In the year 642, Zenko-ji Temple was founded when one of the earliest Buddhist statues in Japan, brought over from the Korean Peninsula, was enshrined at the site. Today, the temple is one of the most important Buddhist sites in the country, as well as Japan’s third largest wooden structure, with the entire town of Nagano built up around it.
The structure as it stands today dates back to 1707 and contains a large hall displaying a variety of Buddhist statuary, a main alter and an underground passage beneath the alter where visitors can pass in complete darkness, feeling for a single key on the wall -- the key to paradise -- that’s believed to grand salvation to any who touch it. Behind the main temple, a newer pagoda houses the Zenko-ji History Museum with its collection of statues of the Buddha and his disciples.
Located 2,789 feet (850 meters) above sea level in the Valley of Yokoyu, Jigokudani Monkey Park stands out as one of Japan’s most popular and unique onsen. Onsen, the Japanese term for hot springs, are popular throughout the country, and the onsen found in the frequently snow-covered region of Joshinetsu-Kogen National Park in Northern Nagano prefecture attracts more than just human bathers.
The forests of the valley serve as the natural habitat of wild Japanese Macaques, or Snow Monkeys, who gather in large groups to bathe in the natural hot spring water. Jigokundani Monkey Park features a manmade onsen where the natural hot water collects and the monkeys congregate. Since they’re quite accustomed to human observers, it’s possible to view them from close range.
The village of Yudanaka Onsen is most famously known for the troop of Japanese Macaques, also called Snow Monkeys) who reside in the Yokoyu Valley and soak in the area’s natural hot springs. While the monkeys are certainly entertaining, the historic village, with a history as a hot springs resort dating back hundreds of years, is well worth a visit.
One of several onsen (hot springs) resort areas in the region, Yudanaka is one of the largest, while still maintaining its historic charm. Many of the structures lining the gently sloped streets house hot springs and foot baths, both especially pleasant during the cold, snowy months between December and March. The town also has a variety of family run Japanese inns, called ryokans, for visitors who want to stay and explore the region.