As the sun begins to light up the snow-covered Mount Myoko, a day off from skiing or snowboarding offers the chance to uncover a bit of the adventure, culture and relaxation that lies beyond the slopes. While the thrill of floating some powdery lines is undeniable, Myoko Kogen has more to offer than just its fantastic skiing and boarding. You might choose one of the seemingly very few non-powder days or simply when the body demands rest. From soaking in hot springs to meeting snow monkeys, exploring historic shrines and temples to indulging in local delicacies, there’s more to be found if you know how to navigate the world of white.

Mount Myoko from Imori Pond

Mount Myoko from Imori Pond. Image: Nathan Eden

Meeting the Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park

Picture this: a group of playful snow monkeys luxuriating in their very own open-air onsen, steam rising from the warm waters as they relax. This enchanting scene unfolds at Jigokudani Monkey Park, where you can witness these charismatic macaques enjoying the soothing hot springs just like humans do. Watching the snow monkeys soak up the winter warmth is a heartwarming experience that adds a touch of whimsy to your day off.

Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park

Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park

If you’re in Myoko with a car, it’s a drive of a bit over 60 km and should take about an hour, depending upon road conditions (and whether you decide to stop in at a sushi train restaurant on the way). For those who’d prefer to leave the driving up to someone else and spend the time staring out the window at the Japanese winter countryside, there are other ways to get there. Perhaps the easiest among them is simply catching a Myoko Shuttle bus. In recent seasons, bookings haven’t been necessary. Check with your accommodation for timetables.

Embracing Tranquillity at Zenkō-ji in Nagano City

For a dose of serenity and spiritual enrichment, make your way to Nagano city to visit Zenkō-ji, a revered Buddhist temple with a history spanning centuries (note; said serenity may not be as abundant on a busy weekend or public holiday – try to take your day off on a weekday where possible). Zenkō-ji’s peaceful ambience offers a respite from the world and a chance to connect with Japanese culture and history. This is a unique spiritual site as the town, and later city, of Nagano was built around the temple, rather than the temple being built to service an existing city.

Zenkō-ji in Nagano City

Zenkō-ji in Nagano City. Image: Nathan Eden

In 642, Yoshimitsu Honda established Zenkō-ji by enshrining a Buddhist Image on the site. The main image, known as “The Image of Sangoku Denrai,” originated in India and arrived in Japan in 552 via the Korean Peninsula’s Paekche region. Regardless of a person’s status, gender or creed, the image is revered for guiding all to the Buddhist Pure Land. Hidden since 654, it remains unseen, yet it has garnered fervent worship from all walks of Japanese life.

Tip: see if your accommodation can make you a lunch booking at the nearby restaurant Fujiya Gohonjin – unmissable for the very reasonable prices.

The best way to get to Zenkō-ji (if not driving) is by catching the train from Myoko Kogen Station to Nagano Station. You can either walk from there or get a city bus.

Fun and Games at Round One in Nagano City

Looking for the polar opposite? Fancy some indoor excitement? Still in Nagano city, head to Round One. It’s an amusement complex where fun knows no bounds – until you get worn out, that is. From bowling and arcade games to karaoke and indoor sports, Round One offers a tonne of activities that are sure to keep you entertained and energised. This is a particularly good option for families where the kids have more energy than mum and dad.

Nagano city at night

Nagano city at night. Image: Nathan Eden

Like Zenkō-ji, the best way to get to Round One is via the local train from Myoko Kogen Station. From there, you can either catch their courtesy bus (should be every half hour from 10 am) or get a taxi.

Unveiling Mysteries at Togakushi Shrine

Togakushi Shrine is the literal embodiment of the term “hidden gem”, steeped in mythology and mystique. The Okusha (upper shrine) is very much as much about the journey as it is about the destination. The path lined with rows of giant cedar trees is otherworldly. Togakushi Shrine is actually comprised of lower, middle and upper shrines. These shrines hold great significance in Japanese mythology, including a tale referencing the Sun Goddess being lured from a cave by other deities.

Togakushi Shrine

Togakushi Shrine. Image: Nathan Eden

While a lot of the hiking trails are inaccessible during winter, a walk among the cedars will more than satisfy most during winter, especially if there happens to be snow falling. Togakushi Ski Resort is also nearby if you decide to change your mind about the day off idea.

As a bonus, the area is also famous for its soba noodles and a bit of a must-try. It’s also worth mentioning that there is a Ninja Village at Togakushi, however, it’s not open during the winter months. Having a car (or a friend with a car) is the best way to visit Togakushi, just under 30 km from Myoko Kogen.

Onsen Crawl: Soak Your Cares Away

You’re probably already familiar with onsens but just in case, here’s an ultra-quick rundown: Traditional Japanese hot springs, or onsens, are where you go to ease your muscles and soak in the restorative powers the volcanic earth has created.

In Myoko, embark on an “onsen crawl” and journey from one to another, immersing yourself in the healing waters. Each onsen offers a unique blend of minerals and a different ambience, ensuring that every soak is a rejuvenating adventure.

You can probably fit in a handful in a day with the help of a bus or two. A great place to start is by checking out our “Local’s Guide to Onsens in Myoko Kogen“.

Savouring Local Flavours: Sake

Indulge your taste buds with a sampling of local sake. Did you know that Niigata Prefecture boasts the highest number of sake breweries in Japan? Nagano Prefecture is second, both speaking to the correlation between quality snowfall and exceptional sake.

Myoko-san sake

Myoko-san sake. Image: Nathan Eden

Take the opportunity to savour the region’s finest brews, complementing your experience with a culinary adventure that’s as rich as the sake itself. You can do this in any of the area’s izakayas (check out our quick restaurant guide) in the evening or, during your day off from the mountain, take the time to ask for a recommendation at your accommodation or one of the local sake vendors on the street.

Tip: you’ll find great selections at two locations diagonally across the Ikenotaira intersection from each other. One is inside the convenience store at the Landmark Onsen/Alpen Blick Spa and the other is in the shop adjoining Arakin Ramen. Kanpai!


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