If you are looking to explore rural Japanese mountain life, while also hitting the slopes at some of the world's best ski areas, head for the Japan Alps National Park in Central Honshu. In the Japan Alps high alpine adventure meets old world living and the result is a travel tour that pleases the young and the old, the history buff, and the ski bum. Most recently, Nagano (near Matsumoto) played host to the XVIII Winter Olympics in 1998. Besides hiking and skiing, a tour through the region will take you to the town of Ogimachi and a series of old farmhouses that have been converted into authentic Japanese lodgings. Also on your tour you can explore the imposing Matsumoto Castle, or take part in the puppetry and pageantry during the colorful Takayama festival.
Due to their isolation, the towns and villages of the Japan Alps region retain much their original architecture and austere mountain ways of life. The town of Matsumoto and the feudal Matsumoto Castle are an example of the untouched nature of the region. In addition to the Matsumoto Castle, the town boasts a woodblock-print museum and, like Kurashiki, over 100 kura (storehouses). Some of these kura have been refurbished and transformed into shops, and restaurants.
Besides its historical features, Matsumoto serves a gateway to the higher reaches of the Japan Alps. Surrounded by jagged peaks, and mountain lakes, Matsumoto is an excellent base camp for hiking, skiing and exploring the Japan Alps.
As you continue your tour of the Alps, make sure to stop in the town of Ogimachi and spend a night at one of a dozen gasshozukuri (farmhouses) that have been converted into family run minshuku guesthouses. Though they are equipped with such modern luxuries as plumbing and electricity, these guesthouses are rustic affairs with open fireplaces, common dining rooms and bedrooms with tatami mats and futons. A dinner and breakfast of traditional fare are usually included with the price of a room and complete the authentic experience.
Additionally, some of the 250-year-old farmhouses around Ogimachi have been relocated into the Gasshozukuri Minkaen open air museum. Across the river from the village center, this minkaen open air museum was opened in the 1990s and exhibits farmhouses and other structures relocated to Ogimachi in an attempt to save them from destruction.
If you are touring the Japan Alps around April 14/15 or October 9/10 make sure to take a side trip to the town of Takayama for the bi-annual Takayama festival. On exactly these two weekends each year, this sleepy country town is awash in colorful floats, flags and dancing puppets. Considered one of the three best festivals in Japan, the highlight of the Takayama festival are the marionettes, each of which is controlled by up to eight puppeters balanced atop the floats.
Another beautiful destination in the Japan Alps is the town of Kamikochi. Settled in a high altitude basin near the Azusa River, Kamikochi is surrounded by mountains and lakes. The pristine setting attracts tourists, artists and aspiring photographers. Like Matsumoto, Kamikochi serves as a gateway to the surrounding peaks of the Chubu Sangaku National Park.
Because the towns and villages of the Alps region are spread apart and divided by towering mountains, the best way to see this area of Japan is through a combination of train and bus or rented car. If you are starting from Nagoya, you can take a train to Nakatsugawa, and then board a bus for Magome or Tsumago. From here it's only a short ride to Nagiso where you can reboard the train for Matsumoto, and then travel onward (and upward) to Takayama and Ogimachi.