It only takes 75 minutes aboard the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen (Bullet Train) from Tokyo to Nagano, home of the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Step on an express bus and in 55 minutes you arrive within a 2 kilometer hike of Jigokudani Yaen-Keon Park, site of the famous snow monkeys. Jigokudani means Hell’s Valley because of hot water spurting up in the area. The trail up is vigorous, but when you reach the top and see the wild monkeys it is worth the effort.
The Japanese Macaque monkey, also known as snow monkeys are the only primates to live in northern cold climate areas. What makes them an attraction is they have their own private Onsen (hot springs) for use during winter. You can visit year round because the monkeys are always out and about. During summer the new babies are just getting their leg strength and you can observe them at play.
When arriving at Nagano station I recommend you purchase the Snow Monkey Day Pass, which includes unlimited use of transportation and entrance into the park for a 20% savings. The area is also known for soba and with your pass there are discount coupons for various restaurants. We chose one that recently opened (Sabaroku) and they were still getting the kinks out of their service. Despite that the meal was excellent. I was not much of a soba fan until this meal and now I want to eat more.
On the bus ride up we met a nice young student from Thailand who was on his way to a job at one of the many Hot Spring hotels in the area. During our return bus ride we struck up a conversation with a family from Barcelona, Spain. The Nagano area is foreign-friendly.
Back in the city we made another two kilometer walk to the famous Zenkoji Temple. Built over 1400 years ago, it welcomes people from all faiths to come and pray. During morning prayers the head priests are seen praying blessings on the visitors as they walk to and from the main hall.
When you leave, make sure you walk through the main entrance along Chuo Dori Street and browse the many unique shops and food stalls.
While touring the area we noticed acre upon acre of fruit trees. From June to November you can pick your own fruit. June starts with cherries, July peaches, September to November apples and in October grapes. The sweet edible souvenirs were almost all fruit related. If you just want to buy the fruit, visit one of the several farmers markets in the Nagano area. Along with the clean mountain water comes very good sake. On our walk to Zenkoji Temple we passed a couple of old historic breweries.
Finally, stop off at the Information Center at the JR station for maps, brochures in English and information on current events.
Nagano is in easy reach for a fun excursion from Tokyo or Osaka.