Rob Dunlop sets off on the second golden route, where the sights are lush and food is served with the richest garnish.
Japan's "golden routes" are aptly named. For decades, Japan has presented the nation's treasures via the Golden Route, an efficient itinerary that takes in Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, Nara and Osaka.
But Japan is addictive. So, to cater for travellers with a thirst for further exploration of the exciting culture and taste sensations, there is the Second Golden Route.
This route crosses central Japan, from Nagoya, on the Pacific Ocean side, to Kanazawa, beside the Sea of Japan, offering beautiful mountain scenery, castles, landscaped gardens, remote mountain settlements, geisha and samurai districts and plenty of gorgeous food. The gold rolls on.
The mountain city of Takayama is the first major point along the route. The best way to arrive and appreciate its location is by the scenic 2 1/2 hour train journey from Nagoya. From the lookout at the lush Shiroyama Park, once the site of Takayama Castle, the urban landscape is softened by maple and cherry trees, rivers and streams. Hovering in the distance are the Northern Alps, which rise more than 3000 metres.
Leading from the park is the 3.5-kilometre Higashiyama walking course, a forest trail that weaves through historic temples and shrines and later into sloping neighbourhoods.
It is the remoteness of Takayama that has enabled the city to preserve its heritage, traditions and charm. In the old town, the narrow streets of San-machi Suji still retain the atmosphere and workings of Japan's bygone era. Uniform rows of houses and stores with timber latticework coloured with red ochre and ash line the streets, from which sake breweries, inns and restaurants operate. For about 350 years, the streets have hosted what is now one of Japan's most popular and colourful festivals, the Takayama Festival. In spring and autumn, a procession of elaborately decorated floats parade day and night. Performing puppets and intricate carvings of wood, metal and decorative silk adorn the floats, many of which date back to the 17th century. The food stalls are just as flamboyant.
Takayama's tasty riches include the deliciously sweet hoba miso. Bronzed autumnal leaves from magnolia trees, collected by elderly women, are placed across small candle-fuelled clay pots. Dollops of fermented red bean paste - a concoction of marigold, sugar and sesame - sizzle on top with a handful of mountain vegetables - shallots and bracken. Tiny fern coils accompany the dish. Beauty, food and custom are always so delicately handled.
Less than an hour by bus from Takayama is the tiny mountain village of Shirakawa-go.
From the Ogimachi Castle observatory, the beautiful vista is of thatched-roof farmhouses set among radiant green rice paddies and shrouded by forests of cypress pine. The scene is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Generations of local families live in the 114 houses built in the gassho style, which are constructed without nails or screws. The roofs are made from layers of pampas grass, the beams from huge Japanese oak trees and the bindings and ropes from witch-hazel shrubs. The result is ingenious and fascinating.
During the village's silk-farming heyday - which occurred from about the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century - the multi-storey attics were used to cultivate silkworms.
Many of the gassho-style houses are 200 to 300 years old. The largest, Wada House, still occupied by Wada family lineage, doubles as a museum, while others have been turned into shops, restaurants and hotels.
The once-isolated village is a delight to explore. Paths meander around houses with flowering gardens, along streams with tiny bridges, past farms with colourful scarecrows and into cool shrines shaded by ancient towering pines. The scents of fresh pine are just as heady.
Kanazawa, 75 minutes by bus from Shirakawa-go, is a thriving, neon-lit city with cutting-edge restaurants and modern-art museums. Beyond the funked-up facade, however, is a city that also dazzles with history.
Kanazawans, of which there are almost half a million, might be considered a showy lot. They claim to have Japan's most beautiful girls and sprinkle their food with gold leaf. Kanazawa is Japan's gold-leaf capital, producing more than 90 per cent of the country's output.
From 1583, the imposing centrepiece, Kanazawa Castle, is where 14 generations of the Maeda samurai clan ruled the local domain, Kaga - the most powerful and prosperous domain outside Tokyo. The Maeda clan were also known for their sophistication, encouraging arts, culture and gardening, all of which are on display today. The back garden of the castle, dating back to 1676, has become one of Japan's most celebrated gardens. Kenrokuen is a 10-hectare formal garden with ponds, streams, fountains and bridges - and an all-season showcase of colour. In spring, the park is abloom with cherry-tree pink.
Nagamachi is the original samurai residential district and Higashi Chaya is the largest of three remaining geisha districts. The well-preserved, wooden, two-storey geisha houses are open to the public, with some offering green tea and tantalising Japanese sweets.
Pretty girls aside, Kanazawa is also talked up for its abundance of seafood. Head to Kanazawa's Kitchen, Ohmi-cho, a 280-year-old market, for a raw look at a colourful array of seafood, fresh from the Sea of Japan. Then head to a restaurant at night to sample the delights, delicately sliced, wrapped in seaweed, or given the slight tempura treatment. Add Japanese beer and sake to the mix. And be sure to get a sprinkling of gold leaf on your food. It's for good luck. Happy travels.
The writer travelled courtesy of Takayama City, Kanazawa City and Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO).
The Tokaido Shinkansen service between Tokyo and Osaka stops at Nagoya. The journey time on the fastest train is 100 minutes. See japan-guide.com.
In Takayama, the Hida Hotel Plaza is a well-positioned four-star hotel with Western and Japanese-style rooms. 60, 2-chome Hanaoka-cho, Takayama. Phone +81 577 33 4600 or see hida-hotelplaza.co.jp.
In Kanazawa, Yuyarurusaisai is a multi-storey traditional Japanese inn (ryokan) but modernised with Western comforts. 7-1 Kiyokawachyo, Kanazawa, Ishikawa. Phone +81 762 80 5333 or see yuyarurusaisai.com/c10.html.
Near Shirakawa-go, the Ohayohsun Hotel and Cottages is the closest international-style accommodation to Shirakawa-go (about 40 minutes away). 501-5413 Shinbuchi Shokawa-cho, Takayama City. Phone +81 576 92 2611 or see ohayohsun.co.jp.
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