Located in the heart of central Japan, the Chubu region is a treasure trove of wonders, home to everything from hot springs, ski resorts, samurai castles, hidden mountain villages and of course the Japan Alps.Japan’s mountainous middle combines ski slopes and snow monkeys with samurai towns and ancient highways dotted with picturesque post towns. Just a short visit to this area of Japan will tick off a huge number of attractions from your list, from UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shirakawa-go village, to Japan’s most beautiful garden, Kenroku-en.
What to do in Chubu
A viable alternative to Kyoto for exploring traditional Japan, Kanazawa is linked to Tokyo by bullet train, meaning you can arrive at this western capital in just two and a half hours.
The Higashi Chaya district is one of three well preserved ‘entertainment districts’, where traditionally geisha would perform in ‘chaya’ (teahouses) for feudal lords – something still possible to witness today (minus the lords!) The picturesque exteriors of these Edo period (1603 to 1868) buildings are beautifully preserved, thankfully spared from the US air force bombings during WWII. Visit Shima Teahouse or Kaikaro Teahouse, both of which are open to the public.
All visitors to Kanazawa are offered a thorough lesson on Japan’s history, meaning no visit is complete without an exploration of the Ninja-dera (Ninja Temple) – a name earned thanks to the countless traps, secret tunnels and escape routes inside its walls. In the Nagamachi Samurai Residences District found at the foot of Kanazawa Castle, Nomura-ke, a restored samurai home, reveals the secrets of life as a samurai during the Edo period.
Finally, if you are paying a visit to Kanazawa, make time for the Kenroku-en Garden, one of Japan’s top landscape gardens, which took more than 100 years to shape and prune into the pond-filled, winding stream-laden space of relaxation it has become today.
Japan’s global military history and natural disasters mean there are few places where visitors can get a feel for what Japan was like before it opened its borders.
Fortunately Takayama, with its Edo period houses, reminds visitors of these bygone days when this region thrived as a wealthy trading centre. Now housing fashionable cafes, coffee shops, libraries and galleries, it’s a welcome space for visitors to Japan looking for that perfect blend of old and new.
The best time of year to visit this attractive city is during spring or autumn – the two times of year when the Takayama Festival is held. Though busy with people, these festivals see intricately designed floats, all of which are decorated using traditional methods by master craftsmen, carried down its streets.
A Lonely Planet favourite, UNESCO World Heritage site Shirakawa-go village is so picturesque you’ll be able to go #nofilter with your photos. 110 gassho zukuri (‘constructed like hands in prayer’) houses line this village, some dating back more than 250 years. Stay overnight inside one of these rustic farmhouses for the feeling that you’ve gone back to a Japan before time.
Nagano is home to an abundance of ski resorts – including Hakuba, home of the 1998 winter Olympic Games. A plethora of ski slopes in this region cater to skiers and snowboarders of all abilities – along with off-piste, backcountry skiing options for the experts. However, no visit to this region is complete without first saying hello to the famous hot-spring-bathing monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park.
Home to the Japan Alps, one of the most popular spots for travellers visiting Nagano is Kamikochi – where hiking trails (open from April to November) allow you to walk serenely between valleys, whose mountains are mirrored in the surfaces of the gleaming lakes below. Come here in autumn – when the autumn leaves turn them into a kaleidoscope of amber, red and yellow - to experience the mountainscapes at the peak of their beauty.
Hikers will also adore taking to the Nakasendo Way, the old Edo period highway linking Tokyo and Kyoto, whose en route post towns have been maintained so they still offer an authentic feudal period feel. One leisurely and popular walk in this area is between Magome and Tsumago, which takes just two or three hours.
Art in the Mountains
Fans of art and architecture will have plenty to explore in this region of Japan, for example the Genbi Shinkansen – Japan’s bullet-train-cum-art-gallery (or, as JR East like to call it, ‘the world’s fastest art experience!’) Whilst in this area you might also want to visit Echigo Tsumari Art Field – home to countless outdoor art installations.
For an interesting sleepover, try a night at Niigata’s House of Light – a meditation house created by artist James Turrell where light and shadows are turned upside down.
Or, for a different kind of art, take a trip to Sado Island. Connected to the mainland by ferry, which can take as little as one hour, this former location of exile for political dissidents has an enormous number of Noh theatres, and is also home to Japan’s famous KODO taiko drummers.