During our recent two-week family holiday in Japan, we arranged to hire a car in Hakuba for the intervening weekend. We were keen to experience more of Japan, and to see the local attractions on this second visit. And it turned out to be perfect timing, as we were all a little sore and ready for a break after 4 days of snowboarding.
My sister and her husband have visited Hakuba many times over the years, and were happy to be our tour guides. So, using the 'alternative route' on Google maps, we drove through the labyrinth of backstreets and squeezed down the narrow lanes of Nagano and the surrounding suburbs.
We were travelling with two kids and a baby, so we kept the itinerary relaxed with lots of time for meal stops and rest breaks, but you could potentially fit in a few more things each day.
Day One: Jigokudani Yaen-Koen (Snow Monkey Park) and Zenkoji Temple
Snow Monkey Park
It was magical to see these furry friends up close, to see firsthand the way they climb, wander and interact with each other. On the day that we visited, it was a little too balmy (at a mere 3 degrees Celsius!) for them to be in the hot springs, but they walked along the edges of the pools and provided lots of photo opportunities for the tourist paparazzi.
With a visit to the Snow Monkey Park, we also experienced the Japanese practice of forest bathing. Don’t worry, no clothing was removed, we just enjoyed the fresh air and tranquil surrounds of the forest during the 30-minute walk between the car park and the main entrance.
I was amazed by the beautiful architecture and history of Zenkoji temple, built in the 7th century. It was a gorgeous location, and I was captivated by the bustling promenade leading down to the temple gates, and the quiet details as visitors said their prayers and asked for blessings. We arrived late in the afternoon, but you could easily spend many hours wandering amongst the stores in that main street, and exploring the grounds of the temple. I believe that this is a glimpse of the surrounding city of Nagano and I am keen to include a longer visit next time.
Day Two: Matsumoto Castle
A grand building with landscaped grounds, Matsumoto Castle is another architectural and historical gem. We took the opportunity to explore the interior of the building with the kids. It was easy to imagine the battles that were fought in defence of the castle. There are narrow and steep staircases, small openings for archers, and floors with views that extend across the grounds and the moat. With our imaginations already on fire, the fierce Samurai that we bumped into as we left the castle made us all gape for a split second. Then he asked the kids if they would like a photo, and we all giggled and said, 'Yes, please!'.
We enjoyed a picnic lunch in the surrounding gardens before visiting the ice-sculpture exhibition around the exterior of the castle. Of course, we couldn’t do that before going past the picnic ground vending machines for ice-cream first.
Have you explored the Hakuba region? I’d love to know your recommendations on places to visit or stories about your favourite experiences. Head over to Instagram to leave me a comment with your suggestions and stories at @sam.gilchrist_
Need a place to stay in Hakuba? We stayed in Echoland at Yuki Ita Lodge, which you can find on Airbnb. New to Airbnb? Use this referral link to get a $55 credit* towards your booking. Yay!
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