5-Days Nagano Itinerary: Exploring the Natural Beauty of Nagano Prefecture in Japan

nagano japan travel

Have you ever wanted to escape the bustling city life and immerse yourself in nature? If so, Nagano Prefecture in Japan is the perfect destination for you. With its picturesque landscapes, charming towns, and delicious cuisine, Nagano offers a unique and unforgettable experience. In this 5-day itinerary, we will explore the best that Nagano has to offer, from the idyllic mountain town of Karuizawa to the stunning beauty of Kamikochi and the engineering marvel of Kurobe Dam.

How to get around Nagano Prefecture

Self Driving

Nagano prefecture is a large area to explore, and having the flexibility of driving your own vehicle can be a convenient option. If you have an international driver’s license and are comfortable driving in a foreign country, renting a car is highly recommended. You can easily book a car rental from Tokyo, either from the airport or the city itself. This gives you the freedom to explore at your own pace and venture into the hidden gems of Nagano.

By Train

If you prefer not to drive or want a more affordable option, taking the train is a great way to get around Nagano. The Japan Rail Pass gives you unlimited access to JR trains, including the Shinkansen bullet train. Alternatively, if you only plan to visit Nagano, the 5-day JR East Nagano pass is a cheaper alternative. Just remember to purchase your JR Pass before your trip, as it can only be bought from outside of Japan.

Tips for Roadtripping in Nagano Prefecture

Before embarking on your road trip adventure in Nagano, there are a few things to keep in mind. Firstly, Nagano is a mountainous area, so be prepared for driving on winding and sometimes steep roads. If you are visiting in the winter, make sure to have appropriate tires and be prepared for icy conditions. Additionally, it’s important to note that most restaurants in Nagano tend to close early, around 8-8:30 pm. So, plan your meals accordingly or be open to trying Izakaya or convenience store meals, which can still be quite tasty.

What to eat in Nagano Prefecture

When it comes to gastronomic delights, Nagano Prefecture does not disappoint. Here are two must-try dishes:

1. Soba Noodles

Due to Nagano’s mountainous terrain, rice cultivation is challenging. As a result, soba (buckwheat) became the staple crop of the region. Soba noodles are a popular dish in Nagano and can be found in almost every traditional restaurant. Whether served in a hot soup or cold with a side dipping broth, soba noodles are a delicious and wholesome meal. Be sure to try them with various toppings for a unique culinary experience.

Hot Soba in Nagano
Cold Soba in Nagano with a side of Unagi rice

2. Oyaki (Savory or Sweet Dumpling)

Oyaki is a Japanese savory dumpling that is widely available in Nagano. Traditionally stuffed with roasted local vegetables, oyaki is a great representation of the prefecture’s culinary heritage. The dough used for oyaki is made from buckwheat flour, giving it a unique and delicious flavor. You can also find sweet versions of oyaki made with fruits like apples. Don’t miss the opportunity to try these delightful dumplings during your visit.

Oyaki in Matsumoto, Nagano

My 5-day Nagano Prefecture Itinerary

Now let’s dive into the exciting itinerary for your 5-day adventure in Nagano. This itinerary combines both city exploration and nature, offering a perfect balance for an unforgettable trip. Feel free to extend the duration if you have more time to spare.

Day 1: Karuizawa

Our first stop is the charming town of Karuizawa, known as an idyllic mountain getaway for the people of Tokyo. Karuizawa offers a perfect blend of nature, hiking trails, delectable cuisine, and shopping. It’s the ideal place to start your Nagano adventure.

Harunire Terrace in Karuizawa

Day 2: Matsumoto

From Karuizawa, we will drive approximately 2 hours to Matsumoto. Although this small city is primarily a gateway to Kamikochi, it has its own treasures to explore.

1. Matsumoto Castle & Matsumoto City Museum

Matsumoto Castle, also known as the “Crow Castle” due to its unique black exterior, is a must-visit attraction in Matsumoto. Unlike other castles in Japan, Matsumoto Castle stands out for its distinctive architecture. Visitors can explore all 5 floors of the castle, enjoying panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.

Matsumoto Castle

Next to the castle, you will find the Matsumoto City Museum of Art, which houses a permanent collection of works by the renowned artist Yayoi Kusama. This museum is definitely worth a visit, even if you’re not familiar with her work.

Matsumoto City Museum of Art

2. Nawate Dori

Take a stroll along Nawate Dori, a charming shopping street that gives a glimpse into the old castle town atmosphere. Here, you can find unique souvenir shops, vintage goods shops, and don’t forget to try the delicious Taiyaki (fish-shaped pastry) at Furusato.

Nawate Dori

3. Asama Onsen

What is a visit to Nagano without experiencing an onsen? Asama Onsen is a great place to relax and soak in the hot springs. With indoor and outdoor pools, you can enjoy the therapeutic benefits of the mineral-rich waters. Try the hot/cold bathing method for a rejuvenating experience.

Day 3: Kamikochi

Kamikochi, also known as the “Japanese Yosemite Valley,” is located within the Chubu Sangaku National Park. This natural paradise offers breathtaking beauty and tranquil hiking trails surrounded by the Northern Japanese Alps. It’s the perfect destination for nature enthusiasts and hikers.

Kappabashi at Kamikochi

Please note that Kamikochi is only open from April 15 to November 15, so plan your visit accordingly. For a detailed guide on hiking in Kamikochi, including accommodation options and day trip suggestions, check out our separate guide.

Day 4: Omachi – Lake Kisaki & Kurobe Dam

On the fourth day, take some time to relax and enjoy the beauty of Lake Kisaki and the engineering marvel of Kurobe Dam.

1. Lake Kisaki & Kizakiko Camping Ground

Lake Kisaki is a serene lake surrounded by holiday houses and farms. Take a leisurely stroll around the lake, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere. If you’re up for it, you can also spend the night at one of the lake-side lodges for a truly immersive experience.

Lake Kisaki

2. Kurobe Dam

Kurobe Dam, the tallest dam in Japan, is a testament to Japanese engineering. Take a bus from Kurobe Dam station to reach this impressive structure. The journey through the Kanden Tunnel is as exciting as the destination itself. Don’t forget to admire the stunning views and take a walk across the dam.

Kurobe Dam

What and where to eat

While in Omachi, make sure to try the Kurobe Dam Curry, a unique dish that represents the area. The rice is molded to resemble Kurobe Dam, and the sauce is green, symbolizing the color of the dam’s water. You can find this dish at the Kurobe Dam restaurant or at the Yupuru onsen restaurant near Lake Kisaki.

Day 5: Kusatsu

Our final stop is the enchanting town of Kusatsu, known for its natural hot springs and traditional atmosphere. Stroll through the streets dressed in a Yukata and Geta, and immerse yourself in the magical ambiance.

Yubatake at Kusatsu

Where to stay in Kusatsu

Choose from a range of traditional ryokans that offer comfortable accommodations and their own onsen facilities. Ryokan Tamura and Hananigen are conveniently located near the town center, while Kusatsu Onsen Eidaya offers a slightly cheaper option within walking distance.

What else you can see in Nagano Prefecture

If you have more time to spare in Nagano, here are a few additional recommendations for your itinerary:

  • Jigokudani Monkey Park: Observe the famous Japanese Macaque (snow monkeys) as they relax in natural hot springs.
  • Mount Kusatsu-Shirane: This mountain offers stunning views and hiking opportunities, although it may sometimes be closed due to volcanic activity.
  • Nagano City: Explore the capital of Nagano prefecture, known for its Olympic history and remnants of architecture from the 1998 Winter Olympics.
  • Hakuba: Experience the thrill of winter sports in this famous ski resort town.

After an incredible 5-day adventure in Nagano, it’s time to bid farewell to this beautiful prefecture and head back to Tokyo. Remember to check the weather conditions and be prepared for any changing circumstances during your trip. Stay safe and enjoy every moment of your Nagano journey!

A little trivia: I was lucky enough to visit Nagano just before Typhoon Hagibis hit Tokyo. Despite the weather changes, my trip was unforgettable. Make sure to check the local weather forecast and plan accordingly. Leave a comment if you have any questions or need further information. Happy travels!

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