Calling All Nature Lovers! A 4-Day Nagano Itinerary for Those Bored of Japan’s Cities

Calling All Nature Lovers! A 4-Day Nagano Itinerary for Those Bored of Japan’s Cities

Escape to the highlands for a breath of fresh air!

Mention Japan, and what immediately comes to mind? The bustling metropolis of Tokyo, the extremely efficient public transport system and, above all else, the glorious, glorious food (think: incredibly fresh sushi and ramen)! To be honest, what’s there not to love? Japan embodies the very ideal of perfection, and is well known for their impeccably polite people, excellent customer service, plus exceptionally clean and spotless streets.

It is thus, little wonder that Japan should also have breathtaking sceneries unparalleled to any other. If you’re thinking about making Japan your next vacation destination, I suggest cutting short your time in the usual tourist hotspots like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hokkaido to make a beeline for one of the country’s undiscovered gems instead. Say konnichiwa to Nagano, one of Japan’s best kept secrets!

The spectacular view of the Hotaka Mountain Range and Azusa river from Kappa Bridge, Kamikochi

If you’re looking for a quiet escape to someplace that’s tranquil, serene and boasting of spectacular scenery at every turn, then this is definitely the place for you! Arm yourself with this 4-Day itinerary to experience the best of Nagano, which is perhaps one of the most spectacular places on earth.

Accommodation:

Although the area is still relatively untouched by tourists, the Nagano region has plenty of hotels to suit every need and budget. We’ve highlighted the best options to stay at in our itinerary, so you’ll read about them as we go along.

Getting there:

Transportation wise, we highly recommend the 2 Day Free Passport which grants you 2 days of unlimited bus and train rides on Alpico trains and buses within Kamikochi, Norikura and Matsumoto. For the 2-Day pass, you can also opt to add one more extra day to cover your travelling costs. It’s entirely up to you! If you’re looking for more days, there is a 4 Day Wide Passport for unlimited Alpico transport that covers Gifu (Takayama, Shirakawa-go, Shin-hotaka) and Nagano.

All aboard Alpico’s Highland Express Bus, that will take you from Shinjuku to Matsumoto

Why take Alpico transport?

Besides being the main transport provider in the Nagano region, Alpico offers FREE WiFi services on most of their transport services. Technology dependents, this one’s for you. What could be better than staying connected while you’re enroute to your next destination? In addition, presenting your Alpico pass at selected tourist attractions can even earn you special discounted rates too. Both a transport pass and discount ticket in one? Score!

Day 1: Matsumoto

Fly into Tokyo to start your journey! Once you touch down at Narita Airport, take the Airport Limousine Bus to Shinjuku, where you can then board the Alpico Highway Bus to your first destination Matsumoto. With this itinerary, we used the 2 Day FREE Passport (plus One) from Day 1 to 3, and went to the Daio Wasabi Farm before returning to Singapore on the last day.

You can purchase your 2 Day Free Passport at Matsumoto Bus Terminal, which is just opposite the JR Station, or at the other ticket sales locations that are stated in the brochure. From the Bus Terminal, choose to hop on the Alpico Local Bus or Alpico Taxi to get started on your adventures.

Unlike other Japanese castles, Matsumoto Castle is black due to the lacquer that’s painted on every year

On your first day in Matsumoto, activate your 2 Day Free Passport (plus ONE), hop onto the Town Sneaker Bus to get to the iconic Matsumoto castle. Also known as “Crow Castle” due to its black exterior, Matsumoto Castle stands out from other castles, especially as Japanese castles are not usually painted black. The black colour arises from the usage of lacquer, which is still coated on every year.

Don’t forget to take some memorable photos with the castle backdrop

You can go on a guided tour around the interior to learn more about the history of the castle, as well as to take a closer look at the many artefacts and displays. You’ll be able to see old weapons and guns, as well as even a samurai uniform. Watch your step though; the steps within the castle are quite steep, so do go slowly and carefully.

Opening hours: 8:30 – 17:00 (last entry at 16:30

How to get there: Take the Town Sneaker (North Course) that departs from Matsumoto Station (Castle Exit) to Matsumotojo-Shiyakushomae bus stop. The ride will last for approximately 10 minutes.

Nakamachi-dori Street (left); Nawate-dori Street (right)

After visiting the Matsumoto Castle, you can head towards the Yohashira Shrine that is just a stone’s throw away, before visiting the popular Nawate-dori and Nakamachi-dori shopping streets. We recommend sampling the original red-bean stuffed taiyaki (Japanese cake) while you’re there! Roam through the quaint little independent shops and purchase unique souvenirs, gift items, clothes and other trinkets to bring back for your family and loved ones.

Even the Town Sneaker Bus (right) is also dressed from top to bottom in polka-dots, to match the iconic Yayoi Kusama theme

If you prefer something more contemporary, head on over instead to the Matsumoto City Museum of Art, where you can take a look at quirky and vibrant pieces from none other than Yayoi Kusama. Yes, did you know that Matsumoto is Kusama’s hometown?

Opening Hours: 09:00 to 17:00 (Closed on Mondays)

Address: 4 Chome-2-22 Chuo, Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture 390-0811, Japan

How to get there: Take the Town Sneaker Bus (East Course) from Matsumoto Station (Castle Exit). The ride will last for approximately 15 minutes; alternatively, it’s a 12-minute walk from Matsumoto Station.

Slurp up some delicious toji soba (left) that will warm you up inside out, before heading for a drink at Main Bar Coat (right)

Come evening, treat yourself to a nourishing and tasty Toji soba dinner. Toji soba is Matsumoto’s local handmade soba delicacy, which features soba dipped into a broth “shabu” style. Although soba is often eaten cold, Matsumoto style toji soba was created for a hot pot style consumption. This was due to the desire to have a hot soba dish during Nagano’s harsh cold winters.

Don’t head back yet, the night is still young! If you’re looking for a place to just hang out, unwind and have the most amazing drinks you’ve ever tasted in your lifetime, we strongly recommend that you pay a visit to Main Bar Coat. This bar serves up sweet cocktails made with Nagano’s fresh seasonal fruit, amongst other drinks. After all, if the head bartender came in 4th in the World Championships for Bartending, you know that it’s a place that you cannot pass by! Must tries include Matsumoto Breeze (Nagano Apple Juice with vodka cocktail), Pear Daiquiri and their Peach champagne cocktail. If you’re a beer kind of person, you’d be delighted to know that they have a special range of craft beers as well.

Main Bar Coat

Opening Hours: 18:00 to 01:00, Closed on Sundays

Address: 2 Chrome 3-5 Chuo 2F, Matsumoto, Nagano

How to get there: 10-minute walk from Matsumoto Station, and is located near Matsumoto Timepiece Museum.

Head back to your hotel for a good night’s rest, as we will be setting off bright and early the next day to scale some mountain peaks tomorrow!

Accommodation for Day 1: Hotel Buena Vista

Image credit: Hotel Buena Vista

Image credit: Hotel Buena Vista

What we love:

✔ Clean and spacious guest rooms

✔ Luxurious complimentary toiletries

✔ Breakfast with a view of the Northern Japanese Alps from the tallest hotel in Matsumoto

✔ Free shuttle bus from hotel to Matsumoto Station (and back) every 10mins

✔ Guests can also make a visit to Hotel Shoho for a hot spring bath at no charge

Boasting luxuriously plush and comfortable guest rooms fitted with a comfy bed, a sitting area and even a work desk, Hotel Buena Vista is definitely every traveller’s dream come true. Get to the city with ease on the free shuttle service that arrives at 10-minute intervals, or get on to another free shuttle bus and treat yourself to a hot spring bath at Hotel Shoho. Yes, no other hotel in Matsumoto provides this service!

Address: 1-2-1 Honjo, Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture 390-0814, Japan

Day 2: Norikura Highlands + Kamikochi

Here’s the train that you’ll take to Shin-shimashima and the bus station where you can take a bus up to Norikura Highlands

For today, we suggest packing a little overnight bag as we are going to take a 2D1N trip out to Norikura and Kamikochi. So grab your valuables plus the things that you need, and leave your luggages behind at the hotel – since you’ll be returning to Matsumoto on the last day anyway! Upon check out, head to the Matsumoto Train Station, where you can use your activated pass to hop onto the Kamikochi line, and take the train all the way to Shin-shimashima station.

Check out the spectacular Zengoro Falls and marvel at the wonders of nature as you go along on your hike

A panoramic view of the breathtaking Ushidome pond

From Shin-shimashima station, make your way to Suzuran-bashi bus stop and hike towards Zengoro Waterfall, as well as further up to Ushidome Pond. The hike was relatively easy and on flat terrain, so it is suitable for beginners too. However, as with every outdoor activity, it does get a little tiring after awhile, so be sure to take regular breaks to catch your breath and stay hydrated. Feast your eyes on this picture-perfect scenery, complete with a majestic backdrop of the Japanese Alps. How stunning is that?!

How to get there: Take the Matsumoto Dentetsu (Alpico Railway) from Matsumoto Station to Shin-shimashima Station (30 minutes), then change to bus heading towards Norikura Highlands and alight at Suzuran-bashi bus stop (55 minutes).

Our delicious lunch comprised of Sanzoku Yaki, neapolitan pasta and salad (left); take the bus up to Norikura peak (right)

For lunch, replenish your energy with the famous Sanzoku Yaki, which is a large piece of juicy and fantastically marinated fried chicken. Sanzoku Yaki is a local specialty of the Nagano prefecture. You can choose to order spaghetti or rice with freshly boiled soup as accompaniments to your fried chicken. We had our lunch at Maple Restaurant, which also serves up side salad made with fresh produce from Nagano. What could be more satisfying than such simple and tasty fare that’s both wholesome and nutritious?

Congratulations – at 2,716m, you have reached Mt. Norikura bus stop, which is the highest bus stop in Japan

After a delicious lunch, take the Alpico bus from the Norikura Tourist Centre (a.k.a Norikura Kanko Centre) to the Norikura Mountain Peak bus stop (a.k.a Tatamidaira), the highest bus stop in Japan. There are many souvenir shops and food esetablishments around the mountain peak bus stop area, and bicycle rental shops can be found at the area near the Norikura Tourist Centre. So if you’re planning on renting a bicycle to explore the area, be sure to do so before your journey to Tatamidaira! 

High up above the clouds, on top of the world at the peak of Mao mountain

After having a look around, it’s time to explore Mao mountain of Mt. Norikura to your heart’s delight. Take your time to enjoy the picturesque sublime views from way up above the clouds, and revel in the crisp mountain air.

How to get there:

Norikura Tourist Centre: Take the Matsumoto Dentetsu (Alpico Railway) from Matsumoto Station to Shin-shimashima Station (30 minutes), then change to bus heading towards Norikura Highlands (50 minutes).

Norikura Peak (Tatamidaira): Take a bus along the Norikura Echo Line route – from Norikura Tourist Center to Norikura Peak (Tatamidaira) (50 minutes).

Norikura Echoline (left); Haruyama Bus (right)

Depending on what season you visit, you may need to change buses at this Tourist Centre as different bus routes run according to different seasons. For instance, the Haruyama bus operates in Spring, and there are other buses that run along the Echo Line route in Autumn, too.

After exploring and making your way back down, make your way to Kamikochi! Did you know that the Kamikochi area was designated as the Chubu Sangaku National Park in 1934? And in order to maintain the pristine nature, private cars are banned from entering the area and access is only possible via buses or taxis. In fact, Alpico bus is the only bus service from Nagano that brings you to this beautifully picturesque, pristine place. From spectacular mountains to valleys and deep, clear blue lakes, this place is a godsend for us city folks indeed! Do note that the National Park is closed during winter (16 November – 16 April).

Taisho pond against the magnificent backdrop of Mt. Hotakadake

Enjoying the beautiful view as we hike to our hotel

Visit Taisho pond, Tashiro Pond and Tashiro Wetlands on your walk towards the Kamikochi Lemeiesta Hotel, where you’ll spend the night. The walk takes about 40-45 minutes but trust me, you’re in for a treat when you get to the hotel!

Accommodation for Day 2: Kamikochi Lemeiesta Hotel

We love:

✔ Spectacular rooms with a breathtaking view of the river and mountains

✔  The indoor and outdoor onsen (hot spring)

✔ Star gazing, and even getting to see planet Saturn with the hotel’s extremely powerful telescope

Did you know that the Kamikochi Lemeiesta Hotel is one of the only two hotels in the Kamikochi area with a natural onsen (Japanese hot spring) within its premises? Pamper yourself after a long day of hiking activities and relax those tense muscles by soaking in a hot bath. You can choose from the indoor or outdoor pool and, when you’re done, there are massage chairs and hot beverages waiting for you in the lounge area.

Enjoy a hot spring bath in the hotel’s onsen (left); yummy French dinner (right)

Since there are no restaurants around the Kamikochi area, all guests will dine in the hotel. All rooms come with a breakfast buffet and French dinner. The dinner is served fine-dining style, consisting of an incredible line-up of delectable dishes that will blow you away. Bet you never expected this in Nagano, huh!

What’s more, the hotel also frequently schedules various activities for guests to enjoy, such as stargazing, wine-tasting and musical performances. While we were there, we had the chance to enjoy a beautiful piano and violin performance at the lobby.

Some of the hotel’s night activities include musical performances and stargazing

We also participated in a stargazing activity, where a guide explained and pointed out some constellations to us. We were even lucky enough to lay eyes on the Milky Way! Get ready to marvel at the riot of stars strewn across the inky dark night sky. The experience truly is spectacular, even spiritual, and I guarantee that you’ll be wow-ed off your socks with this heavenly view.

Address: 4469-1 Azumi, 390-1516, Nagano Prefecture

How to get there: Take the Matsumoto Dentetsu (Alpico Railway) from Matsumoto Station to Shin-shimashima Station (30 minutes), then change to bus heading towards Kamikochi (60 minutes).

Day 3 – Kamikochi

For today, you’ll be going on a long, scenic hike to see the magnificent beauty that Kamikochi has to offer.

The Weston Monument surrounded by foliage (left); bento box from hotel (right)

Before starting off from right outside your hotel, don’t forget to snag a bento lunch from the hotel and pack it safely into your bag, together with bottles of water, for your hike! Head to the trekking path towards your left which leads to the Weston Monument, which was built in memory of English missionary, Walter Weston who introduced mountain hiking to Kamikochi. He also popularised the term, “Japanese Alps”.

Imagine having your bento lunch with this sweet view

Kappa bridge across Azusa river

Then, make your way to Kappa bridge, which is named after the mythical Kappa river monster! Legend has it that the Kappa monster liked to lure people into the water and pull them in. The Kappa bridge crosses over the Azusa river a gloriously pretty, turquoise blue stream that’s crystal clear. It is fed by snowmelt from the Hotakadake peaks, as well as used to irrigate the Matsumoto Basin rice fields and link the two branches of the Hotaka Shrines.

As you continue to hike the trail, you will go through Dakesawa Wetlands. Take your time to walk along the boardwalks, with an occasional stop to admire the beautiful flora and fauna.

If you’re lucky you might even get to spot some monkeys

Finally, after a long walk, reward yourself with panoramic landscapes that await you at Hotaka Shrine and Myojin pond. Myojin pond is an important place to visit not only because of its natural beauty, but also because it allows you to have greater insight into Japanese culture and religion. The crystal clear waters of Myojin Pond have great significance to the Shinto religion, which places nature as the central object of worship.  

Be mesmerised by the stunning, tranquil beauty of Myojin pond

The Myojin pond area is a good place to rest and you will find a little hub area with two food establishments. If you would like some char-grilled fish as an extra accompaniment to your lunch bento, you can purchase them at the century-old Kamonjigoya Lodge. You might even find some elderly Japanese doing up a sketch or two along the circumference of the pond.

Our delicious bento lunch included an assortment of meat, onigiri (rice balls) and pickles for a satisfying lunch (left); in the process of grilling up some freshly-caught fish (right)

Find a nice shady spot to sit down and chow down on your delicious bento lunch. Lemeiesta’s Kappa no Hirumeshi bento box is super popular and is filled with all sorts of scrummy local specialties, such as the walnut rice balls. We highly recommend buying this!

Come full circle as you make a slow trek back to the other side of Kappa bridge, and enjoy the glorious scenery and bounty of nature as you go along!

We had the famous rare cheesecake along with a generous wedge of apple pie

Before heading back to Kamikochi Bus Terminal to catch your bus back to Matsumoto, hop to Gosenjaku hotel, which is near Kappa bridge, for tea! The hotel is famous for its exceptionally delicious rare cheesecake that’s served with a dollop of berry compote. Sink your teeth into clouds of creamy cheese confectionery, topped out with little sweet and sour bursts from the tangy berry compote. It’s absolutely delicious!

Spend the rest of your time wandering around the little souvenir shops like Kamikochi Alpico Shop, before catching your bus back to Matsumoto. When you make your purchase at the Bus Terminal counter, you can also ask for a “numbered ticket” that will give you boarding priority. You can look up the bus schedule and timings here. However, make sure that you don’t run late, as they will give your seat to others who are waiting should you not arrive on time!

When you’re back in Matsumoto, you can check back in to Hotel Buena Vista or, if you prefer to stay someplace else that’s suited for a tight budget, we recommend Ace Inn Matsumoto Hotel.

Check out this informative brochure for more information on Kamikochi.

Day 4: Matsumoto + Return

Back in Matsumoto, our first stop today was to Daio Wasabi Farm where we met our very warm and bubbly tour guide, Wasabi master, Hama-san. The Daio Wasabi Farm is not within the usage area of the 2 Day Free Passport (plus ONE), but is well worth the visit when you’re in Nagano! This is the only place on our itinerary that isn’t covered by the pass. The wasabi plantation here is fed by natural spring water that naturally emerges from underground. The water remains at a cold temperature of around 13-15ºC for ideal wasabi growing, all year round. How cool is that?

Hama-san showing us a freshly harvested Wasabi plant, before proceeding to grate it right before our very eyes

Did you know that the usual wasabi we eat actually mainly consists of horseradish, with a little bit of wasabi added to give it its characteristic green colour? This is common in many commercial food outlets all over the world. However, here in Nagano, I got to witness the grating of wasabi stem (yes, stem – most people have the misconception that wasabi is a root) right before my very eyes.

Hama-san grated the wasabi on a piece of board covered with shark skin, which is said to produce the best quality of wasabi. He then offered us a taste, which we all hesitantly nibbled on. I was taken by surprise – I’m definitely not a fan of wasabi back home, but the one here tasted quite different. It was still rather choking and extra spicy, but somehow the flavour of the wasabi that lingered on the tongue that was more palatable than what I was used to having.

Us posing with the wasabi statue (top); wasabi delights we got to sample: wasabi soba, wasabi soft-serve ice cream, and wasabi beer (bottom left to right)

We also tried out other wasabi-licious delights such as wasabi soba, wasabi soft-serve and even wasabi beer. Yes, wasabi beer! When you pay a visit to the farm, do make sure to take a group picture with the wasabi statue that stands sentinel in front of the fields. Such a photo is said to bring good luck!

Opening Hours: 8:45 – 17:30 (Apr-Oct), 9:00 – 16:30 (Nov-Mar)

How to get there: Take a 30 minute train ride from JR Matsumoto Station to Hotaka station, followed by a 10-minute taxi ride.

The brewery building

Next up, take a free tour around Kametaya Sake Brewery with your friendly guide and owner, Takemoto-san! Takemoto-san gave us a free tour around the family-run brewery and showed us photos of her grandfather, who was the one that started the brewery.

Starting our tour

She also spoke about the history of the brewery and gave us more insights about the harvesting and brewing practices from the past in comparison to today. Don’t worry about needing an interpreter too, because Takemoto-san speaks fluent English.

At the end of the tour, visitors get to go for a FREE sake tasting! From traditional sake to flavoured ones such as peach, ume (plum), apple and blueberry, there is plenty for everyone to try. You can even take them back as cute gifts for your friends and family.

Opening Hours: 9:00 (Sat & Sun 9:30) – 17:00 (doors close at 16:00)

How to get there: Take the Matsumoto Dentetsu on Alpico Railway from Matsumoto Station to Shimonii Station (10 minutes), followed by a 5-minute walk.

Some of the many ukiyo-e pieces that frame the walls

Before heading off to the airport, drop by the Japan Ukiyo-e Art Museum to learn more about the ancient art of Ukiyo-e, which is a Japanese printing method that uses layers and layers of colour and pattern stacked on top of each other to create the final masterpiece.

Watch an informative video about this painstaking, tedious method of art creation, and have a go at making your own ‘ukiyo-e’ with ink stamps at the back of the museum!

You get to “create” your own ukiyo-e with coloured stamps

Opening Hours: 10:00 to 17:00, last entry 16:30 (Closed on Mondays)

How to get there:  Take Town Sneaker Bus (West course) from Matsumoto station (Alps exit) to Japan Ukiyo-e Art Museum (25 minutes).

Finally, make your way back to Shinjuku, and then to the airport, via the limited express Azusa/Super Azusa, or Alpico highway bus for a more affordable option. Afterwhich, transfer to a limousine bus or the Skyliner to Narita Airport.

Indeed, there is just so much to love in Japan. Just when you thought you’ve seen everything that it has to offer, let a trip to Nagano blow your mind away and revitalise your senses. Marvel at nature’s wonders with our 4-Day itinerary, which will have you all set to experience the best of Kamikochi, Norikura and Matsumoto.

In addition, let the Alpico Group take care of all your accommodation and transportation needs. Simply hop onto their vast network of trains and buses, and travel around Nagano seamlessly and completely hassle-free. At the end of the day, bunk in for the night in comfortable hotels, all of which are guaranteed to give you a good night’s rest. For more information on what to see and do in Nagano, visit the Alpico Group’s official website and Facebook page.

Nagano sure makes for the perfect respite and combination of magic and wonder for the tired city dweller. So what are you waiting for? Time to book that flight and experience all this for yourself! 

[GIVEAWAY ALERT]

And if you’re raring to visit Nagano, here’s your chance to do so on your next trip to Japan! For a chance to win some fantastic prizes, here’s what you have to do:

  1. Tell us in the comments of this post why you want to visit Nagano
  2. Like & share that same post!

Stand the chance to win:

  • GRAND 1ST PRIZE: Return Alpico Highland Express bus tickets from Shinjuku to Kamikochi (2 pairs)
  • 2ND PRIZE: 2 Day Free Passport (Unlimited bus & train rides in Matsumoto, Kamikochi and Norikura (5 Pairs)
  • 3RD PRIZE: Arukuma (Nagano mascot) USB (5 pieces)
  • 4TH PRIZE: Montbell x Aplico Tumbler (5 pieces)

CONTEST PERIOD: 5-15th October 2017

TAKE PART IN THE CONTEST NOW!

Good luck, and we’ll see you in Nagano soon!


Brought to you by Alpico Group.

About Author

Beatrice Tan
Beatrice Tan

Beatrice absolutely loves stargazing and often fantasises about going into space one day. However, since she won’t be an astronaut anytime soon, her heart is set on being a globetrotter instead. She is always craving for a new adventure, and believes that travel nourishes the soul. You can most likely find her traipsing around the museum, or in a quiet café with her nose buried in a book, and a soy latte in hand.

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