Destination Kanazawa: A Road Trip From Tokyo

Tick Things Off Your Japan Bucket List

By Jo Cox
December 7, 2016
Families, Lifestyle

How a six-day road trip from Tokyo to Kanazawa made us realize that it's never about the destination — it's about the journey.

I’ll be the first to admit a road trip is not my idea of a relaxing family vacation. With three kids under 7 years old, a vacation for me includes someone else cooking breakfast, a pool and a bar. However, as fall approached, my husband was adamant that he wanted the kids to experience a vacation like the ones he used to take as a child and now remembers fondly.

After successfully recruiting another family of five to join us and the trip promising a stunning escape from busy, bustling Tokyo — I was sold.  A few weeks later, and with two seven-seater cars packed to the brim with snacks, drinks, iPads and anti-nausea medication, we were ready to go.  

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Matsumoto Castle, Nagano Prefecture

Day One: Off The Road

With the skyscrapers fading into the distance and Van Morrison blaring out of the speakers, we were off to a good start. The soundtrack provided us adults with some serious nostalgia and also gave my husband some great new additions to his karaoke list and a lot of time to practice. The “vintage” music, and perhaps our abhorrent vocals, also seemed to distract the kids from wanting their iPads and movies.

Our first stop was Matsumoto Castle in Nagano Prefecture. Even in the pouring rain, the oldest castle in Japan was absolutely breathtaking. Be prepared for a steep climb and decent if you want to check out all six floors, but it’s well worth it. Trust me, I did it with an 11 kilogram toddler strapped to my chest.

Even in the pouring rain, the oldest castle in Japan was absolutely breathtaking.

Conveniently, we found a large ramen restaurant right by the train station, perfect for our party of 10 to refuel before heading off into the mountains to locate our accommodation for the night.

We stayed at Tengallonhat, a B&B in Mount Norikura. After a steep and winding, yet gorgeous and foggy drive, we arrived at a very cute little lodge, nestled in the side of a mountain beside a raging river. The accommodation was quirky, yet perfect. The common area includes a children’s playroom, a loft with stargazing tower, restaurant and bar. We had a simple yet lovely meal in the restaurant before retreating to separate family bathrooms for some hot spring relaxation. After a game of cards and a bottle of wine upstairs, we were well and truly ready for bed. The rooms were basic but cozy and we all slept beautifully — perhaps due to the fresh mountain air and the muffled sound of flowing water outside our windows.

Fun and play in Ogimachi Village, Gifu Prefecture

Fun and play in Ogimachi Village, Gifu Prefecture

Day Two: Into The Nature

We took off the next morning around 10 a.m., headed for Kanazawa. Our route took us through beautiful Gifu Prefecture, winding through misty mountains, apple tree plantations and large rice paddies where the fall leaves were just starting to turn. We also managed to stop by Ogimachi Village in Shirakawa-go, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site — an impromptu addition to the itinerary after the previous night’s banter. This became one of the highlights of the trip and the most beautiful pit stop on the long journey.  

For accommodation in Kanazawa, we booked a five-bedroom house on Airbnb that we found after numerous phone calls and some intensive map analysis. Despite lacking in certain necessities — like glasses and knives — the accommodation suited us well and we all called it a night after some take out and more wine (sipped out of rice bowls).

 Day Three: Stroll Into History

The next morning, we visited Kanazawa Castle where our city kids ran and shrieked with joy on a lawn the size of a football field. This was followed by lunch across the street at Kenrokuen Garden and a peaceful stroll through its stunning surroundings.

We visited Kanazawa Castle where our city kids ran and shrieked with joy on a lawn the size of a football field.

As we made our way home, we decided to stop off at Higashi Chaya District, an Edo period tangle of alleyways dotted with historical rows of tea houses. Perfect for a wander through the streets or a little shopping — or both.

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Camping and hiking in Karuizawa

Day Four: Coffee & BBQ

Before we hit the road again, headed for Karuizawa, our priority for the morning was coffee — good coffee. We loved Kanazawa’s Curio and Espresso Vintage Design coffee shop. Aesthetically charming and offering fantastic coffee, we thoroughly enjoyed our caffeine hit while the dads checked out the nearby Omi-cho markets for some sashimi and fresh produce.

Our drive had us winding past the Nagano ski fields with a quick stop in Myoko Kogen before arriving in beautiful Karuizawa. Our accommodation there was a campground called Outside Base. Here you can rent tents, or log cabins that sleep two to five guests. We opted for a log cabin complete with a small loft. The kids were thrilled; it was like staying in a giant cubby house. The grounds also include a children’s play area, bath house and store where you can grab all your camping essentials. The staff prepared the ingredients for a wonderful barbecue dinner that we cooked ourselves on a small grill on our cabin deck. We also rented a fire pit for some obligatory marshmallow toasting.

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Shiraito no Taki Falls, Karuizawa

Day Five: Back To Nature

It was almost perfect until I discovered the next morning, tired and smelling of barbecue smoke, the bath house did not open until 4 p.m. My angst was soon diminished however, with a trip to stunning Shiraito no Taki Falls. With its crystal clear springs and curtain of falling water, it’s impossible not to get caught up in Mother Nature’s ingenuity.

Just as the other family were about to head back to Tokyo, we stumbled upon some local markets selling fresh food and handmade arts and crafts; the perfect spot for some lunch and shopping before bidding farewell to our trusty companions and heading back to Outside Base for one last night of intrepid fun.

Shiraito no Taki Falls. With its crystal clear springs and curtain of falling water, it’s impossible not to get caught up in Mother Nature’s ingenuity.

A fantastic day topped off with an eventual hot spring bath, and I was a happy camper once again.

Family portrait at Asama Otaki

Family portrait at Asama Otaki

Day Six: The Finale

We started the morning with an impromptu hike on one of the numerous trails surrounding Outside Base followed by Asama Otaki Falls.

The last pit stop before the drive home was Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza. This place is huge. We stayed for two hours and only got to a third of the shops. A fantastic range of stores with some incredible discounts on offer in a beautiful location with plenty of accommodation options; I couldn’t help but start planning a potential girl’s weekend away.

Then just like that, we were back in Tokyo.

I was exhausted and thrilled to be back in my bed; but I was also consumed with incredible memories. The kids loved it. We spent some truly wonderful, quality time as a family and with our friends. We ticked off so many Japan bucket list destinations in one trip. There were no delays. No hanging around in airports. No time we had to be anywhere. We just went when we were ready using one mode of transport.

And as much as it was initially about the destination, it ended up being so very much about the journey.

Jo Cox has lived in Tokyo for the past 3 years. With a background in Radio and Music promotions, now a mum to 3, she enjoys trying to keep up with Tokyo’s social scene; wining, dining and being entertained. She also enjoys travelling, running and spends a lot of time negotiating with very small people.

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