Nanto is moving to the country, Japan style!

Nanto City is really a misnomer. This beautiful chunk of western Toyama Prefecture offers peaceful rural countryside, padi fields, magnificent mountains, historic towns home to temples, crafts and amazing festivals, and the icing on the cake, the UNESCO World Heritage ‘Gassho’ thatch roof villages of Gokoayama Ainokura and Suganuma.

Gokayama Suganuma gassho village in nanto City, Toyama
If there’s a Japanese version of Moving to the Country Nanto’s Gassho villages would be star contenders © Toyama Prefecture

It’s a city in name only. Here, like much of regional Japan, the population has been declining for a generation, as young people move to the major cities. So many towns that were once separate administrative units have increasingly been forced to merge with neighbours to form viable local government units.

Betsuin Zuisenji Temple, Inami Village, Nanto City, Toyama
Betsuin Zuisenji Temple, Inami © Toyama Prefecture

Staying in Nanto illustrates how ‘moving to the country’ Japanese style is a great option for visitors. Why only stay in big cities? You can find all the facilities you need and a much more relaxed pace of life in the countryside. People are helpful and there’s no need to be on a hectic schedule of sightseeing. Take your time, relax, enjoy!

Local trains and buses make it easy and economical to get around without a car to visit the many must see/must do sights, attractions and experiences on offer. It would be great to bike or mountain bike tour around here too.

Where is Nanto City?

Nanto in the south western corner of Toyama Prefecture on the west coast of Honshu, almost opposite Tokyo to the east.

It is very accessible, with fast shinkansen access from Tokyo since the Hokuriku line to Kanazawa was finished in 2015. Hop off at Shin-Takaoka and change to the Johana line for Nanto stops, or buses (including the World Heritage bus to the Gassho villages), or pick up a car.

Alternatively coming from the south and west some superbly scenic rail journeys bring you here from Nagoya, Osaka and Kyoto. Jsummer’s research team highly recommend the Hida Wide View rail route from Nagoya through neighbouring Gifu Prefecture.

The local airport at Toyama is another easy option. Get a connecting flight here from Haneda on arrival and avoid Tokyo altogether.

Driving around the often empty rural roads makes self-drive a cinch. Unless you are on a longer go all over type trip it’s better to pick up a car on arrival for use in the area.

We recommend allowing a minimum 3 nights here, easily combineable with nearby areas like Takaoka-Toyama, Kanazawa and Hida-Takayama in Gifu.

There is something to suit many tastes and interests in the Nanto City area – we have highlighted the best of them here.

Johana Hikiyama Festival and Museum, Nanto City

Johana is a lovely little town at the end of the Johana JR Line beneath the mountains. Well watered fields have supported a thriving agricultural community around here for centuries, and some great seasonal festivals developed around those.

The villagers wheel out massive wooden floats, sumptously decorated with the famous Johana lacquer, in late spring every year. May 4th is the Pre-festival and May 5 the Festival.

Then again in September there’s another festival, held on the weekend before Respect for the Aged Day.

The floats require 20 or more strong men to drag them along. If you can’t make it for the actual festival dates just visit the museum and check them out.

From the float museum follow historic Ima-Machi street around to the nearby 540 year old Johana Zentokuji Temple, which contains 10,000 treasures.

Inami Village, the wood carver’s capital

Inami village has been famous for wood carving for the past 250 years, after carvers were bought here to build the massive Inami Betsuin Zuisenji Temple at the top of the main Yokamachi-dori street. Many wood carving studios are found along the street, with intricate carvings showing off their talents. Keep an eye out for the carved cats hidden everywhere among the signs along the street.

In Inami you can try your hand at traditional wood working (and make your own sake cup or other items), traditional sweet making, and to make the most of it, get dressed up for the day in gorgeous kimonos.

Japanese love doing this. Let’s face it, busy working ladies don’t have time to slip into full kimono gear very often anymore (and trust me, the guy’ outfits are more complicated than they look too!). So this is a lot of fun and highly recommended. Gear up at the shop on the hisotic main street than stroll on up to the temple.

Shogawa Gorge cruise

Shogawa Gorge is just past Inami. Here you can take a cruise along the hydro dam lake enjoying the scenery, which is breathtaking in any season.

There are packages to do the whole area including Kimono hire and lunch – check with the tourist offices for details. The cruise is only ¥1,000 adults, ¥500 children. It’s easily accessed, just a minute walk from the Komaki-entei bus stop.

Shogawa Gorge cruise in winter © Nanto City

Gokayama Ainokura & Suganuma UNESCO World Heritage villages

No question, Nanto’s UNESCO World Heritage Gokayama Gassho villages are the number one attraction in the area.

Easiest way to get there is using The World Heritage Bus from Shin-Takaoka station has a great value hop on-hop off ticket to visit Johana and Gokayama Ainokura and Suganuma in Nanto and busier Shirakawa-go in neighbouring Gifu Prefecture.

Ainokura Village Nanto in summer
Ainokura is open year round and a must in any season © Nanto City

They are all fascinating, but Ainokura is the least developed and retains the most original feel.

The thatch technique, and the whole construction, involved (and still involves) a huge team effort on the part of the villagers – a bit like Amish barn building. It’s thirsty work, and plenty of the excellent local sake gets consumed afterwards.

Ainokura Village Nanto in winter
Heavy snowfalls like this are common in the area so villagers developed the gassho style houses © Nanto City

The steep thatch roofs and A-frame construction allowed for at least 3 levels inside. The lower level was for living in – cooking and sleeping – while the upper levels were devoted to the traditional crafts which occupied the owners through the long winters.

Traditional gassho thatch house, Ainokura
Traditional gassho thatch house, Ainokura © Carmen Price

Silk worm farming, traditional paper making (washi) and making salt petre (ensho) for gunpowder were the crafts, whose results were traded, or sent as tax, to the feudal lords and merchants on the plains of prosperous Kanazawa – Toyama region. Known then as the Kaga Domain, it was the second richest feudal domain in all Japan.

In the past Ainokura was virtually cut off in winter by the often exceptionally heavy snowfalls that blanketed the steep walled valley. Apart from leading the villagers to develop the gassho style (the name refers to the cupped hands upwards prayer gesture, which the steep thatch rooves resemble) it meant they planted tree screens for protection against avalanches.

Nowadays access is easy, in any season. You scoot through a tunnel from Johana, past a small ski area, then down into the formerly hidden valley where Ainokura and Suganuma were previously cut off for the usually very snowy winters in just 20 minutes. Villagers told us it was the mildest winter anyone could remember, or records mentioned. So we lucked out on seeing the village with postcard perfect deep snow, but we a great time checking out the many exhibits and had an awesome lunch. 

The World Heritage Bus runs from Shin-Takaoka Station to Johana (35 minutes) and on to Ainokura (20 minutes) then Sugunuma (another 20 minutes).

You can hop on and off on the route. Don’t miss a delicious lunch featuring local vegetables and fresh river fish in the little restaurant and souvenir shop at the entrance to the village.

The whole construction, from raising the beams to thatching the roof, involved (and still involves) a huge team effort on the part of the villagers – what they call the Yui co-operative communal spirit as the local area communities cam together to supply sufficient manpower to get the job done. Thirsty work indeed, requiring plenty of excellent local sake!

Lunch at Ainokura Gassho Village, Nanto City

Angoji Temple, Nanto

Surrounded by massive old trees the 1400 year old Angoji Temple, opened in 656, that enshrines Jizo the guardian deity of children. In 718 a Buddhist monk came from India and enshrined a statue of Seikannon, which was designated as a national important cultural object, as the principle object of worship here. The temple’s name Geango comes from the fact that this monk organized a geango, or Buddhist training retreat.

In the 8th century Nara Period (710-794 C.E.) the emperor would visit here frequently. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), the feudal lords of the Kaga Domain (modern Kanazawa and Toyama Prefectures) would often come and pray here. Many religious treasures held at the temple are designated as cultural artifacts. It’s just 5 minutes off the E41 from the Nanto Smart IC, or 5 minutes walk from Angoji-Mae bus stop.

Angoji Temple, Nanto City
Angoji Temple dates back to 656 © Nanto City

Nanto City accommodation options

For nice hotel accommodation Sakuragaike Kurgarden is set on a hill with panoramic views. It’s popular for weddings, but also boasts a World Cup level climbing wall if you’re into that. It’s the get-away-from-it-all option for couples, with nice French cuisine and breakfasts too.

In the scattered little towns that make up Nanto City there are plenty of great value options, from ryokans to western style hotels.

At Fukuno, one of the larger centres, the Fukuno Town Hotel A Mieux is right next door to a shopping mall. Enter some dates below and it will pop up in the Booking.com links.

There are buses around the area, distances are short enough to take taxis or self-driving is pretty easy.

Booking.com
Staying in a thatch roof house in Ainokura is an option – check the booking.com links above for options © Carmen Price

Nanto City more info

The well organised tourist offices at the JR stations are very helpful, with excellent English brochures and online info.

For the excellent informative Nanto City site check here

The Nanto City Tourist offices like this one at Johana Station are very helpful © Owain Price

Nanto World Heritage Areas Map

© Gokayama