There’s a reason Japan’s a constant on readers’ wish lists. Here are five itineraries to dig deep into the country’s imagination-firing traditions, culture and scenery...
About halfway up the 2,446 stone steps to the shrine atop Mount Haguro, I was closing in on peak grumpiness. It was bad enough, I remember chuntering to myself, that I was essentially hiking in fancy dress; even worse that passers-by kept taking photos of me.
I was in Haguro to experience life as a yamabushi, the ascetic hermits that for in excess of 1,000 years have used the Dewa Sanzan mountains in Japan’s Tohoku region as the focal point of Shugendo, a religion that blends Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism, and pre-Buddhist mountain worship. I was dressed all in white – in a happi coat, split-legged trousers and tabi shoes – and I was being led by a veteran yamabushi, my sensei for a couple of days.
Our hike was all about disconnecting and being mindful of the now. But for at least 1,000 of those stone steps I was anything but mentally unburdened, just painfully self-conscious, preoccupied by deadlines waiting for me back in Tokyo, and uncomfortable in the lingering late-summer heat.
Then something happened. My sensei brought us to a halt so we could silently take in our surroundings and, after a few deep breaths the inner dialogue had gone, replaced by a sharpened sense of the woods; the rustling of leaves and chirping of a bird; the cooling sensation of a light breeze on the clothing stuck to my back. I’d been tricked into the now.
Later that day, we’d be meditating under a chilly waterfall in flimsy loincloths, then jumping over fires as part of a ritual of rebirth—the classic yamabushi experiences. But standing in the calm of the woods on Mount Haguro will rattle around my memory long after the embarrassment and thigh ache faded. Pure peace.
Best For: Outdoor activities, nature, traditional culture and folklore, and historic sites
Route: Tokyo • Sendai (with side trips to Yamadera and Matsushima) • Hiraizumi • Tono Valley • Hachinohe • Aomori • Kakunodate • Tozawa • Dewa Sanzan
Why do it? One of Japan’s least-visited regions, Tohoku offers coastal and mountain views, a taste of rural life and opportunities to immerse yourself in tradition.
Stretching from just beyond Tokyo to the cool far north of Japan’s main island, the Tohoku region has long had a reputation for being remote and mysterious – a place with harsh winters, rugged mountain ranges and windswept coasts. Nowadays, although easy to get around by train, the region still remains under-visited by overseas travellers.
For your first stop, take the Tohoku Shinkansen (bullet train) north from Tokyo to Sendai (Tohoku’s largest city), a good base for visiting the islet-studded Matsushima Bay and the mountaintop Yamadera temple – two of the Tohoku sites that inspired the 17th-century haiku poet Matsuo Basho’s now seminal book, The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
Continuing north on a similar route to Basho, visit the UNESCO-listed temples of Hiraizumi, before a night in the Tono Valley, a lovely spot for a slow bike ride through rice paddies and farmland, as well as being home to folkloric tales like that of the Kappa, a mysterious water dweller with a naughty habit of dragging people into streams and ponds.
The next stop is Aomori, the northernmost of Tohoku’s six prefectures (akin to counties), for a night in the port city of Hachinohe and to hike a little of the scenic Michinoku Coastal Trail. Built as part of the recovery effort after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the trail runs almost 700km from Hachinohe down to Fukushima but is broken into dozens of easy to tackle segments.
After Hachinohe, head inland, although exactly where you head to next comes next really depends on the season: the Oirase Gorge is especially attractive when dressed in autumnal colours; Mount Hakkoda is one of many skiing options in Tohoku in winter; Lake Towada is ideal for summer kayaking; while parades of giant illuminated floats make the annual Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori City one of Japan’s most photogenic summer festivals.
On the return leg south from Aomori, drop by the town of Kakunodate, where weeping cherry trees line streets of former samurai residences (best seen late April-May for the blossom), then continue into Yamagata Prefecture for a homestay in the rice-farming village of Tozawa. There, you are on the doorstep of the sacred Dewa Sanzan mountains, so as a final stop you could try yamabushi body and mind training for a day or two – or just enjoy the scenery – before heading back to Tokyo.
Best For: Cities, historic sites, local culture and cuisine, landscapes, outdoor activities
Route: Osaka • Kyoto • Koyasan • Kii Peninsula (Kumano Kodo/ Kumano Sanzan/ Shirahama/ Kushimoto)
Why do it? To explore Japan’s high-octane second city, soak up traditional vibes in the former capital Kyoto and hike the ancient pilgrimage trails of the Kumano Kodo.
The diverse Kansai region is the cultural and political heart of old Japan. Its people are proudly different – more direct, happy to make a deal and driven by their stomachs, according to Japanese stereotypes.
As Kansai’s largest city, Osaka is the region in microcosm. Visit its namesake castle for insight into the city’s historical roots; wander neon-lit Dotonbori or Shinsekai at night to soak up the outgoing Osakan vibes; and try the local street food – the takoyaki (battered octopus balls), lathered in a sweetish savoury sauce, is an Osakan classic.
Things are very different at the next stop, Kyoto, Japan’s capital for more than 1,000 years until Tokyo took over the mantle in 1868. The city is accented with numerous cultural and spiritual reminders of its past, such as the gilded temple of Kinkakuji; the rows of red torii gateways at Fushimi Inari; the Gion ‘geisha district’; and the less-heralded moss garden of Saihoji. Have at least a few days here to tick off the must-sees and also to slowly stumble upon quieter Kyoto moments.
Then, head south to Mt Koya – aka Koyasan – home to the Shingon sect of Buddhism since the monk Kobo Daishi founded a temple in the mountainside woods here in the ninth century. Nowadays there are more than 100 temples and monasteries clustered around Kobo Daishi’s original compound, and an overnight trip here means staying in one of them; in the process taking part in the temple’s morning rituals and trying the monk’s shojin ryori vegan cuisine.
After Koyasan, spend two-to-three days further south exploring the Kii Peninsula. In Shirahama on the peninsula’s west coast are beaches, oceanside hot spring baths and ryokan inns. At the southern tip, Kushimoto has sea kayaking, diving and stand-up paddle-boarding. But the highlight are the UNESCO-listed Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails that weave through Kii’s mountainous interior – pathways that have connected the three grand Kumano Sanzan shrines for a thousand years.
Best For: Big city vibes; traditional culture; nature; an all-round experience of Japan
Route: Central Tokyo • Side trips to Kamakura, Takao, Nikko and Hakone • Izu Islands
Why do it? To experience the capital’s sometimes-chaotic mix of modern and traditional culture, then visit Mount Fuji, the Izu Islands (and more) for a calmer side of Japan.
Home to 14 million people, who at rush hour seem to all be on the same subway, Tokyo delivers all the crowds and colour you might expect – outrageous youth fashions and neon-drenched districts included – but with old-fashioned neighbourhoods, mountain ranges out west and even an island chain, there are many other sides of Tokyo to discover.
To start, give yourself a few days to explore youthful Shibuya, chic Omotesando, perpetually hectic Shinjuku, and other iconic areas, but also make time for less-visited districts like Yanaka, a slightly bohemian part of the eastside, where narrow alleys are home to retro stores, contemporary galleries and small cafés.
Then branch out. While based in central Tokyo, the rail network gives access to a bunch of day trips: for UNESCO-listed temples and shrines, as well as the famous Great Buddha statue, spend a day in the 13th-century capital Kamakura; for hiking head to Mount Takao or the quieter trails of Tanzawa-Oyama Quasi-National Park. If you wanted an overnight trip from the city, Nikko to the north is home to the UNESCO-listed Toshogu Shrine and Lake Chuzenji, while west of Tokyo you can get up-close views of Mt. Fuji from the traditional inns and soothing hot-spring baths of Hakone.
All of those will be well covered in your guidebook, but Tokyo’s Izu Islands don’t tend to get as much press. There are seven to choose from: one fun trip is to take the overnight ferry to Miyakejima, 180km south of Tokyo, where you can hike volcanic landscapes and see birdlife like the indigenous Izu thrush.
Best For: Laidback regional cities, volcanoes and hot springs, and sub-tropical islands
Route: Kumamoto • Kagoshima • Yakushima • Okinawa Honto • Yaeyama Islands
Why do it? The island of Kyushu, the most westerly of Japan’s central islands, is another of the country’s less-visited regions – one where Japan’s geothermal activity is frequently on display – while Okinawa is Japan’s version of an island paradise.
Begin your time in Kyushu with Kumamoto, which in Japan is arguably most known nowadays for its unbelievably popular local mascot, a black bear known as Kumamon.
You’ll see the rosy red-cheeked character on posters and products everywhere – Kumamon’s a billion-yen industry – whether that’s visiting the reconstructed Kumamoto Castle, strolling the traditional landscaped garden of Suizenji Jojuen or heading out of the city to hike the active volcano that is Mount Aso.
You might even see Kumamon in some souvenir shops when you move on to neighbouring prefecture Kagoshima, where one of the major attractions is another hike-able volcano – Sakurajima, which frequently puffs out smoke.
One benefit of Japan’s high levels of geothermal activities, besides photogenic volcanoes, are the hot springs (onsen) that dot the country. On the coast south of Kagoshima city, Ibusuki has plenty of those onsen baths, as well as ryokan inns for a night’s traditional accommodation and sand baths, if you fancy being buried up to your neck in steaming hot sand to improve your skin and circulation.
Like sand baths, the next stop won’t be for everybody. Sub-tropical Yakushima Island is so humid and wet that locals say it rains 35 days a month. However, the ancient cedar forest that covers the mountainous interior is a primeval place to hike – somewhere that could have come straight from Tolkien.
What comes after is much less strenuous: Okinawa. On the main island, check out Cape Manzamo for winning sunsets and the network of Second World War tunnels at Tomigusuku. Also try Okinawan food, which as well as great seafood includes stewed pig trotters, sliced pig’s ear and a bitter melon-tofu-pork stir fry called goya champuru.
Finish this trip with a few days hopping around Okinawa’s idyllic Yaeyama Islands, Japan’s most south-westerly point; situated closer to Taiwan than they are Tokyo. The islands are diverse –Ishigaki has cobalt bays and white beaches; Iriomote is covered in jungle; sleepy Taketomi has villages where the traditional stone bungalows are capped with red-tile roofs and shisa statues sit outside to fend off evil; meanwhile Yonaguni has wild ponies and scuba spots where, during the winter, divers can swim with hammerhead sharks.
Best For: Traditional culture and crafts, castles, historic streetscapes, hot spring baths, nature
Route: Nagoya • Inuyama • Magome and Tsumago • Gero Onsen • Takayama • the Japanese Alps • Kanazawa
Why do it? For well-preserved towns and castles, impressive landscapes in the Japan Alps, and Kyoto-like traditions – but without the Kyoto-like crowds.
The city of Nagoya doesn’t sit high on most people’s ‘must-visit’ lists, but the Chubu region’s largest city is more than worth a day of exploring – there’s a reconstructed castle, Toyota’s slick science museum, and the venerable Atsuta Shrine – said to house an imperial relic called the ‘grass-mowing sword’ that only the emperor and a select few priests may ever see.
But Chubu, a group of prefectures situated between Tokyo and Kyoto, really comes into its own when you go beyond Nagoya and explore the region’s past. First stop to do that is the town of Inuyama just north of Nagoya – home to a 500-year-old castle (pictured below). From here, head to the Nakasendo, the ancient highway connecting Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo), and stay the night at a rustic inn in Magome or Tsumago, two well-preserved Nakasendo staging post towns. The several-hour walk between the two towns is a lovely countryside stroll.
Next, actually soak up some culture in the hot-spring town of Gero Onsen, which is home to open-air public baths surrounded by mountains and traditional ryokan inns – there you’ll stay in tatami-mat-floored rooms and be served kaiseki ryori dinners that feature a procession of small, in-season dishes.
A couple of hours north of Gero by express train, have a night or two in Takayama, a city that, pre-COVID-19, felt on the verge of being swamped by tourists but nonetheless has intriguing old quarters and morning markets. It’s also a good base for day trips into the Japanese Alps, where you can take the Shinhotaka Ropeway into the jagged peaks for summer hikes or snowshoeing in winter.
The final stop is the city of Kanazawa, on the Sea of Japan coast, a less-crowded alternative to Kyoto for anyone wanting to delve into Japan’s traditional arts, crafts and sensibilities. The Kenrokuen garden here, with its large central pond, landscaped features and teahouses, is considered one of the finest in Japan, while the old wooden buildings of the Higashi Chaya geisha district are a charming throwback that now house cafes, sweet shops, and stores specializing in Kanazawa’s gold-leaf crafts.
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