Japan’s Ishikawa and Gifu prefectures may share Central Honshu with the country’s neon-lit capital, but these largely undeveloped, quieter areas occupying the Chubu region couldn’t be more different. Spanning vast wetland, the North Japan Alps and rugged coastline punctuated by curious fishing villages and sharply-terraced rice paddies, they offer a diverse landscape far removed from Japan’s densely-populated, mercantile cities. Both invite adventure, too. In Ishikawa you can hike to a shrine at the foot of Mt Hakusan and visit the waterfalls of Hakusan National Park, explore the island of Notojima by bike and relax in hot springs at Wakura Onsen. In Gifu wander the the ruins of Naegi castle, go rafting down the Nagara river (or cycle along its riverbank), clamber up a stream and plunge into a deep lava rock pool around Hida Osaka Falls.
Just off the coast of Noto Peninsula, north of Ishikawa’s capital, Kanazawa, is Notojima, an island with a unique culture and reputation for retaining traditional agricultural and fishing techniques. Particularly striking are its black-roofed houses occupying the wooded slopes, which stand stark against the calm waters of Nanao Bay. One of the island’s highlights is the Notojima Glass Art Museum, which is held in an ultra-modern building out of keeping with the rest of the island.
Arguably the best way to explore the island is by bike: tours are relatively short and only offered from March through November, but allow you to take in the sites through local eyes. On route, you’ll have the opportunity to learn about the island’s agrarian past, its artisan crafts and the endemic fauna and flora (the island aquarium is home to around 500 different species).
The hot spring (onsen) resort of Wakura Onsen, located just off Nanao Bay in the Noto Peninsula, has been drawing a crowd for over a thousand years, for the springs' reputed healing qualities. Over 20 onsen inns dominate the scene, the most famous being Kagaya: this traditional ryokan, known for its excellent hospitality and service, has a clean, Japanese interior, replete with tatami mats and shoji screens. At the heart of the town centre is Wakura Onsen Soyu, a public bathing spot where locals come to relax after work.
Another is Yuttari Park Footbath, a foot onsen with a coastal view framed by Japanese pines. Although many choose to stay on Wakura Onsen, it’s possible to explore Notojima in a day, crossing the Notojima Ohashi Bridge, which many do by bike. There are cruises on offer through the summer months, including the popular sunset and night cruises.
Towering above the Ishikawa, Fukui and Gifu prefectures is Mount Hakusan, regarded as one of Japan’s sacred mountains, along with Mount Fuji and Mount Tateyama. A tree-lined trail takes you up the slopes to the Shirayama Hime Shrine (known locally as Shirayama-san), shielded by centurion cedars – one said to be over 800 years old. Established over two thousand years ago, the shrine is now an intrinsic part of the landscape and serves as a base for those making the holy pilgrimage up the mountain slope.
Shirayama Hime Shrine is also where locals perform the misogi ritual, an act of self-purification involving immersing oneself in a natural spring-fed bath, while wearing a special loincloth or robe. Group tours, which include praying in the inner sanctum and performing the misogi ritual, are offered, but only when booked in advance.
The Hakusan Shirakawa-go White Road is a driving route that passes through the densely forested Hakusan National Park, a protected park resplendent with waterfalls, fresh mountain streams and plants, from rhododendrons to tiger lilies. The road permeates the forest for over 30km, connecting the prefecture with Hakusan and Kaga Onsen (a cluster of hot spring towns south of Kanazawa), and extending to the traditional Japanese village Shirakawa-go (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) in the mountainous Gifu Prefecture.
The view changes through the seasons: a tapestry of every shade of green (except for a smattering of white on the highest elevations) distinguishing the park in spring; splashes of red, orange and yellow, obscured by a thick blanket of morning mist (hence the name ‘sea of clouds’), characterising it in autumn. Along the Jadani Valley section are eight waterfalls (or Jadani Hakkei), including Ubagataki Falls, a particular favourite among locals. The largest waterfall on route, however, is Fukube Falls, rising 80 meters above the forest. Prone to heavy snowfall, the road is closed off during the winter months, open again in early- to mid- June, through to early November (depending on the conditions).
Natadera Temple is an ancient Buddhist temple with beginnings in the Nara era. It was established by monk Taicho for followers of the Hakusan faith, and is set amongst unique rock formations shaped by volcanic eruptions and erosion. Today, it’s a Buddhist temple dedicated to Kannon (Goddess of Mercy), however, its position in the caves remains true to Taicho’s belief in restoring natural harmony.
Inside the building are intricately carved pagodas, decorated with Chinese zodiac animals and flowers. There’s also an elaborately decorated kondo (main) hall, which contains a lofty statue of Kannon surrounded by local Kutani porcelain tiles; here is where most of the Buddhist services take place. Another defining feature of the temple is its garden, with its carp-laden ponds and the leaves of the trees turning glorious shades of gold and red in autumn, which has earned it a star in the Michelin Green Guide.
Clustered around Hida River in the cool, forested foothills of Mount Ontake (also known as Mount Kiso Ontake) is Hida Osaka Falls. The series of waterfalls and tributaries and volcanic rock were formed around 54,000 years ago, the unique shapes the result of the scorching spews of magma from Mount Ontake – Japan’s second largest volcano after Mount Fuji. Here, the appeal is year-round, with native flora mixing up the colour scheme in spring and autumn, lava rock pools offering ample opportunities for a refreshing dip in summer, and snow-capped waterfalls frozen in mid-flow providing photographic interest in winter.
Naturally, seasonality influences the demand for certain outdoor recreational activities, sawanobori (or stream climbing) being one of the most popular guided tours in summer. Scaling the jagged escarpments upstream and into a haze of fine mist may not be the easiest route through the forest interior, but those who embrace this method of mountaineering will be richly rewarded: you’ll have access to otherwise inaccessible parkland and gain a unique perspective from behind the waterfall cascades. Alternatively, take one of the many dry trails criss-crossing the waterfall-strewn terrain, each with varying degrees of difficulty. Afterwards, relax in the indoor and outdoor onsen baths at Gero and Nigorigo Hot Springs.
Flowing directly through the city of Gifu is Nagara River (also known as Nagaragawa or Nagara-gawa), one of the region’s major rivers (next to Kiso and Ibi). The river begins its journey from Mount Dainichigatake, extending for over 100 miles to Ise Bay, where it meets with the Pacific Ocean. The lifeblood of Gifu, Nagara River sustains a diverse ecosystem as well as the centuries-old tradition of Ukai (cormorant fishing), which involves using tame cormorants to catch river fish. This summertime occupation takes place from May through October when these skilled fishermen (or usho) and their cormorants can be seen operating by torchlight in the darkness of night.
During the day, appreciate the river by bike; a cycle tour along a cherry-tree lined river bank will take you past the popular sites, too: Gifu Castle, Kogane Shrine, Gifu Great Buddha and the Nagaragawa Ukai and Japanese Sword museums. The cycling tour ends in Seki City, which makes a visit to Seki’s Japanese Sword museums an excellent post-tour activity.
Alternatively, a raft will see you bouncing down the frothy rapids, the lush river banks all but a blur. For an aerial perspective of the river meandering through the mountains, consider a ride in a hot air balloon.
A short drive from Nakatsugawa Station is Naegi Castle, the former home of the notorious Toyama family (or Eight Great Dragon Kings), a Japanese clan that controlled the area during the Edo and Sengoku periods. A castle that goes by many names, Naegi Castle is also known as ‘Red Wall Castle’ (Akakabe-jo), from its uncharacteristically red exterior, and ‘Misty Castle’ – given the veil of mist that often shrouds it. The castle is set atop Mount Takamori, once a strategic position affording uninterrupted views of the land and river routes between Owari and Mino (now southern Gifu) provinces.
Naegi Castle remained in the hands of the Toyama family until the end of feudal rule and beginning of the Meiji Revolution (the late-19th century), when it was demolished and left in ruins. Although not quite what it was, the castle continues to capture the imagination of its visitors, providing a glimpse of the region’s tumultuous past. Its elevation affords sweeping views of the Gifu Prefecture, too, including Nakatsugawa and Mount Ena – both reachable on foot for those with a reasonable level of fitness. A visit to the nearby Naegi Toyama Museum will help you get the most out of the experience.
Gifu’s 3,000-hectare Goshikigahara Forest is located in the north-western foothills of Mount Norikura (Japan’s third tallest volcano) and includes the southernmost portion of the Chubusangaku National Park. From arboreal to aquatic to alpine, its natural habitats are wide-ranging and home to a diversity of species, the Japanese macaque, golden eagle and spotted nutcracker among them. Autumn, when the foliage takes on rich, fiery shades, is a particularly popular time to visit, best enjoyed from the forest floor with light rays filtering through the canopy.
A day’s hike will take you along one of the many trails deep into the forest, where you’ll discover the many water courses and wetland. A protected site, the forest is only accessible through a pre-booked guided tour, offered from mid-May to late-October.
Find out about other great hiking opportunities in Japan.
Gujo Odori is one of Japan’s largest folk dance festivals, held on the streets of Gujo Hachiman every summer. Dancers perform ten types of dance, including Haru Koma (‘Spring Horse’), an energetic dance mimicking a horse and rider, and Matsusaka. The matsuri (festival) has its origins in the Edo period, emerging as a way of uniting the community. The Obon (or Bon), a Buddhist–Confucian custom honouring the spirits, falls during the festival, around mid-August, when performances continue into the night. Visitors from across the country as well as overseas come to celebrate the festival, its enduring popularity earning it a place on the Japanese government list of Important Intangible Folk Cultural Properties.