Jutting out like a gnarled finger into the Sea of Japan is the Noto Hantō (能登半島), the name of which is said to derive from an Ainu word, nopo, meaning “set apart”. The peninsula’s rural way of life, tied to agriculture and fishery, is certainly worlds away from fast-paced, urban Japan – there’s little public transport here so the area is best explored by car or bicycle. The rugged and windswept west coast has the bulk of what constitutes the Noto Hantō’s low-key attractions, while the calmer, indented east coast harbours several sleepy fishing villages, where only the lapping of waves and the phut-phut of boat engines breaks the silence.

The West Coast

Travelling up the peninsula’s west coast from Kanazawa, drive past the wide, sandy beach Chiri-hama (千里浜), cluttered with day-trippers and their litter, and head briefly inland to the alleged UFO-hotspot of HAKUI (羽咋). Here, in a suitably saucerish hall near the station, you’ll find Cosmo Isle Hakui (コスモアイル羽咋), a fascinating museum devoted to space exploration which houses a great deal of authentic paraphernalia, most impressively the Vostok craft that launched Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961 – it looks like a giant cannonball.

Nearby, set in a wooded grove near the sea, is Keta-taisha (気多大社), Noto’s most important shrine. The complex dates from the 1650s, although it is believed that the shrine was founded in the eighth century. It’s attractive but the atmosphere is spoilt by the modern-day commercialization of the place, catering to young lovers who come to seek the blessing of the spirits. A few kilometres further up the coast, Myōjō-ji (妙成寺) is a seventeenth-century temple with an impressive five-storey pagoda. Millennia of poundings from the Sea of Japan have created fascinating rock formations and cliffs along this coastline.

Around the midpoint of the west coast is the small town of MONZEN (門前), famous for its temple Sōji-ji (総持寺), a training centre for Zen monks.

Wajima

A further 16km up the coast from Monzen is WAJIMA (輪島), an appealing fishing port, straddling the mouth of the Kawarada-gawa. The peninsula’s main tourist centre hosts the Asa Ichi, a touristy, yet colourful morning market, where around two hundred vendors set up stalls along the town’s main street selling fish, vegetables and other local products.

Along the same street is also an incongruous replica of an Italian palazzo, inside which is the Inachū Gallery (イナチュウ美術館). This bizarre museum exhibits reproductions of famous art pieces, such as the Venus de Milo, next to original European and Japanese antiques, including a huge pair of jet-black ornamental jars that once belonged to Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa shogun.

Anime and manga fans will prefer the nearby Gō Nagai Wonderland Museum (永井豪記念館), a new facility celebrating the locally-born creator of series such as Mazinger Z, Devilman and Cutie Honey. In one section you can draw your own manga character on a computer and get a print-out as a souvenir.

Wajima is also renowned for its high-quality lacquerware (know locally as wajima nuri), and you’ll find many shops around town selling it. The best collection of pieces can be viewed at the Ishikawa Wajima Urushi Art Museum (石川県輪島漆芸美術館), on the southwest side of town. More modern styles of lacquerware can be seen at the Wajima Kōbō Nagaya (輪島工房長屋), a complex of traditional-style wooden buildings close to the sea in the centre of town, where you can also see the artists creating it. If you make an advance booking, it’s possible to engrave lacquerware yourself. Also well worth visiting before you move on is the Kiriko-kaikan (キリコ会館) on the east side of town. This exhibition hall houses the enormous colourful paper lanterns paraded around town in Wajima’s lively summer and autumn festivals. The museum also shows videos of the festivals.

Elsewhere on the peninsula

The scenic coastline between Wajima and the cape Rokkō-zaki (禄剛崎) is scattered with many strange rock formations – look out for Godzilla Rock (ゴジラ岩) and, near the village of Sosogi (曽々木), the Shiroyone no Senmaida (白米の千枚田), where over a thousand rice paddies cling to the sea-facing slopes in diminishing terraces. Just south of the cape, a winding road leads down to the “secret onsen” inn of Lamp-no-Yado.

Heading inland towards Iwakura-yama, a steep 357m mountain, are two traditional thatched-roof houses that once belonged to the wealthy Tokikuni family, supposed descendants of the vanquished Taira clan. The family split in two in the sixteenth century, one part staying in the Kami Tokikuni-ke (上時國家), the other building the smaller Shimo Tokikuni-ke (下時國家), with its attractive attached garden.

On the Noto Hantō’s gentler east coast, the picturesque Tsukumo-wan (九十九湾), meaning “99 Indentation Bay”, is worth pausing at for the view. Also down this side of the coast, look out for the Boramachi-yagura, pyramid-shaped wooden platforms on top of which fishermen once perched, waiting for the fish to swim into their nets.