Snow Monkeys! I’m convinced that Nagano is beautiful year-round, however, it is most noted by travelers as a wintertime destination (and it’s easy to see why). Site of the 1998 Winter Olympics, it’s an obvious choice for those into snow sports. While not all of them have kid friendly ski-school or daycare facilities, there are several kid friendly options. Even for those not into skiing or snowboarding, there are plenty of amazing things to see and places to explore. It’s actually one of the few places (not immediately around our house) that we’ve been back to multiple times.
[ D A Y • 1 ] Zushi → Nagano (Hakuba Valley)
After a few doctor and dental appointments we swung by and picked up our ski equipment – it’s go time! Nagano, we are coming for you! Lucky for us, Nagano isn’t too crazy of a drive from where we live and even luckier, the kids slept most of the 4.5 hour haul (#winning) !! We pulled into the parking lot of our no-frill ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn dating back to the Edo period, Hano no Sato. One of the cars had clearly been there a while…
Ryokans are an excellent way to dive into Japanese culture, but it should be noted that they are very different from hotels. Since this was our first time staying at a traditional inn, we thought we would include a few of the main differences! First, rooms in ryokans are pretty darn minimal with tatami mats (mats made of compressed rice straw and tatami-omote, a special kind of grass) covering the floor. Second, these rooms can be delicate in nature…very delicate! Lots of paper walls and screens are often used, making it dangerous territory for a wild toddler to roam. Luckily for us the room at Hano no Sato didn’t have too much of this (phew!). Finally, you sleep on futons (if you’re thinking American/European futon this isn’t what we are talking about) and most of the time traditional barley filled pillows. If you haven’t had the pleasure of this type of pillow yet, it’s slightly softer than a cinder block. If you are like us and enjoy the cushiness of western pillows we would recommend bringing your own (if possible).
[ D A Y • 2 ] Hakuba Valley: Happo One, Jigokudani Yaen-koen
We woke up to sunshine! Yaaassss!!! It’s going to be a beautiful day! Excited, we spent the morning walking around (read: Miles running around) the quiet village and playing a bit in the snow before landing on Head Café as a place to grab some grub for breakfast.
This little café is part of a ski shop and was clutch! Good service, delicious food, and lots of table games for us all to try out while we waited for our breakfast. Additionally, they do “take-away” as well, so if you need to pick up a snack and take it back to your room this café is a great option. As far as the menu goes, it has a good variety of both western and Japanese dishes. Everything we ordered we loved – I don’t think you can pick wrong at this joint!
Fueled up, we drove to Jigokudani Yaen-koen to spend the afternoon chillin’ (literally) with Japanese macaque (“snow monkeys”). This was a pretty straightforward drive and although we had snow chains in the car we never once needed them. There was a bit of a walk along a snowy (and slightly slippery path) to the monkey park, but there was no mistaking it when we arrived.
Looming cliffs, billowing steam from the natural spring water, and light snow made our destination magic. Ever since we watched the scene in the incredible 1992 documentary film, Baraka, for the first time, Dom and I have dreamed about visiting this beautiful place and it was actually becoming a reality. Amazing. The kids loved seeing all the monkeys bathe and run around and Dom and I both really enjoyed getting behind the lens as we felt like the expressions of the monkeys told you a lot about each of their personalities. Just imagining what some of them might be thinking made us laugh!
We walked back after towards the car stopping first at Enza Café to warm up a bit and then it was back to Happo One for the evening to have dinner in the ski village. The lights and the snow created a beautiful winterwonderland ambiance, and we couldn’t wait to finally get out on the slopes the following morning.
- Hours: 0900 – 1600
- Admission: 800 yen, Children under 6yo free
- Parking: Free at Kanbayashi Onsen (follow signs)
Jigokudani Monkey Park Tips: From the parking area, it’s ~20-30 minute walk (1.6km each way) to the area where the snow monkeys are located. The walk is very easy and is along a flat path. It can, however, be icy in spots, so make sure to watch your footing and wear shoes with good traction. I really love my snow boots from Sorel and highly recommend!
- Hours: Every day, 0930 – 1700
- Parking: Free parking is available @the Jigokudani Yaen Koen Car Park
[ D A Y • 3 & 4 ] Hakuba Valley: Happo One
We got lucky overnight, as 9 inches of powder came down, making for some absolutely incredible skiing on days 3 and 4. Perhaps the best I have ever experienced in my life! With an amazing weather report like this, it took next to nothing to get us dressed and out the door.
We signed Miles in for full day of ski school at Evergreen Ski School, dropped Penny off at Happo One Kids’ Club (all Japanese daycare), and then ate a very relaxed breakfast in the cafeteria in the same building as the day care. It didn’t register until that very moment… we were on our first “kid free” date since moving to Japan in August! We made our way post-breakfast to the slopes of Hakuba Valley (Japan’s largest snow resort) and skied until our legs couldn’t ski anymore. There were hardly any lines for lifts, and tons of powder made this a really special couple of days at Happo-One with my love.
By days end of each day, our whole family was pretty tuckered out. We picked up our tired, but happy kiddos up @1530 and @1600 and then hit the Soba Food Truck up on day 3 for dinner. Day 4 we met up with friends to indulge in some Tex Mex which, although good, didn’t hold a candle to the real deal.
- Hours: 1000 – 1530 (full day ski lessons)
Happo Kids Club (all-Japanese Day Care):
- Hours: 0800 – 1600 (close is 1630)
- Admission: 8200yen/day + 800yen for lunch
- Hours: 0800 – 1700 for full day (also have half day and night ski passes available)
- Admission: 5200yen/Adults, 3000yen/Children 6-12 for one day pass
- Discounts for multi day and season passes
[ D A Y • 5 ] Hakuba Valley: Zenko-ji, Matsumoto Castle, Daio Wasabi Farm → Zushi
Sore from the past two days of skiing, it was sadly time to head back home. What do a ~1,400 year old temple, a ~400 year old castle with its original wooden interior, and one of the largest wasabi farms in Japan have in common? They’re all on our way home from Nagano! It’s pretty ridiculous road tripping around here if you ask me. Zenko-ji Temple is a beautiful structure originally built in the 7th (!) century and it’s best known for storing the first Buddhist statue ever brought to Japan. While the actual statue isn’t on public display, its still a very worthwhile stop.
On our way out of town, we had one more essential stop, Matsumoto Castle. It’s one of the most well known and beautiful historic castles in Japan and is often called “Crow Castle” due to its striking black exterior. This castle is particularly unique in that it still has its original wooden interior. Many of the other castles we’ve visited in Japan have been rebuilt over the years, and their interiors were repurposed into museum type spaces. Inside Matsumoto, on the other hand, you will be treated to beautiful wooden joinery, steep staircases, and an idea as to what it would have been like hundreds of years ago.
Finally, when we found out that there was a wasabi farm near Matsumoto Castle, there was no question – we had to go. When was the last time you had the chance to visit a wasabi farm? At Daio Wasabi Farm we learned how difficult growing wasabi can be, as the plants grow best in clean, cold, running water. Thankfully, the area has an ample supply running down from the Northern Japanese Alps.
With a little hesitation, we even tried some Wasabi ice cream, which was absolutely delicious, and not at all what you are probably picturing (more earthy, less horseradish-y). With a bag of wasabi crackers to munch on during the drive, we hopped back in the car and headed home. Nagano, you were amazing! See you in the spring (and *hopefully* next winter, too!).
- Hours: 0600 – 1600
- Admission: 500yen
- Parking: 500yen (local lot)
- Hours: 0830 – 1700
- Admission: 610yen/Adult, Free/children
- Parking: 300yen
- Hours: 0900 – 1720 (1630 November – February)
- Admission: Free
- Parking: Free