Secrets of Japan: 10 Off-Beat Travel Experiences
We reveal the top 10 secret travel experiences and hidden gems in Japan, which we discovered from our own explorations of this fascinating country. While some of these spots are truly ‘secret’, none of them are too far off the beaten track. The great thing about Japan is despite the language barrier, it is actually much easier to go ‘off piste’ than in other parts of Asia thanks to the bullet train and invariably honest and courteous local taxi drivers!
1. Get your geta clogs on in Kinosaki Onsen
Two and a half hours’ from Kyoto over on the remote north sea coast of Japan, Kinosaki moves at an altogether more sedate pace than the high-octane towns and cities along the bullet train line. The town has been devoted to bathing since the discovery of hot spring in the 8th century, with five different communal bath-houses. Visitors stay at traditional inns along a charming willow-lined canal, and shuffle at a very leisurely pace from one public bath to the next in traditional geta clogs and yukata evening gowns. Rarely visited by westerners, it is a haven of tranquillity that evokes the Japan of old.
2. Hagi – an Indiana Jones in Japan Moment
In a far-flung corner of western Honshu lies Hagi, a charming seaside town which packs an astonishing amount of history for such a small place. In the mid-19th century Edo period, when Japan was still a closed country, Hagi’s ‘Choshu Five’ managed to make it to University College London. The political and engineering know-how they brought back forms the basis of modern Japan. Kikuya house in the preserved samurai district and Hagi’s excellent museum are testament to that. The highlight though is the graveyard of five hundred stone lanterns hidden beyond Tokoji temple, with grass snakes in the undergrowth and the imposing obelisk tombs of the feudal Mori lords at one end. If Indiana Jones is ever set in Japan, this place would be the perfect setting.
3. Hakkoda-san – The Haunted Mountain
At the far northern tip of Honshu, the main island of Japan, is the ‘haunted’ mountain Hakkoda. There is certainly something phantasmagoric about making the winding journey up for the majestic leaves in autumn time, with mists creeping in by the afternoon. At the end of the bus route is a cable car that swings the visitor over the leaves to the primordial marshlands of Tashirotai which can be explored by a network of elevated boardwalks. Japan has some unearthly landscapes – staring down into the caldera of Mt Fuji takes some beating – but Hakkoda is shrouded in enough myth and mystery to make it almost as powerful.
4. The Long and Winding road to Shuzenji, Izu
Izu Peninsula lies two hours south of Tokyo and makes for a great break from the city en route to Kyoto. Hidden away in the hills at its centre is the charming hot spring town of Shuzenji which boasts Arai and Asaba, two of Japan’s most renowned traditional inns. The most picturesque way to reach Shuzenji is by taking the express train down to historic Shimoda on the southern tip, where Commodore Perry famously forced Japan open to trade with his ‘black ships’ in the mid 19th century. Then take local buses on the winding roads up from there, with the hills fading into the background like a Japanese watercolour kakemono scroll.
5. The Giant Buddha hidden on Nokogiryama
Japan’s most mysterious places aren’t necessarily in far-flung corners. Nokogiriyama is on the far side of Tokyo bay, reached by ferry. What feels like a thousand steps past monks’ meditation huts and overgrown temples finally bring you out onto a hidden plateau. A Daibutsu – giant stone Buddha carving – towers over this spot which is rarely visited even by the Japanese. One doesn’t need to be a Buddhist to appreciate its quiet majesty.
6. The Japanese Bridge, Blossom and Lanterns at Iwakuni
The simple, graceful curves of the Japanese footbridge made their way into western consciousness through Monet’s water lily paintings, and can be found in many gardens throughout Japan. Perhaps the most memorable is the bridge at Iwakuni, a long local bus ride from Hiroshima, in cherry blossom season. Half a dozen gentle arches cross the water like some mystical river creature, and on the far side the locals string traditional lanterns between the trees to light up the pale pink blossom as the bridge is silhouetted in the dusk.
7. Battleship Island
In the early 1970s, Gunkanjima or ‘battleship island’ was the most densely populated place on the planet, with 5,000 coal miner families packed into what looks like a small fortress. Mitsubishi corporation then abandoned it to the elements, and decades of typhoons have left it looking battered and eerie – the perfect inspiration for the villain’s lair in the recent Bond movie Skyfall. Recently it has been opened to visitors and exploratory boats now run daily from Nagasaki on the mainland. Gunkanjima is a striking modern evocation of mono no aware, the ancient Buddhist notion of dust-to-dust transience.
Small but perfectly formed, Tsuwano is two hours from Hiroshima and home to Takodani Inari, one of Japan’s most atmospheric shrines. Sister to the more famous Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, it has a similar set of red gates leading up steep steps to the shrine itself. At the top lies the weird and wonderful scene of red-rimmed shrines lit by green lanterns from within, and the rare sight of priestesses in outlandish white robes. The town also hosts Japan’s most famous yabusame horseback archery display on the second Sunday in April. In summer, the Crane Dance Festival has winged participants dancing down the main street with original samurai dwellings, and koi carp still swim in the streams that run down each side. There are also two western churches rebuilt in testament to the feudal Japan’s persecuted Christian communities, giving a window into the ‘closed country’ of old.
9. Shosenkyo Gorge
Japan’s autumn colours rival New England, and Shosenkyo Gorge 2 hours west of Tokyo is one of the best places to catch them. Take the bus to the top of the gorge and follow the churning river down past horse cart rides, little teahouses, fine geological rock shops and hardly a western face in sight. Legend has it that a monk meditated on one of the imposing crags that jut out above the leafscape and reached enlightenment – not hard to imagine given the beauty of the scenery here.
10. Nyuto Onsen
One of Japan’s most atmospheric mountain hot spring spots is one of the few where men and women can still bathe together. It’s a very romantic far-flung getaway, if one doesn’t mind the other bathers who tend to be shrouded in the steam coming off the baths anyway. Tsurunoyu traditional inn has been serving homely meals over an irori hearth with local mountain ingredients for hundreds of years, and welcomes the occasional adventurous westerner who stays here. Despite its remote location, it is still less than four hours door to door from Tokyo thanks to the bullet train which stops at nearby Tazawako.
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