The Mitsuboshi Kaido
The Mitsuboshi Kaido ("Three-Star Road") has existed for quite some time, and has been gaining increasing attention as more and more tourists flock to Japan. Starting in Matsumoto, in Nagano Prefecture, it traces an arcing line through gorgeous mountains to its final destination in Ishikawa Prefecture's Kanazawa.
The route connects five 3-Star Michelin sites (introduced in the Michelin Green Guide Japan). From Matsumoto Castle it makes its way through the old market town of Takayama, to the thatched-house villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, before culminating with Kanazawa's Kenroku-en Garden. Though not officially on the route, another three-star site exists nearby in Nagano City: Zenkoji Temple. So why not kick off your journey here?
Important Transport Info
-- The Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo provides access to Nagano and Kanazawa stations, depending on the direction in which you wish to travel the Mitsuboshi Kaido.
-- The new Three-Star Route Option Ticket is the cheapest way to traverse this scenic trail. It can be used for transport between Matsumoto and Kanzawa, going in either direction (but not for round trips). The ticket, which is ¥5,500 for adults and ¥2,750 for children (aged 6 - 11), applies to selected buses and can be used over a period of 7 days.
Here's how best to tackle the Three-Star Road traveling from east to west:
Nagano By Day
Start your three-star journey in the city of Nagano. Perhaps best known as the host of the Winter Olympics in 1998, it also has a laid back atmosphere, Buddhist temples and spiritual underpinnings. It is home to tasty spring peaches and crunchy winter apples, top-notch basashi (horse sashimi), and a raft of wintry outdoor activities.
Zenkoji Temple is a dominant force in Nagano's cultural landscape. Surmounting a hill at the top of the city, this imposing Buddhist edifice is the beating heart of Nagano. Restored flagstone streets flanked by traditional storefronts, cut their way through the city center towards Zenkoji's large complex. As you enter through the grand daimon (main gate) the rich smell of incense fills the air, burning over a brazier in the center of the courtyard. Visitors waft the herbal-smelling smoke over themselves as part of a purification ritual—not to mention for a bit of warmth in the bitterly cold winters.
Inside, the temple is a masterpiece of ancient architectural and artistic conception, with its lofty inscribed ceiling, fabulous carvings, tale-covered tapestries and unique iconography. The founder, Yoshimitsu Honda—along with his wife and child—is immortalized in a statue upon the altar. Yoshimitsu san was an unusual character as far as temple founders go, because he was an "ordinary person," rather than a dedicated holy man. In 642 AD, he happened across a great statue of Buddha, jutting out from a stream near Osaka, which he then carried on his back to his home in Nagano. The statue is still concealed inside a case within Zenkoji, forbidden from any watchful eyes to gaze upon.
Zenkoji is a striking piece of religious art indeed, but it was also an incredibly progressive temple from the moment of its inception. Women, typically forbidden from holy halls by local ecclesiastic classes, were allowed to worship freely in Zenkoji. This forward thinking can mostly be attributed to its founder.
If you want to round out your Zen temple experience in style, check out Fuchinobo near the entrance to Zenkoji's grounds, for a sampling of traditional Zen Buddhist monk cuisine, shojin ryori. Seasonal vegetables at market will dictate what's on offer, but expect an entirely plant-based repast including small plates of tempura, tofu, seasonal greens, mushrooms, seaweed and complex carbohydrates like rice and soba (buckwheat) noodles.
Known as the "Paradise of Monkeys," Jigokudani is part of Joshinetsu-Kogen National Park, and has stormed to prominence on the virtual walls of Instagram. Home to a tribe of snow monkeys, this geothermal hotbed sits in the upper reaches of a river valley blanketed in snow through the Japanese winter. As you make your way up the mountain, hot spring vents in the earth's uneven surface billow superheated plumes of steam and subterranean gases into the earth's atmosphere. Accompanying the distinctly sulphuric smell are monkeys frolicking, wrestling, socializing and bathing benignly in the park's resident hot springs. If you want to avoid the hordes of camera-toting tourists—don't we all—it's best to get down here early.
Snow Shoeing in Togakushi
Togakushi is home to a very significant shrine, and is part of Myoko-Togakushi Renzan National Park. Along an ascending arterial pathway, appearing like a cloud under the typical mass of fluffy snow in winter, the park is home to some truly stunning trees. A procession of 400-year-old cedars spiral gently into the heavens, their bizarrely shaped trunk influenced by the anticlockwise rotation of the planet from which they grew. In the surrounding forests huge oaks with writhing limbs wrestle for sunlight in the canopy—during winter the lack of leaves almost exaggerates their immensity. And a population of kumasugi (bear cedar trees) show the distinct markings of Moon Bear claws; a sign of this herbivorous mammal's ascension up the tree in search of fruit. Proof that this quiet winter land is anything but devoid of life.
During the lengthy winter, you can don snow shoes here and trudge through the deep, pillowy snow surrounding the main path. A local guide will lead you past desiccated trunks of deciduous trees and snow-covered conifers, while indicating the tracks of nocturnal animals: fox prints, rabbit paws, and divots left in the snow by hunting owls. The park is also home to Togakushi Shrine, a collection of five shrines that are connected to the legend of the sun goddess, Amaterasu.
After you've built up an appetite in the forest, be sure to check out Okusha Mae Naosuke for some soba noodles. The osusume (recommendation) is the zaru soba (served in a bamboo basket) with duck soup. It won't disappoint.
Nagano By Night
For dinner in Nagano, consider Yamabuki, a traditional restaurant specializing in local beef dishes. The marbled beef set is a great introduction to the wonders of Japanese red meat for the uninitiated; it's fall-apart-in-your-mouth tender. Yamabuki sits along Nagano's main high street which hosts an illumination event every winter. The trees aligning the thoroughfare are draped in champagne gold lights adding a little warmth to the sub-zero winters. The entrance to Zenkoji Temple is also enlivened by a polychromatic network of lights every winter, pulsing like a gigantic bulb at the end of a lamplit tunnel.
Hotel Metropolitan Nagano
For accommodation, the Hotel Metropolitan Nagano is one of the most convenient in the city. Connected to Nagano Station, it's perfectly placed for train and bus routes heading into Nagano and surrounding areas. The hotel has a kind of classy business vibe, with a decent buffet breakfast included in the price.
Matsumoto By Day
Next up is Matsumoto, and the point at which you can activate your Three-Star Road Ticket. Matsumoto is renowned for its original castle structure—a National Treasure, and one of the only remains of feudalism in Japan which didn't burn down, and subsequently need to be reconstructed. With such a noble past, historic traditions run deep in Matsumoto. Plus, it's scenic location in the palm of the vast Northern Alps merits a visit alone.
Naturally, the castle should be the focus of your Matsumoto itinerary; it's a great way to kick off your day. In the early 16th century, after Toyotomi Hideyoshi sent Tokugawa Ieyasu to Edo (former name of Tokyo) to hold the fort, so to speak, he realized that it may not have been the wisest of decisions. Though these two venerable samurai would be the catalysts to Japanese reunification at the end of the Sengoku (Warring States) Era, Hideyoshi was not entirely sure he could trust the younger Tokugawa at this early stage. As such, he ordered one of his vassals, Ishikawa Kazumasa, to erect a castle at around the midway point between Edo and the ancient capital, Kyoto, to keep an eye on Tokugawa. Said point was Matsumoto.
The castle adopts a fairly similar blueprint to feudal keeps the land over, but where it separates itself from most of the rest is in its color variation. Most castles in Japan are black on white (white supposedly accentuated their grandeur), whereas white on black was sometimes implemented as a form of opposition to the norm. Matsumoto Castle adopts the latter, and rarer, of these. The donjon (main keep) has 6 floors—one of which was hidden as a storage room for weaponry and other resources necessary when under siege—and is surrounded by a glassy moat filled with the usual menagerie of ducks, swans and brocaded carps. It's also famous for its moon-viewing room, erected from vermillion-lacquered timbers, which gives the structure an unusual shape on its southeastern flank. On a sunny day in spring when cherry blossoms and blooming flora blaze across the gardens, and the castle casts an almost three-dimensional reflection on the moat's surface.
Kenyu Sword Art
In a city with so much history, it's great to see establishments like Kenyu that uphold the integrity of time-old traditions. Samurai warriors were prevalent in Matsumoto right up to the days of colonialism, and you can channel your inner swordsmith in with Kenyu's sword-wielding experience (located a stone's throw from the castle gate). Clad in samurai garments, you will learn various movements and striking techniques employed by the cerebral legends of Japanese warfare: Musashi, Hanzo, Masamune, Kenshin and more.
Matsumoto By Night
During winter, you may wish to return to the castle for the evening illumination event. Superpowered bulbs illuminate the pond and the main keep, creating one of Japan's finest nightscapes. The blackened castle is even more prepossessing against the night sky, with an ethereal reflection cast upon the moat on a windless night.
The Daimyo-cho illumination runs in tandem with that of the castle. Much like in Nagano City, the lights dress a band of barren trees lining the main street in town which charges toward Matsumoto's most iconic building.
Lodging options in Matsumoto abound, but for a more unique evening experience, Ryokan Sugimoto is a great option. It's an unusual blend of traditional Japanese and mid-20th century western influences. The rooms are modular ryokan-style dorms with futons and cedar wood bath tubs. The two "bars" are full of antique tables, international whiskies and fine liqueurs, plush seating and reading lamps, and a rich color palette. It all gives off a scholarly, almost attractively pretentious, vibe. The private dining rooms are located at the end of a large bamboo tunnel which burrows underneath the building. In here you will be treated to a multi-course meal (included in price) featuring nabe (hotpots), wild local herbs and veg, seafood straight from the chilly Sea of Japan to the west, and, on occasions, stewed boar.
Takayama By Day
Now we move into a less explored patch of Japan, in Takayama, Gifu Prefecture. Takayama—often referred to as Hida Takayama, due to its location in the Hida mountain range—is home to soaring snow-capped peaks, Zen monk practitioners, old town markets and traditional high streets, and some of the most acclaimed red meat in the country: Hida beef.
The Miyagawa morning market is one of the most popular haunts for locals and visitors alike. Running along the bank of small river tributary, the market is full of stalls peddling all kinds of local culinary pleasures. From dried fruits and various miso-based soups to takoyaki (octopus balls), taiyaki (sea bream-shaped sweet pastries) and ichigo daifuku (strawberries covered in sticky mochi rice), there's more than enough for you to get your chops around.
The area around the market teems with old-world charm, with its narrow pedestrian streets and wooden facades. Said paths take straight shots toward the coniferous mountains which surround Takayama; it's all very fetching indeed. If you're so inclined, you can dress up in silk kimono and wooden geta (sandals) for a stroll along the ancient high streets.
The Shinhotaka ropeway offers some very contrasting, yet equally pleasing sights. This multi-tiered gondola system—the only double-decker in the country—on the outskirts of Takayama City carries guests high up into the clouds, where Takayama's most imposing peaks reside. At an elevation of almost 3,000 meters, the views from the top feed back down into the pine-swept river valley. It's a vast and beautiful sight when the swirling fogs clear.
Meditation at Zennoji Temple
Takayama's Zennoji Temple is pleasing on the eyes, but where the experience is elevated to a new level is through the zazen meditation practice within its calming tatami interior. Zazen may ring a bell with anyone familiar with meditative practices. Led by the temple's head monk, you will assume a typical cross-legged position (kekkafuza, or "full lotus"), while connecting your hands to form an O'shape—the "cosmic mudra" which encourages the flow of universal energy—before embarking on breathing exercises and (hopefully) the expulsion of thought altogether. The idea with zazen is that you won't react to any thoughts that arise during the practice, yet simply let them wash by like an uninterrupted river. The result is peace with oneself, a kind of leveling off of your emotions.
Takayama By Night
Takayama Green Hotel
Evenings in Takayama are usually quiet, so a nice ryokan with bubbling onsen (hot springs) is the best way forward. Takayama Green Hotel is a modern ryokan hotel in the center of the city. It's a rather grand building, hugged by neat gardens which are illuminated by night. The kaiseki-style evening feast, features a delicate balance of seasonal flavors, including vegetable dishes, sashimi on rice, and grilled fish. Its rounded off with a powerful blast of umami to cut through the rest in the from of organic Hida beef, which you'll fry with fat on little hot plates at your table. After you have had your fill, be sure to jump in to one of the hotel's outdoor onsen for a wet and steamy dessert.
Shirakawa-go By Day
Shirawakawa-go (meaning "White River Village") has become one of the most alluring destinations in Japan. This UNESCO World Heritage Site rose to levels of global repute for its traditional gassho-style houses. The style is typified by huge thatched roofs, built from straw-like kaya plants, erected into the shape of praying hands. Particularly in winter, Shirakawa-go takes on a fairytale-like quality; seeming so quaint in the vastness that surrounds it. Nestled in a bowl of steep and daunting peaks which dwarf the little village, there's a certain vulnerability to Shirakawa-go from afar; it deserves every bit of protection that UNESCO can offer it.
Explore the World Heritage Site
A plaque in Shirakawa-go with ancient kanji script inscribed into the stone states: "To live in the steep mountains is to live in Paradise on Earth." This gives you an idea of how stunning the combination of the natural landscape and unique architectural facades of Shirakawa-go can be. A stroll around the town is one of unending charm; it's hard to believe that people actually call this place home. Check out the Gasshozukuri Minkaen Folk Museum, where the village's ancient traditions have been revived, making sure you stop off for zenzai, a local favorite of stewed adzuki (sweet beans) and mochi (sticky rice). For the best views, head up to the Ogimachi Castle Ruin Observatory which sits atop a cliff overlooking the serene village.
Coffee House Sato Onigiri Experience
An interesting lunch option is the onigiri (rice ball) class at Coffee House Sato. Under the kindly guidance of a teacher, you'll make onigiri using the same methods and ingredients as the villagers have been utilizing for generations. The meal consists of local fare only, including a rare breed of black rice, wild mushrooms, tsukemono (pickled vegetables), and sweet kabocha (pumpkin), served on a bed of magnolia leaves with freshly brewed tea on the side. Bookings can be made through the Shirakawa-go tourist office online or in-person.
Shirakawa-go By Night
Two very contrasting hotel options in Shirakawa-go may take your fancy. The first is the Shirakawa-go Eco Institute, one of west Japan's foremost green hotels. Under the stewardship of Toyota Motors, and rolled out in the same year as their eco-friendly Prius model, the Eco Institute is focused on nature preservation, eco-education, and green techniques. Sitting in isolation at the top of hill on the village outskirts, the hotel's environmentally-friendly policies include reducing single-use plastic usage, storing cold air from the winter in a gigantic chamber to ventilate the lodging during summer, and encouraging guests to appreciate the natural surroundings. To that end, hiking, nature walks, and rafting make up the bulk of the activities.
Alternatively, Yui-no-sho ryokan is also on the outskirts of Shirakawa-go. This classy lodging has a large onsen, Western-style beds, and a selection of complementary food and drinks, which vary depending on the time of day. Said freebees include: late-night ramen, served once you've regained your "second stomach" upon a night of drinking; and amazake, a sweetened low-alcohol drink made from fermented rice, available after check-in time. Kaiseki-style breakfast and dinner are also included focusing on the usual trappings of several courses of seasonally-inspired dishes.
Gokayama By Day
If you haven't heard of Gokayama, I wouldn't worry, you're not alone. It's a largely untouched area in the city of Nanto; a conurbation of four former towns and four former villages that joined to become one back in 2004. Existing in the upper reaches of the Shogawa River, in Toyama Prefecture, it feels much more like rural Japan than one of the nation's urban centers. Again it has been recognized by UNESCO for its 300-year-old Gassho houses, with two villages—Suganuma and Ainokura—gaining World Heritage Status.
Suganuma Village, just over 10 miles north of Shirakawa-go, is like a microcosm of its more famous cousin. Set atop a gorge overlooking the Shogawa's crystal blue waters, the thatched houses are a little pocket of tranquility in the company of a range of jagged peaks. It's charming confines are ideal for a leisurely stroll, with a little museum and cafe located in the village. Make sure you stop off at the latter for freshly brewed matcha (green tea) or zenzai soup with accompanying okashi (sweets).
Washi no Sato
For another cultural diversion, there's a washi paper museum and workshop nearby. In here you can learn about the process of making fine washi paper, before fashioning a few postcards yourself from scratch. This age-old process, using fibers from the kozo (mulberry) can be traced back to the Chinese dynasties before it appeared in Japan around the year 1610. The Japanese have since perfected the craft over the past 500 years, and are still iterating upon it today. Washi paper is viewed to be a unique and relatively high class material, making your postcards a perfect souvenir.
In Nanto's Inami area, the old-world Yokamachi high street crawls uphill towards the city's most famous temple. Along the avenue are okashi shops set behind timbered store fronts, a woodcarver's workshop wafting the pungent, spicy aroma of fresh camphor wood (used for wood carving) into the surrounding air, local toy stores, a ryokan lodging, and traditional townhouses. Again the picture-perfect backdrop is one of evergreens tumbling down the hillsides.
Surmounting the gradual ascent of Yokamachi street is Zuisenji Temple, the fourth largest wooden temple in Japan. And for now, its one of its best kept secrets. The towering daimon gate, an intricately carved and weather-beaten structure fashioned from local wood, leads to a huge sprawling courtyard of which Zuisenji is the centerpiece. Its steeply curved roof, arcs down like the wings of a giant bird, dominating the skyline. Inside is filled with the smells of incense, lightly burning in front of an ornate gold-trimmed altar. The designs of writhing dragons, strutting peacock and animalistic iconography etched into the furnishings, have been so to an almost lifelike degree. On quieter days, you may be lucky enough to get this jaw-dropping scenery all to yourself.
Gokayama By Night
The drive across the plateau of Nanto City around dusk is very fetching, meandering through a land that industrialization forgot. It's all large, multi-generational houses built in the traditional style with thickets of conifers and manicured gardens, surrounded by sprawling flatlands of rice paddies. As always in this part of Japan, a gorgeous jumble of mountains stand sentinel in the distance.
Seafood Feast at Iwana
Head to the Johanna area of Nanto to Iwana, a seafood restaurant specializing in a local favorite: mountain trout (particularly in winter). The omakase (chef's choice) will feature a seasonal sushi set, fish-based miso soup, tofu dishes, and the piece de resistance, mountain trout karaage. Be sure to wash it down with some local nihonshu (sake).
For accommodation, Gokasanso is a quiet ryokan, situated on a little hill overlooking the surrounding region. It has public onsen baths and comes with breakfast and dinner included. Western- and tatami-style rooms are available.
Kanazawa By Day
And so we come to the end of the journey in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture. Kanazawa is a vibrant city, with long-lasting historical roots. Filled with old districts, a marketplace, pristine gardens, restored castle buildings, and more shrines than you can shake a stick at, history is what people tend to come here for. Yet there is a modern vibe, representing global hipster trends, that is slowly seeping into the fabric of the city. You'll probably want to spend a couple of days here; there's plenty to keep you occupied.
Omicho Market and Cooking Class
The Omicho Market Tour and cooking class is a great introduction to Kanazawa's thriving culinary scene. Run by local cook, Naoko san (obviously a popular name among teachers of the culinary crafts), you will walk around the market arcades (called "shotengai") where you'll collect seasonal ingredients for your lesson. As always, what's on offer varies depending on the time of year, but the market has a deluge of fresh produce so being shortchanged during certain seasons is not an issue. A common appearance on the menu is raw fish wrapped in smoky konbu , served with purple daikon (a Japanese radish) and shiso (beefsteak plant) leaf. It's one of sushi rarer manifestations, but absolutely bursting with flavor.
Higashichaya is an ancient district lined by old tea houses and gold leaf crafts stores, and the center of Kanazawa's once thriving geisha scene. Gold leaf production dates back 400 years in Kanazawa—the city's name actually means "Gold Marsh"—so, naturally, this craft plays a key role in Higashichaya. Kanazawa is known for its traditional gold leaf craftsmanship, and there are many different shops in the cities where visitors can get a hands-on experience decorating their own souvenir with beautiful gold leaf. One such shop is Bikazari Asano, which is operated by Hakuichi, a brand of Kanazawa's traditional gold leaf craftsmanship.There are also ice cream parlors in the neighborhood selling fan-favorite, gold leaf ice cream.
Constructed in 1820, Ochaya Shima is an old tea house where Kanazawa's resident geisha used to entertain wealthy merchants. Masters of musical instruments and the arts of conversation, the geisha tradition has waned over the past 100 years or so, yet Shima Chaya is a great place to get better acquainted with this distinctly Japanese historical pastime. Having scarcely changed over the past 200 years, it feels like a little time warp, with its haphazard kitchen of wooden buckets and ceramic accouterments, its tatami floor mats populated by traditional biwa (lutes), taiko (drums), and shamisen (three-stringed guitar-like instruments), and an artfully landscaped garden set in the central courtyard. You can sup on fresh match, along a garden-facing counter before you leave; it's a very nice touch.
Kenroku-en is Kanazawa's resident three-star Michelin site, and has been dubbed one of the "Three Great Gardens of Japan." In an nation well-endowed with stunning botanical scenery, that's quite the honor. Located near the former castle, and sprawling over 25 acres of central Kanazawa, Kenroku-en is a verdant oasis of supreme loveliness. From its still-as-glass ponds, thoughtfully-conceptualized statues and wooden arbors, to its lichen-smothered cherry trees, towering zelkovas and fish-hunting kingfishers, its a real visual treat. Don't forget to pay a visit to Kanazawa Shrine, where weary students pray before taking examinations, and the Seisonkaku Villa, a charming structure formerly housing local aristocracy.
Kanazawa Castle Park
Built during the late 1500s, Kanazawa Castle operated as headquarters of the Kaga Domain for 14 generations. After the Meiji Restoration (1868), the castle changed hands to the imperial army under whose watch it burned almost entirely to the ground—such tends to be the fate of Japan's ancient architecture. Many of the former buildings have been restored, and the grounds are now an extension of Kenroku-en to the south. The castle is typified by a unusual mosaic pattern that wraps around the its whitewashed ramparts.
One of Kanazawa's great virtues is that it's a walking city; most of its top sights are located on a small patch of land between the two rivers splicing the city into sections. From Kenroku-en you can take a 10-15-minute walk to the old samurai quarter, Nagamachi, passing by Oyama Shrine, whose triple-tiered daimon blends architectural styles from Japan, China and colonial Europe.
Kanazawa used to be a samurai heartland, from the rank and file to the rulers of the land. In the old samurai quarter, many of their residences remain in tact from several generations previous. Along the flagstone streets and trickling river are sand-hued earthenware walls marking the boundaries of the old homesteads -- the walls' varying heights indicate the rank of the samurai who once called the property home. Only one descendant remains, and many other homes have been bought over by new families (gentrified from the inside only), but you can still visit some of the old residences, which function as little museums, such as Nomura-ke.
While your in a samurai mood, there's one more activity in Kanazawa it would be remiss not to mention. The sword exhibition at Shijimaya aims to educate guests on the history of local samurai customs, while introducing the startling artisanal craft of katana (sword) smithery. Led by a samurai descendant, you can lay hands on, and pose with, striking razor-sharp blades, which have stayed in the family for hundreds of years.
Kanazawa By Night
For dinner in Kanazawa, your options run the gamut from cheap and cheerful to slightly more pricey and urbane. Oden Takasago, an oden (a collection of stewed foodstuffs) restaurant, is a great option for close-quarters communal dining. Hotpots with stewing seafood, vegetables, tofu and meat line the counter to one side of the restaurant. Simply pick a selection of these and share the love. PS. Goes great with draft beer.
Coil is all about 21st century minimalism. Its stripped back interior, glass walls, muted colors and techno soundtrack belie the historical reputation of Kanazawa. As does its menu, featuring make-it-yourself maki sushi rolls, with keto and vegan options. The keto option replaces rice with minced cauliflower and ramps up the fat content with stripped beef and eggs. There's also a self-serve tea ceremony option, again defying the usually rigorous methodology of the traditional tea serving process. Coil is certainly one of the flag-bearers in the aforementioned new-look Kanazawa. (Also open for lunch.)
For a hotel, the Nikko chain's Kanazawa branch is a good option, with affordable rooms and a location right in the heart of the city. You'll get great views of the metropolitan area from higher floors, and the continental-Japanese-fusion breakfast buffet (include in the price) goes beyond the basic hotel morning staples.