Blowing hot and cold

Fake samurais at Nagoya Castle in Japan.

JAPAN - Chubu in Japan, mid-January, is freezing, particularly in the mountains. That's also a good time to soak in the heated waters of the onsen (hot springs).

During my visit then, the lowest daytime (midday) temperature in Shirokawa was -13°C. Brrr! But I love the cold, so no complaints there. Besides, the sight of all that powder snow on the ground took my breath away.

From snow-covered mountains and the beach to the countryside and the city, we saw it all in about five days.

We were a group of journalists, bloggers and travel agents as well as Hidehiko Kato, director of Japan National Tourism Organisation (Singapore office).

Nagoya, the largest city in Chubu (which means "middle region"), has plenty of attractions. We visited Nagoya Castle (and came across a pair of "samurai warriors"), the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology (highly recommended), Osu temple and shopping district, and the city's newest landmark, Oasis 21, which has an immense glass roof filled with water.

One could make Nagoya a base for exploring the rest of the region when AirAsia X commences flights to this city soon. It takes 40 minutes by car (28 minutes by train) from Central Japan International Airport, aka Chubu Centrair, to the city centre. The airport has an Access Plaza where travellers can catch buses, trains, taxis and high-speed boats to surrounding places.

Our group flew AirAsia X into Kansai International Airport, Osaka, one afternoon. The six-hour flight was pleasant enough, and the much-touted Pak Nasser's Nasi Lemak on board lived up to its reputation. From Osaka, it was a three-hour bus ride to the theme park, Nabana no Sato, in Mie Prefecture.

It started to get dark at 5pm, so when we entered the theme park, it was pitch black all around, save for the billions of twinkling little lights illuminating the area. In spite of the biting cold, many visitors had come out to enjoy the park. The star attraction was "Mt Fuji" that was bathed in different coloured lights symbolising the changing seasons. This winter illumination, touted as one of the best light shows in Japan, runs from mid-November to mid-March.

Our group stayed at a different hotel each night. On the first night, it was the Centrair Hotel, one of two hotels in the award-winning Chubu airport.

Central Japan International Airport Co Ltd assistant manager Yumi Takahashi led us on an hour-long inspection of the airport the next morning. It boasts a comprehensive range of facilities, including banks, currency exchange facilities, ATMs, shops and eateries. We could watch the planes from the 300m-long Sky Deck. It was incredibly windy there! Located on this observation deck is Alice Dining, a restaurant that is a popular venue for wedding banquets.

Heritage preserved

The Japanese make every effort to preserve their heritage buildings. At Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture, we visited Meiji-Mura, an open-air museum that comprises an impressive collection of about 70 historic buildings relocated from across Japan. We rode in a rickety old-fashioned bus and a steam locomotive that still had some original parts in working order.

At Inuyama Castle, we learnt about the samurai warriors of yore. On display were samurai armour, swords and other artefacts. We had to climb some very steep steps to the reach the top of the three-storeyed structure. The hand-rails were too smooth to be of much help, but still, better than no hand-rails at all. Right at the top, we enjoyed a 360° view of the surrounding areas.

A short distance from a shrine in Inuyama Castle Town were stalls selling candied apples and grilled octopus (mmm, it smelled so good!). Further along our walk, a burnt aroma wafted in the air. We followed our noses to a shop selling mitarashi dango, a local snack of soft grilled mochi balls coated with sweet soy sauce.

Our next stop was Takayama, an interesting small town surrounded by mountains. We were given a mini history lesson at Takayama Jinya, a former administrative office of the Edo government, built in the late 17th century.

Takayama Old Town is a delight to explore, with its quaint and unusual shops and dwellings, and morning markets. At the shoyu (soya sauce) shop, a pot of miso soup was bubbling away on the stove. We helped ourselves to some - just the thing to warm us up. Later, we had a sumptuous hotpot lunch and sampled some saké at the restaurant in Funasaka Saké Brewery.

From Takayama, we went on a 50-minute bus ride to Shirakawa-go, a Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage site. The houses there are built in Gassho-zukuri style, with very high thatched roofs that resemble "praying hands". From the Shiroyama Observation Deck, the village looked like a scene from a picture postcard.

We visited the 300-year-old Wada House that is a private residence-cum-museum. It contains various tools and utensils used for cultivating silkworms, an activity carried out in the past.

After Shirakawa-go, we journeyed on to the Shinhotaka Ropeway. From the first station (altitude: 1,117m), the cable cars - including double-decker gondolas - took us about 1,000m in elevation to the top of the mountains (2,156m)! At the observation deck, we feasted our eyes on the spectacular views of the Japanese Alps. Alas, I experienced dizziness and a slight headache, symptoms of altitude sickness. Good thing it lasted only about a minute.

Hot stuff

Central Japan is onsen country. Indoor and open-air outdoor baths are available. We had to overcome our shyness about stripping and getting into a hot spring with total strangers!

At 42°C, the water was just too hot for my comfort. A Japanese woman in the onsen at Bosenkan, Gero, was totally immersed in the water, and seemed slightly amused that I could only go knee-deep.

At Hotakaso Yamano Hotel in Okuhida, I tried the foot spa before venturing to the open-air outdoor onsen with another group member. We had to brave the extreme cold, clad only in our cotton yukata (dressing gown), and make our way to the "slope car" outdoors which took us to the onsen. We might have frozen on the way had the hotel staff not given us towels to cover our torsos!

This time, I managed to go up to my waist into the hot water. The relaxing experience was enhanced by the absolute quiet, and the full moon and stars shining brightly above.

On this trip, I tried Hida beef for the very first time - in sukiyaki (soup/stew), shabu-shabu (steamboat) and yakiniku (grilled) style. This high-grade beef has a marbled appearance and smooth texture, and just melts in the mouth.

Lunch at the one Michelin-star restaurant on Daio Wasabi Farm in Azumino, Nagano Prefecture, was a memorable meal. The rice was cooked with wasabi (Japanese horse radish), and served with an assortment of interesting morsels.

After lunch, we toured the farm, then participated in a wasabi-making workshop. The thick stem and the stalk of the plant are finely chopped and mixed with saké pulp. We each made two little boxes of the condiment to take home with us. Best consumed in 10 days, we were told.

We were treated to wasabi-flavoured ice cream, which tasted quite pleasant and not at all overpowering. The store also served wasabi juice, wasabi beer, wasabi minced meat cake, wasabi croquette and wasabi croquette burger!

Another fun activity we did was pick strawberries at the Gamagori Orange Park. We were surprised at how big and sweet the strawberries were. Though we were given little tubs of condensed milk to dip the fruits into, there really was no need to add to their natural sweetness.

At the nearby Laguna Gamagori, we went on a cruise along the river. This leisure-cum-wellness resort complex features a thalassotherapy (a therapy that uses sea water and marine products) facility, a marina, a gigantic Ferris wheel, a hotel, condominiums, a supermarket where the restaurants serve the catch of the day from the surrounding sea, and a theme park - Lagunasia - whose Celosia Hall houses the excellent 3D Ghibli art exhibition.

No trip is complete without some shopping, which we indulged in at Osu shopping district and Toki Premium Outlets (which is similar to Johor Premium Outlets).

The best time to visit Chubu is in spring when the weather is mild and cherry blossoms are in bloom. Autumn, too, is a pretty season to go there. Winter was not a popular season to visit, until recently, particularly among holiday-makers from tropical Asia.

This media familiarisation trip was co-hosted by AirAsia X, Central Japan International Airport Promotion Council, Japan National Tourism Organisation and Chubu District Transport Bureau. Nagoya is AirAsia X's third destination in Japan, after Tokyo and Osaka. AirAsia X will fly to Nagoya four times a week, from March 17. For more information on Central Japan, visit go-centraljapan.jp/en/ or www.jnto.go.jp/eng/.