Airports – Arrive and depart from Narita or Haneda airports, both serving Tokyo. An alternative international access point is Chubu International Airport (Centrair), 30 km (miles) south of Nagoya.
Transport – Trains are generally the best way to get around the mountainous region, with Nagano connected to Tokyo by a Shinkansen line that also runs to Kanazawa. Hire a car in Kanazawa to travel around the Noto Peninsula. Bus (or hired car) is the best way to travel between Kanazawa, and Takayama. From there on, use the train to access the charming post towns of the Kiso Valley and connect with either Matsumoto or Nagoya.
The alpine regions of Central Honshu and the Japan Sea coast are the ideal places to sample a wide range of Japanese cuisines – from simple noodles to elegantly prepared banquets.
The venerable temple of Zenko-ji is the prime attraction of Nagano, the gateway to the Japan Alps, From Nagano, you can also make a half-day trip to Jigokudani Onsen, the hot pools famous for attracting snow monkeys. Soba noodles made with buckwheat are a specialty here. If you pause in quaint Obuse on the way back from Jigokudani Onsen, you could also sample chestnut confectionery and good sake.
Kanazawa, by the Japan Sea, has an illustrious heritage. Visit the impressive castle, the Nagamachi Samurai Quarter, and the Higashi (Eastern) Pleasure District of traditional teahouses. Other highlights include Kenroku-en Garden, one of Japan’s “great three” gardens, and the striking architecture and art on display at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. Sample succulent sushi at Omicho Ichiba market, or seek out a restaurant serving the refined cuisine known as kaga ryori.
Freshly caught seafood is a must-try on a trip around the scenic Noto Peninsula. Continue to Wajima, a port at the northern end of the peninsula that hosts a daily market and is renowned for its high-quality lacquerware. On the way back to Kanazawa, take in the strange rock formations around Sosogi.
Three picturesque villages in the Shokawa Valley make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Aim for Ogimachi, where there’s an architectural park that displays the distinctive thatched frame houses and other traditional buildings from the region. Guesthouses and restaurants here will serve sansei ryori (mountain vegetable dishes). Continue to Takayama for your overnight stop.
Takayama is one of the most characterful towns in the Japan Alps. The Sannomachi Quarter is packed with wooden buildings housing cafes, shops, and sake breweries. Drop by the Takayama Festival Floats Exhibition Hall to see some of the elaborate floats used in the town’s twice-yearly festivals. Takayama is the place to sample mitarashi-dango – rice balls dipped in soy sauce and roasted on skewers.
Of the 11 Edo-era post towns staged along the Kiso Valley, the most picturesque is Tsumago, where it feels like you’ve stepped back in time. Consider hiking part of the Nakasendo, the Edo-period stone-pathed post road that runs between Tsumago and Magome. Spend the night in one of the Kiso Valley’s traditional minshukus (B&B).
Matsumoto has a splendid 16th-century castle, the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, with its collection of woodblock prints, and the Matsumoto City Museum of Art, displaying works by local artist Yayoi Kusama, Sasamushi (eel steamed inside rice wrapped in bamboo leaves) is one of the town’s delicacies.
To extend your trip…
The lively metropolis of Nagoya offers a castle, the Tokugawa Art Museum, and several fascinating sights linked to its industrial heritage. The Fuji Five Lakes area has several lovely lakeside resorts; if the weather is favorable, you’ll be able to see and, depending on the season, climb Mount Fuji