When somebody mentions Japan, major cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto comes to your mind. Sure, you should visit them at least once. However, after visiting them, where else should you go for more of Japan? Have you heard of Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route or tasted the best wasabi / sake?
Check out Central Japan featuring Toyama, Nagano and Gifu Prefectures! Yes, in these prefectures, you get to taste the best sake of Japan and also taste the real wasabi straight from the plant itself!
Toyama is less than an hour flight from Haneda Airport and upon landing, I was attracted to the beautiful mountains as the backdrop of the city. That happened to be the Alps, which we will be covering later in this post!
#1 Stay at Toyama Daiichi Hotel
Toyama Daiichi Hotel is located just 20 minutes away from the airport. Being located in the city, it allowed us to explore a little more of Toyama after we arrived. We headed out to explore and finally settled with some authentic Japanese Ramen for dinner!
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#2 Chill out at Fugan Unga Kansui Park
Fugan Unga Kansui Park is a perfect place to chill out over the weekend! A large park surrounds Fugan Unga canal and you can just sit on the large lawn! Don’t worry about the grass patches being wet and dirty because in actual fact, it is short, clean and not spiky at all!
The Tenmon-kyo Bridge is also a popular attraction as there’s an observatory at the top of the bridge where you can oversee the park and enjoy the views of Tateyama Mountains!
Did you know that the Starbucks Coffee at Fugan Unga Kansui Park is one of the world’s most beautiful Starbucks in Japan?
I can understand why after seeing it for myself! The outlet is surrounded by such a beautiful park and the glass walls even allow you to appreciate the beauty from the inside.
Perhaps it’s good to plan a picnic here since it’s just a short walk from Toyama Station!
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#3 Get artsy at Toyama Prefectural Museum of Art & Design
Toyama Prefectural Museum of Art & Design (TAD) is a new place to visit and they will officially open on 26 August 2017! They are located just next to Fugan Unga Kansui Park, so you can head over after a cup of coffee at Starbucks!
TAD features art pieces from the 20th century and you can see many designer posters and chairs from artists representing Toyama and Japan!
TAD makes a good place for a fun family day out as your child can get to attend art workshops, play with the interactive panel screen which allows you to see and search 3000 out of 13000 poster works from this museum. You children will be full of joy when they see the rooftop garden! Parents don’t worry because you can get to enjoy the magnificent view of Tateyama Mountains!
Opens 9:30am – 6pm (Museum); 8am – 10pm (Rooftop) | Facebook | Website | Map | Museum Admission: 300 ¥ (Adult)
#4 Lunch at Mikizushi-honten!
Toyama is known for the fresh fishes from Toyama Bay! However, not all shops have access to fishes from Toyama Bay.
Mikizushi-honten is one of the few, which gets their supply from Toyama Bay, and we were honoured to be able to try the freshness from the bay! This is definitely one of our best lunches! Just look at the sushi!
Opens 11:30am – 2pm; 5pm – 10:30pm (Closed on Wednesday) | Map
#5 Get wet at MAX Kurobe Canyon!
Feeling bored and in need of some adrenaline rush? Why not head over for some White Water Rafting? It costs 8000yen per pax for a 1.5 hours session in the river. Do note that they are only operational from end April to end October as the weather during the winter period doesn’t allow for rafting at all.
Time Slots: 9am, 12:30pm & 2:30pm | Facebook | Website | Map | Admission: 8000 ¥ (Adult)
#6 Take some photos of the scenic Kurobe Gorge and Yamabiko Bridge
The Kurobe Gorge is one of the deepest gorges in Japan! The vertical and steep cliffs and outdoor hot springs makes this place a famous destination for scenery. Apart from the view, the other attraction is actually the Kurobe Gorge Railway, a sightseeing train that was originally built to transport the construction materials for Kurobe Dam.
Opens 8am – 4:30pm (Closed from December to Mid April) | Website | Map
#7 Sleep and Dip at Unazuki Kokusai Hotel
Unazuki Kokusai Hotel is located in an onsen town and you should not miss the onsen here!
We had Kaiseki (pictured above), which is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner. Although we did not recognise what we were eating at times, it did taste delicious, especially the beef in this meal!
Look at the amount of Sake we had for this meal! Thankfully, nobody was drunk.
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#8 Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route
The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine is a unique and picturesque route through the Northern Japan Alps, connecting Toyama City in Toyama Prefecture with Omachi Town in Nagano Prefecture.
You will need to “climb” the Alps layer by layer through the various transportations modes including cable cars, trolley buses and a ropeway. In total, it involves 6 transfers!
A special tip for you! If you would like to visit the Tateyama Kurobe Alphine Route, stay at Unazuki Kokusai Hotel during the weekend because they have a special direct bus up to the mountains. Trust me, this direct bus would save you a lot of trouble transferring the different mode of transportation up to the mountains.
The trip up via the direct bus took us about 3 hours but it was a pleasant 3 hours on our seat. You can either sleep or enjoy the beautiful scenery as the bus drives up the mountain. Before we continue exploring, we had our lunch at Restaurant Tateyama.
Their best seller was White Shrimp Tendon and I just had to try it. It was delicious but my mouth was a little tired from all the chewing at the end of the lunch. Time to explore the mountains!
Don’t they look amazing?!
This is the famous “Yuki-no-Otani” Snow Wall and they can go as high as 20m. The best time to see the walls are from Mid April to Late June!
The Mikuirigaike pond is so beautiful and blue! Apparently, it’s too purified that no living creatures can live here. On good months, you can even see the reflection of the mountains in the pond.
You can get your bottles filled with fresh natural spring water from the Alps! After exploring the top of the Alps, it’s time to head back and this time, we went via the traditional way for transferring through the various modes of transport.
So, to get to the next attraction, which is the Kurobe Dam, we had to take the trolley bus, transfer to the ropeway and finally transferring to the cable car before we reach the dam.
It was really tiring but you really get to enjoy the beautiful view!
Opens from 15 April to end November only | Website | Map
#9 Enjoy the splashes at Kurobe Dam-Ougizawa
The Kurobe Dam was completed in 1963 and it took a total of 7 years to build. At 187m, it is the highest dam in Japan. The water reserve here is about 200 million tons, which is equivalent to 160 baseball stadiums.
The construction of this dam was not smooth sailing but it was indeed very tough if you look through the history. A total of 171 heroes lost their lives.
Opens from 15 April to end November only | Website | Map
#10 Enjoy a beautiful landscape of Toyama scattered houses
Toyama is a big prefecture so it has plenty of land. With the abundance of land, you can see from the viewpoint that the houses here are actually all scattered. Surrounding the houses are padi fields, allowing the locals to grow their own crops. From this viewpoint, you can actually see about 10,000 houses. This viewpoint attracts over 100 cameramen during the golden week holiday (end of April to early May).
During the planting season of the crops, it actually looks like mirrors when you look down. One of the most popular observatories for this view is at the top of Mount Hachibuse, 10km away from JR Tonami station.
#11 Taste Japanese wines at Yamafuji Vineyard Horaisan Winery
Yamafuji Vineyard is the only winery in Toyama city and they have been around for 84 years. They grow 50 different kinds of grapes with a total of 6 hectares of land.
Over here, they cover the grapes to prevent insects from eating it as well as to prevent it from disease and dirt.
Half of the crops are used for drinking while the other half is used for eating. Many locals drop by just to buy the grapes for consumption hence they don’t even have to sell it to any dealers.
Opens 9am – 6pm | Facebook | Website | Map
#12 Savour Japanese sweet fish (Ayu) atAyu Ryori No Mise Ayu No Sato
Ayu or sweet fish is usually grilled or barbecued with salt in a skewer. This allows the fish to form a wave shape, making it look like it’s swimming.
You can eat the whole fish as it is without worrying about the bones. It is quite addictive as every one of us had at least 5 of them!
Opens 11am – 8pm | Map
#13 Taste the real Wasabi at Daio Wasabi Farm
Have you tasted a real wasabi? Probably not, as those that you have eaten are horseradish.
Meet the Wasabi Ninja! Well, not so, it’s just a nickname which many tourists gave him. Wasabi Ninja’s real name is “Hama Shigetoshi”. Aged 72, he quit his media job 4 years ago to return to Azumino for the “last job of his life”. Daio Wasabi Farm is the place where Hama met his first love – Yoshiko. At a young age of 15 years old, both of them fell in love but the school did not allow romance and since then, they haven’t met in 55 years! Hama hopes that with the media coverage of him and the wasabi farm, Yoshiko might one day come by to see him.
So after hearing Hama’s love story, he began to teach us about wasabi. I had a slice of the wasabi and it tasted really earthy and raw, without much of the wasabi that I know. But once he started to grate it, it tasted really creamy and the “kick” was really there. Now, this is the wasabi, which we are familiar with. So, the reason why that happened is because of the enzymes in it. They don’t get along with each other hence when both react together, it destroys the cell to create a new flavour, hence the “kick”.
We also learnt that the grating board used affects the quality. If you use sharkskin to grate, it is creamier and the “kick” effect will tend to last longer. Wasabi is best within three minutes of grinding and real wasabi will give you a complex taste of spiciness and sweetness.
At Daio, there are 15 hectares of farm with 6 million wasabi plants. Harvesting through the year will allow them to produce 140 tones of wasabi. 10% of Japan’s wasabi is produced here, making it the number one wasabi farm in Japan.
What makes their wasabi unique is the water, which comes from the natural springs of the northern Alps. Wasabi plants require pure and clean water within 10-15 degree Celsius. In the months of May to October, there is a need to shade the wasabi, as the sun is too strong. It helps to cut 80% of the harmful sunrays.
Wasabi is a really difficult plant to grow and it’s extremely labour intensive. Unlike rice farming, you can’t use machines. There are only 20 workers in this farm, so it’s really hard work!
When you see wasabi ice cream, you will be so curious to find out how it taste like! It surprisingly tasted nothing like wasabi. Perhaps my tolerance for wasabi is high, what I tasted was just really creamy and milky texture which is actually really delicious!
Don’t leave wasabi farm without buying their interesting products!
Opens 9am – 5:20pm (March to October); 9am – 4:30pm (November to February) | Website | Map
#14 Sleep with the best of Matsumoto City at Hotel Buena Vista
Hotel Beuna Vista is one of the best hotels in Matsumoto town. It is also the highest building, offering a magnificent view of the alpine mountains, if they sky is clear.
The bar lounge provides a nice view for drinking too right?
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#15 Explore Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto Castle is one of the most beautiful original castles in Japan, designated as ‘National Treasures’. Oh, you can only see 5 levels from the outside but there are actually 6 levels inside!
Did you now that the “Genba stones” below the castle indicates “power”? Nobody actually lives in the castle as they are usually used for storage of goods and weapons.
#16 Check out the quaint Nakamachi Street!
Located just 5 minutes away from Matsumoto Castle is Nakamachi Street, a shopping district selling many handicrafts. A few cafes were spotted too and I’m sure this is a good place to have some afternoon tea and some OOTDs.
The building here dates back to the Edo period and this street was formally known for selling liquor and dry goods. Many stores were destroyed by fire in the past and hence the buildings were modified such that they are “fire proof”.
#17 Love arts? Check out Matsumoto City Museum of Art
Did you know that Matsumoto City is the birthplace of the famous artist, Yayoi Kusama? At the entrance, you can see the installation by Yayoi Kusama. The museum also feature works by other Matsumoto artists.
Opens 9am – 5pm (Closed on Tuesday) | Facebook | Website | Map | Admission: 410 ¥ (Adult)
#18 Try the famous Shio Tendon at MiyasakaShoten
Big and crunchy tempura on rice! Ok, this is called Shio Tendon. Tempura on normal tendon is usually soaked with soy sauce but this version is salt based so you still get the crisp of the tempura.
We also got to try their mega prawn that is so delicious! Just look at the size of the head compared to the ebi prawn!
Opens 11am – 2pm ; 4pm – 12am (Closed on Sunday) | Map
#19 Love music? Check out Nidec Sankyo Music Box Memorial Hall
We usually see musical box in many ancient dramas and was actually fascinated by how it works. After visiting the memorial hall, we now understand how the musical box works and why it is so expensive.
The musical box workshop allowed us to have a hands-on to create our very own musical box! Every material was so fine and delicate. You have to be very careful at every step especially when you screw the nails because how hard or soft will determine how smooth the music is! It was a fascinating experience to see how this little thing can create such beautiful melodies. The cost of the musical box workshop starts from 3000 ¥.
Opens 9am – 5pm | Facebook | Map | Admission: 1000 ¥ (Adult); 500 ¥ (Child)
#20 Go back in time at Tsumago-juku
Want to experience the Edo era of 300 years ago? Tsumago-juku is a well-preserved post town on the Nakasendo route between Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo).
In order to preserve and recreate the ambience of the Edo period, cars are not allowed in the day and electric cables are buried underground.
As you explore the post town, you will be surrounded by cedar and cypress structures on both sides of the walkway, which are the main construction materials of the past.
Opens 9am – 5pm (Closed December 29 to January 1) | Website | Map
#21 Explore the historic Wakihonjin Okuya
“Wakihonjin Okuya” is an officially appointed inn to serve high-ranking government officials. The current building was reconstructed in 1877 using Japanese cypress.
Inside here, you will be given a tour in English to understand the history and to see how the interior looks like, the materials used as well as the considerations for usage of toilet.
Opens 9am – 5pm (Closed December 29 to January 1) | Website | Map | Admission: 600 ¥
Gifu Prefecture (Takayama)
#22 Stayover in the middle of the city at Hida Hotel Plaza
Hida Hotel Plaza is located right in the center of Takayama and many major tourist attractions such as the old streets are within a 15-minute walk from the hotel. Takayama station is also just a 5-minutes walk away!
Don’t miss out the Hida Beef Kaiseki dinner which was so delicious!
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#23 Explore Takayama City – Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine
Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine dates back to the 4th century. It is a prestigious shrine in Takayama because it has 2 big festivals through the year. Locals come here to worship the deity and pray for abundant crops for good harvest as well as good luck for the family.
Opens 8:30am – 5pm (March to November) ; 9am – 4:30pm (December to February) | Website | Map
#24 Explore Takayama City – Miyagawa Asaichi (Morning Market)
Miyagawa Morning Market takes place along the Miyagawa River every morning from 630am to 12pm. The market started since the Edo period of 400 years ago, selling agricultural products such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
The products sold here are generally cheaper to elsewhere and you can find many traditional snacks here. You can even try them before deciding to buy.
Opens 6:30am – 12pm | Website | Map
#25 Explore Takayama City – Old Town
Takayama’s old town has been beautifully preserved with many buildings dating from the Edo period. At Sannomachi street, you can find many shops selling crafts, street food and even sake breweries.
Here are some street food, which you should miss out – Hida Beef Sushi and Hida Beef Bun! Yes, this city is known for their Hida beef. And it is in the same grade as Kobe or even better!
Are you a fan of miso?
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#26 Taste the Number One Sake in Japan!
You can’t miss out this Funasaka Sake Brewery. You can have a taste of their sake here and after trying, we were really tempted to buy some back but we also didn’t want to risk it.
We tried the Number 1 Sake in Japan and it was extremely smooth. 1000 out of 1300 brewery in Japan took part in the contest and we were really honoured to try the best in Japan called Yotsuboshi!
Their Yuzu Sake was also very refreshing and is definitely a favourite among ladies.
Opens 8:30am – 8pm | Website | Map
#27 Try the specialty of this town, Suzuya Hoba Miso set meal
This was such an unique dish! Using the specialty of this city, the Hida beef, they grill it over Hoba leaves with miso paste and the result is astonishing! It can get quite salty so it is best to have it with rice. I must also mention that the service here is extremely good and they ensure that you are well taken care at all times!
Opens 11am – 2pm ; 5-8pm | Website | Map
#28 Visit the UNESCO World Heritage Shirakawa-go & Observatory
Hidden in the mountains is Shirakawa Village, featuring the unique “gassho” style houses. They are declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995, famous for the steep thatched roofs. It actually resembles “hand clasped in prayer” but was actually designed to withstand the large amount of snowfall during winter.
No nails were used in these gassho style houses and the root provided space for cultivating silkworms.
Wada House is the oldest and largest house in the village and they are open for public viewing. From the inside, you can see how these structures were being held tight and firm, just using twines and lashings.
Residents here play vital roles in ensuring proper living conditions. Each and every member have allocated task to do daily, such as to check the surroundings for fire hazard, etc. Despite strict requirements, residents are still proud to be living there.
Opens 8am – 5pm | Facebook | Website | Map
We hope that this post gave your an idea of what to expect in Central Japan and we do hope that you get to visit them soon too!
A special shoutout to Changi Recommends for allowing me to stay connected in Japan with their trusty mobile WIFI router with Unlimited Data Coverage!