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Central Japan: Toyama, Nagano & Gifu

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Central Japan’s different prefectures collectively share some of Japan’s oldest cultures and traditions.

Cutting through the region is the long-extinct Nakasendo roadway, which once connected Edo (the historic name for Tokyo) and Kyoto, the old imperial capital of Japan, leaving behind a number of old restored postal towns in Nagano and Gifu prefectures that are frozen in a bygone era. Another long-living tradition thrives in Gifu prefecture’s Shirakawa-Go, a World Heritage site with nearly a thousand years of history, and home to residents who claim the first samurai to ever cross swords were from their region.

Cutting across the Central Japan region is the Kurobe River – the lifeline of the region’s high-quality agricultural produce including its renowned wasabi, sake, and even wine. It also cuts a spectacular visual feast for travellers along the famed Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route in Toyama prefecture.

Together, Toyama, Nagano and Gifu offer travellers a wealth of natural wonders, unique seafood, and many stunning cultural sites, making them a perfect alternative to the bright lights of Tokyo.

Toyama

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Toyama sits inland of the bay that bears its name, and is renowned for the variety and quality of seafood that dwells in its deep offshore waters. Given its location, the real pleasures of Toyama lie outside of the city – from right up in the peaks of the Japanese Alps, to down the length of the Kurobe River out to Toyama Bay.

The famous Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route cuts through Tateyama National Park, with lush green hills and occasional waterfalls, all the way up to the Murodo cable car station (2,450m) at the top. There’s a hotel with an onsen at the station, perfect for spending a night before an early morning climb up Mt. Tate (3,015m) for sunrise.

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The route ends with a spectacular journey down through the mountains to Kurobe Dam, Japan’s highest at 186m. A trolleybus goes through the heart of Mt Tate where passengers take a round-trip in an open-air carriage, crossing 20 bridges that straddle the rugged gorge below. This is followed by a ropeway that has spectacular views during autumn, and a funicular that descends 500m to the dam, with massive plumes of water cascading into the Kurobe River.

The river itself is navigable on rafting trips, which operate from April to October.

Nagano

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The Alps and the rivers coming down from them give Nagano a climate suited for growing buckwheat and wasabi; you can take a stroll through Japan’s largest wasabi farm at Daio, or purchase some of its produce, including wasabi ice cream.

Nagano also has its share of historical treasures – from the beautifully preserved and restored Matsumoto Castle to centuries-old postal towns like Tsumago-Juku.

The village of Tsumago-Juku had its heyday in the Edo period, when powerful shoguns and daimyōs would spend a night at the village inn during journeys between Tokyo and Kyoto. The accuracy of restoration works makes it stand out among the 10-15 former postal towns along the old Tokaido Roadway.

Nowhere is the preservation more stunning than in the Wakihonjin-Okuya; the cyprus that holds up the building is now over 140 years old. A visit by Emperor Meiji in 1880 led the owners to furnish a room specifically to the emperor’s tastes, and even construct a special bathroom for his use. The Emperor, however, only stayed for 30 minutes for tea.

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Another treasure is Matsumoto Castle, the oldest and best preserved castle in Nagano, built in the early 16th century. Its distinctive black-and-white tones help explain its nickname, ‘Crow Castle’ – and the strategic holes and slits in the walls for firing weapons are a stark reminder of Japan’s turbulent feudal past.

Gifu

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Landlocked Gifu was historically the centre of Japanese sword-making, but in the absence of a sword fighting culture, other industries have come to the fore.

For example, Takayama is famous for lacquered wood, Hida beef (which is of a similar standing to Kobe’s), and award-winning sake. Takayama City is home to Japan’s best carpenters who use techniques passed down over a thousand years from ancestors that worked on the famous wooden temples in Kyoto and Nara. Historic parts of the town stick to a disciplined colour palette of black and brown, and the oldest buildings are about 200 years old.

A different kind of tradition lies deep in the mountains – Shirakawa-Go, a UNESCO-listed village dating back to the 12th century. People have lived in this harsh landscape for over 800 years – especially tough when battling the cold winters in homes made of wood. Gassho-style homes – homes with roofs that look like hands in prayer – dot the landscape, comprising 114 thatched roofs in a valley surrounded by mountains. The largest of them all is the Wada house, which belonged to the city mayor and was somehow simultaneously a silkworm and gunpowder factory.

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The communal spirit of ‘yui’ is still practised, where villagers pitch in to replace the roofs every 20-30 years, clambering on wooden scaffolds. Walking paths allow for a closer look at Gassho homes, about half of which are still inhabited by descendants of the original townsfolk.

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