Tsugaike Nature Park — a must-see place near Hakuba, Nagano (Part 1: Tsugaike Visitor Center)

Close to Hakuba, one of Japan’s most popular winter resort areas located in Nagano Prefecture, lies Tsugaike Shizen-en (Tsugaike Nature Park). It is part of the Chubu-Sangaku Kokuritsu Koen (Chubu-Sangaku National Park) and is known to be home for hundreds of species of alpine plants and flowers. Because the park lies 1,900 to 2,000 meters above sea level, it’s quite cool even in summer — a perfect place to go to if you’re looking to escape heat.

Tsugaike Shizen-en (nature park) in Otarimura, Nagano Prefecture, Japan

There is a 5.5-kilometer (approx. 3.4-mile) trekking route that goes around the park. It takes you through various sceneries, from wetlands to forests to snowy valleys (yes, snow exists even in July), and there was not a single moment I got bored during the 4-hour hike.

Hiking in the nature, however, always depends on the weather. When it’s raining heavily, you’ve got no choice but to stay indoor. The cool thing about Tsugaike, though, is that there is a visitor center packed with fun activities right by the entrance to the nature park — which means, you won’t feel like you wasted your time coming here, even when the weather sucks!

Tsugaike Visitor Center

The Tsugaike Visitor Center has recently undergone a major renewal and is having its grand opening on July 18.

It looks like a huge log house on the outside. By the way, the building with red roof standing next to it is the old Tsugaike Hutte, which serves as a memorial hall now.

Once you step inside the visitor center, you’ll be greeted by a gigantic wood stove. It was lit at night, and was creating a warm, romantic ambiance (why did I not take the picture…).

Right by the stove, you’ll find a visitors information counter. During the center’s opening hours (normally 8:20~16:30), you’ll find some staff here, ready to answer all sorts of questions you may have about the Tsugaike Nature Park and its surrounding areas. If you’re just about to go hiking and have some questions, be sure to stop by on your way!

I noticed that the wood used in the building looked rather old. One of the staff told us that the center reused old wood materials that were once part of the traditional Japanese houses standing nearby. These houses, however, collapsed during an earthquake that occurred in November 2014 — but because these wood were still in fairly good shape, they were given a second life here in the visitor center.

Photo booth

Walking past the information counter, you’ll find a hut in center of the room.

This actually is a photo booth, where you’ll get to go in, pick a background picture and take photos. These pictures were all taken in the Tsugaike Nature Park, so it makes you feel like you’re actually strolling in the park, enjoying its sceneries.

Touch panel screen inside the photo booth (English instructions available)

The photo booth machine was really easy to use. Basically, you touch the screen, select a background picture, take a photo, remember the number of your photo and then go over to the information counter to tell it to one of the staff. It costs 300 yen to print one picture.

We played around for a bit, and it was fun!

Just looking through the background pictures was enough to make me appreciate the beauty of the nature park.

Climbing wall

The back wall of the visitor center was a massive climbing wall.

It caters to all levels of climbers, and the most difficult course — I think it’s a black one — is suitable for even the country’s top climbers!

If you look closely at the picture, you’ll notice some cute little elephants blending in with the ordinary grips.

This is because the Swiss outdoor brand Mammut is one of the sponsors of the visitor center. In fact, the uniform worn by staff was all from Mammut — in fact, even the apron worn by waiters at the restaurant in the Tsugaike Sanso Lodge next door had a Mammut elephant logo on it!

If you’re a rock climbing enthusiast, you can bring your own shoes and use them here. Or, you may borrow a pair.

Slacklining

Another activity that was fun doing was slacklining.

But, it’s not an ordinary slackline — the movie projected onto the floor moves, as if you’re actually walking on a rope suspended above the mountains!

I tried my hand at this too, and believe me… it was way too thrilling at first. I guess the point is to not stare at your feet, but that was much easier said than done!

Cafe space

Here, you’ll get to enjoy coffee and tea for free. You’re also welcome to bring in food and eat here if you take care to clean up after yourselves.

The monitor in center of the cafe space plays a movie that shows what the Tsugaike Nature Park is like in different seasons. If you like flowers, you’ll love watching this movie.

The bookshelf had a variety of books, from the ones introducing tips for climbing mountains to encyclopedias about alpine plants and flowers and children’s books about animals. There were also a few books about the surrounding areas, including Hakuba.

There was even a pellet stove in the corner. It actually got quite cold in the evening (for the third or fourth time, I’m reminding you that we were there toward the middle of July), so it was nice to be near it, just sitting and relaxing.

To get there

Now the important part. How do you get there?

Here is where Otari-mura is:

First, you’ll have to get to the Tsugaike Kogen station by one of the following routes:

Full access information (including routes and directions) can be found here: http://sizenen.otarimura.com/en/access.html

Once you get to the Tsugaike Kogen station, you’ll first have to take the Tsugaike Gondola “Eve” to the Tsuga-no-mori station (the ride takes about 20 minutes). You’ll then walk over to the Tsuga-daimon station and take the Tsugaike Ropeway, which gets you to the Shizen-en station in 5 minutes or so. It’s a 400-meter walk from there to the entrance of the Tsugaike Nature Park, where the visitor center stands.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — 
Tsugaike Visitor Center
Address: 12883–1 Chikuniotsu, Otari-mura, Kitaazumi-gun, Nagano Prefecture
TEL: 0261–83–3113 (Tsugaike Sanso Lodge — the building standing next to the visitor center)
Website:
http://sizenen.otarimura.com/en/index.html
Opening hours: Normally 8:20~16:30 (same as gondola and ropeway operation hours)

*** I participated in a press tour organized by Otari Shinko Kousha (Otari Development Corporation) and Michi no Eki Otari (Roadside Station Otari) from July 6–8, and am writing about my experiences while on the tour.

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