Welcome to a journey through the lesser-known treasures of Honshu, Japan’s main island. While Tokyo and Kyoto often steal the spotlight, we’re taking a detour to discover the enchanting charm of Magome, the age-old art of swordmaking in Seki, and the artistic wonders of the Noto Peninsula. So, fasten your seatbelts as we embark on a road trip like no other.
Magome: A Timeless Mountain Town
Nestled in the heart of Gifu Prefecture, Magome exudes an atmosphere frozen in time. As you stroll along the main street, stone steps wind their way alongside a gentle stream, where a wooden waterwheel spins lazily, setting the town’s tranquil tempo for centuries. The houses lining the road, adorned with wooden screens and lanterns, are impeccably preserved relics of the past. In autumn, the streets explode in a riot of saffron and cardinal red as ginkgo and maple leaves adorn the landscape.
Autumn, it turns out, might just be the best-kept secret in Japan. While cherry blossoms draw hordes of visitors in spring, autumn offers its own captivating display of fiery hues. But the real magic lies in the coexistence of nature and history, a common theme in the unspoiled prefectures of Gifu and Ishikawa.
Magome’s history dates back to the Edo period when it served as a crucial staging post on the Nakasendo, a highway that connected Tokyo (then called Edo) to Kyoto. This path, though moss-covered and overgrown now, once witnessed the passage of feudal lords, merchants, and samurai. Today, it’s a haven for hikers, complete with “Be Bear Aware!” signs, a reminder of the rare but potential encounters with Japanese black bears.
As you venture further into the woods, following the original Edo-era cobblestones, you’ll find yourself immersed in a natural tonic. The tranquil sounds of burbling water and the rustling of leaves have a soothing effect, a quintessential Japanese remedy for the soul.
Seki: Where Swords and Tradition Meet
Leaving Magome behind, we embark on the next leg of our journey, which leads us to Seki, a small city known for its centuries-old tradition of swordmaking. The samurai believed that controlling Seki equated to controlling Japan, thanks to the city’s reputation for crafting exceptional swords. Today, swordmakers here have diversified their craftsmanship, producing high-quality nail clippers, kitchen cutlery, and anything else that demands a razor-sharp edge.
Our curiosity leads us to the studio of Kanefusa Fujiwara, a 26th-generation swordsmith. Amidst a storm of sparks, Fujiwara and his apprentices meticulously craft these legendary blades. The process, unchanged for centuries, involves forging the sword until it’s flat, then folding it back upon itself multiple times. Remarkably, there are no protective goggles in sight; instead, they rely on tradition and skill.
While watching these artisans at work is awe-inspiring, the real adventure begins when Fujiwara poses a question: “Would you like to try it?” With a sense of trepidation, you enter the glass enclosure, gripping a sledgehammer. The weight and delicacy of each strike take you by surprise, but under Fujiwara’s guidance, you experience the essence of this ancient craft.
Noto Peninsula: Art and Coastal Bliss
After immersing ourselves in the traditions of Seki, we hit the road once again, leaving Gifu behind as we head north to Ishikawa. Our destination? The Noto Peninsula, a land where emerald-green rice paddies meet an obsidian-black coastline.
Here, unused buildings have been transformed into canvases for contemporary artists. The Oku-Noto Triennale art festival, held in September and October 2023, unveils a world of creativity. In Suzu, Chiharu Shiota’s “The Boat Which Carries Time” captivates with its intricate web of red threads connecting a wooden fishing boat to the ceiling and walls.
Nearby, in an old school, Motoi Yamamoto’s “A Path of Memories” turns the walls into a maze of salt patterns, resembling something out of a video game. These works echo the Noto lifestyle, deeply rooted in the sea. Salt farms dot the coastline, following the centuries-old Agehama method to extract salt from seawater, a practice that harmoniously blends nature and human interaction.
But the sea isn’t just about art here; it’s a way of life. Our journey takes us to Nanao Bay, where we join a tour of an oyster farm. Here, oysters thrive in scallop-shell nurseries, thanks to sustainable farming practices. The flavor of these oysters, fresh and salty from the mineral-rich waters, is a testament to Noto’s bond with the sea.
Our adventure continues on Notojima, a small island connected to the peninsula. Here, Hajime Koyama, a former environmental consultant, introduces us to the island’s treasures. From rock pools where his daughter spearfishes for octopus to the community-owned cooperative fishing industry, Notojima’s sustainable practices have earned it recognition from the United Nations.
As the sun dips low in the late afternoon, casting long shadows over rice paddies and pine trees, we grasp the essence of Notojima’s serene yet bustling countryside. In these moments, it feels like we’re on the edge of the world, a place where the rhythm of life flows harmoniously with the seasons.
So there you have it, a road trip that takes you off the beaten path in Honshu, Japan’s largest island. From the timelessness of Magome to the ancient art of swordmaking in Seki and the artistic wonders of the Noto Peninsula, this journey unveils the hidden gems that await those willing to venture beyond the tourist hotspots. Whether you’re a history buff, an art enthusiast, or simply seeking a taste of Japan’s authentic charm, Honshu’s back roads have it all.
Getting There & Around: Both Nagoya and Kanazawa are accessible by Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo. From there, local trains or renting a car are the best options for exploring the smaller towns and rural areas.
When to Go: Spring and autumn offer pleasant weather, while summers can be humid, and winters chilly.
Where to Stay: Consider Tajimaya in Magome, Baison Mino in Seki, and Flatt’s on the Noto Peninsula for a unique and comfortable stay.
As our journey comes to a close, we hope you’ve been inspired to embark on your adventure through these remarkable corners of Honshu. Until next time, happy travels!
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Exploration
Q: How do I get to Magome and the other destinations mentioned in the article?
A: You can reach Magome, Seki, and the Noto Peninsula via Nagoya and Kanazawa, both of which are accessible by Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo. From there, you can use local trains or rent a car to explore these charming destinations.
Q: When is the best time to visit these places?
A: Spring and autumn offer the most pleasant weather for your journey, with mild temperatures and often sunny skies. Summers can be humid, and winters tend to be chilly, so plan accordingly.
Q: What are the recommended places to stay in Magome, Seki, and the Noto Peninsula?
A: Consider Tajimaya in Magome, Baison Mino in Seki, and Flatt’s on the Noto Peninsula for unique and comfortable accommodations that enhance your travel experience.
Q: Are there any safety concerns while hiking or exploring the natural areas mentioned?
A: While hiking, especially in areas like Magome, it’s advisable to be aware of the potential presence of Japanese black bears. Follow any posted guidelines and carry bear bells, if necessary, to alert wildlife to your presence. Always exercise caution and stay on designated trails.
Q: What’s the significance of the Noto Peninsula’s recognition by the United Nations?
A: The Noto Peninsula’s sustainable fishing and farming practices have earned it recognition as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System by the United Nations. This designation acknowledges communities that maintain a harmonious relationship with their natural environment, promoting both environmental conservation and sustainable livelihoods.