As the world locks its eyes on Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, we will be bombarded with images showing a hyper-modern city of frenetic intensity. Many visitors to Japan see little or nothing else, dashing between the metropolis of Tokyo and the former capital Kyoto on the country’s famously efficient Shinkansen (bullet trains), dutifully ticking off the non-stop nightlife of the former and the beautiful but crowded shrines of the latter.
But beyond the busy cities, in countless regional beauty spots, is the Japan that has shaped a unique culture, a gentle world of mannered tea ceremonies and elaborate rituals, where the delicate art of origami and the patient nurturing of bonsai plants are visible manifestations of Zen.
Just an hour from Tokyo is the woodsy, cedar-scented Mount Takao, a natural wonder far less overrun by visitors than its famous neighbour, Mount Fuji. The Kiso Valley, with its tiny villages, spectacular mountains and gorges – and historical thoroughfares that retrace the footsteps of ancient feudal lords – is only a few hours away by train. And Northern Kansai, north-west of Kyoto city, is rich with cultural and natural heritage: picturesque fishing villages, colourful blooms and traditional hot-spring towns.
The thumping rhythms of the big cities may be Japan’s heartbeat but these quiet rural hamlets are the country’s serene soul.
50 minutes from central Tokyo
Ascend any of Tokyo’s skyscrapers on a clear day and it’s impossible to miss the snow-capped monolith that is Mount Fuji, about 120 kilometres south-west of the city. You could join the thousands of visitors who hike to its summit every day in peak season or you could stay closer to Tokyo and make the climb less travelled to the top of the serenely beautiful Mount Takao. It’s just under 600 metres and the gentle walk winds past Buddhist shrines and tea houses, making it an invigorating fresh-air daytrip away from the pace of the capital.
At the summit, you’ll be rewarded with far more vibrant views of Mount Fuji than you get from Tokyo – and even better ones if you take the unmarked path to the lesser-known Momijidai lookout, an easy 10-minute walk from the top.
Enjoy lunch at the peaceful Ukai Toriyama, a traditional Japanese restaurant set on two hectares of cultivated cherry trees and maples with a tumbling natural brook. Meals are served in dining rooms with floor-to-ceiling views of the gardens. Afterwards, wander among the trees and koi ponds to watch chefs grilling river fish over coals or seek out the timber water wheel that was once used to grind buckwheat for soba noodles.
The Kiso Valley
Three hours from Tokyo
Straddling two prefectures, Nagano and Gifu, and situated in the shadow of the imposing Mount Ontake, the verdant Kiso Valley is so low-key many urban Japanese haven’t even heard of it. Yet its tapestry of feudal-era towns, crystal-blue gorges and mountain shrines makes it one of the best areas (within easy reach of Tokyo) to enjoy a true taste of traditional Japan.
Base your stay at the elegant Tsutaya Tokinoyado Kazari, a luxurious traditional inn surrounded by produce gardens with views to the sacred volcano Mount Ontake. The property, a 20-minute drive from the train station at Kiso-Fukushima, has 20 guestrooms, most with tatami floors and futons; some with private open-air onsen. Japanese breakfasts of fresh fish, rice and vegetables from the garden are served to guests every day.
The inn is an easy drive to the valley’s premier attractions and Kiso Ontake Tourism Office can help with transport if you haven’t rented a car.
Thanks to being halfway between Kyoto and Tokyo, Kiso was one of the key stops along the Nakasendo trail, an ancient thoroughfare traversed by feudal lords and their samurai in pre-industrialised Japan. Today, the eight-kilometre hike between the villages of Magome and Tsumago is a lovely way to take in the landscape. There are shops and restaurants along the track, including a 250-year-old tea house that serves complimentary tea to walkers.
A 40-minute drive from Kiso-Fukushima, the tiny village of Otaki, with a population of about 700 people, sits beside the pure waters of the Otaki River. With most of its landmass made up of dense forest, the region is of divine significance to pilgrims from an esoteric Japanese sect whose members, clad in flowing white robes, may be the only people you meet as you trek to two sacred waterfalls on the outskirts of the village.
SEE ALSO: What to Know Before a Ski Trip to Japan
Five hours from Tokyo (by bullet train)
Mention the areas around Kyoto that make up the region of Northern Kansai – Kyoto by the Sea, the woodland to the west and the spa town of Kinosaki Onsen – and most Japanese will tell you excitedly about the beauty, the views and the seasonal food.
Begin your Northern Kansai exploration near Ayabe, known for its blankets of wild-fringed irises, or shaga, which bloom in the spring and rival the showier cherry blossoms for charm. Then weave towards the coast to the sheltered fishing village of Ine, home to Mukai Brewery, which has supplied some of the best restaurants in the world, including two-Michelin-starred The Jane Antwerp in Belgium, which uses its sake to prepare dishes.
Further along the coast, at the mouth of the Maruyama River, Kinosaki Onsen is a bona fide hot-spring town, with seven public baths clustered at its core. The water here – legend says it burst forth from the earth when a priest visiting the region prayed for the health of the people for 1000 days – is considered to be medicinal, curative for everything from respiratory problems to skin conditions. Women of all ages, shapes and sizes are draped everywhere, in and out of the water.
A mother chats to her friend while her baby son feeds at her breast. Two younger women sit on a rocky ledge discussing a disappointing Internet date. There’s a feeling of unhurried camaraderie; a sense of being part of a village.
The chic ryokan, Nishimuraya Hotel Shogetsutei, blends local traditions with modern luxury, providing yukata – colourful loose cotton gowns – and a pair of wooden clogs, or geta, for guests to wear when spa-hopping around the town (if you like, an expert will come to your room and help you into the gown). If you’re shy about taking it off – swimsuits are not permitted in public baths – the hotel offers private onsen, complete with sparkling wine.
Beyond the baths, the cobbled streets are filled with people drinking beer in small taverns, eating Kobe beef (from the high-quality Japanese cattle raised in the region) and playing retro games in arcades. Others are cooking “onsen eggs” in the hot springs.
A million miles from the future-focused frenzy of the cities, everything has a dreamy ease, a sense that as long as you’re slowing down and letting life wash over you like the curative spa waters then you’re doing things right.
Exploring Northern Kansai
More time on your hands? There are dozens of pretty pockets to discover.
- Genbudo Cave Park is a series of five basalt caves that feature extraordinary rock patterns formed during an ancient lava explosion.
- Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork, a wildlife rehabilitation centre, has helped bring these majestic birds – a historical national symbol
– back from complete extinction in Japan.
- The historic castle town of Izushi is still laid out as it was in samurai times, with an Edo-era feudal fortress perched at the top of a walkway of bright red torii gates. You can visit a preserved samurai house, its low ceilings designed to prevent enemy invaders from being able to swing their swords high enough to eliminate the occupants. The region is known for its high-quality soba. Each diner is served five small plates of the soft buckwheat noodles, which are dipped in a tangy sauce (or soup) spiked with daikon, wasabi and a raw egg.