Gifu is a landlocked prefecture located in the center of Japan. It is one of the country’s world-class destinations that carries visitors to the past. It is where wooden Machiya houses and other old structures are still being used by current locals. Its many historic towns where time has seemingly stood still since the 1800’s will surely give you a nostalgic feeling. In this 7-day suggested itinerary, you will be able to see much of Gifu’s best destinations like Takayama and Shirakawa-go as well as the ancient Nakasendo Highway of Nagano Prefecture.
Things to know before traveling to Central Japan:
Language – Japanese (Nihongo) is the official language of Japan. For foreign visitors, the language barrier can be intense but this should not be a cause for concern. Every railway stations, bus stations and other transportation options have English signs. Even if you had any difficulty navigating, the Japanese people are very helpful to foreigners. There are also plenty of tourist information centre, usually located in JR offices. It is, however, recommended to learn a few words and phrases because this can go a very long way in Japan, just like in any other countries.
Etiquette – The Japanese people are warm and very welcoming to foreign visitors but it’s important to remember some do’s and dont’s to enjoy a faux pas free journey. When entering temples or castles, it is a must to take off your shoes. If there are rows of footwear by the door, it’s a clear sign to remove your shoes. If you are going to visit temples and shrines, remember to dress modestly. On trains and buses, it is considered rude to speak loudly or to speak on your phone.
Money and costs – Japanese Yen is the official currency of Japan. The Land of the Rising Sun has a reputation of being a pricey destination, and its reputation lives on, but in reality it has become more and more affordable. Sure traveling in the country can be expensive, if one chooses it to be, but there are things you can do to not break the bank. With a strong dollar and weaker yen, traveling to Japan can offer a lot of bang for your buck.
Getting there and around – Nagoya is the central gateway to Gifu Prefecture. Getting there and around is very easy, thanks to Japan’s comprehensive trains systems (mainly JR, or Japan Railway) and highway express buses. If you are going to follow our suggested itinerary, we recommend getting a Japan Rail Pass. The 7-day unlimited pass costs 29,110 JPY (253 USD), which is definitely not cheap, but the amount you will pay for transportation in Japan on a ‘per ride’ basis is significantly more than the price of the pass.
Where to stay – Gifu Prefecture has a wide range of accommodation options, with something for every level of comfort and budget. If you’re into cultural immersion, it is recommended to stay in a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese style hotel or inn. Ryokans serve Japanese breakfast and dinner, which are often included in the rate that would normally range between 10,000 – 15,000 JPY per night per person. Check out available Ryokans in Takayama, Shirakawa-go, Tsumago and Magome by visiting Japanese Guesthouses website.
Detailed itinerary: 7 days in Central Japan – Gifu and Nagano Prefectures
Day 1: Kiso Valley – Tsumago and Magome
Your Central Japan adventure starts today! If you are coming from Osaka, Kyoto or Tokyo, then Nagoya will be your starting point. Kiso Valley, located in Nagano Prefecture, is where the ancient Nakasendo Highway is established. During the Edo Period, the Nakasendo Highway served as one of the two significant transportation routes between Edo (present day Tokyo) and Kyoto. At that time, travelers are always required to travel on foot as commanded by the Shogunate. Thus, post-towns such as Tsumago, Magome and Narai were established to provide travelers with places to eat, sleep and rest.
Assuming you had to travel for 2 hours by Shinkansen to Nagoya, you may choose between Tsumago and Magome on where you would like to spend the night. Both post-towns are well maintained section of the former Nakasendo Highway, thus you will surely get that rustic small town charm. If you are following our suggested itinerary, then we recommend Tsumago. To get to Tsumago from Nagoya Station, get on JR Shinano limited express train to Nagiso Station. Travel time is approximately 60 minutes and the Japan Rail Pass covers the entire train journey. Check in at your chosen Ryokan before you go on your walking tour.
Where to stay in Tsumago:
Given the multiple bus-loads of Korean, Chinese and domestic tourists it now attracts, who would have thought that back in the 1960s, Tsumago was virtually a deserted post-town. Some of the attractions you can see on this day are the former residence of the Hayashi family, Nagiso-machi Museum, the former site of Tsumago castle, the restored Kosatsuba (the Shogunate’s official bulletin board) and the Waki Honjin Okuya (post inns for government officials).
Day 2: Kiso Valley – Tsumago and Magome
Wake up to a traditional Japanese breakfast on your private room. A typical Japanese breakfast consists of steamed rice, miso soup, grilled fish or beef and side dishes like tamagoyaki (omelet), nori (dried seaweed), and Tsukemono (pickles).
After breakfast, begin your morning hike. Well-known in Japan as a culturally interesting hike for beginners, the trail between Tsumago and Magome is a very well maintained part of the ancient Nakasendo Highway. The trail is not difficult and is perfect for beginners and foreign travelers. The trail is 8 kilometers long, well-marked in Japanese and English, and should take about 3 hours to finish at a leisurely pace. Please note, there is a baggage forwarding service available daily from mid March through November through the town’s tourist information centers. For a minimal fee of 500 JPY your heavy backpacks or luggage will be delivered to Magome or Tsumago. Drop off your bags at the tourist information centers between 8:30 to 11:30 am and pick it up at the opposite town until 5:00 pm. Also, remember to pack some snack before you begin your hike.
Day 3: Kiso Valley – Nagano
Enjoy your traditional Japanese breakfast at your ryokan before you embark on another trip, this time to Nagano, the capital city of Nagano Prefecture. To get to Nagano City from Tsumago’s Nagiso Station, get on JR Shinano limited express train. Travel time is approximately 120 minutes and the Japan Rail Pass covers the entire train journey. Check in at your chosen ryokan before going on your walking tour. Some of the attractions you can see on this day are Zenko-ji Temple, Ninpo Museum, Kids Ninja Village, Shimano Art Museum and Nagano Olympic Museum.
Where to stay in Nagano:
For dinner, try some of the best restaurants in the city such as Uzuraya, Sobatei Aburaya, Misoya and Chikufudo Zenkoji Daimon. Although the city cannot rival the dining scenes In Osaka or Tokyo, Nagano boasts a diverse set of culinary delights which is among the best in this part of Japan. Remember to try some traditional Nagano food like Oyaki Dumplings, Soba Buckwheat Noodles and Gohei Moch (rice cake).
Day 4: Nagano – Yamanouchi
Dedicate this day for Yamanouchi, a municipality in northern Nagano Prefecture famous for its Jigokudani Monkey Park. The park draws many tourists because of its wild monkeys bathing in the park’s natural hot springs. Visitors can also visit the nearby towns of Yudanaka Onsen and Shibu Onsen for a great Onsen experience.
To get to Yamanouchi from Nagano, you can either travel by train or by express bus. The trains are not covered by the Japan Rail Pass so it is recommended to purchase the Snow Monkey Pass, a discount ticket for foreign visitors which provides unlimited use of Nagaden (Nagano Electric Railway) trains and buses between Nagano and Yamanouchi plus entrance fee to the monkey park. The 1-day pass costs 3200 JPY (28 USD) for adults and 1600 JPY (14 USD) for children (6-12 years old).
Day 5: Nagano – Shirakawa-go
On day 5, visit the charming village of Shirakawa-go, a relatively untouched village in northeastern Gifu prefecture and is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Stay overnight in one of the traditional Gassho-zukuri (thatched roof) minshukus and enjoy a relaxing night in an onsen. There are 22 Gassho-zukuri-style minshukus and 16 ryokans in Shirakawago, so it is best to reserve ahead of time to guarantee an overnight stay.
Where to stay in and around Shirakawa-go:
To get to Shirakawa-go from Nagano Station, get on a Shinkansen train to Toyama Station. Travel time is approximately 60 minutes and the Japan Rail Pass covers the entire train journey. From Toyama Station, board a bus to Shirakawa-go. Travel time is approximately 90 minutes and the bus fare costs 1,700 JPY one way.
Day 6: Shirakawa-go – Takayama
On day 6, wake up early and take a morning walk around Shirakawa-go. Then, prepare for departure to Takayama and enjoy a traditional Japanese breakfast in your Minshuku.
Where to stay in Takayama:
Takayama, also commonly referred to as Hida-Takayama, is a city in the Hida region of Gifu Prefecture. Its beautifully preserved old town and Hida beef are some of the famous highlights in this city. Famous attractions you can visit in Takayama are Hida-no-Sato (Hida Folk Village), Takayama Jinya and Miyagawa morning markets, Hida Takayama Shunkei Kaikan (Lacquerware Museum) and Kusakabe Mingei-kan (Kusakabe Heritage House).
To get to Takayama from Shirakawa-go, board a bus operated by Nohi-Hokutetsu bus to Takayama Station. Travel time is less than 2 hours and the bus fare is JPY 2,400 one way.
Day 7: Takayama – Nagoya
On your 7th and final day in Central Japan, check out from your Ryokan and take a Limited Express train from Takayama Station to Nagoya Station. Travel time is approximately 2 hours and the Japan Rail Pass covers the entire train journey. Leave your stuff in one of the coin-operated lockers in Nagoya Station before you go for last-minute shopping and seeing those attractions that you haven’t yet had time for. Fit in one last amazing lunch or dinner in the city before you go to the airport.
This is the end of our 7-day itinerary for Central Japan. Remember, this is just a guide for planning and is in no way, shape or form the only way to travel the country. There are several alternative routes of travel within the country and it will depend on your intended length of stay. Enjoy Japan!
Have you been to Central Japan or anywhere else in Japan? Do you have any tips or suggestions to share? If so, you can leave your comments below.
Featured image: Several traditional gassho-zukuri houses in Shirakawa-go at night. Shirakawa-go is one of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites located in Gifu Prefecture, Central Japan (Phurinee Chinakathum / Shutterstock.com)