Clustered around the sacred Buddhist temple of Zenkō-ji, Nagano is the capital city of Nagano Prefecture and famously hosted the 1998 Winter Olympic Games. Its surrounding landscapes are renowned for their mountainous ski resorts and long-established ninja culture.
The Zenkō-ji temple is Nagano’s main attraction and an important pilgrimage destination for Buddhists. It was built in the 7th century before Buddhism in Japan split into different sects and houses a revered statue of Binzuru, a physician who was a devoted follower of Buddha and is believed to help cure ailments. A short walk away is the Shinano Art Museum which showcases the works of local masters, while the 16th century Matsushiro Castle is situated in southern Nagano, renowned for its temples, samurai residences and traditional gardens. A number of sporting venues from the 1998 Winter Olympics can still be visited in the city, including the M-Wave speed skating arena which can be transformed into a football field or concert space, as well as the Big Hat ice hockey arena where the annual Nagano Cup is played to commemorate the games. To the east of the city stretch the Shiga Highlands, scattered with ski resorts during the winter months and crisscrossed with hiking trails in the summer. The Jigokudani Monkey Park is particularly famed here for its wild Japanese macaques which can often be seen bathing in the hot springs. To the north-west of the city is the Togakushi area, home to a number of popular shrines, as well as the Togakure Ninja School with its Ninpo Museum. It offers an insight into the historic ninja culture of spies and espionage, with the nearby Kids Ninja Village targeted specifically at younger visitors, with ninja-themed rides and attractions.
Nagano Station is the city’s main railway hub, with services to major cities across Japan. Buses provide transport to all corners of the city, with an express service to the nearest airport at Matsumoto.
Nagano developed as a temple town during the Nara period, as well as being an important post station on the Hokkoku Kaidō highway between Edo and the Sea of Japan coast. After the Meiji restoration, Nagano was officially established as a town in 1889, before being elevated to the prefecture’s first city in 1897.