Get Past Tokyo and See the Real Japan: My Top 5, Don’t-miss Destinations

Moss-covered, misty forests of giant cedars where monkeys roam; a rural island where ancient old theatre and drumming was born; thatched-roof homes nestled into a valley; a towering citadel surviving from the era of the shogunate… does this sound like Tokyo to you?  No, it’s the relatively untouched Japan of your imaginations, and it’s a lot easier to get to than you think.

The Average Tourist in Japan

Most travelers who venture across the world to Japan will take in the two hub cities of Tokyo and Kyoto, and with good reason – the international airports of Haneda, Narita and Osaka are conveniently located within arm’s reach of major attractions. I certainly would not pass up a few days in the metropolis of Tokyo, and certainly never skip over historic Kyoto, while visiting the country.

Experience More

However, Japan is surprisingly diverse. In fact, the country spans the length of the USA, but has more culture packed into it than you could possibly imagine. It’s the 10th largest country in the world by population, and from North to South these people are worth seeing – from tip to tip.  Thanks to a nation-wide network of trains and quick air travel, it only takes extending your trip by even 3-4 days to experience an extra destination. So don’t just skim through Tokyo and Kyoto, pick at least 1 or 2 of the below list of places worth delving into. You won’t regret seeing the real Japan – the old quintessential culture you imagined, not the cacophony of skyscrapers and competing train tracks of Tokyo. It is where nature and traditions collide in a beautiful combination. Let me share with you my top 5 places that you shouldn’t miss:

Matsumoto & Takayama

Just a bullet train ride away, through the peaceful countryside from Tokyo is Matsumoto and its four hundred year old castle, named a national treasure set amidst the Japanese Alps. As you walk across the bridge over the moat, koi swim past beneath swan. On the structure, narrow windows once used by archers, let in a small amount of light.

Sadly most of the rebuilds you will see in other parts of the country were destroyed by World War II, making Mastumoto the oldest remaining citadel donjon in the country. In town, walk in the footsteps of the shoguns and samurai as you take a stroll down Edo-period streets, lined with storehouses, many of which have now been converted into galleries and cafés.

If you have time, take the journey a few hours west to Takayama, a historic town along the river with quaint shops, sake breweries, cafés and a lively daily market. Pick a local ryokan (Japanese inn) to stay overnight here – the air of this mountain town is extremely refreshing the next morning!

Quick Tip IconHelpful Hint:
For more budget travelers, I suggest booking a room at: Honjin-Hiranoya. For those wanting to splurge for the real deal, I suggest: Wanosato. (It will wow your socks off! Thatched-roof cottages, highly-detailed décor and cuisine, and a gorgeous wooded setting, all locally owned and run.)

Ogimachi Village in Shirakawa-go

Heading to the west coast of Japan, we now venture deeper into the Alps to Ogimachi Village.  As you walk through its old streets, you very well might see an old lady farming with a plow, smiling as you pass by. Looking up at the thatched-roofs, thicker than a large pillar, you will see a few stray stands of straw poking out from the otherwise perfectly trimmed A-frame. The centuries-old techniques have been passed down from generation-to-generation, and the town still comes together to help neighbors replace the roof when it wears down each spring. Stop by several of the homes in town, which are now little “museums” where you can see the interior of the roofs.  The owners will likely be there to say hello if you ask, and might even tell stories of how their ancestors built them hundreds of years ago (with a translator of course).

What I found just as intriguing as climbing a 200-year-old staircase to an roof-attic was coming out of one house, to find two children dressed in soccer gear barreling out of the front door, their mom anxiously waiting in her minivan in the driveway.  She snaps at them as they nearly forget to close the splintered, wooden door behind them. Modern life certainly goes on, but Ogimachi village still retains its charm.

Quick Tip IconHelpful hint:
In spring of 2015, the bullet train will now run from Tokyo to Kanazawa, making a trip to Shirakawa-go much more doable.

Sado Island

Off the west coast is another “time capsule” of Japan – Sado Island. A long time magnet for talented artists, performers and craftsman, its stunning natural beauty brought this island a vibrant creative culture over time. In fact, Sado is the founding place of traditional Japanese Noh theater and the home of the internationally acclaimed Kodo Drummers. Yet tourists from afar have yet to flock to Sado. And it’s a good thing too; the town has a well-preserved traditional appearance with weathered gray houses surrounded by rice paddies that extend toward the sea. It’s the old Japan that is becoming harder and harder to find. Delve into culture on the island and see a Noh performance on one of its original stages, or take in a lively Taiko drumming class where it all began for Kodo.

Quick Tip IconHelpful Hint:
In August, the annual Earth Celebration happens on Sado, where the Kodo Drummers return home for nightly performances.


Down South, the landscape shifts. Misty air falls on massive, ancient cedars. Deer roam freely and monkeys swing from branches above. This is Yakushima Island, where a diverse 1,900 species call this peaceful, remote place home. As you walk along the winding, elevated boardwalk through the mossy green, primeval forests, the light creeps in and casts an ethereal feeling on the forest. It’s a trekking experience like no other.

Quick Tip IconHelpful Hint: Rent full head-to-toe rain gear from your hotel on the island, as it downpours at least once every single day. It’s part of the experience, and helps give the forest that glorious mist!

Naoshima and Teshima

Last but not least are the islands of Naoshima and Teshima. This is contemporary art heaven where Japanese greats have set up a center of variety and innovation through its museums that are built into the land in creative ways. The landscape is stunning along the Inland Sea, where smaller islands appear as you ferry over.

Quick Tip IconHelpful Hint:
Rent Bikes on Teshima and pick your own route between museums.


Want more information on these five destinations? I would be happy to speak more to you about your upcoming trip to Japan. Having spent an entire year of my professional career planning more than 70 programs in the country – I absolutely adore Japan and love an excuse to talk about it.  Contact me at any time, I would love to help!


Feature Photo Credit: Thinkstock/iStock Editorial/Suriya Wattanalee

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