While Tokyo is a must-see, there’s so much more to Japan. When the Hokuriku Shinkansen (bullet train) began running in March 2015, it opened up a world of possibilities for travelers who want to explore a completely different side of the country. In as little as a day or a long weekend, visitors can get in touch with nature, relax in the natural hot springs of an onsen bath, experience ancient craftwork and discover the country’s best-kept culinary secrets in the nearby regions of Nagano and Kanazawa (Ishikawa) – only a 1.5-hour and 2.5-hour journey away, respectively.
Mountainous Nagano has been a longtime local favorite thanks to its adventure, nature and relaxation offerings. This region is best known as a world-class ski destination due to its 10,000-foot-tall peaks (some of the highest in the country) and reliable powdery snowfall. (Nagano hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics.) Some of Japan’s nicest luxury Ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) happen to be in Nagano’s quaint villages and towns. The laidback village of Nozawa started out as an onsen enclave and grew into a popular ski destination full of restaurants and nightlife. Visitors can still enjoy many of the free public onsen year-round. The village of Hakuba is a winter sports mecca with an energetic après-ski scene. Both the Nozawa and Hakuba Valley areas get about 10 meters of snowfall annually. Thanks to an elevation of 2,625 feet, this is a popular summer destination to escape city heat and get some fresh air.
Outside of winter, Nagano is a haven for hikers and mountain bikers. Nature lovers and photographers will particularly enjoy Karuizawa’s Shiraito Waterfalls, where hundreds of waterfalls stretch 230 feet across, creating the panoramic view of white strings that give the falls their name. No visit to Nagano is complete without a dip in the hot springs – just ask the famous wild “snow monkeys.” Set in the Yokoyu River Valley in the northern section of Nagano, Jigokudani Yaen-koen (Snow Monkey Park) is one of the few places in the world where you can observe these beautiful Japanese macaques in the wild. The area is snow-covered about four months a year, but the snow monkeys bathe daily when the temperature drops and the air is chilly.
The hook-shaped Ishikawa Prefecture, which stretches out from the center of the country into the Sea of Japan, used to be a challenge for visitors to get to before the Hokuriku Shinkansen opened. Now, it’s quickly becoming one of the most popular destinations for travelers looking to experience food, art and culture. This area has been one of the most important creative enclaves in Japan since the Edo Period (1603 to 1867). Kanazawa, the capital city, is a designated UNESCO Creative City of Crafts and Folk Arts – thanks in part to Kanazawa-haku, the ancient craft of silver and gold foiling, which is used in everything from décor to pastries. Kanazawa is also known for other covetable craftwork, like maki-e lacquer-ware, Kutani-yaki porcelain (which has been made in the region since the 17th century), swordsmithery and Kaga-Yuzen silk dyeing (used to decorate intricate kimonos).
Kanazawa (often called “little Kyoto”) is steeped in history and superlatives. Nearby Mount Haku-san (8,865 feet tall) is one of Japan’s Three Sacred Mountains, along with Mount Fuji and Mount Tate. Kenroku-en Garden is one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. Along with Kanazawa Castle, the gardens were the center of power for the Kaga Domain for centuries until the end of the Edo Period. Visitors can experience one of the country’s most iconic ancient gardens by strolling through these 28-acre grounds full of beautiful flowers, trees, ponds, waterfalls and teahouses. Kenroku-en has all of the features of a traditional feudal-era Japanese garden (ponds, stone paths, stone lanterns, waterfalls, streams, hills and teahouses).
Kanazawa is probably Japan’s best-kept culinary secret. The region’s diverse geography gives it a truly unique cuisine. Seafood lovers will be especially enamored with the local cold-water catches. This is one of the best places to try Kaiseki, considered the pinnacle of Japanese haute cuisine. In this feast of small dishes, each course highlights a local seasonal specialty with a typically Japanese emphasis on masterful presentation. Since its opening in 1721, Omi-cho Ichiba market has been “The Kitchen of Kanazawa.” This 22,000-square-foot marketplace has more than 190 small stalls and stores that sell everything from fresh produce to underwater delicacies. Kanazawa’s oldest sake brewery opened almost a century earlier, in 1625. Fukumitsuya makes its sake from purified underground water sources, infused with minerals from the region’s rain and snowfall. The brewery is best known for its “Junmai-gura,” made using only water, rice and koji.
HOW TO GET THERE
The Hokuriku Shinkansen line has three shinkansen services: Kagayaki, Hakutaka and Tsurugi. Both the Kagayaki and Hakutaka travel from Tokyo to Nagano and Kanazawa, but the Kagayaki is the fastest.
Nagano city (the capital of Nagano prefecture) is approximately 90 minutes from Tokyo. Take the Kagayaki Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Nagano Station.
Kanazawa (the capital of Ishikawa prefecture) is approximately 150 minutes from Tokyo. Take the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Kanazawa Station.
The journey between Nagano and Kanazawa takes approximately 60 minutes on the Kagayaki Hokuriku Shinkansen or approximately 90 minutes on the Hakutaka Hokuriku Shinkansen.