- 19 min read

Historic Exploration and Architecture Along a Forgotten Path

Explore bygone eras in Toyama, Hida, Takayama, and Matsumoto

Japan is renowned for its preserved traditions and history, creating an environment where structures and customs from hundreds of years ago still exist to this day. These time-worn buildings and alleyways offer gateways to the past where visitors can explore Japan’s rich heritage. Aside from their educational value, these structures are also aesthetic masterpieces, oftentimes making guests feel nostalgia for worlds they never lived.

Given our focus on the past, it only seems fitting that we plan our journey along a historic route, named Buri Kaido.

Buri means yellowtail in Japanese, and Buri Kaido was a route that connected Toyama City, Hida City, Takayama City, and present-day Matsumoto City for the purpose of transporting this fish. These four cities are located northwest of Tokyo and feature diverse landscapes filled with historic charm.

Follow us on an adventure through some of the country’s most cherished historic architecture, and be sure to keep this article on hand for your next trip to Japan!

Toyama City

Toyama City, which occupies almost the entire central to southeastern part of Toyama Prefecture, was the starting point of Buri Kaido since fishermen would catch yellowtail in Toyama Bay. Despite modern advancements, this city still maintains its past roots and is home to both historic districts and museums filled with traditional heritage.

Toyama Municipal Folkcraft Village

Tea Ceremony House Enzan-an
Tea Ceremony House Enzan-an

Located on a forested hill outside the more bustling parts of the city, Toyama Municipal Folkcraft Village is an open-air collection of museums where time stands still. The charm of this facility is not only the museums’ contents, but also the buildings themselves. Many of these buildings date back to the Edo (1602-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) Periods and were relocated to or rebuilt in Toyama Municipal Folkcraft Village. The museums are all within walking distance from each other and create a peaceful environment where visitors can enjoy cultural exploration amid nature.

Thatched Roof Folk Art Museum interior
Thatched Roof Folk Art Museum interior

Three of the museum’s most popular attractions are the Tea Ceremony House Enzan-an, the Thatched Roof Folk Art Museum, and the Museum of Ceramic Art. These three facilities feature expertly preserved architecture and offer insights into past lifestyles through their displayed artifacts. The facilities have plaques near their entrances in both English and Japanese that provide summaries of their histories. At the tea house, you can even enjoy a cup of matcha and a small traditional-style Japanese sweet as you overlook the establishment’s nature-encircled pond.

Toyama clay dolls
Toyama clay dolls

If you are looking for a hands-on activity or souvenir-shopping, stop by the Toyama Clay Doll Studio. This facility sells Toyama clay dolls, which are traditional folk crafts, and even offers a roughly one-hour workshop where you can paint your own doll. Individual walk-ins are welcome (reservations are required) and you can take your personalized art home on the same day!

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Streetscape of Iwase

Iwase streetscape
Iwase streetscape

During the Meiji Period, the Iwase district flourished as a port town along Kitamae-bune, a shipping route between Hokkaido and Osaka Prefectures. After more than half of the district’s buildings burned down due to a large fire in the late 1800s, the port town was rebuilt—resulting in the townscape still visible today.

Some of Iwase’s most impressive buildings are the family residences of the “Iwase Five Families,” including the Mori Residence (a National Important Cultural Property) and Baba Residence (a National Registered Tangible Cultural Property). These grand structures are beautifully preserved and are characterized by their luxurious wooden designs, traditional atmospheres, and massive scales. Both families served as shipping agents of Kitamae-bune, and their success is well represented in their grand residences. You can purchase a discounted ticket by bundling visits to both buildings.

Traditional Japanese confectionery shop
Traditional Japanese confectionery shop

These notable attractions are located on Iwase’s main street, Omachi Shinkawa Street, which was part of the Hokkoku Kaido Road, a route that linked present-day Shiga and Niigata Prefectures. Today, the historic street is home to shops, galleries, restaurants, breweries, and more. As you walk beside these shadows of the past, which still buzz with modern day business activities, you can get a taste of what the area was like in its heyday.

View of Toyama Bay from Toyama Port Observation Deck
View of Toyama Bay from Toyama Port Observation Deck

Another notable attraction in the area is the 24.85-meter tall Toyama Port Observation Deck. From this 360° vantage point, you can admire Toyama City’s port area along Toyama Bay to the north, as well as the distant Tateyama Mountains to the southeast.

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Toyama Castle and Toyama Municipal Folk Museum

Toyama Castle
Toyama Castle (Photo: Toyama City)

Toyama Castle was built in 1543 by Jimbo Nagamoto, a samurai and commander during the Sengoku Period, which was a warring time in the 15th and 16th centuries. Throughout the castle’s tumultuous history, it was attacked, demolished, burned down, and reconstructed, before closing in 1873 during the Meiji Restoration—the end of Japan’s feudal system. Finally, in 1954, one of the castle towers was rebuilt as a memorial. Today, this building houses the Toyama Municipal Folk Museum and is located in Toyama Castle Ruin Park, which is home to a beautiful Japanese garden, an art museum, and an event space.

Japanese garden in Toyama Castle Ruin Park
Japanese garden in Toyama Castle Ruin Park

Although the castle tower is a replica, its commanding presence offers a glimpse of the castle’s former splendor. Inside, the museum has numerous exhibitions detailing the castle’s history and even displays relics from the original castle. While all the descriptions are in Japanese, you can pick up an English guidebook at the facility’s information desk.

The museum also has an observation deck where you can admire 360° views of Toyama Castle Ruin Park and Toyama’s cityscape beyond.

Samurai experience
Samurai experience

In Toyama Castle Ruin Park, you can further immerse yourself in the past by renting samurai armor or a kimono or going horseback riding in a samurai costume. These activities are available at the Toyama City Tourist Information Center. Please note that these experiences are only available on select days. Review the calendar on this page to plan your trip accordingly.

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Hida City

Located south of Toyama City, Hida City in Gifu Prefecture was the second stop on Buri Kaido and today, serves as an enriching journey into the past. This quaint townscape, primarily composed of traditional architecture, is home to age-old customs and offers numerous opportunities for historical and cultural exploration.

Shirakabe Dozogai Street and Seto Canal

A wintertime stroll on Shirakabe Dozogai Street
A wintertime stroll on Shirakabe Dozogai Street (Photo: Fabien Recoquille)

A trip to Hida City would be incomplete without visiting Shirakabe Dozogai Street, located in the endearing town of Hida-Furukawa. This approximately 500-meter-long street is lined with white-walled storehouses and other traditional buildings and runs parallel to the tranquil Seto Canal. The small canal is one of the area’s most distinguishing features and is filled with over 1,000 colorful koi from April to November. The vibrancy of the fish, coupled with the muted, yet alluring hues of the encircling townscape, create fairytale-esque views. You will truly feel as though you stepped into another world and era!

Koi in the Seto Canal
Koi in the Seto Canal (Photo: Hida City)

The Seto River area is also home to Enkoji Temple, one of Hida-Furukawa’s three main temples. The structure’s masterful carpentry and natural wooden tones seamlessly pair with the street’s old-timey vibes.

No matter the season—from summer’s greenery and autumn’s vibrancy to winter’s snow and spring’s flowers—Shirakabe Dozogai Street shines with mesmerizing beauty.

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Hida Furukawa Festival Exhibition Hall (Hida Furukawa Matsuri Kaikan)

Yatai festival float
Yatai festival float (Photo: Hida City)

One of Hida City’s most beloved festivals is the Furukawa Festival—held annually on April 19 and 20. During this two-day celebration, which is registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, residents and tourists alike gather to watch the Okoshi-Daiko (rousing drum) parade and Yatai (festival floats) parade. The former features a massive drum carried by hundreds of men and the latter is characterized by its nine ornately decorated floats. In total, the festival is renowned for its duality, where the liveliness of Okoshi-Daiko meets the quiet elegance of Yatai. As this festival is Hida City’s largest event, you should definitely join the celebration if you are in the area at the right time.

Hida Furukawa Festival Exhibition Hall
Hida Furukawa Festival Exhibition Hall (Photo: Hida City)

Although the Furukawa Festival only comes around once a year, you can still experience the grandeur of this event at the Hida Furukawa Festival Exhibition Hall, which aims to share the joy of this festival with as many people as possible.

A balancing act called, tombo
A balancing act called, tombo (Photo: Hida City)

At this museum, you can observe the elaborate Yatai up close, as well as related artifacts. The facility also has hands-on experiences where you can operate marionettes and attempt tombo—a balancing stunt that translates to dragonfly. To better understand the dichotomy of the Okoshi-Daiko and Yatai parades, you can stop by the museum’s 4K theater and watch real life footage of both—displayed three times an hour.

Overall the Hida Furukawa Festival Exhibition Hall is a must-visit to gain a deeper understanding of Hida City’s enduring cultural heritage.

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Mishima Japanese Candle Shop

Junji Mishima
Junji Mishima (Photo: Hida City)

Mishima Japanese Candle Shop has been in business for 230 years and is presently run by Junji Mishima, the seventh generation owner, and his son. Reflecting centuries of history, the shop’s wooden exterior instantly draws you in with its traditional aura. Continuing inside, the collection of wares and ancient candle-making tools paint an awe-inspiring scene of endurance.

Wa-rousoku candles
Wa-rousoku candles (Photo: Hida City)

Master Mishima crafts the Wa-rousoku candles by hand using traditional methods, and since the candles were originally made for Buddhist Temples, they are 100% plant-based. These unique candles are characterized by their ever present flicker, even in the absence of wind, and make for one-of-a-kind souvenirs.

If the timing is right, you can even watch Mishima produce the age-old products. His graceful movements exude years of practice, and his infectious smile illustrates his passion for the craft.

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Takayama City

Takayama City, also situated in Gifu Prefecture, was the third stop on Buri Kaido and is perhaps one of the more frequented tourist destinations on this forgotten route. The city is most famous for its preserved historic districts—attracting visitors worldwide with its merchant house-lined streets dating back to the Edo Period.

Hida Folk Village (Hida no Sato)

Goami Pond
Goami Pond

Located on the outskirts of Takayama’s urban area, Hida Folk Village is an open-air museum that preserves traditional buildings and lifestyles with the goal of passing on this cultural heritage to the next generation. The approximately 130,000 m2 area is home to more than 30 structures, primarily former residences, and includes four National Important Folk Cultural Properties. These buildings sit encircled by Takayama’s lush nature, making for stunning scenery in all seasons. Upon entering, Goami Pond, which rests in the foreground of the museum, offers enchanting views of the traditional and nature-entwined landscape against the water. Thanks to the open-air design, the complex is a wonderful place to combine light exercise and fresh air with cultural learning.

Nishioka’s House
Nishioka’s House

Inside, the buildings display artifacts from daily life, such as farm equipment, kitchenware, clothing, and more. The wooden interiors are equally as magnificent as the exteriors and some even have fire-lit irori (traditional Japanese sunken hearths) to complete the historical setting.

Interior of Wakayama’s House
Interior of Wakayama’s House

All of the structures have both English and Japanese descriptions, and English maps are available at the entrance. Since the museum has so much to see, we highly recommend picking up a map to plan your journey!

Located just outside the museum is the Hida Takayama Craft Experience Center where you can try 10 different kinds of hands-on activities without reservations. Be sure to show your Hida Folk Village admission ticket to receive a discount.

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Hida Takayama Retro Museum

Hida Takayama Retro Museum
Hida Takayama Retro Museum

Let’s fast forward to the more recent past with a visit to the Hida Takayama Retro Museum. This eclectic museum celebrates all things Showa Era (1926-1989) and creates a fun environment where guests are encouraged to interact with the displays. Every inch of the museum is covered in intriguing elements, including figurines, magazines, manga (Japanese comics), old movie posters, toys, candy, gaming consoles, and so much more. The chaotic, yet organized rooms are guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Showa Era elementary school
Showa Era elementary school

One of the museum’s most popular areas is the Showa Era elementary school room. Even if you did not go to school in Japan, the old chalkboard, desks, and various school items are bound to send you back to your childhood. In this area, you can order a traditional Japanese school lunch and enjoy it at one of the desks. The ¥750 meal includes fried bread (flavored with your choice of sugar, roasted soybean powder, brown sugar, or curry powder), a beverage (milk is traditional), noodles, and a meat sauce.

Retro gaming
Retro gaming

In terms of interactive elements, we recommend trying the retro Nintendo video games, slot machines, arcade games, pinball, and even Japan’s oldest crane machine filled with small candies.

Thanks to the museum’s hands-on attractions, lively atmosphere, and nostalgia, everyone, from children to the elderly, can find joy in its displays.

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Kusakabe Folk Crafts Museum

Kusakabe Family Residence exterior
Kusakabe Family Residence exterior

Located near Takayama’s Sanmachi Historical Houses Preserved Area, the Kusakabe Folk Crafts Museum is the former residence of the successful merchant family, Kusakabe, and is praised for its immaculately preserved architecture. The original home burned down in 1875, and the present day structure was rebuilt in 1879. The team of carpenters, led by then-renowned Jisuke Kawashiri, was dedicated to preserving the home’s original Edo Period design.

Kusakabe Family Residence interior
Kusakabe Family Residence interior

Today, the Kusakabe Family Residence is registered as a National Important Cultural Asset and serves as a prime example of the region’s masterful carpentry and machiya, or townhouse, architecture.

Japanese garden
Japanese garden

In terms of its construction and design, the two-storied home is entirely composed of hinoki (Japanese cypress) and features eye-catching elements, such as robust beams and columns, irori, tatami floors, gable walls, and several windows with elegant latticework. The home even has a Japanese garden, which you can admire through wide windows beside a wooden corridor. Simply walking through the grand rooms fills you with an appreciation for time-honored architecture.

Aside from the structure itself, the home also acts as a museum and displays tools, pottery, lacquerware, and other cultural artifacts. Additionally, the facility hosts events and temporary exhibitions throughout the year, as well as music nights on occasion.

For a truly luxurious experience, you can even spend the night at the museum’s adjoining TANIYA hotel. Here, you can lodge in a traditional setting and also have access to the Kusakabe Folk Crafts Museum after it closes to the public in the evenings.

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Matsumoto City

Shinshu, or modern day Matsumoto City, was Buri Kaido’s end point. Situated roughly in the heart of Nagano Prefecture, Matsumoto is best known as the home of Matsumoto Castle. Although modernized, the city still retains its castletown roots with its traditional storehouse- and shop-lined streets.

Matsumoto Castle

Castle tower with the Japanese Alps in the background
Castle tower with the Japanese Alps in the background

In a history-focused article, it is essential that we mention Matsumoto Castle. Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan’s 12 remaining original castles and is designated as a National Treasure. Over the course of its more than 400 years of history, the castle was home to 23 daimyo (feudal lords) and withstood numerous natural disasters. Today, it features the oldest five-tiered, six-story castle tower in Japan. On clear days, the complex boasts iconic views of the castle tower reflected in the moat’s gentle waters with the silhouette of the Japanese Alps in the distance. For captivating nighttime views, the city even illuminates the castle tower daily from sunset to 10pm. During springtime, the area is especially popular when the cherry trees along the moat are in full bloom—creating a beautiful juxtaposition of the pastel pinks against the castle tower’s black facade.

View from Matsumoto Castle
View from Matsumoto Castle

Inside the castle, you can explore its well-preserved interiors, as well as a variety of items, such as weapons and samurai armor. At the top of the castle, you can admire elevated views of Matsumoto’s cityscape and the mountains beyond through small rectangular windows.

Matsumoto Castle
Matsumoto Castle

The castle has informational signage in both English and Japanese. However, to truly appreciate the exceptional history, functionality, and design of the castle, we highly recommend exploring the area with an English-speaking guide. These guides are located at a booth near the castle’s entrance and are part of a volunteer group that offers free tours. During the tour, the guide will share extensive information about the castle’s building techniques, defense practices, history, residents, layout, and so much more. By the end of the tour, you will be a Matsumoto Castle expert.

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Ishii Miso

Wooden miso barrels
Wooden miso barrels

Did you know that Nagano Prefecture produces approximately half of Japan’s miso (soybean paste)? Gain insight into this iconic Japanese food staple at Ishii Miso! Established in 1868, Ishii Miso is a brewery that follows traditional production methods to craft its Shinshu miso—miso produced in Nagano. The brewery prioritizes quality over quantity and uses wooden barrels, locally-sourced soybeans, and natural fermentation to produce one, two, and three-year aged miso.

Ishii Miso’s shop
Ishii Miso’s shop

Join one of Ishii Miso’s brewery tours to learn all about this essential paste. During the tour, you can see the brewery’s massive wooden barrels, which each hold 4,500 kg of miso, and learn about how the brewery makes miso, miso’s ingredients, the different types of miso across Japan, miso’s health benefits, and more. English-speaking guides are available. However, in the case that they are not, the brewery also has English signage outlining prevalent information. After touring the facility, the guide will lead you to the brewery’s shop where you can sample its rare three-year old miso in the form of miso soup. Given its years of aging, the three-year old miso has a deep color and complex flavoring that differs from typical grocery store miso.

Miso products in Ishii Miso’s shop
Miso products in Ishii Miso’s shop

After enjoying the umami-rich soup, be sure to peruse the gift shop. Aside from the three-year aged miso, the shop’s most popular item, you can also purchase miso-flavored candy, salad dressings, cookies, and powdered soup, which is the owners’ recommended souvenir. If you are feeling exceptionally adventurous, you can even try the shop’s miso-flavored ice cream!

The brewery also has a restaurant where you can dine on delicious meals flavored with the facility’s three-year old miso.

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Nawate Street

Frog statue designed by the Tokyo University of Arts
Frog statue designed by the Tokyo University of Arts

If you like frogs, this spot is for you. Located a short five-minute walk from Matsumoto Castle, Nawate Street is a cute pedestrian alleyway lined with shops and restaurants. At first glance, it simply looks like a shopping street; however, upon closer inspection, you will find that the area is filled with dozens of frog decorations, statues, and wares. So, why does this street love frogs so much?

Kaeru Daimyojin
Kaeru Daimyojin

Nawate street runs parallel to the Metoba River, which was once home to many frogs. However, at one point this river became polluted and all the frogs disappeared. Thus, in 1971, the Nawate Street Commercial Association established Kaeru Daimyojin (the Frog Daimyojin Shrine) and restored the cleanliness of the area to attract frogs and people once more. Also, since the street is off-limits to vehicles, shop owners started saying that people could buy (買える​​, kaeru) and go home (帰る, kaeru) safely. Kaeru (蛙) also means frog in Japanese. So, the shop owners erected a large frog statue at the street’s entrance to watch over customers and keep them safe.

Nawate Street
Nawate Street

Some of the street’s major points of interest are Yohashira Shrine, the massive statue of warrior frogs designed by students from the Tokyo University of Arts, and of course, Kaeru Daimyojin. The street is a wonderful place for some light window shopping where you can browse crafts, frog souvenirs, jewelry, dishes, and so much more. And if admiring all the adorable frog paraphernalia raises your appetite, we recommend visiting Furusato. This eatery sells homemade taiyaki—fish-shaped cakes typically filled with sweet bean paste or custard—and even frog beer! To ensure safe travels home, why not pick up a precious frog souvenir?

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Buri Kaido—a unique guide through Japan’s past

Although no longer in operation, Buri Kaido’s route serves as excellent inspiration for a historical adventure across Toyama, Hida, Takayama, and Matsumoto. These four cities are home to immersive destinations that introduce Japan’s historical heritage through beautifully preserved structures and customs.

The enriching experiences are bound to make your trip one you will not soon forget. Happy traveling, and do not forget buri on your next journey to Japan!

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