Gifu-Ishikawa: Naturally an AdventureInspiration
A Gifu and Ishikawa Destination Guide
Produced in partnership with Visit Gifu // Ishikawa Travel
Gifu and Ishikawa are dream Japanese adventure destinations that appear straight out of a novel. Nature meets culture and tradition meets adventure in these adjoining prefectures of Central Honshu. Sea, mountains, and fertile fields shape not only the geography, but also the lives of its citizens. Each season comes with its own delights, from lush cherry blossoms in spring, to abundant fresh seafood and produce in autumn, incredible cycling in the summer, and world-class skiing in the winter. Your only limitation may be the amount of time you have to explore the plethora of experiences.
We’ll start with Gifu, where the great outdoors is the beating pulse that life thrives on. The Alps of Japan define the landscape, dotted with traditional mountain villages, ski slopes, hiking, and cycling in the very centre of Japan. Blessed with beautifully preserved castle towns, many and varied hot spring districts, and traditional cultural festivals, Gifu transports you back in time to the Japan of old. It is the perfect place to embrace both adrenaline-fuelled adventure and cultural exploration.
Ishikawa, however, reveals a different face to every visitor. With four distinct seasons and a diversity of activities, this outdoor playground is booming in popularity, but Ishikawa is largely famed for its deep heritage. Explore the gardens, museums, craft workshops, temples, activities, and more – they all make Ishikawa special.
Once a region of extravagant wealth in the Edo period, Gifu and Ishikawa have benefited from centuries of some of Japan’s finest craftsmanship, art, cuisine, and hospitality. Much of the legacy of this period remains intact, and an adventure in Gifu and Ishikawa can feel like stepping through the pages of history. For those hoping to experience fine cuisine and Japanese culture, these are the regions to visit.
A LAND OF ADVENTURE
Japan’s Northern Alps define the landscape here, providing unlimited outdoor adventure in every season. Surrounding the jagged peaks are verdant farmland and pristine coastline, all hosting an abundance of nature and pure, clean air. For active explorers, opportunities abound to hike, ski, climb, cycle, and even swim. Between sports, replenish muscles in natural hot springs, or enjoy the views from a cable car. This is Japan’s adventure heartland.
For the keen cyclist, head to Nanao Bay – a renowned cycling route of about 40km along idyllic natural scenery and visiting landmarks such as the Notojima Bridge, the longest bridge in Ishikawa. Notojima Island is a picturesque agricultural community best viewed from the saddle.
No matter your cycling skill level, exploring the rural life of Gifu is best done by bike. Pedal around and between small villages, where you can sample idyllic rural life on two wheels. Enjoy the sensory journey of passing cherry blossoms and seasonal vegetables, meet friendly villagers and shopkeepers, and sample local cuisine to fuel your pedalling. Bicycle rentals are available throughout the region, and you’ll be able to pick up a map or even hire a guide to design your route.
If exploration on foot is your thing, then head to the ancient Nakasendo Highway – a key trade route that ran through the heart of Japan from the 1600s, but fell into decline in the 20th century. More recently many of the Edo-style streets and buildings of the Nakasendo station towns, scattered along the highway, have been restored and protected by the local government, preserving their unique ambience. Of the 69 post stations (towns where travellers would stop for the night during their journey) located along the Nakasendo Highway, Gifu Prefecture is home to 17 of them – places where visitors can walk or cycle and experience what it must have felt like to be a traveller during the highway’s heyday.
Throughout Gifu and Ishikawa, you will notice the word onsen a lot – any town with an onsen has natural geothermal pools, where visitors can relax in peaceful nature while soaking their muscles after a day of hiking. Many of these onsen can be part of a short hiking adventure, but also look for the ashi-yu (foot baths) in many of Gifu’s towns, where you can soothe your tired feet after a day of exploring.
For active explorers, opportunities abound to hike, ski, climb, cycle, and even swim. Between sports, replenish muscles in natural hot springs, or enjoy the views from a cable car. This is Japan’s adventure heartland.
But perhaps the highlight hiking experience in Ishikawa is scaling the region’s tallest mountain, Mount Hakusan. One of Japan’s Three Holy Mountains, it has been the focus of local esoteric mountain worship for centuries. According to legend, a Buddhist monk named Taicho (682–767) was the first to climb Mount Hakusan in 717, starting the tradition of climbing the mountain as a pilgrimage. Today, Mount Hakusan is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and hikers enjoy a wealth of alpine plants and flowers blooming from mid-July to mid-September, volcanic lakes, virgin beech forests, hot springs, and colourful autumn foliage.
Throughout the winter, the Japan Alps boast world-class skiing – and traditional mountain villages in both Gifu and Ishikawa welcome visitors from Japan and abroad for the powder season. Gifu boasts the biggest interlinked snow resort in central Japan, a ski area comprising six individual resorts for all abilities. The Takasu Mountains in Gujo City have some of the best skiing in the country, and also embraces all types of sliding; snow rafting, sledding, and air boarding are all on offer. Thanks to the variety of terrain on offer, the resort is particularly attractive to families and groups. For experienced skiers keen to explore some pristine ‘Japow’, consider hiring a guide to explore outside of the resort terrain.
Outside of resort skiing, Gifu and Ishikawa offer abundant winter adventures. Snowshoeing is growing in popularity, with tours to frozen waterfalls in the coldest winter months (January to March) and self-led hikes for experienced winter enthusiasts on the trails of the Northern Japan Alps.
FOOD AND DRINK
The clear waters of the Nagara River and its tributaries have provided generations of people in Gifu with ayu sweetfish, which are still caught in some areas using traditional techniques, and taste best when cooked simply salted and grilled. The land gives mountain vegetables and farm produce like rice and soybean, the latter of which is fermented to make the miso used in numerous local favourites. For drinkers, the combination of Gifu’s pristine water and locally grown rice help the region’s breweries produce sumptuously smooth sake.
Ishikawa is renowned throughout Japan for its cuisine, called Kaga-ryori. Hallmark ingredients like snow crab, Noto beef, and Kaga vegetables are expressions of the prefecture’s location, surrounded by mountains and the sea. Skilled chefs create multi-course meals that feature the area’s natural ingredients. Dishes are artfully plated on local porcelain and lacquerware, making a Kaga-ryori meal a feast for the eyes as well as the palate.
Mountains, rivers, and other parts of nature were indispensable in the lives of ancient people, and were respected and worshipped as the source of all life – nature itself was considered a god.
MUST SEE: Natadera Temple
During the Edo era (1603–1868), the master haiku poet Matsuo Basho visited this place and left a haiku saying ‘Ishiyama no ishi yori shiroshi aki no kaze’ (‘The autumn wind is whiter than the white cliffs of the stony mountain’) in admiration of Natadera Temple.
Mountains, rivers, and other parts of nature were indispensable in the lives of ancient people, and were respected and worshipped as the source of all life – nature itself was considered a god. The people respected everything, including grass, trees, and even soil, where spirits were believed to dwell, and revered everything invisible and mysterious. Being aware that they were unable to live by their own unaided efforts, all the people offered thanks to their god, nature, for its bounties. Natadera Temple has been considered a sacred place to pray to deities for millennia. Ancient caves used for cleansing rituals known as Iwaya-tainai-kuguri (‘passing through the cave-wombs’) are still open today for worship and exploration, and are known as sacred places for Umarekiyomaru: the cycle of death, purification, and rebirth.
WHERE TO STAY
Gifu and Ishikawa offer stays to suit every budget and taste, from traditional Western-style hotels and backpacking lodges to more unique cultural experiences. It is common to have meals included in accommodation, and many guests find enjoying a traditional, home-cooked Japanese meal a highlight of their stay.
In Gifu, more than a dozen gassho-zukuri farmhouses in and around Shirakawa-go, are now functioning as minshuku – family-run, Japanese-style lodgings. Okuhida’s rustic villages are home to traditional ryokan inns, where guests can stay in tatami mat rooms, enjoy regional cuisine, and soak in the thermal baths. Nestled between the breathtaking scenery of the Northern Japan Alps, a stay in Okuhida is magical.
In Ishikawa, many traditional farms provide farmstays where guests can experience Ishikawa’s agricultural life and participate in activities such as mushroom picking or rice planting. Alternatively, some of the Buddhist temples in Ishikawa offer stays called Shukubo. They are generally simple lodging with vegetarian meals, and many will invite the guests to join meditation and morning rituals.
A Gifu-Ishikawa adventure is a window into the history of Japan, complemented by unlimited natural adventure and culture. It is a place that shouldn’t be rushed, but savoured. Visit Gifu and Ishikawa to seek out authentic Japan and soak in the abundant natural beauty it boasts. With something unique to offer in each season, there’s never a bad time to explore the region.
Produced in partnership with Visit Gifu // Ishikawa Travel