Winter dreams in Japan, Central Honshu

Japan-central honshu snow

It’s still January and I’ve been a late in sharing my travel experiences. This post is on my lovely and enjoyable 9-day trip to Central Honshu, Japan.

My travel companion and I flew in to Nagoya, 名古屋, and travelled around the region via the JR trains. In the short time that we were there, we covered Takayama, 高山, Shirakawa-go, 白川郷, and Kanazawa, 金沢, Nagoya.

This region is probably not the top of mind for foreign visitors as most would consider travelling to Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. I would urge you all to consider these places if you are planning a trip to Japan.

Let’s begin at where we started…

Takayama, a charming small town

The 2.5hr JR train ride from Nagoya to Takayama was a scenic one as we rode past the Japan Central Alps. We went past snow-capped mountain tops, frozen lakes, scenes of pure white – just an indication of what to expect of the region.

Since Takayama lies in the heavy snowfall area, it was snowing almost everyday that we were there and that accumulated to thick snow covering the roads and pathways.

For a girl who lives in a tropical city, I was really ecstatic to be out walking in the snow until I found out that it really isn’t easy to walk on the icy and slippery roads, especially with a huge luggage. I fell twice while trying to wheel my luggage from the train station to the hotel. Though it was embarrassing, falling on snow is very much like falling on a large, cushy pillow.

Takayama is a charming and quaint little town as we soon found out. It is easy to navigate this small town on foot. You can practically walk or cycle (though not advisable in winter) everywhere. I enjoyed my quiet walks around the old town where parallel streets of merchant houses built during the Edo Period are preserved. Many of these houses have since been turned into sake breweries and shops but they retain their traditional wooden structure and lattice windows.

old town takayama

Takayama Jinya (govt house)

The two morning markets (Jinyamae and Miyagawa) at Takayama, though small, are worth a visit.

The Jinyamae  morning market is held in an open space outside the government house, Takayama Jinya. The stalls are mostly manned by old ladies in their seventies and eighties, hawking their farm produce – mainly fresh fruits and vegetables, pickles, grains. I really enjoyed the lively atmosphere and the colours at the market. We spent some time sampling the food and buying the ones we liked. With some basic Japanese, we manage to speak to them a little about their produce; you could see the overwhelming pride in their eyes as they tried to tell us about their produce.

The Miyagawa morning market is set up in front of the river. There are handicraft stalls that sell handmade goods like candles, wooden crafts, accessories and other trinkets. It’s a good place to get some souvenirs for your loved ones. Also, there are street food stalls that sell little snacks like dangos (grilled rice cakes) and hida beef skewers if you start to feel hungry after your morning walk.

jinyamae morning market


morning sun shirakawa-go

shrine takayama

Shirakawa-go, an unassuming beauty

We took slightly less than hour on the Nohi bus to get from Takayama to Shirakawa-go. Shirakawa-go (白川郷) is a small village that is known for its unique archietecture of its gasshō (合掌) houses,  large wooden houses with thatched steep roofs. It is listed as an UNESCO World heritage site.

Prior to this trip, I saw pictures of Shirakawa-go online and it looked beautiful in all seasons. But I have to say that I think it has the most surreal beauty in winter.

Viewing the snow covered thatched roofs of the gassho houses from the observation point made me feel like I’m in different world, sort of like a winter wonderland. The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring this small picturesque village.shirakawago

While you can probably choose to do a day-trip to Shirakawa-go, we chose to spend a night at one of the gassho houses turned into a minshuku (Japanese farmhouse) as I read that Shirakawa-go is especially tranquil in the evening after hordes of tourists have left.

Staying at minshuku Iccha was quite an eye-opening experience for us as we experience sleeping on tatami floors, and eating simply prepared, modest meals for breakfast and dinner.  They are still using a traditional coal irori (fireplace) in the dining area to keep the place warm. That is definitely needed as the gassho houses can get very cold without heating.

What you get here is simple and modest but it is simplicity at its best. Iccha may not be a luxury hotel, it doesn’t try to be one, but the warmth and kindness from our hostess made our visit to Shirakawa-go a memorable one.

snow fall shirakawago

I woke up early to take a morning walk while most of the village was still in slumber. I can’t describe how peaceful I felt to walk down those little winding lanes with only the sound of your footsteps and falling snow that accompany me. I witness the rising of  the sun as it glistened over the snow covered bare branches of trees; it was a beautiful sight to behold; it filled my heart with so much hope of the promise of a brand new day.

Kanazawa, a city where tradition meets modernity

We departed Shirakawa-go and the Gifu perfecture for Kanazawa (金沢). The main reason I headed to Kanazawa was for the Kanazawa snow crabs! It was the winter season which meant it was the perfect season for snow crabs.

Though I was there mainly for the food, I was surprised that I took a liking to this city. Kanazawa is also known to be like a ‘little Kyoto’ because it too has beautifully preserved geisha districts. I think that’s a misnomer for I don’t think is ‘lesser’ than Kyoto in any sense.

In fact, I like the chaya districts here more for one reason – you hardly find any tourists. Higashi Chaya, one of the three designated Chaya districts, houses parallel rows of tea houses where the geishas used to entertain their clients. Even with shops and restaurants have in their place, its well-preserved wooden architecture still evokes a charm of its nostalgic days in the Edo Period.

Higashi chaya

Chaya Shima, a preserved geisha house, is worthy of a visit. Stepping into Shima was like stepping back in time, or I would go as far to say onto the set of “Memoirs of a Geisha”. It was well-maintained and beautiful in a historical sense. The rooms used for entertaining were kept in the original state – with the tatami mats, traditional shoji sliding doors, red paper lanterns lined balcony.

I loved the place so much that I had a cup of matcha (powdered green tea) and a piece of red bean wagashi (a traditional Japanese sweet) in a tearoom overlooking a neatly kept garden.

When you are in Kanazawa, you cannot miss one of Japan’s top three most beautiful gardens – Kenroukuen.  To the Japanese, a perfect garden needs to fulfill all  six attributes   – spaciousness, tranquillity, artifice, antiquity, water courses  and panoramas for it to be considered a perfectly landscaped garden. Kenroukuen ticks all these attributes. I would imagine that Kenroukuen is absolutely stunning in Spring, with all the flowers in bloom. Being there on a grey winter’s day was an unfortunate thing; I felt winter’s grey made it harder for me to appreciate its beauty.

Nagamachi samurai district kanazawaNishi chaya Kanazawa

maple leaves nagoya japan

Nagoya, a bustling and lively port city

We rounded up the trip back in Nagoya where we were fortunate to catch the last bit of autumn – blue skies, warm sun rays, and red maple leaves that have yet given way to the cold winter.

Nagoya (名古屋) is a bustling port-city that suddenly seem so big, so loud, and so crowded after a week in the quiet small towns. It was somewhat nice being back in the city where you can shop in big malls, have supper and drinks late into night and be a part of their outdoor live music scene.

Though Nagoya seemed to always be in a rush, we tried to do things slow and leisurely; we did not rush to see the attractions for there was nothing much to see, we just took our time to wander and get lost in this city.

Aside from visiting the Atsuta Jingu shrine (a 2,000 year old shinto shrine), and the Nagoya castle and its grounds, we took a day trip to Innuyama (犬山) to see one of Japan’s oldest wooden castle still in its original state.

By the time our trip was coming to an end, I felt a little sad and wistful to be leaving Japan; it didn’t feel like the time to go. Japan has and will always have that special place in my heart. I love a country that takes pride in their traditions and cultures, especially when traditions seem to be fighting a losing battle against modernity and development.

I’ll be sharing my food experiences in Japan soon, so stay tuned.


Atsuta Jingu Nagoya

About jothetartqueen

My first love is eating. A very close second is my love for baking and cooking. I passionately believe that the best form of appreciation of something is almost always through the creation of it. This passion took me on a whirlwind, unforgettable ride through the patisserie diploma course at Le Cordon Bleu (Sydney). Join me on my discovery for the love of food – through the kitchen, through the markets, through experimenting, tasting and loving.
This entry was posted in Travel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Winter dreams in Japan, Central Honshu

  1. Beautiful, atmospheric pictures. Oh, I want to go back to see Japan, I’d love to see it in the winter or spring and step off the well trodden path a bit xxx

  2. pattyabr says:

    wow look at all that snow! Pretty pictures

  3. Melanie says:

    Such beautiful pictures, especially those of the snow. I love Japan but have not seen enough of it. This post has made me think more seriously about planning a second trip. Perhaps this time next year, to enjoy the winter there.

  4. Now THIS is the trip of a lifetime! I adore Japan and have been a handful of times, but never in the winter, and never too far from Tokyo or Kyoto. It looks like such a completely different experience under a blanket of snow. Your photos are so hauntingly beautiful… I can really only dream of seeing these things in person.

  5. Really nice snow pics!! loved reading about Japan … never been!

  6. anonymous says:

    I am a Japanese born in Gifu Prefecture. I’m glad you came to travel in Gifu Prefecture. Thank you all!

  7. Taro says:

    Thanks for your beautiful pictures.

    GIfu prefecture has many genuine Onsen – Hot springs. For many Japanese, bathing outdoor spa while viewing the snow falling is a longing experience. With or without an umbrella like hat woven by straws set on your head, did you enjoy it ? The scenery of snow in soaking in the indoor bath through big windows is also an unforgettable country life taste if the outside was so cold and risk.

    Snow dressed Kenrokuen Garden is very appreciated by many Japanese as well as cherry blossom season at there. Its impressive landscape is something same as the sight of the Golden Pavilion Temple covered with snow.
    And the winter at Kanazawa city would give you the savory of many seafoods at inexpensive prices. The tea culture at the city is one of the pinnacle in Japan.

    You might be surprised by the morning service in cafes in Nagoya. Many of the cafe at there would give you breakfast for nothing only once you order a cup of coffee in the morning time. Gigantic roads show that the prefecture has a headquarter of Toyota Motor with his tax income.

    At your next visit, I hope you will enjoy the city of Kyoto at where you can find aristocrat age of many Japanese cultures. If possible, in cherry blossom season – when petals of many places in and out of the city are painted with white and pink – or in autumn – when everywhere dressed with the leaves vivid red, orange, yellow and green in the city and in mountains. For enjoying this scenery, you must make reservations of the lodge in advance. But worth doing it.

    • Thanks for your comment Taro!
      I would love to visit Japan during the cherry blossom season. I hope to be able to do that one day, soonest!

      I had wanted to drop by Okuhida for an onsen experience but we didnt have many days so we decided to cut that out. Would go up to Okuhida next time for sure!

  8. Pingback: Eating in Takayama, Japan | jothetartqueen

  9. hui min says:

    Hi could you share how you managed to book Iccha? I plan to book Iccha for my trip to Shirakawago but unfortunately i dont speak Japanese. 😦

    • I emailed the shirakawago tourism association a month before my trip.

      Here’s the email:

      they will send you a form to fill you regarding your requirements and will help you book one of the gassho houses for yr stay. You can request for Iccha. All you need to do is to pay in cash when you arrive in Shirakawago.

      Enjoy your trip to Shirakawago!

  10. has says:

    Lovely pictures. I plan to go to the places you described n it makes me giddy with excitement reading your writings about them all. Just one question though, maybe a silly one :p, what kind of footwear did you wear or you think is suitable to walk in the snowy grounds. I was thinking of my gumboots but afraid they are too heavy since we’ll be doing lots of walking

    • Hi there,

      I’m sure you are very excited about your trip. Do wear non-slip boots as it can get slippery (I fell a few times in Takayama on the ice grounds).

      When its thick snowfall, it would be best to wear waterproof boots. Gumboots would be great but like you mentioned, it would probably be v heavy if you are doing a lot of walking. The minshu at Shirakawago loaned us gumboots to walk around in the day (they were heavy but your feet don’t get wet which means warm feet!). Do you have other alternative waterproof footwear with non slip bottoms?

      Have a good trip!

  11. Nette says:

    Hi, we will be in Japan in March and will be going to Takayama and Shirakawa and will stay in Iccha too. After reading your post, I got doubly excited. I just hope we wil catch the tail end of winter when we get there.

    We were originally supposed to go to Magome and Tsumago after Takayama but had to change this due to some confusion w/ our hotel in Tokyo. Now that we are no longer staying the night in Tsumago, I have a night to spare and I am torn between spending another night in Takayama or going to Kanazawa. It was never part of my itinerary but your post on the snow crab and the beautiful preserved houses changed my mind. I will be traveling with my 67-year old mom, 11 yo daughter and 23 yo brother so accessibility is a big consideration for us. Would you mind sharing how you travelled from Takayama to Kanazawa (bus or train info if you have any), any recommendations on overnight accommodation (or is this doable as a day trip from Takayama), restaurants you have tried and access in and around Kanazawa.

    We will be going straight to Miyajima after Kanazawa which means we need to leave quite early the next day. Any recommendations for accommodation near or around the JR station?

    • Hi there,

      I travelled from takayama to shirakawago by bus then I spent a night at iccha before taking a bus to shirakawago. It is a direct bus (nohi bus) from the shirakawago bus stop (there is only one. Near the tourist information centre). It takes slightly more than an hour and it will get you to the bus terminal/JR terminal at Kanazawa. It is very easy so you don’t have to worry about travel.

      If you are traveling with large pieces of luggage, I would recommend that you use the takkyubin service(door to door luggage transportation service). it helps you transport yr luggage to the hotel for about 1,600 yen. We used takkyubin to send our luggage from takayama to Kanazawa and just carried an overnight bag for our stay in shirakawago.

      If you are going to shirakawago during heavy snowfall, it’s best to do that because its virtually impossible to drag your suitcase across a narrow bridge covered in snow.

      We stayed at ANA crowne plaza. It’s just across the JR station. Very convenient and the rooms are new and spacious. We booked it when they were having a promo so it was very worth it. Hope this helps. Feel free to ask any further questions. Happy trip planning!

      • vrja says:

        hi, do you have any recommendations about where to eat snow crab in kanazawa? we are going in february, thanks

  12. jim says:

    hi can i asked if this trip was in dec or jan?

  13. Kathie says:

    Looks a amazing. We have 4 days in Kanazawa then travel,to takayama for 3 days. Accomodations is all booked fro and cannot change Can we do Kanazawa to shirakawagomas a day trip

  14. Hanaru says:

    I love your post and all pictures are very beautiful.

  15. Lazyamble says:

    Miyagawa is a nice place to mingle with local too. In Miyagawa, you see you buy you talk and you eat. Isn’t this heavenly?
    Takayama is known as the Little Kyoto, but a trip to Kyoto is definitely another great experience. Hida folk village can be a great side trip if you happen to be in Takayama.
    For beef lover, you should check out Hida beef, as sushi or bbq, the choice is yours. For us, we were greedy so we had both.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s