Travel guide: 8 scenic destinations in central Japan

Glitzy shopping centers, the chaos of Shibuya Crossing, and the allure of big city living may have already convinced you to visit Tokyo in your previous trip to Japan. You might have also been to Osaka to see the Glico Man, the Osaka Castle, and to visit Universal Studios. Kyoto and Nara are also possibly day trips. 

What many travelers overlook are the different destinations such as a national park, old villages, and castles found in central Japan. After you’ve visited the most popular places in the land of the rising sun, check out these attractions for your next trip (or first trip, to see something different) to this country.

Matsumoto is the second largest city in Nagano prefecture, and is an idyllic place to visit because of the surrounding mountains and fresh air. This mountain city is famous for Matsumotojo or Matsumoto Castle (Y610 entrance fee), one of the most beautiful castles in the country. 

ILLUMINATION. Matsumoto Castle lights up the night sky. Photo by Joshua Berida

ILLUMINATION. Matsumoto Castle lights up the night sky.

Photo by Joshua Berida

The castle is a hirajiro, or one built on the plains instead of on higher ground such as a hill or mountain. One of the distinct features of this structure is that it has a turret and secondary donjon connected to its keep. The lake surrounding the castle and the mountains as its background makes for a picture perfect moment. The reflection on the waters adds to its charm; and at night the castle lights up the sky. 

Matsumoto is a quaint city in the mountains with a few museums, small shopping districts and restaurants, all of which make it a charming place to visit.

QUAINT. Matsumoto has charming streets lined with small shops and restaurants. Photo by Joshua Berida

QUAINT. Matsumoto has charming streets lined with small shops and restaurants.

Photo by Joshua Berida

How to Get to Matsumoto: There are buses and trains that travel from Nagoya to Matsumoto. If you’re coming from Takayama, get on the bus bound for Matsumoto for Y3190.

REFLECTION. Kamikochi has quiet places where you can sit, relax and clear your mind. Photo by Joshua Berida

REFLECTION. Kamikochi has quiet places where you can sit, relax and clear your mind.

Photo by Joshua Berida

Kamikochi offers a breathtaking view of the mountains and is an ideal destination for the outdoorsy. Kamikochi is approximately 1,500 meters above the sea, and the park is developed just enough to have souvenir shops, huts, toilets and places to eat without ruining its natural appeal. The park is open from mid- or late April until November 15 and is closed in winter.

NATURE LOVER. The park has picturesque landscapes, perfect for those looking to get away from the city. Photo by Joshua Berida

NATURE LOVER. The park has picturesque landscapes, perfect for those looking to get away from the city.

Photo by Joshua Berida

Even if you’re not climbing any of the surrounding mountains, the park is still a worthwhile destination. Follow the trails that lead to the ponds, marshes, and into the forest for an adventure. The verdant environment, clear waters, and cool breeze make for a good day out. You might see one of the mountains capped with snow, even in the summer.

TRAIL. Explore the forest and just enjoy being in nature. Photo by Joshua Berida

TRAIL. Explore the forest and just enjoy being in nature.

Photo by Joshua Berida

How to Get to Kamikochi: You can do Kamikochi as a day trip from Matsumoto; there are direct buses from the bus terminal to the park, but this leaves very early in the morning. Alternatively, you can ride the Matsumoto Electric Railway from the train station to Shin-Shimashima Station for Y1400 round trip. From the station, board the bus to Kamikochi for Y3400 round trip.

UP IN THE MOUNTAINS. Magome is one of the post towns in the Kiso Valley. Photo by Joshua Berida

UP IN THE MOUNTAINS. Magome is one of the post towns in the Kiso Valley.

Photo by Joshua Berida

This ancient trade route, which stretches 70 km, served as an important commercial area for those traveling between Kyoto and Edo. Because of the restrictions set by the shogunate of the time, travelers had to make the trip on foot. This led to the development of post towns such as Magome and Tsumago that provide weary travelers with a place to rest and eat during their journey. The stone paths, wooden buildings, and old houses take you back in time while exploring. 

How to Get to the Post Towns of Magome and Tsumago: A day trip from Nagoya to these two post towns is possible. Get on a train bound for Nakatsugawa (Y2660 round trip), once at the station, get on a bus to Magome (Y560 one-way). You have the option to take the marked trail from Magome to Tsumago, the alternative to hiking is taking the bus (Y600 one-way).

MEMORIES. The old establishment and houses in Magome tell their own story. Photo by Joshua Berida

MEMORIES. The old establishment and houses in Magome tell their own story.

Photo by Joshua Berida

Central Japan has a lot to offer intrepid travelers with an eclectic mix of destinations: historical sites in Nagoya and Matsumoto Castle, the post towns of Magome and Tsumago, and the idyllic villages in Shirakawago. The region also has Kamikochi for nature lovers who want to enjoy hiking up the mountains or exploring the woods.

Travel Tips

Since Japan has an efficient train and bus systems, you can get to these places from either Tokyo or Osaka, but the best place to kick off your journey around the region is Nagoya. Visit www.hyperdia.com to help you plan your trip, the site lets you check train schedules and prices for the destinations you want to get to.

Budgeting Your Trip

Japan is an expensive country to visit, even if you take the train or bus. Transportation is going to be your biggest expense, especially if you plan to visit the places listed above. A bus ride may cost you around P1600 one-way, taking the train may cost you around P2700 for express lines, if you move from one city to another. Prices will vary depending on distance. 

The JR Pass is a popular choice for travelers who want to cover a lot of ground in a week or two. However, not all trains lines are included in the pass. Hyperdia.com provides you with information about lines and prices. Sometimes, the JR Pass may not be necessary even if your trip is for more than a week, as you might be spending less than the ticket price.

Prepare to spend somewhere around P3000 to P4000 per day for about a week for this trip around Central Japan, depending on the places you visit, stay in, and eat at, and if you go shopping. A bed at a hostel dorm room is approximately P1000 to P1500 per night. As an alternative, you can always couchsurf to reduce expenses. – Rappler.com

Joshua Berida is a full-time writer, part-time wanderer with insatiable wanderlust. He plans his next trip during a current one. He plans on exploring the Philippines and beyond. Read about his adventures on thewanderingjuan.net.