Shoryudo is the rising dragon of Japan


Snow drifts beware – staff at the Matsumoto Castle dressed as ninjas are pretty deadly with the shovel.

Japan’s Chubu region records some of the heaviest snowfall on Earth, but the beauty of its pristine, snow-capped landscapes will warm the heart of even the fiercest critic.

There's a certain visceral pleasure when you step onto a landscape covered by a blanket of freshly laid snow.

With each stride you take, your foot sinks slightly into the white powder, followed by a muffled “pop” as the snow compresses between the soles of your shoes and the pavement below.

Turning around to look behind, you see a trail of perfectly formed footprints marking your passage. It almost seems that with every step, you are forging a path of discovery – and for this writer, a first-time visitor to Japan – it turned out to be so in more ways than one.

This is Shoryudo, the “dragon rise” region – a nickname given to nine prefectures in Chubu and Hokuriku located in the central part of Honshu Island. Stretching from Ishikawa prefecture in the north (which forms the dragon’s “head”) to Mie prefecture in the south (its “tail”), the area is home to the Japanese Alps and records some of the heaviest accumulation of snow on the planet every winter.

When our flight touched down at the Chubu Centrair International Airport in Nagoya in the early hours of the morning, there was a sense of anticipation in the air. Greeted by our well-informed and amiable guide, Kyoko Kitamura, the itinerary for our group was meticulously laid out.

Riding the dragon’s back

The route for our visit in mid-January would take us from Nagoya city in the Aichi prefecture, up north to the Naganto and Ishikawa prefectures, then double back down south through the Gifu prefecture to our starting point.

The first stop was Tokoname city, an area which used to produce some of Japan’s finest ceramic products, more than 1,000 years ago! It isn’t the hotbed of pottery anymore, but relics of its past industry are evident everywhere you turn. Footpaths are lined with recycled pottery fragments and even a fair number of walls and embankments are composed of it. The city also has a certain feline patron, which Malaysians may be familiar with – Toko-nyan, a cat figure with a waving paw, beckoning people to the city.

Toko-nyan, the feline guardian of Tokoname City, watches over its proud pottery traditions.

Aichi also offers the Mikawa Bay National Park, which has a splendid vista of the picturesque Takeshima Island. This, coincidentally, was a popular spot for Japanese authors to find their muses – one being the 1968 Nobel Prize for Literature winner Yasunari Kawabata, writer of Snow Country, a book set in the Chubu region.

There’s even something for the kids at the Lagunasia theme park in Gamagori, complete with a London Eye-like giant ferris wheel, not to mention an abundance of natural hot spring onsen (Japanese public bath) resorts to kick back and relax after a long day out.

Fruit of the land

Japan has deep agricultural roots, and there are places where visitors can get a hands-on experience, such as the Gamagori Orange Park in Aichi, which offers all-you-can-eat strawberries, melons and mandarin oranges – right off the branches!

The 3D mapping show at the Lagunasia theme park in Gamagori projects moving images onto the courtyard walls, which gives the illusion of the walls themselves morphing.

And ever wondered where the quintessential Japanese condiment, wasabi, comes from? Then move on to the Daio Wasabi Farm in the Nagano prefecture, which, at 15ha, is the largest wasabi plantation in Japan. Not only will you get to see the wasabi plant in its original form, you can try your hand at making wasabizuke – a type of wasabi pickle steeped in saké lees (a by-product of the fermentation process) – which goes great with rice! There’s even a one-Michelin-star rated restaurant there, where you can have all manner of wasabi-flavoured food, such as noodles, curry, even beer and ice cream. Truth be told, wasabi available in Malaysia tastes nowhere as pure, fresh and flavourful as this!

Snowed under

Snow was falling thick and fast by the time we reached Matsumoto city in Nagano prefecture, and there was just enough time to visit the historic Matsumoto Castle, home to the Tokugawa shogunate during the Edo period (1603-1868). Samurai and ninja culture are strong influences here, and the castle grounds were staffed by some in ninja gear – it was quite comical to see them doing the menial task of shovelling snow!

We then headed north to the Ishikawa prefecture – the heart of snow country – and by dusk (around 5.30pm), the roads were covered by a thick sheen of ice and snow.

Snow drifts beware – staff at the Matsumoto Castle dressed as ninjas are pretty deadly with the shovel.

Our lodgings for the night was strategically located next to the Shinhotaka Ropeway base station, but getting there was quite an adventure – there were times when the van’s tyres failed to obtain traction (even with snow chains), and it was harrowing to hear the engine revving, only for the van to move sideways, but we reached our destination!

Bright and early the next day, we took the cable car up to a vantage point 2,156m above sea level. The snow had stopped falling and we had a clear, unobstructed view of the Yari and Hotaka mountains in the Northern Japan Alps. We could even see across a sea of clouds and spot the sacred Mount Hakusan in the distance. The panoramas offered were truly amazing, and it was an almost-spiritual experience just being there.

From there, we moved on to the Shirakawa-go village, a Unesco World Heritage site. Here, traditional thatched roof houses hundreds of years old populate the village. With snow covering almost every inch of exposed surface and snow banks up to 1.5m high, our group was fortunate to see the village in its full winter splendour.

Back to metropolitan life

Our trip ended with a visit to Kanazawa city, and its splendid Kenroku-en Gardens – think of it as a Japanese garden on steroids and you get an idea of the extremes taken to make this one of the most meticulously planned and constructed in the country. Almost every feature is placed there by design – from rocks in animal forms, shaped trees and even an island with a turtle-like silhouette.

It was with great reluctance that our group departed for home early the next morning. Despite the cold weather, the experiences and sights we took in were truly enchanting and our life experiences richer because of it. We could only wonder how much more diversity Japan could offer throughout its four seasons. Well, that’s more than enough reason to make a return visit!

This media trip was organised and sponsored by the Japan National Tourism Organization Singapore Office (www.jnto.org.sg) with support from Singapore Airlines.

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