When planning a holiday in Japan, the first factor to take into consideration is the season. Seeing photos of the autumn foliage in the Japanese Alps made our decision on where to go in late October very easy! Matsumoto seemed like the perfect place to start, as it’s just a 3-hour train ride away from Yokohama and a perfect base for day trips and getting deeper into the Japanese Alps. Our highlight at the end of our trip was visiting the Gassho (thatched roof) Villages in and around Shirakawa-Go and staying in a traditional guesthouse in the mountains. Today, we want to share our itinerary with you and tell you about hidden gems and overrated tourist attractions around Nagano and Gifu.
Checklist before visiting the Japanese Alps:
- If you rent a car, get your international driving license or driving license translation (depending on your nationality) or get your license converted into a Japanese license (if you have a Japanese residence card)
- If you travel by train and bus, book the bus between Takayama, Kanazawa, Gokayama and Shirakawa-Go in advance, as seats on your chosen date and time might be booked out a few days beforehand!
- Plan your days as much as possible in advance and be ready to take the first bus, as shops and sites often close by 4.30 / 5.00 p.m.
Start in: Matsumoto (2-3 nights)
You can easily explore Matsumoto on foot within a day, visiting Japan’s olden wooden castle and nearby Nawate-dori, an Edo-period streetscape by the river, filled with vendors selling fish-shaped waffles, pottery and souvenirs. Although this is on the touristy side, we really enjoyed our stroll along this unique street. Before entering this street, make sure to pay a visit to the Yohashira Shrine, surrounded by beautiful autumn foliage and very peaceful (we were the only ones when we visited). Matsumoto is generally a thriving city with vintage second-hand shops, a brand new modern media center and fancy brioche gelato shops.
Hidden gem: Within just a three-minute walk from Nawate-dori, you can visit Matsumoto Brewery, tucked away in a little side street, selling craft beer that is only sold in selected craft beer bars around Japan. If you are more into cider, make sure to visit the cosy apple-themed Sidreria near the train station and don’t miss out on their happy hour from 3-7 p.m.
Day Trip from Matsumoto: Kiso-Fukushima
When planning our last day in Matsumoto, we were torn between visiting the famous national park Kamikochi, or visiting a small village in the Kiso Valley. As this was a Sunday, and Kamikochi is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Japanese Alps and we have made quite a few negative experience with national parks in Asia (poisonous snakes in Qingdao, sudden bad weather and stray dogs in Taipei, as well as bears in Hokkaido), our decision was pretty obvious. We decided to go to Kiso-Fukushima and Narai, as these are the closest town to Matsumoto in the Kiso-Valley. If you have more time than us, we would recommend visiting Kamikochi from Matsumoto or Takayama as well, and/or hiking along the Kiso-Valley on the Magome-Tsugamo Trail!
Tip: Check the train times before visiting Narai and Kiso-Valley, as they run irregular, only every 2 hours or so!
The train ride to Kiso-Valley was just stunning through the mountains covered in colourful autumn leaves! Next to the train station, we picked up a map from the visitor office and couldn’t believe our luck: we were the only tourists visiting this unique and beautiful town on that day!
You can choose between walking along the river and historic roads, visiting temples and free museums explaining the traditions and festivals in the Kiso-Valley. If you have more time (we spent four hours in Kiso-Fukushima), you can also visit two sake breweries for free tastings and regional sake, an onsen and a horse breeding farm.
Takayama (2-3 nights)
A 2.5 hour bus takes you from Matsumoto to Takayama. You can buy the tickets in the morning of your departure, the seats are non-reserved, so it’s not possible to prebook this one. The highway express buses in Japan are comfortable and efficient and the views along the road through the mountains just unbelievable!
After taking the first bus in the morning, we arrived in Takayama and visited one of its famous morning markets, which close at noon. Nestled along the riverside, the markets mainly offer fresh fruit and vegetables (most popular: the regional apples); however, we found them at least as pricey as anywhere else in Japan! We visited one of the temples, the way too overcrowded merchant street, the former traditional Japanese government building (definitely a highlight with those views out to a beautiful garden!) and lastly Hida-Folk Village, which you can reach by foot in 20 minutes from Takayama station. This is definitely not a hidden gem, but in our opinion most worth visiting when in Takayama, as you can go inside the traditional gassho-style houses with each having a different architectural style and story about the family who built it.
Hidden Gem: If you are interested in art, like us, and have a bit more time to spare in Takayama, you should visit Hida Takayama Museum of Art, which was awarded three Michelin stars for ‘beauty in total’ as it incorporates its exhibition (Art Deco, mostly by French artists) into its mountainscape surroundings. Stepping out onto the museum’s outdoor cafe, we enjoyed this view –
Day Trip from Takayama: Hida-Furukawa
We stumbled upon the recommendation of visiting this little town through a company that offers guided walks and bicycle tours there, but we were not in luck and all their tours were booked out for our dates. We didn’t let us stop that and decided to explore Hida-Furukawa by ourselves, renting bicycles from a little garage near the station. As we quickly explored the small city center and its’ sake breweries and museums, we cycled further and further out of town along farms and fields on small countryside roads.
Shirakawa-go (1-2 nights)
Seeing the gassho-villages was one of our main reasons for visiting the Japanese Alps. And we were not disappointed – this was definitely the highlight of our trip! Many guidebooks and websites recommend spending a night in one of the old thatched roof houses, but we opted for staying in a remote, Japanese-style (yet modern) guesthouse set in the mountains in close proximity to the popular gassho-villages. And what an experience that was! We took the highway express bus to Gokayama and the guesthouse owner surprised us by picking us up from there. By the way, this is one of the busses that you have to book in advance (either online or at the station) as the bus we initially wanted to take was already sold out. Once we arrived at Guesthouse Takazuri-Kita, we rented bikes and explored the surrounding mountainous area. However, on our way to Ainokura, we were scared by bear warning signs and turned around (what a deja-vu from hiking in Hokkaido!).
Tip: For our day in the gassho-villages, we decided to visit Shirakawa-Go first, as this gets overcrowded after 10 a.m., stayed for about 3 hours and then headed to Ainokura, which is at the other end of the gassho villages area and the ride took over an hour. If you are renting a car, you can probably easily visit all four gassho-villages, but if you rely on the World-Heritage bus, you need to check out their schedule in advance to plan your day well, as there only is a bus every two or three hours! We decided just to visit two villages, so it’s not too stressful and we can also have lunch in Ainokura.
Taking the first bus at 7:45 a.m. to Shirakawa-Go, was just worth it! We were the first ones to arrive in this absolutely stunning village and had such a peaceful stroll around the thatched-roof houses, the river and the ‘open-air museum’ where you can go inside each of the different houses (and we liked it even more than the one in Takayama). There were only two other visitors with us at the time and once we left the museum at around 9:30 a.m., Shirakawa-go’s parking lot was full of busses and the paths filled with tourists.
Kanazawa (1-2 nights)
Not situated in, but really close to the Japanese Alps, Kanazawa is just a one-hour bus ride away from Gokayama and Shirakawa-go.
When we arrived in Kanazawa, I had this ‘finally back into civilisation’ feeling. It’s a big vibrant city with a huge, modern train station, a castle, the famous Japanese landscape garden Kenrokuen and lots of temples and geisha districts. Some even say it’s like a compressed version of Kyoto. Of course, when in Kanazawa, you must visit Kenrokuen and afterwards you can explore Kanazawa Castle. Even though we liked it, we prefer Matsumoto Castle. This one was more spread out with an immaculate park surrounding it and you can visit the castle gates – there is not that much to see inside though. When we were inside the castle, I couldn’t help thinking to myself that this is just the pure opposite of Neuschwanstein Castle and its’ splendour and glamour.
Is there anything better than finishing a Japanese garden visit by visiting a traditional Japanese teahouse, drinking matcha while overlooking the gardens?
I know this is a long article, but it has been so much fun to reminisce, pick out our favourite photos from our trip and most importantly, we hope to give you travel inspirations for your next trip in Japan!
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