Escaping the metropolis was vital during my year-long 1990s Tokyo teaching stint. Shinkansen trains to Kamakura; traditional ryokan sleepovers; and sliding into onsen baths with amused locals were never-to-be-forgotten experiences – plus persuasive reminders that there's much more to Japan than its concrete capital.
Kyoto-based Lonely Planet author and tour guide Chris Rowthorn (chrisrowthorn.com) agrees, saying his hometown should top the wish lists of anyone aiming beyond the capital.
"With temples, gardens, museums and traditional neighbourhoods, it's Japan's most rewarding destination," he says, suggesting shinkansen day trips from Tokyo or a leisurely week of "culture gorging."
Further afield, he also suggests: Nara ("packed with sights and easy to explore on foot"); Naha ("the biggest city in the semi-tropical islands of Okinawa"); and Takayama ("mountain culture plus nearby Kamikochi, which offers the finest alpine views in the land and is a great base for Japan Alps trekking.")
The Alps, he adds, are a perfect outdoorsy antidote to Tokyo. "Japan is one of the world's best-kept hiking secrets. You can do multiday hikes in the Japan Alps – the country's highest mountain range – with nothing more than day packs because its mountain huts serve meals and packed lunches."
Rowthorn also endorses the volcano-studded southern island of Kyushu plus the dramatically scenic northern island of Hokkaido – "especially Daisetsuzan National Park and the Shiretoko Peninsula."
Off-the-beaten-path is also the approach of a Kansai-based travel blogger at zoomingjapan.com, who goes by the pseudomnym Jasmine T. Blossom.
"My personal favourites start with the Kyushu region – especially Nagasaki, Takachiho and Beppu," she says, adding that while she also loves the Kansai's "temples, modern cities, ninja museums and old pilgrimage trails" she can't resist the beaches of Okinawa's Yaeyama Islands. "It's great for diving and snorkelling and is completely different from the rest of Japan."
Feline fans, she says, should consider visiting Kinokawa's JR Kishi Station – where the stationmaster is a peak-capped cat – or ferry hopping to Miyagi's Cat Island, where the purring locals outnumber humans. Others may prefer Hiroshima prefecture's Rabbit Island.
She's toured 47 prefectures, including the abandoned "Battleship Island" featured in the latest James Bond movie. Japan's "weird, funny and even dangerous" festivals are also worth visiting – eye-popping suggestions include April's Phallus Festival or October's Nada no Kenka Matsuri portable shrine fighting festival.
Then there are the dramatic castles: "The best way to dive into Japan's history is by visiting the 12 castles still with their original structures – from Himeji Castle in Hyogo to Matsue Castle in Shimane. If I had to name one region for castle- and history-lovers, though, it would be Kansai."
(Destinations recommended in this story are outside the Fukushima zone, site of the 2011 nuclear power plant disaster. The Canadian government advises against travel there: See travel.gc.ca/destinations/japan for a map and further information.)
When you travel, Rowthorn suggests avoiding the busy March/April cherry blossom and November fall foliage seasons. "You can visit main island Honshu any time – it's never too hot or too cold. But May, June, September and October are all lovely here."
The Japan Rail Pass is also best purchased before you leave home, he says.
"If you only use the one-week pass to travel between Narita Airport and Tokyo and then between Tokyo and Kyoto, it's cheaper than individual tickets. Add more destinations and it'll save you heaps."
And a word about public bathrooms: Carry a little hand towel and hand sanitizer with you (washrooms rarely offer hand-washing stations) and make sure to collect the free tissue packets offered on street corners to addresses the absence of loo rolls.
Blossom also suggests a small travel dictionary for easier on-the-road communication. Smiles and polite gestures, she adds, go a long way here.
OUR READERS WRITE
- For the whimsical and anime lover – tour the Ghibli museum in Mitaka. Purchase tickets in advance (Lawson mini-mart) – tickets at the gate are never available. Your ticket souvenir is a film cell from a Ghibli movie. Kevin Riemer, Sharon Speck
- Stay in a Buddhist monastery on Koyasan – a serene mountain-top retreat. Visit Miyajima Island. Spend time in an onsen town. @Maurice
- For my 12th visit in November, we spent one week in the Ogasawara Islands, part of Tokyo Prefecture, but 1,000 kilometres south in the Pacific Ocean. Often called the “Galapagos of the Orient” due to the fact that the islands were never attached to a mainland, the flora and fauna have evolved at their own pace. Steve Gillick
- Kyoto. Ideally in April for the cherry blossoms. @AndreaKerr
- Hiroshima – not for just the Peace Museum but to catch a great baseball game and go to the home of okonomiyaki. @k_kassam
- Love Kamakura: easy to access from Tokyo, huge outdoor Buddha statue, temples in caves, great sightseeing and walking trails. An interesting culture combo – sites of historic importance contrast with modern seaside surf culture. @MarisaEdghill
- Gotta love a day at Mount Fuji! Stunning views and a rather easy climb (by Canadian standards!). @Tamara_Elliott
- I liked Matsumoto, Nagano and Hakuba. Lots of history in Matsumoto and Nagano. Great skiing in Hakuba! @mtnbikinggirl
- Gero for its onsen. Used to live in Nagoya and had lotsa great miso-based food there. @MichaelV81512
- Yokohama. Spent a couple weekends there one summer. Baseball game and yakisoba street carts. Plus Chinatown. Amazing time. @johnbollwitt
- Kyoto. Temples, food, walking, mountains, good transport – I didn’t like that I was working most of the time, though! @DavidRCrowe
- Kamakura for history, Yamanashi for hiking and whisky, izu for hot springs. @JCMortgage
- All around Osaka especially Nara Park; and Tottori northwest of Osaka (sand dunes, etc.) and Hiroshima above all! @amandakendle
- How about Kyushu? Onsen towns, Mount Aso, beaches in Kagoshima, Fukuoka (the city with second highest number of bars after Tokyo). @katieforster
- 1: Eat everything! 2: Visit Miyajima when in Hiroshima, but don’t give birth or die on the island, it’s illegal. 3: Stay at a ryokan at least one night, and have them serve you breakfast and dinner on trays on the floor. 4: Buy your shinkansen rail pass before travelling to Japan – it’s too late once you get there. @elisabetheats
- Kyoto for its culture and temples, and Niseko for its powder in winter! @jenkaychan
- Yokahama (one hour from Tokyo on the train) or a trip to Kyoto. Hiroshima is thought-provoking, Kyoto is old-world Japan and Miyagi is beautiful. @whereiskfr
- Take the train to Kyoto – a quick train ride from Tokyo with Mount Fuji on one side and the Pacific on the other. Kyoto is the old capital of Japan, and a UNESCO heritage site, still largely unspoiled by developers and high-rises. Visit the old Imperial Palace, shrines, temples. Admire the dark wood. While in Kyoto take a tour to Ise to see the great shrine, and go on a pearl-diving boat ride. (They dive, you watch.) Jean Sonnenfeld
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