Beyond the bustling cities lies a side of Japan that appears almost untouched. More than 70% of Japan's expanse is covered in mountains, forests, cozy local villages, and breathtaking shrines. Embarking on a two-week escapade to central Japan, I sought to immerse myself in this country's pristine landscapes.
As November rolls around and Fall bids adieu to Ontario, it marks a splendid time to explore Japan. The weather remains comfortably cool, festivities are on the horizon, and the foliage explodes with vibrant hues (reaching their peak anywhere from mid-October to mid-November).
Most of Japan falls within the temperate zone of the Temperate Rainforest. This means rain showers galore, much like British Columbia in Canada. Blend this moisture with higher altitudes, and you'll experience a notable chill in the air. As you prepare, focus on layering up to keep warm and dry, and opt for lightweight clothing — you'll be doing a lot of walking! While regular sneakers are sufficient, given the superbly maintained roads, consider packing hiking shoes if you plan to take on more challenging mountain trails.
A mere 1.5-hour train journey from Tokyo, Hakone unveils itself as a favoured weekend getaway, renowned for its hot springs and breathtaking views of Mt. Fuji. A stay at a traditional inn called Ryokan is a must-do, where you'll find tatami-style rooms and private indoor/outdoor onsens (hot springs) — a multi-sensory experience. Be sure not to miss the intricate multi-course dinner and breakfast that come with it. Greet the dawn at Ashinoko Lake to catch sight of the iconic Hakone-jinja torii gate – a favourite among photographers. Arrive early to dodge the crowds!
Reaching deep into Toyama, Nagano, and Gifu Prefectures, Kurobe Gorge stands as one of Japan's deepest ravines amidst a volcanic mountain range. A swift 2.5-hour ride on the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo drops you off at Shin-Kurobe Station. A connecting train then whisks you straight into the gorge via Unazuki-Onsen Town — celebrated for its thermal springs.
The Torokko train, known as the Kurobe Gorge Railway, treats passengers to an 80-minute visual feast spanning 20 kilometres along the gorge. This stunning journey comprises over 20 bridges and 40 tunnels. Opting for open-window cars ensures an unhindered panoramic view. The frequent rainfall revealed a myriad of mini waterfalls along the slopes, a sight that would remain hidden on a clear day. The rain and mist also created an ethereal and fairytale-like ambiance.
Nestled deep within the mountainous expanse of Gokayama in the Toyama Prefecture, Ainokura — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — emerges as one of Japan's most secluded villages. This quaint hamlet boasts over twenty meticulously preserved gassho-zukuri farmhouses, each surpassing 300 years of age. These historic structures have found new purposes as restaurants, museums, and minshuku (Japanese-style bed and breakfast lodgings). One of my most cherished moments was wandering through this enchanting village at sunrise. The misty mountain backdrop painted an exquisite canvas, with the farmhouses stealing the spotlight.
Gassho-zukuri, also known as Gassho-style houses, presents a rare architectural treasure characterized by:
A steep, thatched roof resembling hands joined in prayer
No nails; wooden beams are secured with ropes made from mansaka trees.
A roof inclined at around 60 degrees to withstand heavy snowfall.
Houses oriented north-south to minimize wind resistance and regulate sunlight for comfortable temperatures year-round.
Consider arranging a short stay at one of these farmhouses for an authentic taste of traditional Japanese life. This offers an ideal opportunity to connect with local families, share communal spaces with fellow travellers, unwind in tatami-style rooms adorned with futon bedding, and savour home-cooked meals for dinner and breakfast.
Venturing south of Osaka along the Pacific coastline, the Kumano area in Wakayama Prefecture is a UNESCO World Heritage Site — a sacred terrain renowned for the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails. These ancient routes weave across the Kii Peninsula, leading pilgrims to the grand shrines: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha, and Kumano Nachi Taisha.
Spanning over a millennium, these trails have beckoned travellers. With options ranging from single-day strolls to multi-day hikes, there's a route for every explorer. Short on time? Hop on a local bus to access the most famous segments of the trail, followed by a brief hike to the shrines.
Tip: Maximize your visit by snagging a Kumano Kodo unlimited bus pass. It's available at the Information Center and ensures you maximize your Kumano experience.