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Getting away from thehustle and bustle of Japan's big cities
Getting away from thehustle and bustle of Japan's big cities

Rather than bustling around jumping from bus to boat to train in a rush to cram in all the sights and souvenir shops recommended in the guide book, how about slowing the pace a little, getting a breath of fresh air and enjoying some rustic country charm? The following four areas have always been popular and are by no means closely guarded secrets, however they have just not received as much international attention as they deserve as they are slightly off the beaten metropolitan track.

Suggested Travel Route in Central-Honshu for a Tokyo arrival

From By To Required Time
JR Tokyo Station JR Chuo Honsen Limited Express Matsumoto Station 2hrs 40mins
Matsumoto Bus Terminal Express Bus Takayama Nohi Bus Center 2hrs 20mins
Takayama Nohi Bus Center Express Bus Shirakawa-Go Village 1hr 55mins
Shirakawa-Go Village Express Bus Kanazawa Station 1hr 15mins
JR Kanazawa Station Thunder Bird Special Express Train JR Kyoto Station 2hrs 10mins
JR Kyoto Station Tokaido Shinkansen Bullet Train JR Tokyo Station 2hrs 40mins

SHIRAKAWA-GO
Gifu's world heritage listed mountain village

An irori fireplace and table setting inside a gassho-zukuri house
An irori fireplace and table setting inside a gassho-zukuri house

Shirakawa-Go is a small and secluded mountain village located in northern Gifu Prefecture in what used to originally be Hida Province (Takayama is also situated in the ancient Hida Province area). Human settlement in Shirakawa-Go can be traced to the beginning of the eighth century when the area began to be used for religious worship. The earliest written records containing the village's name date back to the 12th century.

The village has been inscribed into UNESCO's world heritage list, along with the area of Gokayama in south-west Toyama Prefecture because of the preservation of groups of unique farmhouses from various stages of history of the two locations. The enchanting houses are designed with steeply angled (60 degrees) thatched and gabled roofs covering open-truss wooden framework to withstand and redirect heavy snowfall. Because the resulting house profile looks somewhat similar to two hands steepled at the fingertips, it received its own special name "gassho-zukuri", meaning "praying hands design". The principles and methods of construction have never been used anywhere else in Japan.

An irori fireplace and table setting inside a gassho-zukuri house
The village under snowfall in the evening

The subsistence of the original inhabitants of the gassho-zukuri houses was based around the manufacture of silk from mulberry tree silkworms which were often cultivated in the large attic areas of the houses. The remoteness and isolation of the village has enabled it to preserve its original landscape and surrounds and the whole area is breathtaking at all times of the year.
At the open-air museum Gassho Village, visitors can access 25 of the houses and watch demonstrations of traditional dyeing and weaving (participation is also possible by booking beforehand). The Ogimachi Joseki Observatory provides a spectacular view of the whole village and the cherry blossoms that bloom in spring. Accommodation is available in Gassho-zukuri-style minshuku (boarding houses) and ryokan (Japanese-style inns).

There is a daily direct bus from Nagoya to Shirakawa-Go that operates between April and November but most visitors come via Takayama as there is a round-trip bus service between Takayama and Shirakawa-Go that departs five times a day.

The view of the village from Ogimachi Joseki Observatory
The view of the village from Ogimachi Joseki Observatory
A single house in a field of flowers
A single house in a field of flowers
Shirakawa Village
http://shirakawa-go.org/
Gifu Tourist Guide
http://www.kankou-gifu.jp/
UNESCO World Heritage
http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/734

Photographs courtesy of Shirakawa Village's Tourism Office


KANAZAWA
The cultural capital of Ishikawa

Kanazawa Castle
Kanazawa Castle

Kanazawa City is located in the centre of Ishikawa Prefecture in the Hokuriku Region of Japan's central west coast. It has a population of just under half a million people and is a traditional city, dating back to 1580 and is famous for its craftsmanship and performing arts.

Kenrokuen Garden
Kenrokuen Garden

Kanazawa City escaped air-raid damage during the war so many of its original buildings and streets have withstood the test of time, creating a pleasant fusion of traditional and modern architecture. Areas such as the Higashiyama geisha district and the Nagamachi samurai district have been preserved and restored to offer tourists a glimpse of what life was like in the Edo period (1603-1867).
The most famous sightseeing spot in Kanazawa is the Kenrokuen Garden. It is ranked as one of the three most famous gardens in Japan, alongside Korakuen Garden in Okayama Prefecture and Kairakuen Garden in Ibaraki Prefecture. The garden itself was built in the surrounds of Kanazawa Castle under the command of the Maeda Clan, the powerful and affluent rulers who established and controlled the development of the city of Kanazawa. Kenrokuen Garden in spring has been selected as one of the top 100 locations for cherry blossom viewing.

Nagamachi samurai district
Nagamachi samurai district

Kanazawa people have a reputation for being proud of their traditional heritage which includes theatre, music, dance, ceramics, lacquer ware, textiles (silk dying in particular), metal-foil and production of quality confectionaries, sake and rice, and there are many opportunities for visitors to participate in hands-on workshops held at arts and craft centres.

Incidentally, the famous Buddhist scholar D.T.Suzuki and Iron Chef's Takeshi Kaga were both born in Kanazawa and baseball player Hideki Matsui of the New York Yankees was born in Ishikawa Prefecture and went to high school and played baseball in Kanazawa.

Crab - a renowned Kanazawa delicacy
Crab - a renowned Kanazawa delicacy

By train, Kanazawa is only two hours from Kyoto, two-and-a-half hours from Osaka, four hours from Tokyo and there are one-hour daily flights to Ishikawa Prefecture's Komatsu Airport from Haneda Airport in Tokyo. Highway buses also run from most major cities.


Photographs courtesy of the City of Kanazawa Tourism Association


TAKAYAMA
Ancient Hida Province's "Little Kyoto"

The lavishly decorated floats of the Takayama festival
The lavishly decorated floats of the Takayama festival

Takayama City is a quaint and rustic area of approximately 100,000 people in Gifu Prefecture, nestled in the foothills of the Hida Mountains. These mountains form one sub-range of the Japanese Alps of central-Honshu. Takayama is a very common place name throughout Japan, so Takayama City is often referred to as "Hida-Takayama" (Hida Province's Takayama) for general differentiation. Also, due to its traditional atmosphere and architecture, it has also been nicknamed "little Kyoto".

Hida Folk Village
Hida Folk Village

Just like Kanazawa City, Takayama City began as a castle town. The Kanamori Clan constructed Takayama Castle at the end of the 16th century. However, only some of the castle's original tower, foundations and walls remain today. Takayama City is popular with tourists all year round. It is exquisite under winter snowfalls and its flora is resplendent in warmer months. The city has an almost village-like atmosphere and is easy to navigate on foot; it takes only 20 minutes to walk from one side of the city to the other. Alternatively you can hire a bicycle or for a more unorthodox experience you can tour in a rickshaw.

The ever-popular Takayama Festival is held twice a year: once in spring (April 14,15) and once in autumn (October 9,10). The lavish floats which parade through the town and their mechanical puppet dolls have earned it the ranking as one of the three most beautiful festivals in Japan, along with the Gion Festival of Kyoto and the Chichibu Night Festival of Saitama.

Heavily marbled Hida beef
Heavily marbled Hida beef

Famous sightseeing spots include San-machi Suji, the traditional merchant and sake brewing district of Takayama, and the Hida folk village, a preserved village reservation consisting of huts, houses and buildings from various stages of Hida Province's extensive history. Some of the places to view cherry blossoms are Nakabashi Bridge (where the trees are lit at night), the banks of the Sunorigawa River, Hida Gokoku-Jinja Shrine and Shiroyama Park (the original site of Takayama Castle).

Express trains run from Nagoya Station to Takayama eight times daily taking just over two hours to make the trip, and are also available from Kanazawa four times daily for roughly the same travel time. It is possible to catch buses to Takayama from Tokyo (five-and-a-half hours), Osaka (five hours) and Nagoya (two-and-a-half hours).

Takayama Sightseeing Information http://www.hida.jp/
Gifu Prefecture http://www.pref.gifu.lg.jp/
Gifu Sightseeing
http://www.kankou-gifu.jp/

Photographs courtesy of the Takayama City Tourism Office


MATSUMOTO
Nagano's historic central city

Popular mountain resort area, Kamikochi
Popular mountain resort area, Kamikochi

Matsumoto is a moderate sized and picturesque city of just under 250,000 people in Nagano Prefecture in roughly the geographic centre of Japan. Like Kanawaza and Takayama, it was originally a castle town. Matsumoto City was built up around Matsumoto Castle, which dates from the end of the 16th century. It is a relatively small but stately castle painted black in colour and is ranked as one of Japan's three most famous castles along with Himeji Castle and Kumamoto Castle. Its main tower has received national treasure status.

Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto Castle

Another famous sightseeing spot in Matsumoto is Kamikochi, a mountain resort area and national cultural property only open and accessible from April to November. Despite being quite some distance from central Matsumoto there are direct trains running from the city. Kamikochi sits in a plateau formed by the Azusa River valley and is surrounded by mountain peaks, some of which are volcanically active. The area contains ponds, marshlands, forests and meadows and attracts hikers from all over Japan.

View of Matsumoto City from the top of Matsumoto Castle
View of Matsumoto City from the top of Matsumoto Castle

Matsumoto can be accessed by JR limited express train or highway buses from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo (both are approximately three-hour trips), highway buses from Osaka Station (five-and-a-half hours), the Shinano limited express train from Nagoya (two hours) or highway bus (four hours).


Matsumoto City
http://www.city.matsumoto.nagano.jp/
Nagano Prefecture


General Travel Advice in Japan

Basic sightseeing know-how and information to better enjoy your holiday in Japan.

Download pdf

SAKURA ZENSEN the cherry blossom 'front'
Cherry blossoms blooming
Cherry blossoms blooming

Just as various weather pattern fronts move up the Japanese archipelago so too does the blossoming of sakura (cherry blossoms). "Sakura" is a Japanese word which collectively means both the cherry tree itself as well as its blossoms and "zensen" is the meteorological word for "front". Weather reports in Japan daily track the cherry blossom front as it moves gradually north up to Kyushu and Shikoku in March, Honshu in April and finally arrives in Hokkaido in May. Accurate prediction and monitoring of the cherry blossom front allows people to schedule their "hanami", the Japanese national spring pastime of cherry blossom viewing. Hanami generally involves visiting a park, riverside, castle, shrine or temple and having a picnic under the cherry trees with family, friends or work colleagues. "Yozakura", or night-time cherry blossom viewing, is also immensely popular. The trees are often lit-up with paper lanterns for better viewing but alcohol consumption and merriment tends to take precedence over the appreciation of the blossoms. The blossoms themselves only stay open for about one week before they flutter to the ground, leaving the trees bare once again. Overseas tourists planning a trip to a specific area in Japan must be prudent in their timing.

Photographs courtesy of JNTO.


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