisawa Lodge, located at the 1,820m point; it’s the best place to spend the night before finishing the climb to the summit.

Forest Bathing

In Japan, there’s a concept called shinrin-yoku which translates to forest bathing.

Fun fact! The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries officially coined the term in 1982.

Essentially, it’s the practice of immersing or ‘bathing’ yourself in nature, soaking up the tranquillity and feeling the benefits. And it’s surprisingly effective. Studies have shown that spending time in lush natural environments, like forests, can reduce the stress hormone cortisol, lower blood pressure, stimulate parasympathetic nerve activity, and make you feel physically and mentally better.

And Kamikochi is the place to do it. With no cars allowed access, plenty of walking trails, and incredible nature, it ticks all the boxes.



If you make it to Northstar Alpine Lodge, sign up for a biking tour. Biking is a great way to see a different side of the region and get your thrills – all at the same time! The lodge offers beginner mountain biking classes, as well as guided tours, and private one-on-one tours for those who want something a little more specialised. They’ve got all the protective gear too, so no need to pack a thing!


Rafting Tenryu Gorge

Cutting through the lush heart of Nagano is the Tenryu River, a body of water with quite a reputation. In English, the river’s name translates to ‘heavenly dragon’ because the roaring white water looks like a dragon flying through the gorge. In southern Nagano Prefecture, the river gets wild. Tenryu Gorge is the peak place for white-knuckle white-water rafting.

Hakuba in Summer (It’s Not Just a Winter Destination)

Yes, Hakuba in winter is stunning, but you haven’t experienced the gamut this area has to offer unless you’ve visited in summer, including its four beautiful and unique lakes. Not to mention, Hakuba delivers respite from the suffocating heat of Japan’s capital cities.

If you like fishing, Lake Nakatsuna is a top pick and host of the Lake Nakatsuna Crucian Carp Fishing Competition.

Happo Pond sits in Hakuba’s famous Happo-One Snow Resort. It’s a 90-minute, 1.5km hike to reach the lake, and if you’ve got your walking gear on, you can scale the 2,696m Mt Karamatsu for incredible views of the area.

Lake Kisaki is ideal for SUPing and kayaking and has a campground too.

North of Lake Kisaki lies the heart-shaped Lake Aoki, another popular spot for water sports and swimming. There are places to rent SUPs and kayaks dotted around the lake.


Essential Gear for Hiking in Nagano

  • Weather-appropriate hiking gear
  • Sunscreen
  • Hat
  • Plenty of water
  • First aid kit
  • Gloves for rocky inclines
  • Grippy, supportive shoes
  • Snacks
  • Camera
  • Towel
  • Hand sanitiser
  • Cash
  • Camping gear (if you want to take the option)

What it’s Like to Visit Nagano

Exploring Nagano is sure to give you a new perspective on Japan, and if you visit in summer, the region as a whole. Nagano is lush and pristine, the mountains look like they could rival the Swiss Alps, and the tourist crowds are typically (unless you’re in Kamikochi) almost unseen.

Nagano is a tranquil place that offers the chance for adventure, but also the opportunity to relax and let go. For a small city, you’ll be surprised with how internationally friendly Matsumoto is and how easy it is to get around, with plenty of maps and English guidance.


FAQs for Visiting Nagano

When is the best time to visit Nagano?

Between June – September when the weather is warm and Kamikochi is open.

Are there bears in Nagano?

Yes, but they’re small and typically don’t bother humans. If you’re concerned while hiking, wear a bear bell.

Can you drive to Kamkochi?

No, Kamikochi is a public car-free zone. There’s a car park just outside the resort and shuttle buses that operate regularly. You can also get a taxi if you feel so inclined.

If I hike for the night, where can I leave my stuff?

Many train stations offer coin locker rental, so I suggest that.

How do you book a mountain hut in Nagano?

You can book a mountain hut, such as Enzanso, over the phone, but it’s probably easiest to book online with the help of Google Translate.

What’s included in a mountain hut stay?

A bed in a communal room, dinner, and breakfast (if you so wish).


For more information on travel to Japan, please visit Japan Travel.


Feature photo thanks to @ryutoizumi33