The Path of 7,777 stones: Nagano's Incredible Walking Tour (Shinkansen Diary Series)


When most people think of Nagano, the first thing that comes to mind is the Nagano Olympics and all of the winter fun that comes along with it. 
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Certainly, Nagano is an incredible place to visit in the winter time for skiing, snowboarding, and other snow sports, but there is an entirely different side of Nagano in the other seasons that is worth exploring.  It truly does make a wonderful stop along the Hokuriku Shinkansen path if you are heading out to Kanazawa or one of the other spots along the Sea of Japan coast, even if you only stay for half a day.
If you decide to stop in for a few hours, the best way to experience Nagano is by taking the walk from Nagano Station to Zenkoji Temple--one of the best walking tours Japan has to offer.
You start at Nagano Station, a symbol of Japan's modernity.  The station and its surrounding area in the first 15 minutes of the walk offer a number of department stores and modern shops if you're looking for some contemporary shopping opportunities, but it's when you get to the Zenkoji Nakamise Street that you really get to feel the heart and soul of Nagano city.
Photo courtesy of Nakamise.org

The Nakamise Street is a paved thoroughfare spanning from Niomon Gate to Sanmon Gate.  Notably, there are exactly 7,777 stones that comprise the 450 meter walkway between the gates, and its there that you can find some traditional crafts and taste some of the most unique treats Japan has to offer, like...

Miso Soft Cream

There are a lot of different types of soft cream out there, but few as interesting as Miso-flavored soft cream at Suyakame.  Be aware that long lines can form at peak hours!
Photo courtesy of Tabelog.jp

Soba Crepes

These sweet treats are made from soba and wheat flour then filled with blueberry jam, cheese cake, and whipped cream.  There are also 100% soba flour options, but those come in savory galette style options.  The best store to enjoy these options Kukuya Shunsui.
Photo courtesy of Tabelog.jp

Oyaki

This dumpling (steamed or baked) is a local delicacy made of wheat flour and filled with seasonal vegetables.  Like other 'manju', every Oyaki shop has its own take.
Photo Courtesy of Shunsui-oyaki.co.jp

Yakimiso Musubi
Nagano is famous for its miso, and while it can be found in many of the foods, few options are as traditional and satisfying as the Yakimiso Musubi, where the miso is glazed onto rice balls and grilled to give it a slightly crisp texture that contrasts the chewiness of the rice.  It makes a great treat in any season!
Photo courtesy of Suyakame.co.jp

And then for the payoff...

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
After you've had your fill of delicious treats and passed over the 7,777 stones, you'll find yourself at the Zenkoji Temple, a structure that has been around for over 1400 years.  This temple came to be at a time when anti-Buddhist forces were abound in Japan.  A statue of Amitabha Tathagata was recovered from a moat in Namba where it had been discarded, and when it was enshrined.  Today's Zenkoji offers much to the traveler.  In addition to the main Temple hall and the two gates (Niomon and Sanmon), there is a history museum, scripture hall, monument to Prince Shotoku, and an archery training hall.  One thing you will have to do when you visit the Zenkoji is walk through the pitch-black corridors under the main hall, which is supposed to help you find your path to happiness.
Photo courtesy of Nagano City Tourism

All of this can be done in just a half-day if you need to speed on to another stop along the Hokuriku Shinkansen, but of course there is plenty more to do at Nagano if you have the time!

As they say in Japan, zehi--by all means--give Nagano a try for something other than skiing and snowboarding as you journey through Japan. 

Mike B