If you are exploring Japan by rail, it’s no exaggeration to say that Honshu, the country's largest island, has something for everyone: neon-lit cities of gigantic proportions, terraced paddy fields cut by a rugged coastline and monolithic mountains soaring above candy floss clouds of cherry blossom.
See Japan by rail on the New Golden Route
No surprise perhaps then that many choose to digest its vastness aboard the Hokuriku Shinkansen, a bullet train connecting Tokyo with Kanazawa via the New Golden Route.
From here, other trains continue along the scenic route all the way to Osaka, including the Hanayome Noren sightseeing train, running from Kanazawa Station to Wakura Onsen Station along the Nanao Line. Its name comes from the local custom of bestowing newly-married brides with noren (Japanese ‘short’ curtains).
A real treat for those with an eye for design, its sleek interior celebrates the traditional arts of Hokuriku (including Wajima-nuri lacquerware and Kaga Yuzen fabric). The majestic mountains and rugged coastline of the Noto Peninsula characterise the view from its window.
Pre-order a bento box of traditional cuisine made using ingredients unique to Ishikawa. These traditional Japanese lunchboxes are beautifully designed and further elevate the experience.
Sparkling city lights give way to unbroken wilderness in a rapidly moving blur as the high-speed train slips through the Chubu region, bending towards the Sea of Japan in a camber befitting of the route’s moniker: Hokuriku Arch.
Tourists from overseas are best off travelling on a Hokuriku Arch Pass. Tickets cost around 24,500 yen if purchased outside Japan, and 25,500 yen if purchased within Japan or on the JR East/West website, which over a seven day period will get you from Tokyo to Osaka via the Sea of Japan.
For sumo wrestlers, silk mills and bamboo forests, take time in the prefectures en-route, each one as arresting as the next.
Tokyo Prefecture: the microcosm of Japan
Tokyo, the microcosm of Japan, is an urban checkerboard of karaoke booths and eccentric cat cafes. Add into the heady mix a spoonful of futuristic cabaret, festivals for every day of the year and countless shrines and temples, and you have Japan in condensed form.
As over-populated as it is unique, Tokyo is the city that never sleeps. For those willing to embrace its peppy personality, a trip here wouldn’t be complete without a tour of the Ishikawa-shuzo Brewery, located in Fussa City.
Sake, a sweet-tasting Japanese liquor made from fermented rice, has been around for entire epochs and continues to bring the region great wealth. The self-styled ‘theme park for sake drinkers’ welcomes you to sample its legendary junmai (pure rice sake): Tamajiman. Craft beer connoisseurs will also delight in its range of fruity ale served at its popular bar and restaurant.
For some of the country’s finest French cuisine, add to your itinerary the Tokyo Sky Restaurant 634, serving sayaori sushi, kelp broth tea and golden threadfin bream, among other things, from its sky-high observation deck. Made from seasonal ingredients, the dishes are subject to change without notice.
The Enshu-style tea ceremony at Koomon, Chayu Club is a given. Here, you’ll be invited to drink green tea in a kimono and take a lesson in calligraphy or Japanese flower arranging.
Saitama Prefecture: blessed with opportunities for exploration
Saitama is blessed with a variety of sightseeing resources represented by "Little Edo" Kawagoe which retains its appearance from the Edo Era(1603-1868) and the greenery of Chichibu and Nagatoro, as well as other food, drinks, anime, nature, industry, history, traditional culture, sports, and various experiences
Awaken at Nolla Naguri, a glamp-site located on the outskirts of Hanno city. Here, you’ll find the world verdant, shorn of the trappings of mercurial Tokyo. This Scandinavian inspired spot beside the river is characterised by crystal-clear lakes glistening beneath nacreous skies and fairy-tale forests that go on and on.
Breathe in the prefecture’s spiritual significance on the Chichibu pilgrimage, twisting through picturesque mountain passes to 34 Kannon-dedicated temples.
Dip your toe into the heritage craft of Ogawa Washi (Japanese paper) made from kozo (mulberry) bark by skilled locals, singing to the tune of kamisuki uta (a traditional Japanese paper-making song).
Gunma Prefecture: vast and otherworldly
Follow heart-stirring glimpses of snow to Gunma Prefecture, and the piste terrain of Minakami. This otherworldly land with onsen scattered across its vastness is home to Kanzan, a small luxury inn surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
Nearby is Gunma Tsukiyono Vidro Park, one of the largest producers of handmade glass in Japan – going back 100 years or so. Try your hand at glassblowing or stained glass painting before making your way to its glass art museum and gift shop. Then, sit back and sample the locally brewed beer served at its restaurant, Dobry-den.
In Takasaki, believed to be the birthplace of Japanese daruma dolls, it’s impossible to miss the 41.8-metre-high statue of Kannon (Goddess of Mercy), the first stop on the pilgrimage of the 88 holy grounds of Kanto. In spring, the chalk-white statue settled on the summit of Mount Kannonyama is set off with 3000 or so flowering cherry trees.
Only 30 minutes away (by car) is the well-preserved silk factory Tomioka Silk Mill, established in the Meiji Era. The country’s first modern mill to produce raw silk, it is a designated World Heritage Site.
Nukisaki-jinja Shrine with two large bronze lanterns suspended above its entrance is one of the prefecture's most cherished shrines, worshipping Hime Okami is one of the deities of silk farming and weaving.
Nagano Prefecture: miniature trees and soaring peaks
Nagano is a prefecture of dynamic contrast for the intrepid spirit. Among its many attributes are the Katsushika Hokusai Museum, exhibiting woodblock prints by one of Japan’s most distinguished painters and printmakers.
Then there’s Togakushi Shrine, comprising five smaller shrines: Okusha, Chusha, Hokosha, Kuzuryu, and Hinomikosha. You’ll need to set aside at least four hours if you plan on visiting all of them in one sitting.
Meanwhile, the Taikan Bonsai Museum led by Shinji Suzuki – one-time student of Hamano – displays a vast collection of miniature trees, including gnarled tosho and shimpaku junipers, a regal ezo spruce and a magnificent centuries-old white pine. Avoid visiting between December and March when the trees are brought inside, protected from the harsh winter months.
If you only have a day or two to explore the mountains, choose Anakannon-no-yu (Obuse Hot Springs), offering staggering views of vertiginous mountain peaks from its steaming outdoor pool.
The town of Obuse, that sits in the northern part of the prefecture, famed for chestnuts, is where you’ll find long-established sweet shop, Sakurai Kanseido, where chestnut sweets have been produced for around 200 years.
Niigata Prefecture: dynamic Naena Waterfall
From Nagano, the Sekikawa River cuts through lush foliage, chasing the train all the way to Niigata Prefecture, the site of Naena Waterfall.
This feat of nature in the city of Myoko, on the border of Nagano Prefecture, cascades over basalt cliff into the river. Numerous observation points offer spectacular views of the waterfall. Wear suitable shoes to navigate its oft-slippery trail.
Also in the Niigata prefecture is Tsubame-Sanjo Cutlery (Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum), where you can learn about Niigata’s 400-year-old metalworking heritage and have a go at hammering pure copper into a tumbler or colouring titanium. A guided tour will enable you to get the most out of the experience.
Afterwards, visit one of Japan’s oldest sweet shops, founded in 1624: Takahashi Magozaemon. Among the melange of sweets for sale is sasa-ame (mochi rice and malt syrup soft sweets wrapped in sasa, or bamboo leaves).
Toyama Prefecture: rich with mountains
Surrounded by rugged mountains on three sides and facing the Sea of Japan on the country’s north coast is the prefecture of Toyama (literally ‘rich with mountains’), an alluringly wild realm of panoramic views and plentiful produce. Its central location at the heart of Honshu sets it apart as a gateway of the Sea of Japan.
Toyama Bay, located in the northern part of Toyama Prefecture, is nicknamed the ‘natural fish tank’ – after the hundreds of varieties of warm and cold-blooded fish that populate its temperate waters. Unsurprisingly then, sushi (specifically, Toyama Bay Sushi) is the local speciality, made using seasonal, fresh-off-the-boat fish from Toyama Bay, and served at some 50 restaurants across the prefecture.
Huddled in the Shogawa River Valley, in the Historic Villages of Gokayama (comprising Ainokura and Suganuma), is a cluster of gassho-style houses dating back to the eleventh century, their steeply pitched thatched roofs blending perfectly with natural surroundings.
The only examples of their kind in the country (excepting those of Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture), the houses are inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Still very much alive, they are inhabited by locals who often can be seen working the surrounding paddy land. Wada House and Nagase House in Ogimachi village are open to the public.
Takaoka, a city in the north-western portion of Toyama Prefecture, is famous for its copperware, which has been produced by metal manufacturer Nousaku for around 400 years. In recent years, Takaoka copperware has gained popularity overseas for its well-designed products that fit modern lifestyles.
Besides copperware, Nousaku also makes items using brass and bronze, notably Buddhist ritual objects, Japanese tea sets and vases.
Gifu Prefecture: pastoral heartland of Hida beef
No trip to Gifu is complete without a sample of its Hida beef, a tender, marbled meat with a rich flavour. Cattle raised in the Hida region are called Hidaushi, their meat, Hidagyu.
The Hida Hotel Plaza serves it as an appetiser with rice ball sushi; as an accompaniment to a stew, miso horaku nabe (hot pot) or roast dinner; and as part of a main with chawanmushi (steamed egg custard).
Gifu is also well known for its ichii-itto-bori (or woodcarvings) made from ichi (Japanese yew). You can find some at the Hida Takayama Traditional Culture and Crafts Square, where classes are offered in uto shakushi (rice scoop) carving, among other things.
Outside, a tour with Hida Satoyama Cycling will take you through the satoyama (pastoral) landscape of Gifu, passing lush-green paddies intersected by the mountain-fed Hida River winding across the valley.
Accommodation facilities are offered in the area, including the Hida Nagareha Auto Camping Ground, tucked away in a birch forest in the Hida Nagareha Recreation Park, affording views across the Northern Alps (or Hida Mountains). Small cottages and tents are also available for rent, and Nagareha Onsen Neutrino is a short walk away.
Ishikawa Prefecture: Authentic Japanese experience
Kanazawa, the capital city of Ishikawa, is where you’ll discover traditional kaga (multi-course) cuisine. These dishes are as much a feast for the eyes as for the taste buds: they are served on elegant Japanese tableware and made using local ingredients from the sea and mountainous backdrop.
When you go to Ishikawa Prefecture, you would do yourself a disservice if you didn’t visit the Wajima Museum of Lacquerware Art, located in Wajima City, in the Okunoto region. In addition to a variety of special exhibitions, the museum's permanent collection introduces the techniques and history of Wajima lacquerware through exhibits and videos.
Wajima City, located in the Okunoto region of the prefecture, is famous for its lacquerware, made using jinoko, a type of diatomaceous earth unique to the area that strengthens the finish. The method dates back to the early Muromachi period (1336-1573). In 1977, it was designated as an important intangible cultural property of Japan. Wajima City is also famous for its millennia-old morning market (known locally as Asaichi), selling local produce and lacquerware, among other things.
Equally popular is Kanazawa Castle, the former home of the powerful Maeda Clan during the Edo period (1603-1868), where you can take part in a tea ceremony and wander through its magnificent Japanese garden.
Fukui Prefecture: legendary shrines and forest playgrounds
Kehi Jingu Shrine, the main shrine of Hokuriku-do, has a 10.9-metre red torii gate (called Otorii) that’s registered as an Important Cultural Property. It’s also thought to be one of the finest wooden torii gates in the country.
Just as legendary is the sacred Chomeisui Spring said to impart a special energy to its visitors. The prefecture is home to the Echizen Washi Village too, where you can trace the history of local handcrafted paper and take a class in making it.
Families shouldn’t skip the Tree Picnic Adventure Ikeda, a forest playground with a one-kilometre-long zip line and boats available for hire along the river that runs through it.
Shiga Prefecture: natural parkland and Lake Biwa
Over 35% of Shiga Prefecture is natural parkland, the highest of any prefecture in Japan. It encompasses Biwako and Suzuka Quasi-National Parks; and Kotō, Kutsuki-Katsuragawa, and Mikami-Tanakami-Shigaraki Prefectural Natural Parks.
It encircles Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan, occupying one sixth of the prefecture. The area’s verdancy is considered favourable for producing hemp and ramie (a member of the nettle family), used to make natural textiles.
The Omi Jofu Traditional Craft Center, located in a 100-year-old building, holds classes in making Omi jofu (a textile made from handwoven ramie threads), which it sells at its shop. Additionally, those who want to try the local cuisine should book a table at Omi Beef Morishima, serving food speciality Omi beef, a type of wagyu (Japanese beef) served on a volcanic rock plate.
Kyoto Prefecture: riverboat rides and silk belts
Kyoto is well-known for its tea ceremonies, less so for its riverboat rides – both are equally good. Introducing you to the successors of river boatmen across the ages, you’ll get to see a more authentic side of the prefecture. Hozu Gorge is bewilderingly beautiful in fall, and serves as an evocative setting for the folktales told by the river dwellers.
Afterwards, head to the Kyoto Maizuru Port Tore Tore Center (Roadside Rest Area), one of the largest seafood markets in the prefecture. Make time for browsing: the melange of oceanic offerings is vast: from oysters to squid to red cornetfish (akayagara) to sazae (turban shell).
Also not to be missed is the Nishijin Textile Center, located in the ‘Nishijin weaving area’ where obi (Japanese belts made from high quality silk fabric) have been produced for centuries. Remaining true to the Heian tradition, skilled textile artisans follow age-old methods.
Osaka Prefecture: street food and sky walks
The perfect conclusion to your railway adventure on the New Golden Route is Osaka Prefecture. Here, you’ll have numerous opportunities to sample the local street food, Kuromon Ichiba Market being the best place to start.
Osakans like wholesome dishes full of comfort, namely takoyaki (grilled octopus dumplings). Serious foodies might try the yakiniku (grilled meat), such as harami (skirt steak), marucho (small intestine) and mino (first stomach) – all of which are served at Gyuichi Tsuruhashi.
Next, jump on a train to Umeda Station for the futuristic Osaka Umeda Sky Building. It’s home to the Kuchu Teien Observatory and Sky Walk on the top floor, offering 360-degree views of the city and Mount Rokko. Remember to bring a spare camera battery or two for this one.
For the Tower of the Sun Museum, designed by artist Taro Okamoto, take the Midosuji Line from Umeda Station to Senri-Chuo Station, and then the monorail from Senri-Chuo Station to Banpaku Kinen Koen Station.
The museum is only a 10-minute walk away. The 70-metre-high white sculpture with three faces and illustrations of the sun inhabits the Osaka Expo ’70 Commemorative Park, built in commemoration of the Japan World Exposition held in 1970.
Top image: Echizen Washi no Sato in Fukui prefecture ©