The cities of Japan are its beating heart, but its real soul can be found in the village. That is where traditions are maintained, secrets are hidden and new ways of life emerge. To understand this country, my partner and I decided to go deeper and explore beyond the metropolis.

Japan’s abundance of villages can be overwhelming if you’re trying to plan a trip, but there are some epic ones that just can’t be overlooked.

If the action of urban scenes is most your speed, check out photographer Thibaut Buccellato’s work capturing both calm and chaos in the cities. More Japanese street photography can be found here, too. 

Naoshima, the Futuristic Island

Naoshima once faced the same fate as Nagoro: many of its residents either moved away or aged. Fortunately, art changed it all.

We were excited to discover that the island was transformed into an open-air museum with sculptures scattered all over the place. Some even used it as a local playground. Every piece fit harmoniously with the nature around it. The museums were built in the ground and are barely noticeable from the main road. Abandoned houses were turned into art installations. We were surprised to hear that the project’s popularity has spread to two nearby islands, though we were disappointed we didn’t have enough time to visit those.

Magome and Tsumago, the Traditional Highway Towns

When I first saw a Nakasendo trail map, I knew we had to follow at least a bit of it. Every single house and bridge were drawn on it, but the map still maintained a sense of Japanese simplicity and perfection.

We received our own modern version that was intricately detailed, even indicating distances between toilets. Little did we know that we would find those two charming, post villages of Magome and Tsumago on our way. They brought us back in time with their wooden architecture and traditional crafts.

Nagoro, The Doll Village in Middle of Nowhere Japan

I was glued to the window of the bus, observing the road carefully, scared we would miss Nagoro. After all, I figured, how big could it be with only 35 living souls and 350 dolls? When we stopped at the local bus stop, I knew we were in the right place. Spooky dolls peeked out at us from nearby fields, houses, and even the bus stop itself. Fog and rain made me feel like I’d stepped onto the scene of a Studio Ghibli movie.

The Doll Village was created by a local artist who came back to the once booming village and saw it abandoned. Bored and lonely, she decided to recreate the people she once knew as dolls. After populating her entire neighborhood, including the deserted school and the cultural house, she is still not finished.

As we strolled through this village, truly one-of-a-kind in Japan, we had to look twice to make sure that the spectators were just dolls…

Tokoname, the Pottery Kingdom

This village made me fall in love with ceramics. As I passed all of the little ateliers filled with beautiful pieces of art, I couldn’t help but wish I had an empty backpack and a full bank account. The ceramics were so unique and so far from anything you’d find at Ikea.

There were small workshops spread everywhere, and we even found hidden treasures: a little alley all paved with pottery and enclosed with ceramic walls, as well as an epic mural!

Takayama, the Sake Paradise

After visiting some of Japan’s biggest cities, we longed for some relaxation and peace. Takayama turned out to be exactly what we needed. It’s a simple, small town with beautiful wooden houses, great local ramen, and even better sake.

We learned a lot about sake in Takayama, such as the fact that it comes in such a variety of flavors that it can suit every palate. This traditional drink can be sweet, dry, cloudy with rice particles, or even smoky. We stayed for days in Takayama, so we were able to taste them all.

Nara, the Deer-Land

Nara is the most famous day trip from Kyoto and Osaka, known mainly for its shrines and temples. But its residents — deer — are what stole our hearts.

Their sweet faces and lack of fear made them popular with tourists. We discovered that they eat everything, and for a cracker they eagerly pose for a picture. This, along with the timeless shrines and mossy forests, made our day.

Ohara, Oasis of Peace

I don’t remember how I managed to find this little gem, but it must have been a miracle. That is the only explanation for how such a stunning place is still so blissfully peaceful, though it is close to the busy city of Kyoto.

As I looked at the green gardens of the Sanzenin Temple, I felt inner joy and peace. Soon, I noticed little moss-covered statues hidden everywhere, adding to Ohara’s charm.

Itsukushima Island, the “Floating” Torii Gate

When we arrived at Itsukushima Island, the famous torii gate was “floating” in the water, just like we’d seen in pictures. As time passed, the tide got lower and lower, exposing the gate until we could actually walk toward it, something we did not expect to happen.

Shirakawago, the Village of Thatched Houses

Shirakawago had been on my mind for a long time, even before I traveled to Japan. I had seen it on many postcards and it was always the same, a winter wonderland. I had a mental image of it as a kind of Christmas village where the Santa Claus of Japan lived, but when we arrived there in April, spring had already pushed the winter away, revealing a completely different village.

Traditional houses displayed their thatched roofs in full glory, and we could explore without fear of getting frozen.

Fujikawaguchiko, a Village with Views of Mount Fuji

Our journey through Japan wouldn’t be complete without a sight of Mount Fuji. For much of the year it’s invisible, hidden behind the clouds or a layer of fog. We were really worried we wouldn’t be able to see it, so we decided to improve our chances by choosing the best viewing area: Lake Kawaguchi. On the day we arrived the weather was magnificent, and Mount Fuji was in its full glory. It seemed so close and so large that I couldn’t imagine anything covering its enormity. We wanted to capitalize on the beautiful view, so we jumped on bikes and went to admire it from every possible side.

The next day when I woke up I could only see clouds…

Do you have a favorite village in Japan not featured here? Let us know on Twitter!