written by Tyler
Nagano City is a temple town. At its heart is the venerable Zenkoji Temple which has been drawing pilgrims for 1500 years. Come discover what the attraction is, as Tyler, a resident of Nagano Prefecture since 2005, reveals the ‘tamashi’ (soul) of this fascinating city.
(Nagano City, population 380,000 [Jan. 2017], capital of Nagano Prefecture.)
- Arrival / Nagano Station  in the map below
A convenient 90 min. from Tokyo or 60 min. from Kanazawa via the Hokuriku Shinkansen, Nagano Station will likely be your gateway to Nagano City. (Alternative access options include the JR Ltd. Express “Shinano” from Nagoya as well as highway buses from Shinjuku, Niigata, etc.) The station was renovated in 2015 when the bullet train was extended to Kanazawa, and features warm wooden accents reflecting the Nagano City’s natural environment.
While the chic fashion shops, tantalizing food stands and aromatic coffee shops in the station building and adjacent department store may tempt you, let’s first head to the hotel to drop off the suitcases and go pay our respects to Zenkoji Temple.
So, hop on the bus (Gururin-go or Binzuru-go to stop C-05) or a taxi and go to…
- Hotel (Luggage Drop-Off) / Saihokukan 
With a history dating back to 1827, The Saihokukan Hotel is the grand dame of accommodation establishments in Nagano City. Located on a quiet side street within easy walking distance to Zenkoji Temple, the hotel features modern comfort with classic details such as gorgeous Japanese gardens and classic stained glass artwork. Drop off your luggage and, if it is your desire, take time out for coffee or tea in the patio bar Seiji.
Other options for accommodation abound, from friendly guesthouses like Backpackers 1166 to traditional Japanese inns such as Shimizuya Ryokan. Or, to really get you in the mood for Zenkoji, you may want to consider a spartan stay in a shukubo (temple lodging) like Fuchinobo.
- Stroll up to Zenkoji / Chuo Dori and Omotesando to Ogawa-no-Sho 小川の庄 / 
Next head towards Zenkoji walking up Chuo Dori (Central Avenue), the main road leading from Nagano Station to the temple. The road is lined with unique shops and businesses as well as yummy eateries. Especially of interest is the Patio Daimon complex at the Daimon intersection, a collection of earthen-walled kura storehouses that have been relocated here and turned into a variety of specialty shops, bars and restaurants. Stop in at Ogawa no Sho and treat yourself to a charcoal-roasted oyaki dumpling.
The road will narrow and pass through the Niomon Gate, bringing you to Zenkoji’s Omotesando, a festive lane brimming with souvenir shops and soba restaurants. Speaking of which…
- Lunch / Slurping Soba 戸隠そば
It’s against the rules to visit Nagano and not eat soba noodles. The prefecture is famous
for its buckwheat , especially from the Togakushi Plateau above Zenkoji. Meisters at the plethora of soba shops along the Omotesando create the noodles by hand every day using buckwheat flour grown in Togakushi. Try the tempura soba for sumptious freshly-made soba noodles to be dipped in the shop’s original tsuyu sauce accompanied by seasonal vegetables served tempura-style. Don’t forget to slurp the noodles to show appreciation.
- Zenkoji Temple / Heavenly Views and Resurrection 善光寺 / 
After lunch, proceed to Zenkoji Temple and its impressively massive architecture. Praying here is believed to lead to salvation regardless of status, gender or creed, hence it attracts pilgrims from all beliefs.
The entrance to the Main Hall is marked by the Sammon Gate. Look closely at the its 善光寺 (Zenkoji) sign — hidden within the kanji strokes are 5 pigeons. Stop to enter and climb to the observation level for a pigeon’s eye view of the Nagano City and the Zenkoji Plain. With all those majestic mountains in the background, the view is simply heavenly.
Designated a National Treasure, Zenkoji’s Main Hall houses the Sangoku Denrai (Amida Triad Sharing One Halo). The image came to Japan in 552 with the introduction of Buddhism from Korea. At first, the religion wasn’t readily accepted and the image was secreted away to the mountains of Nagano. It was enshrined here in 642 and remains a ‘hidden’ object to this day. Every 7 years a replica is displayed during the Gokaicho event but normally the closest one can get is to descend into the pitch-black corridor underneath it. Try to find the key to paradise along the wall (hint: right side, waist-high). No matter if you don’t find it — ascending back up will feel like being reborn.
- Hotel (Check-In) / Relaxation (Onsen?) and Dinner
Following your spiritual rejuvenation at Zenkoji Temple, head back to your hotel for registration and to settle in. Options for your evening include wandering over to Uroikan, a riverside onsen bathhouse (15 min. on foot), walking down to the station area to one of the many izakaya for some friendly pub fare, or an elegant dinner at The Fujiya Gohonjin. It’s suggested you get an early night’s sleep to prepare for…
- Zenkoji Temple / O-Asaji Morning Service お朝事 / 
An early wake up and walk over to Zenkoji Temple will reward you with seeing the O-Asaji morning service. The top abbot and abbotress perform this solemn ceremony inside the Main Hall every morning with the starting time adjusted to the sunrise (varies from 5:30 to 7am; admission ticket required to sit in the inner sanctuary). Just before and after the service, you can line up in front of the Hall to receive a blessing from the top priest or priestess. Kneel down and bow, and you will receive Buddhist rosary on your head as they enter or exit the Hall.
After this spiritual start to your day, head to a coffee shop (like the chic, new Hirano Coffee) or back to your hotel for breakfast. Gather your belongings , check out, and prepare to walk down to Nagano Station. Along the way, plan on seeing a few more sights, starting with…
- Central Square / ’98 Olympics Medals Stand セントラルスクエア / 
In many ways, the 1998 Winter Olympics put Nagano City on the global map. The Medals Ceremony took place in Central Square. Today, there is a mini-version of the Olympic Flame as well as a medals stand. You always wanted to have your picture taken as a medal winner, right? Later on, there will be one more Olympics-related stop for this visit.
- Gondo Arcade / Window Shopping 権堂 / 
Just north of Central Square is the western entrance to Gondo, Nagano City’s retro shopping arcade lined with Mom & Pop specialty stores as well as clothing boutiques, antique shops and a multitude of hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Unlike the impersonal shopping experience at modern malls, at the businesses in Gondo you will likely get to meet the actual shop owners which makes for a refreshing change.
At the arcade’s eastern end (approx. 500m on foot), you will find the Gondo subway station. Nagano City only has 1 subway line so you can’t get too creative, but take it 2 stops to to Nagano Station, the end of the line. Put your luggage in a coin locker and it’s time for…
- Nagano Station / Lunch, Choju Shokudo 長寿食堂 / 
Boasting over 20 restaurants, Nagano Station is a food-lover’s mecca. Especially unique is Choju Shokudo. Literally meaning ‘Long-Life Cafeteria’, the name refers to the fact that Nagano Prefecture has Japan’s longest life expectancy. Their menu features locally-sourced ingredients which are believed to be one of the reasons everyone here is so healthy.
After some lunchtime nourishment, there is one more must-see location. From Nagano Station’s East Exit, hop on a bus bound for Suzaka/Yajima to the M-Wave Mae stop (15 min.). Here is the afore-mentioned other Olympic venue.
- M-Wave / Nagano Olympic Museum エムウェーブ / 
Nagano is proud of its legacy from the 1998 Winter Olympics and that pride is evident at the Nagano Olympic Museum inside M-Wave which hosted the speed skating competition. Through the displays and memorabilia, you will feel the excitement of the event that put Nagano City on the international stage. If your visit coincides with the winter-time skating operation, you can lace on a pair of skates and try the Olympic-caliber rink yourself — alongside actual speedskating athletes if you are lucky.
This 2-day visit is coming to a close, so it’s time to hop on the bus back to…
- Nagano Station / Souvenir Shopping 長野駅ビル / 
Upon returning to Nagano Station, pick up your luggage from the coin locker and be sure to check out the many nearby shops for some souvenirs. One popular item is Seven-Spice by Yawataya Isogoro. Their tiny red tins featuring an illustration of Zenkoji Temple are ubiquitous in restaurants in Nagano City, especially the soba shops.
We hope you enjoyed your visit to Nagano City, and that you gained an appreciation for the temple at its center, its Olympic legacy, and most importantly, the warmth and welcoming of the local people. Mata Oidenashite. (Please come again.)