Nagano City (長野) is the capital of Nagano Prefecture. It evolved as a temple town around Zenkoji, one of Japan’s most popular temples. In 1998, the city hosted the Winter Olympic Games, and some former olympic facilities can still be viewed around town.
In the forested mountains northwest of the city center lies the Togakushi area which attracts tourists with its popular shrines and as the legendary home of the Togakure Ninja School. The Togakushi Ninpo Museum and the Kids Ninja Village provide good entertainment and a glimpse of the area’s ninja past.
Nagano’s Zenkoji Temple (善光寺, Zenkōji) is one of the most important and popular temples in Japan. It was founded in the 7th century and stores the first Buddhist statue ever to be brought into Japan when Buddhism was first introduced in the 6th century. The original statue is hidden while a copy of it is shown to the public every six years for a few weeks. The next opportunity will be in 2021.
The significance of Zenkoji to the development of Nagano was instrumental: many major Japanese cities have evolved either from castle towns, harbor towns or temple towns. In the case of Nagano, it grew from a temple town which developed around its temple of great importance, Zenkoji.
Togakushi Shrine (戸隠神社, Togakushi Jinja) consists of a lower, a middle and an upper shrine in the forested mountains northwest of Nagano’s city center. The shrines are related to an important story in Japanese mythology in which the Sun Goddess hid herself in a cave in present day Takachiho on Kyushu after her brother had misbehaved, thereby bringing darkness to the world.
In order to get the sunlight back, the other deities tried to lure the Sun Goddess out of the cave by performing spectacular dance performances in front of it. As the Sun Goddess took a peek out, one of the deities grabbed the cave’s stone door and threw it away to prevent her from hiding again. The stone door flew all the way to Togakushi in Nagano Prefecture, which is also how the area got its name: Togakushi literally means “hiding door”.