Coastal Driving in Japan

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How to do the Noto Peninsula, on the Sea of Japan, by car.

Picture the jagged, mountainous Northern California coastline, the switch-back roads of the Amalfi Coast, and the pine forests of Maine. That’s the Noto Peninsula, an hour’s flight from Tokyo. Along the western seaboard, it’s 840 square miles of unspoiled terrain, where an hour can go by without seeing another person. Noto feels from a different era than Tokyo or Kyoto—and is easily explored by car.

Duff Trimble of Wabi-Sabi Japan put together a four-day road trip tracing the peninsula’s perimeter. We started at Noto Airport (on the calmer bay side) and drove up, around the northern tip, and down the rougher Sea of Japan shores, ending in Kaga, a two-hour train ride from Kyoto.

We logged a lot of miles on the GPS-equipped rental car, passing through munities with thatched-roof houses. We had lunch in a 500-year-old temple served by a monk’s wife; made washi with two leading artists in the field; and hammered metal with a young sword-smith. Crafting Authentic Journeys isn’t Trimble’s motto for nothing.

While it’s not a trip about fancy lodging, seafood abounds, much of it prepared with ishiri, a local specialty sauce made from squid.

Noto reflects the growth of Japan’s aging population. But it’s adapting: There’s a cool, Brooklyn-esque coffee bar in the area’s biggest town, Wajima, for starters. Soaking up the traditional way of life and meeting locals in their 30s and 40s who have stuck around or returned to sustain their hometown’s artistic heritage and steer it forward is inspiring—and well worth the mileage.