Japan conjures images of city alleyways lined with sushi stalls and neon lights; skyscrapers interspersed with cherry blossom. But away from the tourist trails, rural prefectures invite the work-from-home weary to connect both with nature and the country's creative heritage.
With that in mind, we're skipping Japan's big-name destinations - Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka - and putting together an itinerary across the lesser-visited prefectures of Ishikawa and Gifu. This is one for travellers craving calm and connection. Expect wide-open rural landscapes decorated with walking routes, museums showcasing ancient traditions and crafting workshops that say: come on, get creative. Forget crowds and rushing from A to B, this road trip is about embracing slow, meaningful travel.
Breathe deeply. This is the Land of the Rising Sun.
Photo: Ishikawa Prefecture Tourism League
The journey begins on Ishikawa's rugged coast, where mountains and paddy fields tumble into the ocean. Its thriving towns hark back to the peaceful Edo period (around the 17th century) when the influential Maeda family ploughed their wealth into local art, making the town of Kanazawa Japan's most thriving cultural hub. Many of those crafts - Ohi ware ceramics, Kutani porcelain, Kaga Yuzen dyed silk, Kanazawa lacquerware - remain today.
Photo: Ishikawa Prefecture Tourism League
Day one and two: Kanazawa
Ishikawa's capital isn't your typical smash-and-grab city break. Scratch the surface of the prefecture's long, artistic history by lingering for a couple of days (or more). Potter between museums dedicated to ceramics, Buddhhist philosophies and modern art, and get to grips with ancient crafts by way of hands-on workshops.
To begin: Kanazawa Castle, the city's most famous landmark and the (partially restored) former home of the Maeda clan - it attracts a fair few visitors during sakura season. After a lap of the grounds, wander to the adjacent, 400-year-old Kenroku-en, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. No matter the season, it's a postcard-worthy scene. After springtime cherry blossoms, summer brings perfumed waves of irises. There's a coppertone flurry of leaves in autumn and blankets of snow come winter.
Photo: Ishikawa Prefecture Tourism League
Later, split your time between the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, works by bygone local artists at the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Art and the clean-lined architectural masterpiece that is D.T. Suzuki Museum. The Zen building pays homage to its namesake Buddhist philosopher. An ideal spot for a meditation break.
By now, you'll have likely noticed gold leaf across the city's temples and palaces, jewellery boxes and scrolls - a fine art that has shone across the centuries. Over 99 per cent of Japan's gold leaf is produced in Kanazawa, making this the perfect spot to embellish your creative repertoire. Learn about the tools and techniques used at the Yasue Gold Leaf Museum, before rolling up your sleeves and giving it a go, or book into a one-hour workshop at Gold Leaf Sakuda where you can apply the delicate material to a pair of chopsticks, cutlery or ornamental boxes to bring home.
Next up: Ohi Pottery Museum and Gallery, a celebration of the tactile tea-ceremony ceramics made by one Kanazawa family since 1666 - its hand-building and low firing techniques have been passed through 11 generations. Tour the precious wares before settling in the next-door café with green tea served in Ohi ware, naturally.
Creative appetite satisfied, it's time to tackle hunger of a different kind at Omicho Market, Kanazawa's largest fresh food market since the Edo Period. Unsurprisingly, seafood shines here. Buri (yellowtail jack fish), crab and nodoguro (blackthroat seaperch) draped over rice bowls are a strong order. Alternatively, opt for a plate of gorojima-kintoki, a fried sweet potato.
Stay: Conveniently located Maki No Oto is a peaceful retreat away from the hubbub. Fill up on Ishikawa's finest farm-to-plate kaiseki menu before retreating to one of the immaculate guest rooms - all pale woods, tatami floors and private baths. Exactly what you need to get a good 40 winks.
Day three: Kaga Onsen
After flexing those creative muscles and packing in the museum visits, it's time for a long soak in the hot springs and traditional bath houses scattered across Kaga's four onsens: Yamashiro, Yamanaka, Awazu and Katayamazu.
Kikunoyu bath house is our pick thanks to the lush forest views and the mineral-rich waters that help our jet-lagged skin emerge buffed, polished and glowing. Small wonder famous haiku poet Matsuo Bashō was a fan.
Carry your blissed-out self across to the Hakusan Alpine Plants Botanical Gardens at the foot of the cloud-kissed Mount Hakusan, one of Japan's three sacred mountains - the others being Mount Fuji and Mount Tateyama. In warmer climes (July to September) lace up your walking boots and pick up a scenic hiking trail that criss-crosses the mountainous border between Ishikawa and Gifu.
Worked up an appetite? Set your sat nav for the nearby fishing village of Hashitate, the gateway to the region's treasured delicacy: snow crab. Here, the fuss-free, hole-in-the-wall restaurant Kassen Shintoku draws culinary pilgrims thanks to the critical acclaim of global food critics and its plates of the most tender, sweet crab meat that will ever pass your lips.
Stay: If, like Bashō, you love a steamy soak, we suggest heading to the large, carved-granite rooftop bath of Hanamurasaki - a ryokan poised above Kakusen Gorge.
If time allows, before heading south to Gifu, take a round trip of the northernmost Noto Peninsula. Ocean-hugging highways make this a (salty) breeze. Let the wind whip your hair on Koiji Beach; trace the walking route around Ganmon Sea Cave's unusual rock formations or visit the Shiroyone Senmaida, where 1,000 rice paddies are backdropped by the Matisse-blue sea. To refuel? Wajima Morning Market, where locals nibble on sweet bean-filled rice cakes as they stock up on just-caught shellfish. Insider tip: char your fish on the grills in the centre of the market to eat then and there. Then spend the rest of the day nipping in and out of Wajima's lacquerware stores and workshops such as Wajimaya Zenni.
Stay: Slow-paced travel reigns supreme here. Check in to Shunran-no-Sato sustainable homestay to take part in foraging trips and harvesting with local farmers.
Catch a train or drive inland to Gifu along the Mitsuboshi Kaidou, or so-called 'Three Star Road' - it's one of Japan's best sightseeing routes. Alternatively, use the Three Star Route option ticket to travel by bus between Ishikawa and Gifu.
You'll know you've reached Gifu when you spot its jagged peaks piercing candy-floss clouds. Wander across wildflower meadows to visit dollhouse-like chalet houses where creative workshops express Japan's history through craft. Between them, you'll stumble upon fertile agricultural lands, community spirit and an abundance of freshwater seafood caught using century-old techniques.
Day one: Shirakawa-go
Lungfuls of mountain air? Tick. Forest treks? Tick. Mass tourism? No thanks. Landlocked and secluded in the Japan Alps, the villagers of Shirakawa-go - one of the snowiest places on the planet - demonstrate a fierce community spirit known as "yui". Residents meet once a month to discuss changes to the area and brainstorm ways in which they can preserve the natural environment, while encouraging visitors to immerse themselves in their daily life. This is community tourism done well.
Shirakawa-go's star attraction is its 300-year-old thatched-roof houses - or "gassho-zukuri" - that resemble a monk's hands in prayer. Dedicated roofers have passed down maintenance techniques for generations. Aside from being architecturally striking, the roofs are designed to withstand heavy snowfall while creating loft space for silkworms that substitute the village's income.
Stay: Ok, so you might not be able to move into one of these remarkable homes - selling is forbidden; they're inherited through family or marriage - but you can arrange a homestay here at Minshuku Goyomon. Expect to enjoy a piping-hot bath, good night's sleep and a deeper understanding of "yui".
Day two: Takayama
Beyond art, Gifu's craftsmanship extends to its culinary heritage, best experienced in Takayama, where hida beef is a speciality. It's pink as a cherry blossom, beautifully marbled and, dare we say it, one of the best styles of wagyu. Cattle are reared for at least 14 months on the Alps, feasting on crisp mountain grass and bubbling spring water.
Rise early to try hida beef at the riverside Miyagawa Morning Market - you'll smell the tenderly seared meat before you reach its bustling stalls. Must-try delicacies include korokke (potato) croquettes and the salty-sweet sizzling beef hot plate with beads of fat sitting like pearls atop the honey-marinated meat.
You'll probably have become quite accustomed to the daily dips in onsen hot springs by now. Schedule a soak at Gero Hot Springs, situated almost midway through Takayama and Gifu before continuing your journey.
Stay: Settle into Iori Stay. Pay particular attention to the abundance of local craftsmanship that has been used to decorate the hotel. And do nab a room overlooking the gardens.
Photo: Visit Gifu
Day three: Mino, Seki, Gifu
Reignite your creative spark by immersing yourself in Gifu's timeless traditions - workshops offer a hands-on connection to the prefecture's heritage and fill your home with conversation-starting pieces to boot. Flitting between Mino, Seki and Gifu city is relatively easy; we recommend starting in Mino and working your way south.
Tell anyone to sketch out what they think a Japanese town looks like and it's likely it'll resemble the traditional Edo town of Mino. Lantern-lit streets lined with craft shops; ancient temples backed by Japanese maples; and picturesque scenery of windy rivers and high-reaching mountains. Scenery seen, browse udatsu houses showcasing regional crafts, paying particular attention to the Mino washi paper. Since the 700s, it's been made from pressed kozo mulberry pulp and water from the Nagara River. Spot it on lampshades, sliding doors and fans or at the Mino-Washi Museum.
Photos: Visit Gifu
Make tracks towards Seki, nicknamed the "City of Blades" in homage to its knife-making legacy and the natural materials that make it possible. Each bladesmith is only allowed to make two samurai swords per month; so they fill the rest of their time crafting knives for camping and the kitchen - check out those of G. Sakai, which offers daily workshop tours and knife-making experiences.
Conclude your trip in Gifu city, guarded by its namesake castle that sits atop Mount Kinka. Catch a cable car to the top for far-reaching views and a chance to get your bearings. After an obligatory photoshoot, head back into the prefecture's capital to learn about the 1,300-year-old cormorant fishing tradition on the Nagara River. It's what put the city on the map. From May to October, fishermen use cormorant birds to catch the fish, beginning each evening after three fireworks have been set off. Kind of like a fishing festival. Haven't fallen hook, line and sinker yet? Head to the Nagara River Ukai Museum to demystify the sport.
Photo: Visit Gifu
Take a breather and grab something to eat at Natural Ayu Cormorant, a fisherman's house that's opened its kitchen. The lauded ayu sweetfish is best enjoyed slightly salted and grilled. No fancy plating here. Don't turn down an invitation to try several variations of the local sake, the abundance of locally harvested rice combined with the gleaming waters means the sake is a masterpiece in its own right.
Stay: Base yourself at the Juhachiro to hop between Gifu's attractions.
Insider tip: Winter-sports fan? Snowshoe it to the Takasu Mountains, only an hour-and-30-minute drive from central Gifu city. It's the biggest interlinked snow resort in central Japan and has routes to suit everyone from black piste daredevils to snow plough beginner blues. Snow falls steadily from November to May making one of the longest snow seasons worldwide.