The Central Japan region may not contain the usual tourist-favourite cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Sapporo, or Kyoto – but it’s definitely worth considering as a detour deep into the heart of traditional Japan.
Probably the region’s most defining characteristic is its mountains. The mother of them all, Mount Fuji (3,776m) is Central Japan’s most famous and tallest resident, while to the north-west, the Japanese Alps form a massive wall that affects the climate of the entire country – making winters on the Pacific side mild, even sunny, while the Sea of Japan side is awash with snowfall.
Altogether, Central Japan’s nine prefectures sprawl across 72,000sq.km., a landmass that is the size of Holland and Switzerland put together, situated in the middle of Japan’s Honshu island.
Different prefectures in central Japan collectively share some of Japan’s oldest cultures and traditions.
For example, the residents of Shiraka-wa-Go, a World Heritage site with nearly a thousand years of history, claim the first samurai to ever cross swords were from their region.
Cutting through the region is the long-extinct Tokaido roadway, which once connected Edo (the historic name for Tokyo) and Kyoto, the old imperial capital of Japan, leaving behind a number of old restored postal towns that are frozen in a bygone era.
Heavy snowfall in the Japanese Alps makes the rivers of Central Japan, especially those flowing out to Toyama Bay, ideal for river sports like rafting or kayaking.
The Kurobe River cuts across the region and is the lifeline of Central Japan’s high-quality agricultural produce including its renowned wasabi, sake, and even wine. While for those who enjoy soaking in thermal pools, the areas around the Alps are dotted with hot springs that feed Central Japan’s many ryokans.
The unusually deep waters of Toyama Bay are home to an abundance of unique marine life, like the velvet shrimp (better known as ‘the Jewel of Toyama Bay’), renowned for a deep sweetness that is perfect for sashimi. Joining the buffet is Yellowtail, caught during winter when the fish is at its fattest and oiliest, and the succulent, bright flesh of the red snow crab. While another species which may be too beautiful to eat – the bioluminescent firefly squid (hotaru ika) – lights up Toyama Bay by the millions between March and June.
Together, Toyama, Nagano and Gifu in Japan, in particular, offer travellers a wealth of natural wonders, unique seafood, and many stunning cultural sites, making them a perfect alternative to the bright lights of Tokyo.
Toyama sits inland of the bay that bears its name, and is renowned for the variety and quality of seafood that dwells in its deep offshore waters.
While Toyama City itself is quiet, even on weekends, given its great natural setting it is home to a very active population, whether it’s climbing and hiking in the surrounding mountains, or simply jogging (and picnicking) in the scenic Funan Canal Kansui Park.
Given its location, the real pleasures of Toyama lie outside of the city – from right up in the peaks of the Japanese Alps, to down the length of the Kurobe River out to Toyama Bay.
TATEYAMA KUROBE ALPINE ROUTE
The Japanese Alps were so-named for their similarity to the European Alps, and are visible from as far west as Toyama City on clear days.
The peaks remain snowy for 7 months per year, giving snow-starved tourists a chance to feel powder right up to early summer.
The famous Alpine Route cuts through Tateyama National Park, with lush green hills and occasional waterfalls all the way up until the imposing Yuki-No-Otani snow wall, which rises up to 19m in winter and lines much of the road close to the Murodo cable car station (2,450m) at the top.
There’s a hotel with an onsen at the station, which is perfect for spending a night before making the early morning climb up Mt. Tate (3,015m) for sunrise.
The route ends with a spectacular journey down through the mountains to Kurobe Dam, the highest in Japan at 186m. A trolleybus goes through the heart of Mt Tate, followed by a ropeway that has spectacular views during autumn, and a funicular that descends 500m to the dam.
The dam itself is a wonder of engineering – with massive plumes of water cascading 186m into the lower Kurobe River, and one of the highlights of the journey.
RAFTING THE KUROBE RIVER
The Kurobe River flows quickly in the summer as snow melts off the Alps, and Minakami Adventure X-plorer runs a popular rafting tour that takes paddlers 12km down the river and out to Toyama Bay.
The river swells and dips unexpectedly over hidden boulders, and each bump sprays bracing water straight into your face. The one-hour joyride normally runs from April to October, depending on the water level, and if the levels are low, stand-up paddleboard tours are available.
In between the hard paddling along the Grade II-III river, there’s plenty of time to take in the surrounding hills and local birds like cranes and eagles as they swoop down to fish in the river.
UNAZUKI HOT SPRINGS & KUROBE GORGE TROLLEY TRAIN
Along the Kurobe Gorge lies the quiet town of Unazuki – a famous hot spring spot on the grounds of a former industrial town for transporting bridge-making materials up the gorge.
Several large hotels have sprung up in the area, each with lavish onsens using water piped in from the natural springs further up the river.
While Unazuki’s onsens are famous, most visitors head higher up the hills to ride the Kurobe Gorge Trolley Train – a nearly 3-hour round-trip in an open-air carriage, crossing 20 bridges that straddle the rugged gorge below. Visit in autumn (September-October) for a spectacular burst of yellow-red tones in the landscape.
Nagano lies to the east of the Alps and has a humid climate in the summer months that is not unlike Singapore. The Alps and the rivers coming down from them give Nagano a climate suited for growing buckwheat and wasabi – perhaps why the most common breakfast food is Shinshuu Soba noodles.
The region has its share of historical treasures – from the beautifully preserved and restored Matsumoto Castle to centuries-old postal towns like Tsumago-Juku.
The village of Tsumago-Juku had its heyday in the Edo period when powerful shoguns and daimyōs would spend a night at the village inn during journeys between Tokyo and Kyoto.
While the town itself goes back nearly a thousand years, the current village and its distinctive preserved row houses can be traced to the 19th century, which straddles the Edo- and Meiji periods. There are still descendants of the original townsfolk living in the village today.
The accuracy of restoration works makes Tsumago-Juku stand out among the 10-15 former postal towns along the old Tokaido Roadway. Nowhere is the preservation more stunning than in the Wakihonjin-Okuya, the town’s secondary inn and residence of the Hayashi family in the late 19th century.
The cyprus that holds up the building is now over 140 years old, and the rest of the home is in remarkably good condition, right down to the handmade glass panes that allow views of the garden when the doors are shut in winter.
A visit by Emperor Meiji in 1880 led the Hayashi family to furnish a room specifically to the emperor’s tastes, and even construct a special bathroom for his use. The Emperor, however, only stayed for 30 minutes to have a cup of tea before leaving.
Matsumoto Castle is the oldest and best-preserved castle in Nagano Prefecture; built in the early 16th century during the Eisho period, it is a designated ’National Treasure of Japan’.
Its distinctive black and white tones help explain its nickname, ‘Crow Castle’ – and the strategic holes and slits in the walls for firing weapons is a stark reminder of Japan’s turbulent feudal past.
Most picturesque is the 5-storey castle tower surrounded by manicured pine trees – which is stunning during the cherry blossom season with the snow-capped Alps in the background.
About 500m from the main castle is Nawate Street, the former first gate into the castle, and now a shrine with a quaint shopping alley lined with wooden shops.
Landlocked Gifu is blessed with rich forests, particularly cedar trees that have been worked on by skilled craftsmen as far back as the 7th century.
Historically it was the centre of Japanese sword-making, but in the absence of a sword fighting culture other industries have come to the fore. Takayama is famous for lacquered wood, Hida beef (which is of similar standing to Kobe’s), and award-winning sake.
A different kind of tradition lies deep in the mountains – Shiraka-wa-Go, a UNESCO-listed village dating back to the 12th century.
Gassho-style homes dot the landscape of Shirakawa-Go, comprising 114 thatched roofs in a valley surrounded by 4 mountains. The roofs look like hands in prayer, hence the name ‘Gassho’.
People have lived in this harsh landscape for over 800 years – especially tough when battling the cold winters in homes made of wood lashed together with fibres.
The communal spirit of ‘yui’ has given the village unusual longevity. Hundreds of villagers pitch in together to replace the roofs every 20-30 years, clambering on wooden scaffolds; it’s a practice still carried on today with great fanfare and festivity.
Strict preservation guidelines keep the town as close to the original architectural designs as possible, and residents have to request permission to make even the smallest changes to their homes. The largest of them all is the Wada house, which belonged to the city mayor and was somehow simultaneously a silkworm and gunpowder factory.
Walking paths through the town allows for a closer look at Gassho homes, about half of which are still inhabited by descendants of the original townsfolk. The best view of Shirakawa-Go is from the Shiroyama observation deck, at an altitude of 500m. It’s beautiful all year round, but even locals get excited about the winter light-up in January.
Takayama City is home to Japan’s best carpenters who use techniques passed down over a thousand years from ancestors that worked on the famous wooden temples in Kyoto and Nara.
There are several examples of their craftsmanship throughout the city, like at the Sakuraya Hachimangu Shrine. The 4th century shrine is surrounded by tall cedar trees and is a contemplative spot where locals come to get their fortunes read.
Nearby is the festival floats exhibition hall, which hosts a surreal festival (April 14 & 15) where large, intricate floats with dancing marionettes are pulled through the town.
Historic parts of the town stick to a disciplined colour palette of black and brown and the oldest buildings are about 200 years old. The Sanmachi Suji District has its clock set to the late 20th century, with traditional black-and-brown houses lining the streets.
Takayama has award-winning sake breweries, wood-carving shops, and cafes – all best to see early in the morning.
MIYAGAWA MORNING MARKET
The Miyagawa Morning Market runs along the Miyagawa River and is one of the biggest morning markets in Japan, with over 60 shops and stalls hawking local snacks and fresh produce.
The market has been running continuously for 400 years, and locals still come to buy direct from farmers. Highlights are black garlic (garlic pods roasted in a rice cooker for 2 weeks), Genkotsu (macha or soybean paste mixed with lightly sweetened candy), and Tamaten, a fluffy meringue coated with honey-glazed grilled egg yolk.