When most people visit Japan for the first time, there’s few itineraries they have in mind. Tokyo-Mount Fuji-Kyoto is the classic one, with some variations taking in Osaka on the way or perhaps stretching even further west to take in Hiroshima. There’s one thing the vast majority of these itineraries overlook, however: a visit to the Hokuriku region.
Where is Hokuriku? Take a look at Japan and find that little peninsula jutting out of the north coast. Trace your finger to the right until you’re level with the S-shaped island called Sadogashima, and that is roughly the Hokuriku region. The north coast of Japan is often overlooked by visitors, which is understandable: the bulk of the population live on the southern stretches of Japan. If you have the opportunity, however, a visit to the Hokuriku region can’t be recommended highly enough.
Why? Well, because Hokuriku is off the beaten track, you can enjoy the rich culture of the area without being surrounded by clusters of other tourists! Because it’s also less densely populated, there’s also a greater sense of space to be had, which is a breath of fresh air compared to the cramped ant’s nests that Tokyo and Osaka can feel like. And last but not least, it has what I call “the Hokuriku vibe”. It’s hard to describe, but just as Tokyo and Osaka look similar on the surface but have a very different atmosphere, Hokuriku also has a unique feel to savor.
If I’ve convinced you to visit Hokuriku, great! Here’s a possible 5-day itinerary of the region, based around the three main cities along the coast: Niigata, Toyama and Kanazawa...
Day 1: Arrive in Niigata.
You’ll either arrive in Niigata via Shinkansen or via a short domestic flight. If you do come by air, you’ll need to take a short shuttle bus into the city centre.
The bulk of Niigata’s attractions lie north of the train station. The area around the Shinano River (the longest river in Japan) is wonderfully picturesque, where you can take in a view of the historic Bandai Bridge. On the north side of the river is Hakusan Park, a leafy complex of performance arenas, sports fields and the beautiful shrine. This park is particularly recommended in the springtime when the cherry blossoms are in bloom, but it’s well worth a visit any time of the year.
If you head out the park through the red torii gate on the north side of the park and cross the main road, you’ll see a narrow street of shops. In most cities, this would be the rundown old street with the majority of stores shuttered. Not here: there’s been a concerted effort by locals to revitalize the area, and along this street are an all manner of delightful trinket shops, art galleries and restaurants.
Head over to the Toki Messe building before sunset for the free viewpoint on the 31st floor. This is the tallest building on Japan’s north coast, and the sight of the urban sprawl of Niigata glittering over the Sea of Japan is awe-inspiring.
Day 2: Spend the Day in Sadogashima.
Ever looked at that S-shaped island off the northern coast and wondered what was there? Now’s your chance! Niigata is the closest ferry point for Sadogashima Island (or Sado for short). The port is not too far from Toki Messe. There’s a variety of different ferry options available, but generally speaking the faster the ferry the more expensive it will be.
Upon arrival in Sado, you'll be in the heart of Ryotsu, Sado’s biggest town. And even Ryotsu isn’t that big, which is the point: Sado Island offers the chance to experience a truly remote area of Japan while still staying within a day’s return of civilization.
The real attraction of Sado are the rugged coastlines, so you can either rent a bicycle from Ryotsu and pick a direction (north is recommended), or take a bus. In the case of the latter, take the bus through the middle valley of the island, and at Sawata town change to a bus that takes you around the north-western head of land. Whichever you do, just be sure to leave yourself plenty of time to return to your hotel or catch a ferry back to Niigata: transport options on Sado are infrequent at best!
Day 3: Chow Down in Toyama.
Traveling to Toyama is best done by bus, most of which leave just outside Niigata Train Station. It’s a long journey - between 3 and 4 hours - but you will be kept well occupied by the stunning Hokuriku scenery outside your window.
While Toyama City isn't as big or bustling as Niigata, it's definitely still worth stopping here, especially if you're on the hunt for good food. There are sushi restaurants here using fish freshly caught from Toyama Bay that very morning, and you can taste the difference. Those with more straightforward taste buds and on a tighter budget should try the Toyama black ramen, a ramen served in a broth as black as tar. Despite appearances it's surprisingly easy going on the palette. There’s plenty of Toyama black ramen restaurants around town, but “Menya Iroha” (麺家いろは”) is especially recommended. There is a branch in the CiC shopping centre opposite the southern exit of the train station.
Toyama also has what the Japanese people believe to be the most picturesque Starbucks in the country, on the northern side of the train station in Kansui Park. If it’s a clear day you should consider heading there for a coffee: with the view of the river flowing and throwing through the lush park with the mass of Mount Tateyama framed in the background, it really does make your usual latte just that little bit extra special.
It's not all food and drink though. Toyama Castle Ruins is an easy walk from the train station as well. While the castle itself is long gone, the annex building remains, which basically looks like a smaller, more “kawaii” version of a full-size castle keep. A stroll around the neighbouring Japanese garden caps off your day in Toyama.
Day 4: See the Gardens of Kanazawa.
The next step on your journey is short and simple: a 20-minute Shinkansen ride brings you into Kanazawa. Which is just as well: Kanazawa is the most feature-rich of the three Hokuriku cities, and you will want to give this city the most time.
When you first emerge from the east exit of the station, you will be standing under the wooden arch of Tsudumimon. This vast structure has become something of a modern icon of Kanazawa, especially since the Shinkansen opened here in 2015.
Kanazawa’s star attraction is Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s “Three Great Gardens” (the other two being in Mito and Okayama). Having visited and enjoyed all three, I will confidently stand up to say that Kenroku-en is by far the best. The verdant green lawns and water features combine to make a Japanese garden you could easily spend the whole day in. Don’t miss the famous Kotoji Toro stone lantern arching over the lake: this structure is the classic symbol of Kanazawa.
Next to Kenrokuen is Kanazawa Castle - or at least the remains of it. If you’re expecting a crumbling mass of stones covered in moss, however, prepare to be pleasantly surprised: what is left of the castle has been immaculately preserved, and a vast lawn stretches out around the castle. It lends the castle park a feel of airiness that is rare in this densely packed country.
As evening falls, head to the Katamachi District. As the sun sets and the neon lights fire up, this is the place to savor that unique Hokuriku vibe. The area is packed with night time revellers and restaurants to cater for them. As with all Hokuriku areas, Kanazawa specializes in seafood, but you can’t go wrong with any choice you make in Katamachi.
Day 5: Finish up in Kanazawa.
For your last day, head over to the Nagamachi District. This small area is a big pull for visitors because of one simple word: “samurai”. The area has a cluster of preserved samurai houses, some of which you can enter and look around. In particular, be sure to take in the Nomura House. There is an entrance fee, but it is well worth it.
During your wanderings around Kanazawa, you may have noticed a number of shrines and temples dotted around the place. Oyama Shrine near Kenrokuen is recommended, due to it’s unique fusion of Japanese and Western-style architecture. Check out the tower over the entrance with the stained-glass windows for an example of this.
Finally, don’t leave Kanazawa without sampling the gold that the city built its fortunes (and name) upon. Souvenirs proudly boast the locally made gold-leaf as part of the decorations, and there are even snacks you can sample that are sprinkled with gold!
This brings you to the end of your Hokuriku tour. You can leave by either taking a domestic flight from the nearby Komatsu Airport, take a rapid train to Kyoto (just over 2 hours) or a Shinkansen all the way back to Tokyo (3 hours). And upon returning to the well-trodden tourist areas, you’ll agree that Hokuriku does indeed feel very different...and special!