The top 13 things to do in Nagano and Ishikawa Prefectures

Japan’s Nagano and Ishikawa Prefectures are wonderful destinations for travellers who love regal mountain scenery, fine architecture, rich cultural history dating back centuries.

This region of Japan has a burgeoning culinary scene and it’s starting to become a mecca for art lovers.

These are the best things to do in Nagano and Ishikawa on your next holiday.

1. Follow the Togakushi Shrine trail

Renowned as one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites in Japan due to its connection with the mythology surrounding the Sun Goddess and founded more than 2,000 years ago at the foot of Mount Togakushi, Togakushi-Jinja actually consists of five shrines: Hokosha (lower shrine), Hinomikosha, Chusha (middle shrine), Kuzuryusha and Okusha (upper shrine).

Visitors can hike along a marked two-kilometre trail up the mountain to the Upper Shrine, passing through old-growth forest and towering rows of 400-year-old cedar trees, or if time allows, opt for the seven-hour loop course covering all five.

Togakushi Shrine
Togakushi Shrine

2. Hit the slopes at Togakushi Ski Resort

Consisting of 19 ski runs connected by seven chairlifts, and a total of around 58 hectares of piste and 548 metres of vertical descent, Togakushi is particularly popular with locals and known for retaining its Japanese character.

The short runs and relatively straight-forward terrain make the ski resort well suited to beginner and intermediate skiers and snowboarders – an ideal choice for families travelling to the area who fancy a day or two on the slopes – while the lack of crowds means it is a fun choice for more advanced powder hounds looking to practice their skills in relative quiet.

Either way, the stunning Togakushi Mountain Range backdrop and proximity to Togakushi Shrine make it a must-do.

Togakushi Ski Resort
Togakushi Ski Resort

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3. Peruse the art at Nagano Prefectural Art Museum

Reopening 1 April 2021, the Nagano Prefectural Art Museum showcases the work of the eponymous artist – Higashiyama Kaii – who had a deep love for the scenery of Nagano, calling the prefecture “a spiritual home which most nourished my art”, and painted many landscapes of the region.

Rotating exhibitions of his work are held according to the seasons.

Higashiyama Kaii Gallery
Higashiyama Kaii Gallery

4. Tickle the tastebuds at Nagano City

If you base yourself in Nagano City, the prefecture’s capital and largest city, then your tastebuds are in for quite a treat. Here, the food scene is as vibrant and varied as the attractions.

Be sure to try the regional specialities: there are over 80 sake breweries in Nagano, making it one of the leading sake producers in Japan, and it is also famous for its fantastic soba noodles.

For a one-stop-shop, head to Shinshu Nagaya Sakaba, an atmospheric izakaya pouring a wide selection of sakes form over 72 Nagano breweries alongside excellent regional dishes such as Togakushi soba, horse sashimi, wild plants (sansai) and tofu.

Shinshu Nagaya Bar
Shinshu Nagaya Bar

5. Step back in time at Zenko-ji Temple

Less than a 20-minute walk from Nagano Station, Zenko-ji is one of Japan’s oldest and most significant Buddhist temples.

Housing the first known Buddhist statue to be brought to Japan (when Buddhism was first introduced to the country in the 7th century), the temple has been watching over the city – in one form or another – for over 1,400 years.

A morning ceremony is performed every day with visitors of any background or faith welcome to attend, and legend says that if you visit the temple, you will be “promised a life of paradise”.

Zenkoji Temple
Zenkoji Temple

6. Ride like an Olympian at Hakuba Happo-One

Conveniently located just one hour and 20 minutes by bus from the centre of Nagano City, Happo-One, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics, is one of the largest stand-alone ski resorts in Japan, and boasts one of the highest vertical drops in the country (at about 1,000 metres) and incredible views of the Northern Japan Alps.

Featuring 52 kilometres of slopes, 220 hectares of terrain, 23 lifts, a village brimming with lodges, shops, restaurants and cafes, and a mix of beginner, intermediate and advanced runs, it is unsurprising that Happo-One is the most popular of the Hakuba resorts.

Happo One Ski Resort
Hakuba Happo-One Ski Resort

7. Enjoy the serenity at Kenrokuen Garden

This serene swathe of green is one of the most famous pond gardens of the Edo period.

Situated in the heart of Kanazawa City, Kenrokuen draws its name (kenroku means ‘combined six’) from a Sung-dynasty garden in China which names six attributes necessary for ‘perfection’: seclusion, spaciousness, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and broad views.

And Kenrokuen has them all in spades.

Originally belonging to an outer villa of Kanazawa-jō and first opened to the public in 1874, it is justifiably classified as one of Japan’s “three most beautiful landscape gardens” alongside Mito’s Kairakuen and Okayama’s Korakuen.

Kenrokuen Gardens in Autumn
Kenrokuen Garden in Autumn © Kanazawa City

8. Pay attention to detail at the historic Seisonkaku Villa

Erected in the final years of the Edo Period by a Maeda lord for his mother, Seisonkaku is one of the most elegant remaining samurai villas in Japan.

Sitting in the southeast corner of Kenrokuen, the two-storey manor utilises two different architectural styles on the first and second floors: downstairs is done in a highly formal Shoin-zukuri style and features a room for holding audiences with beautiful folding screens emblazoned with golden cloud patterns, while upstairs is fitted out in the Sukiya-zukuri style originally used in tea rooms. 

Seisonkaku Villa
Seisonkaku Villa © Kanazawa City

9. Check out the architecture at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art

One of the most important works designed by SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa Architects and Associates), the award-winning 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art opened in 2004 and was created around the concept of a “town square” – it is perched in the heart of the city and surrounded by a green park with a number of open-air installations.

Drawing over two million visitors each year, the disc-like design of the museum and its floor-to-ceiling glass walls create quite the futuristic scene – looking like a UFO touching down in the middle of Kanazawa.

Inside there is a mix of interactive exhibitions, which encourage guests to touch, stand or sit on, such as Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich’s The Swimming Pool, an optical illusion that enables visitors to feel as if they’re standing at the bottom of a swimming pool and an Instagram favourite.

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art Kanazawa
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art Kanazawa © Kanazawa City

10. Visit a teahouse in the Higashi Chaya-gai District

The name Higashi Chaya-gai literally means “Eastern Teahouse District”, and the area is named so as it once hosted many chaya (or teahouses) where wealthy customers would be entertained by geisha with traditional music and play games over sake.

Although many of these buildings have now been converted into restaurants or souvenir shops, two of the geisha teahouses are open to the public during the day – Shima Teahouse and Kaikaro Teahouse – allowing you to see the spaces in which geisha once lived and applied their trade.

Beyond the chaya, the district’s traditional wooden buildings and lattice-work windows retain the atmosphere of their 200-year history.

Kigashi Chaya Street
Higashi Chaya-gai District © Kanazawa City

11. Learn the techniques of gold leafing

The production of gold leaf started in Kanazawa at the end of the 16th century and, today, the city accounts for more than 99 per cent of Japan’s gold leaf production.

Not too familiar with this tradition? A gold leaf is made by beating gold into an extremely thin sheet with a thickness of 0.1 to 0.125 millionths of a metre – it is so thin, in fact, that it will disappear when you rub it with your fingers.

To experience the craftsmanship first-hand, travellers can join one of the programs at Hakuichi’s Main Store Hakuokan or Kanazawa Bikazari Asano, which welcome beginner to advanced visitors and can accommodate one person up to groups of 70, depending on your preference.

Gold Leafing Experience
Gold Leafing Experience © Kanazawa City

12. Tour the samurai district of Nagamachi

Once inhabited by the city’s samurai, the beautifully well-preserved Nagamachi District is framed by two canals and encompasses a maze of winding streets lined with tile-roofed mud walls, making for a seriously picturesque stroll.

Nomura Samurai House, a former samurai house, is open for public viewing and displays a fascinating collection of family heirlooms, while the Kanazawa Shinise Kinenkan features a reconstructed old style pharmacy, a tea room, a traditional garden, and displays of local handicrafts.

Noura Samarai House
Nomura Samurai House

13. Bar hop the izakaya of Kanazawa City

If you want to immerse yourself in the local foodie scene, bar hopping around the izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) of Kanazawa City is the perfect introduction.

Serving local dishes such as fresh fish harvested that morning from the port of Kanazawa and Kaga vegetables, as well as a long list of sake from the Ishikawa Prefecture, the atmosphere is always cosy and friendly at these counter-only venues.

Join a tour with Green Tours and you will enjoy the added bonus of being guided through the menus in English, ensuring you try the very best cuisine and drinks on offer, and you learn more about the ingredients and history of each.

Bar hopping in Kanazawa City
Bar hopping in Kanazawa City © Kanazawa City

How to get there

Tokyo and Nagano are connected by the Hokuriku Shinkansen – often referred to as the ‘Bullet Train’ – which takes between 80 and 100 minutes, depending on which service you choose.

From Nagano City, it takes approximately 80 minutes by bus to reach Hakuba and one hour by shinkansen to reach Kanazawa City.

This article was produced with content supplied by Hello Kanazawa and is a Vacations & Travel digital exclusive. Be the first to see more exclusive online content by subscribing to the e-newsletter.

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