What makes Japan so amazing to travel in is the variety—with every new prefecture, city or village you find something unique. Consisting of 47 prefectures, including 43 traditional prefectures, two urban prefectures (Osaka and Kyoto), one territory (Hokkaido) and the Metropolis of Tokyo, Japan has a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of surprises to unearth. If you’re thinking of venturing outside of the obvious, here are some highlights to help you pick your prefecture!
We’ve divided them by region, and this focuses on the central region of Chubu. Sandwiched by Kansai and Kanto, and a brush with Tohoku, Chubu is home to the unusual. With monkeys making the most of onsen, plenty of islands to explore, and incredible festivals of rampage, nakedness and battles, you never know what you’ll come across!
Niigata – 新潟県
Niigata is a mysterious place with a history of gold-mining, sake-brewing and geishas—as well as having one of the best ski resorts in Japan and an island with traditional boating and puppets, so if it wasn’t on your list before, it should be now!
- Yuzawa Skiing Village is one of the largest resorts and is only 2 hours from Tokyo, with a good reputation for deep powder and with a season running from November to May. There are plenty of onsen here too, perfect after a long day on the slopes.
- Sado Island: Go on a tarai-bune (a Japanese tub boat) in Ogi port, usually used for collecting shellfish and seaweed from rocks—you can ride them for 450yen. There’s a cedar forest with 400-year-old trees, a traditional puppet display and plenty of fresh fish to go with the high-quality rice!
- Furumachi Geigi: One of the three most prestigious areas for geisha in Japan (alongside Kyoto and Shinbashi), Furumachi has a long history with the beautiful performers as it was previously a key port with plenty of visitors. Although numbers have fallen since then, there are still many to see in the town.
Festival: Echigo Urasa Bishamon-do: Described as a naked jostling festival, this 1,200-year-old ritual takes place in March and is one of the most unusual in Japan. After the usual parades, the crowd of worshipers compete to be the first to worship the God of war and wealth.
Food: For those with a sweet tooth, sasadango is made with mugwort-flavored mochi and red beans wrapped in bamboo leaves. If you’re a savory person, try noppe: a simple vegetable stew made with soy sauce and seasonal veg including shiitake, burdock and carrots to create a warming and hearty dish.
Toyama – 富山県
A quiet and rural feel presides over Toyama, with a stunning bay, mountain scenes and perfectly maintained gassho-style villages, it’s the perfect place to get back to the roots of Japan, as well as seeing some incredible feats of nature.
- Takamagaha Onsen:: Lovers of both onsen and hiking should take this four day round trip hike to Japan’s most remote hot Spring. Whilst this trip is quite a serious expendition, you’ll be rewarded by pristine nature, distant mountains views and four fantastic days free from the noise of mobile phone notifications.
- Kurobe Gorge: You can view Japan’s deepest gorge via trolley train and enjoy the stunning views of the turquoise water below surrounded by mountains and forests. The nearby onsen town of Unazuki is said to have the clearest water in Japan, and is especially good for achieving beautiful skin, so much so it has it’s own word for the smooth sensation: tsurutsuru. You can soak in open-air baths and enjoy views of the gorge below.
- Toyama Bay: Officially one of the most beautiful bays in the world, Toyama Bay has glowing firefly squid, a buried forest, floating festivals and a stunning mountain backdrop, earning it’s title and then some!
- Gokayama Village: Rows of large gassho-style houses fill this once lively town, infamously prosperous due to its production of niter, which is used in explosives. Built to withstand heavy snow, they get their name from resembling hands in prayer and are a great view into old Japan.
Festival – Tsuzawa Yotaka Andon Festival: Nicknamed the Fighting Lantern Festival, this parade sees violent collisions between lantern floats covered in murals of warriors making it a dramatic sight with a lively atmosphere.
Food: Toyama black ramen is made with a secret recipe of black soy sauce and chicken stock with a surprisingly light taste, and has been the winner of the Tokyo Ramen Show three years in row!
Ishikawa – 石川県
Stretched along the western coast and facing out into the Sea of Japan, Ishikawa has the stunning Hakusan Mountain ranges, gorges and stunning sea views—but is also home to unusual crafts like salt-making and gold leaf work, traditional towns and the popular city of Kanazawa as well as onsen, so get planning!
- Kenrokuen Park circles Kanazawa Castle and is considered on of the most beautiful feudal lord’s gardens in Japan, with yukitsuri—meaning “snow suspenders”—with conical structures made to protect branches, this can be seen for a month in November every year.
- There are quaint fishing streets in Hashidate, samurai houses in Nagamachi and barrier ruins in Ataka—Ishikawa has plenty of preserved areas to explore, all with legends and battle tales behind them.
- Okunoto Salt Farm Village and Hakuichi: The only place left that uses the traditional clay-based methods, this village is an unusual spot and stunning as it is right by the crashing waves of the Sea of Japan. Salt-making activities are available, or you can just wander around and watch the salt-makers at work! For gold, you can try gold leaf making at the Hakuichi Main Branch, with eye-watering displays on offer too.
Festival: The Abare Festival, aka the Rampage Festival, involves a huge wooden log being set ablaze and paraded from the city pier through the streets to the beats of taiko drums on the first night. The following day, two portable shrines are thrown violently into the sea before being retrieved, smashed and burned until they are unrecognizable. Intense. You can see these acts of wanton destruction on the first Friday and Saturday of July.
Food: Try the ishiru hotpot, a warming dish made with a local fish-based soy sauce which was refined by generations of chefs. Kaga cuisine has become especially popular and features plenty of gourmet dishes including jibuni, a duck dish served with regional vegetables.
Fukui – 福井県
Fukui is filled with lively fishing ports, idyllic beach resorts on uninhabited islands, dinosaur museums and ancient temples with excavated ruins…not to mention the stunning bays, mountains and waterfalls which fill the quiet rural prefecture. Not bad for somewhere you probably haven’t heard of before.
- Ichijodani Asakura Family Historic Ruins: Only 10km from Fukui City, this historical site has been excavated to display the houses of warriors, merchants and craftsmen, temples and streets—all forming a castle town from the Sengoku period which was ruled by five generations of the Asakura clan.
- Tsuruga City is home to some of the freshest fish in Japan, and the perfect place to try some of the local specialties including Echizen crab and Amaebi (sweet shrimp). There are markets, restaurants and sushi shops to visit and the town has plenty of history to boot.
- Eiheiji Temple is surrounded by towering cedar forests, moss covered boulders and the full complex stretched across a picturesque hillside with multiple gates, halls and is currently the main training temple for Soto Zen.
Festival: The Mikuni Festival sees 6 floats with giant warrior dolls, some towering over 6 meters, paraded through the stall-lined streets of the town before reaching the Mikuni Shrine. Held in mid-May.
Food: Buckwheat noodles are a firm favorite here, with Echizen oroshi soba being a great dish to try. The soba noodles are topped with grated daikon (radish) and a soy-sauce-based soup is added, making it a simple but delicious dish counted as one of the 100 top rural culinary dishes in Japan.
Yamanashi – 山梨県
- Fuji: Seeing the mountain peeking through clouds is a right of passage in Japan, and in Yamanashi you can enjoy the view, or—during warmer months—make the climb yourself. Different routes make it accessible to most, but there are plenty of places to see the iconic views, including the Shibazakura Festival in April-May.
- The Five Lakes: Great for camping, fishing and hiking, the five lakes also offer great views of Fuji. The easiest to access is Lake Kawaguchiko, and the home of world-record-breaking roller coasters, Fuji Q Highlands is nearby.
- Fuji Sengen Shrine is in a haunting cedar forest, with 3 protective trees believed to be over 1000 years old. Sengen-branch shrines circle Mt. Fuji and travelers visit the main shrine to purify themselves in preparation for their hike to the summit.
Festival: The Fuji-Yoshida Fire Festival is held to announce the closing of the Fuji hiking season (roughly) and involves a torch being lit at every house front in the town, until it resembles a sea of fire. The soul of the falsely accused Goddess of Fire is transported through the city (she burned herself alive in the Sengen Shrine as proof of her fidelity) before a firelight ceremony in the forest.
Food: Hoto is an unusual dish of stewed flat udon noodles in a vegetable soup which also comes in a pumpkin variety. The preparation is more similar to dumplings which is why they aren’t strictly considered udon by locals.
Nagano – 長野県
A beautiful area famed for skiing and home to the famous onsen monkeys, Nagano is a snow-capped wonderland, with plenty of cycling and beautiful spring towns like Matsumoto perfect for exploring by bike.
- Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park: Home to the now famous onsen monkeys, this park is a great place to see the Macaque monkeys which inhabit the area, before soaking in some of the outdoor onsen resorts yourself.
- Daio Wasabi Farm: Making use of the meltwater from the Japanese alps, the farm produces some of the highest quality horseradishes in Japan. You can explore the streams in an clear-bottomed boat tour and enjoy the picturesque water wheels and green fields of Azumino, before trying the wasabi for yourself.
- Tsumago Post Town: Considered one of the most well-preserved post towns of the 96 along the Nakasendo Road between Tokyo and Kyoto, Tsumago is a step back into Edo-era Japan. The original stone-paved streets, are bordered with traditional wooden houses and the village is located deep in the Kiso Mountains, giving it a stunning backdrop and ancient feel.
Festival: Nozawa Fire Festival is one of the top 3 fire festivals in the country. The men aged 25 must protect the base of a tower from villagers armed with burning torches, while the men aged 42 protect the top, but it eventually burns at the climax of the night. Nagano is also home to Onbashira, Japan’s deadliest festival, but as it is only held every 6 years, the next is not until 2022.
Food: While Nagano is synonymous with buckwheat noodles, a more unusual specialty worth trying are oyaki dumplings. Flour dumplings stuffed with vegetables and seasoned with miso and soy sauce, they are warming and you can even make your own in the farmhouses of Ogawa Village, the largest producer in the world!
Gifu – 岐阜県
Home to the stunning traditional houses of Shirakawago and onsens buried in snow covered mountain ranges, Gifu is a natural wonderland, with bustling market towns, traditional streets and plenty of sake breweries to explore!
- Shirakawago is the best place in Japan to see gassho-zukuri houses (pictured above), especially stunning when buried in winter snow and illuminated softly. The oldest home is still partly open to the public, and you can view the village in all its glory from the Shiroyama Viewpoint.
- Cormorant fishing on the Nagara River in Gifu City takes place in the summer months and is a fascinating spectacle. The cormorants and their masters are guided by firelight as they catch sweetfish, and the festival has had many important guests, including Charlie Chaplin, who visited more than once to enjoy the haunting sight.
- Takayama’s Sanmachi Suji streets are like traveling back in time the narrow streets are lined with merchant houses, galleries, traditional restaurants and and sake breweries, some of which are over 400 years old. You can walk to the nearby temples and shrines and try the street food, as well as rise early for the riverside markets.
Festival: The Gujo Dance Festival is a 30-day dance-athon where participation is key, with four days in particular seeing the dancing go through the night. The central dance tower is surrounded by crowds enjoying the summer nights and dancing together in traditional yukata and geta (traditional Japanese sandals).
Food: Hida beef is highly regarded thanks to its tenderness and can be enjoyed as steak, grilled on skewers or in hotpots—basically in any form! Find a shabu-shabu restaurant and enjoy it with some local sake.
Shizuoka – 静岡県
Right between Tokyo and Osaka, Shizuoka also lays claim to Mt. Fuji with plenty of great viewing spots, as well as plenty of other great mountains! There are lots of ropeways, though, if hiking isn’t for you, and an amazing array of temples and shrines, as well as valleys, bays and forests to explore.
- Sumata Valley: Return to nature and head to this stunning valley for rope-bridges, exploring and open-air onsen. Half an hour by bus from Senzu Station, you’ll soon forget about busy streets and crowded trains.
- Kunozan Toshogu is the oldest Toshogu shrine in the country, and has intricate and highly decorative woodwork, bright colors and detailed paintings which are beautifully cared for to this day. It can be reached using the Nihondaira ropeway which has stunning views of tea fields, Suruga Bay as well as Mt. Fuji.
- Izu Shaboten Park has many sights, but none many as cute as the winter Capybara onsen. Soaking away with yuzu to stay warm in winter months, these guys give Nagano’s monkeys a run for their money.
Festival: Hamamatsu Kite festival is an ancient celebration dating back to the 16th century and features hundreds of amazing kites flown above the sand dunes before the enter a battle to be the last kite standing, as opponents try and cut each other’s strings with friction. In the evening there are glowing parades of over 100 floats!
Food: Shizuoka prides itself on seafood, so be sure to try the sakuraebi: small cherry shrimp served in a myriad of ways. They also have a Shizuoka version of oden, which uses a dark beef and soy-sauce broth, darkening every time it’s replenished—great for warming up in winter!
Aichi – 愛知県
Known as the home of the samurai thanks to it’s strategically valuable rice plains, rivers and bay which were fought over during the Sengoku (warring states period), Aichi has plenty of history to discover. If you have time, head to Himakajima, an island in Mikawa Bay famed for its octopus and seafood!
- Mt. Horaiji is an untouched treasure trove of shrines and hidden spots, perfect for hikes and walks, with stunning Autumn leaves and perfectly maintained along the way. The Horaiji Temple is nestled into the mountainside and can be reached by climbing the winding 1,425 steps
- Arimatsu Narumi Tie-dying is an intricate and time-consuming art that produces stunning patterns used for kimonos and other gifts. You can see the artists at work and tour the old streets with samurai-period houses on what was once the Tokaido road, linking Kyoto and Edo (modern Tokyo).
- Nagoya Castle was built to secure the Tokaido route back in 1612, and although mostly destroyed in WWII, it has been faithfully restored down to the famous golden dolphins which adorn it, and is a brilliant sight with lovely grounds to explore.
Festival: The Chiryu Festival is the only one in Japan where doll joruri and puppet karakuri performances are held atop the portable shrines on alternate years. The Shiohi Festival is also a great spectacle as carts rush down to the water’s edge and race along the shore.
Food: Hitsumabushi is a traditional dish featuring chopped teriyaki eel on a bed of rice, but eel is unfortunately in danger in Japan, and a pretty unsustainable option. A great alternative locak dish is goheimochi, which can be found at street stalls areound the area. It’s a baked rice cake dipped in red miso paste (Aichi loves miso) as it is a delicious treat.