Japan is known as the the land of the rising sun. It's also a land resplendent with mountains & volcanos, beautiful beaches, automation and efficiency, deep-rooted traditions and etiquette, quality food at every price level, futuristic high-tech cities and villages where nothing has changed for generations... We explored Tokyo and the western part of the country for 3 months and were repeatedly surprised by the quirky, the cute and all the other idiosyncrasies.
If you would like to venture outside the major cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima it can be overwhelming and hard to decide where to go. On our trip these are the places we enjoyed the most:
This town on the northern coast is full of authentic and traditional experiences and famous in particular for its historic Samurai and Geisha areas where you can see original samurai houses or attend a traditional tea ceremony. The laneways are captivating and even more so because of the many Japanese visitors dressed up in kimonos. Other must-sees are Kenrokuen Garden, recognised as one of the 3 top gardens in Japan and the nearby Castle garden. Kanazawa feels like a very liveable city that maintains traditions but has also invested in the future with lots of public art.
Do: once you've had your fill of history, come back to the present with a visit to the 21st Century Modern Art Museum. Get around by renting one of the many city bikes.
How: 2.5 hours by train from Tokyo or Kyoto
TAKAYAMA, THE JAPANESE ALPS
Takayama has one of the best preserved areas of old merchants' houses. The dark wooden buildings house restaurants and shops selling crafts and sake and the narrow streets are quaint with a sense of history.
Put a day aside to visit the unique grass-roofed houses in nearby Ainokura and Shirakawa. Some of the homes in these UNESCO heritage listed villages have been converted into restaurants and museums however most are still residential and you can see people tending to their gardens and rice paddies and getting on with life in general.
Eat: the melt-in-your-mouth marbled grade 5 Hida beef, up there with Kobe beef. The best way is to cook it yourself in one of the BBQ restaurants.
When: for a unique experience come during the annual festival (held in April and October) which is known as one of the most spectacular in Japan.
How: 4 hours by bus from Tokyo or 45 minutes from Kanazawa
Dedicated onsen (hot spring) town where you walk from one bath to the next in your kimono and wooden slippers carrying your towel and essentials in a small bag. It's a great place to stay in a traditional Ryokan and really immerse yourself in the onsen culture (entry is normally included in your room rate). Most of the 7 onsen houses have both an indoor and outdoor bath and like everybody else, we tried to visit them all to find our personal favourite which turned out to be Sato-no-yu with a rooftop pool, waterfall, penguin (ice) sauna and steam baths.
Do: in between soaks, you can visit Takeno beach or take the cable car to the top of the mountain overlooking town
Eat: it doesn't matter as much what you eat or which izakaya you go to - it's the fact that you can do it wearing your kimono!
How: 2.5 hours by train from Osaka or Kyoto
On arrival the city doesn't look like much however as you venture into the old centre it transforms to an area of old white canal-side warehouses which are especially delightful at night. The town is linked to the story of Momotaro, a boy born from a peach and hence the souvenir shops sell delicious peach sweets and jams. The tradition of gift-giving in Japan ensures local delicacies are for sale in all parts of the country.
We were lucky to catch an exhibition of Ikebana (flower arrangements) which surprised us as it included many modern and over-the-top displays. For anybody interested in art, Ohara museum is the oldest museum for Western art in Japan and displays works by Monet and Picasso amongst others in addition to a Japanese collection.
Do: In summer partake in another Japanese tradition - the all-inclusive beer garden. In Kurashiki the most charming venue is Ivy Garden, converted from a cotton mill factory.
How: 1.5 hours by train from Osaka or 1 hour from Hiroshima
We absolutely loved our time on Amami Oshima, a tropical island half-way between Kyushu and Okinawa with white beaches, warm clear water and a chilled island atmosphere. The whole island is remarkably non-developed and the beaches are not crowded. In addition, we enjoyed meeting Japanese families at their most relaxed as they enjoyed their 4-5 day summer vacation.
Do: as little or as much as you like... Relax in the shallow water, snorkel a few meters from the beach, kayak in the sea or mangroves, surf, try SUP or scuba diving.
How: 2.5 hours by flight from Tokyo and Osaka. Or for a different experience take the train to Kagoshima and from there the overnight ferry (12 hours)
Stay: The best beaches are on the northern part of the island. If you like your beaches calm and lagoon-like stay at Caretta House or Native Sea by Kurasaki Beach. If you want to catch waves stay at Bashayamamura on the ocean side.