It’s no secret that Japan is experiencing overtourism. And it’s no surprise — from the city to the countryside, there are millions of reasons to visit Japan. While the areas overwhelmed by an influx of tourists are still absolutely worth your time, there are quieter spots that will no doubt suit those who have been to Japan before and are keen to experience its colder months in a more tranquil setting. Nagano Prefecture and its surrounding areas offer a winter escape well worth the trip.

It’s important to remember, however, that there’s a trade-off when exploring the less-frequented areas of Japan: Unlike in tourist hotspots, public transportation in some of the places introduced below is difficult or non-existent, which makes renting a car ideal. Keep icy conditions in mind when choosing your vehicle — you may not end up needing all-wheel drive or chains, but it’s better to have these extras and not need them than to end up stranded.

Once you’ve worked out how to get around, it’s time to head out! The winter wonders of Nagano and beyond await your arrival.

Setting Up Base Camp

As with any trip, the first order of business is accommodation. Of course, in and around the city of Nagano, hotels abound, and you’ll have no trouble finding a place to stay that suits both your style and budget. For those after something closer to nature, private lodging like the stunning Sugi Chalet in neighboring Niigata Prefecture offers a cozy retreat unlike anything in the city. Approximately 30 kilometers from Nagano city, Sugi Chalet sits nestled among the mountains of the small town of Myoko.

You’ll find a range of activities with which to fill your days, all within driving range of Sugi Chalet. For those keen on snow sports, this unique lodging really shines with its incredible proximity to spectacular ski slopes. The dining options are equally excellent and include the newly opened Two Pines pizza bar. Staying in is also an option, as Sugi Chalet boasts a commercial-style kitchen and a bar in addition to its six bedrooms, making it perfect for both couples and large groups with plans to entertain.

Snow-Laden Shrines

It’s safe to say that anyone who’s spent time exploring Japan has seen a shrine or two. Nagano Prefecture’s Togakushi Shrine, however, is not like other shrines, especially during the winter months when it takes on an almost otherworldly appearance. Around 25 kilometers from Sugi Chalet or roughly 20 kilometers from Nagano city, this shrine is perhaps best known for its towering avenue of 400-year-old cedar trees.

As you follow this path towards the shrine, it’s hard not to notice the silence that fills the air between the crunching of snow beneath your boots, which, depending on the weather, may benefit from the addition of crampons. Available for a reasonable price online, crampons are essentially snow chains for your footwear. When all is said and done, you may find you didn’t need them after all — but having them on hand could well save you from a nasty fall.

Lakeside Adventures

Surrounded by rolling hills, the vast Lake Nojiri — just 10 kilometers from Sugi Chalet or around 24 kilometers from Nagano city — offers plenty of ways to enjoy Nagano’s naturally impressive landscape year-round. During the warmer months, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards can be rented by the water’s edge, allowing adventurers to explore at their own pace by paddling out across the glassy surface of the lake. For those who prefer the earth beneath their feet, a plethora of trails winding through the nearby hills provide plenty to satisfy the avid hiker.

As the weather begins to cool through autumn, the forested areas around Lake Nojiri become a popular spot for mushroom foraging. Tours can be booked through local outlets, such as Guesthouse Lamp, which offers expert guides to show you how to hunt for and identify the various species found in the area. Then, as winter sweeps across the region, snowshoe hiking and cross-country skiing tours ensure you can enjoy the natural beauty of the lake and its environs at a leisurely pace even in the snow.

Monkeying About

If there’s one animal to associate with winter in Nagano, it’s the Japanese macaque. More commonly known as snow monkeys, these scarlet-faced primates can be found at Jigokudani Yaen-Koen, which is approximately 50 kilometers from Sugi Chalet or about 37 kilometers from Nagano city. We recommend arriving early in the morning to avoid the crowds.

At the park, known in English as Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, the monkeys can be seen year-round, but they’re especially fun to watch during winter when they take to bathing in the natural hot springs, creating incredible photo opportunities and some downright cute scenes as the babies cling to their parents while having a soak.

But while they may appear friendly from a distance, remember that these are wild animals and treat them as such. Refrain from feeding and touching them, and avoid looking them in the eye, as in the snow monkey world, this can be seen as a sign of aggression.

Winter Your Way

Stunning natural scenery, snow-covered slopes, serene shrines, adorable animals — Nagano and its environs brim with activities, sites and spectacles that allow you to enjoy the colder months to the fullest. With all it has to offer, it’s an area that suits a variety of travel styles. For those wanting to work up a sweat on the slopes or strapped to snowshoes, there’s more than enough on offer to fill an itinerary to bursting. The region also lends itself well to leisurely drives and hikes sure to provide pleasure to those simply looking to get away and take things as they come. However you enjoy your time, one thing is certain: This beautiful corner of Japan will stay in your heart forever.