We’ve partied in Tokyo, reflected in Kyoto, and dined out in Osaka; now we’re ready to head off the beaten path. Top of our list: Japan’s lesser-visited prefectures of Ishikawa and Gifu.
Ishikawa, a beguiling spot positioned on Japan’s northern seacoast, is a nature-lover’s delight. Sidestep cosmopolitan Kanazawa City, and instead venture to the outer stretches of the prefecture to experience Ishikawa at its very best. The charming crafts hamlet of Wajima (conveniently positioned near the tip of the Noto Peninsula) and the historic Kaga Onsen should be firmly on your to-do list.
A little further south, Gifu is perhaps best known for its traditional mountain villages, but before you head for the hills, spend some time in the prefecture’s capital, the city of Gifu. From Gifu Castle, positioned atop Mount Kinka, to Gifu’s famed cormorant fishing, there’s no want for choice here. Craft lovers will feel particularly at home exploring the region’s many specialist makers, including: Ozeki Lantern (a Gifu specialty lantern maker), Sumii Tomijiro Shoten (a specialty paper fan maker), and Nagaragawa Handcraft Artisan House CASA, where beautiful traditional Japanese sakura umbrellas are made.
Have we whet your appetite? Then it’s pencils, Excel sheets, and/or bookmarks at the ready – our neat travel guide to Ishikawa and Gifu, spanning scenic mountain hikes, A-grade sushi spots, and majestic hot springs, is here to inspire your next adventure.
The Packing Edit
Sitting by the Sea of Japan, Ishikawa prefecture’s abundant fishing grounds mean seafood is in plentiful supply. From snow crab to sweet shrimp, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Naturally, Ishikawa’s sushi scene is next level – due as much to the fresh seafood supply as to the high-quality rice and vinegar made locally. The prefecture’s rich pastures draw many to its marketplaces; we suggest you head to Omicho Market in Kanazawa for an overview of the exotic and quality ingredients the region has to offer. If you’re in the Kaga area, a trip to the Hashidate Fishing Port to sample crab cuisine is an afternoon well spent.
Consuming Ishikawa’s regional cuisine, Kaga-ryori, is a multi-sensory experience. Building on the region’s rich variety of ingredients – from seafood to vegetables, sourced predominantly from the Noto and Kaga area –, Kaga cuisine is renowned for its sophistication. Tea ceremonies are popular here, and, by extension, the use of local traditional crafts are frequently incorporated into mealtimes, with delicate serving dishes adding greatly to the beauty and presentation of meals. If you’re looking for somewhere special to dine, we suggest you sample some Michelin-starred fare in Noto. Our choice: the one-Michelin starred, L’Atelier de NOTO. Diners can choose to eat in either the main dining area, or, for a little more privacy, book out the restaurant’s elegant private dining room.
Climb Mount Hakusan
Mount Hakusan is one of the three most sacred mountains in Japan, alongside Mount Fuji and Mount Tateyama. At over 2,000 meters high, it’s also one of the highest mountains in Western Japan, making it a must-do on any Ishikawa itinerary. Covered in snow for more than half of the year, Hakusan becomes a popular hiking destination during the climbing season, which runs from June to October. The Shirayama Hime-Jinja Shrine Okumiya is located at its summit, rewarding hikers on completion of their trail. From the apex of the mountain, enjoy wowing views of the Sea of Japan and the Northern Japan Alps.
Experience Ancient Bathing Traditions At Kaga Onsen
Just south of Kanazawa, Kaga Onsen is a collection of four hot springs: Yamashiro, Yamanaka, Awazu, and Katayamazu. Neighbouring Mount Hakusan, it’s believed that the hot springs were discovered by monks visiting Hakusan some 1,300 years ago. Connecting the dots, those keen to explore Mount Hakusan’s criss-cross terrain should precede or follow their hike with a traditional bathing experience (personally, we’d go with the latter). Kaga Onsen’s hot spring towns are known for their public baths (soyu), which are located in the center of each town. Take some time to deliberate between hot spring inns and traditional bath houses scattered across Kaga.
Take A Scenic Drive Along the Noto Peninsula
Midway down the country’s west coast you’ll find the Noto Peninsula – one of the most remote areas of Japan’s main island, Honshu. Jutting out 100km into the Sea of Japan, the sparsely populated Noto Peninsula is ideal territory for keen explorers. Boasting rugged coastlines, secluded beaches, and quaint fishing villages, map out a scenic drive, or book onto a cycling tour to fully explore your surroundings. For postcard-perfect scenery, head to the Sosogi Coast and/or Mitsukejima rock island. In need of further wowing? We suggest you pay a visit to the Shiroyone Senmaida rice terraces which overlook the Sea of Japan.
Discover Ishikawa’s Many Arts And Craft Cultures
The aforementioned Noto Peninsula is also known for its centuries-old craft cultures – most notably, it’s fine lacquerware. Head to Wajima to snap up some of the best around – consider the town’s 500+ years of lacquerware production a major stamp of approval. Coincide your visit with a trip to the Ishikawa Wajima Museum of Urushi Art to learn about the painstaking craftsmanship that goes into the production of these decorative objects. Next, visit the Wajima Kiriko Art Museum, and encounter beautiful Kiriko – towering lantern floats carried during summer festivals. Other notables across Ishikawa’s crafts scene include: Kutani ceramics (characterised by detailed scenes of landscapes depicted in bold, dark colours), Ohi ware (a form of rustic pottery), and Kaga-yuzen, an ornate silk-dyeing technique used for intricate kimonos. Craft lovers, take note.
Feel Enchanted In Shirakawa-go
Shirakawa-go is a picture-perfect village. Secluded in the mountainous valleys of Gifu prefecture, this unique townscape offers visitors a marked change of pace. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Ogimachi is Shirakawa-go’s largest village and the area’s main attraction. The village is dotted with thatched-roof houses (traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses) – their interesting shape, supposedly, resembles a monk’s hands in prayer. Pleasing aesthetics aside, the roofs are designed to withstand heavy snowfall – a good thing, given that the region is one of the snowiest places on the planet.
CF Top Tip: If you’re not planning to stay overnight in Shirakawa-go itself, consider booking a room at Fairfield by Marriott Gifu Takayama Shokawa, which is a good place to stopover ahead of your onward journey north, towards Ena and beyond.
Take A Detour In Ena
Ena, a small town in the Gifu Prefecture, is a favourite launching-off point for hikers headed to Nakatsugawa and, further on towards Kiso-Fukushima and Narai. But rather than rush through, when planning your forward route we suggest you carve out some time here and pay a visit to the Hiroshige Museum of Art, Ena. Exhibiting, collecting, and storing ukiyo-e woodblock art pieces – especially the pieces created by famous Edo-period printer Hiroshige Utagawa –, the museum’s Kisokaido Rokujukyu-tsugi Nouchi collection is a real treat. Time permitting, make one further addition to your Ena itinerary: a romantic boat ride on the Kiso River – the perfect vantage point from which to lap up the beautiful scenery of Ena Gorge.
Capture The Castle Town Of Gujo Hachiman
The riverside town of Gujo Hachiman was founded in the 16th century, following the construction of Hachiman Castle. The town is known for its mountaintop castle, pristine waterways, and its renowned summer dance festival (which runs for a period of thirty-one festival nights between July and September), so there’s a lot to cover while you’re here.
Following a visit to the castle’s hilltop location, take a moment to enjoy the view of the town in the valley below – scenes are particularly beautiful come autumn-time, when maple trees surrounding the castle are in full health. From your bird’s eye view, plot out your next move. We suggest making a beeline for Gujo Indigo Dye to witness true indigo dying specialists at work. Using traditional indigo dying techniques, their ‘tsutsugaki’ (tube painting) is truly mesmerising to encounter.
Those planning to extend their time in Gujo should check into Fairfield by Marriot Gifu Gujo, which is conveniently positioned near Kokondenjunosato Field Museum – a beautiful open-air museum.
Shop For Souvenirs In Seki
For some traditional Samurai sword culture, there’s only one place to go: Seki. Once a Samurai sword-making hotspot, nowadays Seki is best known for kitchen cutlery manufacturing. After Samurai were banned from carrying swords, local artisans had to pivot, diversifying into cutlery, scissors, and other tools. Today, the hamono (cutlery) culture runs strong throughout the town, making it the perfect spot to pick up some elegant (and practical) souvenirs. To learn more about Seki’s history, pay a visit to Seki Hamono Museum. The facility provides an overview of the manufacturing process of Japanese swords and cutlery made in the city of Seki. For a 360 view of the craft (and at an additional fee), visitors can witness swordsmiths at work in the forge.
Experience Ukai Fishing On The Nagara River
Ukai is an ancient fishing method that has been performed in Gifu for 1,300 years and truly put the city on the map. Performed every night on River Nagara, from 11 May to 15 October (with some exclusions), fishermen use cormorant birds to catch ayu (sweetfish). Guided by the flaming torchlights at the helms of their boats, the short ceremony begins at dusk and is quite the spectacle. Want to feel part of the action? Watch from covered sightseeing boats which shadow the fishing boats as they make their runs downstream. Alternatively, book a dinner cruise along the river for a luxed-up experience.