Dominated by the magnificent Japan Alps, peppered with top onsen and ski resorts, old castle- and temple-towns, and quaint old-fashioned villages in remote valleys, CENTRAL HONSHŪ offers a fantastic choice of terrain and travel possibilities. If all you want to do is admire the grand scenery – even for a day – that’s easily done thanks to the Shinkansen line that zips from Tokyo to Nagano, where you should pause long enough to visit the venerable and atmospheric temple, Zenkō-ji.
Apart from the highlights mentioned opposite, other places in the region known locally as Chubu that are worth seeing include the summer resort of Karuizawa and the charming village of Nozawa Onsen, northeast of Nagano, where you’ll find excellent ski slopes and free hot-spring baths. Hakuba is another popular skiing and outdoor activities destination, while in the southern half of Nagano-ken it’s possible to explore several immaculately preserved post towns along the old Nakasendō route from Kyoto to Tokyo, even hiking for a day between the best of them – Tsumago and Magome.
On the west side of the Alps, there’s the convivial town of Takayama and the unusual A-frame thatched houses of the Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama valleys, where three villages – Ogimachi, Suganuma and Ainokura – have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This area can also be accessed from the Sea of Japan, where the elegant, historic city of Kanazawa is an ideal base. The tranquil fishing villages dotted around the rugged coastline of the Noto Hantō peninsula, northeast of Kanazawa, are also worth searching out.
Along the southern Pacific Ocean side of Chubu run the main expressways and train lines that link Tokyo with the Kansai region. Ugly vistas of rampant industrialization bracket these transportation links, yet even here there are places worth stopping to see, including Japan’s fourth main city, Nagoya, home to the region’s main airport. This enjoyable and easily negotiated metropolis can be used as a base for day-trips to the attractive castle town of Inuyama, where you can see summertime displays of the ancient skill of ukai (cormorant fishing), or to Meiji Mura, an impressive outdoor museum of architecture dating from the beginning of the twentieth century.
A couple of train lines cut across from the southern to the northern coasts, but many places in the mountains are only served by buses, which can be infrequent and pricey. Sometimes renting a car will be your best bet, although some of the most scenic routes – such as the Skyline Drive across the Alps from Gifu-ken to Nagano-ken – are closed in winter because of deep snow. The mountain resort of Kamikōchi and the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine route are similarly off limits between November and April.Read More
- Hiking the Kiso-ji
Ninja: the shadow warriors
Ninja: the shadow warriors
Long before their ancient martial art was nabbed by a bunch of cartoon turtles, the Ninja were Japan’s most feared warriors, employed by lords as assassins and spies. They practised Ninjutsu, “the art of stealth”, which emphasized non-confrontational methods of combat. Dressed in black, Ninja moved like fleeting shadows and used a variety of weapons, including shuriken (projectile metal stars) and kusarikama (a missile with a razor-sharp sickle on one end of a chain), examples of which are displayed in the Togakushi Minzoku-kan.
According to legend, Ninjutsu was developed in the twelfth century, when the warrior Togakure Daisuke retreated to the mountain forests of Iga, near Nara, and met Kain Dōshi, a monk on the run from political upheaval in China. Togakure studied Dōshi’s fighting ways and it was his descendants who developed them into the Togakure-ryū school of Ninjutsu. By the fifteenth century, there were some fifty family-based Ninjutsu schools across Japan, each jealously guarding their techniques.
Although the need for Ninja declined while Japan was under the peaceful rule of the Shogunate, the Tokugawa had their own force of Ninjutsu-trained warriors for protection. One Ninja, Sawamura Yasusuke, even sneaked into the “black ship” of Commodore Perry in 1853 to spy on the foreign barbarians. Today, the Togakure-ryu school of Ninjutsu, emphasizing defence rather than offence, is taught by the 34th master, Hatsumi Masaaki, in Noda, Chiba-ken, just north of Tokyo.
Yudanaka’s star attraction is a troupe of some two hundred Japanese long-tailed monkeys (Nihon-zaru) that like to bathe in the rotemburo at the Monkey Park, Jigokudani Yaen-kōen (地獄谷野猿公苑), a twenty-minute walk from Kambayashi Onsen. Legend goes that they started to take dips in the hot pools during the 1960s, when a local ryokan owner took pity on them and left food out in winter. A special rotemburo was eventually built for them, dubbed “snow monkeys” by Life magazine, even though they live beside the onsen year-round. It’s curiously addictive watching these primates wallowing and fooling around by the pool; get a preview via webcam at wwww.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp. The monkeys are so used to humans that they act with dignified nonchalance in the face of the paparazzi-style snapping from hordes of tourists.
Temple of Eternal Peace
Temple of Eternal Peace
A complex of over seventy buildings blending seamlessly with the forest Eihri-ji (永平寺; t 0776/63-3640; daily: May–Oct 9am–5pm, Nov–April 9am–4.30pm; adult/child ¥500/200) is home to some two-hundred shaven-headed monks. Established by the Zen master Dōgen Zenji in 1244, this serene temple in cedar-covered mountains is one of the two headquarters of Sōtō Zen Buddhism.
Located 10km northeast of Fukui (福井), less than an hour’s train ride south of Kanazawa, it’s easy to make a day-trip to the temple. Eihri-ji is closed periodically for special services, so it’s wise to check first with Fukui City Sightseeing Information (daily 9am–6pm; t 0776/21-6492, w www.fuku-e.com) or with the temple before setting off. Also make an advance reservation if you’d like to enjoy a vegetarian shōjin-ryōri meal as part of your visit.
From JR Fukui Station, the easiest way to reach Eihri-ji is by direct bus (¥720; 35min). Alternatively, hop on the local train to Eihei-ji Guchi Station, then either walk uphill for five minutes or take a bus or taxi.
Affiliates of a Sōtō Zen Buddhist organization can arrange to stay overnight here (¥8000) and participate in the monks’ daily routine, including cleaning duties and pre-dawn prayers and meditation; for serious devotees a four-day/three-night course (¥12,000) is also available. Details of how to apply can be found at w tinyurl.com/2ee2dk9.