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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.