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Way of the rising dragon

Discovering traditional Japan along the Shoryudo route

In Takayama, Gifu Prefecture, take a bus or walk the 2.5km from JR Takayama Station to Hida no Sato (Hida Folk Village), an open-air museum which opened in 1971. The village is home to about 30 houses which have been moved from their original locations throughout the Hida region to be preserved at the folk village. The thatched and shingled roofs of the 'gassho-zukuri'-styled (steep rafter roof) dwellings are reminiscent of the famed houses in Shirakawa-go. There are exhibitions of artefacts such as daily household objects, tools and clothes from ancient Japan. Handicraft workshops are also available. Entry is ¥700 yen (215 baht) for adults and ¥200 for children. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

Industrial towns, rolling green hills, skyscrapers, Mount Fuji -- the scenery shifted as I gazed outside the chartered bus that sped from one prefecture to another on the Shoryudo route in central Japan.

Shoryudo is a great way to explore traditional Japanese sites, from ninja museums and tea plantations to wasabi farms and sweet and savoury delicacies. After growing too familiar with the well-trodden paths of Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Sapporo, it is high time to wander into the lesser known in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Shoryudo, meaning "Way Of The Rising Dragon", spans across nine prefectures -- Toyama, Ishikawa, Fukui, Nagano, Gifu, Shizuoka, Aichi, Mie, and Shiga -- in Chubu and Hokuriku regions. Looking at the map, the shape of these prefectures align to form a dragon, giving the area its name.

There are four recommended courses -- Dragon, Nostalgic, Great Nature and Ukiyo-e -- to explore the region completely.

The first is the Dragon itself -- a course that cuts south-to-north from Nagoya and finishes at the Noto Peninsula. Start the journey in Nagoya, where local dishes like rice topped with grilled eel is a must-try. Along the way, drop by the Gero Onsen and Wakura Onsen for a relaxing hot bath or stroll the vintage town of Takayama to street shop and photograph.

To experience the spirit of old Japan, one may opt to try the Nostalgic course, which is laden with castles, samurai and ninja culture, and seaside towns. The famous World Heritage sites like Shirakawago and Gokayama can be found on this course. Follow the route further to Mie prefecture, which is the birthplace of the ninja in Iga city or visit the Ise Grand Shrine -- the most sacred Shinto shrine in Japan -- in Ise, which rests on the eastern tip of the Kii Peninsula in Mie.

For a little more adventure, swerve along the western part of Shoryudo and hop aboard the Great Nature course. A magnificent 3,000m-high mountain is along the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, which goes through the Northern Japan Alps. Hot springs include the Unazuki Onsen and Awara Onsen. The Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum is Japan's only dedicated dinosaur museum and is one of the greatest in the world.

The last course is Ukiyo-e, which was inspired by a genre of Japanese art of the same name. Utagawa Hiroshige, an art maestro of the 1800s, was famous for his series of woodblock prints. He is best known for his landscapes in the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido collection, depicting 53 post towns along the Tokaido highway that connects Tokyo and Kyoto. On this course, there is a historic battlefield at Sekigahara -- the site of the battle in 1600 that preceded the establishment of Tokugawa Ieyasu's shogunate -- and a few World Heritage sites along the way.

Wanitchaya Eiumkhunakorn, a tour guide, said Japan has been trying to promote the dragon's path for a while, but geographical challenges make it difficult. "Shoryudo is not a place that you could just go around and explore in a few days. You'd just end up living on the bus," said Wanitchaya.

She foresees that the route will pick up eventually, as tourists seek unseen destinations. Shoryudo is an area filled with potential, with rich culture, history and attractions that could become the next must-sees of Japan.

The Shoryudo bus pass costs ¥7,000 (2,100 baht) for a three-day pass, and ¥13,000 for a five-day pass, giving tourists unlimited rides on highway buses in the region. Visit www.meitetsu.co.jp/eng/ticket-info/shoryudo.html.

Explore the four courses by train and for suggestions on planning a trip, visit shoryudo.go-centraljapan.jp.

Shoryudo in Bangkok

For a taste of Shoryudo in Bangkok, head to The Mall Bangkapi from Sept 8-18 for the "Japan Discovery Shoryudo: Dragon Rise Region" event held to celebrate 130 years of Thai-Japanese diplomatic relations.

Food, confections and products from Japan such as Hida beef, unagi don (steamed rice with grilled eel), Japanese curry, tea and wasabi products, uirou and other Japanese delicacies will be on sale at the Grand Hall on the G Floor. There will also be a ninja demonstration from Iga city. The event will be hosted in Isan from Nov 11-21 at The Mall Korat.

Drop by Takayama city centre to experience old-town traditional Japanese vibes. Start at the iconic red Nakabashi Bridge and stroll around the vintage town. Sampling local delicacies at street-side shops is highly encouraged. One of the popular savoury dishes is Hida beef sushi, served on a rice cracker. Two portions of a simple, medium rare beef slice topped with a small pinch of wasabi cost ¥600. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

Dressed in black, the ninja is a well-known figure in modern pop culture and feudal Japan. Folklore carries legends of their ability to walk on water and become invisible. But what are ninjas truly like? One of the best places to answer that is the Iga-ryu Ninja Museum in Iga city, Mie Prefecture — birthplace of the ninja. The museum is manned by staff dressed in ninja outfits and features exhibitions and demonstrations on ninja culture. Ninja costumes can be rented out while experiencing the life of an espionage master in a farmhouse with revolving doors and concealed staircases. A must-do is to try out a shuriken — a ninja-throwing star. Entry is ¥700 for adults and ¥400 yen children. Toddlers are free. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

Shizuoka Prefecture accounts for almost half of Japan's overall tea production. Naturally a visit to a tea plantation to see where all the matcha-flavoured sweets and drinks came from is a must. At Kuraya Narusawa tea farm in Izunokuni city, visitors can experience picking tea leaves on a hill which, on a good day, also offers a great view of Mount Fuji. Afterward, head to the gift shop for a tea-tasting session and browse through various local products. The tea leaf-picking experience includes costume rental for ¥1,500. Pricing varies based on the season. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

The wasabi trademark of strong pungency that clears the sinus makes it a must-have condiment in Japanese cuisine, even dessert. At the century-old Daio Wasabi Farm in Azumino, Nagano, wasabi ice cream is sold for ¥360. Cold, sweet and with a faint wasabi aroma, the ice cream makes an interesting treat. Wasabi products are also on sale. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

The Osatsu Kamado (also known as Ama Hut) restaurant in Toba city of Mie Prefecture is run by ama-san, or professional female shellfish divers. From shells, clams, abalone and lobsters, the shellfish are caught fresh by an all-female diving team, who also grill it on an open hearth in front of customers. Ama is part of the local culture and profession, which many women have been doing for decades, passing it down the generations from mother to daughter, and also to daughter-in-law. There are about 100 female divers living and operating in the area. The oldest working ama-san is 83. A set lunch starts at ¥3,500. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

For a century-old taste of Japanese confections, try the Nagoya delicacy uirou — a traditional steamed cake made from rice flour and sugar. The confection comes in flavours such as plain, green tea and cherry blossom and makes a popular souvenir. Goes well with hot green tea. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

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