Overnight trip from Tokyo- (2) Nostalgic Nagano

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Located to the northwest of Tokyo, Nagano is easily accessible with Hokuriku Shinkansen and serves not only as an ideal overnight trip from Tokyo, but also a great stopover on the way to Kanazawa. In this article we will bring you to Iiyama, Zenkoji Temple, and Karuizawa and show you what they have on offer. Join us and expect to discover a different Japan!

Suggested itinerary

Day 1: Tokyo Station 7:52 – (Shinkansen) – 9:32 Iiyama Station – (8 minutes on foot) – Iiyama Handicraft Paper Studio – (15 minutes on foot) – Mayumi Takahashi Museum of Doll Art – (10 minutes on foot) – Rokubei for lunch – (7 minutes on foot) – Tanakaya Brewing – (1 minute on foot) – Patisserie Hirano – (15 minutes on foot) – Iiyama Station 16:28 – (Shinkansen) – 16:39 Nagano – Check in at Hotel Metropolitan Nagano – (20 minutes on foot, or take a local train to Gondo and then walk 10 minutes) – Azumaya for dinner – (back to hotel) – Bar APOLLO of Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

Day 2: Nagano Station – (7 minutes by bus) – Zenkoji Temple – (7 minutes by bus) – MIDORI Nagano / Nagano Station 13:05 – (Shinkansen) – 13:36 Karuizawa Station

Option 1 (love nature): Karuizawa Station 14:00 – (bus) 14:23 Shiraito Waterfall 15:30 – (bus) – 15:53 Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza/Karuizawa Station 18:51 – (Shinkansen) – 20:00 Tokyo Station

Option 2 (be sporty): Karuizawa Station 14:15 – (bus) – 14:35 Karuizawa Ice Park 17:02 – (bus) – 17:32 Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza/Karuizawa Station 19:41 – (Shinkansen) – 20:52 Tokyo Station

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Day 1: Iiyama

Tokyo Station 7:52 – (Shinkansen) – 9:32 Iiyama Station

Located to the north of Nagano city, Iiyama is a compact small town reminiscent of rural Japan. Especially suitable for a walking tour.

Iiyama Handicraft Paper Studio

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Iiyama Station – (8 minutes on foot) – Iiyama Handicraft Paper Studio

For over 350 years, craftsmen in Iiyama have been making the durable Uchiyama washi paper. Here you can try your hand at making washi and creating your one-of-a-kind postcard.

Mayumi Takahashi Museum of Doll Art

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Iiyama Handicraft Paper Studio – (15 minutes on foot) – Mayumi Takahashi Museum of Doll Art

Based in Iiyama, Mayumi Takahashi seems to possess an innate ability to capture the essence of countryside life in the good old days. Once you step into the museum, you will be impressed by the dolls’ amusing facial expressions and thoughtfully designed details that recreate the heartwarming scenes occurring in everyday countryside life.

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Though it was the first time I visited the museum, I had a feeling I’ve seen these dolls somewhere sometime in my life. Maybe because they are so real that I had this déjà vu kind of feeling?

RokubeiJapanese traditional cuisine with a local twist

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Mayumi Takahashi Museum of Doll Art – (10 minutes on foot) – Rokubei

If trying local food is important to you when you travel, this is the place to be. Because of the harsh winter in Iiyama, people have been using plant fibers to replace wheat in making the local Tomikura soba, which gives the noodle a unique springy texture. Another local dish you can’t miss is Sasazushi (Sushi on bamboo grass), a local variation of sushi that has its root as portable food for troops of the famous warlord Uesugi Kenshin.

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Tomikura soba and Sasazushi
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Miyuki pork steak rice bowl

Tanakaya Brewing

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Rokubei for lunch – (7 minutes on foot) – Tanakaya Brewing

Delicious Japanese sake made with local ingredients and by local employees. Come and sample the sake of your choice.

Patisserie Hirano

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Tanakaya Brewing – (1 minute on foot) – Patisserie Hirano

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The patisserie offers a wide selection of cakes and pastries at reasonable prices, and is highly popular among local people and tourists. We had coffee with an apple tart, a matcha mousse cake, and a sakura swiss roll cake. After you tried its cakes, you will have no doubt why it’s a neighborhood mainstay.

Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

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Patisserie Hirano – (15 minutes on foot) – Iiyama Station 16:28 – (Shinkansen) – 16:39 Nagano – Check in at Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

After exploring Iiyama, we headed to Nagano, the capital city of Nagano Prefecture. Tonight we stayed at Hotel Metropolitan Nagano, a modern city hotel boasts superb location (directly connected to Nagano Station), comfy guest rooms, and an elegant bar offering creative cocktails and charming night view. Certainly it is an ideal base to explore Nagano.

Azumaya – Treat yourself to a slice of Japanese high life

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Hotel Metropolitan Nagano – (20 minutes on foot, or take a local train to Gondo and then walk 10 minutes) – Azumaya

This was the place we had dinner in Nagano city. Hiding in an unassuming alley near Zenkoji Temple, Azumaya is a fine dining Japanese restaurant whose buildings are renovated from Japanese traditional storehouses with almost 200 years of history. Local delicacies served are as pretty as pieces of art. Recommended for those want to experience Japanese hospitality.

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Bar APOLLO of Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

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The night is long and we are not yet ready to call it a night! Bar APOLLO is located in the top floor of the hotel and offers creative cocktails and great night views. My personal favorite is the APOLLO cocktail mixing apple cidre, apple juice, and peach liquor.

Day 2: Zenkoji Temple and Karuizawa

Zenkoji Temple – Discover the mysteries of National Treasure

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Nagano Station – (7 minutes by bus) – Zenkoji Temple

Zenkoji Temple is an ancient Buddhist temple worshipped by many generations. The Hondo (Main Hall) is designated as National Treasure, and also the third largest wooden structure in Japan.

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The streets leading up to the temple are lined with souvenir shops, stylish cafes and soba restaurants.

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Mystery 1: The Buddha enshrined here is said to be the oldest in Japan and no one has ever been allowed to see it. Thus it is known as the “Secret Buddha”.

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Mystery 2: Go down into the crypt passage and search for the “key to the paradise” in absolute darkness. The key to finding it is to keep faith and just move forward.

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Mystery 3: Find the plaque under the eaves of the Sanmon Gate and take a close look at the first character (善). It is stylized to look like the face of a cow due to an old Japanese saying that goes “following a cow to Zenkoji”.

Mystery 4: Take a look again. Can you find 5 pigeon figures hiding among the strokes of the three characters?

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Free guided tours are available in several foreign languages. Check out the details at http://www.zenkoji.jp/ENGLISH/guide/

Nagano Station & MIDORI Nagano – Everything under one roof

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Zenkoji Temple – (7 minutes by bus) – Nagano Station / MIDORI Nagano

Nagano Station is not only a perfect gateway to exploring Nagano, it is also a shopping haven as well! You can get everything you need from souvenirs to a taste of local gourmet at MIDORI Nagano without stepping out of the station building. Since Nagano is most famous for its honey sweet apple, why not choose something from an array of souvenir snacks made from Nagano’s apple?

Karuizawa

Nagano Station 13:05 – (Shinkansen) – 13:36 Karuizawa Station

Before going back to Tokyo, we made a stop at Karuizawa, and propose you the following two options for a quick of the famous resort. Both options require travelling on bus. While you can follow our itinerary listed here, make sure to check the latest bus schedule (Japanese only) to ensure a smooth trip.

Option 1: Shiraito Waterfall – Artful and graceful

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Karuizawa Station 14:00 – (bus) 14:23 Shiraito Waterfall

Standing 3 meters high and 70 meters wide, the crescent-shaped Shiraito Waterfall is named so because the water off the rock surface looks like hundreds of white threads (shiraito) are flowing down. The waterfall is refreshingly cool in summer and ever flowing in winter because geothermal heat keeps the water temperature at about 11 degree Celsius even in wintertime.

Option 2: Karuizawa Ice Park – Play chess on ice

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Karuizawa Station 14:15 – (bus) – 14:35 Karuizawa Ice Park

Checkmate! No, we are not talking about moving chess pieces on a chessboard but sliding stones on a sheet of ice. This is curling, a unique winter sport in which two teams take turn sliding stones towards a circular target. A great deal of strategy is involved, that’s why curling is often called “chess on ice”. Here at Karuizawa Ice Park, the curling venue for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, basic curling lessons are offered all year round for anyone interested in learning the game. Come and give the unique sport a shot. You will fell like an Olympian! After you have experienced curling, you may try ice skating before the next bus comes.

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Information: 2,380 yen per person for a 60-minute curling lesson. Inquiry and reservation by email: kip-info@karuizawaclub.ne.jp

Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza – Indulge in a shopping spree before going back to Tokyo!

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If you followed option 1: Shiraito Waterfall 15:30 – (bus) – 15:53 Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza/Karuizawa Station 18:51 – (Shinkansen) – 20:00 Tokyo Station

If you followed option 2: Karuizawa Ice Park 17:02 – (bus) – 17:32 Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza/Karuizawa Station 19:41 – (Shinkansen) – 20:52 Tokyo Station

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Located right next to JR Karuizawa Station, Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza is a shopping heaven less than 90 minutes away from Tokyo. Find outlet shops of overseas designer brands and local specialty food and products at this huge shopping mall set among acres of grassland. If you are looking for distinctive souvenirs to bring home, head to the Souvenir Court for a great selection of local delicacies of Nagano. And of course tax-free shopping is available here!

Key takeaways

Boasting the highest life expectancy of all 47 prefectures in Japan, people in Nagano seem to exude friendly warmth as naturally as the sun gives out heat. In this article we have shown you an itinerary covering top tourist attractions and places off the beaten tracks. The rest is up to you to experience!

Previous in the series:

Overnight trip from Tokyo- (1) Countryside Gunma and Snow Country Niigata