Chubu Region: Japan Alps
The Japan Alps cover a region known as Shinshu, between the north and south coasts of the Chubu Area. They have 10 peaks over 3,000m high and attract many climbers and hikers during the summer months. Much cooler than the low-lying coastal cities, the area is also popular for summer homes for those who can afford them. Bus and rail tours to onsen (hot spring) and other scenic resorts are popular during throughout the varying seasons. There are few better things in life than to enjoy a rotenburo (outdoor hot spring), sipping sake (rice wine) amidst autumn's dramatic foliage. In winter, heavy snows transform the entire area but don't keep people away. The city of Nagano hosted the successful 1998 Winter Olympics so obviously the area boasts lots of top-class skiing and snowboarding.
The venue for the annual Fuji Rock Festival is the Naeba ski resort at the southern end of Niigata Prefecture (nowhere near Mt. Fuji!). The event was first held at the foot of Mt. Fuji in 1997 but was rudely interrupted by a typhoon. The venue moved temporarily to Tokyo before finding a more scenic home in 1999. The successful weekend of rock music in the beautiful Alps drew some 50,000 people and looks set to become an annual fixture. Other onsen resorts in the area that stretches from here beyond Matsumoto in the south include Yuzawa, Kusatsu, Manza, Shiga Kogen and Yudanaka.
A gassho-zukkuri house in Shirakawa-mura
Matsumoto (Raven) Castle
Nagano Prefecture is known as the 'roof of Japan'. The capital city has little to excite the tourist unless they are lucky enough to visit when the ancient Buddhist statues at Zenkoji temple are on display. This happens only once every seven years and the last time was in 1998, so there's a bit of a wait for the next time. The main statue, the Ikko Sanzon, is said to have been the first Buddhist image brought to Japan, in 552 and to have miraculous powers. The temple was first built in 642 and the present structure dates from 1707.
Some 20km to the east on the Nagano Line, Yudakawa onsen is famous for the wild monkeys who make use of the hot springs to keep warm in winter. The Shiga Kogen highland runs from here southeast to Karuizawa and has a mulitude of popular ski and onsen resorts, such as Kusatsu and Manza. Kusatsu is one of the best-known onsen in Japan, with over 100 ryokan (inns) in the town center. It holds a hot spring festival in August. The 1,000m elevation of Karuizawa has made it a summer getaway for fashionable Tokyo socialites. Many wealthy people have their holiday villas here and the area is overflowing with expensive boutiques and restaurants.
To the west of Nagano is the popular Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, which is a combination of train, bus and ropeway. Tateyama is made up of three mountains - Oyama, Onanjiyama and Fujino-oritate - and, along with Fuji and Hakusan, is one of Japan's three sacred mountains. The Alpine Route connects Tateyama with Kurobe Dam, the highest in Japan and fifth-highest in the world. Kurobe Kyokoku gorge, on the upper reaches of the river, is one of the deepest in Japan and especially beautiful in autumn.
The prefectures second city is Matsumoto, whose castle is one of the best preserved in Japan and has been designated as a National Treasure. It is also known as Ujo (Raven Castle) because of its unusual black color. Other attractions include the Folk Arts Museum, the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum and Kaichi Gakko, one of Japan's first modern elementary schools, built in 1876. About 3 hours from Tokyo, 2 hours from Nagoya and just over an hour from Osaka by express train, Matsumoto is a good base for visits to other parts of the Northern Alps. Asama and Utsukushigahara Spas are recommended palces to stay on the outskirts of the city. Soba (buckwheat noodles) is a speciality of this region.
To the west of Matsumoto lies the highland valley of Kamikochi, thought by many to be the most beautiful spot in the Alps. On the Azusagawa River and surrounded by mountains, such as the popular Hotakadake, Japan's third-highest peak, it is a good point to start mountain climbing in the Northern Alps.
The Kiso region in the south of Nagano is famous for the beautiful cypress forests of the Kiso Valley and the post-station towns of Narai, Tsumago and Magome. These towns are located on what was the Nakasendo, the main highway between Edo (now Tokyo) and the west during the Edo Period (1600~1868). Prosperous in their heyday, they retain many relics and some of the atmosphere of Japan's Golden Age. They are accessible from Narai and Nagiso stations on the Chuo Line between Matsumoto and Nagoya. Several stops on the Iida Line, which runs from Matsumoto southwest to Toyohashi, such as Ichida or Benten are convenient for access to the Tenryu River. The highlights of the boat trip on the river are the Tenryu-kyo gorge, with its green water and steep granite cliffs, and fish caught by the boatman and cooked for you there and then.
Takayama in northern Gifu Prefecture has been a wealthy and refined city since the late-16th century. Many old buildings have survived and some have been turned into folk museums. Taking a rickshaw ride or just strolling along the narrow streets gives you an idea of what a pre-modern Japanese city was like. The Takayama Festival during Golden Week (April) and the Hachiman Festival in October both draw a lot of tourists. Huge festive yatai (wagons or floats) are paraded through the streets. The yatai were originally built to appease the gods in a time of plague but as a spirit of competition grew between wealthy merchants, the yatai they sponsored became bigger and more ornate. The Hida-Kokubunji temple was founded in 746 and is the oldest in the region. The city is famous for shunkei-nuri lacquerware. As the Japanese government has succeeded in bringing more tourists from overseas, Takayama has seen a big increase in visitors in recent years. More than 130,000 foreign tourists visited in 2007, a 27% increase from the year before. The town has placed multilingual signs to help visitors find the many tourist attractions.
About 50km west of Takayama is the village of Shirakawa-mura. Set in a remote scenic valley, the village is full of gassho-zukuri houses which have been relocated for preservation from other villages in the region. The name gassho-zukuri means 'praying hands' and refers to the steep eaves of the thatched rooves. This design was to withstand the weight of winter snow and also for the cultivation of silkworms. Many of these houses are two or three hundred years old and some are used as inns. Access is by bus or car only. About 30km north is the similar village of Gokayama. The isolation of the villages means that they maintain an otherworldly peacefulness. But because they are relatively unknown among Japanese, this is one of the best places in Japan to get away from it all.
The most interesting thing in this once-prosperous castle town and post-station is ukai (cormorant fishing). During the months of May to October, fishermen light torches on the prows of their boats, which attracts small river fish as the boats drift downstream on the Nagara River. Each fisherman has up to a dozen trained cormorants, each on a leash tied to a ring around its neck to prevent it swallowing the fish. He pulls in the birds to recover their catch and then sends them diving back for more. The practice is not particularly efficient but it dates back over 1,000 years and is a popular tourist attraction. Gifu is also known for its paper crafts, especially chochin (lanterns), ougi (fans) and kasa (umbrellas).
About 20km east of Gifu is Inuyama, whose castle dates from 1440, making it the oldest in Japan. Nearby is Jo-an, one of the country's three finest teahouses. Other attractions are Meiji-mura, an open-air museum of buildings from the Meiji Period (1868~1912), and the Japan Monkey Center. It also has ukai, on the Kiso River.
The small city of Seki has been famous for its swords since the 12th century and it also produces some 90 percent of all safety razors in Japan. The nihonto (Japanese sword) is renowned as a supreme work of craftsmanship and indeed as a work of art. As the trusted weapon of the feared samurai warriors, it gained an awesome reputation. The earliest swords date back to the 8th century and even at that time, the amount of work put into them and the perfection of their blades was astounding. One reason for this is that the sword has spiritual significance in Japan - it was one of the three Imperial regalia, along with the sacred mirror and jewels, brought to earth by the mythical sun-goddess Amaterasu no Omikami. Demonstrations of the swordsmith's technique can be seen at Kasuga Jinja shrine on the first Saturday of the odd-numbered months.
Gifu, Inuyama and Seki are all within easy reach of Nagoya, the most popular port of entry for the region.
- See our page on the official websites for each prefecture and major city: Guide to Japan's Regions and Cities