Lonely Planet recently posted an article on the best regions to travel to in 2014. Hokuriku, the area of Japan that I live in, was listed at #4! (right above Texas at number 5!) I must admit, I was very very surprised to see Hokuriku there at all, let alone at #4. It’s not the most popular area for tourists and right now it isn’t convenient to access for travelers. However, next year that is all changing.
In 2015, the Hokuriku shinkansen (bullet train) will open. This will make traveling to and from Hokuriku faster, more convenient, and cheaper for tourists with JR rail passes.
In case you are unfamiliar with Japanese geography, Hokuriku is an area on the west coast of Japan. It includes Toyama, Ishikawa, and Fukui prefectures. It’s almost directly in the middle of Honshu, the largest and the main island of Japan.
Although it is gaining in popularity and notoriety in Japan, most guidebooks on Japan (including Lonely Planet ironically) only devote 1-2 pages on the whole Hokuriku area out of their entire book. While the availability and desire to travel to this region is increasing, the information about Hokuriku available to foreign travelers is seriously lacking and difficult to find in one concise place.
For all those people who are planning to come to Japan in the coming year and would like to check out this up and coming tourist area of Japan, I thought I would make a list of Hokuriku’s must see places. I’ll offer some tips, tricks, and pieces of advice for traveling around the area as well. I hope you find this list useful and come and visit us in Hokuriku someday!
Haku-san is one of the three holiest mountains in Japan. The other two are Mount Fuji and Tateyama (also in Hokuriku, see number 10 on this list!). Haku-san is also known as Mount Haku. It is located just south of Kanazawa and North of the Fukui/Ishikawa border. The most popular time to climb Haku-san is the end of July to August.
It is the most technical and difficult climb of the three holy mountains but is still possible for a beginner in decent shape to accomplish in a single day. There are also hotels for lodging at the top of the mountain. So, if you wish, you can climb up the mountain one day and spend the night at the top. Then you can watch the sunrise before heading down the mountain in the morning. Weekend trip anyone?
Information about access to and from Haku-san and climbing the mountain can be found here. It’s a comprehensive guide for everything you need to know about climbing the mountain. The reason I have this listed at number one is because many people come to Japan and climb Mt. Fuji the icon of Japan. However, that isn’t a pretty mountain or as easy a climb as people make it out to be. While Haku-san is difficult, it is more rewarding in scenery and views. A true treasure in the Hokuriku area.
2. Kenrokuen Garden
Kenrokuen is a famous garden in the middle of Kanazawa city. It’s known in Japan as being one of the 3 most beautiful gardens in all of Japan. It’s maintained so that it’s beautiful all year round. Whether you are seeing it in the serene fresh fallen snow or in the summer heat, there is always something special to see.
Access to and from Kenrokuen is a super easy for travelers. You can take the Kanazawa sight-seeing loop bus. It’s blue, white, and red in color and picks you up at Kanazawa station. The day pass costs 500 yen and will be worth your money. The bus has English announcements for where to get off for the different tourists attractions. you can’t miss it. I have been to hundreds of gardens all over Japan and nothing compares to kenrokuen. It is an absolute must do if you are staying or passing through Kanazawa.
3. Gokayama and Shirakawa-go
This is a UNESCO World heritage site. It was named one in 1998 and is located on the border of Toyama and Gifu. The most famous of these villages are located in Gifu, but the smaller Gokayama in Toyama is just as beautiful and much less crowded with tourists.
I recommend you visit in winter as the site of these thatched roof houses with freshly falling snow is breathtaking. However, the village is just as beautiful and quaint in any season. You can book an overnight stay in a thatched roof farmhouse and get the full experience. A visit to Hokuriku would not be complete without visiting one of these villages.
Access to and from Gokayama and other villages is much easier with a car since they are in the mountains. However, there are buses you can take from Toyama, Kanazawa, and Takayama train stations. If you are interested in staying overnight in one of the farmhouses definitely check out this helpful website for booking in English.
4. Eiheiji Temple
I think that Eiheiji Temple is more memorable and special than any other temple I have ever visited in Kyoto or similar famous sightseeing destinations. The reason why is that this beautiful temple is renowned for its training of monks and currently is a working monastery with 150 monks in residence.
While visiting the temple, you will see the monks in training eating together and cleaning together. You will hear them chanting and meditating in the next room over. It’s a look into the real lives of monks and what it takes to become one.
Currently, there isn’t a lot of English language help when visiting the temple. They will give you a packet of information in English, but all the signs are in Japanese only. if you have a little bit of Japanese or are connected to a Zen Buddhism group it is possible to book a meditating session or an overnight stay in Eiheiji. You must book well in advance if you want to stay the night, though.
If you are in Fukui around late August try to check out the Eiheiji floating lantern festival. This festival happens every year on the banks of the river that flow through Eiheiji town. The monks send lanterns down the Kuzuryu river with wishes for the year written on them. Afterward, there is a lovely firework show. It’s a great night out in Fukui where you can mingle with the local community.
Access to and from Eiheiji is simple if you have a car. However, you can also take a train from Fukui station. From Fukui Station, go out to the side where the buses are then turn left to enter the Echizen train line area. Take the Eiheiji/Katsuyama line from Fukui station to Eiheiji-guchi station. If you take this train line make sure to write down this station name in Kanji. There are no English announcements or writing for this train line so you’ll have to listen for the station name and look for the kanji. From the Eiheiji guchi stop, you can catch a bus to Eiheiji temple. There are also direct buses from Fukui station to Eiheiji temple every hour. Just ask someone at the station and they should be able to help!
5. Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum
Fukui’s pride and joy. If you are a dinosaur, geology, or science lover this museum is a must see. It’s one of the three most important dinosaur museums in the world and is located in Katsuyama Fukui.
This museum is completely bilingual in the signs and information and there is so much to see and do. There are things for children and things for adults.
I took my parents here during their trip to Japan and they were blown away. I knew this attraction would be a hit with them because they studied Geology, but I didn’t realize it would be their FAVORITE thing they did in Japan. This museum is a little far off the beaten path but for those interested in it, very worth the experience.
My own personal favorite place in Japan. Tojinbou is Fukui’s biggest tourist attraction drawing over a million visitors every year.
It’s a very dramatic landscape which is why many crime dramas film scenes here. These cliffs are 25 meters tall and shaped in hexagons. This is an extremely rare rock formation only found in three places in the whole world. It’s on the west coast and overlooking the sea of Japan making it one of the best 100 places in Japan to view the sunset.
There is also a dark side to this beautiful place, its famous place for suicide in winter. At night, there is actually a group of volunteers who patrol the cliffs in order to prevent people from jumping. How often people actually commit suicide here is unknown.
I recommend coming a few hours before sunset and looking through all the shops for a bit and taking the summer boat cruise around Tojinbou and Oshima for 1000 yen. Then you can climb out to the rocks sit down and view a beautiful sunset.
At night have a walk around as well. If you are into spooky stories it can be quite an exciting place to wander around in the night time. If you have time visit Oshima the island shrine just north of Tojinbo.
You can get to Tojinbo by bus from the JR Awaraonsen station. look for the bus with the kanji, 東尋坊 to get there and back. Read more about Tojinbo here!
7. Kurobe Gorge
Kurobe Gorge is a beautiful place for natural scenery. If you want to visit a place full of nature but aren’t into big active mountain climbing this is the place for you. You can take a scenic old train from one end of the gorge to the other. There is also a cable car. This gorge is right next to Tateyama, on the three holiest mountains in Japan. This gorge is especially popular to visit during the fall to see the bright leaves and cool weather.
8. Kanazawa Wanderings
Kanazawa has many wonderful museums and historical sites. Some more famous than others but all are designated to a unique piece of Japanese culture.
The most famous museum is the 21st-century museum of modern art. It truly is wonderful. Be sure to check on the website for the days when certain exhibits are open and when they are not. However, there are many more museums worth visiting in Kanazawa. There is also the nomura house which is dedicated to samurai, the traditional craft museum, just around the corner from kenrokuen and the gold leaf museum.(Kanazawa 金沢 is famous for its gold-leafed items. Kana- 金 means gold and -zawa 沢 means swamp in Japanese!)
Pick up a tourist information map at the information booth in Kanazawa station. check out a few of the museums on the map you are interested in and wander into a few random ones as well. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll find.
9. The Beaches
The beaches of Hokuriku are not much when you compare them to Okinawa, but there are some really beautiful beaches to relax on if you look for them. In Ishikawa, there are the beautiful beaches of the Noto Penninsula which are scenic, good for surfing in winter, and less crowded than the more famous beaches of Okinawa.
There are also some really beautiful beaches in southern Fukui. Obama and Ohi are really great destination spots for scenic and dramatic rocky coast beaches.
If you are looking for more of a party head to Uchinada beach during the summer time. Uchinada has multiple bars open and places to BBQ every night in the summer. People will drive there to relax for a day on the beach, then head to the bars to drink with friends, then pitch a tent and camp on the beach. If you forgot a tent, no worries you can use one of the many hammocks free to sleep on all night long. In the morning head on over to the onsen across the street to get all cleaned up before heading home.
Lastly, Tateyama of Toyama Prefecture. This is the easiest mountain of the three holy mountains in Japan to climb. First you must take a cable car to the starting point and you can easily finish the rest of the climb there and back in half a day if you are in shape!
The mountain is in the eastern part of Toyama prefecture and near the Kurobe gorge. Doing the two in the same day makes a great day trip from Toyama. Pair it with an overnight stay in Gokayama and you’ve got a great weekend trip in Japan.
Tateyama can be hiked from April to November. However, if you are there in the middle of winter don’t worry you can still visit the park and the famous Toyama snow wall. The snow wall can be visited in winter to early spring before it melts.
Read more about hiking Tateyama here
There were so many more places that I wanted to add to this list like Maruoka Castle, The Awara/Kaga area for onsen bathing, Katsuyama ski-jam, and so on. But with only ten spots on this list, I couldn’t put everything in! These are just a few of the great things that the Hokuriku area has to offer tourists!
If you are interested in spending more time in the area check out these other blog posts as well.
For more information specifically about things to do in Kanazawa, see my more recent post about the city here.
For more information about visiting Shirakawa-Go including information on my experience with the winter light up, see my recent post here.
For more information on visiting Hokuriku during the cold winter, see my post here.
For more information on Fukui, my good friend in Fukui, Sophie, has been keeping a great blog titled, “Postcards from Fukui.” She has a lot of great info on life and sight seeing in Fukui Prefecture. Check out her post on the top 10 things to do in Fukui Prefecture.
Another blog worth looking at is by another friend and ALT in Fukui named Jessie. She writes extensively not only on her travels around Fukui/Hokuriku area but around Japan as well. Here are a couple posts about her visit to Shirakawa-go here and here.
For information on Toyama, I recommend this blog. She has a great list of the top 10 places in Toyama prefecture. I used her blog posts to research for some of the information that was featured in this post as well.
Happy Traveling. I hope you come see us in Hokuriku this year.