No trip to Japan is complete without spending a few days in this central alpine region. Until the 20th century brought highways and railways to central Japan, villages here were largely isolated from the rest of the country. Unique traditions still linger in this region of snow-topped mountains, coastal cliffs, open-air hot springs, and superb hiking and skiing.
Come here for traditional architecture in towns like Tsumago and Magome, or to wander around thatch-roofed farmhouses in Takayama and Shirakawa-go village. Visit Buddhist temples such as Fukui's Eihei-ji, a major Zen center, Nagano's Zenko-ji, and Kanazawa's Nichiren Myoryu-ji (locally called Ninja-dera or the temple of the Ninja).
Central Japan is justly famous for its festivals. Takayama's biannual town festival draws crowds from all over the country. Sado Island parties for days on end during its annual Earth Celebration, hosted by taiko drum group Kodo, and the tiny town of Nanao on the Noto Peninsula lets it all hang out during its riotous Seihakusai festival. When they're not dancing in the streets, local craftspeople produce some of Japan's best ceramics, pottery, dyed silk, wood carvings, and lacquerware.
Escape summer city heat by trekking in the Japan Alps or strolling through the car-free alpine village of Kamikochi. When the winter snows start to fall, ski fields in Nagano and Niigata offer endless fresh powder, and the many hot springs and sake breweries in the region are a weary snowbunny’s dream.
Food lovers should head to the Hokuriku coastline, where Ishikawa, Toyama, and Niigata prefectures meet the Sea of Japan. The cold winters and abundant rainfall make this one of Japan’s major rice-producing regions, and where there’s rice there’s sake. The locally brewed sake pairs perfectly with sashimi straight from the ocean.