Japan may no longer be the next great superpower, but its traditional culture remains one of the world’s great treasures. Next time you’re in Tokyo with a few days to kill, get off the beaten path and head off to some of the spots most foreign tourists miss:
1. Izumo Taisha: The second main Shinto shrine in Japan, located in Izumo City, Shimane Prefecture on the less-developed Japan Sea side of the main island of Honshu. The shrine of Okuninushi no Mikoto, the nephew of the Sun Goddess, it is perhaps the perfect Japanese expression of architecture’s communion with nature. It is also where Japan’s 8 million gods gather during the tenth month of the lunar calendar (roughly October or early November). Unlike Ise Shrine, dedicated to the Sun Goddess herself, Izumo is still steeped in the raw power of the western clans that ultimately subordinated themselves to the emerging Japanese imperial family in the 3rd-4th centuries C.E..
2. Kinosaki: The place where Japanese go for hot springs, especially in the winter. Located on the Japan Sea, Kinosaki is a charming city of traditional inns, many with their own hot springs, bisected by a picturesque canal. Be sure to go when it’s snowing, and to plod through the streets in traditional wooden clogs, wearing just a thin kimono while hopping from hot spring to hot spring. Afterwards, you can indulge in a huge feast back in your inn (don’t stay in a modern hotel). A short drive takes you to the Japan Sea, where you can stand on cliffs and gaze out towards the continent that has been entwined with Japanese history for millennia.
3. Mt. Takachiho: Kyushu, the southernmost island in Japan, is where the Sun Goddess sent her grandson to begin conquering the divine land, according to the Japanese myths. He descended to earth at Mt. Takachiho, located roughly on the border between Kagoshima and Miyazaki prefectures in the south of the island. You can climb it in about two to three hours taking one of two paths, and at the summit will reach the Shinto shrine marking his arrival. The views are stunning, including a crater lake in the extinct volcano you climb on the way up, and not far away are some of Japan’s best hot springs (look for one called “Tengoku” or Heaven—though I haven’t visited for years and can’t tell you where it is).
4. The Asuka Region: An hour train ride south of Kyoto lies the cradle of Japanese civilization. In this small valley lived the nascent imperial family and the great clans who, within the space of two and a half centuries, from C.E. 550 to 800, created the classical Japanese state. Here was introduced Buddhism, and Japan’s oldest Buddhist temple, Asuka-dera, still exists; the first palaces also were built here, and the earliest tomb mounds still dot the landscape. Rent a bicycle and pedal leisurely through the countryside. Excellent museums abound, including the Kashihara Archeological Institute Museum, filled with ancient pottery, ornaments, and weapons.
5. Mt. Mitake: For those who want to stay closer to Tokyo, a 90-minute train ride west from Shinjuku will take you to one of the famous pilgrimage mountains from the Edo period (17th-19th centuries). A cable car takes you near the top of the mountain and an easy walk past small teahouses precariously perched on the pilgrimage path leads to the shrine at the top. But don’t end there: stay overnight at Shukubo Komadori-sanso, an inn dating back to 1776, which also offers special rates for foreigners. Try to go in autumn, when they serve a special seasonal meal that was the best dinner I’ve ever had in Japan. When nighttime comes, the absolute stillness of the mountain is awe-inspiring.
For inns at or near any of these locations, check out the Japanese Inn Group; general travel information is available at the Japan National Tourist Organization website. A Japan Rail Pass is the best way to travel, and the most economical (available only through JNTO offices abroad).