Before visiting we had only really heard of Nagano as the venue for the Winter Olympics and as such we had only planned a rather short stop here, mostly as a base from which to see snow monkeys and Masumoto Castle. However we found Nagino to be a lovely city which we would quite happily have spent more time in. In the end we didn’t even make it to the Winter Olympics Museum as it was slightly out of town and we were distracted by other things to see and do. Although we did see the Olympic Monument on the main street as we passed by several times.
After checking into our hostel on the first night we went along to a ramen restaurant which had been recommend to us by the hostel. The name on the door was in kanji, it was pretty small and it was packed full of locals who were clearly enjoying their Friday night so we knew we must be in for a good experience. We found a couple of seats in the corner by the sake bar and were presented with English menus. This was actually something that I noticed all over Japan, even in the most unlikely restaurants there were English menus and this is something fairly new as I remember when we visited Japan in 2013 there were much fewer English menus and more picture menus. Clearly a lot can happen in four years.
We ordered the local speciality ramen and while we were waiting we were presented with some free vegetables, which was nice, and when the ramen did come it was delicious. We enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere which was very much that Friday feeling and when we paid and were ready to go on our way we were presented with a lucky penny each. It was a lovely touch and made the place more memorable.
We missed the 5am service we had been told about by our hostel which takes place at the Zenko-ji temple in Nagano as neither of us are very good at getting up so early, however we did go to see it in the evening after coming back from Matsumoto castle and in the slightly later morning before going to see the snow monkeys.
As the main street approaches the temple it becomes more picturesque and traditional, we only saw it while it was quiet and most of the shops were closed, so at that time it seemed quite serene with gates on either end of the street.
Making our way through the gate we were faced with quite a dramatic sight as a large open space was before us guarded by the Bodhisattva figures (who gave up Buddhist enlightenment, in order to provide salvation to others) on one side and the larger gate in front of us.
We decided not to go inside the main hall, but we were very impressed by the scale as a whole but in particular of the main hall and the serenity of the whole thing. I know that sounds odd as serenity is so often associated with Buddhism, but perhaps it was the time of day as a lot of other religious sites we visited on our trip did not feel serene with floods of people around.
And that was our time in Nagano. Short but sweet, there is so much more to see and do here. I would have loved to have a day just to relax in the many onsens or had we arrived in the right season taken advantage of the snow-sports on offer but we did very much enjoy the time we did have there.