Japan: Chubu Region

by Apr 12, 2020

Chubu Region

In Summer 2019, we took another trip to our favorite country – Japan.  This time, we went to the west coast of Honshu for the Chubu Region – also known as the Japanese Alps.  Chubu is famous for beautiful mountains, traditional architecture, sake breweries and amazing beef.  We toured three different prefectures – Nagano (though only briefly), Gifu and Ishikawa.  Each one had its own charm and food culture.

Unless labeled otherwise, all of the pictures were taken with the E-M1X or E-M1 MkII.  However, a few images and all of the videos were taken with an iPhone X.  We want to share our experiences in this beautiful locale, and hope you enjoy them!

Nagano Prefecture 長野県

Matsumoto 松本

From Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station, we took a 2.5 hours train ride on the Japan Rail Azusa limited express to Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture.  Matsumoto served as the starting point for our exploration into the mountains.  There, we gave ourselves one afternoon to stretch our legs, rent a car for the rest of our journey, and see the town’s most famous landmark, Matsumoto Castle.  It is one of Japan’s three premier historic castles, one of the oldest to have survived in its original state, and unusual in that it was built on a flat plain rather than atop a hill or mountain.

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Before heading out for our drive up into the mountains and our lodging for the night, we had lunch at Shiduka.  This pretty restaurant was located within walking distance from the castle.  The friendly staff served us a satisfying lunch of oden, tempura and kushiyaki.  As we were leaving, the chefs were grilling delicious-looking skewers of goheimochi – a regional specialty made of mashed rice with pounded sesame seeds and miso paste.  As tempting as they looked on the glowing coals, we were already full and didn’t have time to wait for them to be finished so we could sample them, but we were able to try them at our next destination. 

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Gifu Prefecture 岐阜県

Takayama 高山

After 90 minutes of driving up winding mountain roads, our lodging for our first night in Chubu was the Kakurean Hidaji ryokan (Japanese-style inn) nestled in the Japan Alps amidst lush green summer foliage.  Like many mountain ryokan, Kakurean Hidaji was built atop the Fukuji hot springs and sported large, gorgeous open-air baths.  The baths had separate time slots for males and females, or could be reserved for private use.

We were greeted by the impeccably attentive staff outside the entrance, and were immediately awed by the inn’s traditional beauty and the surrounding area.  I could quickly over-use the word “traditional” in describing every aspect of our experience at Kakurean Hidaji, so instead, just mentally insert the word into every description here-on out.  Our entire time at the inn, we could only imagine what it would look like in the different seasons, and vowed on the spot to return and experience each one.  We stayed in tatami rooms opening up to a peaceful (and private) outdoor stone bath surrounded by bamboo and Japanese maples.  Each room also had an indoor bath made entirely of hinoki (cypress). When a hinoki wood tub is filled with steaming hot water, its aroma is simply divine.

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A stay at a ryokan usually includes dinner and breakfast.  As with many ryokans, the meal is a major part of the experience, where the local foods are perfectly prepared and meticulously served, so it is expected for guests to arrive at the dining hall at the appointed time.  Kakurean Hidaji has a gorgeous dining room so large that each guest table was spaced far enough apart that we might as well have been alone.

Our dinner, a 13-course kaiseki (multi-course Japanese dinner) of seasonal and locally farmed dishes, was exquisitely arranged around an irori, a Japanese sunken hearth with a lava rock grill in the center.  In the fire pit, there were grilled salted river fish along with skewered goheimochi, the local dish we had missed earlier that afternoon.  The spread included exceptionally sweet mountain vegetables we had never seen before that evening, subtle soups and fresh fish.  But the hightlight was the Hida-gyu (beef), Takayama’s answer to Kobe beef, which we requested to be added to our kaiseki.  The beef were served in three ways; raw, nigiri and grilled.  It is no hyperbole or cliché to say that the high-quality beef was so buttery and delicate it melted in our mouths.

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When we returned from our delicious kaiseki dinner, we were surprised to find a lovely tray with origami and well wishes, including a bottle of sake.  It was a surprise anniversary gift from the ryokan!

We celebrated our night by soaking in both baths, and it felt so amazing!  While soaking, we marveled at how much we had fallen in love with this magical place!

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The next morning’s breakfast was no less grand than the dinner.  It was yet another gourmet Japanese meal.  Piping hot miso soup simmering in the pot with more fresh mountain vegetables, plus cups of yoghurt with mountain berries.  We also discovered a new regional dish called hoba miso, where the food is seasoned in miso and grilled on magnolia leaves over a shichirin (small charcoal grill).  It immediately became one of our new favorites.

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Our next destination was the town of Takayama, a one-hour drive away.  Takayama is special – both historically and in our hearts.  It’s isolated location preserved its local culture, leading to Takayama also being known as “Little Kyoto.”  We absolutely loved it, and could have spent several more days there in perfect happiness.

The main streets of Takayama were lined with shops and restaurants, adjacent to a charming Old Town section with beautifully preserved shops and houses dating from the Edo Period (1600-1868).  It felt like stepping into the past.

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Aside from perusing the wonderful tourist shops, there were stalls with many local dishes including Hida-gyu or craft beer, and we tried as many as we could.  Takayama also has a great tradition of being one of Japan’s best producers of great sake.  The sake breweries can be easily spotted by hanging sugidama (tightly bounded globes made of Japanese cedar leaves) in front of the shops.  We visited at least five sake breweries, all located in the old town, and not far from each other.  We sampled some truly special varieties crafted with the region’s pure mountain spring water and local rice.  Even a year later, we still crave some of the sakes we experienced that day.  The ladies also enjoyed trying some ume-shu (plum wine) as well.

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Still full from the sake and gyoza, we had a late dinner.  We were surprised to find most restaurants were already closed by 8pm or needed reservations – an important thing to remember if we ever return there.  Fortunately, we found an izakaya restaurant, Shikishunsai Yamashita, that was still serving food and had seats available.  We weren’t used to the zashiki seating (a low table set on tatami flooring), but the food was delicious enough to forget about any discomfort.

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Shirakawa-go 白川郷

The next day we set off on the Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway.  On the way we traversed through the 10.7 km long Hida Tunnel, Japan’s 2nd longest road tunnel.  We were driving underground for about 20 minutes!

After an hour’s drive, we arrived at Ogimachi, the largest of three villages known collectively as Shirakawa-gosituated in remote valleys surrounded by high and rugged mountains.  These pristine villages are UNESCO World Heritage Sites famous for their traditional gassho-zukuri (“prayer hands”) farmhouses.  They have distinct, sharply sloped thatched roofs reminiscent of their namesake, and designed to easily shed the heavy mountain winter snows.  Despite their historical nature and the heavy tourism, these are still working, lived-in farmhouses, as they have been for hundreds of years.

We arrived quite early in the morning, so there were only a few other tourists.  Ogimachi was really different from all the places we’ve visited in Japan.  Serene farmhouses were surrounded by meticulous rice paddies and dark green mountain slopes.  Koi fish swam in the clear-water drainage trenches, colorful flowers bloomed wild and attracted butterflies and tiny frogs, and farmers tended to their fields.  We even saw a red fox exploring one of the houses on the outskirts of the village.  We hiked up a hill to Tenshukaku Observatory to get a better view of the entire valley, and took hundreds of pictures.  The observatory area had plenty of places to rest, with a cafe and souvenir shop.  By the time we went back down to the village, it was around noon, and tourists had arrived in busloads.  We were glad we had arrived early.  While it was time to move on, Ogimachi was another destination we could see returning to in the winter time, perhaps to stay in one of the guesthouses!

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Ishikawa Prefecture 石川県

Kanazawa 金沢

Another hour from Shirakawa-go, we reached our last destination in the Chubu Region.  The city of Kanazawa is located on the west coast of Japan in Ishikawa Prefecture.  It was never bombed in World War II, so much of its historical architecture is still intact.

We arrived just before dinner, and again found ourselves in trouble for not having reservation.  After walking around, we found Uogashi Sushi and settled for the omakase nigiri sushi – which meant we left the selection up to the sushi chef.  The tiny restaurant had only a handful of chairs at the sushi bar.  The traditional way to eat nigiri is by hand rather than with chopsticks, and Uogashi Sushi serves sushi the traditional way.  The nigiri was served two types at a time on a heliconia leaf, all different, all extremely fresh, and all delicious.  We also could not believe how inexpensive it was; about $35 for more than 30 different types of sushi, including toro (fatty tuna)!

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The next morning, we visited Kenroku-en, one of Japan’s “Three Great Gardens” – famous for its beauty in all seasons.  The garden is about 25 acres, and includes a monument to honor the dead, hills full of maples and horse-chestnut trees, stone pagodas and lamps, and in the center a tranquil tea house by a large pond filled with koi.  

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After the garden, we passed though Kanazawa Castle, where we saw some traditional fortifications and photographed dragonflies frolicking in the marshes at the base of the castle walls.  We also briefly stopped in the historical Takamine House with a beautiful Japanese maple in front.  Though we were challenged by our poor Japanese, a kindly man showed us around, and we learned that a noblewoman adopted by Toyotomi Hideyoshi lived there in the 1500s.  From there, we continued on our way to the Omicho Fish Market to try an assortment of delectable fresh seafood.  We then walked over to the Higashi Chaya District, a traditional neighborhood similar to Takayama’s old town district, where we enjoyed more sake and ice cream cones covered in gold leaf.  Kanazawa means “gold marsh,” and it is famous for producing gold leaves in Japan.  

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