July 20, 2024
Matsumoto black castle, JapanMatsumoto black castle, Japan
Photo by Karen Gardiner
Photo by Karen Gardiner

On a March morning in Inami, Japan, I followed the scent of camphor and steady tap and clack of chisels into one of the tiny town’s dozens of carpentry workshops. Looking up from his work station, an elderly man nodded to me, inviting me to watch. Hunched over, he worked on a ranma, an elaborately carved wooden panel traditionally used in temples and homes, which Inami is known for producing.

Located at the foot of Mount Yaotome in central Japan’s Toyoma prefecture, Inami itself seems to have been carved out of wood. There are carvings everywhere: shop signs, sculptures, a bus stop, and—according to my map—30 wooden cats. Woodcarvers here use techniques that have been passed down since the renowned sculptor Maekawa Sanshiro arrived around 1750 to help rebuild the burned-down Zuisen-ji temple. Nowadays, visitors can try their own hand at wood carving, which is how I became the proud owner of my own handmade, admittedly uneven, sake cup. “There’s only one in the world like it,” my teacher, Emi Honda, offered generously.

There are currently more than 150 wood carvers currently working in Inami. Out of a population of just 8,000, it’s an impressive, but declining, number. Given the long years of apprenticeship required, and the uncertainty of whether one might earn very much money, it’s little wonder that woodcarver is not exactly a fast-growing job, in Inami or anywhere. But younger carvers like Honda, who come to Inami to perfect their craft, represent a commitment to its preservation. So too do the dozens of long-vacant homes that have more recently been renovated and revived, thanks to new transplants who have grown tired of Japan’s big cities—if you’re going to buy a run-down house, might as well do it in a town with a pool of skilled craftspeople. And then there’s Bed and Craft, a scattered hotel spread throughout six century-old buildings, all renovated by local craftspeople, which offers exclusive “apprenticeship” experiences with artisans.

The concept, I think, is tourism done right: a mutually rewarding experience that provides income for artisans. For travelers, it offers a unique and immersive experience that is far from the hit-and-run style of tourism that, in other parts of Japan, has strained infrastructure and pushed locals’ patience to the brink.

Such is the beauty of the Mitsuboshi Kaidou, or Three Star Road, a less-traveled route on which Inami is just one mutually rewarding spot.

Three Star RoadThree Star Road
Photos by Karen Gardiner

The Three Star Road

I was in Inami while making my way along the Three Star Road between Kanazawa and Matsumoto. This is a road trip that can be done by car or by piecing together bus routes (as I did) and that, crucially, bypasses the country’s tourist magnets.

An ever-increasing number of inbound tourists over the past 10 years, coupled with a post-COVID surge in travel and weakened yen, has led to overtourism concerns in Japan—culminating with the construction of a barrier to block an Instagram-friendly view of Mount Fuji and a law restricting tourists from part of Kyoto’s Gion district. The issue isn’t necessarily the number of tourists, but the concentration; most don’t stray off the Golden Route, the classic journey from Tokyo to Kyoto and Osaka. By meandering through four prefectures between the Sea of Japan and the Japanese Alps, the Three Star Road promises a road less traveled, even if it’s not that far off the beaten path. More of a suggestion than a strict itinerary, it can be tailored to your interest, whether that’s food, history or outdoor adventure. Knowing that long isolation has helped preserve passed-down traditions along the route, I opted to follow its arts and crafts heritage.

Kanazawa, JapanKanazawa, Japan
Photos by Karen Gardiner


I started my trip in Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa prefecture and a smooth two-and-a-half-hour Shinkansen (bullet train) ride from Tokyo. A UNESCO City of Crafts and Folk Art and birthplace of various crafts, Kanazawa leans into a long-standing commitment to preserving its cultural heritage through its Ichigo Ichie program, which arranges studio visits and hands-on activities with local craftspeople. I spent five days immersed in the city’s artistry, from making glass trinkets in a former soy sauce factory to drinking tea with the 11th-generation head of a pottery-making family in his own Kengo Kuma-designed museum. In between, I explored the city’s well-preserved Edo-era neighborhoods, including Kazue-machi, one of three geisha districts, which—in contrast to Kyoto’s beleaguered Gion—was so quiet I could hear my footsteps. I ate fresh-off-the-boat seafood at Omachi Market, and slept surrounded by artworks both traditional (at Asadaya ryokan) and contemporary (at Hyatt Centric Kanazawa).

Inami, JapanInami, Japan
Photos by Karen Gardiner

Inami to Shirakawago

From Kanazawa, I took the bus to Inami then, using the same three-day combined Nanto-Kanazawa and World Heritage Bus pass, continued to Gokayama and the hamlet of Ainokura. Together with nearby Shirakawa-go, Gokayama holds UNESCO status for its distinctive sloping, thatched-roof houses known as gasshō-zukuri(praying hands) because their roofs resemble hands in prayer, a design that protects the buildings from heavy snows. Swathed in deep snow and circled by mountains, the houses look frozen in time but my Texan guide Grant Lloyd’s description of the task of preserving these cultural time capsules punctured the magic somewhat. Replacing the roofs, which has to be done every 15-20 years, requires harvesting reeds from the mountains. “Your arms get wrecked” from the long days spent cutting, he told me, speaking from experience. “And that’s only half of it. Then they actually have to replace the thing.”

Labor- and time-intensive, preservation largely relies on the community; for hundreds of years, the villagers have worked together to re-thatch the roofs in the spirit of yui (mutual aid). Twentieth-century depopulation meant fewer people to do the work and risk that tradition would die out. But UNESCO recognition and cultural tourism heightened the stakes of protecting this unique landscape, which now receives local and national government support.

Another bus down the road took me into Gifu prefecture and to Shirakawa-go, a village of gassho-zukuri houses that looks like a bigger version of Ainokura, but with many times the number of tourists. Tourism has helped these small rural settlements by providing both the income needed to preserve their landscapes and an incentive to keep traditions alive, but with noticeably more than three times as many daily visitors than residents, Shirakawa-go felt on the edge of being more burdened than buoyed by tourism. Had I spent the night at one of the village’s overnight accommodations, however, I would have seen it blissfully empty before the tour buses rolled in. Nevertheless, I was content to skip sleeping in thatched house for soaking in the big open-air bath at Onyado Yui no Sho a couple of miles away.

Okuhida, JapanOkuhida, Japan
Photos by Karen Gardiner

Hida-Takayama to Okuhida

Surrounded by the forests of northern Gifu, Hida-Takayama is also renowned for its woodworking. So much so that, in lieu of paying taxes to the former Imperial capitals, the city historically sent its best craftspeople to build many of Nara and Kyoto’s shrines and temples. The epitome of these carpentry skills is represented by the highly decorated yatai festival floats that are paraded through the city’s narrow streets during the Takayama Festival.

I was a few weeks too early to catch the festival, which takes place over two days in both April and October. However, as it draws several hundred thousand visitors, I was happy to instead enjoy a crowd-free, up-close look at four yatai on display in theTakayama Festival Floats Exhibition Hall. Centuries-old, the floats were towering, spectacular creations adorned with extravagant carvings, metalwork, silk, and brocade. What caught my eye, though, was the lacquered base of each, examples of Hida Shunkei, a 400-year-old regional lacquerware technique mostly used to create glossy tableware and ornaments.

Through Takayama Experience, a local tour company that is focused on deepening visitors’ understanding of Japanese culture, I visited the cozy workshop of Nobuyuki Kumazaki. One of just six registered lacquerware artisans working in Takayama today—and, though he’s in his 70s, “one of the younger ones,” he says—Kumazaki showed me the painstakingly slow process of repeatedly applying clear lacquer to bring out the natural beauty of the wood grain. Kumazaki began his career when Hida Shunkei was in high demand. Nowadays, people tend to favor mass-produced plastic over traditional crafts that take six to eight months to make. Still, Kumazaki is kept busy with his loyal customers’ orders, as well as packing up and mailing the finished pieces made by tourists who visit him for hands-on experiences in his workshop. He was in a hurry to finish up his orders, he said, because he wears another, important, hat in the community: organizing the festival.

Afterward, I wandered through the compact Sanmachi district, which is lined with centuries-old, and perfectly preserved, merchants’ mansions. I popped into a sake brewery, spotted thanks to the tell-tale sugidama (cedar ball) hanging above its door, but had little time to linger: I had another bus to catch deeper into the mountains to Okuhida.

After a seemingly ever-ascending journey into the snow-covered Alps, the bus dropped me off at Yumoto Chohza a traditional inn in Fukuji Onsen, one of five onsen towns deep in Okuhida’s valleys. If anyone else was staying at the inn, I didn’t see them. I had four different onsen to myself, as well as five outdoor baths lying along the river a few minutes’ walk away, and a private dining room where a succession of dishes included melt-in-the-mouth Hida beef cooked over an open hearth.

Matsumoto Art Museum, JapanMatsumoto Art Museum, Japan
Photo by Karen Gardiner


The Three Star Road ends (or begins, depending on which direction you choose) in Matsumoto, Nagano prefecture. Matsumoto’s pride is its black castle, one of the few in Japan to have survived the three architects of destruction: the Meiji restoration, natural disasters, and war. I wandered through the nearby Nakamachi district and in and out of repurposed lattice-screened kura

(traditional storehouses) housing craft stores and galleries. Matsumoto worked its charm in surprising ways: with its colorful manhole covers decorated with paintings of the local folk craft, temari (silk yarn-woven balls), and pint-sized city buses covered in red polkadots—a nod to the city’s most famous daughter, Yayoi Kusama, who was born there in 1929. With its craft breweries, single-origin coffee shops and backdrop of white-capped peaks, Matsumoto felt more western mountain town than big city, and a nice bridge between rambling around the Alps and the train that would swiftly take me back to Tokyo. It was the end of the road, but still just enough off the beaten track.

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Karen Gardiner is a freelancer who writes about the intersection of travel, culture, and sustainability.


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