February 6, 2021

Let’s visit Matsumoto City, the gateway to the Northern Japanese Alps: Nagano

Hi there! Nagano has become a popular area for snowsports, but there is so much more than just enjoying the powder snow during winter.

From the stunning views of Kamikochi to the art and wasabi experiences in Azumino, we would like to share you the attractions that we know from Matsumoto area of Nagano.

Enjoy Nagano’s western region, Matsumoto throughout the year

Nagano prefecture is located in the middle of Honshu and characterized by many beautiful high mountains. The ranges in the western part of Nagano are called the Northern Japanese Alps (the official name is Hida Ranges) and the gateway to these mountains is Matsumoto City.

The Northern Japanese Alps consist of many mountains that stand as high as 2000-3000m. If you love trekking or hiking, these areas cannot be missed.

In Japan, almost all mountains higher than 2000m are snow-capped all year round and their views are magnificent. In addition to the view, the water from the melting snow and the spring water that flows out of the mountains form crystal clear rivers. Alongside such rivers, new green leaves can be seen in summer and coloured leaves in autumn. In winter, this region becomes a popular place for skiing and snowboarding. These days many overseas skiers and snowboarders also visit this region.

Nagano’s western region is some distance from the more convenient Tokyo and Osaka, but access to Matsumoto is easy as the city has a JR Chuo Line station and sits along the Nagano Expressway. 

Kamikochi and its stunning views

Kamikochi is a picturesque spot located about 30km west of Matsumoto. The place is already popular with Japanese people, but it has been also known to westerners since the place was introduced to the West in the mid-Meiji era by an English missionary called Walter Weston. A memorial stone was built in a part of Kamikochi to commemorate his contributions to the area.

The most common way to visit Kamikochi is by taking a train and a bus. You can also drive there, but you will need to park your car in a designated car park and then take a bus. This is to protect the Kamikochi environment. 

As mentioned earlier, Kamikochi is a beautiful place with a magnificent view, but the bus trip to the destination is also something you can look forward to thanks to tranquil lakes and majestic mountain vistas. The road was built through the high mountains by digging more than 20 tunnels. The bus trip is full of thrills. 

The last stop on the bus trip is Kamikochi, but it is recommended getting off at Taisho-Ike (Taisho Pond) stop and walking from there to the Kamikochi terminal. This way saves you time. As you walk to the terminal, you can enjoy the typical scenery of the area such as Tashiro-Ike and Tashiro-Marsh. 

Near the Kamikochi terminal, you can see snow-capped Hodaka Ranges on the northern side and Yakedake on the southern side. Between these mountains runs the Azusa River, over which stands Kappa Bridge. Please don’t forget to take the photo of Hodaka Ranges including Kappa Bridge. It is breathtaking!

Azumino Art Line Gallery tour

Another popular tourist spot near Matsumoto is a small town called Azumino. Azumino is located at the base of the Northern Japanese Alps. Since rice fields spread throughout the town, this rural scenery has become the symbol of Azumino. However Azumino’s real charm is its wonderful combined view of the rice fields and the panoramic view of the Alps in the background.  

How do you feel when you see such beautiful scenery? First, you will definitely want to take some photos, but if you have a more artistic mind, maybe you would also want to paint some pictures. The vistas of Azumino has inspired a number of art galleries. In Azumino, the “Azumino Art Line Gallery Tour” program has been created, which enables you to visit 9 art galleries at discounted prices. Let me introduce some of the galleries.

Rokuzan Art Gallery

Rokuzan Art Gallery displays the works of the sculptor “Rokuzan Ogiwara” (he is also called just “Rokuzan”). He was initially interested in oil painting but was later inspired by the French sculptor Rodin and decided to take up sculpture. Rokuzan travelled to New York, the Netherlands and France. In France, he met Rodin and received some lessons. The displayed sculptures by Rokuzan are all great and reflect the influence thatRodin had on him. Alongside the displays of his work, the building of the art gallery itself is also something you should pay attention to. It is a western style building made with red bricks and partially covered by ivy. 

Azumino Mountain Art Gallery

Azumino Mountain Art Gallery is where pictures of the grand mountains of the Northern Japanese Alps are displayed. This artwork was created by a pioneer of mountain paintings, Genichiro Adachi, and others. All of the featured artists actually climbed the mountains close to the summit before painting them. This is the reason all paintings are able to express the greatness of the mountains so vividly, and reflect a true impression of the Alps. 

Azumino Chihiro Art Galley

Azumino Chihiro Art Gallery displays the work of Chihiro Iwasaki who is well known for her paintings of children. She lived in Azumino and loved this place. The gallery was built to honor her contributions to the town and displays not just her artwork, but also materials that explain her life. There is a Chihiro Art Gallery in Tokyo as well, but the Azumino gallery attracts people as it is built in a vast property where you can also enjoy Azumino’s beautiful scenery. The gallery is also equipped with a café, so that you can have a relaxing time afterwards. 

Let’s see how wasabi grows at Daio Wasabi Farm

Another recommended Azumino tourist spot is “Daio Wasabi Farm.” Wasabi is essential for sushi and has become a world famous Japanese ingredient. On this farm, you can see how wasabi is grown and enjoy dishes cooked with fresh wasabi such as “Wasabi Don” “Wasabi Curry” and “Wasabi Ice Cream”.

In the middle of the big wasabi farm runs a man-made river. “Why does a wasabi farm need a river?” I hear you ask. It is because wasabi needs a lot of fresh water to grow. The river was made by irrigating abundant fresh water springing out from the surrounding mountains and also forms an attraction of the farm in the summer as you can cruise in a boat along the river.

After visiting Daio Wasabi Farm, you will definitely appreciate the taste of wasabi even more! 

When is the best season in the Nagano and Northern Alps area?

Nagano Prefecture is full of attractive places, but in this article I decided to shine a light on the western part of the prefecture and introduced various tourist spots near the Northern Japanese Alps. 

We recommend a trip to the Nagano Prefecture and Matsumoto area in summer and fall when the scenery is at its most stunning, but if you love skiing and snowboarding, winter is amazing here as well.

Please have a good time trekking the mountains, hiking around the base areas, visiting art galleries, and spending some time at wasabi farm.

These experiences are very different from the things you can see and do in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, but I believe that it’s very easy to enjoy this different aspect of Japan too!

  • Written by Setsuko Truong
  • Edited by Carley Radford

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