“Monkeys are the perfect example of monkey see, monkey do. They observe and mimic for survival.” ~ Unknown.
Despite being mid-summer, the cool nip in the air at 8:00am didn’t bother me. After all, no Nagano itinerary would be complete without visiting the world famous snow monkeys, right?
Walking through this alpine scenery felt just like a being in a Ghibli movie; the sounds of flowing water and a slight breeze rustling the lush canopies filled the air. As the early morning mist lifted, I almost expected to see some kind of fairy flutter about!
While visiting Japan in winter is one of the most popular times to see the renowned snow monkeys nearby, this Nagano 2 day itinerary is ideal for any season. As mentioned in my guide to Jigokudani monkey park in summer, our furry friends are actually there year-round. Why not take advantage of fewer crowds outside of the winter months if you’re able?
Having hosted the 1998 Winter Olympic Games, Nagano city itself is a delight to uncover. While the remnants of the Games have left a modern edge, Nagano’s origins as an ancient pilgrimage destination are deep-rooted in the beloved Zenko-ji temple and in shukubo (temple lodging) we see today.
As one of the gateways to the Japanese Alps, Nagano 長野 is a great pit-stop along the New Golden Route I share in my full 3 week itinerary for Japan. If you’re looking for things to do in Nagano, where to stay, tips for the best time to visit Nagano for the snow monkeys and much more, read on to find out!
This post contains affiliate links, I may earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.
How to get from Tokyo to Nagano
The easiest way to reach Nagano from Tokyo is by train. The journey is around 1 hour 25mins from Tokyo Station to Nagano Station on the Hokuriku shinkansen, book individual tickets here. Cost: Approx 8740 JPY or covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
Nagano Station is in the city’s south, and the main area (Zenkoji Omotesando market street) is about 10mins bus ride away on the purple Zenkoji line on Platform 1 (cost: 250 JPY). The bus comes around every 10mins.
Alternatively, you can take a taxi which will also take around 10mins (cost: around 1200 JPY).
Where to eat in Nagano
Running the north-south length from Nagano Station to Zenko-ji Temple, your best bet is to explore along Chuo-dori, which turns into Zenkoji Omotesando. This area is packed with restaurants and cafés, many of which specialise in the local specialty of soba buckwheat noodles. You may even catch a noodle-making demonstration in the window at Daimaru!
Love apples? Well even if you don’t, Nagano is also known for its delicious shinshu variety. The famous snow monkeys love these too, more on this later. I recommend trying literally anything shinshu apple flavoured, such as juices, ice cream or chocolates.
I’m confident it will be the nicest apple flavour you’ll ever try! Shinshu apple Kit Kats are exclusive to the Nagano region and are some of my favourite Japanese snacks. More about regional specialties and souvenirs near the end of this itinerary.
TIP: If you choose to stay in a ryokan or shukubo, they will usually provide a traditional Japanese breakfast and/or dinner, too.
Nagano 2 day Itinerary for Snow Monkeys & Ancient Zen
DAY 1: Arrive & Explore Zenko-ji Temple
Welcome to Nagano, and what a laid-back contrast it is to Tokyo’s hustle and bustle! Check into your accommodation, drop your bags and get ready to explore downtown.
My first impression of this pretty city was, did it really host an event as major as the Winter Olympic Games?
Nagano’s intimate, small town feel is a welcome respite from busy major cities and a lovely introduction to life in the Japanese Alps.
Did you know most cities in Japan evolved and grew from being either harbour, castle, or temple towns? Nagano is a temple town, and situated at its very heart lies the impressive Zenko-ji Temple, founded in the 7th century.
Discover Zenko-ji Temple & grounds
Designated as a National Treasure, Zenko-ji Temple 善光寺 is one of Japan’s oldest and few remaining pilgrimage sites. It would be a disservice to visit Nagano and not spend time at the sacred Buddhist temple the city was built around, right?
During the 7th century, it’s believed a hibitsu (secret buddha) was the first Buddhist statue brought to Japan from India via the Korean Peninsula. Forbidden to be shown to anyone including the chief priest, the hibitsu has been housed at Zenko-ji for centuries. Interestingly, every six years the public can view a replica.
Depending on what time you arrive in Nagano, exploring Zenko-ji Temple and its grounds may be all you have time for on your first day. But if you love understanding Japanese history and culture, it really is a must-see!
There is quite a lot to unpack here, so I suggest setting aside a few hours to take in the sights in the following order:
From Chuo-dori, you’ll approach the first of two gates to the temple complex. The wooden Niomon Gate shelters the temple’s fierce Nio guardians. You’ll notice miniature woven sandals hung on the gate by worshippers who made the pilgrimage to Zenko-ji.
On entering the grounds, gravitate towards six Rokujizo lined up to your right (roku 六 means six — learn more numbers in my Japanese cheat sheet here). Each are believed to represent the Realms of Existence in Buddhism.
Featuring halos above their heads and wearing red bibs, the Rokujizo are thought to have given up their enlightenment to help others.
TIP: It was a sombre moment to learn these statues are replicas of the originals. They were melted down to assist the war effort during WWII.
Opposite the Rokujizo is Daikanjin Abbey, residence of the chief priest. During the warmer months, one side of the pond is covered with blooming lotus flowers (a symbol used to represent Buddhism) and turtles swim freely. What a lovely place to call home!
A designated Important Cultural Property of Japan, the Sanmon Gate is located just before Zenko-ji’s main hall. Built in 1750, if you look closely at the golden Japanese text of the gate’s name, can you spot the 5 hidden birds in the calligraphy?
Okaidan (Main Hall)
Finally, admire the interior of Zenko-ji’s main hall (cost: 500 JPY). It was rebuilt in 1707 and houses many precious Buddhist artefacts. No photos are permitted inside, but it is definitely worthwhile seeing the “golden rain” suspended from the ceiling.
Beneath the main hall is a dark underground passage where you can attempt to find the “Key to paradise of Amida Buddha” attached to a wall. It’s pitch black and I was too chicken to go down but feel free to give it a shot!
Within the hall are wooden statues of importance including Binzuru (Buddha’s follower) who is rumoured to cure your ailments. The crazy thing? I had a painful knee during my Nagano trip so I rubbed Binzuru’s knee. Low and behold a few days later, my knee was no longer in pain! Coincidence? I’ll let you be the judge, hehe.
TIP: If you’re an early bird, the Zenko-ji morning prayer ritual at sunrise is an unforgettable experience. The monk’s chanting is a humbling sound that I will remember forever.
English-speaking volunteer guides are available to help you understand the significance of events during the service.
Afterwards, some of us lined up outside on our knees in the hopes of being blessed by the chief priest. With a chant and flick of his mala beads, I was lucky enough to receive the blessing as he passed. What a special honour!
TIP: At the temple’s main hall, see if you can find a huge scar in the wood beneath the suspended bell. It was dislodged and fell during a major earthquake in 1847, leaving behind a large gash.
TIP: Can you spot the most Japanese thing in the courtyard? It’s a temple-shaped vending machine filled with omamori (lucky charms!)
DAY 2: Explore Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park & Downtown Nagano
Day 2 of this Nagano itinerary will provide the opportunity to meet some furry friends who call the forest their home. These fluffy Japanese macaques are native to Japan and love the cold alpine regions!
The journey from Tokyo to Nagano is around 3 hours each way, making it a very lengthy day trip. This is why I’ve created this 2 day itinerary, as it’s best to stay the night before and get an early start to reach the Nagano snow monkeys the following morning.
Getting to the Snow Monkey Park from Nagano Station
The quickest way to reach the snow monkey park is by an express bus. Take the Nagaden Bus from Nagano train station, which takes 40 mins (adult cost: JPY 1800 one way). See the timetable here.
From there, the well-marked walking track to the monkeys is 1.6 kilometres through the forest. The earliest bus will get you to the start of the pathway by 9:00am, and with the 30 mins walk you can expect to reach the monkeys around 9:30am.
Tips for visiting the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park in Yudanaka
When is the best time to visit the snow monkeys? My answer is whenever you’re able! The monkeys are there all year too, so no need to wait until winter to see them. If visiting during the warmer months as I did, you’ll be able to avoid the winter crowds.
Open every day of the year from 8:30am, the cost to enter Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is 800 JPY per adult / 400 JPY per child.
As it’s a lengthy walk to the monkey park, be prepared with comfy shoes and the appropriate clothing for your season. My tips for visiting are:
- Bring an umbrella to shield from rain or rain droplets that form in the alpine canopy.
- Pack insect repellant if visiting during the warmer months to ward off mosquitoes and midges.
- Prepare to smell sulphur as the running waters besides the walking trail are geothermal.
- Plan to visit first thing in the morning when the park opens, this is when most of the monkeys are there.
- Wear warm, waterproof boots during winter to protect your feet from snow and ice (TIP: my guide to what to pack for Japan has every season covered!).
- Refrain from smiling at the monkeys or making direct eye contact, as they can see this as a threat and become aggressive.
- Don’t keep any food in your bag if it can be helped. The monkeys can sniff it out and feeding them is forbidden.
- Don’t eat along the walking trail or in the monkey park.
- Keep about 1 – 2 metres distance between yourself and the monkeys. There are rangers strolling around to ensure visitors don’t get too close.
- No tripods, drones, selfie sticks or flash photography permitted.
- The gift shop has cute snow monkey themed gifts, so pick up a few if you’d like to further support the park.
- At the trail’s start, there is a TV with livecam of the monkey’s hot spring, so you can gauge how busy it is before the walk.
- You can grab some lunch at the Enza Café located near the car park, or wait until you’re back in Nagano to eat. I tried a delicious shinshu apple ice cream here!
However upon further research, I was pleased to learn Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park was not set up for profits, but rather conservation. It was established in 1964 to encourage the monkeys away from famers’ nearby apple orchards, which they loved to sample the fruit!
These wild monkeys are not confined to any enclosure, and are free to come and go from the park into the forest as they please. I believe these kinds of wild animal encounters are fine, as people are not handling them or interfering with natural behaviours.
I spent about 1.5 hours at the Nagano snow monkey park watching them play and interact with each other. The babies are especially cute and clever to witness!
TIP: Did you know the snow monkeys learnt about enjoying onsen (hot springs) by observing humans from the nearby Kanbayashi Onsen resort?
Head back into Downtown Nagano
Wondering what to do in Nagano besides exploring Zenko-ji Temple? After you’ve had your snow monkey fix, make your way back into Nagano’s centre to explore the specialty shops and other delights along the way.
Things to do in Nagano Old Town
Explore along Nakamise-dori & surrounding streets
Enjoy a relaxed afternoon in Nagano strolling around its centre. It’s the perfect place to shop for souvenirs, stumble across small temples and soak in the beauty of its streets.
Learn the interesting tale behind the famed “running ox” you see pictured around the city. It has to do with an old woman, a cloth and an ox. If you can find the sitting golden ox statue in town, the full story will be revealed.
Try some interesting ice cream flavours and shop for souvenirs along Nakamise-dori, the shopping street leading up to Zenko-ji temple (after the Niomon Gate and before the Sanmon Gate).
Shop along the sleepy Gondo Covered Shopping Arcade. Head here in the evening for karaoke or for a bite to eat for dinner, as the place comes alive at night!
TIP: If you love small temples, there are a number scattered around the side streets of Nakamise-dori.
Look for souvenirs from Nagano
As mentioned earlier, the Nagano region is known for a few specialties. Keep an eye out for:
- Anything shinshu apple flavoured, such as Kit Kats.
- Shichimi Togarashu, a spicy seasoning made with sesame, red pepper and ginger. You can buy the seasoning in a jar or find snacks such as senbei crackers and chips flavoured with it.
- Soba noodles, the tasty local specialty dish made from 40% buckwheat grown locally.
- Chikuma apple pie, made with honey and sponge cake.
- Fruity confectionery from Misuzuame, which uses a process dating back over a century to the Meiji era.
- TIP: Check my guide to meaningful souvenirs from Japan for other ideas, such as tsuko-tegata!
Don’t forget to drop by Zenko-ji Temple at night
There is something quite magical about visiting temples at night, No crowds and soft illuminations of the important structures offer a completely different atmosphere.
If you have some extra time in Nagano city
Here are some alternative things to do in Nagano city:
- Enjoy the peaceful and often overlooked East Garden of Nagano Zenkoji Temple.
- Admire the cherry blossoms of Joyama Park if visiting Japan in spring.
- Visit the 1998 Winter Olympic Venues if they interest you.
- Learn about the area’s history at the Nagano City Museum.
More nearby places to visit in Nagano Prefecture
Looking for ideas of other places to visit in Nagano Prefecture during your trip? Take a look into these nearby Nagano attractions:
- Discover the stunning natural scenery on hikes around Kamikochi.
- Head to Matsumoto and climb inside Matsumoto Castle, the “Black Crow.”
- Take to the slopes in winter at nearby ski resorts such as Hakuba, Nozawa Onsen, Cortina, Shiga Kogen, Karuizawa snow resort and more.
- Discover tools and weapons used by ninjas in the area centuries ago at the Togakushi Ninja Museum.
- Head off the beaten path to admire enormous 400-year old cedar trees on the way to Togakushi Shrine.
Concluding this Nagano 2 day itinerary
Is Nagano worth visiting? If you love uncovering ancient history, Japanese culture and shinrin-yoku (forest bathing), I believe the answer is an overwhelming yes!
In saying that, I don’t think a Nagano day trip from Tokyo is worth it. While some may say visiting Nagano is one of the best day trips from Tokyo by train, I believe squeezing all these sights into one day will feel quite rushed. I hope my itinerary gives you some ideas of what to expect when visiting Nagano Japan over 2 days.
Spending the night before allows us to have an early start for the lengthy journey to Yudanaka, and see the snow monkeys first thing before they venture back into the forest later in the afternoon. It also gives us some time to discover the small-town feel Nagano prides itself on.
While Zenkoji Temple is the heart and soul of Nagano city, venturing outside the city into the dense forest and surrounding areas showcases the natural beauty of this area alongside the manmade.
What do you think of this guide for how to get from Nagano to snow monkeys? Drop me any questions in the comments below.
Are you planning a Nagano winter itinerary? While you’re here, take a look at my guides for visiting nearby cities during this breathtaking time with my 2 day Takayama itinerary, guide to Hida no Sato Folk Village (a lesser-known alternative to Shirakawa-go), 2 day Kanazawa itinerary, Gala Yuzawa for non-skiers (combined with Echigo Yuzawa) and more on my Japan travel blog.
Until next time,
Do you love Japanese sweets, snacks and candies?
Read my Tokyo Treat Review and get popular Japanese snacks delivered here, or read my Sakuraco review and get traditional Japanese sweets delivered here!
Like it? Pin it! 📌
This Nagano itinerary blog contains some affiliate links, at no extra cost to you. I may earn a small commission if you decide to make a purchase and if you do, thanks for your support! This helps with the costs of running my blog so I can keep my content free for you. As always, I only recommend a product or service that I genuinely love and use myself!