Calling all avid travellers of Japan!
Are you tired of the same old city sights in Tokyo or Osaka? Been there and done that with Hokkaido?
If you’re in dire need of recommendations on where to go next, hang onto your hats, because we’ve got a good one for you!
Nagano (長野) is a landlocked prefecture located on Honshu, or main island of Japan. Sometimes known by its old name Shinshu (信州), the region is blessed with a plethora of nature and picture-perfect sceneries.
While there are currently no direct flights from Singapore to Nagano, access to the region can be done via trains or highway buses. Depending on the mode of transport, the average time taken to get to Nagano from major cities is about 2.5 hours.
For the first-time explorers, fear not, as we present our detailed guide to navigating the best of Nagano with the help of Alpico Group!
One of the most popular routes to get to Nagano is by flying into Tokyo via Narita or Haneda Airports, which was what we did! Once you in Tokyo, simply transfer to the airport limousine bus or catch the Narita Express to get to Shinjuku Station. From there, the Shinjuku Bus Terminal is a short walk away.
We intended to travel to Matsumoto (松本), the second largest city in Nagano by highway bus. Home to the renowned Matsumoto Castle, Matsumoto is a good base for trips into the Japan Alps, but more about that later. At the bus terminal, you’ll be able to buy tickets for fixed timing buses heading to Matsumoto, run by Alpico Group.
Upon arrival at Matsumoto, the bus terminal building will probably be the first thing you see. The JR Matsumoto Station is located right opposite the bus terminal — this is where you can find lockers of all sizes to store your baggage if you want to start exploring the city before hotel check-in begins.
Our plan was to make use of the 2 Day Free Passport plus ONE to explore the area. Let’s check out some of the interesting sites we visited before heading to our accommodations!
Before beginning our exploration, we stopped to get some ice-cream and coffee at a local cafe.
We started our tour of the city by hopping on buses called the Town Sneaker. These convenient sightseeing buses run four inner city loop lines (N, E, S and W), bringing you right to the doorstep of multiple attractions. If you only intend to stay in Matsumoto City, get a one-day ticket so you can hop on and off the bus as many times as you like throughout the day.
For long-time fans of Yayoi Kusama, the patterns on the bus and even some billboards will look hugely familiar to you, and with good reason. The prominent artist was born in Matsumoto and you can spot many of her famous artworks in the city.
Our next stop was one of the oldest and most beautiful of Japan’s original castles — Matsumoto Castle. You will notice that its exterior is black instead of white like most other castles. This is because of the lacquer used to paint it, giving in an air of grandeur while providing a semblance of water-proofing.
Once inside, our friendly guide Teddy-san from the city’s tourism office explained that while the castle was built for the purposes of war, it was never used that way as the region remained peaceful throughout the years.
Not far from the castle, we strolled leisurely down Nakamachi-dori (中町通り) and Nawate-dori (縄手通り), lined with nicely preserved old buildings, cafes selling taiyaki and stores selling local produce and souvenirs.
It was then time to get some well needed rest! The landmark of Matsumoto, Hotel Buena Vista has killer views of the Northern Japan Alps from the top floor where its restaurant is located. The hotel also provides free shuttle bus services to and from Matsumoto Station every 10 minutes which makes getting around a breeze!
Guests hankering for an authentic hot spring bath can also visit Hotel Shoho, another accommodation under Alpico Group, to soak in the onsen there. Bus rides ferrying guests to and from are free-of-charge, but do note that you’ll need to get reserve a spot on the bus from the front desk ahead of time.
We began Day 2 bright and early; After a hearty breakfast, we made our way to the JR Matsumoto Station, where we bought tickets to go on the Kamikochi Line.
The only way to access the Norikura and Kamikochi areas is through seasonally operated buses run by Alpico Group. Buses leave from Shin-Shimashima on the Kamikochi Line, so one of the most fuss-free and value-for-money ways to discover the region is by purchasing a 2-Day Free Passport from the Matsumoto Bus Terminal.
The pass (6,000 yen for adults) gives you unlimited rides on the buses and trains within the designated area. Those who prefer an extra day can get the 2-Day Plus ONE at the cost of 7,200 yen.
Hopping on our bus, we arrive at our first sightseeing spot after about 40 minutes — Zengoro Falls (善五郎の滝).
Known to freeze completely in the winter (during which you can actually scale the icy wall), visitors often see rainbows when the sunlight strikes the waterfall. We were lucky to be blessed with perfect weather and managed to catch sight of the gorgeous phenomenon!
Access: Take the Matsumoto Dentetsu (Alpico Railway) from Matsumoto Station → Shin-shimashima Station (30 min), then change to bus heading towards Norikura Highlands and alight at Suzuran-bashi bus stop (55 min).
We then trekked a short distance to Ushitome Pond (牛留池).
Ushitome literally translates to “stop the cow” in Japanese. History has it that the area here was used for cattle farming in the past, and water was redirected to create a large pond to prevent the cattle from escaping, thus its name. The stillness of water is another draw of the pond. Reflecting the magnificent mountain range on its mirror-like surface, you’ll be able to understand why so many people enjoy coming here once you see it with your own two eyes.
To recharge before the rest of the day, don’t forget to stop by one of the local cafes or restaurants near the Norikura Tourist Center to try Sanzoku-yaki (山賊焼き). Now let me just go offtrack for a second to tell you how great this dish is. A regional speciality from Matsumoto, Sanzoku-yaki is a large piece of deep-fried chicken coated generously with teriyaki seasoning. The moment I bit into it, I knew this chicken dish had changed my life. This is a definite must-eat in my book!
Access: Take the Matsumoto Dentetsu (Alpico Railway) from Matsumoto Station → Shin-shimashima Station (30 min), then change to bus heading towards Norikura Highlands (50 min)
Heading back to the Tourism Center, we board a shuttle bus that took us to the highest bus stop in Japan, located before the peak of Mt. Norikura, or Tatamidaira (畳平).
As the roads leading to the entire Norikura and Kamikochi areas are closed to private cars, the number of hikers and visitors at any one time is controlled. This ensures the safety of visitors and also means you have plenty of room to navigate mountain trails and much less competition when taking photos!
Access: Take bus from Norikura Tourist Center→Norikura Peak (Tatamidaira) (50 min).
※This is the Norikura Ecoline route.
Bidding goodbye to Mt. Norikura, we take the timed shuttle bus back down to the Tourism Center and transfer to another bus which brought us to Kamikochi (上高地). A plateau nestled in the Azusa River valley roughly 1,500 metre above sea level, Kamikochi is surrounded by an abundance of nature and wildlife. Belonging to the Chubu Sangaku National Park, Kamikochi remains largely untouched, with few accommodations, souvenir shops and mountain huts developed on it.
Ambling along from the bus stop to Taisho Pond (大正池), I caught glimpses of trees with leaves turning yellow and red before stopping to gape at the striking scene before me. For someone who was used to office buildings and HDB blocks, the grand sight of these majestic mountains standing tall behind the clear waters of Taisho Pond made my breath catch. I remember thinking to myself that no amount of photos would accurately capture how beautiful it was.
Access: Take the Matsumoto Dentetsu (Alpico Railway) from Matsumoto Station → Shin-shimashima Station (30 min), then change to bus heading towards Kamikochi (60 min)
Pushing those thoughts aside, we continued to hike along the trails until we came to a bridge. From this bridge, our guide pointed out our hotel for the night.
Owned by the Alpico Group, KAMIKOCHI LEMEIESTA HOTEL is one of the only two hotels in Kamikochi offering pure, natural hot spring for its guests. Their variety of spacious and well-furnished rooms all come with views of the gushing river and mountain greenery, so you can sit quietly by the window enjoying a cuppa while admiring the view from the comfort of your own space.
That same evening, my travel companions and I got to experience something magical. We gathered at the lobby at 7.50pm and were brought outside. Night had fallen, and the sky was dark, but that wasn’t all to it. Thousands and thousands of stars sparkled ever so bright above us. Because there wasn’t the slightest hint of light pollution from any direction, we were surrounded 180° with twinkly stars (yes, exactly like diamonds in the sky).
Aside from the sheer number and clarity of the stars, I was able to clearly see the Milky Way from where I stood. I felt small but at the same time, powerful. I felt that the entire universe was open before me and had enveloped me whole. It was an eye-opening experience that I will not forget for many years to come. For those wondering, Lemeiesta has been featured in Nikkei Style, having been voted one of the top ten hotels for star-gazing by travel agencies, star-gazing enthusiasts and photographers alike.
After the incredibly moving stargazing session, we sat down and were pampered by a full seven-course French dinner. Made using local ingredients, the dishes were exquisite and was the best way to end a satisfying day spent at Norikura and Kamikochi.
That night, we had a peaceful slumber under a sky full of stars before we would begin Part Two of our adventures!