Last Updated: March 29, 2019
Japan’s a popular destination for Singaporean travellers, though most of us tend to head to places like Tokyo, Kyoto, Hokkaido and Osaka.
But for adventurous souls, why not try something different? Take a trip along the Mitsuboshi Kaidou, or the Three-Star Road.
The route spans the areas of Matsumoto, Takayama, Shirakawa-go, Gokayama and Kanazawa. Named for the many World Heritage sites and National Treasures along the route, these spots have received three stars in the Michelin Guide Japan as top places to visit.
With so many attractions including World Heritage sites, traditional streets, castles and specialty local food, there’s just so much to see and do. We’ve whittled it down to a list of 14 must-see attractions, and must-try food along Japan’s Three-Star Road. Get ready for a glimpse of the real Japan!
Growing up with Singapore’s tropical climate, it’s no wonder that most of us prefer to explore snowy countries on our travels.
If you’re looking for a unique day out in the snow, try the Snowshoe Experience (JP¥5,000 for guided tour) at Norikura Highland.
Equipped with “snowshoes” rented from Little Peaks for JP¥ 1,000 (half day), we took a two-hour walking tour of the highlands. With natural highlights like a frozen lake and even the frozen Zengorou waterfall, we were truly walking in a winter wonderland.
Hiking through the snow can be tiring, and even treacherous, but the scenery along the way was certainly worth it. It was a good cardio workout too!
Noriko Tourist Information Centre: 4306-5, Azumi, Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture, 390-1520, Japan | Tel: +81 263 93 2147 | Opening Hours: 9am – 5pm
One of the must-see locations in Matsumoto City has to be the majestic Matsumoto Castle. For an admission fee of JP¥610, you get to walk around the castle and its gardens.
Gorgeous both in the day and at night, this is one of Japan’s famous historic castles. It’s a popular spot to view cherry blossoms in spring, with hundreds of cherry trees along the outer moat.
Since we happened to be there in winter, we got a view of the contrasting black walls of the “Crow Castle” with snow instead. With a flurry of powder snow, you can almost imagine it’s a scene out of a painting.
If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of “princesses” and “armoured warriors”. The castle’s hospitality team roam the castle grounds between 9am – 4pm daily, so catch them for a photo!
Matsumoto Castle: 4-1 Marunouchi, Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture, 390-0873, Japan | Opening Hours: 8.30am – 5pm (daily) | Website
If you enjoyed Yayoi Kusama’s art exhibition in Singapore in 2017, you’ll need to visit the Matsumoto City Museum Of Art.
Born in Matsumoto city, Yayoi Kusama is famous for her pumpkin sculptures and the use of polka dots to convey the depth of emotions.
The museum features a permanent collection of her artwork, with her masterpiece Magical Flower displayed in front of the building.
Even the vending machines, benches and recycling bin are covered with Yayoi Kusama’s trademark polka dots!
Matsumoto City Museum of Art: 4-2-22, Chuo, Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture 390-0811, Japan | Tel: +81 263 39 7400 | Opening Hours: 9am – 5pm (Tue – Sun), Closed on Mon | Website
When you’re up in the snowy mountains, you’ll might want to try a popular winter past-time: skiing. At Hirayu Onsen Ski Resort, you can try out sledding down a gentle snow slope. Of course, there’s the usual skiing as well if you’re more physically inclined.
If you’re hungry after all the physical exertion, head over to the bus terminal and take a seat in the restaurant on the second floor.
The Hida region is famous for their fatty and well-marbled beef, so I’d recommend getting the Sukiyaki Hotpot-Style Hida Beef Set (JP¥1,944).
Juicy and fatty even as thin slices of sukiyaki beef, each piece cooks in no time at all in the slightly sweet sukiyaki broth. The best way to enjoy this is to dip the beef slices into raw beaten egg. Oishii!
Hirayu Group Restaurant “Tirol”: Hirayu Onsen Ski Resort, 628, Okuhida-Onsengo-Hirayu, Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture, 506-1433, Japan | Tel: +81 578 89 2611 | Opening Hours: 8am – 4.30pm (Summer, 16 April – 15 November), 8.30am – 4pm (Winter, 16 November – 15 April) | Website
Getting up early has its benefits, especially if you want to catch the Miyagawa Morning Market. With stalls selling fresh produce and handcrafted souvenirs, you should drop by for a visit and sample some local specialties.
You’ll want to come early to get the freshest fruits and vegetables; the stalls open as early as 7am! They’re famous for crisp and refreshing apples, picked from an orchard that’s 10 minutes away by car.
If you want a keepsake of your travels, the local vendors also sell unique souvenirs like handmade Sarubobo dolls and Maneki-neko figures.
Miyagawa Morning Market: Shimosannomachi, Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture 506-0841, Japan | Opening Hours: 7am – 12noon (daily, April – January), 8am – 12noon (daily, December – March) | Website
For those who prefer a more hands-on experience instead of just taking in the sights, how about learning to make one of the iconic souvenirs of the Hida region?
Learn how to make a Sarubobo (baby monkey) doll of your own at the Sarubobo Craft-Making Workshop (JP¥1,500) at the Hida Takayama Crafts Experience Center.
This good luck charm helps to ward off evil, and the different colours represent different aspects of life including good health and prosperity.
Guided by the sensei who gave us detailed step-by-step instructions, I managed to put together a yellow Sarubobo doll (symbolising prosperity and wealth) of my own.
Hida Takayama Crafts Experience Center: 1-436 Kamiokamotomachi, Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture 506-0055, Japan | Tel: +81 577 35 5093 | Opening Hours: 10am – 4pm (Fri – Wed), Closed on Thu | Website
Culture vultures, you won’t want to miss this UNESCO World Heritage site.
If you’d like a glimpse into rustic village life, head over to Ogimachi Village. From the Ogimachi Shiroato (Ogimachi Castle Ruin) Viewpoint, you can see clusters of gassho-zukuri farmhouses dotting the snowy landscape. Some of these old thatched roof houses now function as minshuku (bed & breakfast guesthouses), restaurants and even museums.
Within the gassho-style houses, you can find traditional features like the irori (open fireplace). Definitely a welcome source of warmth during their harsh winters!
To warm up even further, I tried a bowl of Zenzai (JP¥300), a traditional Japanese dessert made with red bean and shiratama dango (glutinous rice flour dumplings).
I really enjoyed this sweet and comforting dessert soup, especially the chewy dango that’s made with chestnuts. Although it came with a thick red bean soup, it wasn’t cloying at all.
The secret to this particular bowl of Zenzai was a pinch of salt, to cut through the sweetness.
Ogimachi Village: Shirakawa, Ono District, Gifu Prefecture 501-5627, Japan | Website
One of the things that Japan is famous for is intricate paper crafts, but did you know that they make their own paper too?
Experience paper-making yourself at Gokayama Washi-No-Sato, a traditional Paper-Making Workshop (JP¥700~) in the Gokayama area within Toyama Prefecture.
Handmade with kozo (paper mulberry) using the traditional method, Gokayama Washi is extremely durable and can last for hundreds of years. They’re commonly used for those sliding screens you often see in traditional Japanese homes.
I tried my hand at paper-making, and the end result was a soft yet fibrous sheet that’s thicker than usual paper. Our guide assured us that even if it ends up in the washing machine by accident, it’s still likely to be unscathed.
Gokayama Washi-No-Sato: 215 Higashinakae, Nanto City, Toyama Prefecture, 939-1905, Japan | Opening Hours: 9am – 5pm (daily) | Website
It may seem odd to enjoy French cuisine in Japan, but Satoyama Auberge Maki No Oto serves up Japanese-French fusion.
Combining the concept of omotenashi (Japanese art of hospitality) and satoyama style French auberge, Maki No Oto brings us a carefully curated menu in the midst of the tranquil countryside.
Depending on the season, you’ll get a selection of different dishes. I was really intrigued by the Seasonal Specialty, which was fugu shirako (pufferfish milt) in crab sauce.
Highly prized as a delicacy, the milt had a texture like gritty mashed potatoes with a slightly metallic aftertaste. The spicy crab sauce added a stronger briny kick to the dish.
Satoyama Auberge Maki No Oto: 140 Noguchi, Nanto City, Toyama Prefecture, 939-1844, Japan | Tel: +81 763 62 3255 | Opening Hours: 12noon – 2pm (Lunch), 6pm – 9pm (Dinner) | Website
Located within Shiinoki Cultural Complex and surrounded by expansive gardens, Jardin Paul Bocuse brings the sophistication of Chef Paul Bocuse’s French cuisine to Kanazawa.
Everything from the refined elegance of the dining rooms, to the ambience, to the beautifully-plated dishes went towards creating a luxurious dining experience.
You can choose from a range of curated menus starting from a modest JP¥3,800, to a staggering JP¥20,000. My favourite part of the meal was actually the Dessert Trolley, where diners can select their favourite sweet treat to end off the feast.
I had to try the Oeufs à la Neige Grand-Mère Bocuse, a meringue dessert that’s inspired by Grandma Bocuse.
This signature dessert came with fragrant and sweet vanilla sauce, and caramel drizzled over the meringue.
Steamed till fluffy and soft, the meringue had a thin crispy outer crust. Each bite felt like I was biting into a sweet marshmallow cloud!
Jardin Paul Bocuse: Shiinoki Cultural Complex, 2F, 2-1-1 Hirosaka Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture, 920-0962, Japan | Tel: +81 076 261 1161 | Opening Hours: 11.30am – 3pm (Lunch), 5.30pm – 10pm (Dinner), Closed on Mon | Website
History lovers would want to make a stop at the Nagamachi Buke Yashiki District (Samurai District)in Kanazawa. This well-preserved historic area once housed the city’s samurai, and some of the houses and gardens are open to the public as well.
Winding flagstone lanes and canals run between earthen walls, making it great for a couple of Insta-worthy shots.
For an added bonus, why not rent a kimono for an impromptu photo shoot?
Nagamachi Buke Yashiki District (Samurai District): Nagamachi, Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture, 920-0865, Japan
Another historic area in Kanazawa, Higashi Chaya District is also known as the geisha district. It’s one of the three Chaya districts in Kanazawa, and the largest of the three.
With two chaya (teahouses) open to public, you can find out more about how the geisha lived and worked.
Those of you who love bling, take a peek around Hakuza Gold Leaf Store.
They offer a range of gold products, including jewellery, chopsticks, and even edible gold sprinkles!
Best of all, make sure to head out back to check out Hakuza Hikari Kura. This old teahouse is completely coated in pure gold platinum foil, while the interior is covered with 24k gold.
Higashi Chaya District (Geisha District): 1 Higashiyama, Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture 920-0831, Japan
Considered one of the most beautiful landscape gardens in Japan, Kenrokuen Garden becomes a winter wonderland in the cold months. Enter the garden for JP¥310, and snap away as you take in the sights.
The famous two-legged Kotojitoro Lantern balances precariously at the edge of Kasumigaike pond. Topped with snow, the landscape takes on a magical touch, almost like in a fairy tale.
Take a stroll around the pond, which looks especially tranquil with falling powder snow. Kenrokuen Garden also features the Karasaki Pine, a pine tree planted from seed in the 13th century.
Don’t be alarmed by the “cages” around the trees, the yukitsuri actually help to protect the trees from the heavy blanket of snow.
Kenrokuen Garden: 1 Kenrokumachi, Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture 920-0936, Japan | Opening Hours: 7am – 6pm (1 Mar – 15 Oct), 8am – 5pm (16 Oct – End-Feb)
If you travel to Japan, you must enjoy some fresh seafood. And there’s no better place to savour fresh seafood dishes than at Omicho Fish Market!
This fresh food market is the largest in Kanazawa, with over 200 shops and stalls selling local seafood and fresh produce. Be sure to walk around and sample some of the seasonal dishes!
But the highlight of the market is definitely the stalls offering kaisen don.
We dropped by Kaisendon Ichiba for a quick delicious meal. For JP¥1,480, I got a Kaisen Don loaded with premium seafood ingredients. If you’re worried that the seafood flavour might be too strong, mix some wasabi into the soy sauce and drizzle it over the don.
Aside from the fresh slices of salmon, squid and hamachi (yellowtail), I was intrigued by the tuna paste. Known as nakaochi, the meat is scraped off from between the tuna bones. Each mouthful of the nakaochi was briny and silky, and went really well with the sharp and salty wasabi soy sauce mixture.
The don came with a warm bowl of Ara Jiru (fish bone soup). Made only with miso and fish bones, the fish bone soup packed a flavourful punch and chunks of soft fish. Perfect for warming you up on a chilly winter day!
Omicho Fish Market: 50 Kamiomicho, Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture 920-0905, Japan | Tel: +81 76 231 1462 | Opening Hours: 9am – 5pm (varies depending on the stalls)
So, if you’re bored of the usual Japanese tourist spots, try our recommendations and get a fresh perspective on Japan!
*This post was brought to you in partnership with Japan National Tourism Organization