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Into Japan’s heartland

From traditional villages to towering snow walls to modern urban metropolis, central Japan should be your next destination


Text and Images by Angelo G. Garcia
Video by David Clarence Rivera

Japan is increasingly becoming a popular destination for Filipino travelers. Why? Well for starters, our Asian neighbor has made it easier for us to acquire a visa. Second, because it’s Japan!

The Land of the Rising Sun is one of the world’s top tourist destinations. It’s on everyone’s bucket list. It’s a fascinating place filled with history and heritage, beautiful nature, outstanding technology, and out-of-this-world pop culture.

When Filipinos plan a visit to Japan, top picks are usually Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto. But there’s more to the East Asian country than these three cities. There are more to discover.

If visitors enter Japan through Nagoya, they get easier access to the country’s heartland. Nagoya, Japan’s third largest city, is the capital of Aichi Prefecture, central Japan. Its gateway is the Chubu Centrair International Airport, a modern terminal replete with duty free shops and restaurants. Just last year, Japanese low cost airline Jetstar launched its three international routes from Japan to Manila, including Nagoya. Flying four times weekly, the airline is tapping Nagoya’s huge number of Filipino residents, workers, and future tourists who would like to explore central Japan.

What is there to discover in central Japan? A lot—from charming traditional villages to a road flanked by towering snow walls to delicious food to the birthplace of Japan’s largest corporation.

  • World Heritage site Shirakawa-go

  • Sakae area is Nagoya’s shopping district

  • Fresh sashimi

  • Tulip field

  • Tateyama Mountain from the view deck

  • Traditional lunch at Irori in Shirakawa-go

  • Japan Rail museum

  • Iceworld Alpine Route

  • The Future of cars Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology in Nagoya

  • Flower power a modified version of the South American begonia at Nabana no Sato park

  • Hida Mountains

  • Matsumoto Castle, the oldest castle in Japan

  • Roller coaster at Nagashima Spa Land

  • Different varieties of begonias

  • View of the mountains from Magome

  • Gassho-zukuri-style thatched roof houses of Shirakawa-go

  • A castle town street in Gujo

  • Magomeya restaurant in Magome

  • Like a scene from a movie bridge in Takayama

  • Crystal clear clean water from the mountain stream along the street of Magome

    Fun and Innovation

    Nagoya City is home to about 30,000 Filipinos. One of Japan’s industrial cities, it is also home to big corporations. Tourists and locals alike say that Nagoya is unexciting and there’s not much to do in the city, but if one explores the city right, then the rewards are there.

    For instance, the view of Nagoya TV Tower (similar to Tokyo Tower) from Central Park can be a bit underwhelming but try viewing it from Oasis 21’s viewing platform, around three to four floors up, and it gets so much better. Oasis 21 is an underground mall and the viewing platform made of glass and steel is a marvel inn itself.

    This area is home to a lot of shopping malls. Called the Sakae area, it is the central shopping district of Nagoya where one can find various retailers, from high end shops to discount stores. Don Quijote is a haven for tourists. It’s a store that carries everything from green tea Kit Kat to cosplay costumes to second hand designer bags to electronics. Foreigners get tax exemption if purchases reach a certain amount.

    For foodies, unagi (freshwater eel) and miso katsu are the culinary specialties of Nagoya. Try the unagi at Bincho Hitsumabushi, which has several locations in Nagoya and Japan. Yabaton, on the other hand, is the inventor of miso katsu, crispy fried pork cutlet served with a thick and dark miso sauce.

    After a hearty meal, explore the city and beyond its limits. Just a few minutes from the city center is the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology. This is not just a car museum but rather a venue with a detailed story of how one of the world’s biggest companies began. Toyota founder Kiichiro Toyoda started the automobile division from his family’s automatic loom works company. The car company’s story is very interesting knowing that it started in developing loom machines.

    Going further out of the city, less than an hour away by bus, is Nagashima Resort located in Kuwana, Mie Prefecture. It’s an amusement park, water park, garden, and outlet mall rolled into one sprawling resort. The Jazz Dream Nagashima outlet mall houses several international and local brands. But probably Nagashima’s best park is the Nabana no Sato, a garden that features several flower species from begonias of South America to dainty tulips.

    In spring, it features a tulip festival where a sea of tulips in different colors are in full bloom, complementing Japan’s national treasure, the sakura or cherry blossoms. From winter to spring, the Winter Illumination lights up the whole garden in a dazzling display of lights and nature. It is one of the largest light installations in Japan.

    Heritage and Culture

    Going deeper into the heartland, central Japan is brimming with history and heritage. This is what Japan is best at, being able to preserve its rich history.

    Almost four hours away by bus from Nagoya is Gifu Prefecture, home to several heritage and historic sites. One of the must-visit cities is Nakatsugawa, which has several beautiful sites including the very picturesque sleepy town of Magome Juku. Built on a hill, this town is part of the Nakasendo Route, a major highway built in the 17th century that connected what is now Kyoto and Tokyo. The route cuts through Magome, which is lined with traditional houses, including an old electricity-generating watermill. This town has a beautiful view of Enasan mountain, one of the most beautiful mountains in Japan. Visit in spring and marvel at the enchanting cherry blossoms. We were here on the last week of April and caught some of the late-blooming sakura.

    Head northwest to Gujo-Hachiman, a winter resort and also one of Japan’s biggest odori dance towns. Its castle town has a dance center, where visitors can learn traditional Japanese dances. The dance season lasts from mid-July to September and, from Aug. 13 to 16, the peak of the Gujo Odori Dance Festival, people dance all night.

    Another thing that sets Gujo apart is that travelers can make shokuhin sampuru or food replica, plastic food samples displayed at Japanese restaurants. The city is a leading producer of fake food in Japan, a technique commercialized by Gujo-born Takizo Iwasaki.

    Also located in the Gifu Prefecture is the charming city of Takayama. It is famous for its old quarter, a collection of streets of the old castle town that are perfectly preserved. The streets are lined with old structures housing small merchants and sake breweries, which gives visitors that traditional Japanese atmosphere. Make sure to visit the Takayama Jinya, the old government building, the former residence of the magistrate during the Edo period, to learn more about former government practices like the tax system (people used to pay in rice) and handling criminals.

    But probably the most picturesque old village in Gifu is Shirakawa-go, a world heritage site in the northern part of the prefecture. Formerly a farming town that also specializes in silk, it features the distinctive gassho zukuri-style thatched roof houses. These structures are dominated by these thick roofs that protect from heavy snowfalls. The roofs are made with grass and wood that is only held together by rope. The houses are well preserved because villagers re-thatch the roofs every 30 years through a system called yui, a process where the entire village help re-thatch the roofs. Best time to visit is wintertime and autumn.

    Before leaving Gifu every traveler must try Hida beef, one of the highest grade beef in Japan. Irori restaurant in Shirakawa-go serves traditional Japanese meal, including thin slices of Hida beef with bean sprouts and miso sauce cooked on a ho leaf.

    Travel north to Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture and visit the oldest castle in Japan, the Matsumoto Castle. Made mostly of wood, this national treasure was built between 1504 and 1593. It now stands as a six-storey relic containing artifacts, muskets, and samurai armors. Matsumoto still has its old castle town with houses now used as modern cafes and shops.

    This town is the perfect jump off point going to Toyama prefecture, where the Japanese Northern Alps is located.

    Mountains and Snow Walls

    Toyama Prefecture is famous for the Hida Mountain Range, part of the Japanese Alps. One of its popular peaks is Mount Tateyama or simply called Tateyama. The Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route is the most famous scenic mountain routes in Japan. It connects Toyama and Nagano prefectures by crossing Tateyama Mountains, Kurobe River, and Hida Mountains through various transportation. Visitors need at least the whole day for this trip.

    It starts at Ogisawa station at 1,433 meters above sea level. A trolleybus will take visitors to Kurobe Dam (1,455 masl) through a series of tunnels. From the dam, it’s a very scenic 15-minute walk to Kurobeko where a funicular car will take visitors to Kurobedaira at 1,828 masl. From here, guests will take the ropeway (aerial cable car) to Daikanbo at 2,316 masl. Then another trolleybus will bring guests to Murodo at 2,450 masl, where the famous snow walls are located.

    Tateyama experiences some of the world’s heaviest snowfalls. The snow accumulates on the Tateyama peak and the highland road. Workers clear up the roads during winter resulting to a road that is flanked on both sides by towering snow walls. The immense man-made walls that can reach as high as 20 meters are as majestic as the mountain peaks making it one of the most visited sites in the region.

    Then guests ride a highland bus going down the mountain with a quick stopover to see Shomyo Falls, the tallest falls in Japan at 350 meters. Last is a funicular ride down to Tateyama proper.

    There’s still a lot to explore in Japan, after all, almost every city or prefecture has something to offer.

    Central Japan has the best of both worlds and visitors get to see a little bit more of Japan than usual.

    Jetstar offers low fares to Nagoya and flies four times weekly to Manila /
    Where to
    Nagoya: Stay: Tokyo Daiichi Hotel Nishiki (+81 52-955-1001); Eat: Hitsumabushi Nagoya Bincho LACHIC for some unagi (+81 52-259-6703)
    Magome: Eat: Magomeya for delicious Japanese set meals (+81 573-69-1111)
    Matsumoto: Stay: Hotel Buena Vista (+81 263-37-0111)
    Toyama: Stay: APA Hotel Toyama Ekimae (+81 76-444-5111); Eat: Gomangoku for Toyama specialties (+81 76-441-4649)
    Shirakawa-go: Eat: Irori for traditional meals and Hida beef (+81 5769-6-1737)
    Gujo: Stay: Business Hotel Gujo-Hachiman (3-1-15 Gocho, Hachimancho, Gujo 501-4234, Gifu Prefecture); Eat: Bizenya (264 Hachimancho Yanagimachi, Gujo 501-4214, Gifu Prefecture); Eat: Yoshidaya (160 Tonomachi, Hachimancho, Gujo 501-4213, Gifu Prefecture)

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    • emomarcelo

      Thank you. Japan is truly beautiful, and its people the most polite and welcoming. Safety from criminals is so assured, at least where I went. Don’t forget the fabulous food.