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Iiyama Offers Untapped Winter Magic in Nagano

Explore Nagano beyond the popular spots and ski resorts

By Patrick Murphrey

Hidden up in the far north of Nagano, bordering Niigata Prefecture, Iiyama is deep in the Japanese Alps. However, it’s easily accessible from Tokyo too, with the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen stopping at Iiyama Station. While Nagano Prefecture is known for wonderful ski resorts, what Iiyama offers is the joy of discovering a lesser known part of this winter wonderland.

Iiyama Winter Festivals

Iiyama’s Snow Festival, usually held over two days in February (canceled in 2022 due to the pandemic), has more than 100 beautifully carved snow sculptures. It’s one of the most beloved and visited snow festivals in Japan. Delightfully, in 2015 Iiyama held the Guinness World Record for the highest number of snowmen built in an hour.

 

The Kamakura Festival in Iiyama lasts much longer though. There are about 20 igloos (called kamakura in Japanese) where you can enter and even enjoy a nice hot local dish. They often serve Noroshi Nabe, a cooked pot of local pork, mushrooms and other vegetables. The igloo restaurants open for lunch and dinner, but require a reservation.

Lunch costs ¥3,700 for adults and ¥2,400 for kids while dinner is ¥4,200 for adults and ¥2,800 yen for children.

At night time the domes light up creating a fairytale-like atmosphere.

Speaking of winter food, while in Iiyama be sure to pick up some popular snacks called banana boats. They are bananas wrapped in sponge cake and filled with cream. You can only find this confection during wintertime.

Snow Adventures in Iiyama

With some of the highest snowfall in Japan, this area offers all kinds of winter sports and activities. Some excellent ski areas near Iiyama include Nozawa Onsen, Togari Onsen and Madarao.

More than just skiing and snowboarding, here you can try cross country skiing or snowshoeing through the forest. At the ski resorts or within the city you can find plenty of guided tours and lessons.

The most unique winter adventure is snow cycling. Iiyama is the only place in Japan where you can ride a bike in the snow and down a hill.

Togari Ski Resort has special courses just for biking downhill so no need to worry about colliding with skiers. There are three courses depending on your skills and confidence. There is a course for beginners and a middle-level one with slaloms. Finally, the most challenging course runs through the forest. The resort rents specially designed mountain bikes for the snow that have four-inch (10cm) wide tires.

Onsen in Iiyama

The most popular hot spring destination in Iiyama is Nozawa Onsen. A bit quieter and just as nice, there are the bath spas at Iiyama Yutaki, Madarao and Togari. Iiyama Yutaki is located on the Chikuma River and offers great local food. Madarao has indoor and outdoor baths fed by springs that are 600 meters below the surface. They say those baths help beautify and moisten the skin, Finally, Togari Onsen is very close to the ski slopes and offers great views of the natural landscape.

Iiyama in Other Seasons

Of course, you can come to Iiyama throughout the year. The lush nature offers cool breezy summers and cycling tours and forest bathing experiences are available, in addition to hiking and exploring. The Shinetsu Trail, which is the most popular, is maintained and cleaned by volunteers.

For a spiritual journey, Kosuke no Sato is dotted with old temples and shrines, not served by priests anymore but still maintained by villagers.