Travelling Japan: Top 5 Places to Get Off the Beaten Path
There is no place quite like Japan. It is a kaleidoscope of colour and a playground of ever-changing landscapes. A feast for the senses and a place where modern and traditional culture collide. It is a weird and wonderful country I will never grow tired of visiting.
My previous visits to Japan have covered many of the popular tourist spots around the country. However, this time was a little different. I spent the week visiting lesser-known cities and towns allowing a deeper look into the culture, cuisine, and ever-changing scenery of this incredible country. For anyone looking to experience Japan in all of its diversity, I would highly recommend getting off the beaten path and integrating these places into your trip:
The first stop on our trip was Kanazawa, the prefectural capital of Ishikawa. Located along the West coast of Japan’s main island, it’s often referred to as “little Kyoto”, rivalling the popular tourist city with its rich culture, preserved historical neighbourhoods and beautiful gardens.
It’s not hard to experience the rich history of this city. Simply wander through Nagamachi Samurai District to see where the mighty samurai used to reside, head to the Higashi Chaya District to learn about the still-flourishing culture of the geisha, or pay a visit to Kanazawa Castle, a restored structure that was originally built in 1583. Whilst visiting the castle, make sure you take a stroll through the nearby Kenrokuen Garden- it is considered to be among Japan’s best.
When it comes to food, the city’s proximity to the coast means it is particularly known for its local seafood. Head to Omicho Market for some of the freshest sushi in town, or go for the full multi-course dining experience at Kanazawa Chaya to sample some of the finest produce of the area. Finally, don’t leave without stopping by Hakuichi to learn about the region’s gold-leaf production and try a gold-leaf adorned ice-cream.
2. Yamanaka Onsen Town
If you want to trade the busier city for a bit of peace and quiet, take a one-hour drive from Kanazawa to the quaint hot spring town of Yamanaka Onsen. Here to experience a ryokan (which is a traditional Japanese inn), consider staying at Shirasagiyu Tawaraya. This establishment was first started in 1190 and has been operated by the same family for 800 years! While staying here you get to sleep on a traditional tatami mat, wear a yukata (a casual robe traditionally worn at ryokan or summer festivals) and soak in the onsen (Japanese hot spring). This ryokan is perched along a river and surrounded by a magical forest. Definitely a must if you are interested in the more traditional ways of doing things in Japan.
By far my favourite stop on our tour was Shirakawa-go, a beautiful mountainous village that literally feels like walking into a postcard! This UNESCO world heritage site is filled with unique, gassho-zukuri style houses that are characterised by their thatched roofs, which slope steeply towards the ground – some are over 300 years old. When visiting, make sure you stop by Ogimachi, a hamlet of these traditional-style houses, nestled amongst beautiful gardens.
4. Nakasendo Trail
The Nakasendo Trail is a picturesque old mountain route between Kyoto and Tokyo from the 1600s that you can still follow along today. If you are not quite up to the full 534 kilometres that pass through no less than 69 stations, you can still get a taste of Japan’s rural scenery by hiking a section of the trail. I hiked a short section between Yabuhara and Narai-juku through the Torii Pass. Surrounded by native Japanese foliage, the trail follows along original cobbled paths, passes by shrines and presents views over the sacred Mt. Ontake from the top. Narai-juku, the trail’s post-town, is a very atmospheric place to spend time at during the end of the hike. The characterful two-story wooden houses that line the main street make the place feel like the set of a historical Japanese movie!
Matsumoto is the second largest city in Nagano Prefecture and the gateway to the Japan Alps. Cradled by mountains, it is a great city to spend a few days or to use as a launching pad to explore the surrounding regions. One of the top attractions in this city is the incredible five-story castle, which is one of the oldest, yet most beautiful in Japan.
There are plenty of things to do within the city, whether it is drinking local craft beer, browsing the shops for handmade ceramics or even taking part in a soba noodle making workshop (which the local area is known for). Matsumoto is also the birthplace of famous Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, known for her eccentric polka-dotted artworks. Which as you can imagine, I really enjoy. She has a permanent exhibition at the Matsumoto City Museum of Art which is well worth the visit.