Summer is almost synonymous with beaches and barbecues for most people. But with temperatures rising, some turn towards Japan's mountainous interior to look for shade and lower climes at higher altitudes. With escaping the summer temperatures in mind, I headed to Lake Nojiri in northern Nagano, one of the country's landlocked and mountainous prefectures to cool down.

Sea of clouds (unkai) from around 1000 meters above sea level

My destination was Lake Nojiri in the town of Shinanomachi, which is at an elevation of over 600 meters, and where summer temperatures rarely reach 30 degrees Celsius and night time temperatures remain around a cool 20 degrees. The plan was to stay overnight in the town and enjoy two days of activities before returning home. From Nagano Station, the town can be accessed by train (Kurohime Station) on the Shinano Railway, or by rental car which is a more convenient option and the option I went with.

Day One

With my rental car, I took a scenic drive from Nagano Station towards Lake Nojiri, passing by apple orchards along the way and enjoying the view of the surrounding mountains-Mount Iizuna, Mount Togakushi, Mount Kurohime, Mount Myoko and Mount Madarao. It wasn't long before I entered the town hungry and ready for lunch.

Apple orchards along the road

Lunch was at a reservation-only restaurant, Hokkori, which also offers accommodation. The concept at Hokkori is centered around its food, where the fresh local produce is reflected in the seasonal menu. Owner and chef Uenishi-san and his wife used to run a kappo restaurant (an intimate restaurant similar to a kaiseki restaurant that uses seasonal ingredients and typically has only counter seats) in central Kyoto for around 20 years and his skill definitely shone through in the lunch I was served.

Hokkori, tucked away behind some trees
Tea ceremony set to welcome staying guests
Beautiful lunch of seasonal local produce
One of the two pet goats at Hokkori

Full from an amazing lunch, I made the short drive down to Lake Nojiri ready for my first activity of the day: kayaking. A variety of activities are offered at the guesthouse and restaurant Lamp, including seasonal mushroom and mountain vegetables picking in the forest, whitewater rafting and kayaking down a nearby river. I opted for kayaking in Lake Nojiri and rented a wetsuit from them. Anyone can join their tours and staying overnight at the guesthouse is not a requirement.

My kayak instructor led me through the basic kayaking steps and rules on land before we carried our kayaks to the lake which was a minute's walk away. We spent about two hours paddling in Lake Nojiri, the second biggest lake in Nagano Prefecture, and never reached the opposite end in that time. I guess if I had just concentrated on paddling quickly, I may have been able to touch opposite ends of the lake in the same time. But instead, I took my time paddling in the lake, enjoying the sunshine and watching fishermen in their boats.

First person kayaking experience
Paddle on, paddle off
View of Lake Nojiri from above

Before I knew it, it was time to get back on land and head to my accomodation for the night. For this trip, I knew I wanted to enjoy some quiet as well as escape from the summer heat and my choice for the night was El Bosco which overlooks Lake Nojiri. Not only was the food excellent, the quiet and view from my room was very soothing and extremely refreshing after living in the crowded metropolis. The hotel also has a small library where guests are welcome to borrow the books (there are English books as well!) to read in their room or anywhere on the premises. Easily a place to spend an evening just relaxing and living life at a slower pace.

Library and reading nook near the hotel lobby
Just one part of dinner which also features local produce
Go for an apple cider when you're here. This was from a nearby winery and made with locally grown apples
Went out to see the stars after dinner

Day Two

Refreshed after two good meals (dinner and breakfast) and a good night's sleep, I made my way up to Nojiriko Terrace which is located midway up Mount Madarao, one of the five mountains that surrounds the area. There is a chairlift to the terrace which operates during the Golden Week and from mid July to mid November. Alternatively those who visit outside of its operating season can hike up to the terrace from Hotel Tangram in less than one hour. The terrace offers a view of the four other mountains as well as a view of Lake Nojiri from the top. The hiking trail continues to the top of Mount Madarao which takes about 45-60 minutes from the terrace.

Seasonal chairlift going up to Nojiriko Terrace
View from the terrace. Lake Nojiri, Mount Iizuna, Mount Togakushi and Mount Kurohime (from left to right)

After the high of Nojiriko Terrace, I went to Kurohime Station, the main station to access Lake Nojiri, where I could rent a bicycle and go on a cycling tour of the town. There are several cycling routes, passing through rice fields, circling the lake and even all the way to one of Japan's top 100 waterfalls. I went for the rice fields and waterfall course, and it was quite the experience. Note that there are some hills to conquer for those planning to cycle all the way to the waterfall and having a certain level of stamina is recommended (or risk regretting the decision).

Rental bicycles at the tourist information center right by Kurohime Station

Cycling was absolutely lovely as I savored the fresh air and sunshine. I made it to the entrance of the waterfall and the short walk there was the icing on the cake for me. Imagine being all hot and sweaty from cycling and then walking through a lush green forest with a river running alongside, and finally a massive waterfall pouring out in front of you. I could've sat in a shady spot and listened to the roar of the waterfall for a long time before I was ready to make the return journey.

Got a picture of my rental bicycle before it tipped over into the field in the next moment
Parked my bicycle at the entrance to the waterfall and took a short hike in
So much greenery, it just makes you feel good about life
Almost there
My cycle route brought me through rice fields and foresty areas

However all good things come to an end and I had to make my way back to Kurohime Station to return the rental bicycle. Going back was a lot faster as it was mostly downhill and I was back at my starting point before long. It was hard to imagine that my short trip to the mountains was over just like that. In a span of two days, I had gone kayaking, cycling and a bit of hiking, eaten delicious meals that featured local produce, and even managed to get some downtime at my hotel. All of this in the area around Lake Nojiri in Shinanomachi!

As I drove back to Nagano Station to return my rental car, I thought about how difficult it would've been to accomplish the same in the city. Lake Nojiri is quite the summer getaway with its cool temperatures, abundance of outdoor activities and laidback lifestyle, perfect for when you need a break to get away from it all.

Rice fields and mountains
Naena Waterfall, one of Japan's top 100 waterfalls

Access

Kurohime Station on the Shinano Railway Line is the main station serving Lake Nojiri and the town of Shinanomachi. The one way journey from Nagano to Kurohime takes around 35 minutes and costs 640 yen. From Kurohime Station, infrequent buses make the trip to Lake Nojiri (around 10 minutes, 200 yen one way) and Tangram Madarao near Nojiriko Terrace (around 30 minutes, 600 yen one way). Accomodation establishments usually offer pick-up services from the train station, and it is advisable to enquire beforehand.

A rental car is the more convenient way of getting around Lake Nojiri. Rental car outlets can be found at Nagano Station (80 minutes, around 8000 yen one way from Tokyo). The drive between Nagano Station and Lake Nojiri takes about 45-60 minutes on local roads.

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