Central Honshū (本州中部; Honshū Chūbu) is Japan's heartland, stretching out between the sprawling metropolises of Greater Tokyo and Kansai. The awesome Japan Alps rise sharply near the border of Gifu and Nagano Prefectures before rolling north to the dramatic Sea of Japan coast.
World-class skiing, hiking and onsen can be found in the region's stunning alpine uplands. All but one of Japan's 30 highest peaks (Mt Fuji) are here. Kanazawa oozes culture: temples and tearooms that served lords and housed geisha are beautifully preserved. Takayama's quaint riverside streetscapes win admirers from Japan and abroad. Matsumoto's magnificent castle and alpine backdrop ensure its popularity.
Nagoya, Japan's dynamic and under-loved fourth-largest city, is the gateway to Central Honshū, packing its share of urban delights, plus excellent transport connections to just about everywhere.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Central Honshū.
One of Japan's National Treasures, the temple of the second generation of feudal lord Maeda Toshinaga's family is rightly famous for its manicured lawns, steep roofs, and all-round aesthetic that marries Indian and Japanese architectural styles. If you come just before 9am, there's every chance you'll have the place to yourself, with the exception of the temple deshi (apprentice), who'll be raking stones and opening shōji (sliding rice-paper-screen doors) before the day's visitors arrive.
Trainspotters will be in heaven at this fantastic hands-on museum. Featuring actual maglev (the world's fastest train – 581km/h), shinkansen (bullet trains), historical rolling stock and rail simulators, the massive museum offers a fascinating insight into Japanese postwar history through the development of a railroad like no other. The 'hangar' is 20 minutes from Nagoya on the Aonami line, found on the Taiko-dōri side of JR Nagoya Station.
This Edo-period garden draws its name ( kenroku means 'combined six') from a renowned Sung-dynasty garden in China that dictated six attributes for perfection: seclusion, spaciousness, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and broad views. Kenroku-en has them all. Arrive before the crowds.
Between Kanazawa Station and Katamachi you'll find this market, reminiscent of Tokyo's old Tsukiji market. A bustling warren of fishmongers, buyers and restaurants, it's a great place to watch everyday people in action or indulge in the freshest sashimi and local produce. The nearest bus stop is Musashi-ga-tsuji.
A low-slung glass cylinder, 113m in diameter, forms the perimeter of this contemporary gallery, which celebrated its 10th birthday in 2014. Museum entry is free, but admission fees are charged for special exhibitions. Inside, galleries are arranged like boxes on a tray. Check the website for event info and fees.
On display here are over 300 shishi (lion) masks, instruments and drums related to festival dances. The main draw is the twice-hourly puppet show where you can see the mechanical karakuri ningyō (marionettes) in action.
In 1244 the great Zen master Dōgen (1200–53), founder of the Sōtō sect of Zen Buddhism, established Eihei-ji, the 'Temple of Eternal Peace', in a forest outside Fukui. Today it's one of Sōtō's two head temples, a palpably spiritual place amid mountains, mosses and ancient cedars. That said, day trippers visiting the complex of more than 70 buildings might not find the constant buzz of visitors and activities as peaceful as they might desire.
This ancient shrine on a lovely hillside is dedicated to female Shintō deity Izanami and attracts women seeking marriage or fertility. See if you can find the large hime-ishi (姫石; princess stone) and other items resembling giant female genitals. The popular Hime-no-miya Matsuri takes place here on the Sunday before 15 March (or on 15 March if it's a Sunday). Locals pray for good harvests and prosperity by parading through the streets bearing a mikoshi (portable shrine) with more replica vaginas.
Founded in the 7th century, National Treasure Zenkō-ji is home to the revered statue Ikkō-Sanzon, said to be the first Buddhist image to arrive in Japan (AD 552). Not even 37 generations of emperors have seen the image, though millions of visitors flock here to view a copy every seven years during the Gokaichō Matsuri. Zenkō-ji's immense popularity stems partly from its liberal welcoming of pilgrims, regardless of gender, creed or religious belief.