By land, sea or sky: spiritual adventures in Nagano, Japan

An hour north west of Tokyo on the Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train, Japan's fourth-largest prefecture is a pretty puzzle of national parks, volcanic mountains, pastural plateaus, serene pilgrimage trails and beautifully preserved Edo-era post towns.

Kayak instructor Shota Ono spends his days slicing through the still waters of Lake Nojiri, one of Nagano's mysterious volcanic lakes.

Photograph by Nagano Tourism Organisation
By Nagano and Toyama Tourism Organization
Published 15 Feb 2022, 15:55 GMT
The Japanese Alps: where adventure and culture meet

Mountains define Nagano, snow-dusted peaks piercing the sky as far as the eye can see. In this sprawling, spellbinding prefecture made up of five national parks, countless pastoral plateaus, and miles of serene pilgrimage trails, it’s strange to think that Tokyo is only an hour to the south by bullet train — the neon lights of the capital have never felt so far away.

One of Japan's premier ski destinations (Nagano City played host to the 1998 Winter Olympics), the area is home to over 600 mountains — many of them among the highest in Japan, with some approaching 10,000ft — and over 80 ski resorts, with Hakuba Valley, Nozawa Onsen and Shiga Kogen among the best known.

Aside from skiing and snowboarding on soft, powdery slopes, visitors can marvel at frozen dragons and crystalline unicorns at the Matsumoto Castle's Ice Sculpture Festival (held in January), spot frosty-faced snow monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park and snowshoe around the dusty trails of Kamikochi, looking out for animals you won't find anywhere else in the world such as the Japanese serow (a fluffy goat-antelope) and raichos (a rock ptarmigan, known by some as thunder birds). This is the southernmost habitat for the birds globally, which makes the raicho in Japan a particularly interesting case for avian enthusiasts.

The people of this prefecture have a special relationship with both the natural, and the spiritual world. They are guardians of the land, and like their ancestors before them, believe in the power of mountains. "On the water I feel a real connection," says kayak instructor Shota Ono who spends his days slicing through the still waters of Lake Nojiri, one of Nagano's mysterious volcanic lakes, where one’s connection to Mother Nature is keenly felt. "Going out in a place like this is an adventure."

Kohei Nishida is a cycling guide, and is happiest among Nagano’s ancient trees, following forest trails beneath hundred-year-old beech and oak trees, and falling autumn leaves. Yoshiki Kuremoto, meanwhile, is another local adventurer with a deep passion for the mountains he calls home. He takes visitors on tandem paraglides, relishing the power of the wind beneath his sail.

"What I'd like people to know," says snowshoe guide Tomofumi Takei, "is that Togakushi is a very unusual place, even for Japan." With its 400-year-old cedar trees and ancient mountain shrines, it gives a glimpse into the slower, spiritual side of the prefecture, revealing the harmony between people and planet.

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