Tucked away in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture in central Japan lie a cluster of 100 or so historic farmhouses in an alpine valley. Each sits cozy under its gigantic thatched roof; sheltered from winter’s deep snows and summer’s heat.
This fairytale-like setting is Shirakawa-go, an authentic rural landscape from a bygone era and those who call it home still keep the old customs alive. Indeed, its beauty and wellpreserved traditions earned Shirakawa-go UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1995.
Book a stay at one of these farmhouses, whether a home or guesthouse and get a true feel for Japan’s rustic roots.
The remote and unspoiled setting simply add to the charm, well worth the journey from Tokyo by bus and train – just 3.5 hours via Toyama station.
One of the most unique natural features of Bandai-Asahi National Park in Fukushima are the Goshikinuma Ponds, or five-coloured marshes, located on a highland plain just north of the volcanic Mount Bandai. The lakes themselves are a relatively new feature on the landscape, having been formed after the mountain erupted in 1888, shifting the landscape and blocking a local river. The ponds’ striking colours derive from the combination of volcanic sediment, minerals and iron oxide that has leaked into the lake beds over the years. A visit to the lakes presents an ever-shifting palette worthy of an artist; the colour of one pond can change subtly throughout the day, and none are identical to another.
An hour and a half walking trail leads around the five main ponds as well as several other photogenic bodies of water. The wheelchair-accessible Urabandai Visitor Centre is a good place to start any walk, with numerous exhibits on the park’s geography and local wildlife.
Wild Japanese macaques saunter out of the snowy forest and slip into a steamy hot spring.
This truly unique wildlife scene is sure to warm your heart on even the coldest winter’s day. At Jigokudani (meaning “Hell Valley”) —located within the borders of Joshin'etsukogen National Park—the monkeys roam free in their natural habitat, and you’ll see that they appreciate a relaxing soak just as much as you do!
Takachiho in southern Kyushu is steeped in Japanese mythology, being the spot where the gods descended from heaven and created the Japanese archipelago.
Nestled in the heart of its deep forests is Takachiho Gorge, an awe-inspiring ravine encompassing the cobalt blue Gokase River that was born of a massive lava flow from Mount Aso about 90 to 120 millennia ago.
Trek down one of the many forest paths to view the chasm from above, or better still, rent a rowboat and admire it from below. If you’re lucky, the 17-meter high Manai Falls may even spray you, considered an auspicious sign. Finally, round off your trip with a look at Takachiho Shrine, stay for a kagura dance, or feast on local delicacies like Takachiho beef and Miyazaki-brewed shochu.
Takachiho is accessible by bus (reservation required) from Hakata (3.5 hours) or Kumamoto (2 hours). Those looking to stay the night will find a host of ryokan options, with many offering hot springs and beautiful mountain views.
Come to Kitayama, a historic village tucked away in the mountains of the Kii peninsula, and hop aboard a log raft for a whitewater ride rooted in history.
Part of Yoshino-Kumano National Park, Dorokyo Gorge is the ancestral home of the river runners—loggers who learned to navigate the rapids long before roads were paved.
Your guides will lead you downstream using the same techniques employed by their ancestors. You’ll laugh and scream with joy as you splash your way around every twist and turn of the rushing river, taking in breathtaking scenery along the way.
Memories of this off-the-beaten- track adventure will stay with you long after your return home.
Kitayama is located about four hours from Nagoya (five from Osaka) by train and bus. Travelers are encouraged to arrive the night before and spend the night before at the rustic Okutoro Onsen hot spring resort.
Every year, from August 12-15, beating drums, stomping geta clogs and high-spirited calls of “Yattosa!” and “Yatto yatto!” bring the city of Tokushima alive.
Synonymous with summer, nationwide festivals feature this traditional dance, but it all started here, over four centuries ago. This makes it one of the biggest festivals of its kind in the country, drawing more than a million people.
Enjoy parading dancers, with an electric atmosphere and infectious energy. Move to the beat and if you’re lucky enough, try the fun first-hand in one of the groups open to non-professionals.
The Awa Odori Kaikan offers daily performances, with further insights into the dance at the Awa Dance Museum inside.
Ninja and samurai are only as good as their weapons, and you can’t find better than a Bizen blade. Check them out for yourself at the Bizen Osafune Japanese Sword Museum. Some of the pieces on display may be more than 700-years old!
If you want a closer look, head to one of the on-premises forges and blacksmith workshops. There, you can watch the masters at work, or take part in a workshop that will have you create your own paper knife under their guidance (reservation required). What better way to commemorate your trip than by crafting your very own souvenir?
The sword museum is a 30-minute train ride from central Okayama, home to the striking Okayama Castle and its jet-black walls. Okayama is easily accessible at an hour from Osaka (90 minutes from Kyoto) by the Shinkansen bullet train.
Ever wanted to experience a Japanese temple without the crowds?
If you’re looking to spend a truly divine night, turn your eyes to Tsubosaka-dera in Nara, Japan’s first capital city.
After closing hours, let a monk take you on an exclusive tour of this magnificent site, which overlooks Mount Yoshino, long Japan’s most famous cherry blossom viewing spot.
You’ll learn about the temple’s history, don traditional dress, take part in a Buddhist prayer session and receive a good-luck talisman.
All that remains is exploring the grounds to your heart’s content before an enchanting and otherworldly night.
Group reservations are also welcome.
The average annual precipitation in Japan is about twice that of the world’s average, making it extremely important to prevent flooding especially in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area where the population is concentrated. Constructed underneath Route 16, a beltway in Tokyo Metropolitan Area, The Metropolitan Outer Area Underground Discharge Channel is one of the world’s largest and visually striking flood-prevention facilities. When the water level rises above the overflow bank of the small and medium-sized rivers, the water flows into a big shaft (about 30 meters in diameter, about 70 meters deep) which is large enough to hold the Statue of Liberty, and then through a tunnel (10 meters in diameter, 6.3 kilometers long) built underground to reach the huge pressure-adjusting tank (“Underground Shrine”). Then the water is drained into the Edogawa River using four pumps that were originally developed for an aircraft with an output of 14,000 horsepower per pump. As you descend to the Underground Shrine, you will be astonished at the scale of 59 oval stone pillars that stand 18 meters high, each weighing 500 tons. It looks like the ruins of lost civilization.
A guide will shed light on how this giant facility protects the residents of Tokyo Metropolitan Area from flooding. It’s a lesser-known side of Japan that must be seen to be believed.
The fishing village of Ine on Kyoto’s northern peninsula is a hidden gem untouched by time. Experience it to the fullest with a stayover at Kura, a traditional inn set in a renovated funaya (boathouse) beside the sea.
Soak in a luxurious bath and feel the ocean breeze as you gaze out on the bay. Take in the charming and historic homes that line the gently curved shore, a remarkable example of humans coexisting with nature.
Bask in the warmth of your hosts’ hospitality— English-speaking guides are available to show you around the town— and feast on seasonal bounties of the ocean while sipping sublime locally brewed sake.
With only one party admitted per night, you’ll have these idyllic surroundings all to yourself, and ample amenities ensure a comfortable stay for any traveler.
Located just over 2 hours by train from central Kyoto—just a stone’s throw from Amanohashidate, known as one of Japan’s three most scenic vistas—and with reservations bookable online in English, it’s a perfect overnight destination for those looking to escape more familiar surroundings.