When you think of visiting Japan, the images that probably come to mind most are the leaning skyscrapers, glistening neon lights, and busy road crossings of Tokyo is like any other major city in the world. But head out of the county’s most famous city and you’ll find well-preserved monuments against a backdrop of picturesque scenery. In the countryside are temples, shrines, markets, and places to indulge in Japanese culture.
Spend a couple of days in Tokyo, but if you want to see the real Japan head to these small towns.
Nikko is a charming hill station, located only two hours to the north from Tokyo by train, with clean fresh mountain air. It has been a center of Shinto and Buddhist worship for many centuries, and is designated a World Heritage Area. There are oak and cedar forests nearby where you can walk, hike, or simply take a bus to the entrance of the temple complex. On the way, you may pass by hot springs and wild monkeys!
Nikko has important significance in Japanese culture. Here you can see one of the largest wooden tori gates in Japan and the most lavishly decorated shrine and the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, Japanese military government from 1600-1868.
Nikko National Park is a good place to visit any time of the year, but it is especially magical when the leaves turn colors in autumn.
Kamakura is a seaside town an hour and half south of Tokyo with resorts and apartments overlooking sandy beaches. Japanese and foreign tourists come here during the summer to swim, sail, and surf.
Kamakura is also home to the second largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan at Kotoku-in Temple. The statue was cast in 1252 and originally located inside a large temple hall, destroyed and later rebuilt in open air. You can even go inside the statue for a small fee.
No visit to Japan is complete without a stroll through a bamboo forest. At Hokoku-ji Temple, a resting place for the samurai, you can soak in the beauty of the groves and have a cup of tea overlooking the forest at the café located inside.
Hakone is a popular weekend getaway on the Sagami Bay (southwest of Tokyo). The area attracts golfers and those looking to relax at one of the natural hot springs. It’s also a great place to get a good view of Mount Fuji, the sacred volcanic mountain of Japan.
Be sure to book a stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn where you sleep on tatami floors and bathe in an onsen, communal hot spring water. The food is exceptional at the ryokans and assortment of fresh sushi, salad, rice, and soup is artfully served in dozens of intricate bowls.
Hakone is home to Lake Ashinoko, which offers some of the best vistas of Mount Fuji; and Owakudani Boiling Valley, with active sulfuric vents and hot springs caused by volcanic activity. Take the Hakone Ropway to catch aerial pictures of mud pools and smoke.
Over 300 kilometers to the west of the Tokyo, Takayama is home to the oldest sake breweries in Japan. So it’s a must-stop for sake lovers. Head over to Sanmachi Street, lined with old merchants’ houses from the Edo period, where you can witness old wooden houses and busy tourist markets.
Here you can find several breweries offering all-day sake tastings. A clear fermented rice wine with about 15% alcohol, sake (like wine) can range in flavor from dry and fruity, to smooth and vinegary. Some places give couple of free samples, others charge $2 for up to 12 tastings.
For dinner, head to one of the local restaurants serving Hoba miso, a specialty of this region. Hida beef or chicken is mixed with miso paste, placed over dried a magnolia leaf and cooked over charcoal. It pairs well with a glass of sake.
This Gassho-style village close to Japan’s west coast (Tokyo’s on the eastern shores) is a scene filled with thatched roofs, belled cows, rice paddies and surrounding snowcapped mountains. It looks like a Japanese version of Swiss countryside. The village has about 350 unique triangular shaped homes to allow snow to shed during winter, and has been named an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Start your visit at Shiroyama Observatory to get the best panoramas of the village and then walk your way down. There are few historic homes open to the public, as well as few restaurants and souvenir shops.
This historic city right on the northwest coast is home to the Kenrokuen castle garden, which is perhaps one of the most beautiful Japanese gardens from Edo period and one of the three most famous gardens in Japan. Here you can see over 183 species of plants, a teahouse, stone lanterns, pagoda, and the oldest water fountain in Japan, which still operates today.
Stroll through Nagamachi, a beautifully preserved historic Samurai district to see where the aristocracy once lived. Still you can find wealthy homes with expensive cars maneuvering narrow cobblestone streets and canals. You can visit some of the former Samurai residences and private gardens.
Spend the evening at one of Kanazawa’s three chaya districts. A chaya (teahouse) is an exclusive type of restaurant where guests are entertained by Japanese Geisha (better known as Geiko) who perform song and dance. Most of the original structures are still intact, and many are converted into cafes and shops. You are likely to spot a Geisha while walking through one of these districts, but you can also purchase tickets to attend a Geisha evening at one of the public teahouses.
Inspired to visit Japan? Figure out your fare!