Surrounded by rice fields, Iiyama City (literally, Rice Mountain) is known for its untouched natural scenery. The city has a rich food culture and beautiful natural landscapes, featuring the Chikuma River, Japan's longest river, and several mountain ranges surrounding the city. The nearest Shinkansen station and town conveniences to Nozawaonsen are in Iiyama. The Iiyama Snow and Igloo Festival (February) and the Chikuma River Fireworks Festival (in August) are highlights in this unassuming, charming rural town.
Iiyama is also famous for its handcrafted Buddhist altars at the artisanal shops that line the downtown Atago-machi Street. The walkways on both sides are covered for 300 meters by a special sloping roof, called a "gangi," designed to shelter the shops from snowfall in winter. Numerous temples and shrines nearby enhance the quaintness of this street.
Iiyama is home to some wonderful restaurants. Some of the best unagi we’ve ever come across is found at Honda; diners come from Tokyo to sample the eel here for good reason! Passed down for generations, the secret tare sauce preserves the sweet flavour of the perfectly grilled eel. Iiyama’s Mizuo sake brewery is renowned for it’s top notch sake.
Since the Edo Period (1603-1867), Obuse has been a town rich in art and culture. A wide variety of art museums, a sake brewery, shops and restaurants around the narrow lanes and attractive, traditional style buildings at its center. Obuse’s charm has been appreciated by many and the famous painter and woodblock print maker Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾 北斎), who spent several years here. A collection of his work can be seen at the Hokusai Museum at the center of town.
At the Jigokudani Monkey Park, the unique experience of seeing wild Japanese macaques bathing in a natural hot spring awaits. There is a lovely walk through tall cedars to the monkey's natural habitat in the forests of the Jigokudani valley,Yamanouchi and the sight of the monkeys soaking themselves, particularly when surrounded by deep snow in the winter, is unforgettable. The park is also not far from the onsen towns of Shibu and Yudanaka.
The Togakushi Shrines are the crowning glory of this authentic historical village. Telling the story of the Sun Goddess in Japanese mythology, they sit like a string of pearls leading from the base of the village to the holy Mount Togakushi. Starting at Hokosha the lower shrine, you can follow the string to Chusha - the middle shrine, and ends at Okusha - the upper shrine, hidden in a forest of 400 years old cedar trees. Don’t forget to try Togakushi’s famous soba while you are there. Remember too that you are in the birth village of the Togakure Ninja; you can learn more at the Togakushi Minzokukan museum!
Nagano City is the closest major city to Nozawaonsen. Don’t miss Zenko-ji, the Buddhist temple and gardens the city was built around. The temple’s treasures include the hibutsu (secret Buddha) not shown to the public and rumoured to be the first Buddha statue to ever be brought to Japan. In the former Matsushiro town, now part of Nagano, Matsushiro Castle was home to the Sanada clan, daimyō of Matsushiro Domain.
Located on the other side of Kijimadaira, Maguse-onsen Spa is renowned for its stunning location. On a clear day, Maguse-onsen’s outdoor baths are said to have views of Nagano City with the Japanese Alps in the distance! In the saddle in between the mountains around Kijimadaira, the stunningly expansive views of the outdoor baths bring in bathers from afar. You will need to bring your own amenities for these baths - or buy them from the ticket office. There is also an indoor bath which is made of hinoki (Japanese cypress); oddly enough, bath amenities are provided here! Check out the small cafe that provides simple meals and snacks after you’ve had your soak.
Karuizawa, on the same Hokuriku Shinkansen line, is worth a stopover - or even, exploring on a day trip by train from Nozawaonsen and Iiyama. Karuizawa is best known as a summer resort for Tokyoites since the Meiji era. Within easy walking distance from the Shinkansen station, the town's historic shopping street "Ginza dōri" or "Kyū-dō" (Ginza Street, or the Old Road) has associations with both Japanese royalty and celebrity visitors such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Explore the historical centre and its charming boutiques and fabulous eating places. Local crafts and culinary specialties are showcased by many family owned shops. If you are looking for contemporary high end retail, there is also a modern outlet shopping mall conveniently located next to the Shinkansen station. You’ll find some of Japan’s best outlet boutiques and a whole range of restaurants here. The diversity of products and shops guarantees a good day out to the most exacting of the retail mavens amongst us. If you are stopping en-route to the airport, there are also lockers where you can park your luggage while you shop.
Beyond walking distance, catch a taxi to the Sezon Museum of Contemporary Art, or the Hiroshi Senju Museum. Both designed by leading Japanese architects and home to the works of some of Japan’s leading contemporary artists, Senju is well known for his inspiration by beauty falling water while the Sezon Museum is located near Sengataki Waterfall - a beautiful area with abundant nature.
Karuizawa also has sporting centres that are the envy of many. The town is the only city in the world to have hosted both Summer and Winter Olympic events - equestrian events in 1964, as well as curling in the 1998. The all weather indoor curling centre is one of the best you’ll find anywhere in the world.
If you’ve ever wondered why there is so much curling at the Winter Olympics, do spend a couple of hours at the Kazakoshi Ice Park. This is a game of core strength, strategy and control that engages all ages - and you don’t have to know how to skate to learn!! Ask us for help booking a curling session with an English speaking instructor.
Urasa's Bishamondo shrine is a beautiful, old wooden shrine. On the night of March 3rd each year, local men in traditional loin cloths (think sumo wrestler garb), fortified against the cold with generous portions of the famous local sake, try to force their way into a small opening inside the temple. After purifying themselves with a quick dip in the freezing waters of a small pond in front of the ancient Bishamondo temple, they charge into the main hall of the temple. It is a heaving throng of celebrants that will try to force their way into a small opening to the inner sanctum to obtain a blessing. At this popular festival, visitors will also be well fed from the food stalls line the road to the temple.