Surrounded by vast mountain ranges and cool refreshing air, Higashi Mino and Minami Shinshu are scenic travel stops located within Gifu and Nagano prefectures in central Japan. Both prefectures are home to not only a number of incredible natural landscapes but also beautifully preserved historic towns that will transport you right back to the golden age of samurai Japan. Here time passes slowly, and you can take your time exploring a secret slice of Japanese nature and history that looks absolutely picture perfect—every step of the way.
- How to get in and around central Japan and Gifu and Nagano Prefectures
- Things to do in Higashi Mino and Minami Shinshu
- Example three-day itinerary for exploring Higashi Mino and Minami Shinshu
- What to eat in Gifu and Nagano
- When to go to Gifu and Nagano
- Where to stay in Higashi Mino and Minami Shinshu
- Resources and guides for traveling in Gifu and Nagano
Chubu Centrair International Airport is the primary transport hub for traveling to central Japan, from where you can easily travel to Gifu and Nagano as well as other highlight destinations in the area, including Mie Prefecture and Aichi Prefecture (where the airport is located).
With international flight routes covering over 39 cities overseas, the airport is a great option if you want to fly direct into the heart of Japan and start your adventures there rather than following the traditional “Golden Route” and starting from Tokyo. Still, if you are coming from Japan’s capital like we did, it’s just a short and cheap one-hour flight (around ¥7,000 one-way) from Haneda Airport.
To get to the Higashi Mino and Minami Shinshu areas from Centrair Air International Airport, you’ll want to take the Meitetsu Tokoname-Airport Line. Inside the region, the JR Chuo Line and high-speed “Wide View Shinano” train run through the main access points: Nakatsugawa Station, Nagiso Station, and Kiso Fukushima Station.
In the deepest rural parts, you can catch a bus to some spots that are on the tourist map. For the tea ceremony and calligraphy experiences, you can take a guided tour with Nakasendo Walk who will drive you around.
Otherwise, tie up your shoes and trek the trails on foot. It’s honestly the best way to enjoy it.
Experience a tea ceremony at Iouji Temple
There is no better way to experience a quintessential element of Japanese culture than by taking part in a traditional tea ceremony guided by a tea master. Nestled in the quiet mountains of Nakatsugawa Valley, the tea master at the serene Iouji Temple will take you through minute details of making a brew that you’d never thought of; from how to pour the water into the ceramic tea bowl to the proper hand placement when preparing and offering the tea to the polite slurping sound when finishing your cup of matcha.
Tea Ceremony Experience at Iouji Temple
Try traditional calligraphy at Kofukuji Temple
Kofukuji Temple is run by the kindest and most lovely couple, a Buddhist monk named Onishi-san and his English-speaking wife. Learn about the temple’s history, join the monk in a prayer mantra, and write your name via the mesmerizing art of Japanese calligraphy.
You must be wondering how you would write your English name! The monk will personally select kanji characters that follow the sounds of your name before demonstrating how to properly write it. Just don’t be discouraged when your first few attempts look like the footprints of an ink-drenched (and crazy) bird.
Calligraphy Experience at Kofukuji Temple
Walk along an ancient stone pavement
Transport yourself back to Edo-period (1603 – 1868) Japan by walking along a section of the original Nakasendo Trail, a historic 534-kilometer pathway that once connected Tokyo with Kyoto.
While much of the route has been built over with highways and train lines, the Ochiai no Ishidatami (Stone Pavement of Ochiai) is a fantastically well-preserved 840-meter trail surrounded by a lush green forest of sugi (cedar) trees, that can be walked from end to end in about 15-20 minutes.
Insider tip: There are plenty of large gaps between each stone and most are covered in slippery moss so be sure to wear shoes with enough grip.
Explore the historic post towns
The Nakasendo Trail is famous for its postcard-perfect post towns that used to provide rest points for travelers journeying between the Tokyo and Kyoto. Instead of following the yellow brick road, keep your eyes locked on the yellow-and-white speckled road.
In Ochiai-juku, Magome-juku, and Tsumago-juku, you’ll get a sneak peek of what towns in feudal Japan looked like—dark, wooden houses, ancient waterwheels, and the atmospheric Honjin or traditional inns that provided a place of safety for traveling samurais, feudal lords, and nobles.
Switch gears with some mountain biking
Clip on your helmet and grip the handlebars tight—it’s time to swap your feet for two wheels. Race up, down, and even sideways along the mountain bends with your guide leading the way. The mountain biking route is hidden inside a forest of tall trees close to the Nakasendo Trail, so, as well as being a fun few hours, the tour also makes for a nice break from walking on a blazing hot sunny day.
Miharashi Farm Mountain Biking Experience
See spectacular views at Senjojiki Cirque
Comparable to the Swiss Alps, the Senjojiki Cirque, also called the Central Alps or “Sennjojiki Kaaru” in Japanese is a bowl-shaped mountain range carved by glaciers some 20,000 years ago.
It is hands down one of the most incredible views you’re going to get in all of central Japan. Board the Komagatake Ropeway (have your cameras ready for the ride up) from Shirabidaira Station at the base of the mountain to Senjojiki Station, which, standing at 2,612 meters, claims to be the highest station in Japan. From there, it’s about two hours of fairly hardcore hiking to reach the summit and even more spectacular views.
The mountains of Gifu and Nagano cover a vast area, but you can hit both the major tourist and under-the-radar spots in three days like we did in the video with this route.
Day 1: Tokyo to Nakatsugawa
Once you’ve landed at Chubu International Airport, hop on the Meitetsu Limited Express train to Kanayama Station, then transfer to the JR Chuo Line to Nakatsugawa Station (approx. 1 hour 52 mins, ¥2,490).
Meet your guide from Nakasendo Walk at the station from where they’ll drive you up the mountain for about 15-20 minutes to get to the teahouse at Iouji Temple. After, you’ll grab a bite from Tatsuya, a local restaurant, before going to learn calligraphy at Kofukuji Temple.
From there, you’ll leave your guide and make your way over to the first post town, Ochiai-juku, where you can start your walk along the ancient Stone Pavement of Ochiai. A short distance from the end of the path, you’ll get to your first rest place for the night, Shinchaya Ryokan.
Day 2: Leaving Ochiai-juku and entering Magome-juku and Tsumago-juku
Leaving Shinchaya, you’ll walk uphill for about 20-30 minutes until you get to the next post town, Magome-juku.
At the top of the hillside, enjoy a well-deserved bowl of soba at the local noodle shop, Keisei. Continue up the Nakasendo Trail for eight kilometers to get to the next post town, Tsumago-juku. After a full day of walking, head to your next ryokan, Hanaya, for some R and R.
Day 3: Exploring Komagane City
From Hanaya, head to Nagiso Station and make your way to Kiso Fukushima Station. From the station, you’ll need to hop in a taxi to Miharashi Farm for mountain biking. After working up an appetite, feast on juicy tonkatsu at Meijitei, a popular restaurant nearby. Head to Sugano Dai Bus Terminal to get to the ropeway at Shirabi Hira Station, which will then lead you up to Senjojiki Cirque for some memorable views to end the trip.
You’ll inevitably spend a lot of time exploring these areas on foot, so be sure to keep yourself energized by savoring the many flavors of these towns.
A renowned meal in the Shinshu area, soba is essentially buckwheat noodles that can be served hot or cold. Often a bowl comes with tempura-style or fresh veggies on top.
Mashed chestnuts and sugar mounded together, this is a sweet local treat of Nakatsugawa.
A local Komagane favorite, this is a fried pork cutlet that has been drenched in a sweet and tangy tonkatsu sauce.
Gohei mochi rice
One of Shinshu’s specialties, a skewer with sticky, ooey-gooey, pounded rice cake covered in a sweet sauce.
With lots of walking and exploring to do outside and in the mountains, it’s ideal to go when the weather is sunny and warm. That being said, there is a lot of trekking you’ll do, especially on the Nakasendo Trail, so avoiding the brutal Japanese summer would be your best bet (though we managed it!),
Since you’ll be trekking through a number of post towns and hiking up mountains, early autumn (end of September through October) will be the best time to go. The major bonus for traveling in these months is that because the area is full of mountains and towering trees, you’ll get to view the incredible Japanese koyo, the phenomenon of green leaves transforming to hues of red, orange, and yellow.
A very traditional ryokan tucked away in the mountains of Nakatsugawa.
A modern and sleek hotel.
A bit more of modern ryokan that still captures the essence of a traditional Japanese inn in Kiso.
A beautiful ryokan in Kiso featuring an open-air onsen.
An upscale, modern ryokan that sits less than eight kilometers from Senjojiki Cirque.
Find out more about the Chubu Centrair International Airport at their official website.