Formerly known as Shinshū and often referred to as the 'Roof of Japan', Nagano Prefecture (長野県) is a wonderful place to visit for its regal mountains, rich cultural history, fine architecture and cuisine. In addition to a hefty chunk of the Chūbu-Sangaku National Park, Nagano boasts several quasi-national parks that attract skiers, mountaineers and onsen aficionados.
Ishikawa-ken (石川県), comprising the former Kaga and Noto fiefs, is rich in culture, history and natural beauty. In ancient times the prefecture was at the forefront of wealth and culture in Japan. Cut to March 2015 and Ishikawa steals the spotlight again with the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen, making the region easier to reach than ever before.
Takayama (officially known as Hida Takayama) boasts one of Japan's most atmospheric townscapes and best-loved festivals, and a visit here should be considered a high priority for anyone travelling in Central Honshū. Its present layout dates from the late 17th century and incorporates a wealth of museums, galleries and temples for a city of its compact size.
Kanazawa's array of cultural attractions makes it the drawcard of the Hokuriku region. Best known for Kenroku-en, a castle garden dating from the 17th century, it also boasts beautifully preserved samurai and geisha districts, attractive temples, a wealth of museums and a wonderful market. We recommend a two- or three-day stay to take it all in.
Embraced by seven great peaks to the west (including Yariga-take, Hotaka-dake and Norikura-dake, each above 3000m) and three smaller sentinels to the east (including beautiful Utsukushi-ga-hara-kōgen), Matsumoto occupies a protected position in a fertile valley no more than 20km across at its widest. Views of the regal Alps are never far away and sunsets are breathtaking.
Rugged seascapes, rural life, seafood and a light diet of cultural sights make Noto Peninsula (Noto-hantō) a pleasant escape from Hokuriku's urban sprawl. The lacquer-making town of Wajima is the hub of the rugged north, known as Oku-Noto, and the best place to stay overnight.
Shirakawa-gō & Gokayama
The remote, mountainous districts of Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama, between Takayama and Kanazawa, are best known for farmhouses in the thatched gasshō-zukuri style. They're rustic and lovely whether against the vibrant colours of spring, draped with the gentle mists of autumn, or peeking through a carpet of snow, and they hold a special place in the Japanese heart.
Inuyama's Kiso-gawa (river), aka the 'Japanese Rhine', paints a pretty picture beneath its castle, a National Treasure. By day, the castle, quaint streets, manicured Uraku-en and 17th-century Jo-an Teahouse make for pleasant strolling, while at night the scene turns cinematic as fishermen perform the anicent art of ukai by firelight.
Kiso Valley Nakasendō
The Nakasendō (木曽谷中仙道) was one of the five highways of the Edo period connecting Edo (now Tokyo) with Kyoto. Much of the route is now followed by National Roads, however, in this thickly forested section of the Kiso Valley, there exist several sections of the twisty, craggy post road which have been carefully restored, the most impressive being the 7.
Boasting some of Japan's most dramatic scenery, the Northern Japan Alps (北日本アルプス) of Gifu, Toyama and Nagano Prefectures, accessed from Matsumoto, contain stunning peaks above 3000m, accessible even to amateur hikers. Also called the Hida Ranges, the most spectacular scenery is protected within the 174,323 hectare Chūbu-Sangaku National Park (中部山岳国立公園).
At the base of one of the highest sections of the Northern Japan Alps, Hakuba is one of Japan's main skiing and hiking centres. In winter skiers from across Japan, and increasingly overseas, flock to Hakuba's seven ski resorts. In summer the region draws hikers attracted by easy access to the high peaks.