One of the main touristic regions in Japan covers the central region encompassing Kanazawa down to Nagoya. In between, there are the charming towns such as the UNESCO-listed Shirakawa-go and Takayama. This itinerary provides a guide in how to cover these places in 4 days/3 nights – the minimum duration in my opinion if you are exploring these places. The towns stated here are covered by the JR Takayama-Hokuriku Area Pass.
For suggested things to do in Tokyo, check out my Tokyo itinerary
Table of Contents
Day 1 – Kanazawa
You can start your trip in either place. In my case, I started in Kanazawa as I took the shinkansen or bullet train from Tokyo. It’s also very much feasible to start the trip in Nagoya.
If you are starting your trip in Kanazawa, you would probably be entering the city via its train station. The Kanazawa Train Station is an attraction in its own right, incorporating classical elements such as a traditional temple construct but using glass and steel as well as a twirling wooden pattern for a futuristic effect. If you are visiting Shirakawa-go as well, it is worth noting that bus tickets can be purchased here. If you are feeling peckish, check out Morimori from the shopping mall next door for some cheap conveyor belt sushi. Alternatively, Menyataiga (6-3 Horikawamachi, open 11AM to 2:30PM, 5:30PM to 11PM daily except Monday) which is a few blocks away is well-known for its grilled miso ramen broth. Do come early if you decide to eat here as there are always long queues.
Where you go first depends on your time of arrival. If you arrive in the morning or early afternoon, you should start in the Higashi Chaya-gai district since most shops here close by 5pm. This is Kanazawa’s biggest and most famous geisha districts, with houses dating back to ancient times. Nowadays, the area houses a number of traditional teahouses as well as Kanazawa’s famous gold leaf store. Hakuichi (daily 9AM to 6PM) sells all sorts of gold leaf items from skin products down to its star product, the gold leaf ice cream. It is literally soft serve vanilla ice cream wrapped in 24k gold foil. Priced at roughly 900 Yen, it definitely doesn’t come cheap. I tried it myself. My verdict – the gold foil doesn’t add anything to the taste. It’s more for photos really. You’re better off saving 500 Yen and sticking to ordinary vanilla soft serve ice cream.
Another attraction that you should not miss in Kanazawa is the Kenrokuen (7AM to 6PM during spring and summer / 8AM to 5PM during autumn and winter). This is considered to be among Japan’s three most beautiful gardens. Having visited plenty of Japanese gardens myself, I would have to say that Kenrokuen is quite impressive. There is a different scene to be observed with each season, from the plum and cherry blossoms in spring, flowers in summer, autumn colors in fall and the snow-covered foliage in winter.
Heading to the Kansai Region as well? Check out this itinerary for Osaka and Kyoto
Literally translated as the “Garden of Six Sublimities,” Kenrokuen is supposedly at its best during autumn. I visited in summer and found the grounds teeming with flora. Allow for around 1.5 hours to appreciate this must-see attraction.
If time still permits, head to Kanazawa Castle. I would not call this a must-see but if you are in Kenrokuen anyway, you can conveniently walk to the castle. Entrance is free though the construct pales in comparison with Japan’s other castles.
You will soon realize that Kanazawa is not all history. The city paints its modern side through the 21st Century Art Museum and the DT Suzuki Museum. Even those with just a passing interest in the fine arts would find the architecture in these two museums to be quite insta-worthy.
Day 2 – Shirakawa-go
Head out early in the morning for a 1 hour bus ride to Shirakawa-go. There are a number of departures from Kanazawa daily but if you want to maximize your time in the village, you might want to take the earliest bus. You can also check HERE for the bus schedules from Kanazawa to Shirakawa-go. In my case, I spent roughly 5 hours in Shirakawa-go before I took a connecting bus to my next destination: Takayama.
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shirakawa-go does not really have a particular must-see attraction. The attraction is the village itself, replete with thatched roof houses built without using a single nail.
Does Shirakawa-go charge entrance fee?
There is no entrance fee for Shirakawa-go. You are free to visit and explore the village. However, some of the houses and museums may charge an admission fee to enter.
Where to eat in Shirakawa-go: Irori is my restaurant of choice. Located a few steps away from the bus station, you can feast in delicious Hoba Miso which is a specialty within the Gifu Prefecture. Do note that Irori is closed for dinner from Wednesday to Friday.
You can choose to stay overnight in one of those thatched roof houses or take the bus later in the day to your next destination, Takayama.
Tip: If you do not wish to backtrack, you can do the Kanazawa-Shirakwago-Takayama OR Takayama-Shirawakago-Kanazawa route directly without returning to the town you came from. If you wish to do Shirakawa-go as a day trip, you’d be pleased to find left luggage lockers by the bus stop.
Day 3 – Takayama
Takayama is personally one of my favorite towns in Japan. You can find the second largest old town in the country here (second only to Kyoto) and there are plenty of things to see and do.
Start your day at the Miyagawa Morning Market located by the riverside. It’s a slightly touristy affair but you’ll still find locals selling agricultural products alongside snacks and knick-knacks. Alternatively, the Jinya-mae Morning Market nearby is also held every morning and has a similar setup. The latter is also close to the Takayama Jinya, a beautiful building which used to be a government office.
After having your fill exploring the morning market, walk the short distance to the old town. With Sannomachi Street as the main drag, the old town here is markedly larger than the one in Kanazawa and is particularly atmospheric after sunset when most of the crowds have gone and the area evokes samurais and geishas. While here, make sure to try the Hida Beef Sushi from one of the stalls. It’s served on a thin rice cracker and makes for a good introduction to the specialty meat in the region. You will also find plenty of art galleries, shrines, ancestral homes and small museums around the area. You can enter them if you wish to. I did not and enjoyed just strolling down the age-old alleyways. Do note that most establishments in the old town close early at around 5pm.
In case you skipped Shirakawa-go on your way to Takayama, you can also check out the Hida Folk Village which features similar thatched houses. This is a bit out of the way, outside of town. If you have already been to Shirakawa-go, I wouldn’t recommend making your way here.
Day 4 – Takayama to Nagoya
Do the Higashiyama Walking Course in the morning, passing through the many temples and shrines and ending at the castle ruins. The path is around 3.5 kilometers long so allot around 2 to 3 hours – inclusive of stops. One of the notable stops is the former castle ruins located in Shiroyama Park.
After your walk, head back to town for lunch before waiting for your bus to Nagoya. I recommend Heianraku (open daily except Monday and Tuesday) which is conveniently located on the street leading to the train station if you’re coming from the city center. The owners are very friendly and they serve great ramen and curry rice.
Afterwards, head to Nagoya. You have two options from Takayama – either the train or the bus. Unless you have the JR Pass, a single ticket on the train costs around 6,000+ Yen so it’s more worthwhile to take the bus (around 2,980 Yen) which gets you to Nagoya for the same amount of time.
Nagoya does not offer much in the way of tourist attractions and I find that half a day is enough to go through the worthwhile sights there.
Main attractions include the Nagoya Castle and the Nagoya TV Tower. If you have an interest in cars, you can also check out the Toyota Museum. Alternatively, you can go for a walking tour of Nagoya for a quick overview.
For dinner, I heavily recommend trying Nagoya’s local dish – Hitsumabushi – grilled eel which is prepared four ways. There are some notable restaurants where you can have this dish but my pick for quality and convenience is Ibasho (closed on Sundays and the 1st/3rd Monday of each month) which is located a few minutes walk from Nagoya TV Tower. The restaurant is situated within Nagoya’s red light district. Go early or be prepared to queue. Payment is by cash only.
If you are just traveling within Central Japan, you can buy the JR Takayama-Hokuriku Area Pass which can transport you between Kanazawa, Takayama and Shirakawa-go for 5 days. You can even use the pass to go between these cities and Nagoya or Osaka/Kyoto, depending on your preference.
Tips For Navigating Central Japan
- If you are making multiple intercity trips or if your trip also includes Tokyo, consider buying a JR Hokuriku Arch Pass. A one-way bullet train ride from Tokyo to Kanazawa for example, already costs over 14,000 Yen or more than half the cost of the pass. A round-trip (plus access to the local JR city trains) exceeds the cost of the pass so it would be wise to get one if you are going to a few places around the island, especially if your trip to Central Japan involves starting/ending in cities like Tokyo.
- If you decide to come during winter, do take note that some key areas such as the Ogimachi viewing deck at Shirakawa-go is closed whenever there is heavy snowfall so you may not get the panoramic view you envisioned.
- For a relatively lengthy trip such as one to Central Japan, I personally would buy travel insurance as Japan also has some of the most expensive healthcare in Asia. You can compare for the best travel insurance that suits you and get exclusive discounts and even freebies when you book. If you reside in Singapore, check out Starr Travelead, one of the cheapest travel insurance. They have a promotion that comes with S$10 cash rebate that helps to offset the insurance cost. If you are based elsewhere, you can check out Worldnomads as they have quite an extensive coverage, even including personal accidents into their list of benefits.
Where to Stay in Kanazawa, Takayama and Nagoya
Kanazawa – I stayed in Hotel MyStays Kanazawa Castle. Despite the name, the hotel is actually not close to Kanazawa Castle although it’s still very convenient as it’s only an 8 minute walk to the train station. Rooms are small but comfortable with full amenities (even comes with a tub!). The hotel was also built relatively recently. Rates are usually well below $100.
Takayama – I stayed at Rickshaw Inn which is located in the city center – in between the train station and the old town. You get tatami style rooms at a very reasonable price and breakfast is optional. Alternatively, check out Hotel Wood Takayama, a traditional-style hotel located in the old town itself or if you prioritize proximity to transport links, you can consider Residence Hotel which is only a short walk from Takayama Station.
Nagoya – The Crowne Plaza ANA Nagoya is a decently priced 4-star hotel adjacent to Kanayama Station. This is also one of the top-ranked hotels in Nagoya. Otherwise, you can check out Nikko Style Nagoya with its soothing interiors and proximity to Nagoya Station.
If you can choose only one, should you stay in Kanazawa, Takayama or even Shirakawa-go?
I personally would not advise staying in Shirakawa-go as it is a quiet village with barely anything to do beyond a few hours of strolling and observing the cute houses. While it is possible to do home stays, the accommodations can be a bit rustic as well. Do note that Shirakawa-go was primarily an agricultural community before the swarms of tourists came in.
Between Kanazawa and Takayama, I would personally advise staying at least a night each in both cities but if you are really pressed for time and can choose to stay in only one place, I would advise staying in Takayama instead as there is simply much more to do here. I really can’t imagine squeezing Takayama as a day trip.