Away from the big cities – exploring Japan
As well as enjoying all that we could of the big cities of Tokyo and Kyoto we were really keen to try some of the smaller centres too. Two weeks give you time to visit a few gems along the way
Within easy reach of Tokyo is the Hakone area, a beautiful hilly region that offers fine views of Mt Fuji and a real escape from the big cities. The easiest way to get around is with the Hakone Freepass which gives unlimited use of the local transport – rail, bus, funicular, cable-car and sailing boat! The railway itself is a charming service, not dissimilar to the toy trains in India, with tiny stations, lots of tunnels and bridges, switchbacks and great views. One thing not to miss would be the Open Air Museum which is a stunning sculpture park with separate Picasso galley. The sailing cruise on Lake Ashi was pretty kitsch, we were on HMS Victory, however also great fun with superb views of this beautiful area, and on the shoes of the lake it was fascinating to visit the Hakone military check-point that had been used in the Edo Period to control people and good moving around the country. This was also our first chance to experience a ryokan and we stayed in a Fukuzumiro which was built in 1890 and consisted of 3 wooden buildings on the edge of the river. Fine Kaiseki* meals were served in our rooms and the low tables and the onsen, one cedar wood and one stone, were a great introduction to this Japanese institution – sitting in the bath admiring the view of the thick woods and rushing river was a treat. There are many fine examples in the area to suit all styles and budgets.
* = traditional multi-course dinner, in a Ryokan this usually also shows off local and seasonal dishes
Hiroshima and Miyajima
Making a journey to the coastal city of Hiroshima is a high priority for many visitors to Japan. Totally rebuilt after the atomic bomb attack in August 1945 the centre of the city is home to the A-Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Park with a number of different individual memorials. The main Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum explains the devastating attack itself and its aftermath, detailing the effects on the city’s population for the following decades. It is a moving highlight that few forget and well worth visiting even if you just do it as a day trip from Kyoto or Osaka. Hiroshima also has a fine castle and is home to the okonomiyaki, or savoury pancake, so don’t miss out on trying one of these.
Nearby, and just a short ferry ride across the bay, is the pilgrimage island of Miyajima. With some of Japan’s oldest temples and the famous red ‘floating’ Tori Gate there’s plenty to see. Ideally stay a night (or two) here when you can see the island at its most peaceful – there’s a great choice of ryokans and guesthouses from the top of the range Iwaso to the charming Yamaichi-Bekkan, close to the ferry station, run by the brilliant and welcoming Shinko who produces the most amazing kaiseki meals. Most people are day visitors so it becomes calm and quiet (and over-run by deer) come evening time when you wander the narrow streets and see the temples in peace. Take the cable car to the top of Mt Misen and follow one of the many temple trails through the thick forests back to the village – also don’t miss out on the oysters for which the island is famous.
The historic city of Kanazawa, sits on the north coast of Honshu and was recently connected to Tokyo by Shinkansen – the new station has a stunning latticed Tori Gate entrance. Once home to one of the richest feudal clans in Japan it was a centre for arts & crafts, with a very impressive castle (brought to life by local volunteer guides) and one of the three most famous formal gardens in Japan, the Kenrokuen. It really is stunning with gorgeous lakes, viewpoints, pagodas and trees laid out in a way that creates a delicate order of nature. In addition you can wander through perhaps the best preserved samurai district and also a geisha quarter. Spared the WWII bombing it is a lovely small city to explore and one where you can get a feel for historic Japan. We loved seeing the intriguing Ninja Temple (trap doors and secret rooms galore), a superb son et lumiere in another formal garden under the walls of the castle and also the authentic covered market – awash with seafood and some of the best sashimi we tried (in addition to excellent yakitori and friendly izakayas).
Shirakagawo and Takayama
We set off from the north coast by bus into the Japanese Alps and our first port of call was Shirakawago, a postcard perfect mountain village. Fearing it to be another Clovelly or Sam Gimignano we were very pleasantly surprised by how relaxed it was and wow it was so beautiful. The fields were a bright yellow, the thatched farmhouses looked dramatic and it was fascinating to explore inside them and see how the extended families had lived and communities came together to rebuild the huge structures. Being a very hot day the local cold soba noodles went down very well. From here we continued on to charming craft town of Takayama where the three main streets have been immaculately preserved. This former merchant district abounds with artisans, antique shops, sake breweries and cafes. We stayed in a family run ryokan in the old town where the fine food was crowned by the famous local Hida beef (black-haired cattle from the local area). The journey from Takayama south by train (Hida Express) to Nagoya was stunning with a scenic journey along the course of a mountain river to the sea. Amongst the other mountain centres to visit might be Matsumoto, famous as the home of the Black (crow) castle.
The Nakasendo Way
If you feel the urge to stretch your legs in the mountains then a really great short taster might be to walk on the Nakasendo Way, part of the old Imperial Postal Trail between Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo). The two villages of Magome and Tsumago have been lovingly restored, with plenty of shops, cafes and restaurants, so that their wooden house sit on cobbled streets lined with fast rushing streams along the sides. The 8km trail between the two has wonderful views as it winds through the terraced fields, small hamlets and also atmospheric woods where there are a number of reminders to ring the fixed bells to warn off the bears! The route is a mixture of tarmac, steps and earth path, there are waterfalls along the way, small bridges and a couple of charming teahouses to break the journey. One of the highlights for us was arriving into Tsumago to find our ryokan, Maruya, was a historic inn that had been serving travellers on the route since 1789 – its particularly speciality is mountain trout. It is not a particularly strenuous walk and with good trains and buses at either end it can be easily added in to most visits.
This is just a taste of some of the places you might want to visit away from the major cities on any holiday to Japan Japan. We can organise private self-guided holidays to suit all tastes and budgets.