The “Golden Route” is a popular choice among first-time visitors to Japan, taking in Tokyo, Hakone, Nara, Osaka and Kyoto in a route that loosely follows the old Tokaido Road. But there are many alternative ways to discover Japan that especially can better appeal to repeat visitors looking to get off the beaten path.
Come explore this samurai-themed edition of an alternative Golden Route that departs from Tokyo before visiting Gifu, Ishikawa and Nagano. Take in these noteworthy spots steeped in samurai history.
Modern day Tokyo was formerly known as Edo, until power was restored back the emperor in 1868. Edo was the samurai military center of Japan. The legacy of those samurai warriors can still be found among the architecture and culture that have shaped Tokyo into the metropolis it is today. Read on to discover some samurai-related spots to start your journey.
Kozukenosuke Kira's Former Residence
After the lord of the Akō Domain was allegedly deceived by Kozukenosuke Kira, and forced to commit seppuku for drawing his sword in anger inside the Shogun's residence, all of the retainers of the Asano clan were disbanded by the military government. However, his loyal samurai waited two years for their chance at revenge for the master, and on a snowy cold morning in December 1703, they stormed Kira's mansion defeating all of his guards and eventually taking Kira's head. Part of the mansion still remains today in Ryogoku. The samurai known as, the 47 Ronin, were commended by their peers for upholding the virtues of samurai warriors, but having broken the laws on revenge killings, they were allowed to retain their honor and join their master by committing suicide (seppuku).
The Japanese Sword Museum
The Japanese Sword Museum in Ryogoku houses exhibitions that display the greatest swords in Japan. Beside being the iconic weapons of samurai warriors, they are also renowned for their intrinsic beauty, and are considered high art in Japan. Today, they are very popular with younger Japanese women known as Token Joshi (Sword Ladies).
To compare old Samurai town and modern Tokyo from above the sky, Tokyo Skytree is a must. Historically, the area surrounding the Skytree was known for its diversity among craftsmen, with this heritage helping inspire many elements of the tower’s design itself. Its architecture reminds us of archaic pagoda construction, and incorporates the use of curved lines like that of Japanese swords, or Shinto shrine gates. By buying a Fast Skytree Ticket (exclusively for international customers) you can plan exactly when to go up, with one of the best times to go just before sundown to get one of the best views of Tokyo. Postcards can be purchased at the giftshop, and then posted from the highest postbox in Japan.
After the loyal 47 warriors had taken the head of Kozukenosuke Kira, bloodied and injured, they marched from Kira's mansion in Ryogoku to their master's grave in Sengakuji Temple to console his soul. Turning themselves into the authorities, they were granted permission to retain their honor by committing suicide befitting of a samurai warrior, as opposed to execution like that of a common criminal. They were interred next to their Lord, and even today many visitors come and pay respects to these brave and loyal warriors. Despite its central Tokyo location, the temple is very peaceful. A small museum with artifacts and multilingual video explanation tells their story.
Sengoku Photo Studio SAMURAI
Get in touch with your inner samurai by visiting the Sengoku Photo Studio. A wide choice of realistically reproduced samurai armor awaits, with staff helping assist put it on, and select a suitable background for your portrait of action shots. You can even become a samurai warrior mounted on a horse in the midst of battle! Choreographed video options available too.
Sengoku Buyuden, Shinjuku
After a hard day of samurai history study, end the day at a samurai theme restaurant in Tokyo's Shinjuku. On arrival, you are immediately greeted by several full sized armor clad figures. The restaurant is a series of private cubicles all themed upon different warriors and their clans throughout samurai history. Traditional winter dishes, like Shabu-shabu, are available.
This inland prefecture is situated south of Ishikawa Prefecture, and west of Nagano Prefecture. Seki City in Gifu, has a long history of blacksmithing and swordmaking for the local warriors, and can be reached via bullet train to Nagano (JR Tokaido) and connecting to local services (bus or train).
Ever wanted to visit the forge of a real Japanese swordsmith? Taro Asano (swordsmith name: Fusataro) is a swordsmith who comes from a long line of smiths dating back to the 1500s. His forge allows visitors to see sword-making with their own eyes, or take part in a one-day knife making course – sure to provide the perfect souvenir. Keeping with the times, Taro also makes high quality kitchen knives, custom cutlery, and other collectible trinkets.
This small castle town lies in the shadows of Gujo-Hachiman Castle. Rebuilt in 1933 along with many of the town’s buildings, Gujo-Hachiman retains much nostalgia. Spot traditional fire-buckets hanging from each house’s eave, or the pristine stone-paved streets, often lined with archaic waterways. The castle is small, but makes up for it with breathtaking beauty and dynamic views of the town and surrounding area. Inside there are displays detailing local history and showcasing artifacts too.
Gero Hot Spring: Suimeikan Hotel
After a long day travelling around Gifu prefecture, a nice dip in the hot springs of the Suimeikan Hotel is surely in order, followed by a hearty traditional meal. Gero Hot Spring has a history of over a thousand years, and is one of the top three hot spring resorts in Japan, and known to be good therapy for treating many ailments.
Gero Hot Spring: Gassho-mura
A stone's throw away from the Suimeikan Hotel is Gassho-mura, a small village of Edo period (1603–1868), Gassho-style cottages. The properties here were relocated from the World Heritage Site of Shirakawago and Toyama's Gokoayama area. Visitors can experience a traditional Hida way of living and appreciate the intricate thatched roofs. In some of the cottages it is also possible to take part in other crafts, such as pottery, or paper making.
Ishikawa prefecture is another prefecture with a strong samurai history. The Maeda clan were the lords of the Kaga area for many generations. The samurai influence on the area can still be felt today, not only in the prior fortifications of the area, but also in how the Japanese warriors would spend their leisure time.
Ishikawa’s capital of Kanazawa can be reached directly from Gero Onsen by continuing north along the JR Hida line and changing to the Hokuriku shinkansen at Toyama station (total journey time 3 hours).
Daishoji Castle Ruins
Daishoji castle, built in the 1300s, was one of the very early castles in Japan and is mentioned in the Taiheiki, one of Japan’s oldest war records. Very little remains of Daishoji castle today, but its existence is still deeply imprinted on the beautiful surrounding landscape. The land has mostly been retaken by nature, but steps help make the site more accessible. Various signs and information panels indicating the sites of the main castle, watch tower, and where the horses were maintained.
Kitamaebune Ship Museum and Hashitate Fishing Port
The Hashitate area is a renowned sea port, acting as a harbor to the Kitamaebune trade ships that sailed along the coast of the Sea of Japan. The Kitamaebune Ship Museum is the former home of successful renowned trader, Chohei Sakatani. Built in 1876, and designated a National Tangible Cultural Asset, it showcases how ships would sail between Hokkaido and Osaka buying and selling their wares along the way. The nearby Hashitate port is now mainly home to local fishing vessels, and is lined with various seafood restaurants boasting the freshest catch and tastiest winter dish of ‘snow crab’, also referred to as, ‘the king of winter flavors’.
Hōshi Ryokan, Awazu
If you want to experience Japanese hospitality at its finest, then a stay at the Hōshi Ryokan in Awazu—in operation for 1300 years—is for you. The current owner is the 46th generation in his line, and at 82 years old is just preparing to hand over to the 47th generation. You are warmly greeted as soon as you enter, and treated to a cup of Japanese green tea and traditional sweets while admiring the beautiful garden. Tatami-matted rooms come equipped with futon bedding, prepared while you are at dinner (multi-course kaiseki cuisine). A time slip back to at least the 1930’s, if not the Edo period.
Kanazawa Castle Park
Kanazawa Castle Park is known for its sprawling grounds punctuated by several reconstructions of the original castle buildings. These can be entered for a small fee, and a vast panorama of the city can be seen from the turrets. The beautiful Gyokusen’Inmaru garden can be viewed from Gyokusen’an Tea House while taking a green tea break.
The Nomura Family Samurai Residence and Ashigaru Museum
Nomura Denbei Nobusada was a samurai in the employ of the Kaga domain Lord, Maeda Toshiie. Toshiie granted a fief with an annual stipend of 1200 bushels of rice. The home of the Nomura family was disassembled after the Meiji restoration, but since restored with some of the original parts, and the original garden remains intact. Many artifacts from the Nomura family history, including letters from the Lord of the area inquiring about injuries incurred in battle and swords from the family collection, can be seen. Nobusada’s robust samurai armor greets you in the entrance.
In the nearby Ashigaru Museum, you can observe the stark comparison of the daily life of the lower class Ashigaru class warriors, and the middle class warriors like the Nomura family.
The Fukumitsuya Sake Brewery
The Fukumitsuya Sake Brewery in Ishikawa prefecture is not too far away from Kanazawa castle. Established in 1625, Fukumitsuya has a long sake-brewing history and offers comprehensive brewery tours – including tastings. Water is sourced from natural springs that has taken 100 years to be filtered down from Mount Hakusan, and local rice.
Nagano in winter is known for its skiing resorts and famously for being the host of the 1998 Winter Olympics. However, not all of Nagano is covered in snow with plenty of things to do for all visitors.
Nagano is about equidistant between both Ishikawa’s Kanazawa and Tokyo, making it the ideal stop before returning to the capital. It’s about 2 hours in either direction along the high-speed Hokuriku shinkansen line.
Historical Inn, Kanaguya
This historical inn of Kanaguya was designated a National Cultural Asset in 2003. The current owner is the ninth generation in his family to run the establishment. There are two antiquated indoor- and outdoors baths each for mixed bathing, with 5 private baths inside. In addition, you are given a key that provides access to nine other communal baths that line the narrow Edo period street outside. One night’s stay also includes traditional Japanese evening meal and breakfast.
Jigokudani Yaen-koen Snow Monkey Resort
Who doesn't want to see monkeys taking a hot spring bath? However, the monkey park is part of a larger area called Joshinetsu-Kogen National Park in northern Nagano. It’s found at Jigokudani (Hell Valley), known for its steep cliffs and bursts of steam coming out from the hot springs. The approach path can often be covered in snow/ice in winter, so walking boots are recommended. A store at the entrance of the park rents out walking boots and coats for those who came unprepared.
On the way to Jigokudani Yaen-koen monkey park is the beautiful small town of Obuse that is known for its locally grown chestnuts. The Chikufudo confectionary shop is famous for its many chestnut-based sweets and cakes, with a second-floor restaurant selling chestnut rice and fish lunch sets. The old town is particularly beautiful, with an old sake brewery, and small gift and coffee shops.
The Hokusai Museum, Obuse
The master artist Katsushika Hokusai spent his final years in Obuse with his student and patron, Takai Kozan. There he left wonderful paintings for the annual festival floats, and ceiling of Gashoin Temple for the local people of Obuse. The museum has a large collection of his paintings and ukiyo-e prints, as well as info on the ukiyo-e printing process.
Zenkoji Temple was founded in 642 AD by Yoshimitsu Honda. The name of the temple, Zenko, is an alternate reading of the Chinese characters for Yoshimitsu. Zenkoji is rather unique in that it does not follow any single sect of Buddhism. It is said that the temple formed the origin of Nagano city, with it also involved in battles between the famous samurai warlords, Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen. You can also find the Important Cultural Property, Kyozo, at the temple grounds – inside a large rectangular repository sits on a spindle (said to be filled with every Buddhist sutra). Those who can complete a full rotation of the—quite heavy—repository can claim to achieve the same enlightenment as gleaned from reading the sutras themselves.