Nagano is an ancient city that evolved as a temple town around Zenkoji, making it an important place of Buddhist pilgrimage for centuries. As well as being rich in culture and history, it's a naturally beautiful area surrounded by mountains covered with thick forests and topped with snow. These make it a favourite spot for winter sports – the peaks are known as Japan's Alps. It has a small-town feel but is close to bustling Tokyo, the Jigokudani Monkey Park and the historic martial arts centre, Togakure on Mount Togakushi.
Many of the hostels in Nagano offer a traditional Japanese way of living with futon beds and tatami (woven-straw) flooring. Stay in a hostel that's over 100 years old and features original sliding doors from the Edo and Meiji period or at one with its own bar, serving local sake. Fans of water sports can choose a Nagano hostel on the shores of Lake Nojiri that has kayaks, canoes and paddle boards to rent, along with an outdoor sauna. Most places have free Wi-Fi and some offer free breakfast too.
Nagano's Karuizawa district is a mountain getaway that's a popular spot for skiing, shopping and relaxing. Its atmospheric streets are lined with boutiques and eateries serving everything from traditional Japanese dishes to French and Iranian cuisine, while leafy woodlands are also just a stone's throw away. Fans of the martial arts should pay a visit to the village of Togakure nestled on the forest-covered Mount Togakushi, to look around the Ninja Museum and slurp on famed buckwheat soba noodles.
The top things to see in Nagano include the 7th-century Zenkoji Temple, which houses Japan's first Buddhist statue and the "key to paradise" hidden beneath its chambers. Enjoy the region's natural highlights, from bathing in the onsen (traditional Japanese hot springs) at the outdoor Omuro Onsen Makibanoyu to spotting the 200 snow monkeys in the valley of Jigokudani. In the winter months, it's worth heading to the slopes of the city's Japanese Alps for skiing, snowshoeing, or just to enjoy the views and après ski.
From Shinshu-Matsumoto Airport, it takes just under 2 hours on public transport to reach Nagano via Matsumoto. Tokyo's Haneda Airport is around 2.5 hours away, while Tokyo's centre is only 1.5 hours away via the frequent JR Hokuriku Shinkansen (bullet train). In the city, there's a good bus network with several routes covering the key attractions. Close by the main train station, Nagano Station, there's a place to rent bikes for shorter journeys.