Sake, Snow, and Silent Treks: A Week in Japan’s Central Chūbu Region

Experiences - Holidays

Sake, Snow, and Silent Treks: A Week in Japan’s Central Chūbu Region

Like yin and yang, a week spent between Kanazawa and Nagano in the Chūbu region is exactly the cultural, historic, and outdoor adventure you need to balance the chaos of other Japanese cities.


Bang smack in the middle of Japan not too far from Tokyo, is the Chūbu region – the predominantly rugged and mountainous terrain of the Japanese Alps, sandwiched between the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean.

In winter, both sides experience dramatically different climates – mild and sunny to the east, and cold, often snowy to the west. That means you can be skiing 3 metres of snow one day, and city bar-hopping in a light jacket the next.

If the diverse landscape and promise of snow and warmth in one location isn’t enough to tempt you, here’s an itinerary for how to spend seven jam-packed days in Kanazawa and Nagano.

About Kanazawa

Often known as ‘little Kyoto’, Kanazawa is the destination to visit to avoid the hordes of tourists in Kyoto. With a population of just over 450,000 compared to Kyoto’s near 1.5 million, it’s quieter but still very buzzy.

Look beneath the sleek urban facade of modern art galleries and restaurants, and the castle city of Kanazawa has many similar pockets of charming history and culture.

Kanazawa is also famous for its gold leaf products, found in everything from food to pottery. Blinged up gold ice cream is a particularly novel experience you won’t find anywhere else!


Kanazawa History

During the Edo period (1603-1868), Kanazawa flourished as a cultural and economic centre due to its location on the Sea of Japan and proximity to major trading routes.

The ruling Maeda clan were patrons of the arts and supported the development of traditional crafts such as lacquerware, gold leaf, and ceramics. Many of these crafts are still practised in Kanazawa today.

During World War II, Kanazawa was largely spared from the bombings that devastated many other Japanese cities. As a result, many of the city’s historic buildings and cultural treasures were preserved.

How to Get to Kanazawa

From Tokyo, Kanazawa is easily accessible in roughly 3 hours by bullet train, costing around 14,000¥ (approx. $150AUD) or covered by the Japan Rail Pass and Hokuriku Arch Pass.

The trains in Japan are some of the best in the world, so expect punctuality, free Wifi and plenty of legroom. Avoid taxis and private transfers in Kanazawa (and Japan more broadly) as you’ll pay an arm and a leg.

Things To Do in Kanazawa

Recommended time: 2 – 3 days

From stunning gardens to delicious local cuisine, here are my recommendations for the best things to do in Kanazawa.

Eat (And Drink) Your Way Around Town

First off, you’ll no doubt be hungry to get stuck into Japanese cuisine after meagre aeroplane meals. Fortunately, Kanazawa is well known for its food, which is heavily influenced by seafood sourced from the nearby cold waters of the Sea of Japan.



It was here in Kanazawa at a tiny restaurant called Bunke, that I ate the best sashimi of my life. But you’ll find similar straight-from-the-port seafood restaurants all over town. I’ve realised there’s no going back to Woolies pre-packaged sushi now.

The city’s most famous dish is Kaga Ryori, a traditional multi-course meal that features regional ingredients and meticulous preparation. Each dish is an absolute work of art, almost too beautiful to eat. Better still, it just keeps on coming – heaven for any foodie!



Post-dinner, wander down narrow laneways with inconspicuous iron-clad facades, to uncover Chuo Mishokugai’s 20 hidden izakayas. Most are tiny, sitting only a handful of people at the bar. They’re an intimate place to bar hop, try some snacks and meet friendly locals.

Walk Off the Sake Hangover at Kenrokuen Garden

Considered one of the best gardens in Japan, the stunning Kenrokuen Garden is a sprawling space with manicured lawns, native trees, tranquil ponds, and winding paths that lead to teahouses and pavilions.



If you visit during the cherry blossom season in spring, the garden transforms into a sea of pink and white that’s so quintessentially Japanese it can’t be missed.

Kenrokuen means ‘having six factors’, as it has all the attributes for a perfect garden: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, water features, and panoramas.


Admire Kanazawa Castle (or Run Around its Grounds)

Whilst at Kenrokuen Garden you may as well head over the road to arguably the city’s most famous attraction (which it’s literally centred around), the partially restored Kanazawa Castle.


Sake, Snow, and Silent Treks: A Week in Japan’s Central Chūbu Region


Originally built in 1583 by the powerful Maeda clan, the 25 hectare castle and grounds were designed as a stronghold, with massive stone walls and moats to protect the castle from attacks.

Entrance to the storehouse and turrets is 320¥ (approx $3.60 AUD), and well worth it to explore the depths of an ancient castle.

In the morning, come back to discover the Castle Gardens and surrounds, such as Oyama Jinja Shrine Garden and Hirosaki Park by chucking on some runners for a tranquil daybreak jog.


Sake, Snow, and Silent Treks: A Week in Japan’s Central Chūbu Region

Where to stay in Kanazawa

Splashing out: Hyatt Centric

Probably the most luxurious hotel this tent-head has ever stayed at, Hyatt Centric, with its Kanazawa gold theme, is one of the most upmarket hotels in Kanazawa.

Mid-range, but a goody: Neon Hotel

Simple, with light-filled modern styling, Neon Hotel is a comfy stay, leaving some cash for fun stuff. Many rooms have small kitchenettes to heat up a cheeky 7/11 ramen.

Budget hostel with character: Guesthouse Nagonde

Backpackers assemble! For 30 bucks a night, grab a bunk bed or for a bit extra, a traditional tatami style room with a futon on the floor.

So now you’ve had your dose of culture, it’s time to hit up Nagano, about 240km overland from Kanazawa for some outdoor adventures.

About Nagano

Nagano city is the capital of Nagano Prefecture, Japan’s fourth largest prefecture. Over 20% of the region is designated national parkland, with many other parts of the region forested or wild.

Hailed for its natural beauty, the Japanese Alps surrounding the city provide opportunities to connect with nature through hiking, snow sports, and soul-cleansing outdoor experiences.


8 Underrated Experiences in Japan’s Nagano Region, Tamara Thurman, people walking through snow

Nagano History

Whereas Kanazawa is a castle town, Nagano City is a temple town. With humble beginnings as a small settlement surrounding Zenko-ji Temple in the Nara Period (710-794), it grew and evolved over time to reach city status in 1897.

In the 20th century, Nagano played an important role in Japan’s history as the host of the 1998 Winter Olympics.

The Olympics brought international attention to Nagano, boosting the region’s credibility as a tourist destination, and undoubtedly one of the country’s reigning snow sport destinations.

While it may be well known for snow sports, Nagano is well worth visiting in summer, with a host of other activities like mountain biking, canoeing, and rafting – all surrounded by the towering peaks of the Japanese Alps.

How to Get to Nagano

Nagano is just over an hour east of Kanazawa, accessed by train. If you’re flying out from Tokyo, it’ll take you around 2.5 hours to get back.

Things to do in Nagano

Recommended time: 4-5 days

As a certified Explorer, you’ll likely want to spend more time in Nagano Prefecture than Kanazawa to check out the epic scenery. Here are my tips for the best things to do in Nagano.

Trek with Nagano’s Last Yamabushi Mountain Monk

Follow in the footsteps of pilgrims seeking enlightenment by immersion in the mountains, with a preview of life as a Yamabushi Monk.

This fascinating ancient practice aims to find enlightenment by immersing yourself completely in the mountains and the natural world – something We Are Explorers can get on board with.


8 Underrated Experiences in Japan’s Nagano Region, Tamara Thurman


After dressing in a plain white robe you’ll join a ceremony before following your monk guide, Yoshitaka Shida, to commence training in the mountains of Iiyama – a silent trek through towering cedar forests.

Why silence? So you can best hear your inner voice and observe the natural world around you. Count us in!

Monk trekking experiences in Iiyama run April to November and are typically one day, but multi-day trips are possible for private groups.

See Bathing Monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park

Monkeys soaking in a hot spring in the pits of winter is a wildlife image as iconic as elephants at an African safari. In fact, it’s iconically Japanese as it’s the only place in the world where you can observe this happening.


8 Underrated Experiences in Japan’s Nagano Region, Tamara Thurman


I use ‘wild’ loosely, as although the Japanese Macaques very much live in the forest and come and go as they please, they’re attracted in warmer months to feed on grains spread around by the park staff.

Entrance to the monkey park is 500¥ (approx $6 AUD) and requires a 1.6km walk each way to access. I suggest leaving plenty of time, I was so engrossed in observing their human-like behaviour and unique personalities that time flew.

Sake Tasting at a Kadoguchi Brewery in Iiyama

Brewed from polished rice, sake is without a doubt the national drink of Japan. Sipped or gifted at many of life’s occasions, the delicate and fruity clear alcohol beverage has been a staple of Japanese culture since the 3rd century. And, let’s be honest, it would be rude not to sample this delicious staple while in the country.



The Nagano Prefecture is well-known as a sake hot spot, not due to the amount of sake it produces, but the quality, which is often hailed as some of the country’s best.

The Kadoguchi Brewery is among two in the region, which prides itself that all three crucial elements of brewing a good sake – water, rice and Toji – can be locally sourced.

If you want a true education in sake, work your way through a couple of samples before buying a bottle to share with friends (or strangers, soon to be friends).


Ski or Snowboard the Japanese Alps

Goggle up and enjoy some of the best powder in the world at your pick of 80+ ski resorts across Nagano. In 2022 around 6.5m of the white stuff coated the landscape, so you’ll have plenty of epic powder to carve and shred.


8 Underrated Experiences in Japan’s Nagano Region, Tamara Thurman


Hakuba Happo-One is the largest and most popular resort of the ten in the Hakuba Valley, made famous by the Olympic Games. With some of its upper runs above the treeline, it offers some of Japan’s best backcountry.

With 14 official tree ski courses and 60% of them ungroomed, Madarao Resort on a bowl-shaped mountain is the place for tree-run lovers.

Where to Stay in Nagano City

Largest in town: Hotel Metropolitan

Nagano City is short on high-end hotels, but the largest is Hotel Metropolitan. The rooms themselves are a bit dated but uber spacious.

Pleasantly comfy: Hotel Nagano Avenue

Great value rooms with a public bath and sauna, as well as a whole library dedicated to Japanese comics. An ideal place for couples, and comic lovers alike.

A budget beauty: 1166 Backpackers

Going it solo? Dorms or private Japanese style rooms are available at this highly-rated city centre hostel.

FAQs Japan’s Central Chūbu Region

Does the bullet train go to Nagano and Kanazawa?

Yes. The Nagano & Hokuriku Shinkansen (high speed bullet train) travels from Tokyo to Kanazawa, stopping at major centres like Nagano, Iiyama, and Toyama.

Using a Japan Rail Pass will generally be the quickest and most cost effective route, using local lines can take over 6 hours.

Is Nagano a day trip from Tokyo?

Travelling from Tokyo to Kanazawa directly takes between 2.5 and 3 hours, and you can use your Japan Rail Pass.

Is Nagano worth visiting in summer?

While it may be well known for snow sports, Nagano is also worth visiting in summer, with a host of other activities like mountain biking, canoeing, rafting – all surrounded by the towering peaks of the Japanese Alps.

What’s the best time to visit Nagano and Kanazawa?

Autumn is generally the most popular time of year to visit Nagano and Kanazawa, however depending on what you want to experience, the cities both offer year-round sites, experiences, and outdoor adventures.


Tamara was a guest of the Nagano region for this article so that she could try all of the experiences for herself.