Trip designer Grace Park—one of Indagare's resident Japan experts—embarked on her fifth trip to Japan in October and reports on her week venturing to some of the country's lesser known spots.
I first visited Japan in 2016 and did the traditional "intro to Japan" circuit of Kyoto and Tokyo, seeing the highlights—the Fushimi Inari gates, Arashiyama, Gion, Nishiki Market, Sensoji Temple and the frenetic Shibuya scramble. I have returned nearly every year since, besides the Covid years when it was closed to visitors. With each trip, I ventured a bit more outside the box, falling in love with the less-visited pockets of Japan where we relied entirely on Google Translate and were always surprised at how few non-Japanese visitors we crossed paths with.
On my most recent trip—my fifth to the country—we dedicated a week to exploring Gifu and Ishikawa Prefectures, a rough and wild pass-through region for most visitors traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto or Kanazawa. My husband and I rented a car in Nagoya and made our way north, stopping in the sleepy town of Gero, known for its famous onsen (hot spring); caught the Autumn Festival in Takayama, a small historic town popular with backpackers; detoured to see the historic Gassho houses in Shirakawago enroute to Wakura-onsen on the remote Noto Peninsula—one of the most remote areas in Japan, where the main activity is lounging in the onsen and driving through quiet fishing villages. We ended our trip in Kanazawa, a mid-sized city on the coast that is often referred to as Little Kyoto because of its long history of being a center of craftsmen and artists and for its charming historic neighborhood reminiscent of Gion. (It is also home to one of Japan's top 3 gardens.) We were surprised and delighted by Kanazawa, with its incredible artisan experiences, excellent restaurants and warm and welcoming residents.
From here we spent another week in Tokyo exploring our new favorite neighborhoods of Kagurazaka and Naka-meguro, and the izakayas along the winding alleyways of Sangenjaya. On this fifth trip we finally started to feel like locals in Tokyo and I've already started dreaming of next year's visit.
Below, I’ve broken down five highlights from this past trip, including my favorite moment and the hidden gems that are a must for travelers heading off Japan’s beaten path and into these less touristed regions.
We rented a car and took a roadtrip from Nagoya, through Gifu (with stops in Gero, Takayama and Shirakawa-go) north to the Noto Peninsula. We were underwhelmed by the very touristy Takayama, but Gero is very off the beaten path and known for its famous onsen. A highlight of our roadtrip was stopping at the local michi-no-eki (roadside stands), which typically are small marketplaces full of local goods and produce.
There is a push to develop the Noto Peninsula into more of a tourist destination, but for now, even most Japanese travelers don't make it up to this remote part of Ishikawa as there are no train lines. The drive is beautiful and wild and we often wondered where everyone was. Truly, it felt like the Rapture—in Wakura Onsen there were no open businesses besides one cafe and an American themed diner and we saw a total of five people outside the hotel. There are no A+ hotels here, but we stayed at the newer Noto Kaishyu in Wakura-onsen and enjoyed a beautiful open air bath with views across the water to Noto-jima. There's truthfully not much to do besides just enjoy the beautiful coastline and drive through small fishing villages. Wajima, which is farther north than we stayed, is known for its lacquerware and its morning market, but unfortunately, we didn't get to experience this.
On the way down to Kanazawa, we drove along the Chirihama Driveway, which is Japan's only driveable beach. Along the few miles of open beach, there are a few "roadside" stands that are seasonal and run by old Japanese ladies. Here, we enjoyed some cold mango juice and roasted clams, shrimp and corn. There's also a larger rest stop for buses that has an excellent restaurant. You order at a machine and pick up your food at the kitchen window and then grill your seafood at your table overlooking the ocean. This was the highlight of my trip!
We loved dinner at A_Restaurant (pronounced "uh restaurant"), which has a very unassuming entrance in what looks to be a typical non-descript commercial building on a narrow street in Kanazawa. You go past three cigarette vending machines and up the stairs to find a huge dining room with about 30 seats and a large bar. The menu and cocktail pairings are inventive and nuanced, and the experience is Michelin-worthy. I was introduced to the founders at Secca, a Kanazawa based creative agency that designed many of the dining and decor elements throughout the space (custom silverware and dishes, a ceramic chandelier, glassware made of plastic, etc). Secca is marrying technology with the traditional crafts of Kanazawa. They will be helping to curate some really special artisan experiences—both traditional and modern—in Kanazawa through their network. Kanazawa is a city known for its traditional crafts like ceramics, gold leaf, lacquerware and more, and it is a must for anyone with a strong interest in Japanese crafts.
We took a fun food and drink izakaya tour in the very off-the-beaten-path neighborhood of Sangenjaya (or Sancha as it's referred to by locals). San-cha roughly translates to “three teahouses,” as this neighborhood was the first stop on the pilgrimage route west out of Tokyo. The three original teahouses are long gone, but the tiny alleyways full of restaurants still exist and are so hidden away from tourists that you really wouldn't find them unless you were “in the know.” Most izakaya tours are in the very touristy neighborhoods around Shibuya, but Sangenjaya is a hidden gem.
I had an incredible (and affordable compared to the hotel spas) facial by Miki Yamaguchi, who worked for 20 years as a facialist in London before moving back to Japan and opening her own private facial spa in the Azabu-juban neighborhood. Using speciality products that are only found in Japan, her 90-minute Japanese facelift facial was exacting and tailored to my skin type and issues, and only 16,500 Japanese yen ($120). Her space is located on the fifth floor of a small residential building with no signage—truly only for those in the know. I will absolutely visit her every time I am in Tokyo.
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