Kana bar tours is something I wish I had known about when I visited this area earlier in the year. Navigating Japan’s nightlife can be confusing for a first-time visitor who doesn’t speak Japanese. Places are also usually full on Friday and Saturday evenings if you don’t reserve in advance.
“Mother kicks everyone out if she knows I’m coming,” Kana says.
Kanazawa’s diverse nightlife matches the range of daytime activities in this mountainous region of Nagano and its surroundings – a short Shinkansen (bullet train) ride northeast of Tokyo and best known to Australians for its ski slopes.
In the past 24 hours, I have walked through 400-year-old cedar forests, visited ancient temples, learned how to make soba noodles, dressed in a kimono, and visited the home of artisans producing delicate leaf Golden.
The last time I visited the Japanese Alps was in February to ski the wonderfully tourist-free, powder-rich snow of Hakuba. At the time, I had no idea of cities such as the historic resort town of Kanazawa and the provincial capital of Nagano. Easy day trips from the slopes, they are home to some of Japan’s best shrines and temples and bursting with culture.
A new generation of young entrepreneurs are adding a contemporary twist to Japan’s more traditional offerings. Cutting-edge art and design are prevalent in Tokyo. But regions have also upped their game during the pandemic, with new contemporary art installations, organic farms, rooftop bars and onsen, and luxury glamping.
Nature remains a major asset. On my first day in the area, we take a leisurely two-hour hike through 400-year-old cedar forests to one of five ancient shrines at the foot of Mount Togakushi. The site is also accessible in winter, when these silent forests are blanketed in snow.
After working up an appetite after the morning hike, we arrive at the nearby Togakushi Soba Museum for lunch with a twist. Cold soba noodles are one of my favorite dishes in Japan and I’m going to make them from scratch. But my sensei (teacher) knows his stuff and patiently guides me in the art of making the dough with buckwheat flour, which is kneaded and stretched with a huge rolling pin. My result looks more like fettuccine than the delicately thin noodles that make up soba, but it still tastes delicious.
A night or two in a traditional ryokan is a must for anyone visiting Japan. Tsuji Ryokan, my accommodation that night, is a classic example. Think of tatami mats, shoji screens, garden views, a lavishly adorned fire pit with a huge red paper umbrella and tiny slippers I could never fit into.
After a soak in the decadently deep tub, I head to the dining room for a traditional Japanese multi-course dinner known as a kaiseki. Cleverly arranged with an intricate selection of local dishes, the menu that evening is so complex that it takes the waiter about 10 minutes to describe all the dishes. Staying at a ryokan usually means an early night, so I crashed at 9pm on the futon that was set up for me while I ate.
The next morning, a short drive will take you to Zenkoji Temple, one of Japan’s most important Buddhist sites. It turns out that our visit coincided with a ceremony once every seven years called Gokaicho.
This marks the temporary unveiling of a replica of the country’s oldest Buddhist statue (the actual statue is considered too sacred to be displayed). Crowds line up for miles, but the atmosphere is festive as families eat ice cream, shop for souvenirs and line up to touch a huge wooden pole, set up in front of the main temple, believed to bring happiness.
Lunch that day is a vegan Buddhist feast served in dozens of iron bowls at the nearby Yakuoin restaurant.
From the city of Nagano, it’s a short train ride to Kanazawa, my preferred alternative to Kyoto as it’s a smaller, more manageable city without the crowds. Its main attractions are the Kenroku-en sculpted garden, a castle and its samurai and geisha quarters.
By avoiding the traditional sites that I have already seen, I discover the alternative attractions of the city. These include two world-class contemporary art galleries, lunch at a craft brewery, and an afternoon of awkwardly hanging out in the historic geisha district in a rented kimono, split-toe socks, and wooden sandals.
After this experience, I’m relieved to arrive at my accommodation – the funky boutique hotel Korinkyo.
My favorite hotel of the trip is a successful blend of traditional Japanese culture and modern industrial design. My room even has its own sauna.
The day ends with an entertaining evening making sushi at the Kanazawa Salon cooking studio, located in a charming historic district. Machiya (wooden townhouse), where my host, Chikako, serves me plum wine.
“I almost forgot how to speak English. You have to use different muscles in your mouth,” she laughs when I ask her if she misses foreign tourists.
Japan has allowed tour groups back into the country from June 10, but has yet to announce when it will fully open borders. Government sources say this should happen well before the Northern Hemisphere winter ski season.
Stay here Korinkyo Kanazawa city. Rates from 25,710 yen ($275) per night. Tsuji Ryokan City of Nagano. Fares from 15,000 yen ($160) including two meals
Kana Bar Tours see Tours in Za.wow
Other best restaurants in Nagano City: Monzen Terrace Enya, The Fujiya Gohonjin and Kanzan Jittoku
The writer was a guest of Tourism Exchange Japan.