Nagano to me doesn't mean skiing. To me it means crisp air, delicious food, and one of the most revered temples in Japan. Do yourself a favour and take a visit to 'The roof of Japan'
“I'm only in Nagano for the snowboarding”, a friend of mine remarked during the hot, sweaty summer months when there wasn't a snowflake to be seen.
I thought this was a bit harsh on Nagano. Sure, it's not exactly the bustling metropolis of Tokyo or the cultural bonanza of Kyoto, but then that's also its charm. It has all traditional highlights of a Japanese city – temples, shrines and great, local food – but without so much of the more modern neon and crowds. Plus it has great weather: when it’s sunny you get crystal – and I’m talking faultless here – blue skies; when it snows, it’s picture perfect snow-capped peaks that await you instead.
Come with me as I take you on a walk from the train station to one of the most revered temples in Japan, Zenkoji (Zenkoji-dori, Nagano; 81-26-234-3591), and discover what Nagano city has to offer. Including, I should point out, the opportunity to secure your entry into paradise.
Start of the journey
Unless you have a car you'll be arriving in Nagano at the train station (the highway buses stop here too) and that’s where our journey starts, 2km away from our objective, Zenkoji. First we’ll have a quick trip to the tourist information centre (81-226-5626) to pick up a map of the city (in English) and ask any questions we need to and then we’ll head for the Zenkoji exit and be on our way.
The road between the train station and the temple is Chuo-dori, Nagano's main thoroughfare, and is marked with stone guideposts to Zenkoji every 110 metres or so. About 100 metres from the station exit the road doglegs to the right before continuing in pretty much a straight line to the temple (apparently Zenkoji is considered so holy the city planners did not want people to approach it directly).
As you have a little walk ahead of you, here are a couple of favourite places of mine you can stop along the way for a touch of refreshment:
About half way to Zenkoji on the left hand side of Chuo-dori is Bakery's Street & Cafe (Nagano, 382-0845; 81-26-232-0269). This is a small café, which, as the name suggests, also has an excellent supply of fresh baked goods and delicious coffee.
Just after this on the right hand side of Chuo-dori is The Asian Night Market (1-2 Higashigo-cho, Nagano, 380-0832; 81-26-214-5656; www.asian-night-market.net). This is a cafe/shop that serves mainly Thai food. Look out for the tuk-tuk that looks like it's just crashed through the front door.
Once you pass the Asian Night Market you'll see the Nagano Kabuki Theatre on the left hand side. After this you'll start a gentle climb as you approach Zenkoji.
As you approach Zenkoji, and inside the temple grounds, you‘ll start to encounter many restaurants, making it a great place to sample two cuisines for which Nagano is famous: Soba (buckwheat) noodles and Oyaki.
Soba can either be eaten hot, in a soup, or cold, with a dipping sauce, and it's been a Nagano speciality for years. The climate makes it perfect for growing soba and you'd be missing out if you didn't have the fresh stuff while you're here. Many restaurants around Zenkoji serve it - and I've never found a bad one - so just take your pick.
Oyaki are a great, warming snack on a cold day. They are fist-sized dumplings filled with seasoned vegetables, miso and soy sauce and are another food particular to Nagano. Some fillings to look out for are kabocha (pumpkin), nasu (aubergine) and nozawana (a kind of pickle mix). You can't miss the vendors on the street - the wooden pots with steam coming out the top should give you a clue.
As you approach the temple you should be able to see the first pedestrian-only street. This marks the start of Zenkoji’s grounds and is - by far - my favourite area of Nagano.
In particular my favourite are the temple lodgings. There are around thirty to forty temple lodgings around Zenkoji and they give you a perfect opportunity to get a real flavour of a working temple. The lodgings are scattered around a quiet maze of little streets. Most have neat tended gardens with little Buddha statues and incense burners lining the entrance ways. Even on busy days the whole area still manages to retain an air of tranquillity about it. Take the time to wander away from the main street and look around. Be careful though - it's incredibly alluring. If you're anything like me you'll want to pack up your life, don a robe and move in right away.
If you can manage to tear yourself away and get back to the main street, cross the road, and you’ll be on Nakamise-dori. This is a bustling lane along which you can sample plenty of the aforementioned soba and oyaki. Look out also for Shichimi - a spice mix made from seven spices (hence the name - Shichi is Japanese for seven) which is a traditional accompaniment to soba.
Zenkoji is without doubt the crowning glory of Nagano. It's a 7th century Buddhist temple (although due to fires the current building dates from around 1707) that is said to contain the first Buddhist image ever brought to Japan. Not that you'll be able to see it mind - the commandments of the temple state that it must be kept secret. Even the replica made for public viewing is shown only once every seven years in spring (last viewing was April-May 2009, so you have a long wait).
500 yen is all you need for paradise. A small price, wouldn't you say? Once you pass through the barrier look for a set of stairs on the right of the main alter and go down them into a completely dark corridor. Edge your way along the narrow tunnel and try to feel for something metal hanging on the wall. This is a key - although it feels more like a door handle - touch it and your entry into paradise will be secured. After which, you probably don’t need my help any more.
Where to stay
The Hotel Metropolitan Nagano (1346 Minami-ishido-cho) is right next to Nagano station and just across the road from Chuo-dori. It's a little bit more pricey than some of the other hotels in Nagano (single: 9240 yen/double: 18,480 yen), but it's usually rated as one of the best.
You can also stay in traditional temple lodgings (Zenkoji Shukubo; 81-26-234-3591) in the grounds of Zenkoji. This is perfect if you want a truly traditional experience, but you will need to speak good Japanese to make a booking.