Dare I say that while the cities of Japan offer endless entertainment, it is the areas beyond the urban bustle that will take your breath away?
I spent three weeks in Japan last October and, as is my nature, prioritized adventures outside the highly trafficked cities of Tokyo and Kyoto. I explored beautiful temples, feasted my eyes on incredible views, and learned about the traditional homes and foods of rural mountain towns. I saw a side of the country not typically accessed by tourists and my advice to you, if you are also so inclined to veer off the beaten path, is to do the same. My personal recommendations, depending on how much time you have, are as follows:
If you have one day, head to Kamakura.
Only an hour outside of Tokyo by train, Kamakura boasts the second tallest Daibutsu (Giant Buddha) in Japan, dating back to 1252. From there you can take the Enoden trolley line on a lovely ride down the coast and past a number of interesting temples to Enoshima, to a small island which – on a good day – will offer the classic view of Mt. Fuji across the water. Be sure to enjoy a delicious fresh seafood dinner while there. If you’re up for a bit of a challenge, you can then take a local bus to Taya Caverns. Though it looks small from the outside, the inside is marvelous: you can wander through twelve rooms adorned with intricate Buddhist carvings of dragons and peacocks.
If you have two days, check out the town of Nikko.
Head north to Nikko, a quaint town with a variety of tourist amenities, making it an easy place to visit. Give yourself a to day explore the Shrines and Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with some of the most brightly colored shrines in Japan. The area is also home to the original “see no, speak no, hear no evil” carving, as well as the impressive mausoleum of Tokugawa leyasu. Spend your second day in Nikko National Park, accessible from town with a local bus pass. The park offers lovely hiking trails with mountains and plenty of waterfalls – and even a few hot springs to soak in at the end of the day. If you’re lucky you might see monkeys or a Japanese black bear.
If you have three or more days, marvel at the “Japanese Alps”.
From Tokyo, catch a train to Matsumoto and spend the afternoon wandering around the old city castle. Visit some of the local museums as well (some of which offer English translation). Make sure to try some black sesame ice cream and a hot coffee from a vending machine while you’re there. The next day, wake up early and take the bus over to the highlands of Kamikochi, know as the area “where gods descend.” Spend a night or two hiking in the breathtaking Japanese Alps; Kita-hotaka-dake (3106 m) was my favorite. Pack in food if you can; everything is expensive up there. On your way back to Tokyo take the bus through the city of Takayama and stop at the Hida Folk Village which showcases the traditional architectural styles of Japan’s mountain regions. If your’e there in the winter, hiking is not recommended but you can visit to the 20 meter-high snow corridors on the mountain pass instead.
If you have one day, head to Mount Kurama.
Take the quaint Eizen railway up to Mount Kurama, where Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines share space with ancient cedar trees believed to be the reincarnation of Mao-son, one-third of their Trinity. The views from there are expansive. If you’re around in October, be sure to attend the Fire Festival. People walk to and from the mountain temple holding torches large and small. Years ago, it was believed that the fire would guide the spirits of departed souls and gods through the human world. It is a wonderful event to witness; the mountain looks as though it’s ablaze.
Interestingly, Mount Kurama is also said to be the birthplace of Reiki, a form of energy healing.
If you have two days, treat yourself to a night on sacred Mount Kōya.
Mount Kōya (Kōya-san) is recognized as the home the Shingon sect of Buddhism and hosts over 120 monasteries, 70 of which offer housing to visitors. It’s best to book your accommodations in advance and make sure you don’t miss out on the incredible meals! You can get to Mount Kōya by cable car, though my recommendation is to hike through the bamboo groves and persimmon plantations along the ancient Chōishi-michi trail. You can get a stamp book for each of the temples you pass along the way and – if you’re lucky – an armful of persimmons.
And, if you manage to have an unlimited amount of time in Japan, visit the island of Shikoku:
The island of Shikoku, Japan’s fourth-largest island, is home to a fantastic pilgrimage route. Don white clothing and a traditional sedge hat and grab your walking stick; you’ll be ready to join local pilgrims as they circumnavigate the island and stop at 88 official temples along the way. Traditionally completed on foot, the route can now also be accessed by bus or bicycle. The pilgrimage is still very much a revered religious act, though, so be mindful and tread lightly.