When Japan’s northernmost prefecture, Hokkaido, was colonized in the late 19th-century, little Otaru became an important fishing port. Later, the terminal station of Hokkaido’s first railway line was built here. The town’s quaint canal is lined with old warehouses and, along with the rest of the prefecture, it is one of the most famous places in Japan to enjoy fresh seafood.
Although the canal area can get crowded with Japanese tourists, you will find quieter neighborhoods dotted with stately herring mansions towards the center of town. The town is particularly beautiful during the Otaru Snow Gleaming Festival in February, when the canal is lined with glowing snow lanterns.
It is the geography of Shirakawa-go that gives the small village its unique look. High in the mountains of central Japan, two things happened. Firstly, it was virtually cut off from the rest of the country for centuries and so it developed its own style of design and architecture. Secondly, the bitterly-cold winters and heavy snowfall meant the residents built houses with steep roofs about one meter thick made from bundled-together reed-like plants.
When you visit today, you will still see lots of these traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses. They are so charming with their rustic wooden frames and thatched roofs. In winter, snow covers them and the whole village looks magical. Many of them offer homestays where you will sleep on tatami mats and have a traditional meal around the stove in the living room.
Shirakawa-go is a beautiful small village, authentically Japan but also unique. It is been declared a World Heritage Site because of its cultural value but you do not need a title like that to appreciate how stunning it is, nestled amongst the mountains and the rice paddies.
Kitashiobara is a village that truly coexists with nature, with mountain forest comprising 80% of the area. Due to its lush abundance of nature, you will get a chance to view some exceptionally gorgeous views. The completely natural lakes called Goshikinuma are particularly impressive for their naturally changing colors.
Magome is a post town in the Kiso Valley, which once served as an important stop-over point for Edo-period travelers making the long journey between Tokyo and Kyoto along the Nakasendo Trail. The town’s main street, a wide stone walkway lined with beautifully restored old buildings, is closed to vehicular traffic.
Aside from admiring pretty architecture, the main reason to visit Magome is to hike the Magome-Tsumago Trail, a five-mile section of the Nakasendo Trail. This pleasant trail winds through forests and farmland and passes waterfalls, before ending in the equally lovely town of Tsumago. The trail is well-marked in English and a bus travels between the two villages for those who don’t feel like walking back to Magome after completing the hike.
Protected by the base of Mt. Ontake, Kiso is a village that not only has a townscape that overflows with history, but is also filled with nature. Its main attraction is the ancient street called the Nakasendo. At the foot of Mt. Ontake, you'll find Kaida Plateau, where you can enjoy the tranquil and open atmosphere.
Kanazawa, meaning ‘Marsh of Gold’, is a hidden jewel in Japan. As one of the best preserved Edo period city in Japan it has many historical sites to offer its visitors. It also offers typical Japanese wooden houses where you can try out one of their specialties, soft ice cream topped with golden leaves. Definitely do not skip the Nagamachi samurai district with many samurai houses.
Kanazawa even has a special ninja temple, The Ninjadera Myoryuji looks plain and normal from the outside but the inside is full of hidden passages, rooms, doors, floors and booby-traps. Just book a free tour at the tourist office in Kanazawa station, as entrance is limited.