A few hours from the heart of Tokyo lies an isolated Japan saturated with images from Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country: wisps of steam from the natural hot springs, off-blue snowcapped mountains, and the thatch roofed gassho-zukuri lined with frost.  The hokuriku shinkansen between Tokyo and Kanazawa has opened a door for those wary of the long hours and unnecessary stops accompanied with train travel, allowing you to journey across the country in two and a half hours.  This week, Ponytail correspondent Anne Berry takes you on a detour through the chilly calm of the Hida Region, and the salty winds of the Kanazawa coast.

Hida beef on magnolia leaf
FIRST STOP / TAKAYAMA

EAT
Hida Kotte Ushi // 34 Kamisannomachi, Takayama 506-0846, Gifu Prefecture
Hida beef, despite being less known than its Kobe counterpart, is one of the finest grades of meat in Japan. Although it is typically grilled, a small stall in Takayama city will gently fold the medium rare slices into pieces of Hida beef sushi. This is strictly a street food stall, and the sushi is served on a large rice cracker to take away. Two pieces of sushi will set you back 600-900 yen.

Kaiseki Old garden in Kaiseki resto

Pictured Above / The Gardens of Kakushyo Kaiseki Restaurant

Kakushyo // 2-98 Baba-Cho Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture
Kaiseki is one of the most highly sought after culinary experiences Japan has to offer and is deeply rooted in tradition and history. Emphasis is placed on creating a harmony of taste, appearance, and texture in food. Kakushyo fully embraces the principles of Kaiseki, and is well-known for its superb vegetable dishes. One particularly memorable appetizer involved ground shisho leaf mixed with miso paste and zesty yuzu, which was deep-fried tempura style. The cherry on top is the garden of mossy stones and knotted roots, centuries old, which you are invited to look upon during your meal. “Mini-Kaiseki” is
7,000 yen while dinner is 13,000 yen and over.

Sake Tasting
Sake Breweries // Old town, Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture
Hida beef is perhaps best paired with a small glass of sake, and in Takayama City you’ll be spoiled for choice. The sake breweries are found in authentic Edo period merchant house, easily indicated by the cedar balls which hang over their entrances. Be sure to try namazake or unfermented sake when you’re there, which is typically more vibrant and fresh than what you’re used to.

Shirakawago River trout

Above / The most incredible trout at Bunsuke Restaurant

PLAY
Shirakawago //
This World Heritage Site is nothing short of a fairytale village in the flesh. The houses are all constructed in gassho-zukuri style: old farmhouses with thick thatch roofs to protect from heavy snow. The village is still fully functioning, so don’t be surprised if you see some of the houses being repaired or rainbow trout swimming up and down the river drains. If you decide to stay for lunch, try Bunsuke (1915 Ogimachi, Ono-gun), a restaurant which specializes in river fish and breeds their own trout. Despite the freezing temperature, we watched the owner roll up his sleeves and catch our lunch in this ethereal part of the mountains.

Owner of river trout resto

Pictured Above / Chef and owner of Bunsuke Restaurant

Rope Course 2  Rope Course 3

Pictured Above / Shinhotaka Ropeway

Shinhotaka Ropeway // Okuhidaonsengo Kansaka, Shinhodaka, Takayama 506-1421, Gifu Prefecture
This Shinhotaka Ropeway features two double-deck gondolas which bring you 2,156m above sea level and into the Northern Japan Alps. At the top is a small observation deck, and also the entrance to the very isolated Sengokuenchi Nature Park wrapped in a blanket of powdered snow. Adventurous souls also have the option to hike into the mountains, although I settled for a hot chocolate near a heater instead. A two-way trip up the mountain is 2,800 yen.

AirBnb

Pictured Above / Onsen in the Japanese Alps
Below / Homemade Yuzu Jam at the AirBnB

Fresh yuzu jam

STAY
AirBnb in the Japanese Alps//
My stay in the Japanese Alps was taken straight out of a Hokusai woodblock print. The house itself is around 300 years old, and was previously owned by a sushi chef who wished to entertain guests in the onsen region. Although the house has no modern showers (or heating!), it has its own very beautiful and old natural onsen to warm up tired limbs. The host, Akihiro, is a natural chef: he grilled strips of Hida beef on magnolia leaves in the indoor fire pit one night and will always have a ready supply of homemade yogurt and yuzu jam on hand for breakfast. If authenticity is what you seek, this is it. This listing is not available now, but do consider similar options for this region.

Omicho
NEXT STOP / KANAZAWA

EAT
Omi-cho Market // Aokusa-machi
The world is your oyster in Omi-cho Market. This rowdy market has been supplying the residents of Kanazawa with the salty flavors of the Sea of Japan for almost 300 years. A quick wander through will reveal row upon row of air-dried bonito for soup stock, sticky piles of Ikura, and shucked oysters to have on-the-go. The edge of the market is lined with sushi restaurants (naturally), but Yamasan Sushi (68 Shimo-Omicho) stands out in particular for their dedication to quality and freshness. You may even get a dusting of gold leaf on your sashimi.

Concept G
Concept G // Le Musee de H, Ishikawa Prefecture Museum of Art
Concept G is labelled as a “modern tea ceremony” which merges the art of Japanese tea with French pastries. This tasting is especially magical for tea nerds, as it emphasizes the salty umami qualities of Gyokuro tea, and allows you to roast your own Hojicha at the table. I passed a particularly rainy afternoon here trying these delicate pastries and brews, and would do it again in a heartbeat. Book in advance for a slot of the Concept G program at 2,430 yen per person.

Huni // 29-13 Zaimokucho
This beautiful and quiet bar sits on the riverbank of Kanazawa. The owner has put together an artfully curated selection of sake, as well as preparing his own modern Japanese dishes for guests. If you have a feeling you’ll be up late spouting philosophy, there’s no better place to be.

Otomezushi // 4-10 Kiguramachi
In Kanazawa, it would be a sin to skip on sushi. The city sits on the Sea of Japan and enjoys the freshest seafood all throughout the year. One name resurfaces again and again in Kanazawa’s foodie scene: Otomezushi. It is hard to describe the subtle differences that draw the line between great food and unforgettable food, but understand that this is some of the best sushi you’ll find in Japan. Book in advance to secure a spot at roughly 16,000 yen per person.

PLAY
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art //
Although the art exhibits will often change, the most iconic permanent installations are what draw people to this museum. In particular, Leandro Erlich’s “Swimming Pool” which allows you to walk (or appear to at least) underwater. Ex-NASA employee, James Turrell, also has an installation called “Blue Planet Sky”, which plays with passing light to explore our sensory experiences.

Higashi Chaya (Geisha) District and Nagamachi (Samurai) District //
These well-preserved neighborhoods, made up of latticed teahouses and earthen walls, are nothing short of a leap in time to the Edo period. Higashi Chaya remains an active environment, with operating teahouses and geisha scuttling through alleyways. Nagamachi is quieter in comparison, and peppered with restored samurai residences. Although the samurai are known for their military skills, the famed Nomura House has one of the most beautifully crafted gardens in Japan: it’s all about balance.

Kanazawa Castle
Kanazawa Castle and Kenroku-en Garden //
These beautiful sites are located next to each other, and are perfect for an early morning walk in the spring when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. The castle is a remnant of 16th century Japan and was the place of residence for one of the most powerful samurai families in Japan, the Maeda clan, for 280 years. Again, this reminder of brutal military prowess is negated with the beauty of picturesque bridges and reflective ponds in Kenroku-en, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. Admission to Kanazawa Castle is free, while admission to Kenroku-en is 310 yen.

STAY
Saino Niwa Hotel // 2-4-8 Nagata
Saino Niwa was exactly the place needed after three days in the Japanese alps: clean and modern with a touch of Japanese minimalism. The staff are extremely helpful with bookings and recommendations, which is important with some small eateries that don’t speak English. Do take advantage of the hotel’s onsen at the end of your day, and chill out with some Japanese grannies while you’re at it.

 

This is a post by our travel correspondent Anne Berry [ words and images ] and we love her for her great taste.