Serenity Now! Five places to escape the crowds in Japan
While Japan’s fast-paced cities are a veritable playground for travellers keen on bar-hopping, fine dining and vintage shopping, the quieter corners of Japan offer a peaceful getaway from Japan’s well-trodden urban centres and tourist hot spots. Here are some top escapes ideal for indulging in lo-fi pleasures (sans the crowds).
Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture
If staying at Japan’s oldest resort, strawberry picking, hiking in nature and exploring centuries-old Shinto shrines is your thing, then the pretty city of Nikko delivers. Located in the mountainous Tochigi prefecture, Nikko is only 125 kilometres north of Tokyo, so is the perfect spot for a weekend getaway or longer jaunt. While certainly visited by domestic and international travellers, much of Nikko remains free from high rise development, so is the ideal spot to enjoy the hospitality of small, family-run hotels, traditional ryokan (Japanese inn), sixth generation sake makers and old-school eateries run by the same family for decades.
To view gobsmacking scenery without having to elbow crowds of people out of your way, head to Tohoku. Consisting of six Prefectures, the captivating natural beauty of this part of Japan inspired one of the nation’s most-loved haiku poets, Matsuo Basho. And today it continues to provide locals and visitors with a peaceful retreat from the bustle of the big cities. Whether you’re sitting in one of the region’s uncrowded onsen (hot springs), admiring the pastel-hued trees during cherry blossom season or relaxing in serenity at a lakeside ryokan, this region delivers blood pressure-reducing activities at every turn. With a population of just over a million, the city of Sendai is the region’s most populous city but is still a decidedly slow-paced affair in comparison to places like Tokyo or Osaka. Be sure to put Tohoku on your itinerary if you’re after an authentic slice of the Japanese way of life.
Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture
For a bit of old-fashioned fun, head to the historic city of Kawagoe. Under an hour from Tokyo’s centre, this nostalgic city reminiscent of the Edo Period features heritage buildings, small locally-owned hotels and tiny eateries selling traditional dishes. Travellers with a sweet tooth won’t want to miss Candy Alley (a narrow street home to a collection of retro candy stores selling Japanese sweets and cakes), while history lovers will enjoy the ancient Buddhist temples in the area. As a popular day-trip spot from Tokyo, travellers are commonly found in this city; however, the lack of skyscrapers, traffic jams and huge international hotels makes Kawagoe a distinctly different place to visit in comparison to many other Japanese cities.
Perched on the edge of the Sea of Japan, tiny Toyama enjoys the best of both worlds with coastal pleasures and alpine adventures on offer. Visitors can step back in time to take a steam locomotive ride in Kurobe Gorge, drive the alpine route where wildflowers and majestic mountain views abound or ascend Mt Yakushi on foot when the weather is fine. Either way, this overlooked area is ripe for outdoor pursuits without the crowds that are often associated with places like Mt Fuji.
Home to temples, shrines and mountains, the forested area of Nagano may have once hosted the Winter Olympic Games but nowadays enjoys a far more relaxed pace than when the world’s top athletes descended on the city back in 1998. Sacred sites such as Zenkoji Temple are plentiful in this region, but there is so much more to Nagano, which is also home to other places of supreme peace including botanical gardens, mountain trails like Kamikochi and Nakasendo, lakes and onsen.