A Road Trip Through the Japanese Alps

Neither of us had visited Japan before when we decided to take a small detour to the Land of the Rising Sun. Our road trip through the Japanese Alps, visiting tiny traditional villages and soaking in beautiful natural hot springs, turned out to be a highlight of our trip to Japan.

The Japanese Alps – the region a bit northeast of Kyoto – offers majestic scenery, delicious food, and (for the most part) an opportunity to explore a fascinating region without hordes of tourists everywhere you turn. We loved the freedom that renting a car in this region offered, and would highly recommend it. Before we get into the details, we’ll be up front: this adventure was not cheap for us. Especially compared with traveling throughout Southeast Asia for four months during low season. But if you can afford to splurge a bit, we highly recommend this little Japanese jaunt.

Our itinerary took us up from Kanazawa, and then through several quaint mountain villages en route to the beautiful Shinhotaka Ropeway. It’s possible to do this itinerary in reverse as well, but we found that west to east avoided many tourist groups doing the opposite.

We describe each of our stops below, along with a few recommendations of restaurants and activities we liked best. We hope this inspires you to take your own adventure in the Japanese countryside! If you have questions, let us know in the comments.

Stop One: Kanazawa

The peaceful Kenroku-en Garden, by JD Travel

Kanazawa, known as Kyoto’s little sibling, is a quick two-hour train ride northeast of Kyoto. It’s a relatively small town of about 500,000 people, but one that punches above its weight in terms of music, art, history, and culture. Whether wandering through the contemporary art museum, stumbling into a tiny bar with floor-to-ceiling shelves of records, or exploring the grounds of a 19th century castle, you’ll feel enveloped by Kanazawa’s small-town artsy vibe. Not to mention the many antique and vintage shops that line the smaller alleyways.

We spent a couple days just wandering through the cute alleys and exploring what this quaint town has to offer. On our first day, we brought a picnic lunch to the Kenroku-en garden, and then picked up afternoon snacks strolling through the nearby Omicho fish market. We had surprisingly delicious homemade pasta at The Cottage, and then sipped Japanese scotch at a tiny bar down the street from our hostel (K’s House – a social hostel with friendly guests that actually offers double hostel beds!). Kanazawa is the first city on this trip that we thought to ourselves: we could actually live here!

Stop Two: Gokayama

Sleeping on traditional wooden mats, by JD Travel

Once you’ve had your fill of Kanazawa’s delights, rent a car by the train station, gather your snacks and supplies, and head out for the easy hour-long drive to the Gokayama region in the Japanese Alps. Here’s you’ll see amazingly cute 16th century houses covered with thatched roofs that rival and often exceed those found in the equally quaint English countryside. 

Kamitaira, a tiny street of a town, is the best place for your home base. There’s not a ton to do in the town itself, but it’s got a helpful visitors center, a couple lovely (and affordable) ryokans—or Japanese guesthouse—and it’s easy to access the other towns you’ll want on your journey. The beauty of this route is that you will arrive in the Gokayama region from the north, meaning you’ll reach the more remote villages first. We only stayed one night (in the beautiful Takazuri Kira guesthouse), but would highly recommend staying even longer and using this as your home base.

Stop Three: Ainokura

Cute thatched-roof houses, by JD Travel

From Kamitaira it’s a quick drive to Ainokura, a nearby town to the East with about two dozen thatched-roof houses arrayed in the town. (Alternatively, you can splurge even more and stay in one of these houses overnight.) Get there early, and revel in the isolation of the area before the tour buses arrive in late morning. 

Activities within the town are somewhat limited, but we found the two small museums to be fascinating, and (for a fee) you can also try your hand at some traditional papermaking. The town itself is lovely, nestled among golden rice paddies and picturesque mountains. It’s easy to imagine how this area must have looked similar hundreds of years ago. We stayed for lunch and enjoyed a relaxed afternoon meandering through the various sights.

If you’re still enchanted by the houses, head out to Suganuma, only 15 minutes to the south. The tour buses leave by late afternoon, so time your visit accordingly, Strolling through the few streets doesn’t take too long, although the small museum here provides another welcome change of pace (and only slightly overlaps with Ainokura’s museums). 

There are a few places to stay nearby, or you can just return to Kamitaira and stay another night in the cute town.

Stop Four: Shirakawa-Go

Enjoying ice cream in a lovely setting, by JD Travel

If you’re not overwhelmed by the thatched-roof towns at this point, take an hour the next day to see Shirakawa-Go. This is the biggest of the thatched-roof towns, and many people start here and then move to Suganuma and Ainokura. Be forewarned though: with size comes tourists, and at times it was difficult to escape from the many tour groups that come here on a daily basis. Daniela enjoyed the dozens of cute houses this area has to offer, although Jeremy felt overwhelmed by the crowds. If you’ve enjoyed your time in the other towns but are ready for a change, feel free to skip this one.

Stop Five: Takayama

Relaxing in lovely Takayama, by JD Travel

From here, it’s only an hour drive southeast to Takayama, another gem in the Japanese alpine region. There are actually two roads leading to Takayama, and if you’ve got the time we highly recommend taking the northern Route 360. Although it’ll take you twice as long as its southern counterpart (plus stops to take in the view), this road twists and turns through largely untouched mountains, with some of the most magnificent scenery we saw in Japan. Be careful, as the roads are in many places only wide enough for one car, and it shuts down entirely during the winter.

Takayama’s real attraction is its ancient “downtown”—a collection of soba stores, sake breweries, and shops dating back hundreds of years. Although there are plenty of tourists walking the streets, it’s possible to wander for an afternoon or two, taking in the ambience and a sake tasting while you admire the ancient architecture. Takayama is also a surprising source for amazing food – our best meal in Japan came at Sakurajaya just outside of downtown, the best soba we had was at Ebisu in the old town, and Auberge Hidanomori just outside of town had lovely and reasonably priced rooms and offers fantastic dinner. It’s well worth spending a night or two here soaking in the ambiance.

Stop Five: Shinhotaka

The best view for miles and miles, by JD Travel

For the fifth and final stop on this road trip, continue heading east to Mount Hotaka, which hosts the Shinhotaka Ropeway. This is an enormous cable car (actually two), that carry you up 3000 feet in a matter of minutes. The top boasts some of the most spectacular views in the country, offering panoramas of mountains in every direction.

For the more intrepid travelers, you can actually use this as a base for some serious hiking and rock climbing, although only those with appropriate gear should actually set off on the nearby trails. (We cheated, and took a 20 minute walk down one of them before it started getting steeper.)

This area of Japan also boasts some of the country’s best onsen—hot natural springs. Make sure not to miss out on them, as these natural springs are an important part of Japanese tradition and culture, and the hot water is the best way to relax after a long day sightseeing or hiking. Make sure to look up the modesty requirements before you go, as different onsens have different setups—some are separated by gender, a few are co-ed, and each one may have slightly different requirements on whether bathing suits are allowed. Our guesthouse even recommended an onsen literally carved in the side of a mountain!

There are plenty of places to stay within a 20 minute drive from the Ropeway, including a number of lovely ryokans and guest houses. We stayed one night here, although if you’re traveling slowly you could extend it to two and do some hiking nearby. Just be aware that there aren’t many restaurants in the region, so if your ryokan offers dinner you should take them up on it!

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After you leave the onsen area, it’s about a three hour drive back to Kanazawa and leave the Japanese Alps behind, which leaves you plenty of time to spend another night in this lovely town, or even to catch an afternoon train back to Kyoto or Tokyo. Depending on how much time you have, it’s even possible to drive onwards towards Tokyo – just beware of tolls, because they can really add up.

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