Driving in Nagano and Gunma
Nagano and Gunma prefectures are great for self-drive trips. Generally in Japan, once you get out of the big cities, public transport becomes sparse and infrequent and having a car will save you a lot of time.
In winter, Nagano is famous for two things: Ski-cum-onsen resorts and snow monkeys.
Between Nagano city and the various ski resorts / onsen towns such as Hakuba and Shiga Kogen, there are toll gates with nominal toll fee for passing through. The toll fee between Nagano and Hakuba was 200 yen and the toll fee between Nagano and Shiga Kogen was 100 yen when I was there. The toll gate between Nagano and Shiga Kogen was unmanned and we had to toss a 100 yen coin into the machine to pass through. So make sure you have 100 yen coins with you!
When driving in the region in winter, please make sure you reserve a car with snow tyres.
In Gunma, there are quite a number of family-friendly attractions to explore even if you are not into skiing:
In addition, if you are visiting in early winter, you can find winter cherry blossom. That’s right, cherry blossom that blooms in winter! The most famous place to find them is at Mount Sakurayama Park in Gunma from late November to early December.
Day 13: Nagano to Gunma
We started the morning with a visit to Ryuoo Ski Park which a reader told me about. I actually only had 1 destination in mind: Jigokudani Monkey Park. But since Ryuoo Ski Park was close enough to the monkey park and there was guarantee of snow, albeit man made with snow cannons, we decided to go there to let the kids roll in the snow. Literally.
After parking our car at a totally snowless area, we found out that we had to take an *expensive* ropeway up the mountain to where there was snow. I had a good mind to turn back and tell the boys to forget about playing with snow. I thought it was super lame to pay 5000 yen to take a ropeway up to play with man-made snow. But in the end the Singaporean-desperate-for-any-kind-of-snow in me won over and we went ahead.
The ropeway itself was one of the biggest in the world, with a capacity of 166 (!!) people. And thank goodness for its large capacity – because it was totally full on the Sunday we were there and we had to wait for a second ropeway. There was only 1 ropeway every 20 minutes. I cannot imagine if it had the capacity of a normal ropeway. We would have waited an hour.
Lucky us, the cloudy weather was in our favour that day and we got to see unkai (雲海, meaning ‘sea of clouds’) in the distance. It reminded me of Unkai Terrace at Tomamu in Hokkaido, where we paid about the same price for the ropeway when we visited back in June 2014. I felt much better about the 5000 yen spent.
We let the kids play with the snow, had lunch at the only overcrowded cafeteria there, before catching the ropeway back down to continue our drive to Jigokudani Monkey Park. We had to take a 1.6km walk through a forest and up a long flight of stairs before reaching the onsen where the monkeys like to take their hot bath.
And it was kind of anti-climax. I could count the number of monkeys in the onsen with the fingers on one hand. 4 to be exact. Two of them were not even soaking in the onsen. They were just, well.. monkeying around.
At least there was a mother and child pair soaking inside which made me feel like it was not that wasted a trip.
And we had to walk all 1.6km back to the carpark after that. With cranky tired kids. And it started to rain. I regretted not bringing the stroller.
We grabbed some food from the cafe near the carpark as an excuse to use their toilet. Not sure if the food was really good or we were just too tired and hungry. But yeah, the food there was pretty good. (Too tired to take photo.)
After soaking up in the Hello Kitty Onsen, we had buffet dinner which was pretty good. I really enjoyed the dinner at Shima Grand Hotel.
Day 14: Gunma – Ashikaga
The next morning, we went for another soak in the onsen, had buffet breakfast in the hotel and bummed around a bit until check-out time. Never mind that we had buffet breakfast, nothing could stop me from visiting Cafe Floresta, the Hello Kitty themed cafe at the lobby of Shima Grand Hotel.
After enjoying our Hello Kitty themed snacks and taking a hundred photos, we finally left Shima Grand Hotel to our next destination: Gunma Safari Park.
Gunma Safari Park was super fun. We drove our own car through the safari and could get SUPER close to the animals.
It was very similar to Fuji Safari Park which we brought the kids to two years earlier – but they had no recollection of that. So it was a totally new experience to them.
We had a late lunch (since we had two breakfasts) at the restaurant at Gunma Safari Park before driving on to Ashikaga Flower Park for the illumination.
We didn’t expect to spend a lot of time at Ashikaga Flower Park, considering how fast we were done with Kyoto Illumiere. But Ashikaga Flower Park turned out to be a lot more interesting than the photos we saw online.
We spent more than 2 hours at Ashikaga Flower Park’s Illumination before returning to our hotel, Chisun Inn Sano-Fujioka IC.
Day 15: Ashikaga – Omiya – Tokyo – Narita Airport
I had the day perfectly planned out. Our flight out of Narita Airport was at 6+pm. So I planned to visit Railway Museum at Omiya, which was nicely in between our hotel and Narita Airport. The plan was so perfect that I didn’t bother researching for alternative stops along the route.
But alas, somehow vacations are just not meant to go as planned. Railway Museum was closed on Tuesdays and we were there on a freaking Tuesday! And without internet access to google for places to go and no other alternatives, with a whole day to bust before our evening flight, we decided to go to somewhere we would never get lost in even without prior research: Asakusa in Tokyo. I switched the GPS to Japanese, entered “あさくさえき” feeling quite glad I bothered to take a basic Japanese course, and we were on our way!
I’m glad we came to Asakusa – because it has changed so much since our last visit in 2013! There was a new cultural centre, new hotel, a new ‘Orange Street’ (okay, the street has been there forever but was never called Orange Street in the past) and many of the shops along the main road have been replaced. I had to admire the tempura shop that has been standing at the same spot for the past donkey years. We also spotted a ‘bird cafe’ full of real owls!
We visited our favourite sushi joint and chilled out at one of the new cafes before driving back to Narita Airport.
Links / Telephone Numbers / Map Codes
- Ryuoo Ski Park [Tel: 0269-33-7131 / Map Code: 579 129 181]
- Jigokudani Monkey Park [Tel: 0269-33-4379 / Map Code: 341 820 625]
- Shima Grand Hotel [Tel: 0279-64-2211 / Map Code: 554 033 850]
- Gunma Safari Park [Tel: 0274-64-2111 / Map Code: 247 496 648]
- Ashikaga Flower Park [Tel: 0284-91-4939 / Map Code: 64 512 387]
- Railway Museum [Tel: 048-651-0088 / Map Code: 14 029 166]
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