Auriole Potter explores Japan’s lesser-known gems

Whilst the average Japan itinerary will focus on showcasing the country’s dynamic cities, we suggest spending some time in Japan’s countryside and its wonderfully picturesque (and slower paced) rural destinations. Not only does this encourage the opportunity to relax and recharge after the intensity and crowds of the urban areas but it also provides a fascinating insight into a part of Japan that is often overlooked. Heading to these more remote prefectures also allows you to step back in time and gain an insight into the Japan of ages past. Lifestyles here, however, are changing rapidly, with cultural traditions and ancient skills starting to disappear. A visit to these parts of the country gives you the chance to catch a glimpse of all this, before it is gone forever. More positively, it also gives locals an incentive to continue the old ways, interesting as they are to foreign visitors.

Whether you prefer to pause for a few days and simply do nothing but reflect on the trip so far, or get out and explore Japan’s countryside with its coastal villages, hiking trails and remote temples, read on to discover our top three rural recommendations.


Matsumoto city museum of art


1. Kyotango

A two-to-three-hour drive from Kyoto, this coastal area is yet undiscovered by the masses and tourism remains in its infancy. That said, there are several ryokans that provide a comfortable base from which to explore (as well as onsens to return to at the end of each day). Here, you’ll find little fishing villages strung out along the coast, full of stilted wooden houses perched above the water, the inhabitants’ boat bobbing about underneath. Whilst it’s true that most young people head off for an urban life in search of modernity and career prospects, in this area there’s a burgeoning creative scene, a revival of traditional crafts and skills, and a gradual increase in top-level ryokans that ensure that some young locals remain in situ, rather than flee to the cities. Some, of course, have for years relied on the day’s catch to earn a living and continue to do so, meaning that the food scene is particularly interesting here. The region has been designated a Blue Zone, home to the country’s highest population of centenarians, a result perhaps of the diet and lifestyle of residents.

2. The Noto Peninsula

Extending for 100 kilometres into the Sea of Japan, the Noto Peninsula is particularly well known for its dramatic coastal scenery. It’s the definition of ‘off the beaten track’ and is therefore best explored by car, either with your own private driver or as part of a self-drive section of your itinerary. Part of Noto’s appeal is its secluded nature – there’s a real feeling of reaching the end of the road and this can be a soothing contrast to the break-neck speed of Japan’s cities. It’s one of the country’s best road-trip destinations so expect to spend much of your time exploring in the car, stopping off at fishing villages, walking through terraced rice fields, perusing morning markets and watching spectacular sunsets from the rugged beaches. Western-style luxury accommodation is limited but there are a few beautiful ryokans, perfect for sampling Japanese onsen culture beside the sea.


The Noto Peninsula is classic rural Japan


3. The Japanese Alps

The Japanese Alps bisect the country’s main island of Honshu, stretching across six prefectures and offering dramatic scenery that easily rivals their European namesake. Starting from Tokyo or Hakone, the road winds through splendid vistas of forest clad mountains, waterfalls and the occasional hilltop village, eventually emerging on the island’s north coast, where you can visit one of Japan’s smaller cities, Kanazawa, known as the City of Traditional Arts. En route are several potential stops to pause for a night or two and slow down the journey. These include Kamikochi, which offers some of the country’s more challenging hiking options; Takayama, the gateway to dream-like rural scenery and the pointed roof communities of Shirikawago and Gokayama, and Matsumoto, home to one of Japan’s historic castles. The Matsumoto City Museum of Art, which houses a permanent collection of work by acclaimed artist, Yayoi Kusama, who was born in the city, makes for another potential pit-stop.

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