The area where an expansion of Komatsu castle used to be is now a beautfiful Japanese style park named “Rojo Park”. The old castle was the residence of the third lord of the Maeda clan’s Kaga Domain, Toshitsune Maeda. For its period the castle was quite unique, the shogunate had a”one castle per domain” policy but Komatsu Castle was allowed to be maintained alongside the domain’s chief castle at Kanazawa.
During the Meiji restoration Komatsu Castle was demolished and its site was sold to a private owner. He wanted to leave the people of Komatsu a vestige of the castle and the area was changed into a park. It is a very popular cherry blossoming viewing spot, with 140 sakura trees in full bloom during spring.
Besides pine trees and sakura this park has some amazing Japanese wisterias of over a hundred years old. These trees have lived so long that one single tree’s branches can cover a whole walkway with beautiful purple wisteria flowers.
Walking through the park you really feel at ease. Japanese gardens excel at blending a man-made garden into the natural environment. They are made so that it seems like nature itself built the garden. A good example of this are big rocks placed in waterways and the creation of hilly areas in the garden.
The park has a beautiful tea house and we were lucky enough to be in the park on the day of a big tea conference. Many people in kimono were in attendance and we got to see real equipment used for the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
Before you leave the park, don’t forget to say hello to all the Koi fish swimming in the ponds.
Toshichi Onsen is situated in the Towada Hachimantai National Park, which lies between Akita prefecture and Iwate prefecture. Sitting at an altitude of 1,400m, it is the highest hot spring in Tohoku region. It is said that its name came from the name of a logger, Toshichi, who discovered the hot spring. In this area, there are some open-air baths where you can take a bath and feel the fresh mountain air at the same time. Many climbers and skiers visit here every year. Towada Hachimantai Hot spring Resort including Toshichi Hot spring is designated as one of the Public Hot spring Resort in Japan.
Toshichi Onsen Saiunso It is a ryokan which stands around the summit of Mt. Hachimantai. Toshichi Onsen Saiunso has some open-air baths from which you can enjoy breathtaking view of both Mt. Iwate and Mt. Hachimantai. The spring water is milky white and it contains sulfur that is effective in treating neuralgia, digestive disorders, diabetes, hypertension, various skin conditions, poor circulation, etc.
Yama-dera (山寺) literally means “Mountain Temple” and is located in Yamagata City, Yamagata prefecture. It sits at the top of at the foot of the steep hill Hōshū-yama and is deemed an important historic site in Japan.
The official name of the temple is Risshaku-Ji and it’s more than a thousand years old. It’s an important outpost for Tendai Buddhism and a branch of the Enyraku-Ji temple at the top of Mt. Hie in Kyoto. The fire that has been brought over from Mt. Hie to Yamadera hundreds of years ago is still burning in the temple today.
Temple of a 1,000 stairs
To reach the top of the temple complex you have to climb a total of 1,015 stairs. It might sound very tiring but the climb itself is beautiful with amazing nature surrounding you.
Matsuo Basho, the haiku master was enchanted by the natural beauty of the temple environment. This poem was composed by Basho in 1689 when he visited Yama-dera.
“Calm and serene. (静けさや)
The sound of a cicada. (岩に染み入る)
Penetrates the rock.” (蝉の声)
After the long climb you are rewarded with a beautiful view over the valley.
The main hall of the temple sells fortunes and overlooks the valley as well. However, the view is obscured by other temples on the complex and surrounding trees.
After a visit to Yamadera you can go to the Basho Yamadera Memorial Hall which is on a hill just across Yamadera. The area has beautiful sakura in spring and offers a nice view on the Yamadera complex. Next to the museum is a restaurant where you can enjoy tea and sweets, and maybe while looking at Yamadera you will be inspired to write a poem of your own.
Yamagata is a prefecture in Tohoku, the northern region of Japan. Famous for its nature, hot springs, fruits, flowers and spiritual places Yamagata is sure to make you fall in love with its charm.
During the Edo Period (1603–1867) Yamagata city was a powerhouse due to its status as a castle town and producer of luxury goods such as Beni (red safflower dye used to make cosmetics and fabric).
Paradise for foodies
Yamagata has cherry and apple trees everywhere. During the harvest season you can even participate in fruit picking activities. The fruits are yours to keep of course. The rice from Yamagata, Tsuyahime, has been voted as one of the best in all of Japan. And don’t forget Dondon Yaki (rolled up okonomiyaki on a stick) and Konnyaku (plant-based jelly boiled in a soy sauce broth), Yamagata’s soul food! And if that can’t still your appetite, you can always participate in the Imoni festival where they make Yamagata’s famous Imoni (potato stew) in a 6 diameter pot.
Relax and enjoy
If you love Onsen, Yamagata has plenty to discover. Deep in the mountains you can find Onsen towns such as Ginzan and Kaminoyama Onsen. Or if you look to cool down instead of warming up, go skiing in the mountains while watching the famous Yamagata Snow Monsters.
The spirit(uality) and festivity of Yamagata
Yamadera is a more than thousand year old temple at the top of a mountain. This temple was founded as a branch temple of Enryaku-ji on top of Mt. Hie near Kyoto. The flame that has been brought over from Mt. Hie still burns in Yamadera. Find out more about Yamadera here
And if you are on a pilgrimage of self-discovery, don’t forget to visit Yamagata’s three sacred mountains: Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono.
On the first weekend of August there is a huge festival called “Hanagasa Matsuri” where hundreds of dancers perform on the street with paper flower-decorated straw hats. This festival is closely linked to the Benibana matsuri and the famous Benibana flower.
The Sakura in Yamagata are beautiful during spring and there are special light ups when they are in full bloom. Yamagata castle holds a special Sakura festival with re-enactments from the Edo period and the Mamigasaki River has beautiful lit up Sakura at night.
From Tokyo :
[Rail] 2h 30min (quickest) to Yamagata Station by JR Yamagata Shinkansen Line. From Osaka :
[Rail] 5h from Shin-Osaka via Tokyo (JR Tokaido Shinkansen Line) to Yamagata Station by JR Yamagata Shinkansen Line.
Even animals in Japan can’t resist a luxurious dip in an onsen. Have fun watching the onsen monkeys dip in the outdoor onsen till their faces turn redder than usual, or the capybaras monkeying around in their mandarin orange onsen.
For out of this world onsens, do the Beppu Onsen “hell tour” of various coloured onsens!
The Ohara Museum of Art in Kurashiki City, Okayama Prefecture, was the very first museum in Japan that exhibited Western and modern art. It is a private museum founded by Ohara Magosaburo to commemorate Kojima Torajiro. Kojima was a talented western-style painter who dreamed to open a museum and to support young artists in Japan. Ohara became his patron and sponsored him to study in Europe. He collected art works for the museum from all over Europe, including the masterpieces of El Greco, Monet, Matisse, Cezanne, Gauguin, and Renoir, which are displayed in the Main Gallery of the Museum.
Kojima focused on the essence of art and he had a spirit typical of Meiji Era, struggling for a supreme ideology between western art and Japanese aesthetic sense. Kojima’s works can be seen in the Torajiro Kojima Memorial Hall. Other extended sections of the Ohara Museum are: the Annex, the Craft Art Gallery and the Asian Art Gallery. The Museum also organizes regular events including Art Lectures and Gallery Concerts by world-class artists and musicians.
Strategically located in central Japan, Gifu-ken (岐阜県, Gifu prefecture) is made up of five (unofficial) regions and is famous for its beautiful mountain towns, clear waters, traditional cormorant fishing and mouth-watering delicacies.
Gifu was so named by the powerful daimyō (大名, feudal lord) Oda Nobunaga during his campaign to unify Japan during the late Sengoku jidai (戦国時代,Sengoku Period). Due to its location, the prefecture was also known as the “crossroad of Japan”. Through the Sengoku Period, Gifu’s powerhouse status was often referred to by the saying “control Gifu and you control Japan.”
Historically, the prefecture was (and still is) the centre of katana crafting in all of Japan, with the best swords coming from the town of Seki. Now, the prefecture is also known as the number one producer of fake food models in Japan.
Like other prefectures, Gifu also has its own yuru-kyara (ゆるキャラ, mascot): Minamo. Minamo is a smiling fairy sprite whose yellow stripes represent the shining sun, while his light blue pays homage to Gifu’s clear streams, within which he lives. He even has the power to unite people and bring them happiness through the things that he does.
Although tucked deep within a mountainous region, Gifu has plenty of sights to take in, making it a must-go spot for foodies, history buffs, hot spring enthusiasts and nature lovers.
Shirakawagō (白川郷)is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is famous for its traditional gasshō-zukuri (合掌造), some of which are over 250 years old. Named for their steep thatched roofs that resemble hands pressed in prayer, the A-shaped roofs were developed over many generations and are designed to withstand the heavy winter snowfall. The roofs are made without nails and provide a large attic space that is also used for cultivating silkworms.
The oldest and largest remaining gasshō-zukuri in the village is called the Wada House. It is still used as a private residence, but part of it is also open to the public and it has many traditional tools on display.
The best way to experience Shirakawagō is to stay overnight in the village in one of the cosy farmhouses. Just make sure to book in advance if you’re considering this stop in your itinerary.
Often referred to as Little Kyoto, Takayama is famous for retaining its original appearance and is commonly referred to as Hida-Takayama to differentiate it from other places with similar names.
Back in the Edo Period, Takayama thrived as a wealthy merchant town. The old settlement is a beautiful sight to behold, with whole streets of houses, shops, sake breweries and coffee houses well-preserved in their original elegant states – especially along Sannomachi street in the southern half of town.
Here you’ll also find the Takayama Jinya (高山陣屋), a former government outpost built during the Edo Period when the city was under the direct control of the shogun due to its valuable timber resources. Designated as a historical landmark in 1929, the building continued to be used as a public or prefectural office until 1969. It is now the last building of its kind and has been restored almost entirely to its original Edo Period state making it a truly one-of-a-kind place to visit.
While you’re there, make rickshaw tour of Takayama’s old town as an alternative way of sightseeing. Also, don’t miss the two morning markets held daily in front of the Takyama Jinya and long the Miyagawa River. There are plenty of stores selling local crafts and farm produce for you to buy.
If you love soaking it up in hot springs, Gero-shi (下呂市, Gero City) is where you want to be. Listed as one of the “Three Famed Host Springs” in Japan, Gero-shi has been an onsen town since the 10th century and is filled with ryokans, public baths and free foots baths. The springs are famous for their smooth water and are nicknamed bijin no yu (美人の湯, springs for the beautiful). The town is surrounded by nature and is found along Hidagawa (飛騨川, Hida River); the river featured in a popular kabuki play, Musume Dojo-ji – a story about a maiden in love with a celibate monk who takes the form of a serpent to cross the river to pursue him.
For nature-lovers, one must see site is Haku-san (白山 , Mount Haku). A potentially active volcano, Mount Haku straddles the borders of Gifu, Fukui and Ishikawa Prefectures. It is one of Japan’s Sanreizan (三霊山, Three Holy Mountains), together with Mount Tate and Mount Fuji. The mountain is considered to have three main peaks with the tallest, Gozengamine (御前峰), standing at 2,702m. Because it is very prominent from the nearby coast and appears white even after the mountain range has lost its snow, Mount Haku still appears white, which is one explanation for the its name which means “white mountain”.
Mount Haku is a national park that has seen very little human intrusion, leaving its mountainous greenery largely untouched making it a popular destination for trekking. If you choose to drive to Mount Haku, the Haku-san Super Rindo is a 33 kilometer route that connects Ishikawa and Gifu and passes the magnificent Fukube-no-otaki waterfall.
Amongst the many delicacies that Gifu is famous for, there are three that stand out the most: Hida Beef, the Ayu and sake.
Hida gyū (飛騨牛) is a specific type of beef that comes from Kuroge Washu (黒毛和種, Japanese Black) specially reared in the mountain town of Takayama. Hida gyū is considered a high-quality meat due to its intensely marbled appearance. Plus, it has to meet strict requirements from various national associations before it can officially be titled Hida Beef.
Thanks to Gifu’s expansive natural environment, clear water, rich earth and clean air, the cattle raised here can live a relatively comfortable and healthy lifestyle. This results in beef with an umami-rich, succulent flavour that has a melt-in-your texture which can be enjoyed grilled,roasted or even as shabu-shabu.
A distant relative of trout, Ayu (鮎) is Japan’s most highly prized river fish. This slippery, silvery fish travels a seasonal migration route throughout the year, similar to salmon and can only be found in the clearest and purest rivers, such as Gifu’s crystalline Nagara river. This summer delicacy has a unique flavour that is said to resemble watermelon!
The 1,300 year old traditional trade known as Gifu Nagaragawa no Ukai (ぎふ長良川の鵜飼 , Cormorant fishing on the Nagara River) has played a vital role in the history of Gifu City as a means of survival and profitable industry. During the fishing season (May 11 to October 15) many tourists flock to Gifu to watch the elegant fishing birds in action and enjoy the fish that can be cooked by grilling, boiling or even as tempura.
Gifu is also one of the leading sake produces in Japan, with over 50 breweries in the prefecture. Thanks to its mountainous region, cool climate and pure, clear water, Gifu has the ideal resources to produce high quality sake. Another important ingredient used in producing premium sake with a well-balanced flavour is the use of Hidohomare rice, which is grown with crystal-clear snowmelt water flowing from the mountains.
Gifu sake is in such high demand in Japan that few bottles ever make it out of the country. So while you’re in town, make some time to savour a cup or two.
Getting to Gifu
The Chubu Centrair International Airport is conveniently located in the city of Tokoname, just 57 minutes from Gifu Station. To reach Gifu Station from the airport, take the Meitetsu Limited Express towards Shinunuma, and then change at Kanayama Station to the Tokaido Main Line towards Ogaki. ¥1,710.
Itsukushima Shrine: The Japanese Benchmark of Beauty
Of all Japan’s cultural heritage sites, Itsukushima Shrine is perhaps not just the most beautiful, but the most important for understanding the traditional Japanese concept of beauty.
Known by its 16-meter brilliant vermillion otorii gate that seemingly floats amidst the Seto Inland Sea at high tide, this Shinto shrine sits along the crescent beach of Itsukushima Island, just 10-km southwest of Hiroshima City.
Founded in 593 – as the island’s Mt. Misen was worshiped as the highest mountain of the region – powerful warlord Taira no Kiyomori commissioned its grand expansion in 1146, both worshiping here and attributing his political success to it. It reflects the Shinden aristocratic palace architecture adopted during the late Heian era (1185), with its characteristic main shrine in the center, and side buildings connected via symmetrical kairo passage ways.
Over the years, new buildings were added, including the five-story pagoda (1407), two-story pagoda (1523), as well as the country’s only Noh stage built upon the sea (Edo era). In 1996, its 20 buildings, most of which date to 1241, along with the nearby surrounding forest land and sea, were registered as Japan’s sixth cultural heritage site.
Yet long before UNESCO ever existed, Confucian Scholar Shunsai Hayashi from the Edo era selected this area as one of Japan’s three most beautiful sceneries (Nihon Sankei). Since then it has often been referred to as the traditional standard by which all other sites are measured – with the shrine itself even having been called the “ultimate Japanese building” – largely for two reasons.
First, most Shinden-style palaces had a garden in front to be used as a stage for performances and ceremonies, along with a pond. Itsukushima Shrine’s designers boldly placed not just a garden and pond in its foreground, but wooden platform stages combined with the vast Seto Inland Sea. The result is a majestic sight, with the otorii gate, main building and its extensive kairo passages appearing as though buoyed upon the waters.
Second, this area perfectly captures what has come to be known as the “trinity of Japanese beauty”: a man-made structure sandwiched between sea in the foreground and mountains in the background. The colorful contrast of Mt. Misen’s verdant lushness at 530 m, the bright scarlet shades of the shrine, and the reflective blue sea superbly integrates natural and man-made beauty. This harmony is of utmost importance for Shintoism – grounded in nature worship – which has deeply shaped the aesthetic values of Japan.
You’ll want to leave plenty of time for your trip here, since the gradual rising and falling of the lapping tides drastically changes its ambiance. A walk up close to the otorii gate during low tide is the best way to appreciate its massiveness, but the view by ferry during high tide allows you to take in the full panorama of the shrine and island’s divine beauty.
One word of advice, however, is to not leave your bags unattended while taking your photos or selfies, as the many deer – considered sacred in the Shinto religion – roaming freely on the island will soon descend upon your bag to look for anything to chew on!
Access: A 10-min. ferry ride from Miyajimaguchi Pier to Miyajima Pier. Miyajimaguchi Pier is a 5-min. walk from JR Miyajimaguchi Station. Or, take a 45-minute World Heritage cruise from a jetty at the Peace Memorial Park.
Like a scene straight out of a fairy tale, the twinkling towns of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama possess a magical beauty that moves with the seasons.
Surrounded by steep rugged mountains and isolated along the Shogawa River, the quaint village communities of Ogimachi in Shirakawa-go (Gifu Prefecture), and Ainokura and Suganuma in Gokayama (Toyama Prefecture) were registered as cultural world heritage sites in 1995. Known particularly for their steep-roofed gassho-style houses which design reduces snow buildup, 88 of these farmhouses within the three villages are listed as World Heritage sites.
Gassho literally means “praying hands”, as the slanted roofs so resemble. And like an answered prayer, this creative architecture helped these villages dating back to the 11th century to survive the unique environmental challenges through the present. As only .04% of the land in this area is cultivatable, residents relied on mulberry trees, silkworms, and gunpowder manufacturing for their livelihood.
These four-story buildings not only allowed for warm storage of silkworm beds and mulberry leaves on the upper floors, but could sustain massive snowfall with its sharp-angled roofing. As a result, you won’t find this picturesque townscape anywhere else in Japan. Such resourcefulness is what earned it its UNESCO registration, even though the oldest original house is but a few hundred years old.
While an open-air museum and several of these houses are available for touring, the panoramic views from the Ogimachi Castle platform or Tenshukaku platform in Ogimachi village offer the most breathtaking scenery. With re-thatching of the roofs in the spring, vast green forestry in the summer, and a water-spraying exercise in the fall, this area’s seasonal events extend far beyond its iconic winter illumination.
So for a setting that mixes fantasy world with folk town, you couldn’t pray for a better site to visit than here.
Shirakawa-go: A 50-min express bus ride (Nohi Bus) from JR Takayama Station.
Gokayama: A 40 min bus ride (Kaetsunou Bus) from JR Johana Station.