Why Nagano and Gunma are golden

Why Nagano and Gunma are golden

There’s a new Golden Route in Japan - it's greener than the other, and it’s probably not where you thought it was.

A triangular itinerary which loosely tracks Tokaido Road - the most travelled path during the Edo Period, connecting Kyoto to Tokyo – is the old Golden Route and still the go-to for most first-time Japanese travellers.

Maybe you’re a full-blown Japanophile and this is your 12th trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, or maybe you just don’t like crowds - say no more fam. We have an alternate ‘Golden Route’ for you.

A few hours bullet train west of Tokyo are Nagano and Gunma prefectures - based in Central Honshu’s mountainous region. Nagano will be familiar to snow lords as a sick destination in winter (Nagano City hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics to great acclaim and are set to host the 2026 ones).

get lost took the ‘New Golden Route’ in summer, which took us from laidback Karuizawa, up into the mountains Nozawa Onsen, through Gunma’s stunning apple growing country, across to tranquil Lake Nojiri and finishing at the not-so-tranquil rapids at Tone River.

Here's eight of the best experiences we vibed along the New Golden Route:

  1. Max chilling in Karuizawa

We spent a day ambling the streets of Karuizawa, one of the first stops on the New Golden Route, and immediately understood why the town attracts a lot of domestic holiday-makers, looking for a break from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.

There was something incredibly tranquil about strolling the neat, green streets of this laidback town in summertime, getting a coffee and receiving far more than I bargained for (a massage? Aftershave?) during a haircut, where we also managed a pretty good conversation considering neither of us knew a lick of the opposing language. Suzuki Barber Shop ftw.


  1. Sprucing up at Hoshino Onsen Tombo-no-Yu

A stunning, modern onsen which allows tattoos, Tonbo-no-Yu is among the most attractive onsens in the country. Making use of Karuizawa’s natural geothermal hot springs, the springs are situated in amongst lush green, and it’s easy to drift away here.

The onsen has been here since 1916, but has recently undergone its own spruce up. Almost worth a day trip from Tokyo on its own.


  1. Chasing (Shiraito) Waterfalls

Shiraito Waterfall is unlike any waterfall I’ve ever come across. It’s only 3 metres high, but 70 metres wide, bending around in a horseshoe shape so that when you approach the water’s edge, it feels like it surrounds you from all sides. The trail up to the falls is short, and the area most beautiful (but somewhat busy) in summer amongst verdant green surrounds.

  1. Mountain Biking at Nozawa Onsen

Shredders might consider it sacrilege to visit Nozawa Onsen in summer, when there is no snow at the area legendary for its snow.

The slopes become mountain bike trails in the summer, with different trails for everyone. We took the ‘medium’ difficulty route and found it very challenging…apparently there are two levels further up than that.


  1. Rokumon – Karuizawa to Ueda

Easily the most delicious train we’ve ever been on.

It serves local beers and wines; there is something incredibly satisfying about drinking a wine in your own private little booth as you cruise past the vineyards where the grapes in that wine were grown.

Demolishing an 11 (11!) course meal is satisfying too; the menu consisted of tateshina pork and Shinshu mushrooms, paprika mousse and Shinshu salmon, roast beef, plus a totally droolable (not a word but you get the idea) fruit compote.

The train is stunning, with timber sourced locally and classic Japanese furnishings which give a luxurious, exclusive feeling. The best way to travel from Karuizawa to Nagano.


  1. Forest Bathing at Lake Nojiri

get lost’s heart rate went down a number of notches in a Shirin-yoku (forest bathing) session at Lake Nojiri, near the town of Shinano. Over 80% of Nagano Prefecture is covered in forest, which passes the ey test here as we take an easy hike through a green jungle, where we learnt which flora and fauna helps us sleep better and aid our digestive systems, and which kills us almost instantly, we meditated and then took a dip in the soothingly fresh waters of the stunning lake. I’m not usually the meditative, reflective type, preferring energy over quiet, but this did it for me.


  1. Sleeping at Bettei Senjuan

Traditional luxury at the foothills of Mount Tanigawa, Bettei Senjuan is a stunning place to stay, with every room in the joint giving you views of mountain peaks or jungle, and an open-air private pool in each as well.

It’s not hard to find good food in Gunma and Nagaino but Bettei has won awards for its cuisine, and plate after plate of sumptuously plated food stood was evidence enough of this.


  1. Tone River Rapids

Tone River is the epicentre of Japan’s white-water rafting. A half-day course has you careening down 12km of world-class grade 3-4 rapids, which takes in three different canyons: Momiji Canyon, Minakami Canyon and Suwa Canyon.

Spring (April – June) is actually a better time to go than summer, but you are able to raft all the way through until October. If the rapids are slower, the sessions turn into half-rafting, half-canyoneering and jumping off rocky ledges.


Words Tim McGlone

Photos Tim McGlone

Tags: food, Gunma, japan, Nagano, Summer

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