Dominated by the magnificent Japan Alps, peppered with top onsen and ski resorts, old castle- and temple-towns, and quaint old-fashioned villages in remote valleys, CENTRAL HONSHŪ offers a fantastic choice of terrain and travel possibilities. If all you want to do is admire the grand scenery – even for a day – that’s easily done thanks to the Shinkansen line that zips from Tokyo to Nagano, where you should pause long enough to visit the venerable and atmospheric temple, Zenkō-ji.
Apart from the highlights mentioned opposite, other places in the region known locally as Chubu that are worth seeing include the summer resort of Karuizawa and the charming village of Nozawa Onsen, northeast of Nagano, where you’ll find excellent ski slopes and free hot-spring baths. Hakuba is another popular skiing and outdoor activities destination, while in the southern half of Nagano-ken it’s possible to explore several immaculately preserved post towns along the old Nakasendō route from Kyoto to Tokyo, even hiking for a day between the best of them – Tsumago and Magome.
On the west side of the Alps, there’s the convivial town of Takayama and the unusual A-frame thatched houses of the Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama valleys, where three villages – Ogimachi, Suganuma and Ainokura – have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This area can also be accessed from the Sea of Japan, where the elegant, historic city of Kanazawa is an ideal base. The tranquil fishing villages dotted around the rugged coastline of the Noto Hantō peninsula, northeast of Kanazawa, are also worth searching out.
Along the southern Pacific Ocean side of Chubu run the main expressways and train lines that link Tokyo with the Kansai region. Ugly vistas of rampant industrialization bracket these transportation links, yet even here there are places worth stopping to see, including Japan’s fourth main city, Nagoya, home to the region’s main airport. This enjoyable and easily negotiated metropolis can be used as a base for day-trips to the attractive castle town of Inuyama, where you can see summertime displays of the ancient skill of ukai (cormorant fishing), or to Meiji Mura, an impressive outdoor museum of architecture dating from the beginning of the twentieth century.
A couple of train lines cut across from the southern to the northern coasts, but many places in the mountains are only served by buses, which can be infrequent and pricey. Sometimes renting a car will be your best bet, although some of the most scenic routes – such as the Skyline Drive across the Alps from Gifu-ken to Nagano-ken – are closed in winter because of deep snow. The mountain resort of Kamikōchi and the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine route are similarly off limits between November and April.