Sure, you could spend the whole week on killer, Olympic-worthy snow in Nagano, but as one of Japan’s best outdoor adventure hubs, Tamara says there are more unique adventures in Nagano than you can shake a ski (or hiking) pole at.


Speak to any half-serious skier and they’ll insist that there’s nothing else like Japanese powder. They’d probably froth over a few inches back home, but I can assure you – they’re not exaggerating about the white stuff in Japan.

The snow they’re referring to will likely be at one of the 85 resorts in Nagano Prefecture, home to the most snowsport facilities in Japan. Blessed with some of the highest levels of snowfall in the world, the Nagano region – in the heart of the otherworldly Japanese Alps – is the pinnacle for winter adventure addicts.



Sliding on world-class powder in winter is a given. But there are other outdoor adventures in Nagano Japan that offer a physical (and spiritual) workout.

As a long time Japan fantasist, take it from me: a trip to Japan will be just as magical as you think it will be. Shintoism (a religion as old as Japan itself) which believes in the supernatural and spiritual powers of the natural world, is heavily infused into Japanese culture – and you feel it.

It means time spent outdoors in Japan is elevated to an ethereal level. Religious or not, you’re instilled with a sense of awe and overwhelming peace commanded by the surrounding natural landscapes.

Whether you’re chasing adrenaline-fuelled fun or life-affirming spiritual encounters, here are some of Japan’s best outdoor adventures to experience in the Nagano region.

1. Trek with Nagano’s Last Yamabushi Mountain-Worshipping Monk – Iiyama

When: April to November

To find oneself, you must first lose yourself. Strip everything back; leave your possessions, don plain clothing, clear your mind, push yourself out of your comfort zone and in the case of a Shugendo monk, undergo gruelling rituals such as meditating under a freezing waterfall, or trekking mountains whilst chanting.



Fancy getting a taster of Shugendo training, sans the cold water torture part? Trek an ancient pilgrimage route with the last Yamabushi monks of Northern Nagano for a full or half-day tour.

You’ll experience silent contemplation of nature and only speak to say ‘uketamou’ in response to your guide: ‘Yes, I humbly accept with an open heart’. ‘No’s’ are banned here.

2. Witness the Bathing Snow Monkey Macaques – Yamanouchi

When: All year round, but only bathing in winter

If you’ve binged David Attenborough’s nature docos as much as I have, then you’ve probably seen those famous scenes of Japanese Macaques lounging in steaming hot springs in the snow. It’s the only place in the world where this wildlife phenomenon occurs.



Having first been caught thawing out in a hot spring setup for humans, a monkey bath was initially built to lure them away.

Now, it’s a main attraction and around 160 monkeys – one of the largest known troops of Macaques – regularly hang out at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. To ensure a visit when they’re around, just check out the 24/7 webcam.

The 3.2km return walk through a cedar forest to the viewing area can often be very muddy and icy in winter, so good footwear is essential. Also avoid going in the morning when tour buses pack the place out.

3. Go a Spiritual Snowshoe Adventure with a Ninja – Togakushi

When: Typically mid December to April

I guess the market for ninja work isn’t what it used to be. After a little career diversification, visitors to Nagano can now snow trek in the sacred area of Kagamiike, led by an ancestral ninja.

As I waded through the snow in a winter wonderland, our ninja guide Mr Yamaguchi effortlessly darted in front of us, stopping at trees of particular interest to point out their medicinal properties or evidence of animals.



To my amazement, this forest is home to bears, all of whom, luckily, were deep in hibernation.

Arriving at the beautiful red-thatched Zuishinmon Gate, Mr Yamaguchi pauses and whips out a conch shell encased in a cord net. After three long blows like a trumpet, he wards off any bad spirits so we can safely pass underneath.



Beyond the gate towards Mount Togakushi is a breathtaking mature cedar avenue, planted four centuries ago. Here we pause, admiring their magnificence whilst listening to the meditative sounds of a trickling stream and the dripping of melting snow.

Snowshoe day tours are typically combined with a soba noodle making class but it can be customised into a more challenging, multi-day snowshoeing experience.



In the high season, you can also camp at Togakushi Campground amidst white birch woods at an elevation of 1,200 metres in the Myoko-Togakushi Mountains National Park. Free campsites plus some small wooden cabins are available for hire.

4. Dine in an Igloo – ​​Iiyama

When: Annually, around January

Nestled in the far north of Nagano Prefecture is incredible Iiyama, a small town in the Japanese Alps which sees a unique pop-up dining experience for only two months a year – dining in an igloo.

Layer up, channel Pingu, dine on noroshi nabe – a hearty hotpot meal made with pork and veggies in a miso broth – and sip on mazake (warm sake). Squeeze in a sled between courses to visit the Shinto Shrine igloo beside the red torii gate.

If you’re interested, book early. The short installation gets reserved months in advance by both domestic and overseas visitors.

Iiyama is also famous for its traditional festivals, such as the Iiyama Snow Festival, where locals create beautifully intricate snow sculptures.

5. Partake in a Fire Ritual & Private Meditation at Zenkoji Temple – Nagano City

When: All year round

Out of all the Buddhist temples I crammed in during my trip to Japan, Zenkoji Temple was undoubtedly the most impressive.

With a history spanning over 1400 years, this revered site houses the very first Buddhist statue brought to Japan in the 6th century, which is tucked away deep within its confines.



It’s so holy that even many lifelong monks will never lay eyes upon it, and the general public can only glimpse a replica every six years.

If you want to skip the wait, organise a private cleansing fire ritual and meditation ceremony led by a buddhist monk – you’ll meditate right in front of the shining golden replica.

In the past meditation hasn’t been for me, but with a good teacher and a truly zen atmosphere, boy did I slip into a blissfully deep state of calm. Any active holiday needs time for pausing and resting, and this is exactly the way to do it.



Surrounding the temple are many monk inns (‘shukubo’s’) – literally historic accommodation run by monks.

Ceremonies start from 3,000¥per group. To organise, email the volunteer group.

6. Pick your Activity at Shinetsu Shizenkyo Outdoor Centre – Iiyama

When: All year round

For some of Japan’s best outdoor adventures all in one place, hit up Shinetsu Shizenkyo Activity Centre which runs every tour imaginable in Shin’etsu Shizenkyo Nature Park and beyond.

Think cycling in national parks, fly fishing, kayaking, rafting, multi-day hikes, mushroom picking, ski touring, and more.

We tried trekking to a small local village on traditional snowshoes called Kanjiki: light bamboo frames with rope woven underneath and tied around our ankles. It was a crisp, bluebird afternoon, an absolute dreamy day to embark on a winter wade through a beech forest encircled by mountains.



At the end, we were welcomed into a 150-year-old house, half-buried in the snow at a tiny village, home to only a handful of residents. Inside, we learned how to make oyaki, traditional vegetarian stuffed dumplings made over a sunken open fireplace – and trust me, this knowledge might be one of the best things I could possibly bring home from Japan.


7. Ski or Snowboard on World Class Snow

When: Mid December to April

There’s no shying away from the fact Nagano Prefecture is the creme de la creme of skiing in Japan. In fact, Nagano was proudly home to the Winter Olympics in the 90s where snowboarding made its debut.

For any snow sport aficionado, the thigh-deep dusty powder blanketed over the mountainous scenery in Nagano is simply irresistible.

Although Hakuba is probably the go-to resort, straying away from the crowds will pay huge dividends (beyond just short lift queues).

Those in the know flock to Madarao Mountain Resort in the north instead, considered an under-the-radar spot by skiing enthusiasts.

Outstanding snow quality, diverse terrain, and uncrowded slopes, provide epic conditions for embracing the generous seasonal dump of 10-13 metres.

For a traditional Japanese atmosphere, the 70-year-old Nozawa Onsen Ski Village has narrow streets lined with attractive wooden buildings and a plethora of historic hot springs (onsens), ideal for a healing post-slide soak.

From Tokyo, both resorts can be accessed in a couple of hours via bullet trains or buses.

8. Bathe in the Nude at an Onsen

When: All year round

Have you really been to Japan if you haven’t stripped into your birthday suit and soaked in a steaming 40 degree onsen?

With over 3,000 geothermal hot springs across Japan and around 200 of them located in Nagano, the only inconvenience will be deciding which one to visit.



Before you know it, the initial embarrassment of your first time dissipates, along with your aches, pains and stresses of the day in the mineral-rich waters of Nagano’s hot springs.

Shiga Kogen Onsen in the Shiga Kogen highlands, has many outdoor baths where visitors can relax and enjoy the view whilst absorbing the therapeutic water, said to be effective for treating skin conditions.

Shibu Onsen has nine public baths and visitors are encouraged to try them all – onsen-hopping anyone?


Tamara was a guest of the Nagano region for this article so that she could try all of the experiences for herself.