A top travel destination in Japan, the Mitsuboshi Kaidou, or “Three-Star Road,” can take you on a grand tour of sweeping regional landscapes, unique cultural experiences and locally-sourced speciality foods.
The Mitsuboshi Kaidou includes the city of Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture, Nanto City in Toyama Prefecture, Shirakawa Village and Takayama City in Gifu Prefecture and Matsumoto City in Nagano Prefecture. In fact, this Three-Star Road is not actually a road, per se, and there is no strict direction to follow. Each traveler’s journey along the Mitsuboshi Kaidou is their own. It can be organized by destination, geographic location, mood or timing. However, with many charming areas such as world heritage sites, recognized Japanese national treasures and some of Japan’s best preserved Edo-period districts, those who want to see the “real” Japan won’t be disappointed by taking some this unique journey of discovery.
With fun cultural attractions, an abundance of nature and community, hot springs and local food specialties, the Mitsuboshi Kaidou offers ideal travel routes for everyone from first-timers, to Japan travel veterans and adventurous souls in need of a fresh perspective on Japan.
During our four-day video trip we had the opportunity to explore all five areas along the Mitsuboshi Kaidou. Traveling by car, we toured around some of Japan’s most nostalgic streetscapes, popular photo spots and spectacular natural landscapes while also making time to sample the best local dishes. Although we took a tour focused on regional history for our trip, if the arts are more your style, cities such as Kanazawa and Matsumoto feature a variety of contemporary art galleries and museums that are also popular locations to visit along the way.
Kanazawa is made up of nostalgic streetscapes, castles and gardens, the majority of which can be easily accessed on foot. The historical districts of the city draw regional insight into the powerful Maeda samurai clan.
Make gold leaf crafts in the Higashi Chaya District
The Higashi Chaya District in Kanazawa City was once an entertainment area where traditional geisha (ornately dressed female entertainers) served wealthy patrons in lavish chaya, or teahouses. Now, this district is the place to go for luxury souvenirs, historical photos and gold leaf crafting experiences. Bikazaki Asano is a traditional craft store that offers a variety of gold leaf activities. Using tiny slivers of gold leaf, you can decorate anything from tableware to accessories with some stencils and glue. Two shops to check out — famous for their geisha- and client-attracting atmosphere — are Ochaya Shima and Kaikaro. The Ochaya Shima shop serves green tea and a sweet (¥700) in its adjoining tearoom that includes a view of a beautiful Japanese garden for some added serenity.
Take a leisurely stroll around Kenrokuen Garden
Kenrokuen Garden is one of the Nihon Sanmeien (Three Great Gardens of Japan). Its 28 acres are filled with tranquil ponds and colorful flowers. The garden was founded during the Edo period by the feudal lords of the Kaga domain and is renowned for its exquisite seasonal beauty.
Discover the secrets of Kanazawa Castle Park
Kanazawa Castle was founded in 1583 when the Maeda clan moved to Kanazawa to establish the Kaga domain. The park that was created from it is a designated national historic site. Many buildings in the park have been painstakingly restored to their original style after a large part of Kanazawa Castle was destroyed by two fires.
Visit samurai residences in Nagamachi Buke Yashiki District
Nagamachi’s historical value lies in its state of preservation. The district is full of narrow streets and restored authentic samurai houses. One of these residences that’s open to the public is the Nomura Family House. This traditional middle class home of the time offers a glimpse of history with its unchanged Edo-era garden and small museum with historical artifacts. The Nagamachi Yuzenkan, or silk center, is also found in this area, a museum where the manufacturing process of Kaga Yuzen’s historical kimono designs are carried out.
Catch fresh seafood at Omicho Market
The Omicho Market has been meeting the gastronomic standards of Kanazawa for about 300 years, providing fresh seafood from the Sea of Japan alongside unique Kaga fruits and vegetables. With chefs from the Omicho Market’s restaurants buying their fresh ingredients here daily, the market is one of the best places to eat in the city.
Gokayama area and Shirakawa village
If you’re pining for the sleepy rural lifestyle of Japan’s past, where farmers tend to rice fields at the base of sharp, majestic mountains, the Gokayama area (within the city of Nanto) and Shirakawa village are where you need to be.
Wander through Ainokura Gasshozukuri Village
Registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, alongside the Shirakawa Village, the Ainokura Gasshozukuri Village is a picturesque look into nature and culture. The gasshozukuri houses in the village feature steeply angled thatched roofs, built so that the region’s heavy snowfall wouldn’t pile up in the winter. The houses were given the name gassho (meaning “to press one’s hands together in prayer”) because the roofs resemble praying hands. Many of the houses are still lived in, and along with small museums and artistic workshops — including one where you can make your own washi paper — they provide further insight into the traditional lifestyle of the remote area.
Explore picturesque Shirakawa Village
Find the biggest concentration of gasshozukuri houses in the Shirakawa Village. Some of the homes in this village have been transformed into modern souvenir shops and restaurants, while others, like the Kanda House, showcase the history and belongings as their ancestors continue to live in them. The open-air museum, Gasshozukuri Minkaen, provides more opportunities to learn about gassho houses. For a sweeping overhead view of the village, a short climb or shuttle bus ride takes you to the Shiroyama Viewpoint, the secret behind all those attractive birds eye photos.
Nestled at the foot of the Japanese Alps, Takayama is literally a breath of fresh air. This mountain town’s remote location has led to excellent preservation of its charming Edo-period streets.
Hike around Higashiyama Temple area
On a small, serene hillside in the eastern part of Takayama, a number of temples were built during the 16th century. This area, named the Higashiyama Temple Area, is connected via a promenade that is ideal for temple lovers and leisurely strollers. The walk covers five kilometers from Unryuji Temple to Shiroyama Park and you can start or stop the walking tour at any point along the way.
Find some souvenirs at the Miyagawa Market
The Miyagawa Market is one of two morning markets in Takayama and one of the three major morning markets in all of Japan. Set alongside the Miyagawa (Miya River), the Miyagawa Market houses over 50 shops and stalls that sell vegetables, fruits, pickles and spices as well as traditional Japanese sweets and crafts. Look out for Takayama’s local souvenirs such as sarubobo dolls (a lucky monkey charm traditionally made by mothers) and ichii itto bori (yew wood) carvings that use the beauty of wood itself without adding any colors or stains.
Sip on sake at an Old Township brewery
Takayama’s old town streets have been beautifully preserved with many buildings unchanged since the Edo-period. These thoroughfares continue to thrive today with many shops and nihonshu (Japanese rice wine) breweries that have been in business for centuries. The Takayama Festival, held along the avenues in spring and autumn, is considered one of Japan’s three major beautiful matsuri (festivals). Each year the festival showcases dozens of prized floats that are hidden away in yataigura (storehouses) during the rest of the year.
Meditate with monks at Zenkoji Takayama
The Zenkoji Takayama is a branch of the main Shinshu Zenkoji temple in Nagano and is sacred to Amida Nyorai, the Buddha of limitless light. Beside staying the night in the temple, guests can take part in a variety of cultural experiences during the day, such as learning Zen and yoga meditation, tracing sacred sutra scriptures, wearing traditional kimono and more. There is also a kaidan meguri (pitch dark tunnel tour) in the basement of the main hall.
Shoot some arrows at Hankyu Dojo
The Hankyu Dojo is a bow-and-arrow shooting range in the popular bar district of Takayama. Established in 1929, the dojo offers a casual version of kyudo, the Japanese martial art of archery. However, the bows used in the dojo are shorter than those used in kyudo, and the distance to the target is much closer, also the shots are taken while sitting. The shooting range is a popular spot for both locals and tourists passing through in the evening.
Matsumoto is a mountainous city with a castle town atmosphere near the attractive Kamikochi area.
Climb to the top of Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto Castle—a Designated National Treasure due to the rarity of its surviving 400-year-old wooden keep—has housed 23 different lords from six different ruling families. As such, the castle has a surprisingly vast collection of artifacts to view including armor and weapons, as well as some of the first guns ever used in feudal Japan.
Hike through the majestic scenery of Kamikochi
Kamikochi is a typical Japanese high-mountain resort area located at an altitude of 1,500 meters in the northern Japanese Alps (the Hida, Kiso and Akaishi mountain ranges) of Nagano Prefecture. Open for only about seven months of the year, nature lovers flock to the valley from spring to mid-November. Lucky hikers can view many mysterious spots and fascinating regional flora and fauna along the paths.
Stroll Nawate and Nakamachi streets in kimono
The shopping streets Nawate-dori and Nakamachi-dori are two historical districts in Matsumoto that have been central commercial areas used since the Edo era, now famed for shopping and sweets. Although the two are only a three-minute walk apart, they appeal to completely different tastes. Nawate Street, located along the Metoba River, is a Showa-style pedestrian zone otherwise known as “Frog Street,” as it used to be inhabited by many endemic Kajika frogs, now threatened by dam building. Nakamachi Street was named the “warehouse street” after the great fire of 1888 that burnt down many local residences. Store owners then began rebuilding their houses in the same style as the clay warehouses that remained standing.
The Mitsuboshi Kaidou is a well kept secret packed full of scenic spots and experiences surrounded by traditional Japanese culture. Each town has such a rich history and unique experience that offers a whole new aspect of life in Japan. It was very heartwarming to see the locals in many of the towns living together to keep their traditions alive. If you’re interested in uncovering these areas further, check out the official Mitsuboshi Kaidou website.
You can plan your own trip by adding recommended locations and activities here.
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This article and video were produced in collaboration with the Hokuriku, Hida, Shinshu Mitsuboshi Kaidou Tourism Council.