The Three-Star Road in Japan runs from Nagano to Kanazawa in the country’s central belt, taking in spectacular mountain scenery, charming UNESCO-endorsed villages and a collection of tremendous monuments. In fact, the route is named for a series of three-star sights (as recognized by Michelin’s Green Guide Japan). For landscape lovers, culture vultures and adventurous travellers of all persuasions, here’s our guide to exploring the Three-Star Road in the Japan Alps.
The Three-Star Road is a star-studded stretch. Aside from gorgeous panoramas that reach across Japan’s Alps, you’ll find welcoming communities going about their lives in pretty thatched villages, offering travellers a glimpse of traditional Japan. And that’s before we come to the big-name draws that have earned the road its name, from Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City to Kanazawa’s harmonious Kenrokuen Garden. With a unique mix of dramatic landscapes and cultural heavyweight sights, travelling the Three-Star Road in Japan should be on every traveller’s bucket list.
There’s excellent public-transport provision along the Three-Star Road, so it is easy to reach the gateway stations from Tokyo by Hokuriku Shinkansen. Once you’re here, the convenient Three-Star Route Option Ticket (one way) is the way to go. It’s a convenient one-way bus ticket that connects all the major sights on the Three-Star Road, and can be used in either direction over a period of seven days. It can also be bought in combination with a Tokyo-Osaka Hokuriku Arch Pass or JR EAST PASS (covering Nagano and Niigata) so that you can continue your exploration of the Japan Alps – and further afield.
Given it’s so well connected, there’s no real need to hire a car, though doing so will obviously give you more freedom. If you do rent a motor, consider going green with an electric vehicle.
Nagano – just beyond the start of the route – is well worth exploring as a bastion of culture and heritage. The Zenkoji Temple Hall here is recognized as a National Treasure; the temple itself was founded in the 7th century, but the hall is a more recent incarnation, having been destroyed by fire more than ten times since its initial construction. The current building was erected in 1707. Zenkoji Temple is one of the most popular Buddhist temples in Japan. After you’ve taken in the city’s stand-out sight, explore the surrounding area by taking a walk around the enchanting Togakushi Shrine Precinct. The shrine in question lies at the foot of forested Mount Togakushi. Next, check out the Togakushi Ninja Museum and the Kids Ninja village, which provide fun and fancy in bucketloads.
The Three-Star Road in Japan officially starts at Matsumoto, famed for its castle, another National Treasure. Built in the late 16th century, the hulking structure rises from its surrounding moat, with striking black wainscoting. The contrast between the black castle and the snow-capped Japan Alps behind makes it even more stunning. Come spring, the castle becomes a popular cherry-blossom spot, when the pink blooms contrast beautifully with the dark castle and reflect in the waters of its moat. Matsumoto’s Nakamachi Street also warrants a stop for its traditional Japanese warehouses and craft shops – the perfect place to pick out a souvenir. Adventurous travellers will want to strike out for Kamikochi, an impossibly picturesque and remote valley in the Japan Alps. Drink in the views as you explore on any number of winding hiking trails.
Next stop on the route is Takayama, where two of its historic districts – Kamimachi and Shimomachi – have been awarded three-star status. Explore Kamimachi to get a feel of the old castle district, where the low-slung traditional wooden facades have been perfectly preserved. It’s the ideal place for an atmospheric wander. Be sure to visit Miyagawa Morning Market while you’re in town, too; there are two market sites, one at Jinya-mae plaza and another along the Miyagawa River. It’s a great opportunity to mingle with the locals, as well as to pick up some fresher-than-fresh vegetables, fruit and flowers. And you can’t leave without sampling the Hida beef for which the city is known. A tasty delicacy, Hida beef comes from Japanese black cattle raised within Gifu Prefecture.
If you’re after more ethereal charms, plump for a ride on the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway in a double-decker gondola over the Three-Star Road Alps. The ropeway is the only one of its kind in Japan, reaching a head-spinning elevation of more than 2000 metres. If the sweeping views and snow-capped peaks have whetted your appetite for more active pursuits, the upper station is the starting point for a number of hikes that will take you deeper into the mountains. Breathe it in.
Nestled in the mountains, Shirakawa-go shelters a fine collection of traditional thatched farmhouses that have brought the village fortune and fame. The architectural style is known as “gassho-zukuri”, which literally translated means “constructed like hands in prayer” – a reference to the steeply sloping roofs, resembling a Buddhist monk’s hands in prayer position. The roofs, constructed without nails, are built to withstand heavy snowfall. Today, the farmhouses are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The best way to explore the area is at the Gassho-zukuri Minkaen, an outdoor museum with a total of 25 farmhouses open to the public, including restaurants, teahouses and an exhibition hall with fine displays of traditional folk objects.
Once you’ve got your culture fix, head out into the surrounding countryside to experience the area’s wilder side. Oshirakawa Park (in Hakusan National Park) is an outstanding beauty spot, where the glittering turquoise waters of Lake Hakusui are surrounded by thick virgin forest. While you’re here, don’t miss the tumbling 72-metre-high Hakusui Waterfall.
Gokayama is another area dotted with traditional hamlets famed for their “gassho-zukuri” thatched farmhouses – again inscribed by UNESCO. More remote and consequently less touristy, you’ll get a great sense of rural Japan here, as well as receiving a hearty welcome from the locals. To really get beneath the surface of the area, catch a “kokiriko-bushi” performance: costumed dancers move to the sounds of the “sasara”, a traditional Japanese percussion instrument used for folk songs. If you visit in the springtime, join in the revelry of the Johana Hikiyama Float Festival; autumn, meanwhile, is marked by the fantastic Kokiriko Festival in September. If you cannot visit during the festival season, make a trip to the illuminating Johana Hikiyama Kaikan museum instead, which is certified by the Michelin Travel Guide.
The Three-Star Road comes to its conclusion in Kanazawa, with a whole array of stellar sights to keep you entertained, from peaceful Japanese gardens to cutting-edge art galleries. Start your exploration in the Higashi Chaya District, a historic quarter characterized by gorgeous wood-fronted “chaya” teahouses. Take a stroll through the streets to soak up the old-world atmosphere, and listen for the sounds of the “shamisen” (a three-stringed Japanese instrument) and drums wafting from the teahouses.
Two heavy-weight cultural attractions that should be on every traveller’s agenda are the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa and the D.T. Suzuki Museum. The former showcases a series of modern-art exhibits in a building that champions innovation and openness in its very form, which uses glass to striking effect. The D.T. Suzuki Museum, meanwhile, explores the life and works of local resident Daisetz Suzuki, who would become a world-renowned Buddhist philosopher.
Round off your Three-Star Road trip with a gentle picnic or stroll in one of Kanazawa’s fine public gardens. Kenrokuen Garden is the pick of the bunch, among Japan’s most beautiful landscaped gardens. There’s plenty to see as you wander around: you’ll come across water features crossed by pretty bridges, small tearooms and standing stones, gorgeous viewpoints and secret nooks and crannies for quiet contemplation. Planting is thoughtful and precise, and the garden takes on different looks as the seasons change; “yukizuri” poles support tree branches under the winter snow, while the plum garden comes alive with red and white blossoms come early spring.
Travelling the Three-Star Road is one of Japan’s best trips. It is a route jam-packed with fantastic attractions and cultural experiences, and as with most holidays, some forethought and planning goes a long way. You’ll want to purchase your convenient one-way bus ticket in good time – the Three-Star Route Option Ticket (one way) – which connects all the highlight sights. In high season, it’s also worth booking your accommodation in advance. Take some time to research the Three-Star Road’s main attractions, because if you have a limited amount of time, you’ll want to decide what to prioritize. There’s no right or wrong here, just pick what speaks to your individual tastes.
The Three-Star Road in Japan is one hell of a ride, with jaw-dropping scenery, spellbinding castles and delicately manicured gardens. Its cluster of fascinating sights has been endorsed by the likes of both UNESCO and Michelin, and with a selection of public-transport passes, getting around couldn’t be easier. As you wander past wooden shop fronts, quaint thatched farmhouses and atmospheric temples, you’ll soon be giving the route your full endorsement, too.
Top image: Gokayama world heritage village © wee-lo/Shutterstock