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Iizuna 2 Day Tour Itinerary [Nagano Prefecture]

Known as a popular destination for winter sports, Nagano is located in the central area of Japan, and was the host of the 1998 Winter Olympics and Paralympics, thanks to its mountainous region and snowy slopes.  However, Nagano is not just about skiing and snowboarding, it is also home to the adorable onsen (hot spring)-loving snow monkeys, the famous Ukiyo-E artist, Katsushika Hokusai, and countless apple orchards that produce delicious, sweet apples that are nationally famous.  Did you know that the locals of Nagano have the highest level of happiness in Japan, and beat Okinawa as the top prefecture for life expectancy in 2010?  Can’t say that we were surprised after visiting this beautiful prefecture, where we were greeted by warm, generous locals that helped us find the best spots of Nagano.

The main destination of our trip was Iizuna,  a city in northern Nagano, located around 30 minutes away from Nagano City.  On our way up there from Nagano station, we passed by Tankakyou, a 10-hectare piece of land with around 1500 peach trees, making up a beautiful bed of pink flowers every Spring.  Unfortunately, when we visited this area it was still covered snow, but we did get an eyeful of majestic white plains and clear blue skies, certainly something you don’t get to see every day in Tokyo!

Our accommodation for the night was a sweet two story cottage in Iizuna called the “Pension Himawari”.  This western style ryokan is sweet and inviting, with a huge kitchen area that allows you to lounge and relax in the warmth of its fireplace.  Dinner and breakfast is also included in the accommodation fee, and the owner of the ryokan even prepares it according to individual taste, asking if we wanted Western or Japanese style meals and so on.  Pension Himawari has a homey feel to it, and with the exquisite dishes, engaging atmosphere and welcoming host, I can without a doubt say that this is one of the best places I’ve stayed at in Japan!

After checking in first, we headed off to the Iizuna Apple Museum, a short drive away from the Pension Himawari.  Due to its suitable climate and geography, Nagano is famous for apples, and offers a wide range of products, from apple KitKat to apple wine!  Iizuna Apple Museum is small but sweet, with various apple themed drawings and even a café that offers, you know it, apple flavored drinks and desserts.

Another popular product of Nagano is the Shinshu Soba noodles, one of the best-selling Soba brands in Japan.  Here at Sobadokoro Yokotei, you can learn from the best and make your own Soba for only 5600 yen (a four person set)!  Our Soba Master was a kind elderly man who let us in on a couple of tips for making delicious noodles-such as the amount of water you should add to the powder, the thickness of the noodles, the speed of our kneading and so on.  Within an hour, we had already made 700 grams’ worth of noodles, which were immediately brought back to the kitchen and brought out in three huge plates of mouth-watering Soba, accompanied with some refreshing broth and noodle sauce.

Of course, a trip to Nagano always guarantees a visit to the ski slopes, so we headed to the most popular one in the Iizuna area- the Iizuna Resort Ski Area.  Since we visited on a weekday, the resort wasn’t crowded at all, and the powdery snow made it an even better spot to whoosh down the snowy hilltops.  This resort also offers a kids park and a day nursery, making it very family-friendly and the perfect option for those travelling with young children!

Our last stop on our first day was a local winery and onsen, the perfect ending to a relaxing weekend.  The St. Cousair Winery was established in 1990, and boasts several award winning wines, including the Ena Wine, which is internationally known and won an award in France last year.  Not only were we offered free wine-tasting, we were also shown around the vineyard, which included a beautiful chapel and a factory with the sweet aroma of olives and tomato sauce wafting out. 

To top this off, an outdoor onsen was available nearby, where we immersed ourselves in the natural hot spring with snow drifting down slowly all around us.  The entrance fee to “Mure Onsen” was only 600 yen, and the facility includes several massage machines, masseuse, and even a cafeteria that serves local jidori (branded chicken) and fried pork at a very reasonable price!

On our second day, we headed to Obuse, a little town located in Northern Nagano Prefecture.  One of the main attractions here is the Hokusaikan, which displays many famous artworks by Hokusai, the Ukiyo-E master of the Edo period.  Contrary to popular opinion, Hokusai was not born in Obuse, but rather spent his later years in this artistic town, where he completed his most celebrated art pieces, such as the majestic festival floats, scrolls, and detailed illustrated world maps.  Another masterpiece that is definitely worth a visit is the ceiling painting of the Phoenix at Gansyouin, an ancient temple built in 1472.  This temple is only a five-minute drive away from Obuse, and here you can rest your eyes on the brilliant Phoenix that Hokusai painted at age 89, just one year before he passed away.  This painting has been perfectly preserved for 160 years, and boasts the original vibrant colors even though it has never been retouched since its creation.   

Another main attraction of Obuse are chestnuts.  Legend has it that the Buddhist Master Kukai named this piece of land Obuse, and planted three chestnut trees here nearly 1200 years ago.  Since then, the growth of this fruit has flourished due to the efforts of local farmers and the favorable climate and landscape.  There is even a “Kuri-no-Komichi (Chestnut Trail)”, a small trail paved with chestnut trunks, which paints a beautiful picture during summertime.  The most popular sweets shop is the Obusedou Honten, where a variety of chestnut flavored desserts are available, including the famous chestnut ice-cream!  This ice cream has a unique velvety texture, similar to peanut butter but less strong in flavor, and leaves a delightful aftertaste that goes perfectly well with the hot Japanese tea that was also provided. 

Next, we headed off to Kokuhei-Miso-Jouzoujou, a Miso factory established in 1784 that produces the best-selling Shinsyu-Miso in Japan! Upon arriving at Kokuhei, we were greeted by enthusiastic Japanese ladies who showed us various flavors of miso, ranging from sweet to salty, chunky to smooth, and introduced the different ingredients in miso according to each area.
Kokuhei also offers a miso-making course, and for 3500 yen you can hand make 3 kilos worth of miso from scratch!  The ingredients were fairly simple: beans, salt, and processed rice, but the miso-making was no easy task.  It required a lot of time and strength, and after around an hour our miso was ready.  When I ventured for a taste however, I was taken aback by the saltiness, and was then told by the Master that the miso would take another 6 months to a year to ferment till the perfect taste.  This can be delivered domestically to your place for around 600 yen, and I’m definitely looking forward to my own miso-soup in a few months!

Next time you’re in Nagano, don’t just visit the snow monkeys; head north to Obuse and Iizuna to encounter a more traditional side of this beautiful prefecture, and get a hands on experience at making miso and soba! 

*Click here to see our full 2-day itinerary

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I'd love to learn how to make soba directly from an expert - soba and tempura is one of my favorite Japanese dishes, oishii!

Really great photos! Loved this article.