Search any travel blog for the best countries to visit, and we’re sure that Japan will rank high on any list. The country has become a favorite stop for professional travelers and everyday tourists alike. Top 10 list after Top 10 list highlight just how fun and amazing Japan can be.
We here at Our Awesome Planet make no exception to this informal rule as we frequent Japan whenever the opportunity arises. We’ve had the pleasure to cover most of the island archipelago in every season. And while Japan is great to visit all year round, Team Boom and Sean find that the best time to go is definitely during the Autumn months (September, October, November) when the climate is perfect, not being too hot nor too cold.
We suggest taking advantage of the cooler climate to visit some of Japan’s more rural areas and countryside. Central Japan has so much going on, and we rather enjoyed our trip, which we found was a great alternative to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
Visiting Central Japan in the spring and summer months is another adventure all its own. You can read more about our Central Japan Road Trip (itinerary) with Abi and Nico here —> https://www.ourawesomeplanet.com/awesome/2019/09/central-japan.html
Why Autumn is the Best Time to Visit Central Japan
The Chūbu region or what we know as Central Japan is a large region in the center of Honshu which is Japan’s main island made up of the following Prefectures: Aichi, Fukui, Gifu, Ishikawa, Nagano, Niigata, Shizuoka, Toyama and Yamanashi.
During the autumn months, Chūbu is absolutely stunning. The region’s plant life is known for the dramatic shifts in color as they switch from lush greens to bright yellows, vibrant oranges, deep reds and golden browns. On top of that, the weather is nearly perfect, what I call the “goldilocks months” when temperatures are not too cold nor too hot.
Planning your Central Japan Autumn Adventure
Getting around Central Japan might seem like a huge undertaking, especially if you have limited time. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of historical sites and tourist attractions for you to choose from, so planning your trip in advance is a good idea.
We suggest tailoring your trip to what’s available in each region during the specific time of year you’re going, like visiting mountain onsens or hot springs in the colder months will be more enjoyable than, say, mid-summer.
Like almost everywhere in Japan, the Central regions are accessible via airport and high-speed rail which will take you to the bigger cites in the area; however, outside of the cities, you’ll have to book other modes of transport.
Our trip took us around Toyama, then on to Nagano, and finally Gifu—all beautiful places with lots to do and see.
(Scroll down for the full itinerary and location map.)
Arriving in Central Japan (Toyama Airport)
We started our trip from Toyama Airport. We booked with ANA (All Nippon Airways), which operates several flights per day between Tokyo’s Haneda and Toyama Airports. Flight time is about 1 hour.
Airfare can range anywhere from ¥9,000+ to ¥23,000 depending on availability.
For more flight information please follow the link here —> https://www.ana.co.jp/en/jp/?type=de .
Best Way is the HighwayIf you really want to explore what Central Japan has to offer, I suggest renting a car. This is the easiest and most convenient, not to mention cheaper, way to personalize your trip. Plus, you have the luxury of being able to stop and enjoy points of interest without having to worry about time restraints typical when traveling with a tour group.
(FYI, You’ll have to secure an international license/driving permit before operating any motor vehicles in Japan. International driving licenses or permits are usually provided at government agencies in your respective countries.)
Central Expressway Pass
If you opt for a road trip, your best bet is to purchase the Central Nippon Expressway Pass. Rates vary and there are special promos for foreigners. Be sure to request for the CEP from your car rental shop.
Central Nippon Expressway Pass (CEP) rates:
Follow this link to learn more about the (CEP) Central Express Pass —> Nexco Central https://hayatabi.c-nexco.co.jp/cep/en/
Stop to Enjoy the SceneryThere are a ton of activities and attractions to stop by and visit in Central Japan. The great part about driving is that you can stop to enjoy some crisp clean air on a cool autumn day.
Central Japan is mainly a mountainous region with snow-capped mountain ranges and thick forests dotted with rivers and lakes.
There are a number of beautifully preserved heritage sites such as temples and shrines.
Most of these sites are easily accessible via the highway and are welcoming to tourists.
Regional Culinary IdentityIt’s easy to lump all Japanese food into a single cuisine that consists mostly of raw fish or ramen. But, in actuality, Japanese cuisine is quite complex with variations from region to region. Ingredients are typically sourced from local surroundings, and some dishes are prepared depending on what’s in season.
From the freshest sashimi to the creme de la creme of Japanese beef like Hida Beef (pictured), which is far more flavorful and delicious than Wagyu.
Local treats like the surprisingly delicious white shrimp ice cream is something you’ll be hard-pressed to find in Tokyo.
Things to Do and See Of course there are plennty of activites—like taking a boat ride around Lake Kurobe, which is home to Japans most famous hydroelctric dam.
Or take a nature hiking tour up Shomyo Falls in Tateyama.
How about making your very own Surabobo? These cute little amulets are from Takayama in Gifu and are believed to bring good luck to soon to be wed couples.
Or, if you’re hungry, you can visit the afternoon crab auction at Shinminato fisherman’s wharf in Imizu’s Kittokito Fish Market and have your freshly caught crab cooked at one of the nearby restaurants.
Where To StayThere are a number of hotels in Central Japan, with prices ranging from affordable to expensive.
Most hotels have onsens available, and that’s great because taking a hot spring bath in the cooler months is one of the most relaxing things in the world.
(Make sure to check with your hotel if they have private onsens, especially if you have tattoos.)
Maximize Your Time with this Awesome 5 Day Itinerary
What you make of your Central Japan road trip is entirely up to you, and we encourage you to maximize your time accordingly. But if you need a little help as to where to go, listed below is the 5-day itinerary we used.
(Please scroll down for area map and routes.)
Toyama AirportToyama Airport is where we started our road trip, so for the purpose of this write up, it will be our starting point.
Lunch At Eboshi Sanso
This quaint roadside hotel is renowned throughout the region.
The interior is turn-of-the-century traditional Japanese. Very warm and cozy, the hotel prides itself for not having any modern distractions such as tv rooms. Guests are encouraged to relax in silence and disconnect from the busy day-to-day life of modern Japan.
We rather enjoyed our very delicious traditional Japanese lunch here. The food was fresh and the owner was kind enough to explain how they source most of their food from the surrounding area.
It was the perfect meal to kick off our 5-day trip.
Kurobe GorgeMy person favorite part of the trip was the Kurobe Gorge Railway tour.
The tour itself is rather popular with locals, and trains are typically packed on weekends and holidays.
The tour spans a whopping 20 kilometers through some of the most gorgeous mountainside forests in all of Asia.
You can find out more about this breathtaking tour here —> https://www.kurotetu.co.jp/en/
Note that the railway stops running in winter months due to snowy conditions.
Ikedaya Yasubei Drug Manufacturing
Toyama is famous for its traditional Japanese Pharmacies, a 300-year-old tradition with very few establishments currently making traditional medicines.
Ikedaya Yasubei Drug Manufacturing (pictured) has been making traditional medicines since the time of the samurai, and this historic institution is known for its stomach pain medicines that turn out to be good for hangovers as well. 🙂
Inside you can find a wide variety of traditional medicines and herbs.
You can also purchase more exotic ingredients, and you can then have made into appropriate medicines for any particular ailment.
One of the cool parts of the tour was watching a master hand roll medicines the good old fashioned way.
Shinminato Kittokito Fisherman’s WharfKittokito Fish Market is well known throughout Toyama. Visitors can purchase some of the best and freshest seafood in the area.
Snow crabs are in season during the autumn months and can fetch high prices for their sweet and delicate meat.
White shrimps are also staples in Toyama, and you can find them being sold almost everywhere. We suggest you try the white shrimp soft serve. It sounds crazy but it’s actually pretty good, a weird but delicious taste of sweet-salty and briny all in one cone.
Lunch At Crab Hut
Behind the market, there are a couple of restaurants that serve the coveted snow crabs. It’s a fantastic way to have a delicious crab lunch, and you also get to learn about the crab and its role in the local marine ecosystem.
Snow crabs are absolutely fantastic! Cooked simply in saltwater is the best way to appreciate the delicate sweet meat of these highly prized crustaceans.
After lunch, you can watch the afternoon crab auction. We were surprised to see how expensive some of these crabs were being sold for.
Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route The best way to really get a grasp of the region is by taking a tour around the famed Tateyama Alpine Route, which takes you through a scenic climb to where three of Japan’s major mountain chains converge, making up the Nihon Arupusu/Japanese Alps.
The main feature is Shomyo Falls (pictured above)—Japan’s highest waterfalls, reaching an astounding 350 meters above sea level (1,148 ft). The falls have carved out a deep valley that is considered a holy Shinto site.
At the base of the falls is a small museum and information center where you can request for a local guide who will explain the dynamic geological history of the falls and the surrounding region. (Recommended.)
Tateyama Bijodaira Cable Car Not far from the falls and further into the Alpine Route, you can buy a ticket to ride the Tateyama Cable Car which will take you further up the mountain range and to a bus station that carries guests to the next stop.
(At 2,500 meters above sea level, Murodo is the highest point on the Teteyama.)
Daikanbo – Kurobedaira (ropeway)
From Murodo you’ll descend the ropeway down to Kurobe Lake.
The view of the surrounding mountain ranges is absolutely stunning. And the dramatic shift in color shows why traveling to Central Japan is best during the autumn months.
Lake Kurobe is an artificial lake that was made by the creation of the Kurobe Dam. This marvel of modern engineering is the tallest dam in Japan, producing power for the surrounding regions.
Tours are available and we recommend stopping by the information center to learn more about the history of this engineering feat.
Tsujimura Farm (Apple Picking)
For some hands-on activities, we stopped at the Tsujimura Farm to handpick some Shinonu Sweets, some of Japan’s best apples that are only grown in Nagano.
Japan is renowned for its fruits and their apples are no exception. These apples were definitely some of the best we’ve ever had—sweet and crunchy and praised for their “Mitsu” or “apple honey,” (that glossy wet part surrounding the core of the apple).
Apple harvests typically happen towards the end of autumn, when apples are at their crispiest and sweetest.
Reishi Shrine night lighting
Be sure to check out the night lighting at the Reshi Shrine for some evening zen. The temple grounds are lit up to enhance the autumn foliage.
You can also visit the shrine in the daytime. It’s an entirely different atmosphere, and I personally find that you can appreciate the architecture more in the daylight.
One of my favorite things to do when visiting a country is to visit temples or holy sites. Visiting these places helps me understand the culture a little more. Plus, I appreciate the ideological and philosophical ideas that gave rise to Japanese landscaping.
Lake Kizaki (Takase Valley)
Start your day by visiting the picturesque Lake Kizaki. There are water actvities available like kayaking, stand up paddling and fishing.
Nishina Sanko (Lake Kizaki Overlook)
Travel a few kilometers up to Nishina Sanko Overlook to get an absoultely breathtaking view of Lake Kizaki and the valley it inhabits.
Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan’s oldest castles. It stands at the heart of Nagano Prefecture as a symbol of Japan’s feudalistic past.
Its black and white exterior and period design make this beautifully preserved castle a real eye-catcher as it stands out in stark contrast to the surrounding modern city. The castle sits in a historical park that is typically packed with tourists all year round, and it should be on top of your list when visiting Nagano.
Lunch At Ikaza (Matsumoto Hotel Kagetsu)
Surprisingly, the city of Nagano has had a lot of Western influence. The town surroundong the castle almost feels Western as you will come across shops and boutique stores modeled in the Western fashion. This is because Nagano has been a hub for international travel for a very long time.
There are well established institutions in operation that have embraced a mix of Western and Eastern cultures, making Nagano a very distinct city when compared to the rest of Central Japan.
Matsumoto Hotel is a perfect example of east meets west.
The quaint hotel is regarded as one of the best in the entire city, and their restaurant Ikaza is renowned among foreigners and locals alike.
Ikaza prides itself on serving the best ingredients that have been locally sourced and in season. It’s a fine dining experience of east meets west that really took us by surprise. So good, in fact, that I posted our entire set meal on this blog.
You can learn more about Matsumoto Hotel here —> http://matsumotohotel-kagetsu.com/english/
All breads are baked fresh and in house. Crispy, light and fluffy, it’s what you’d expect from a high-end restaurant.
Local Vegetables w/ Vermouth Sauce – The vermouth sauce was smooth and creamy yet subtle enough to let the natural sweetness of the vegetables shine through. This was fantastic!
Vichyssoise w/ Consomme Jelly – This classic French style soup is made with potatoes and leeks and was a nice follow up to the creamy vermouth sauce from the starter.
Sea Bream Poele – This was my personal favorite, pan-seared to perfection!
Hida Beef Steak – Of course, beef steak was on the menu. Hida Beef is by far the tastiest beef for me. I think it has way more flavor and depth than what you’ll get from a top-grade Wagyu. We couldn’t love this dish enough.
Desert was also fantastic; the matcha tiramisu was spot on.
Click here for Ikaza Resturant —> http://matsumotohotel-kagetsu.com/pick-up-;n-category/restaurant-plans/
Lacasta Natural Healing Garden (perfume and fragrance making)
While we typically associate springtime with blooming flowers, autumn also has its fair share of flowering plants that come into full bloom during the cooler months.
La Casta Natural Healing Garden is a wonderful establishment that focuses on holistic and natural commodities for modern day needs. La Casta manufactures purely organic soaps, lotions and shampoos, not to mention fragrances that can be purchased around Tokyo.
We recommend having a stroll through their beautifully kept gardens, taking your time to stop and literally smell the flowers.
For a small fee, visitors can visit the main store where you can purchase La Casta products or watch how they manufacture some of their produce.
We also recommend joining their fragrance making class where you learn how to combine scents to make your own body sprays and perfumes.
Be sure to bring some extra cash. We dropped a few yens to pick up some pasalubongs for our lolas.
(((Takayama Yatai Kaikan)))
Sanmachi Old Town (Takayama Jinya)
Take a stroll through Sanmachi Old Town and immerse yourself in historical Japan.
This Edo period historical district is packed full of shops, stalls and restaurants. Here you can find traditional sake making and buy the latest trendy bag and everything in between.
(This place is an Instagrammer’s dream come true.)
Most shops offer free samples, so we were able to try some very fresh and very delicious Miso.
If you’re looking for souvenirs or a memento of your trip, you’ll find them here as there are plenty of shops offering well-crafted goods.
Sake Tasting and Museum
Of course, this was everyone’s favorite stop. Who doesn’t like free sake? The best part is you can try some of the many varieties that are in stock.
Make your own super cute Sarubobo good luck doll!
This was a pretty neat stop, something that kids would love.
Sarubobo, is a type of amulet that is specific to Takayama and Gifu Prefectures. They are commonly given to newlyweds as a blessing for childbirth and good luck. Sarubobo roughly translates to “Monkey Baby” in the local dialect.
Being able to personlaize your very own Sarubobo is the best part.
Yofai Grilled Hida Beef
Yofai Restaurant is a Japanese style bbq that specializes in Hida Beef. Out of all the Hida Beef we tried, this was by far the best in flavor and quality. A simple meal that was well worth the price. I urge you to eat your fill of Hida Beef as you will not be able to find it outside of Japan.
Shirakawa-go World Heritage Gassho Village (overlook)
Our last stop was at the Shirakawa-go World Heritage Gassho Village.
If you like taking photos and if you want great Instagram shots, we suggest stopping here. The grass roof houses and the quiet farming village make the perfect backdrop for that perfect shot. It can get crowded late in the day so we recommend getting here early.
SEAN – Our Awesome Planet
Disclosure: Our trip was courtesy of the good people at (JNTO) Japan National Tourism Organization. I wrote this article with my biases, opinions and insights.