Kana’s bar-hopping tours are something I wish I had known about when I visited this region earlier in the year. Navigating Japan’s nightlife can be confusing as a first-time visitor who speaks no Japanese. Places are also usually full on Friday and Saturday nights if you don’t book ahead.
“Mother just kicks everyone out if she knows I’m coming,” Kana says.
The diversity of Kanazawa’s nightlife matches the range of daytime activities in this mountainous region of Nagano and surrounds – just a short Shinkansen (bullet train) ride north-east of Tokyo and best known to Australians for its ski slopes.
In the past 24 hours, I have hiked through 400-year-old cedar forests, visited ancient temples, learned how to make room noodles, dressed in a kimono, and visited the home of artisans producing delicate sheets of gold leaf.
The last time I visited the Japanese Alps was in February to ski on the blissfully tourist-free and powder-rich snow at Hakuba. At the time, I was clueless about cities such as the historical seaside center of Kanazawa and the province’s capital of Nagano. Easy day trips from the slopes, they’re home to some of Japan’s top shrines and temples, and bursting with culture.
A new generation of younger entrepreneurs is adding a contemporary twist to Japan’s more traditional offerings. Cutting-edge art and design is prevalent in Tokyo. But the regions have also upped their game during the pandemic, with new contemporary art installations, organic farms, rooftop bars and onsen, and luxury glamping.
Nature remains a key drawcard. On my first day in the region, we take a leisurely two-hour hike through 400-year-old cedar forests to one of the five ancient shrines at the base of Mount Togakushi. The site is also accessible in winter, when these silent forests are blanketed in snow.
After working up an appetite from the morning’s hike, we arrive at the nearby Togakushi Room Museum for lunch with a twist. Cold room noodles are one of my favorite dishes in Japan and I will be making them from scratch. My sensei (teacher) knows her stuff, though, and patiently guides me through the art of making the dough with buckwheat flour, which is kneaded and stretched with an enormous rolling pin. My result looks more like fettuccine than the delicately thin noodles that make up the room, but it still tastes delicious.
A night or two in a traditional ryokan is a must for anyone visiting Japan. Tsuji Ryokan, my accommodation that night, is a classic example. Think tatami mats, shoji screens, garden views, a foyer lavishly decked out with a huge red paper parasol and teeny-tiny slippers I could never fit into.
After a soak in the decadently deep bathtub, I head to the dining room for a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner known as kaiseki. Artfully arranged with an intricate selection of local dishes, the menu that night is so complex it takes the waiter about 10 minutes to describe all the dishes. A ryokan stay usually means an early night, so I am crashed out by 9pm on the futon that has been laid out for me while I was eating.
It is a short drive the next morning to Zenkoji Temple, one of Japan’s most important Buddhist sites. It turns out our visit has coincided with a once-in-seven-years ceremony called Gokaicho.
This marks the temporary unveiling of a replica of the country’s oldest Buddhist statue (the actual statue is considered too sacred to go on display). The crowds queue for kilometers, but the mood is festive as families eat ice-creams, buy souvenirs and line up to touch a huge wooden pole, set up in front of the main temple, that is said to bring happiness.
Lunch that day is a vegan Buddhist feast served in dozens of iron bowls at the nearby Yakuoin restaurant.
From Nagano City, it is a short train journey to Kanazawa, my preferred alternative to Kyoto because it is a smaller, more manageable city without the crowds. Its main attractions are the sculpted Kenroku-en garden, a castle and its samurai and geisha districts.
Skipping the traditional sights, which I have seen before, I check out the city’s alternative attractions. These include two world-class contemporary art galleries, lunch at a craft-beer brewery and an afternoon shuffling awkwardly around the historical geisha district in a hired kimono, split-toed socks and wooden sandals.
After that experience, I’m relieved to arrive at my accommodation – the funky boutique hotel Korinkyo.
My favorite hotel of the trip, it is a successful blending of traditional Japanese culture with modern industrial design. My room even has its own sauna.
The day is capped off with an entertaining evening making sushi rolls at the Kanazawa Salon cooking studio, set in a charming historical machiya (wooden townhouse), where my host, Chikako, plies me with plum wine.
“I have almost forgotten how to speak English. You have to use different muscles in your mouth, ”she laughs when I ask her if she is missing tourists from abroad.
Japan allowed tour groups back into the country from June 10, but has not yet announced when it will fully open the borders. Government sources say this should happen well before the northern hemisphere’s winter ski season.
NEED TO KNOW
Staying there Korinkyo Kanazawa City. Rates from 25,710 yen ($ 275) a night. Tsuji Ryokan Nagano City. Rates from 15,000 yen ($ 160) including two meals
Kana’s bar-hopping tours see Za.wow Tours
Other top restaurants in Nagano City: Monzen Terrace Enya, The Fujiya Gohonjin, and Kanzan Jittoku
The writer was a guest of Tourism Exchange Japan.