Fun in Japan (Part 1): It’s a yes for Nagano!

By A Not So Secret Life and Randomly Candid

Japan has been one of my dream destinations. Aside from the beautiful places to visit in this country, I have been fascinated by how Japanese people adapt to modernization without sacrificing their customs and traditions. That is why I was ecstatic when I was given the chance to visit Japan as one of the 15 Filipino youth ambassadors for the Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange Students and Youths (JENESYS) for Media Industry last year.

JENESYS is a youth exchange program made possible by the Japanese Government, Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE) in partnership with National Youth Commission of the Philippines (NYC).

It’s actually one of my goals when I was still in college to join this international program. Unfortunately, I never got the chance due to problems with my travel documents at that time. It’s kind of frustrating but I just told myself that maybe, it’s not really meant for me. But yes, everything seems to be in its right timing when I received an email from the NYC that I was qualified for the said program.

We spent 8 days in Japan and the highlight of this familiarization tour is our homestay in Nagano prefecture. It is one of the 47 prefectures in Japan and is known for its skiing resorts. In fact, it became the venue of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to experience snow when we visited there as we arrived after the spring and a few weeks early for winter.

We stayed in a small village called Hakuba where I appreciated and understood the Japanese culture deeply. To be honest, I never imagined Japan this way but I was really impressed by how they keep the natural beauty of the place despite their technological advancements. It’s a balanced mixture of old and new.

I also saw a symbiotic relationship between the people and nature and I was amazed by how the Japanese people give importance to personal relationships, the kind of discipline and the value of respect they have for each other and everyone they meet.

As part of our homestay exposure, we had a familiarization tour to some of the famous attractions in Nagano. I loved every destination that we managed to visit, but here are the top picks I highly recommend to tourists planning to visit Nagano.

Jigokudani Monkey Park

It’s my favorite part of our familiarization tour as it was really my first time to get up close with the wild monkeys and the catch is that they are snow monkeys.

The Jigokudani Monkey Park in Yamanouchi Village lets the wild snow monkeys or Japanese Macaques enjoy their natural habitat, while at the same time giving the visitors a unique experience. The monkeys are accustomed to people that they can just ignore your existence. However, touching and feeding the monkeys is prohibited.

The main attraction of the park is the natural hot spring or onsen where the snow monkeys take a bath during winter. But before reaching the said attraction, we walked through the forest for about 30 minutes, which is a bit challenging especially with the below-zero temperature, but also adds to the fun of the adventure.

Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto Castle is considered as one of the National Treasures in Japan. Built more than 400 years ago, Matsumoto Castle served as a watch tower during the civil war period.

The castle is a picturesque spot on the outside with its classic look. Meanwhile, its interiors give the visitors a legit castle experience with its wooden stairs and opening for drop stones, archers and observation deck which are all originally designed to defend the castle from the invaders.

Surrounded by a man-made lake which was also designed as a defense against the castle invaders, Mastumoto castle also boasts its cherry blossoms adorning the castle grounds and park which are in full bloom during spring. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see it because we arrived between spring and winter.

Zenkoji Temple

Considered as one of the most important and popular temples in Japan, Zenkoji Temple in Nagano is the home of Japan’s first ever Buddhist statue when Buddhism was first brought to the country in the 6th century.

The highlight of our experience in Zenkoji Temple was passing through the underground tunnel which is totally dark that not even a single ray of light can pass through. The main objective of passing through the tunnel is to look for the “key to paradise.” It is believed that anyone who touches the key shall receive salvation.

At first, I almost panicked because I could not see anything. So I grabbed the shoulders of the person in front of me and focused on finding the “key to paradise” which is placed on a wall. Good thing, I was able to touch it while grabbing the handle that guided me to the end of the tunnel.

It was a really good experience, especially to those who are afraid of the dark. Conquering your fear in that way can be so rewarding. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to document the experience as taking photos is not allowed inside the temple.

Truly, Nagano is such a lovely place. Despite its below-zero temperature, Japan’s hospitality gave me warmth, it felt like home. I also enjoyed exploring its attractions and most importantly, understanding the Japanese culture. I must say, this was beyond my expectations. Aside from the popular attractions like sakura trees, Mt. Fuji and advanced technology, “Land of the Rising Sun” has so much more to offer. With the kind of hospitality our host families have shown, Japan feels like home to me already.

Domo Arigatou Gozaimasu, Japan! Mata ne, Nagano!