Last Updated on March 3, 2022 by Nellie Huang
Travel to Japan might not be possible now, but it’s not too early to start planning! For road trip lovers, here’s my guide to driving the Northward Golden Route in Japan.
Japan is both old and new, urban yet full of nature, traditional and innovative, all at once. It is a fascinating destination, with an interesting mix of ancient traditions and state-of-the-art technology, futuristic fashions and centuries-old craftsmanship.
I’ve been to Japan three times — and my favorite trip was the most recent one, when I drove the Northward Golden Route and got to explore the lesser-known areas that are just as beautiful as the famous attractions, but without the crowds.
In just five days, I got to see and experience different aspects to Japan: from attending ceremonies at Shinto shrines to sake tasting; soaking in onsen (hot springs) to seeing snow monkeys in the wild. If you’re tight on time, driving the Northward Golden Route is the perfect way to explore Japan off the beaten path without going too far from Tokyo.
Table of Contents
- A Guide to Driving the Northward Golden Route
- How to Drive in Japan
- When to Drive the Northward Golden Route
- Where to Stay along the Northward Golden Route
- The Northward Golden Route Itinerary
- Itinerary Day 1: Tokyo to Mitsumine
- Itinerary Day 2: Mitsumine to Karuizawa
- Itinerary Day 3: Karuizawa to Kusatsu
- Itinerary Day 4: Kusatsu to Nagano
- Itinerary Day 5: Nagano to Niigata
A Guide to Driving the Northward Golden Route
The Northward Golden Route stretches across the main Honshu island of Japan, from Tokyo to Niigata. Most people take 5 days to drive the 600km between the two cities. The route takes you across mountains, along the coastline, up into the highlands, and weaving past historical towns.
To plan your route, I recommend using Drive Japan, a website that helps you plan your Japan road trip based on your interests. Just enter your travel period and duration, and the website provides the best driving routes, as well as best restaurants and attractions.
Once you choose the route, the website lists the best hotels and car rental offers. They’ll aso provide the MAPCODE, which you can input to the GPS in your rental car. Unlike Google Maps, Drive Japan provides the exact coordinates of each attraction’s carpark to make it easier to get there.
How to Drive in Japan
We were surprised by how easy it is to drive in Japan — check out my full guide on driving in Japan here. Roads in Japan are in excellent conditions and easy to navigate. Most road signs are in both Japanese and English. People in Japan are very well-mannered as you probably know, and that applies to drivers too. Everyone follows traffic rules and often give way to others.
We could find our way easily using Google Maps since we had a mobile WiFi dongle. The rented car also had a navigation system which we used from time to time to save some data. It’s really affordable and convenient to rent a pocket WiFi router from the airport.
We rented our router from GetYourGuide for US$71 that provided us unlimited WiFi for two weeks. It was the cheapest deal we found online and we were pretty glad we could use the internet to find restaurants with good reviews or research on places to go.
When to Drive the Northward Golden Route
Spring (March-May) and autumn (September-October) are the most popular months to travel Japan due to the mild weather and moderate humidity.
I traveled to Japan in September/October on my last two trips. During our trip, we experienced mostly warm days of 21-25 deg C, with some rainy days during which the temperature dipped to 15 deg C. In the mountains of Niigata, temperatures ranged around 12-15 deg C, but a light jacket was enough.
It can get really hot and extremely humid in summer (June-August), which is best avoided. Winter (December-February) is pretty cold with temperatures dipping to freezing point.
Where to Stay along the Northward Golden Route
One of the experiences I think every visitor must try while traveling the Northward Golden Route in Japan is staying in a traditional ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn that usually has tatami flooring, futons as beds, and an onsen (hot spring).
Staying in ryokans gives you the chance to experience how the Japanese traditionally used to live. Plus, they tend to be spacious, which makes it great for families who want to share one room.
Every ryokan provides yukata (simple Japanese robe) for you to wear to the onsen or as pyjamas. In hot spring towns like Shibu Onsen, you can even wear the yukata out to town.
The Northward Golden Route Itinerary
The Northward Golden Route stretches across 600km — the driving route that I chose took 5 days. But you can take anytime between 4 to 7 days to drive it, depending on the route you choose. When planning your road trip on Drive Japan, you can look at different itineraries and decide based on the route descriptions. Use the “Route Bookmark” feature to bookmark the itinerary you’d like to use on your road trip.
Itinerary Day 1: Tokyo to Mitsumine
On your first day of the road trip, you’ll be driving only 130km. Once you leave Tokyo behind, take the expressway to “Kawagoe town(川越)” to avoid traffic jams.
Explore Kawagoe Old Town
Just 30 minutes away from Tokyo is Kawagoe town, a small city packed with ancient architecture and historical buildings. Its old town is a treasure trove of old houses, shops, and warehouses. It is easy to spend 2-3 hours to walk around. It is also nice to have lunch here.
There are many carparks in Kawagoe, but if you follow the route suggested on Drive Japan, it will lead you to the cheapest and most convenient parking in Kawagoe.
Visit the Chibubu Geo Gravity Park
Continue your drive to Chichibu, a small rural town surrounded by nature. High above the lush forested canyons of Chichibu is Japan’s first adventure park.
If you have time, I highly recomend doing the Canyon Walk at Chichibu Geo Gravity Park. It’s a unique and fun footbridge perched 50m above the Chichibu river canyon.
The Canyon Fly is a smooth and fast zip line ride that hangs over the bridge. The most exciting experience is the Canyon Swing, which is similar to the bungee and includes a 47m drop! (Check out my video on a canyon swing in New Zealand.)
Itinerary Day 2: Mitsumine to Karuizawa
Prepare for an early start today! Wake up before sunrise to attend a special ceremony at the Mitsumine Shrine, an hour’s drive away.
Often described as one of Japan’s most beautiful mountain shrines, Mitsumine is a popular center of mountain worship. The shrine holds a daily morning ritual where monks offer prayers and seek blessings for the public.
After the morning ceremony, take some time to explore the shrine’s forested ground, which is home to a range of highly ornate buildings. Then hit the road as you’ll be driving just over 130km today.
Visit the Tomioka Silk Mill
Make your first stop at the UNESCO World Heritage Tomioka Silk Mill which is greatly involved in the modernization of Japan. Their old huge warehouse is worth to visit; a guided tour is included in the ticket and the tour takes around 1 hour.
Stay in Karuizawa
Continue driving towards Karuizawa, a mountain resort at the foot of the active volcano, Mount Asama. Located at an altitude of roughly 1000 meters, the town provides a pleasant escape from the summer heat.
Spend the even ing at the Karuizawa Lake Garden, which is absolutely gorgeous during autumn when all the foliage turns orange.
Itinerary Day 3: Karuizawa to Kusatsu
Today is a relaxing day as you’ll be driving only 90km. We recommend spending half the day exploring Karuizawa.
First, head to Kyukaruizawa Ginza Street, a charming historical walking street flanked by traditional architecture and Japanese restaurants.
Towards the end of the shopping street stands the Shaw Memorial Church, founded in 1895 by a missionary named A.C. Shaw, who popularized Karuizawa as a vacation destination.
Visit Shiroito Waterfalls
After that, drive to Shiroito Waterfalls, famous for its unique shape. Shiraito no Taki literally means “the waterfall of white threads”, which aptly describes its appearance, as multiple streaks of water drape over the surface forming what seems like a white curtain.
Explore Onioshidashi Volcanic Park
Next, head over to Onioshidashi Volcanic Park, which features a landscape of volcanic rocks. The park is shaped by volcanic sediment deposited here during the 1783 big eruption of Mount Asama. Onioshidashi Park also offers nice views looking over nearby towns and of Mount Asama on clear days.
Stay the Night in Kusatsu Onsen
From Onioshidashi, it’s just a 1-hour drive to the onsen town of Kusatsu. Voted the #1 onsen town in Japan, Kusatsu Onsen is a quaint village famous for its hot spring water that’s said to cure every illness but lovesickness. Perched at an altitude of 1200m, the village is surrounded by mountains that are perfect for skiing in winter.
The most prominent feature in Kusatsu Onsen is the Yubatake or hot water field. After bubbling to the surface, the hot spring water is cooled down in the yubatake’s wooden conduits before it gets distributed to the various ryokan and public baths.
If you have the time, check out the Yumomi performances, a centuries-old method used to cool down Kusatsu’s hot spring water. The ritual has evolved to incorporate traditional folk songs and dance into the process.
Itinerary Day 4: Kusatsu to Nagano
Today is another relaxing day of driving, covering only 90km. Once you leave Kusatsu behind, enjoy a scenic drive in the mountains along the Kusatsu-Shiga road (Route292).
This is lauded as one of the best scenic routes in Japan for its altitude (more than 2000m height). From the end of October to the beginning of May, you also can enjoy driving in between snow walls. There are many observatories where you can stop to enjoy the views.
See the Snow Monkeys of Jigokudani
From the Kusatsu-Shiga road, continue driving to the famous Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. The park is best visited in winter when the Japanese macaques are seen dipping in the hot springs. However, the monkeys are fed by park staff, so they do hang out in the park year round.
Even if the monkeys don’t interest you, the area is worth visiting for a chance to hike and experience Japan’s nature. Read more about it here.
Soak in the 9 Hot Springs of Shibu Onsen
The nearest town, Shibu Onsen, is a cute hot spring village that I highly recommend visiting. This is the rare few places where you can saunter along the town in a yukuta (summer kimono or bathrobe) and go from one public bath to the next.
If you stay at one of their associated ryokans, you’ll get a key to enter all of the 9 onsens in the village for free. These are not scenic onsens, but are rather public baths that villagers use for their daily baths. Please respect the rules when using an onsen. You are supposed to go completely naked and wash yourself before entering the bath.
Itinerary Day 5: Nagano to Niigata
The last day of your Japan road trip will involve driving across 200km. Start early so you don’t feel rushed.
Wake up early and join the daily morning ceremony at Zenkoji Temple, just a 40-minute drive away. It’s one of the most important and popular temples in Japan. Founded in the 7th century, the temple is home to the first Buddhist statue ever to be brought into Japan when Buddhism was first introduced in the 6th century.
Walk along the Avenue of Cedar
Just a 35-minute drive away is the Togakushi Shrine Okusha. What’s most interesting about the shrine is the avenue that leads to it: it’s lined with massive cedar trees that are more than 400 years old! The giant cedar trees has made the area gain fame as a “power spot”, a sort of spiritual vortex.
Visit Yahiko Shrine
After that, it’s a 2-hour drive along the coast. Take your time and stop along the way to enjoy the views. Yahiko may be a small village, but its shrine is so famous that it draws in Japanese pilgrims from around the country.
What I love most about Japanese temples is that they are usually built amidst nature, either in the mountains or surrounded by forests. This is because the Japanese Shinto religion draw their deities from nature and they worship the rocks, trees, wind and sun. This shrine is no exception — it’s built on Mount Yahiko, amidst beautiful and lush foliage.
See the Controversial Kokujoji Temple
One very interesting place to visit in Yahiko is the Kugamiyama Kokujoji Temple, which has caused quite an uproar with its unconventional paintings. In an attempt to attract younger visitors, particularly women to its grounds, Kokujoji Temple installed art panels on its walls depicting historical figures as naked anime guys.
Head priest Kotetsu Yamada says that he wants to dispel the old-fashioned and boring image of the temple to appeal in particular to young women, and so the temple has teamed up with Kyoto-born artist Ryoko Kimura to create scrolls of art depicting five famous historical and mythical figures–bathing naked together.
End your Road Trip in Niigata City
From there, it’s just a 30-minute drive to Niigata city. We recommend returning your car rental once you reach Niigata city, then exploring the city at your own pace.
Niigata is famous for its local sakes, so be sure to go sake-tasting at a bar or at the slot machines. There are also great hiking in the mountains and ski resorts nearby, with Mount Naeba as the most popular spot to go in winter.
The bullet train from Niigata to Tokyo just takes 2 hours.
I hope my guide will help you navigate the Northward Golden route and discover secret parts of Japan that are just as amazing as the popular attractions. If you’re looking to explore more of Japan, check out my two-week Japan itinerary. Family travelers, be sure to read my full guide on traveling Japan with kids!
Disclaimer: This article was brought to you by Drive Japan. As always, all my opinions expressed above are my own.
Inspired? Pin it!