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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.