Japan’s Most Underrated Region Is a Nature-Lover’s Dream Vacation
Discover award-winning steaks, pristine Gassho-style villages, and unparalleled stargazing in the Japanese Alps.
Japan is all the rage right now, with droves of tourists from all over the world flocking to the island nation’s shores to bask in the Land of the Rising Sun. The recent surge in popularity is likely a result of pent-up demand, as Japan remained closed to independent foreign visitors until October 2022, long after most countries had fully abandoned such pandemic-fueled restrictions. In 2021, the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Development Index ranked Japan as the world’s No. 1 tourist destination, placing the country at the top of its 117-destination list for the first time—in a year when exactly zero tourists passed through its borders. It’s no wonder, then, that everyone and their uncle is setting their sights on buzzy Tokyo, food-centric Osaka, artsy Kyoto, and beachy Okinawa.
But if you’re hoping to immerse yourself in Japanese culture without losing yourself in a dense sea of roaming tourists, Gifu and Nagano, two of nine prefectures scattered throughout the mountainous central region of Chūbu, are the ideal landing places. Home to picturesque cities like Nagano City, Takayama, Hida, and Shirakawa-gō, there’s no shortage of opportunities for sightseeing and learning about the area’s rich history. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported back in time as you walk through villages lined with perfectly preserved traditional Japanese architecture, whimsical bridges spanning winding rivers, and softly glowing lamps that light up the streets each night.
Here’s everything you need to know about planning your next trip to Gifu and Nagano, Japan’s dreamy year-round escape.
How to get to and around Gifu and Nagano
From Tokyo, you’ll need to take a Shinkansen (bullet train) into central Japan’s Chūbu region. Buying a Japan Rail Pass—a multiuse ticket that provides access to trains across the country for seven-, 14-, or 21-day periods—is definitely the easiest way to stay on track throughout your journey. If you’re planning on visiting only a few select destinations, a single Shinkansen ticket is a cheaper, albeit more restrictive, option.
You’ll know you’ve entered the mountainside once the view from the train shifts from bustling city life to endless trees and fields. Since this area leans more rural and is less frequented by foreigners, it’s a good idea to learn a few key words in Japanese and keep a translating device or app on you.
Throughout the prefectures, taxis are a convenient way to travel to and from nearby cities and suburbs, while subways are the dominant mode of transport within the region’s larger cities. As a first-time visitor who doesn’t speak the language, I was nervous about navigating the subway system solo, but Apple Maps helped me every step of the way, from exactly which platform to use to what time each train would arrive.
Explore the age-old homes of Shirakawa-gō
Cut off for centuries from the rest of Japan due to their mountainous terrain, the historic villages of Shirakawa-gō and neighboring Gokayama have been an official UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995. While you can enjoy the area in any season, the winter brings with it the annual Winter Light Up. Watching the time-honored houses twinkle and sparkle under snowfall is nothing short of a magical experience.
Regardless of the season, start your day by heading up to the Ogimachi Castle Observation Deck. From your spot perched high above Shirakawa-gō, pay close attention to the steep, triangular roofs topping the Gassho-style houses that spread out beneath you. The large thatched roofs were built at a sharp 60-degree angle so that snow could easily slide off their surfaces and avoid building up stress on the foundation below. You’ll also notice that the houses all face the same direction, allowing wind and sunlight to efficiently dry their unique rooftops, which are meticulously rethatched every few decades by the Gokayama Forest Owners' Cooperative.
Later, cross the Deai Bridge over the Shō River to explore the traditional houses, food vendors, and shops of Shirakawa-gō’s Ogimachi Village up close. Must-stops include heritage site Wada House, souvenir and specialty shops Sato, Kodaijin, and Kobikiya Kakinokiten, and restaurants like Irori, Chubee, and Shiraogi.
Book a stay in a traditional townhouse
After your history lesson, head to Takayama and check into the century-old Iori Takayama townhouse. You’ll feel like you’re stepping into another era as you peruse the manicured garden, relax on the handcrafted Hida furniture, and curl up atop a tatami mat each night. Don’t worry, though—modern touches like a Nespresso machine and Bluetooth speaker keep you firmly rooted in 21st-century creature comforts.
Iori Takayama also works with local restaurants and small businesses around the city to provide in-house dining experiences hand-delivered to your guest room. And don’t be shy about dietary restrictions—the hospitality team is keen on meeting specific requests and accommodations.
After dinner, take an evening stroll around the carefully preserved district to bask in the area’s pristinely intact historic architecture. Finish the night with a soak in your very own open-air bath, a secluded and serene way to loosen all those travel knots.
Find your Zen with a hands-on herbal spa experience
The Iori Stay experience isn't complete without flexing your wellness muscles at its Premium Medicinal Herb Sauna Experience. You will start by riding a rented e-bike into the Hida Forest to collect clippings from the many aromatic kuromoji trees, said to be imbued with medicinal qualities. Then you’ll return inside for the herbal tea ceremony. As you lounge in the common room, a guide will walk you through an assortment of locally grown herbs, detailing their benefits while adding specific selections to your cup to create a custom blend meant to address your specific health needs.
Next up is the sauna for a little additional detox. The small room is heated by a firewood stove; tossing water infused with those same medicinal herbs you foraged earlier onto the coals creates a fragrant and extremely soothing mist. All in a hard day’s work.
Indulge in the best beef Japan has to offer
Apologies in advance to the vegetarians, but if you're in Gifu, you really shouldn’t leave without sampling the region’s world-famous beef.
A variety of Wagyu, Hida-gyu (or Hida beef) comes from specially bred Japanese Black cattle that have spent a minimum of 14 months living and grazing in Gifu Prefecture. In order to qualify for the designation, each piece of meat must pass a strict test evaluating marbling, color, texture, firmness, luster, and smell. Hida-gyu is so celebrated, it’s taken home multiple awards (including the coveted Prime Minister's Award) at the esteemed National Wagyu Competency Meeting’s Wagyu Olympics. Needless to say, this isn’t your average ground chuck.
You can get your carnivorous fix at Hida-gyu Grill Bakuro in Gifu City, a cozy enclave serving a long list of Hida-gyu presentations, from multicourse melt-in-your-mouth chateaubriand dinners to homey beef stew and even a juicy housemade hamburger. The open kitchen concept is an added bonus, as you can watch talented chefs whip up the meaty menu as you dine.
Other standout Hida-gyu purveyors include Takayama’s cute family-owned Yamatak and the refined Kitchen Hida, Gifu City’s modern-meets-traditional Senryu, and Mizunami’s Yakiniku Yoshita, a veritable temple to yakiniku, or grilled meat.
Take in the stars from the top of a mountain
If you live in a major city, light pollution has made it so your chances of routinely seeing stars are slim to none. But Chūbu, with its mountainous terrain and rural environment, provides unobstructed views of the dazzling night sky.
In Nagano, Achi Village is a stargazer’s paradise. The charming village came in first in the 2006 Star Watching Network, a national observation event held by Japan’s Ministry of the Environment. You’ll want to head over to Fujimidai Highland’s Heavens Sonohara, a year-round ski run where you can climb the 4,600-foot mountainside in about 15 minutes aboard a rope-strung gondola. At the summit, you’ll enjoy pitch-black conditions giving way to one of the world’s most incredible starscapes.
While you gaze, expert guides will point out constellations and explain their origin stories. Each guest is provided with a smartphone and phone stand so they can capture high-resolution photos and videos of the night sky. If craning your neck to look up is too straining, bring blankets so you can prop up your phone, lie down, and marvel at the sparkly sky in style.
Trot through scenic Karuizawa
Karuizawa is one of Nagano’s most celebrated resort towns, known for its excellent skiing over the winter and many outdoor activities during the warmer months. It began its life as a holiday retreat in 1888, designed by a Scottish–Canadian developer who aimed to build a European-inspired vacation destination in the Japanese mountains. The town put itself on the map by hosting events in both the Summer and Winter Olympics—equestrian in 1964 and curling in 1998—as well as attracting hordes of international visitors, many of them celebrities, looking to enjoy some fresh mountain air on holiday. Even John Lennon and Yoko Ono were big fans, the latter likening Karuizawa to “the Hamptons except it’s in the mountains.”
See what all the fuss is about by teaming up with Makiba Karuizawa for a horseback riding adventure through the idyllic countryside just outside of Karuizawa proper. Depending on your experience, you can choose from several different guided courses that allow you to walk, trot, or canter within an allotted time slot. Once you’re all checked in, a guide will lead you out of the paddock and into the forest, where you can ride to your heart’s content amid towering Japanese red cedar trees. First-timers are more than welcome, and the facility provides boots, gloves, helmets, and even jackets, so no additional gear is necessary.
Hunt for strawberries in Saku
While Japan is known around the world for its huge roster of one-of-a-kind foods (we see you, sake-flavored Kit Kats), one item that often gets left off the list is the humble strawberry. But after one bite of the sweet, juicy Japanese-grown specialty, few other berries will ever compare. As one of the most popular fruits in Japan, strawberries are sure to show up at any market you pass, but the best way to experience the almighty berry is by rolling up your sleeves and picking some of your own during peak growing season, which runs from January through March.
Located near Saku’s Sakudaira Station, Inoue Torao Farm opens up its fields and greenhouses to strawberry-pickers each year. The fruit is housed according to quality, and if you spring for a premium pass, you’ll get access to the cream of the crop, including a selection of rare tastebud-tingling white strawberries. The best part? Eating as you pick is strongly encouraged, making for a very sweet ending to your epic trip across Gifu and Nagano.