A couple of centuries ago, the area around Zenkō-ji Temple (善光寺) was still rural. But after the temple was erected and became more well-known, the area became more prosperous and emerged into the busy commercial district around Nagano Station we know today.
We know it can be quite hard to decide which attraction and shops to visit with so many choices in front of you. So here is a list that we reckon you might be interested in stopping by!
- Zenkō-ji Temple (善光寺)
- Unjōden (雲上殿)
- Karukayasan Saikōji Temple (刈萱山西光寺)
- Recommended Desserts Sold at MIDORI Nagano (MIDORI 長野)
- Jōyama Park (城山公園)
- Nagano Ebisukō Fireworks Festival (長野えびす講煙火大会)
- Zenkō-ji Omotesandō Illumination (善光寺表参道イルミネーション)
How to Get to JR Nagano Station
Below is a rough guide of how long it might take you to get to Nagano Station, assuming you are taking the bullet train and/or limited express.
- From Tokyo: around 1.5 hours
- From Nagoya: around 3 – 3.5 hours
- From Osaka: around 4 hours
- From Kanazawa: around 1 hour
Tip: Consider getting the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) if you depart from Tokyo. A return trip from Tokyo will cost you 15,620 yen, which is almost the cost of the pass at 18,000 yen. The 5-day pass gives you unlimited train rides on all JR trains in the area, Tokyo Monorail, and Izu Kyuko Line. It also allows you to board the reserved carriages of bullet trains. Remember to purchase the pass before arriving in Japan to save on the 10% tax.
Zenkō-ji Temple (善光寺)
Your visit to Nagano won’t be complete without stopping by the famous Zenkō-ji Temple. The number of visitors the temple receives yearly is as many as 6 million people!
This symbol of Nagano City is located on a hill about 2 km north of Nagano Station. The temple, with a history of more than 1,400 years, has many interesting cultural properties in its precinct.
For more information, please refer to our article on Zenkō-ji!
Specialties of Zenkō-ji that You Have to Try at Nakamise-dōri Street (仲見世通り)
Back in the Edo period, seven local specialties were sold at the shops around Zenkō-ji, which pilgrims would bring home as souvenirs after visiting the temple. The seven specialties are therefore known as the Seven Specialties of Zenkō-ji (善光寺七名物).
Although not all seven have survived the test of time, there are still three that we get to try when we go to the famous temple today!
For more information about the best shops and restaurants around Zenkō-ji Temple, please read our article on Nakamise-dōri Street.
Karukayasan Saikōji Temple (刈萱山西光寺)
If you are walking towards Zenkō-ji Temple from Nagano Station or the other way around, you can make a detour to Karukayasan Saikōji Temple. This temple should particularly interest those who previously visited the Karukaya-dō Mitsugon-in (苅萱堂 密厳院) in Kōyasan.
The temple was founded by a monk called Karukaya Dōshin (苅萱 道心) who were originally trained in Karukaya-dō Mitsugon-in (苅萱堂 密厳院). For a background story about his reason for traveling to Zenkō-ji, please refer to our article on Kōyasan.
Assuming you have read the story of Ishidōmaru in the Karukaya-dō Mitsugon-in section of our Kōyasan article, it should be noted that both Karukaya Dōshin (the father) and Ishidōmaru (the son) ended up in Nagano.
Arriving at Nagano, Karukaya founded Saikōji Temple in 1199, where he later passed away in 1214. At the time, Ishidōmaru, who was at Kōyasan, saw purple clouds floating around Nagano. Observing this unusual scene, he realized that Karukaya had departed for another world, which made him head over to Nagano.
Inheriting Karukaya’s will, he became the second head monk of Saikōji, who later passed away in 1216 at the age of 63.
Similar to the Jizō Bodhisattva statue they made together at Karukaya-dō Mitsugon-in, although carved at different times, both Karukaya and Ishidōmaru made a Jizo Bodhisattva statue at Saikōji as well. The statues were made with a wish for a smooth and safe delivery during childbirth as well as successful parenting.
The Jizō statues they made are now the main Buddhist statues in the temple, which are both usually hidden away from the public.
On the temple’s precinct, you should be able to find a statue of a monk facing a boy statue. These two statues are there to illustrate the encounter of Karukaya and Ishidōmaru when they first met at Kōyasan.
By the way, when you visit Saikōji Temple, you should see a wooden pillar standing in front of the worship hall. The pillar is called Ekō Hashira (回向柱).
Before you enter the worship hall and pray to the Buddha, please remember to touch the pillar. It is said that the pillar has the effect of cleansing your mind and body. You will also receive the same benefit as touching the main Buddha statue by touching it.
Etoki at Saikōji Temple
Saikōji is also a temple known for delivering Buddha’s teaching through Etoki (絵解き). When you visit a Buddhist site, have you found yourself trying really hard to figure out what the messages of the paintings in front of you are trying to deliver?
Etoki is basically a session for anyone who understands the meaning of the painting and the messages that the painting is trying to convey to those who don’t so that the messages can be passed on to future generations.
Although the Etoki sessions at Saikōji are only delivered in Japanese and require a participation fee, you are free to admire the paintings on the folding screens.
Strolling around the temple is also free of charge.
There are 7 lucky gods scattered in the area between Nagano Station and Zenkō-ji Temple. One of them is at Saikōji.
The statue of this elderly man is known for looking after one’s fortune and longevity. When you see him, remember to make a wish!
Saikōji’s Opening Hours and Access Information
- Saikōji opens from 8 am to 4:30 pm in winter and 8 am to 5 pm for other seasons.
- It is a 7-minute walk from Nagano Station and just in front of the bus stop – Karukayamasan-mae (かるかや山前))
Tip: If you find yourself lost, instead of asking the locals for Saikōji, it is better to ask for Karukayasan.
Recommended Desserts Sold at MIDORI Nagano (MIDORI 長野)
Some shops are based a little bit further away. But don’t worry, they have a branch at the building called MIDORI Nagano above Nagano Station.
Zenkō-ji Rakugan (善光寺落雁) at Sakurai Kansei-dō (桜井甘精堂)
The Rakugan is the first confectionery sold around the temple that Zenkō-ji formally recognized in 1964.
Rakugan is a type of dry Japanese confection special to Kanazawa. It is made by mixing rice, soy, or barley flour with sugar, then pressed into a pattern. What makes this Rakugan special is that red peas are used as a part of its ingredients. With the unique taste of red peas, it is the Rakugan you can’t find elsewhere in Japan!
Sakurai Kansei-dō has a branch at MIDORI Nagano. You can also enjoy a relaxing Japanese-style afternoon in the cafe next to the shop. The business hours are as per below.
- Shop: 9 am to 8 pm
- Cafe: 10 am to 6 pm
- The last order is taken at 5:45 pm
If you have time, drop by their main store at Obuse, which can be reached by Nagano Dentetsu for their wide range of chestnut desserts. For more information about Obuse, you can refer to our article on this chestnut town (=ﾟωﾟ)ﾉ.
Bon Sarrasin’s Soba Cheesecake (おそばのチーズケーキ)
Bon Sarrasin is a soba sweets specialist. Apparently, the shop’s name means delicious soba. With soba being Nagano’s most famous local specialty, it would be a shame if you don’t try out some of the buckwheat-related products!
The soba cheesecake from Bon Sarrasin was made using the soba flour from Nagano. With the buckwheat tea cream and cheese, a rich cheesecake with a nice scent of buckwheat is brought to life. Also, the dish’s base dough is made from 100% buckwheat flour.
So, where can you taste this rare dish? Head to MIDORI Nagano’s 3rd floor. There is a restaurant called Soba-dokoro Miyoda (そば処 みよ田).
The restaurant offers a range of soba dishes. Not only the noodle soups, but they also have soba tofu, soba roll cake, soba ice cream, and soba cheesecake!
Soba-dokoro Miyoda’s Business Hours and Access Information
- The restaurant is open from 11 am to 10 pm
- The last order is taken at 9:30 pm
- Lunch is served from 11 am to 3 pm
- The last order is taken at 2:30 pm
- You can check out their menu HERE in advance
Shōrō Monaka (鐘楼最中) at Fukaba-dō (二葉堂)
The last shop, Fukaba-dō, isn’t located close to the temple. But what is sold here still has a deep connection with Zenkō-ji.
Remember how the bell at Zenkō-ji is an important national artwork? At Fukaba-dō, established in 1804, you can eat the traditional Japanese confectionery called monaka in the shape of that bell!
Monaka is a bean paste-filled wafer. Fukaba-dō gives customers two flavors to choose from, red bean or chestnut. Both are vegan, and both go well with coffee and tea.
And just want to point out that this bell-shaped monaka is officially recognized by Zenkō-ji!
Another Zenkō-ji recognized confectionary sold here is the chestnut manjū called Obinzurusan (おびんずるさん). This manjū differs from the Sake Manjū we mentioned in the Nakamise-dōri Street article in that the skin is firmer and contains eggs. The confectionery was designed to reproduce the slippery and shiny head of the statue of Pindola Bharadvaja (おびんずる尊者). So when you visit Zenkō-ji’s Hondō, remember to touch the statue’s head to get some blessings (^_-)-☆.
Despite containing eggs, their castella won a few awards, including coming first in the castella category at the National Confectionery Confectionery Expo (全国菓子大博覧会).
Fukaba-dō’s Business Hours and Access Information
- The Nagano Main Store is open from 9 am to 7 pm
- Fukaba-dō is unfortunately not close to Zenkō-ji Temple. It is a 10-minute walk from Nagano Dentetsu’s Asahi Station (朝陽), which is 4 stations away from Zenkōjishita Station
- It is a 25-minute walk from JR Kitanagano Station (北長野駅)
- If you can’t be bothered to go all the way to their main shop, they have a branch at MIDORI Nagano (MIDORI 長野) next to Nagano Station
Jōyama Park (城山公園)
Just next to Zenkōi Temple on its east, Jōyama Park, with the vast ground, is best known for the stunning scenery of cherry blossoms created by the 470 cherry trees in the park.
What some aren’t aware of is that the fall foliage here is amazing as well!
The park, which opened in 1900, is the oldest in Nagano City. Apart from the sports ground, there are also Higashiyama Kaii Kan (長野県立美術館 東山魁夷館) and Nagano Prefectural Art Museum (長野県立美術館) for you to get a vibe on how contemporary Japanese artworks differ from those of the western countries.
How to Get to Jōyama Park
Jōyama Park is just a 5-minute walk from Zenkō-ji’s Hondō.
Nagano Ebisukō Fireworks Festival (長野えびす講煙火大会)
If you love to attend Japanese festivals but hate the hot and humid summer, come to Nagano in late November for Nagano Ebisukō Fireworks Festival, which usually attracts 200 to 300 thousand people!
The festival is a part of Nishinomiya Shrine’s (西宮神社) annual Ebisukō ritual that prays for thriving business and a prosperous year. At night on the last day of the ritual, the biggest fireworks event in Japan in autumn will take place at Saigawa Kasenjiki Park (犀川河川敷公園) on the bank of Sai River (犀川).
Sai River is around a 20 to 30-minute walk from JR Nagano Station’s east exit. If you don’t want to walk, there will also be temporary shuttle buses fetching you to the event venue (albeit there might be a long queue).
☛ Arrive at the venue before 6 pm for some delicious street food from the temporary stalls!
☛ If it is too crowded on the bank of Sai River, you can also get a clear view from Nagano City Olympic Memorial Arena (M-WAVE) (長野市オリンピック記念アリーナ(エムウェーブ）). It is also where you can park if you are driving as well. Temporary shuttle buses will run between the arena and the event venue.
☛ Remember to bring enough warm clothes as it gets quite chilly at night at Nagano during this time of the year.
Nagano Ebisukō Fireworks Festival
In 2021, the festival took place on the 23rd of November from 6 to 8 pm. The launch of the fireworks started at 6 pm and continued for around 45 minutes.
You can refer to the official website HERE for more photos and videos.
Zenkō-ji Omotesandō Illumination (善光寺表参道イルミネーション)
When the time gets closer to Christmas, the trees on the 1.8 km road leading to Zenkō-ji Temple from Nagano Station will be decorated with thousands of light bulbs that create a warm atmosphere. This is probably the only time of the year you will be willing to spend 30 minutes walking to get to the temple (´▽｀*). The temple itself is also the venue where the lighting show will take place.
The Zenkō-ji Illumination will take place from the 18th to the 26th of December from 5 pm to 8 pm.
In 2021, Zenkō-ji Omotesandō Illumination will take place from the 23rd of November all the way to the 13th of February from 5 pm to 10 pm.
Explore the Chestnuts Town – Obuse
If you aren’t in a hurry, we recommend you stop by Obuse for the delicious chestnut desserts and the dramatic ukiyo-e that the town is famous for.
Find out more about what you can do and where to go, and of course, where to eat when you get to this gorgeous town with our Obuse article (=ﾟωﾟ)ﾉ.
You can even visit someone’s backyard without notifying the owner!
Visit the Snow Monkeys in Jigokudani Monkey Park
We have all seen humans enjoying the hot spring. Especially in winter, you might have indulged in the onsen yourself to warm up and let the rich minerals moisturize your skin.
But have you ever seen monkeys doing the same?
If you are interested, follow our article on Jigokudani Monkey Park to find out when is the best time of the year to visit and how to get there!