A New Golden Route Takes You Into the Heart of Japan

japan new golden route
Welcome to Where To Next?a column by our intrepid globetrotting travel writer, Natasha Bazika. Her insatiable curiosity takes her to lesser-known destinations, away from tourist hotspots, and into the heart of diverse cultures and communities. She invites you to be a virtual companion on an exhilarating expedition, venturing beyond the beaten path.

“Mind your step; we’re leaving the human world,” whispers Hitomi Hirasawa as she points to the Sakasagawa River, slicing through the emerald-drenched woods just beyond the crimson torii gate marking the entrance to the Togakushi Kodo Trail. This venerable path, spanning a distance of ten kilometres, connects five sanctuaries of Togakushi Shrine: Okusha, Chusha, Hokosha, Kuzuryusha, and Hinomikosha.

“Can you feel that?” she asks as we stroll along the trail, flanked by 800-year-old cedar trees on both sides. A whisp of air lifts my fringe, waving it in the air. “That’s the breath of the gods.”

japan new golden route
Cedar trees on the Togakushi Kodo Trail
Photo: Natasha Bazika

Hitomi recounts the Amano-Iwato legend, where a grief-ridden Amaterasu, the sun goddess, concealed herself in a cave, plunging the world into darkness. Five deities flung open the stone door blocking the cave, which landed on what would become known as Mount Togakushi, aptly named “the door of hiding.”

The five shrines, plotted along the trail, are dedicated to the deities in the legend. The upper shrine, reached by a climb up a seemingly endless stack of stone steps, is where the cave door resides at the foot of Ameno Tajikoarao, the god who opened the gate of the Celestial Rock Cave. Here, we pray for good fortune.

japan new golden route
Lion statue on the Togakushi Kodo Trail. Photo: Natasha Bazika

As we navigate this sacred labyrinth, we become part of a tradition that spans millennia. Pilgrims from all corners of the globe come here seeking solace, enlightenment, or simply a respite from the chaotic modern world. For some, it’s more of a visual feast where myths and reality converge. A panorama of crystal-clear streams, moss-draped boulders, and the scent of pine fills the air along the three-hour journey.

At the end of the track, before we cross the threshold once again, Hitomi tells us that the Japanese Imperial Family claims to have descended from Amaterasu, which gives them the divine right to rule Japan.

“She is the centre of Shinto and Japanese spiritual life.”

At this point, we’re back in the human world and it dawns on me that my first introduction to Japan unfolded at its very soul — a rarity, I’m told.

japan new golden route
Honshu mountain region Photo: Natasha Bazika

The New ‘Golden Route’

Japan is the most searched travel destination by Australians on Google, with the Golden Route, connecting Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, being the most popular itinerary. The route follows the old Tokaido road, which was used for centuries by merchants, samurai, and pilgrims. Today, it remains the quintessential journey for Australians.

Though in a world grappling with overtourism, I’ve chosen to journey down the less-travelled path, embracing a fresh ‘golden route’ that unveils the country’s soul beyond the bustling metropolises, which is just as enticing to first-timers as it is to seasoned travellers.

Our journey starts just to the west of Tokyo, where the prefectures that form the backbone of the island, including Gunma and Nagano, are steeped in a rich tapestry of regional culture, and picturesque hot springs resorts meet World Heritage villages frozen in time.

japan new golden route
Shopfront in Karuizawa. Photo: Natasha Bazika


Karuizawa is the equivalent of the Hamptons for Tokyo locals, except it’s in the mountains. Fluffy, pom-pom-looking dogs ride around in strollers, and a narrow pedestrian shopping strip to rival Ginza (Tokyo’s famous upmarket shopping district) is the perfect place to pick up handmade rice bowls and the best apple pie in the world. It’s a mixed bag, but the mountain resort generally caters to the rich and famous of Japan. In winter, people flock to the slopes and, in summer, they come to escape the city swelter, thanks to a roughly 1000-meter elevation.

It’s just over an hour’s train ride from Tokyo, making it an easy day trip or weekend getaway. For international visitors, it’s an underrated regional escape graced with pristine forests, waterfalls, cycling trails that crisscross the landscape, and rejuvenating hot springs.

Here are my favourite places to eat, shop, drink, and play in Karuizawa.

japan new golden route
Udon noodles at Tsurutontan Photo: Natasha Bazika

For the best udon noodles: Tsurutontan.

For soft serve cheese: Atelier de Fromage (it’s a delicacy, one worth trying)

For the best apple pie in the world: Karuizawa Mille Mele (This hole-in-the-wall ‘red box’ peddles fresh apple pies, daily)

For an authentic Japanese dinner: Suju Masayuki Restaurant (There are no English menus; that’s how authentic it is. There are pictures though.)

For one-stop shopping, dining, and nature: Harunire Terrace (Spend a day making your own ring, stroll through the maple forest, grab a bite to eat, or picnic by the stream)

For the best waterfall in town: Shiraito Waterfall (A wide wall waterfall that flows into a narrower, deeper waterfall below. It’s easily accessible but can be very crowded at times.)

japan new golden route
Ryugaeshi no Taki Waterfall Photo: Natasha Bazika

For the (real) best waterfall in town: Ryugaeshi no Taki Waterfall (A lesser-known waterfall that requires some trekking through a forest and crossing a mossy bridge. Worth it for the small, plunging waterfall, surrounded by emerald green forests. Bonus: No crowds)

For the best onsen: Tonbo-no-yu (Modern, high-design onsen, with a cold plunge. You will need to cover any tattoos)

Where to stay: Twin Line Hotel (Modern hotel on a tree-lined street, a short walk from museums, restaurants, and shops.)

japan new golden route
Samurais waiting to board Rokumon / Photo: Natasha Bazika

Rokumon – Sightseeing Restaurant Train

There’s no better way to travel from Karuizawa to the next village on our golden route, Nozawa Onsen, than on Rokumon, a scenic dining train. Having a gourmet meal on a train is a staple in Japan. Bento boxes are perfectly designed for rail travel but, unlike the cardboard box you might find yourself picking sushi out of on a bullet train, the vermillion-coloured train offers you a private dining room and an 11-course feast served with a side of crisp highland air and mountain views.

Inside, local Shinshu timber frames the dining spaces with a classic Japanese style —minimal but luxurious. You can close your door for a private experience or leave it cracked open to soak up the buzz of fellow diners.

japan new golden route
Dinner on Rokumon / Photo: Natasha Bazika

Bento boxes filled with Tateshina pork terrine, shinsu salmon, and roast Shinshu beef are laid out as soon as you sit down. These are just the appetisers. The food is served with local beers and wines from the vines we zipped past.

Then, at the end of the line, you’re suddenly in Nagano. From here, make your way to Nozawa Onsen.

japan new golden route
Nozawa Onsen village / Photo: Natasha Bazika

Nozawa Onsen

In the sleepy town of Nozawa Onsen, public baths outrank the locals. Well, not really, but this is me trying to emphasise that this pocket-sized town, perched on a hill, has a lot of onsens. It comes alive during winter when visitors charge upon the renowned ski resort but is much more relaxed in summer.

The town boasts over a dozen public bathhouses, each with a unique character and mineral composition. The steamy waters are believed to possess therapeutic properties, making a soak in these communal baths a cultural and medicinal ritual.

japan new golden route
Convenience store on Nozawa Onsen / Photo: Natasha Bazika

However, it’s the village’s charm that caught my eye. Narrow cobblestone streets wind through the town, lined with well-preserved wooden buildings for an old-world ambience. If you look closer, you’ll find little bars scattered in corners and behind buildings. There are a few Australians here who fell in love and opened a gin distillery, attracting more Australians. When the snow melts, the mountain becomes a playground for outdoor enthusiasts, with hiking and mountain biking providing a thrill akin to cutting through fresh powder.

The town is also more foreigner-friendly, with English menus, maps, and signs, making it easy to navigate independently. With that said, it’s still quite a small, rural village, and you’ll soak up the charm as much as you’ll enjoy the banter with a few local Aussies. Here are some things to add to your to-do list.

Mountain Biking
During the warmer months, take the scenic gondola up the mountain and join a mountain biking tour. There are trails for every skill level, but if you’re looking for a thrill, join the intermediate or expert trails for gravel tracks, jumps, forest excursions, and so much more. The best part, it’s all downhill.

japan new golden route
Nozawa Onsen Distillery

Nozawa Onsen Distillery
The last place I’d expect to find Australians was in a bar, but then, of course, I should have known better. Nozawa Onsen Distillery is a four-time gold medal-winning craft gin and whisky distillery perched on the hill behind a hotel. It’s run by a few Aussies from Melbourne and Sydney who fell in love with the village. Here, you can try gins made from local botanicals, which, I must admit, their flagship gin tastes like the forest I walked through the day before. It’s aromatic and complex, yet the citrusy undertones make it an easy drinker.

Sleep in a Ryokan
Ryokan Sakaya is one of the most authentic and longest-running ryokan, right in the heart of the village. You can choose from a Japanese tatami room where you sleep on a futon (floor) or a Western room with a bed but, if you want to immerse yourself in the culture, choose the tatami. The Ryokan also has an onsen with indoor and outdoor pools. Some of the locals come here for its well-reputed thermal hot springs. The cuisine pulls from the Nagano-Niigata region, which is vibrant and bursting with flavours, especially the Nozawana pickles — a special dish pickled in a wooden tub with salt, water, and hot pepper.

japan new golden route
White water rafting down the Tone River.


Gunma is dominated by mountains, most notably Mount Akagi and Mount Haruna, which provide opportunities for hiking, skiing, and scenic drives. In the spring, cherry blossoms paint the prefecture in shades of pink, while autumn’s fiery foliage adds a touch of magic.

It’s famous for its hot springs, including  Kusatsu Onsen, one of Japan’s top three hot springs. There are plenty of shrines and temples, too, and little villages to explore, but if I were to name the one thing you can’t skip, it would be white water rafting down the glacial waters of the Tone River with Ziggies Adventure Japan.

The Tone River is known for its dynamic rapids, providing an adrenaline-pumping experience for both beginners and seasoned rafters. As you set off, the water’s energy becomes palpable. Your raft rides the waves, splashing through foaming whitecaps and cascading over rocky drops. The river’s varying currents challenge your teamwork and navigation skills, making every moment a heart-pounding adventure. But when the water settles, and you’re gliding along, look up at the towering forested hillsides and dramatic cliffs. It’s a thrilling dance with nature.

Related: I Glamped at the Foot of Japanese Mountains — Here’s Why You Should Too

Related: 7 Tokyo Stays That’ll Let You Experience Authentic Japanese Culture

Read more stories from The Latch and subscribe to our email newsletter.