7 Hidden Gems To Visit in Central Japan

The understated prefectures of Toyama, Nagano and Gifu entice with an enchanting mix of historic and new attractions

Photos: Weekender

“He says the equipment is only allowed for children,” the translator explains as an unimpressed museum minder glances at me.

We are at the Onomatopoeia Rooftop of the spanking new TAD: Toyama Prefectural Museum of Art and Design, where graphic designer Taku Satoh has erected various play equipment inspired by the imitation of sounds. I was at the foot of an avant-garde bouncy installation, shoes off and ready to fully immerse myself in this multi-sensory masterpiece.

As if she read my mind, the translator continues: “Those adults are allowed on as they are the children’s parents to…you know, keep watch of them. You, on the other hand…” She trails off, flashing an apologetic smile.

Aside from the stinging reminder of my adulthood, my time at Toyama, Nagano and Gifu prefectures in Japan proved to be an enlightening experience.

While tourist hordes in popular areas like Tokyo leave no street unexplored, here are seven alternative places to visit from the three above-mentioned prefectures. 

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7. Shirakawa-go, Gifu Prefecture

From a designated observatory point, I gazed upon Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO world heritage site set against a backdrop of the holy Mount Hakusan.

Here, Preservation Committee chairman Tatsuya Ozaki shared the hardship of preserving this mountainous village of 550 residents. Apart from abiding to strict guidelines (he recently turned down a neighbour’s request to raise the roof by just 10cm), living in Shirakawa is said to be brutally cold in winter and the place requires checks of up to five times a day for fire hazards.

Unfunded by the government, the bulk of the village’s financial condition is dependent on the volatile influx of tourists. But to many others similar like Ozaki, Shirakawa is home and preserving it is of paramount importance.

Up-close, the Wada gassho farmhouses are truly remarkable. Said to be more than 250 years old, the traditional houses feature thatched roofs that resemble hands pressed together in prayer. Replaced every 20 to 30 years in a festival-like affair, the Wada houses are without nails, but use tree barks to hold their cedar structure together.

Now accessible with shuttle bus services from four cities, Shirakawa beckons with its seasonal highlights. The most beautiful time would be its Light Up event in February, where snow-covered Wada houses are illuminated with lights in the night.  

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