From food tours and samurai experiences to tea ceremonies and geisha, Nagano and Kanazawa have some of the most authentic traveller experiences in Japan, writes Michael Condon.
As travellers continue to return to Japan post-Covid, popular destinations such as Tokyo and Kyoto fill with hordes of tour groups. However, those who choose to explore further afield will find their efforts greatly rewarded. Nagano and Kanazawa cities, rich in history, art, exquisite cuisine and natural wonder, are just a few hours by bullet train from the nation’s capital. For international travellers, the Hokuriku Arch Pass now allows unlimited travel for seven days on JR trains between Osaka and Tokyo via the Hokuriku region for as little as 24,500 yen (around AUD$256), with an increase to 30,000 yen set from 16 March 2024. Now is the time to step beyond the beaten path and discover the hidden gems that await in Nagano and Kanazawa.
Things to do in Nagano City, Japan
Located about an hour and a half from Tokyo by shinkansen (bullet train), Nagano City is a former Olympic host tucked into the heart of Nagano Prefecture. The area is famous for ski resorts such as Hakuba and Nozawa Onsen, and some travellers treat it as a connection on their way to the ski fields. But the city itself holds treasures aplenty for those who decide to spend a few nights and delve deeper into its history. These are four of the best things to do in Nagano City on a multi-night stopover.
Enter a samurai stronghold
Nagano City is the home of the Sanada clan, a samurai family that rose to prominence in the Sengoku Period from 1467 to 1590, becoming one of the most powerful clans in the nation. Matsushiro Nagano is the historic district in Nagano City where the clan’s residence and castle remain. The castle was ordered to be destroyed by the Japanese Government during the Meiji era from 1868 to 1912 but has since been partially rebuilt.
Matushiro itself remains partially intact with the family’s residence and gardens open to visiting tourists, who can opt to join a traditional tea ceremony during their tour. A samurai training school with archery ranges and weapons training grounds is situated next to the residence, and visitors can even dress up in replica samurai armour and wield replica swords and pikes. The Sanada Museum showcases an impressive collection of authentic artefacts from the region.
Meditate at Zenkoji Temple
Zenkoji Temple is one of the oldest and most significant Buddhist temples in Japan, dating back to 642 AD. Today, the grounds of the non-denominational temple are home to a variety of Buddhist sects, shops and shukubo, lodgings where travellers can stay the night. Shukubo are particularly popular among those who want to participate in, or observe, the daily morning service when priests chant prayers. Tourists can stay at the temple accommodation where they will be treated to incredible shojin ryori, traditional zen Buddhist vegetarian meals, before sleeping on futons in the tatami mat rooms.
Zenkoji offers visitors the opportunity to participate in Zazen meditation, a seated Buddhist meditation, and novices are guided through the ancient practice by the temple’s stick-wielding monks. Don’t worry, the stick is for loosening stiff backs.
Search for enlightenment in the mountains
Togakushi Shrine is a sacred Shinto shrine located in the mountains near the city. The ancient place of worship was created over two millennia ago and is connected to the myth of Amaterasu-Omikami, the goddess of sun and love who threw the world into darkness. While Togakushi is comprised of five separate shrines sprinkled across the mountainside, many visitors trek directly through the towering old-growth forest to the major shrine. Here, pilgrims are granted just one wish – so be sure to make it a good one.
There are local shops near the shrine, including a soba noodle restaurant designed by iconic architect Kengo Kuma, and the workshop of Eiichi Inoue, a renowned artisan who makes products from bamboo he collects from the nearby mountains. A short distance away is Togakushi Ski Field, one of the closest ski resorts to Nagano City and a great ski resort for both beginners and experts. With 19 ski runs, a park and 548 metres of vertical descent, there’s something for every type of skier. Togakushi Shrine is a one-hour bus trip from Nagano Station.
Sample local fare
It’s not all samurai, temples and shrines in Nagano. Nagano City has a bustling culinary and nightlife scene and, for the uninitiated, there are even tours led by locals. Masashi Okamura from o8experience hosts several different tours, including an izakaya food tour through local hotspots.
Unlike Tokyo and Kyoto, where the ‘hidden gems’ are more easily found, it can be difficult for travellers to unearth Nagano’s best-kept secrets. Masashi, a long-time local with excellent English, takes small groups to the best backstreet hangouts, whiskey bars, jazz dens and izakayas in the city.
Things to do in Kanazawa City
Kanazawa City was the home of the Maeda clan, the second wealthiest family after the ruling Tokugawa family during the Edo period. Renowned for their style and appreciation of arts and crafts, the values of the Maeda clan have spread across the wider population to become a regional tradition upheld to this day.
The city largely escaped damage by US air raids during World War II, leaving many key areas of historical interest perfectly preserved for tourists to visit today. In the past, Kanazawa City was not easily accessible from Tokyo, but in 2015 the Hokuriku Shinkansen line was extended from Nagano to Kanazawa. It now takes just two to three hours to complete the journey. There are so many things to do in Kanazawa, but these seven finds are some of the best.
Step back into the world of the geisha
Kanazawa’s eastern teahouse area, the Higashi Chaya district, is the largest of Kanazawa’s three surviving teahouse zones. In the Edo Period, chaya districts were designated for entertainment, a place where geisha would dance and perform music for tea-sipping customers. Although the Higashi Chaya district is now filled with shops and restaurants, there are two preserved traditional chaya where visitors can see the instruments played by geisha, and the houses in which their customers would indulge in green tea and sweets.
Sample Junmai sake
Ochaya Shima Teahouse and Ochaya Kaikaro Teahouse are both open to visitors during the day and provide a window into a bygone era. Nearby is the eastern Fukumitsuya sake shop, a brewery founded in 1625, making it the oldest sake brewery in Kanazawa. Famous for its junmai sake, Fukumitsuya produces an additive-free varietal brewed from only pure rice, water, yeast and koji. The water is hyakunensui, or 100-year-old water, which begins as rain or snow that filters underground into the well of the brewery. Visitors can enjoy sake tastings at the bar or book tours of the brewery itself.
Stroll through the streets of the samurai
Located just outside the former Kanazawa Castle, Nagamachi samurai district is a collection of winding streets that housed samurai during the Edo Period. Be sure to seek out Nomura-ke, the restored residence of the highly ranked Nomura samurai family, as well as the Ashigaru Museum, which has two faithfully preserved homes of the ashigaru, the lowly ranked samurai foot soldiers of the time.
Try fermented sushi and learn samurai swordplay
A delicacy of Kanazawa is Kabura-zushi, a kind of fermented sushi made from salted yellow tail – a popular fish – placed between two pieces of salted turnip, then soaked in amazake – a fermented non-alcoholic drink made with koji mould.
Shijimaya Honpo is a local company that has specialised in fermented foods such as Kabura-zushi, soy sauce and miso paste since 1875. CEO Masahisa Shijimaya not only runs this successful company but hosts foreigners at his traditional merchant house, too. Masahisa is a fifth-generation CEO, a descendent of a samurai family and a practitioner of iaido Japanese swordplay. Masahisa allows visitors to see real, centuries-old samurai swords and to practise Japanese sword techniques with replica swords.
See a landscaped masterpiece
Kenrokuen is rated as one of Japan’s three most beautiful landscape gardens. It took the Maeda family almost two centuries to complete the garden, which was originally a private retreat for the residents of Kanazawa Castle. It was opened to the public in 1871. The castle has endured fire damage over the years and was once held by Kanazawa University, but has since been reclaimed by the city, and then partially rebuilt in the 1990s. Now tourists can stroll through the garden and the castle grounds, or join guided tours to learn more about its history.
Buy a souvenir from an 11th-generation ceramics master
Kanazawa is renowned for its artisans, a tradition cultivated by the Maeda family. The city is home to the Ohi Musuem and Ohi Gallery which are both dedicated to the work of the Ohi family, makers of tea ceremony ceramics for more than 350 years. The Ohi family originally made tea bowls exclusively for the ruling Maeda family but eventually began producing ceramics for the public. The living Ohi heirs, Ohi Chozaemon X (Toyasai), Ohi Chozaemon XI (Toshio), and his son Yuki Nara, carry on the family tradition. People come from all over the world to visit the museum and gallery, buy souvenirs and, if you’re lucky, meet one of the living masters.
Experience culinary delights at the Sea of Japan
Omicho Market is a must-do for any self-respecting foodie. The bustling market has nearly 200 stores with fresh produce, including fishmongers with some of the freshest fish from the Sea of Japan. Local chef Naoko Taniguchi takes visitors on tours of the market and hosts culinary experiences where guests can learn how to cook local dishes and – of course – eat them afterwards. Kanazawa is also known for its fermented foods, and products from Yamato Soy Sauce & Miso Co. have a unique take on this, making not only all-natural soy sauce and miso but a range of sweets using fermentation techniques.
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