Tokyo to Osaka: Culture and Creativity Along Japan’s New Golden Route

Expo 70 Commemorative Park is particularly pretty when the cherry blossoms come to life in spring
Expo '70 Commemorative Park is particularly pretty when the cherry blossoms come to life in spring | © sanga park / Alamy Stock Photo
Rebecca Hallett

Freelance writer and editor

Explore the many sides of Japan on the New Golden Route, a train journey that links the futuristic cities of Tokyo and Osaka, with the landscapes, ancient crafts and cuisine of central Japan in between.

Japan’s New Golden Route may take you from one city to another, but on the way you’ll encounter some of the country’s most impressive scenery and culinary and cultural spots. Bookended by urbane Tokyo and high-energy Osaka, this train route offers the perfect introduction to central Japan’s mountainous and coastal landscapes, outdoor activities and elegant crafts.

The Hokuriku Arch Pass gives you seven days of unlimited travel on JR trains, including the Shinkansen bullet train, along the whole route, allowing you to explore the region easily and comfortably by rail. JR West also operates beautifully designed tourist trains such as Hanayome Noren in Ishikawa prefecture and Belles Montagnes et Mer in Toyama prefecture to take you even closer to Japan’s stunning natural sights.

Tokyo

Most first-time visitors to Tokyo are overwhelmed by its modernity, but it’s an ancient city that proudly maintains its links to traditional arts and culture. Right in the middle of the city – not 10 minutes’ walk from the vast, maze-like Tokyo station – you can immerse yourself in the tea ceremony on the Koomon one-day course. Clad in a kimono and seated on tatami mats, you’ll learn the basics of this meditative art. If you’re a little more experienced with chadō (the way of tea) you can join an intermediate or advanced course. Don’t like tea? Try your hand instead at Japan’s living traditions of calligraphy and ikebana (flower arranging) at the Koomon.

A Japanese tea ceremony is a ritual celebrating the preparation and presentation of hot bowls of Japanese matcha green tea

Saitama

Many different kinds of paper are produced in Japan, but in Saitama, Tokyo’s neighbouring prefecture, there’s one so iconic it’s often just called washi – or “Japanese paper”. Ogawa Washi is named for the town where it’s been made for centuries. You can learn about its history and uses at the Saitama Traditional Craft Hall and Ogawa Town Washi Experience Learning Centre, and try making your own washi, stripping the bark from mulberry branches and carefully drying the new sheets. The paper is strongest when made in cold water in cold weather, so it’s not surprising that the traditional kamisukiuta (paper-making song) opens with “it’s tough, paper making is tough” – but luckily, you’ll be able to make it in slightly cosier conditions.

The production of Ogawa Washi can be traced back to the ninth century

Gunma

While travelling around Japan, you’ll see plenty of Daruma – round red figurines with white faces and impressive black eyebrows. These good luck charms are said to originate at Shorinzan Darumaji Temple in Takasaki, Gunma prefecture, which you can still visit today. You can also stop by Daimonya to join a Daruma painting workshop. Whether you design your own or buy one ready-made, you’ll notice its eyes are left blank. This is all part of the tradition: you paint in the pupil of the left eye when you set a goal, then once you’ve achieved it, you fill in the right eye, too. And be sure to leave your Daruma where you can see it – he’ll be keeping an eye on your progress…

Gunma prefecture is home to the fabled Daruma dolls, also known as Japanese wishing dolls

Nagano

Nozawa Onsen ski resort, in the mountainous Nagano prefecture, has an impressive pedigree. In fact, locals say it’s the birthplace of skiing in Japan, a claim you can investigate for yourself at the Japan Ski Museum here. It’s certainly one of the country’s most charming winter-sports destinations, a hot-spring town with an old-world atmosphere at the foot of Mt Kenashi (1,650m/5,400ft). Visit in the ski season for winter sports, snowshoeing and the Dōso-jin fire festival (January 15), and in the warmer months for hiking, shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) and ziplining. At any time of year, relax after your outdoor pursuits with a soak in an onsen and a drink at the Anglo-Japanese craft-beer pub Libushi.

Nozawa Onsen, in Nagano prefecture, is the birthplace of skiing in Japan

Niigata

Many visitors to coastal Jōetsu city, in Niigata, simply see it as a place to join the Hokuriku Shinkansen line, or get the ferry to Sado island. But Jōetsu has plenty of interesting spots – especially if you visit in April, when Takada Park’s 4,000 cherry blossoms are softly illuminated in the evenings. The city is also home to Takahashi Magozaemon Shōten, the oldest candy shop in Japan, which has been in operation since 1624. You can enjoy a cup of green tea here while trying traditional sweets like sasa-ame (“bamboo candy”), which appeared in the novel Botchan by Natsume Sōseki, one of Japan’s most beloved novelists.

Visit the oldest candy shop in Japan, Takahashi Magozaemon, where nearly all the sweets are made with a traditional Japanese syrup called ‘awa-ame’

Toyama

Takaoka, at the base of the slow-paced, rural Noto peninsula in Toyama, is known for its impressive 16m-tall (52ft) bronze Buddha statue, and for the austere beauty of Zuiryū-ji temple. These links to Buddhism are also present at Nōsaku, a factory founded in 1916 that produces Buddhist altars and ritual objects, as well as kitchenware and items for the home. You can try your hand at tin casting at the chic, modern workshop, by making a chopstick rest, plate or cup. The sleek tin cups are local favourites for drinking the excellent regional sake, as the antibacterial metal doesn’t interfere with the taste of the drink.

Try your hand at traditional tin casting at the factory of Nōsaku

Gifu

The Hida area of Gifu prefecture is known for its idyllic countryside. Exploring these landscapes by bicycle lets you see the daily life of the region at a slower pace, as you cycle past rice fields and tea plantations, stopping at local shrines and shops. Satoyama Experience runs guided cycle tours of the area, showing you how the concept of satoyama – a sustainable way of weaving together community life and the natural environment – shapes the bond between the land and the people here. Stay overnight if you can, in order to experience the calm beauty of Hida.

Take a leisurely cycle through the Hida area of Gifu to experience daily life close up

Ishikawa

Kanazawa, in Ishikawa prefecture, is famous for its museums, geisha, samurai districts and gold-leaf production. At the heart of the city is Kanazawa Castle Park, where the fascinating reconstruction of the inner castle buildings is revealed – they were all created using plans and methods from the Edo period (1603-1868). Here you’ll see the perfect marriage of functionality and beauty in the stunning exterior tiles, behind which lie the gun room’s concealed shooting holes. As well as the impressive Kenroku-en gardens, you’ll find Gyokusen’inmaru Garden in Kanazawa Castle Park, a serene, 17th-century garden where you can enjoy a tea ceremony in meditative surroundings.

Castle Park’s intricate interior was built using methods dating back to the Edo period

Fukui

Fukui prefecture is a great place for outdoor activities and travel off the beaten track. Head for the Tōjinbō cliffs to see dramatic rock formations, or to Awara Onsen to indulge in hot-spring baths and fresh seafood. Inland, you can seek inner peace through a stay at Hakujukuan hotel of the Eihei-ji Temple – the Temple of Eternal Peace – where you can experience zen Buddhist meditation and have the chance to try delicate shōjin-ryōri (vegetarian Buddhist cuisine). If the thought of meditation makes you fidgety, you might prefer staying at Tree Picnic Adventure IKEDA, a forest theme park. The Mega Zipline is the star of the show here, but there are plenty of other draws, like camping in the canopy and rafting down the river.

You can stay high up in the treetops in an elevated tent at Tree Picnic Adventure in Ikeda

Shiga

In the Shiga prefecture you’ll find Biwako, the largest freshwater lake in Japan. There are several towns near the lake that make great bases for exploring. Omi Hachiman is a charming merchant town dating back to the 16th century, known for its well-preserved historic centre and picturesque canal. The streets of the old town are lined with wooden buildings, many now converted into museums, galleries or accommodation. If you want to try the local speciality, Ōmi beef, head to Omi Beef Morishima, where the marbled meat is cooked on volcanic stone from Mount Fuji for the signature ishiyaki (stone-grilled) course.

Go for the velvet marbled beef cooked on traditional Japanese hot stones (ishiyaki) at Omi Beef Morishima

Kyoto

Kyoto’s cultural riches are well known around the world – elegant temples and fascinating museums, graceful Geimaiko and refined cuisine. But there are still plenty of under-explored facets of arts and culture in this ancient city, and neighbourhoods that many visitors overlook. The laidback Nishijin district, for example, is the heart of Japan’s silk weaving craft with a history dating back over 1,000 years. Here the streets are still dotted with machiya (wooden townhouses) and you may catch the clack-clack sound of looms emanating from workshops. The Nishijin Textile Centre is a great place to learn more about this proud craft tradition, with displays explaining the techniques and history, as well as experiences where you can try weaving with a small handloom, and a shop stocked with craft souvenirs.

Head to the Nishijin Textile Centre to learn how textiles are created using traditional skills and techniques

Osaka

For a break from the fast-paced life of Osaka, head slightly out of the city to the Expo ’70 Commemorative Park, a vast site that played host to the 1970 Japan World Exhibition with several of its facilities still maintained. Head to the areas that catch your eye – the Japanese Garden or Natural and Cultural Gardens, the Folk Crafts Museum or the National Museum of Ethnography. Standing guard over it all is one of the most iconic symbols of the region – Tarō Okamoto’s Tower of the Sun, a 70m-high (230ft), avant-garde structure that greets visitors with open arms and three faces, and decorated inside with a vast, psychedelic mural of the tree of life.

The ‘Tower of the Sun’, created by Japanese artist Tarō Okamoto, made a name for itself as the symbol of Expo ’70

Exploring the New Golden Route is a wonderful way to get acquainted with the creativity and culture of Japan. Secure your unlimited-ride train pass via the Hokuriku Arch Pass and start planning your trip here.

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