Dominated by the magnificent Japan Alps, peppered with top onsen and ski resorts, old castle- and temple-towns, and quaint old-fashioned villages in remote valleys, Central Honshū offers a fantastic choice of terrain and travel possibilities. If all you want to do is admire the grand scenery – even for a day – that’s easily done thanks to the Shinkansen line that zips from Tokyo to Nagano, where you should pause long enough to visit the venerable and atmospheric temple, Zenkō-ji.
Apart from the highlights mentioned opposite, other places in the region known locally as Chubu that are worth seeing include the summer resort of Karuizawa and the charming village of Nozawa Onsen, northeast of Nagano, where you’ll find excellent ski slopes and free hot-spring baths. Hakuba is another popular skiing and outdoor activities destination, while in the southern half of Nagano-ken it’s possible to explore several immaculately preserved post towns along the old Nakasendō route from Kyoto to Tokyo, even hiking for a day between the best of them – Tsumago and Magome.
On the west side of the Alps, there’s the convivial town of Takayama and the unusual A-frame thatched houses of the Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama valleys, where three villages – Ogimachi, Suganuma and Ainokura – have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This area can also be accessed from the Sea of Japan, where the elegant, historic city of Kanazawa is an ideal base. The tranquil fishing villages dotted around the rugged coastline of the Noto Hantō peninsula, northeast of Kanazawa, are also worth searching out.
Along the southern Pacific Ocean side of Chubu run the main expressways and train lines that link Tokyo with the Kansai region. Ugly vistas of rampant industrialization bracket these transportation links, yet even here there are places worth stopping to see, including Japan’s fourth main city, Nagoya, home to the region’s main airport. This enjoyable and easily negotiated metropolis can be used as a base for day-trips to the attractive castle town of Inuyama, where you can see summertime displays of the ancient skill of ukai (cormorant fishing), or to Meiji Mura, an impressive outdoor museum of architecture dating from the beginning of the twentieth century.
A couple of train lines cut across from the southern to the northern coasts, but many places in the mountains are only served by buses, which can be infrequent and pricey. Sometimes renting a car will be your best bet, although some of the most scenic routes – such as the Skyline Drive across the Alps from Gifu-ken to Nagano-ken – are closed in winter because of deep snow. The mountain resort of Kamikōchi and the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine route are similarly off limits between November and April.
It is a town of low, dark, wood-and-plaster buildings, paved lanes, and running water. The windows of the buildings are narrow and slatted. The lanes, too, are narrow, steeply walled, and end in dimly lanterned eating places or in small stone bridges that arch over splashing streams. It was like an Edo-era stage set.
Alan Booth Looking for the Lost, 1995
Booth’s romantic description captures Gujō Hachiman (郡上八幡) to a tee: its bygone-days atmosphere and mountain-bound location – with two pristine rivers, the Yoshida and Nagara, running through the centre – lend it great appeal. Tucked in a valley on an old trade route that once led to the Sea of Japan, the town lies around 55km north of Gifu. It’s worth visiting year-round, but the best time is during the Gujō Odori, one of Japan’s top three dance festivals.
The tourist office sells a ¥1500 ticket providing access to nine places of interest around town. The best of these is the Hakurankan (博覧館), on the northern side of the Yoshida River, a ten-minute stroll from the tourist office. This excellent museum has four sections detailing the town’s history, arts and crafts, connection with water, and folk dance.
A good fifteen-minute climb from the Hakurankan, past several attractive temples, is Gujō-Hachiman-jō (郡上八幡城). This photogenic replica of the old castle was rebuilt in 1934 on the stone foundations of the less elaborate original structure. From its ramparts you’ll see that the town resembles the shape of a fish, the elegant concrete span of the motorway accenting the tail. South of the Yoshida-gawa, a ten-minute walk from the tourist office, is Jionzen-ji (慈恩禅寺), a sixteenth-century temple with a lovely attached garden Tetsusō-en, which looks particularly spectacular in autumn.
Rafting trips are available year-round downriver at Minami with Outdoor Support Systems. In summer, you might be tempted to take a swim in the sparkling river. Anglers with long poles and tall straw hats can be seen along both of the town’s rivers trying their luck for the ayu (sweetfish) and trout for which the region is famous. Also seek out the town’s natural spring, dubbed the Fountain of Youth, or Sōgi-sui (宗祇水) – it’s located down the stone pathway that leads to a pretty bridge over the Kodara-gawa, about five minutes’ walk northwest of the tourist office.
Bon Odori festivals are common across Japan, but nowhere is the dance so firmly rooted in the life of the community as at Gujō Hachiman, where the Gujō Odori has been going since the 1590s. Nearly every night from mid-July to early September, from about 8pm to 10.30pm in a different part of town (the tourist information centre can tell you exactly when and where), the locals don their yukata and geta and dance in the streets.
People dance in circles around a tall wood-and-bamboo structure from which a singer, drummers, flute player and a chorus call the tune. There are ten kinds of dances and the singer will call their name out before each one commences. Watch the hand and feet movements of those in the inner circle, as these are the people who learned these steps as children – then follow along!
During the O-bon holiday in mid-August, dancing goes on all night and thousands crowd the town to take part. Don’t worry if you can’t find a bed, since there’s always a place for revellers to rest during the night-long festivities – again check with the tourist office.
It’s traditional to hike the Kiso-ji from Magome to Tsumago in order to experience the supposedly tough initial climb up into the mountains – though it’s actually not that difficult. Although the 7.7km route is frequently signposted in English, it’s a good idea to pick up a map from one of the tourist information offices before you start.
There’s a baggage-forwarding service (weekends and national holidays late March–July & Sept–Nov; daily late July to late Aug; ¥500 per piece) to and from the tourist information offices in both Tsumago and Magome. Get your bag to the offices before 11.30am and they will be delivered at the other end by 5pm.
If you choose to walk in the opposite direction, start at Nagiso Station on the Chūō line, from where Tsumago is less than an hour south through picturesque fields and small villages. Set aside a day to explore both post towns and to complete the hike. You’ll enjoy the experience all the more if you stay in either Tsumago or Magome overnight.
The appealing castle town of Inuyama (犬山), 25km north of Nagoya, lies beside the Kiso-gawa. From May to October the river is the stage for the centuries-old practice of ukai (cormorant fishing), to which the castle’s floodlit exterior provides a dramatic backdrop. Boats sail from the dock beside the Inuyama-bashi bridge, five minutes’ walk north of Inuyama Yūen Station.
The castle is slightly closer to Inuyama-Yūen Station, but if you approach it from the west side of Inuyama Station – which takes around ten minutes on foot – you’ll pass through an area dotted with old wooden houses, some of which house craft galleries, culminating in the small Inuyama Artefacts Museum (犬山市文化史料館). Here you can see two of the thirteen towering, ornate floats (yatai) that are paraded around Inuyama during the major festival on the first weekend of April. If you visit the museum on a Friday or Saturday, you can also see a craftsman demonstrating the art of making karakuri, the mechanical wooden puppets that perform on the yatai.
The museum is just in front of Haritsuna-jinja, the shrine at which the colourful festival takes place. One minute’s walk up the hill behind will bring you to the entrance of the only privately owned castle in Japan, Inuyama-jō (犬山城). This toy-like fortress was built in 1537, making it the oldest in Japan (although parts have been extensively renovated), and it has belonged to the Naruse family since 1618. Inside, the donjon is nothing special, but there’s a pretty view of the river and surrounding country from the top, where you can appreciate the defensive role that this white castle played.
A five-minute walk east of Inuyama-jō, within the grounds of the luxury Meitetsu Inuyama Hotel (名鉄犬山ホテル), is the serene garden of Uraku-en (有楽苑). The mossy lawns and stone pathways act as a verdant frame for the subdued Jo-an, a traditional teahouse. Originally built in Kyoto by Oda Uraku, the younger brother of the warlord Oda Nobunaga, the yellow-walled teahouse has floor space for just over three tatami mats, though it can only be viewed from the outside. Tea (¥500) is served in one of the garden’s larger modern teahouses.
One of Japan’s best open-air architectural museums, Meiji Mura (明治村), is 7km east of Inuyama. Dotted around a huge park are 67 structures, including churches, banks, a kabuki theatre, a lighthouse and a telephone exchange (from Sapporo). All the structures date from around the Meiji era when Western influences were flooding into Japan, which resulted in some unique hybrid architecture. A highlight is the front of the original Imperial Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Allow at least half a day to see the park fully. If you don’t fancy walking, there’s an electric bus that beetles from one end of the park to the other, or you could hop on an old Kyoto tram and steam locomotive, though these only go part of the way. There are several places to snack or eat lunch within the park.
Buses to Meiji Mura leave at regular intervals from the east side of Inuyama Station (20min).
Inuyama and Gifu are two of the main locations for ukai, or night-time fishing with cormorants, a skill developed back in the seventh century; others include Kyoto, Iwakuni and Ōzu in Shikoku. The specially trained, slender-necked birds are used to catch ayu, a sweet freshwater fish, which is in season between May and September. Traditionally dressed fishermen handle up to twelve cormorants on long leashes, which are attached at the birds’ throats with a ring to prevent them from swallowing the fish. The birds dive into the water, hunting the ayu, which are attracted to the light of the fire blazing in the metal braziers hanging from the bows of the narrow fishing boats.
The fast-moving show usually only lasts around thirty minutes, but an ukai jaunt is not just about fishing. Around two hours before the start of the fishing, the audience boards long, canopied boats, decorated with paper lanterns, which sail upriver and then moor to allow a pre-show picnic. Unless you pay extra you’ll have to bring your own food and drink, but sometimes a boat will drift by selling beer, snacks and fireworks – another essential ukai component. Although you can watch the show for free from the riverbank, you won’t experience the thrill of racing alongside the fishing boats, the birds splashing furiously in the reflected light of the pine wood burning in the brazier hanging from the boats’ prows.
Back in the mid-nineteenth century Kanazawa (金沢), meaning “golden marsh”, was Japan’s fourth-largest city, built around a grand castle and the beautiful garden Kenroku-en. Today, the capital of Ishikawa-ken continues enthusiastically to cultivate the arts and contains attractive areas of well-preserved samurai houses and geisha teahouses. Its modern face is ably represented by the impressive 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa – all up, this is the one place you shouldn’t miss on the Sea of Japan coast.
Kanazawa’s heyday was in the late fifteenth century, when a collective of farmers and Buddhist monks overthrew the ruling Togashi family, and the area, known as Kaga (a name still applied to the city’s exquisite crafts, such as silk-dyeing and lacquerware, and its refined cuisine), became Japan’s only independent Buddhist state. Autonomy ended in 1583, when the daimyō Maeda Toshiie was installed as ruler by the warlord Oda Nobunaga, but Kanazawa continued to thrive as the nation’s richest province, churning out five million bushels of rice a year.
Having escaped bombing during World War II, traditional inner-city areas, such as Nagamachi with its samurai houses and the charming geisha teahouse district of Higashi Chaya, remain intact and are a joy to wander around.
Kanazawa can be used as a base to visit other places in Ishikawa-ken, including the Noto Hantō, the rugged peninsula north of the city and a great place to enjoy seaside vistas and a slower pace of life. To the south, in neighbouring Fukui-ken, is the working monastery Eihei-ji, one of Japan’s most atmospheric temples.
Highlighting a forward-thinking attitude that had previously been obscured by the city’s love of the traditional arts is the excellent 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (金沢２１世紀美術館), opposite Kenroku-en’s southwest entrance.
The hyper-modern design by the architectural practice SANAA – a circle of glass embracing a series of galleries, a library and a free crèche – is like a giant geometry puzzle and perfectly suited to the multiple uses of the facility. Exhibitions frequently change, although there are some specially commissioned works on permanent display. James Turrell’s Blue Planet Sky is a great place to relax and watch the clouds float by, while Leandro Elrich’s Swimming Pool encourages fun interaction between viewers around the pool’s edge and those walking beneath. The twelve tuba-shaped tubes that sprout out of the lawns surrounding the gallery are by the German artist Florian Claar; speak into one and the sound comes out of another.
Nearby is Kanazawa Nō Museum, shining light on the most refined of Japan’s dramatic arts. On the ground floor is a virtual nō stage around which you can walk as if you were in a play. Upstairs are prime examples of nō’s ornate costumes and inscrutable masks.
Should you hunger for further cultural enrichment, Kanazawa has many more museums, several of which are clustered around Kenroku-en. The best is the informative Ishikawa Prefectural Museum for Traditional Products and Crafts, or Ishikawa-kenritsu Dentō-Sangyō Kōgeikan (石川県立伝統産業工芸館), displaying prime contemporary examples of Kanazawa’s rich artistic heritage, including lacquerware, dyed silk, pottery, musical instruments and fireworks. None of the articles is for sale but all have a price tag, so if you take a fancy to one of the gold leaf and lacquer Buddhist family altars, for example, you’ll know that it costs ¥4.5 million.
The Ishikawa Prefectural History Museum, or Ishikawa-kenritsu Rekishi Hakubutsukan (石川県立歴史博物館), housed in striking red-brick army barracks buildings dating from 1910, has displays including a detailed miniature reconstruction of a samurai parade, a grainy black-and-white film of Kanazawa from the early twentieth century, and a reconstruction of a silk-spinning factory.
On the other side of the neighbouring Honda Museum, the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Art, or Ishikawa-kenritsu Bijutsukan (石川県立美術館), has beautiful examples of calligraphy, kimono, pottery, lacquerware and other relics of the Maeda clan, displayed along with a more eclectic collection of contemporary local art. There are usually special exhibitions held here, which cost extra.
Kanazawa is the only place outside of Kyoto to support the old-style training of geisha. Of the three districts in which this happens, Higashi Chaya (東茶屋), a fifteen-minute walk northeast from Kenroku-en across the Asana-gawa, is the largest and most scenic.
Several old teahouses are open to the public. The Ochaya Shima (お茶屋志摩) is the most traditional, while opposite is Kaikarō (懐華樓), decorated in a more modern style, including an unusual Zen rock garden made entirely of broken chunks of glass and a tearoom with gilded tatami mats. At both you can take tea (without geisha, unfortunately) for a small extra fee. Tea is also part of the deal at the venerable Shamisen-no-Fukushima (三味線の福島), where you can learn to pluck the Japanese stringed instrument, the shamisen. Walk off all that tea by exploring the scores of temples nestling at the foot of Utatsuyama in the north area of Higashi Chaya.
On the south side of the Asanagawa bridge is the smaller, but equally scenic Kazue-machi Chaya geisha district; there’s a teahouse you can stay in here. Five minutes’ walk south of here is the Ōhi Museum (大樋美術館), displaying and selling exquisite examples of amber-glazed pottery refined over four centuries for the urasenke style of tea ceremony.
From Kenroku-en’s northernmost exit a footbridge leads to the Ishikawa-mon, a towering eighteenth-century gateway to the castle, Kanazawa-jō (金沢城). There’s been a fortification on the Kodatsuno plateau since 1546, but the castle in its present form dates back mainly to the early seventeenth century. In 2001, part of the inner enclosure was rebuilt using traditional methods and plans from the Edo period. These included the three-storey, diamond-shaped Hishi Yagura and Hashizume-mon Tsuzuki Yagura watchtowers, the Gojukken Nagaya corridor linking them, some of the earthen walls, and the Hashizume bridge and gate leading to the enclosure. Inside the buildings you can see the intricate joinery and inspect the one-tenth-scale skeletal model carpenters used to master the complexities of the task.
Parts of the original castle are within the grounds, as well as an attractive modern garden with traditional elements – an interesting contrast to Kenroku-en. If you head for the Imori-zaka entrance at the southwest corner of the grounds, you’ll emerge near the back of the Oyama-jinja (尾山神社), a large shrine dedicated to the first Maeda lord, Toshiie. The shrine is fronted by the Shinmon, an unusual square-arched gate with multicoloured stained glass in its upper tower, designed in 1875 with the help of Dutch engineers and once used as a lighthouse to guide ships towards the coast.
Alternatively, returning to Ishikawa-mon and Kenroku-en’s north exit, head along the garden’s eastern flank, to the small traditional garden, Gyokusen-en (玉泉園). Built on two levels on a steep slope, this quiet garden has many lovely features, including mossy stone paths leading past two ponds and a mini waterfall. For ¥500 extra you can enjoy green tea and a sweet in the main villa’s tearoom. Next to the garden at the Kaga Yūzen Traditional Industry Centre, or Kaga Yūzen Dentō Sangyō Kaikan (加賀友禅伝統産業会館), you can watch artists painting beautiful designs on silk, then try your own hand at this traditional Kanazawa craft or dress in a kimono made from the dyed material.
Early morning or late afternoon are the best times for experiencing Kanazawa’s star attraction, Kenroku-en (兼六園), at its most tranquil, otherwise you’re bound to have your thoughts interrupted by a megaphone-toting guide and party of tourists – such is the price of visiting one of the official top three gardens in Japan (Kairaku-en in Mito and Kōraku-en in Okayama are the other two). Kenroku-en – developed over two centuries from the 1670s – is rightly regarded as the best.
Originally the outer grounds of Kanazawa castle, and thus the private garden of the ruling Maeda clan, Kenroku-en was opened to the public in 1871. Its name, which means “combined six garden”, refers to the six horticultural graces that the garden embraces: spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, water and panoramic views. It’s a lovely place to stroll around, with an ingenious pumping system that keeps the hillside pools full of water and the fountains – including Japan’s first – working. There are many carefully pruned and sculpted pine trees and sweeping views across towards Kanazawa’s geisha district Higashi Chaya.
In the garden’s northeast corner is the elegant Seison-kaku (成巽閣), a two-storey shingle-roofed mansion built in 1863 by the daimyō Maeda Nariyasu as a retirement home for his mother. Look out for paintings of fish, shellfish and turtles on the wainscots of the shōji sliding screens in the formal guest rooms downstairs. The view from the Tsukushi-no-rōka (Horsetail Corridor) across the mansion’s own raked-gravel garden is particularly enchanting, while upstairs the decorative style is more adventurous, using a range of striking colours and materials including, unusually for a traditional Japanese house, glass windows, imported from the Netherlands. These were installed so that the occupants could look out in winter at the falling snow.
Scenic Nagamachi (長町), west of Kōrinbo, is a compact area of twisting cobbled streets, gurgling streams and old houses, protected by thick mustard-coloured earthen walls, topped with ceramic tiles. This is where samurai and rich merchants once lived. Many of the traditional buildings remain private homes but one that is open to the public is Nomura House (野村家), worth visiting principally for its compact but beautiful garden with flowing carp-filled stream, waterfall and stone lanterns. The rich, but unflashy materials used to decorate the house reveal the wealth of the former patrons and, in keeping with the culture of the time, there is a simple teahouse where you can enjoy macha and a sweet for ¥350.
Also of interest is the Shinise Kinenkan (老舗記念館) a small museum in a handsome, spacious pharmacy and old merchant home. Upstairs, examples of the city’s various handicrafts are displayed, including an amazing flower display made entirely of sugar, and intricate designs of the gift decorations called mizuhiki. At Nagamachi Yūzenkan, 2-6-16 Nagamachi (長町友禅館), on the far western side of Nagamachi, you can learn more about the yūzen silk-dyeing process, paint your own design or buy pieces of the colourful fabric.
The third of Kanazawa’s pretty geisha districts, Nishi Chaya, is on the south side of the Sai-gawa, ten minutes’ walk from the distinctive iron bridge Sai-gawa Ohashi. It’s less commercial than Higashi Chaya – to see inside the beautifully decorated teahouse Hana-no-Yado (華の宿) you need only buy a coffee or macha.
Five minutes’ walk east of Nishi Chaya, in the temple-packed Teramachi (寺町) district, you’ll find Myōryū-ji (妙立寺), also known as Ninja-dera. Completed in 1643 and belonging to the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, this temple is associated with the Ninja assassins because of its many secret passages, trick doors and concealed chambers, including a lookout tower that once commanded a sweeping view of the surrounding mountains and coast. It’s necessary to book a tour to look around the temple, however the guides barely make an effort, so don’t make this a priority.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Four train stations south of Narai is Kiso-Fukushima (木曽福島), a much more developed town than the other juku – hence it being a stop for the express train between Matsumoto and Nagoya. At the tourist office opposite the train station, pick up a map to point you towards the hilltop Ue-no-dan (上の段) conservation area and the temple Kōzen-ji (興禅寺) with its serene raked gravel and rock garden.
If you’re looking for somewhere inexpensive to stay, the Kiso-Ryojōan Youth Hostel (木曽旅情庵ユースホステル; ¥3000 per person), is a 25-minute bus ride from Kiso-Fukushima, in a large traditional building in the peaceful mountain village of Ōhara. You could use the hostel as a base from which to explore the valley’s post towns. Alternatively, the Tsutaya (つたや) is a pleasant ryokan opposite the station where the rates include two meals.
Attractive NARAI (奈良井), 30km southwest of Matsumoto, is generally less infested with tour groups than Tsumago and Magome. This was the most prosperous of the Kiso-ji juku, a fact that shows in the village’s beautifully preserved and distinctive wooden buildings, with overhanging second floors and eaves, and renji-gōshi latticework. Only the cars that occasionally pass through the conservation area, which runs for about 1km south from the train station, remind you which century you’re in.
Opposite the tourist office (daily 10am–5pm) in the Nakamachi area of town, look out for the shop selling kashira ningyō, colourfully painted, traditional dolls and toys made of wood and plaster, as well as the sake brewery Sugi-no-Mori. In the Kamimachi area stands Nakamura House (中村邸; daily 9am–4.30pm; ¥200), dating back to the 1830s and once the home of a merchant who made his fortune in combs, still one of the area’s specialities. Side streets lead off to pretty temples and shrines in the foothills and, on the other side, to the rocky banks of the Narai-gawa, crossed by the Kiso-no-Ōhashi, an arched wooden bridge.
Narai, a 45-minute local train journey from Matsumoto, can easily be visited in half a day. Dotted along the main street are several appealing cafés with soaring wooden-beamed ceilings and irori (central charcoal fires) serving soba noodles and other local dishes – a good one is Kokoro-ne (こころ音; daily except Wed 11am–3pm). For somewhere to stay, try the lovely minshuku Iseya (伊勢屋).
Long before their ancient martial art was nabbed by a bunch of cartoon turtles, the Ninja were Japan’s most feared warriors, employed by lords as assassins and spies. They practised Ninjutsu, “the art of stealth”, which emphasized non-confrontational methods of combat. Dressed in black, Ninja moved like fleeting shadows and used a variety of weapons, including shuriken (projectile metal stars) and kusarikama (a missile with a razor-sharp sickle on one end of a chain), examples of which are displayed in the Togakushi Minzoku-kan.
According to legend, Ninjutsu was developed in the twelfth century, when the warrior Togakure Daisuke retreated to the mountain forests of Iga, near Nara, and met Kain Dōshi, a monk on the run from political upheaval in China. Togakure studied Dōshi’s fighting ways and it was his descendants who developed them into the Togakure-ryū school of Ninjutsu. By the fifteenth century, there were some fifty family-based Ninjutsu schools across Japan, each jealously guarding their techniques.
Although the need for Ninja declined while Japan was under the peaceful rule of the Shogunate, the Tokugawa had their own force of Ninjutsu-trained warriors for protection. One Ninja, Sawamura Yasusuke, even sneaked into the “black ship” of Commodore Perry in 1853 to spy on the foreign barbarians. Today, the Togakure-ryu school of Ninjutsu, emphasizing defence rather than offence, is taught by the 34th master, Hatsumi Masaaki, in Noda, Chiba-ken, just north of Tokyo.
A dramatic and memorable way to travel from the Sea of Japan coast across the Alps to Nagano-ken or vice versa, using a combination of buses, trains, funicular and cable cars, is to follow the Tateyama–Kurobe Alpine Route (立山黒部アルペンルート) The 90km route is only open from mid-April to mid-November, depending on the snow, and is at its busiest between August and October, when on certain sections you may have to wait a while for a seat or a spot on the cable car (numbered tickets are issued for order of boarding). Delays apart, it takes about six hours to traverse the roof of Japan; the spectacular views fully justify the ¥10,560 one-way ticket. Start early so you have some time to wander around along the way.
Starting from Toyama, take the Toyama Chihō Tetsudō line to the village of Tateyama (立山) at the base of Mount Tateyama (45min; ¥1170), one of the most sacred mountains in Japan after Mount Fuji and Mount Hakusan. Board the Tateyama Cable Railway for the seven-minute journey (¥700) up to the small resort of Bijo-daira (美女平), meaning “beautiful lady plateau”. One of the best parts of the journey follows, taking the Tateyama Kōgen bus (55min; ¥1660) up the twisting alpine road, which early in the season is still piled high on either side with snow, to the terminal at Murodō (室堂). Only five minutes north of the bus terminal is the Mikuriga-ike, an alpine lake in a 15m-deep volcanic crater and, twenty minutes’ walk further on, Jigokudani (Hell Valley), an area of boiling hot springs. There are also several longer hikes that you can do around Murodō, which is the best place to end your journey along the Alpine Route, if you’re short of time or money. There are several places to stay in Murodō: try Tateyama Murodō Sansō (立山室堂山荘), also a good place to head for lunch if you want to avoid the crowds at the Hotel Tateyama at the head of the Tateyama tunnel.
The next section of the journey – a ten-minute bus ride to Daikanbō (大観峰) along a tunnel cut through Mount Tateyama – is the most expensive (¥2100). The view from Daikanbō across the mountains is spectacular, and you’ll be able to admire it further as you take the Tateyama Ropeway cable car (¥1260) down to the Kurobe Cable Railway (¥840) for a five-minute journey to the edge of the Kurobe-ko lake formed by the enormous Kurobe dam (黒部ダム). Blocking one of Japan’s deepest gorges, the dam is a highlight of the trip, and there are also boat trips across the lake (30min; ¥930) and some excellent hiking. An easy thirty-minute walk along the lake to the south gets you to a campsite, and if you have gear and the Tateyama topographical map – available in any major bookstore – you could continue for days along some of Japan’s most spectacular hiking trails.
From the cable railway you’ll have to walk 800m across the dam to catch the trolley bus (¥1260) for a sixteen-minute journey through tunnels under Harinoki-dake to the village of Ōgisawa (扇沢), across in Nagano-ken. Here you’ll transfer to a bus (40min; ¥1330) down to the station at Shinano-Ōmachi (信濃大町), where you can catch trains to Matsumoto or Hakuba. You can buy a ticket covering the whole trip at either end (¥10,560).
A complex of over seventy buildings blending seamlessly with the forest Eihri-ji (永平寺; daily: May–Oct 9am–5pm, Nov–April 9am–4.30pm; adult/child ¥500/200) is home to some two-hundred shaven-headed monks. Established by the Zen master Dōgen Zenji in 1244, this serene temple in cedar-covered mountains is one of the two headquarters of Sōtō Zen Buddhism.
Located 10km northeast of Fukui (福井), less than an hour’s train ride south of Kanazawa, it’s easy to make a day-trip to the temple. Eihri-ji is closed periodically for special services, so it’s wise to check first with Fukui City Sightseeing Information or with the temple before setting off. Also make an advance reservation if you’d like to enjoy a vegetarian shōjin-ryōri meal as part of your visit.
From JR Fukui Station, the easiest way to reach Eihri-ji is by direct bus (¥720; 35min). Alternatively, hop on the local train to Eihei-ji Guchi Station, then either walk uphill for five minutes or take a bus or taxi.
Affiliates of a Sōtō Zen Buddhist organization can arrange to stay overnight here (¥8000) and participate in the monks’ daily routine, including cleaning duties and pre-dawn prayers and meditation; for serious devotees a four-day/three-night course (¥12,000) is also available. Details of how to apply can be found at w tinyurl.com/2ee2dk9.