Rough Guides editor Amy Hopkins shares her tips for what not to miss when travelling along the historic Three Star Road in central Japan
To delve deep into Japan’s ancient culture and traditions, bypass the tourist magnets of Tokyo and Kyoto and head instead for the Three Star Road. This remarkable route connects Matsumoto city in Nagano Prefecture to Kanazawa, the capital city of Ishikawa Prefecture.
As you journey through central Honsho, you’ll explore some of Japan’s most significant cultural properties and meet artisans eager to demonstrate ancient crafts passed down by their ancestors. The beauty of this route is that every traveller’s journey will be unique, but there are five extraordinary places that deserve to be on every traveller’s Three Star Road itinerary.
The Three Star Road begins (or ends, depending on where you start) in Matsumoto, a city that comfortably straddles ancient Japan and the modern world. Matsumto’s star attraction is its late 16th-century castle – a striking, six-storey, multiple-roofed structure. The castle's black panelling – a rare sight in Japan – has earned it the nickname “crow castle”.
Inside, a series of steep and snaking staircases lead visitors to the top floor (via the hidden fifth floor). On the way, marvel at display cabinets containing artefacts, ancient armour and weapons from the 15th-century Sengoku period. At the top, narrow windows once used by archers offer spectacular views of Matsumoto. In winter, you’ll look out over a snow-dusted city. In spring, your view is framed by cherry blossoms and you’ll spot signets gliding on the moat below.
A network of charming streets stretches out from the castle’s walls. Admire the patchwork of black and white shop fronts on Nakamachi Street and shop for traditional crafts and souvenirs. Western visitors will revel in the novelty of the custard vending machines on the street and, in shop windows, huge sponge puddings spinning on skewers like kebabs.
The city’s Museum City Museum houses a haunting exhibition dedicated to the work and troubled internal life of Matsumoto-born avant-garde artist Yaoi Kusama and is well worth a visit.
Book an evening tour of Matsumoto Castle. The building is spectacularly lit, creating a dazzling reflection in the moat, and exploring the interior is all the more atmospheric after dark. Shoes are not allowed so, in winter, be sure to double up on socks and take a pair of slippers (most hotels have some you can borrow).
Where to stay:
Matsumoto Jujo – Known affectionately as ‘the bookstore hotel’, the recently renovated property features a public bath house repurposed as a library. It’s located in a natural hot spring village and every guest is treated to a private hot spring bath in their room.
To talk of Japan and not mention food would be to overlook an integral part of the country’s soul. Step forward, Takayama. The castle city, in Gifu Prefecture, is the birthplace of Hiba Beef, arguably the finest style of wagyu. Hibu comes from Japanese black cattle raised in Gifu – and you’ll certainly have your fill here. A great place to try it with udon noodles - and a cold Japanese beer on the side - is at Hidatakayama Kyoya restaurant.
During the Edo period (17th-19th centuries), Takayama was a lively centre for craftsmen, merchants and farmers from the surrounding areas. Stroll through the old town and admire the preserved and restored buildings, including the handsome merchant houses along the Miyagawa River.
Rise early to join Takayama’s locals at Miyagawa Morning Market. Stalls run alongside the river in the old town, selling vegetables, snacks, crafts and souvenirs.
Visit Takayama in April or October and you’ll catch the Takayama Matsuri festival. Marvel at magnificent, centuries-old floats, and flamboyantly carved demonstrations of Tayakams’ legacy of craftsmanship.
This being Japan, Takayaam is not without its quirky side. Down historic streets, you may encounter traces of modern Japan’s eccentricity. Dog walkers dressed as dinosaurs are a favourite sight among tourists.
Visit the nearby Hida Great Limestone Cave to explore 800 metres of dazzling, maze-like tunnels, 250 million years in the making. Thirsty? There’s even a Sake bar down there.
Where to stay:
Takayama Green Hotel Orinkaku has a fantastic natural onsen (hot springs bath), with indoor and outdoor communal pools. Plus enjoy the novelty (for now) of being served by robots in the hotel restaurant.
Shirakawa-go and Gokayama
In the heart of a mountain region known as Japan’s Alps and flanked by peaks – either snowy or lush and green, depending on the season – is Shirakawa-go. This secluded village is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its 300-year-old thatched roof farmhouses.
These houses are known as gassho-zukuri (‘hands-in-prayer’) because their roofs are steeply sloped, resembling a Buddhist monk’s praying hands. This incline allows the heavy snow to slide off, and in years gone by, also allowed for plenty of loft space for the production of silk and washi paper.
Some of Shirakawa-go’s farmhouses are open to the public, where visitors can experience the ancient cultural traditions that still live on in the community. Buddhist monks will welcome you to the thatched-roofed 16th century Myozenj Temple.
In the region of Gokayama, 30km north, is a cluster of lesser-known UNESCO villages, including Ainokura. With only 20 houses, Ainokura offers visitors a less touristy, almost fairytale experience. At nearby Gokayama Washi village, visitors can try their hand at making washi paper.
To truly connect with the spirit of these remarkable alpine villages, book an overnight stay in a family-run guesthouse. You’ll sleep on a futon, eat with your host and their family and get the chance to learn about daily life in these unique communities.
Be prepared for an authentic culinary experience. Fermented vegetables and raw eggs for breakfast can be surprising for a Western palette, but you’ll be glad you gave it a try! Staying overnight in Shirakawa-go? Get up early to wander around before the tour buses arrive.
Where to stay:
Shohichi guesthouse in Ainkokura village – the charasmatic host, Yoshikimi, guarantees a warm welcome to his cosy guest house. Enjoy authentic food, warm bedrooms and hot baths.
In the town of Inami, in the Toyama Prefecture, 200 out of the 8000 residents are skilled wood carvers. Along the main street, intricately carved name plates adorn shopfronts and homes, telling the story of the town’s history. On Yokamachi-dori street, you’ll spot cats hiding everywhere – perched on shop rafters, curled inside clay pots, sitting at the bus stop – all the felines are intricately carved from wood.
A monstrous dragon, carved in 1762, sprawls over the entrance to Inami’s Zuisenji temple, Japan’s 4th largest wooden building. Take a private tour – if it’s winter, you’ll be grateful for the chance to borrow a fetching pair of woollen slippers, knitted for visitors by local women.
Inami is historically a merchant town, and there are now 11 wood carving studios. Many offer visitors the chance to view artisans at work. In the hermitage, which smells deliciously of wood carvings, guests can have a go at wood chiselling and take home their own sake cup.
You’ll spot balls of cedar leaves hanging outside Sake breweries. If the leaves are brown, it means there is no Sake. When the shop displays a ball with green leaves – Sake is in! Time it right, and you may be lucky enough to try Sake that’s been maturing for three years.
If you’re planning to try wood chiselling and Sake tasting in Inami, it's a good idea to attempt the chiselling before the Sake tasting, rather than after.
The Three Star Road reaches its conclusion in Kanazawa. The historic city escaped WWII’s air raids so plenty of ancient buildings are still intact. Stroll through the Higashi Chaya District, where Geisha hurry down the narrow streets and the sound of shamisen, a stringed Japanese instrument, drifts out from the wood-fronted chaya teahouses.
A masterpiece of minimalism, the city’s D.T. Suzuki Museum celebrates the life and work of Kanazawa resident, Daisetz Suzuki – the Buddhist philosopher who was influential in spreading Zen to the West. Take a moment to stand quietly at one of the museum’s signposted ‘points of contemplation’.
To get hands-on with traditional Japanese culture, visit the home of Shijimaru Honpo, a merchant family with a long Kanazawa history. You’ll be schooled in Japanese samurai culture by a 5th generation descendant of a Samurai captain.
Take a tour of Kaga Yuzen Maida, a workshop run by third-generation artisan, Hitoshi Maida. He’ll demonstrate how silk is intricately dyed to make furoskiki — a traditional wrapping cloth used for kimono. You may even have the honour of being wrapped in a kimono that took Hitoshi’s team three months to create.
Allow yourself plenty of time to enjoy the landscapes of the city’s Kenrokuen Gardens – immaculate in all seasons. In winter, the pine trees are protected by pyramid-shaped frames made up of 800 yukizuri poles, to support the branches under heavy snow. Small bridges, tearooms and tucked away corners – Kanazawa’s peaceful gardens offer a welcome refuge from busy daily life.
Dine in an izakaya, an intimate Japanese bar. There’s only space for around eight diners, and your omakse (chef) will take care of everything. He or she will whip up a seven-course meal, wash up and of course, keep the drinks flowing.
Where to stay:
Hyatt Centric Kanazawa is seconds away from Kanazawa station. The stylish hotel offers large, modern rooms and is perfectly located for exploring the city on foot.
The lowdown: Three-star Road
How to book
To book and learn more about learn more about Kanazawa, Gokayama, Shirakawa-go, Takayama, and Matsumoto, visit Mitsubhoshi Kaidou.
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