Zenkō-ji is a Buddhist temple located in the city of Nagano, Japan. The temple was built in the 7th century. The modern city of Nagano began as a town built around the temple.

Catching the train to Nagano

Nagano countryside

Nagano Station

Niomon Gate

Souvenir shops

Sanmon Gate

Incense Urn

Rokujizo Statues

Main Hall of Zenko-ji

Temple grounds

Sutra Depository

Wooden idols inside Sutra Depository


Statue of Shinran

Bell tower

Last shot of Zenko-ji before leaving

Waiting for the train to Nagoya

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The lovely Matsumoto Castle

After a whirlwind tour of Kanto region, we were finally headed home. Along the way we decided to stop at the beautiful Matsumoto Castle (松本城 Matsumoto-jō) in Nagano Prefecture.

Constructed in 1592, it is one of four castles designated as ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and the oldest castle donjon (castle keep) remaining in Japan.

Takasaki to Matsumoto

After an early morning tour of Shorinzan Darumaji Temple, we were back in Takasaki. From Takasaki we took the Shinkansen to Nagano. The journey takes about an hour and passing through some breathtaking mountains.

At Nagano Station, after grabbing a quick bite at a Starbucks on the station premises, we hopped back on the train to Matsumoto along the JR Shinonoi Line.

The train chugged along through some high altitude mountains and from the big windows, one can see afar into the valley below. When I was here in March, travelling to Jigokudani, I could barely make out anything in the thick snow.

After an hour of passing through some lovely scenery, we reached Matsumoto Station. From the Matsumoto station, it’s a 20 minute walk to the Castle. One can also take a bus, but we love to walk. The city streets were decorated with paper lanterns for the upcoming festivities in summer. Summer is the time for festivities in japan. All across the Tohoku and the Kanto region, everywhere we went, we found people engaged in their local festivities.

It was early evening by the time we reached the castle grounds. Near the entrance, a platform had been constructed for performances during the Taiko Drum Festival . Every summer the 2000 year old Taiko Drum Festival is held at the site in which various groups from across the country gather in Matsumoto to entertain the audience with their performances under night lights with Matsumoto Castle in the background.

The surrounding park is not very widespread and It didn’t take us long to reach the castle. Along a path by the moat, many weeping Sakura trees were swaying in the light breeze.

In April the castle grounds comes alive with cherry blossoms. During these times it is common to see many newly married couples having their wedding photos taken in the grounds of the castle.

It was evening but it was still very bright. Sunsets during summer in Japan happen very late at around 7 pm. I was mighty surprised in Okinawa, when the sun refused go down even after 8 pm.

We walked along the moat watching the koi fish swimming in the clear waters surrounding the castle. The black castle casting its reflection in the water of the moat, looked like a beautiful painting. In old days, because of its black walls, Matsumoto Castle also used to be called ‘Crow Castle.’

Near the red bridge there are some seats overlooking the Castle. We sat there for some time under the growing shadows of the castle.

History of Matsumoto Castle

As we sat by the castle, Mani explained to me how Matsumoto Castle is one of oldest castle in Japan. Its origins go back to the Sengoku period. At that time Shimadachi Sadanaga of the Ogasawara clan built a fort on this site in 1504 AD. This castle used to be called Fukashi Castle. In 1550 AD it came under the rule of the Takeda clan and then Tokugawa Ieyasu..

The most interesting aspect of the castle is the main donjon/keep (tenshukaku) completed in the late 16th century, and which remains in its original wooden interiors and external stonework. This donjon was constructed between 1593 and 1594 by Lord Yasunaga, the second daimyo (vassals of the shogun) of the Ishikawa family.

It was in the Edo period when the Tokugawa shogunate established the Matsumoto domain. For the next 300 years until the abolition of the feudal system in the Meiji Restoration, the castle was ruled by the 23 generations of the Matsumoto daimyos.

Dusk was finally upon us. The flat-land castle (hirajiro), though enchanting in beauty, looked somewhat defenseless in the fading light. The inter-connected rock walls and the surrounding moat are the only defense against any attacks. The narrow wooden windows on the top floors, once used by archers and gunmen as the last defense.

The Castle consists of three stories and a concealed fourth. The second floor of the main keep features a gun museum, Teppo Gura, with a collection of guns, armor and other weapons. A hidden keep on the fourth floor is structurally independent of the main tower and is connected via a roofed passage.

We still had some 4 hours of travel left to reach Nara, so we started on our walk back towards the Station.

The weather had cooled down drastically as we walked towards the Matsumoto station. The limited express arrived in a few minutes and we were off towards home along the JR Shinonoi Line.

With over 400 years of history, Matsumoto Castle is a national treasure that one must see. I have been to many castles and in my opinion this is the most beautiful castle in Japan.

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Snow Monkeys of Jigokudani

The Japanese Macaque (Nihon-zaru), colloquially known as the “snow monkey,” holds a unique place in nature. In the hot springs region of Yudanaka, Japan, these monkeys have adapted to extreme cold and are highly sought by photographers as they bathe in the natural hot springs.

Today, I travelled almost 1000 km, to and back to experience the ecology, and record the conservation efforts surrounding the snow monkeys of Yudanaka. Half a day is certainly not enough to do a thorough research but I did end up with quite a bit of first-hand information in that limited amount of time.

I have done some really tough day trips from Nara, and this is going to be right there among the top. Yudanaka is really far far away. Apart from changing three trains at Nara, Kyoto, and then Nagano stations, I also had to catch a short bus ride and then walk about 2 km to reach my destination in Jigokudani (地獄谷).

It was going to be challenging so it had to be an early start in the morning from Nara. I woke up at dawn, walked down to Nara Station, and caught the 6:30 a.m. train to Kyoto. Because I was holding a JR Pass, I didn’t have to spend any time at the ticket counters. I reached Kyoto at around 7 a.m. and from there caught the 7:29 a.m. Thunderbird to Kanazawa.

The train was almost empty and I was able to obtain a window seat, facing east. One of the most beautiful aspects of the train line from Kyoto to Kanazawa is that you can enjoy beautiful views of Lake Biwa and the lovely Shiga countryside. In early February, most parts of Shiga still lie in the embrace of fresh layers of snow, making it a serene and enchanting winter wonderland. The landscape, which is lush and green in Summer, transforms into a pristine white canvas, where every tree, house, and field is adorned with a delicate frosting of snowflakes.

One of the most iconic views of Lake Biwa is of the Torii at Shirahige Jinja.

As the train sped along the Shiga countryside and entered the mountains, the white plains gave way to trees blanketed in snow creating a breathtaking tableau of winter’s magic. Each branch, bough, and leaf was gracefully cloaked in a pristine, glistening white coat, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.

I reached Naganao at around 11 a.m. After grabbing a bite at the Starbucks counter inside Nagano station, I caught the local train to Yudanaka on the Nagano Dentetsu Line. The Nagano Dentetsu Line, also known as Nagaden (長電), is a charming and scenic railway that traverses the picturesque landscapes of Nagano Prefecture, Japan. This rail route meanders through the heart of the Japanese Alps, offering passengers breathtaking views of snow-capped mountains and quaint villages covered in mounds of snow.

Please note that the Nagano Dentetsu Line is NOT covered by the JR Pass. You can buy the ticket for Yudanaka at the Nagano Station ticket counter.

The train from Nagano to Yudanaka takes about 45 minutes. This line also serves as a link for tourists going to the town of Obuse, the hot springs at Yudanaka, and the ski resorts at Shiga Kōgen. It connects various attractions, including the renowned hot spring town of Yudanaka, and the tranquil Lake Nojiri, making it a delightful way to explore the hidden gems of Nagano while enjoying the soothing rhythm of the train’s passage through this scenic wonderland.

Part of the wider Yamanouchi area, the historic town of Yudanaka is home to numerous hot spring guesthouses and public baths. The water is said to hold powerful healing properties and specific medicinal benefits. As such, the Japanese have been coming to the towns for centuries, including injured samurai during warring periods to recuperate and relax in the ancient waters.

Again from Yudanaka Station, I had to catch a bus. I reached the Jigokudani Monkey Park entrance at 2 p.m. From the entrance gate where the bus dropped me off, there is again a 20-30 minute hike in the snow to the hot springs. The park was developed as a conservation and tourism initiative by the local authorities and community in the Yamanouchi area of Nagano Prefecture, Japan. The park’s establishment was primarily driven by the need to protect and preserve the Japanese macaques, commonly known as snow monkeys, and their natural habitat. The idea was to create a space where visitors could observe and learn about these monkeys while contributing to their conservation efforts.

Snow monkey

The Jigokudani Monkey Park (Jigokudani Yaenkōen) is home to 200+ snow monkeys. The Japanese Macaque, or snow monkey, is a species of Old World monkey native to Japan. There are approximately 180 monkey species distributed worldwide, including gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, baboons, and squirrels, among others. The majority of these species reside in regions spanning Africa and Southeast Asia, encompassing both tropical and subtropical zones. In contrast, the Japanese Macaque stands out as the world’s northernmost non-human wild primate.

Among its various populations, the monkeys inhabiting the Yudanaka region have gained international attention for their behavior of bathing in natural hot springs during the winter months. The Yudanaka region is characterized by its cold, snowy winters, and steep terrain. The snow monkeys primarily inhabit coniferous and broadleaf forests at elevations ranging from 500 to 2,500 meters above sea level.

Snow monkeys are omnivorous, consuming a wide range of food, including leaves, fruits, insects, and small vertebrates. During the harsh winters, they rely heavily on bark, buds, and the occasional scavenged human food.

The path can be slippery, so please wear proper footwear, especially if you are coming in winter.

Several steam vents can be found in the area. These vents are natural geological features that release steam or hot gases into the atmosphere. These vents are often found in proximity to hot springs, geysers, or other geothermal areas and are a result of underground volcanic activity and the circulation of groundwater. They are fun to watch as they frolic in the onsen, and chase each other.

These macaques have developed several adaptations to survive in frigid conditions, such as thick fur, a fat layer for insulation, and specialized behaviors like huddling and the use of hot springs for thermoregulation.

Unlike a Zoo experience, you can find the monkeys sitting in groups or enjoying a lazy afternoon freely in the open.

Do not touch or yell on the monkeys especially baby monkeys. Adult monkeys might fear for their safety and attack you.

These monkeys face extreme cold environments, enduring temperatures as low as ten degrees below freezing. This is why they have come to be commonly referred to as “Snow Monkeys.”

Dress warmly because at an altitude of 850 meters, the temperatures during winter can be very cold.

The colors of the coats of these monkeys can vary among shades from light bistre to dark bistre. Average body weights for males are between 12kg-15kg, for females are between 8kg-13kg. 

The numbers of their teeth are the same as human, start with 20 baby teeth and then change to 32 permanent teeth.

Various types of food and feeding methods are employed at the facility, depending on the available resources. The staff provides the monkeys with choices like barley with chaff, soybeans, or apples, which are selected based on factors such as weather and season. For example, barley and soybeans offer higher nutritional value compared to the monkeys’ usual diet of grass, tree leaves, and flowers. During the autumn season, the monkeys have access to natural treats like grapes and chestnuts in the nearby mountains. On such occasions, apples are sometimes included in their diet. However, the monkeys are highly attracted to human food, so the staff diligently manages their nutrition to prevent overconsumption and potential ecological disruptions.

Tourists feeding the monkeys is strictly prohibited. Do not show or give them any food.

Do not stare monkeys’ eyes closely. Staring and opening one’s mouth to them mean hostile.

The snow monkeys of Yudanaka are a captivating example of how wildlife can adapt to extreme environmental conditions. Their unique behavior of bathing in hot springs has made them famous worldwide. However, they also face significant conservation challenges due to human activities and climate change. By studying and understanding their behavior, ecology, and conservation needs, we can work toward ensuring the continued survival and well-being of these remarkable creatures, enriching both our scientific knowledge and our appreciation for the natural world.

Check the webcam. There’s a webcam at the park that gives you a live view of what’s happening at the onsen. If you take a look and you don’t see any monkeys, it probably won’t be worth making the trek.

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Open Hours

8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Acessibility Issues

Wheelchairs and carts are not accessible in either approach due to unpaved roads, uneven surfaces and steps.