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Getting Off the Beaten Path in Japan

So you've hopped between Shinto shrines in Kyoto and taken the obligatory selfie in front of the Tokyo Tower. Our writers and editors are here to show you a whole other side of this multifaceted nation.

Published on May 13, 2019


The Land of the rising sun is the world's fastest-growing travel destination, and it’s not hard to see why. it has the electric energy of Tokyo and the enduring beauty of Kyoto. The country's ancient customs continue to fascinate, and its chefs approach their trade with a precision and creative spirit that yields unforgettable culinary experiences. Its landscape, from magisterial mountain ranges to an enchanting inland sea, rivals any in the world. its museums are meccas for art lovers, and its architects are imagining the future of design in daring ways. best of all, from historic urban shrines to forest trails to understated hotels, Japan offers a sense of serenity that is harder than ever to find today.


A Land

Even the most unlikely corners of japan can be spellbinding. venture beyond the tourist trail, says Pico iyer, and you'll encounter a wealth of hidden wonders.

I'VE JUST SLIPPED out of an exquisite jewel-box combination of moss garden, pond garden and camellia garden that is virtually deserted on this brilliant autumn afternoon. At Yoshiki-en (60-1 Noboriōjichō), admission is free for foreigners with passports, and right next door is Isui-en (, an even more ravishing and spacious garden complete with thatched-roof teahouses and a pond. Having basked in the dazzling scarlets and oranges and yellows of turning leaves, I head off across a park, past groves of wild plum trees and a 16th-century storehouse for Buddhist texts.

One of many teahouses in Isui-en, a garden in Nara with sections that date from the 1670s. Germán Vogel/Getty Images.

Deer peer at me through the trees. Others stroll up to check if my shoulder bag is edible. There are hundreds roaming untethered through Nara, a sprawling city 30 kilometers south of Kyoto that was Japan's capital for most of the eighth century. With night beginning to fall, I amble past a series of fairy-tale cottages—the rooms of the Edosan Inn (; doubles from ¥19,540 per person)—as women in kimonos glide among them, bearing dinner in lacquered boxes. Then I make my way down to Ukimido, a floating pavilion on a pond ringed by hills, as the rising moon evokes a traditional Japanese painting come to life. Following a path beside an orange-gated shrine, I arrive at the 109-year-old Nara Hotel (; doubles from ¥33,430), with a safe as tall as an NBA star behind its wooden front desk. A hidden flight of stairs along the hotel's driveway takes me down into Naramachi, a maze of thin, lantern-lit lanes lined with Meiji-era wooden houses, once family homes, that now burst with handicrafts and cones of yuzu ice cream and bottles of local sake.

I still can't quite believe that all these treasures lie only 40 minutes from my apartment in Nara's modern suburbs. But what my friends can't believe is that I've spent this magical afternoon in the city without once stepping into any of its A-list sights: the largest wooden temple in the world, one of the most sacred Shinto shrines in the land, and the second-tallest pagoda in Japan, all accessible via a gentle saunter through the deer park. The oldest wooden building in the world, a structure within the temple complex known as Hōryū-ji ( that dates from 607, is just a 12-minute train ride southwest of Nara's central station.

Is there anywhere as dense with treasures as Japan? In 44 years of continual travel I've never found such. That's one reason why Japan has been my adopted home ever since I left New York City 31 years ago. When friends visit, I take them along this quiet trail in Nara, bypassing the crowds around Tōdai-ji (, the central temple, and then point out that this storehouse of wonders is, in fact, an afterthought, often seen only on a day trip from radiant Kyoto, an hour away. It's Kyoto that pulls in newcomers with its more than 1,600 temples, 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, whisper-soft geisha districts, Zen gardens, and international manga museum. But Japan has so much to offer that even a city such as Nara, which became the land's first Buddhist capital 84 years before the court moved to Kyoto, can be thought of as a side trip. If countries were football teams, Japan would be the one with a crowd of all-stars that could still field a second 11 to keep up with almost any rival.

Deer outside Tōdai-ji Temple in Nara.
Deer outside Tōdai-ji Temple in Nara. Kokai/Getty Images.

Everybody knows that Tokyo is one of the sleekest and most futuristic cities on the planet, a streamlined web of hidden sushi bars and fish markets and cosplay cafés and outlandish fashions. No one wants to miss Kyoto, the capital for more than a thousand years and cradle of so many of the traditions that make Japan unique. But I remind friends that they can also go to Takayama, three hours northeast of Kyoto by train, and enjoy street after street of wooden houses, with bridges over picturesque canals leading to hills ringed with temples. Or they can make the pilgrimage to Hiroshima's piercing Peace Memorial (, two hours in the other direction, and follow it with a 10-minute ferry ride to Miyajima, a compact island of temples (and more deer) with a haunting shrine, Itsukushima, that's been jutting into the water for 14 centuries. If they want to see how a forgotten community can be made new by art, I tell them they can't afford to miss Naoshima, the island in the Inland Sea, less than four hours from Hiroshima, that has, over the past quarter-century, been turned into a complex of museums that are forward-looking yet serene—the ultimate Japanese combination.

You will have heard that Japan has become irresistible to travelers in the past few years. Since 2003 the number of international visitors has rocketed by more than 500 percent, and in 2019 it is predicted to top 28 million. The declining yen has made US$15 three-course lunches possible (no tax or tips required). As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (and the 2019 Rugby World Cup) approach, there are more announcements in English. And as Japan's neighbors across Asia have already discovered, the country has the best shopping around, from cartoon mugs to lacquer boxes, for both high-end goods and uniquely Japanese products. Even the convenience stores are crammed with miniature marvels that start to prepare you for the inexhaustible food basements in the department stores.

Sometimes it feels as if all those visiting millions are converging around the well-known temples in Kyoto. Go to the postcard venues listed in guidebooks and you'll understand why parts of Kyoto are now nicknamed "Chinatown" (almost all the young women in kimonos in the streets are in fact excited tourists). But on my walk around Nara I remember that just five minutes from the clatter of buses and clicking cameras around its central temple are beauties that the majority of visitors have neither the time nor the inclination to visit.

Along a section of the Kumano Kodo, a 900-year-old. Pilgrimage trail on the Kii Peninsula.
Along a section of the Kumano Kodo, a 900-year-old. Pilgrimage trail on the Kii Peninsula. Christopher Kucway.

Wandering around the country I like to claim as my own, I sometimes recall the first days I ever spent in Japan in 1983 and 1984. Never had I seen somewhere so different from the world I knew, so rich in secrets and so much like the elegant woodcuts I'd admired in museums. India is more intense, Cuba has better music, and Iran is more glamorous. But when a friend says she wants to go somewhere exotic and yet safe, unfathomable and yet kind, transporting and yet clean, honest, and efficient, I pick up the phone and make a reservation for her at the Nara Hotel.



Despite its reputation for urban density, japan has no shortage of natural wonders—many of which are best seen on foot, bicycle, or a pair of skis. Budget a few extra days into your travel plans for a wilderness adventure.

Walk Japan
( offers more than 20 guided small-group multiday tours around the country. Highlights include a trek in the footsteps of the 17th-century poet Bashō through the mountainous Tōhoku region; a ramble from Kyoto to Tokyo along the ancient Nakasendō way; and an expedition along the Kumano Kōdō forest trails, which spiritual seekers have been following since the sixth century.

Known for its heavy snowfall, Hokkaido is a ski haven; powder lovers flock to Niseko Village ( near Mount Yotel. But there are nearly 600 ski resorts in the country. For a more authentic Japanese experience, head to Nagano prefecture where Hakuba ( has nine pristine ski areas and access to a slew of new hotels and onsen including a 1931 ryokan redone by Relais & Château.

The bucolic Nara Prefecture is one of the best places in this bike-friendly country to explore on two wheels. A seven-day guided tour by DuVine (; from US$8,795 per person) visits tea fields, Buddhist temples and luxurious onsens, with stops for kaiseki meals, yakitori and sake along the way.

Enjoying autumn colors on DuVine's cycling tour.
Enjoying autumn colors on DuVine’s cycling tour, which circles away from Kyoto through Nara Prefecture and back. Courtesy of DuVine Cycling + Adventure Co.

Since 2000, tour operator Canyons ( has been leading rafting excursions on the wild upper reaches of the Tone River near the town of Minakami, 160 kilometers northwest of Tokyo. They also offer canyoning tours that include ziplining down canyons and rappelling off waterfalls.




Japan's northernmost island is a skier's paradise, but its natural beauty is worth exploring throughout the year. Scott Gilman ( of JapanQuest Journeys, a member of the T+L A-List of top travel advisors, created the following tour, which he can book for you.; from US$1,800 per person per day.

From Tokyo, take a 90-minute flight to Hokkaido's Kushiro Airport. Book your return flight from the rural Nakashibetsu Airport.


 DAY 1 
Check in to Hazel Grouse Manor (; doubles from ¥35,460), a 90-minute drive from Kushiro airport. The hotel, a Georgian home with a French restaurant, is near Kushiro Shitsugen National Park, Japan's largest wetland. the region is home to some 1,000 Japanese cranes, once thought to be extinct. get a closer view of the graceful birds at research centers and feeding stations throughout the park.


 DAY 2 
Visit Akan Mashu National Park. Lake Mashu is famous for its clear water, and while you can only view it from a distance, it makes for sublime sightseeing. Nearby Lake Kussharo offers swimming and kayaking. At Iozan, an active volcano, buy eggs cooked by the heat of the mountain.

 DAY 3 
Drive 21⁄2 hours to remote Shiretoko National Park, located on a long peninsula on the northeastern corner of the island. Nature trails in the rugged landscape pass dramatic waterfalls and provide views of a chain of five small, pristine lakes.

 DAY 4 
Stop at Kaiyodai Observatory for a panorama of the surrounding countryside before a flight from Nakashibetsu Airport back to Tokyo.



In a country with such a long legacy of hospitality that a 200-year-old ryokan is considered a recent arrival, it can be tough for new hotels to make a splash. These properties, all of which debuted in the past few years, stand out.

1. Fuji-no-kirameki Fuji-gotemba Gotemba, Shizuoka
Set in a valley near mount Fuji, these compact corrugated-steel-and-wood cabins have private terraces and retractable roofs, so you can sleep under the stars while enjoying 21st-century amenities (Bluetooth speakers, digital projectors). Dinners range from full-service multicourse affairs to grill-it-yourself platters of seasoned meats and vegetables.; from ¥29,360 per person.

2. Zaborin Niseko, Hokkaido
The forested grounds of this ryokan feel so remote that you'd hardly guess you're just 20 minutes from Japan’s most popular ski resorts. The 15 villas have low-slung furnishings and few accessories, save for the occasional artwork or ikebana arrangement. But with private indoor-outdoor hot tubs, kaiseki meals with foraged ingredients, and pine-scented bath amenities, Zaborin doesn't lack for luxury.; doubles from ¥75,325, all-inclusive.

A tub at Zaborin, a ryokan in Hokkaido.
A tub at Zaborin, a ryokan in Hokkaido. Shouya Grigg/Courtesy of Zaborin.

3. Trunk Hotel, Tokyo
Trunk Hotel has made an outsize impact for a hotel with just 11 rooms and four suites—in part because its public spaces include a cocktail lounge, two restaurants, and a concept store, all of which have become favorites among the neighborhood's in-crowd. The hotel’s socially and environmentally conscious leanings play out in the details: Tokyo-made snacks in the mini-bars, loaner bikes cobbled together from refurbished parts, and activities that highlight the work of area artists, chefs and musicians.; doubles from ¥33,100.

4. Kyomachiya Hotel Shikijuraku, Kyoto
This property has only been open for a year, but its 10 two-story machiya, or shophouses, date back more than a century. Within each, you'll find Japanese design elements—tatami mats, rice-paper screens—plus Beni Ourain rugs and sculptural furnishings that create a modern, multicultural feel.; doubles from ¥37,605.

A suite at Tokyo's Trunk Hotel.
A suite at Tokyo’s Trunk Hotel. Courtesy of Trunk Hotel.



In Tokyo gardens and Kyoto temples, Marie Mutsuki Mockett finds bliss among the changing maple leaves.

THANKS TO THE TINY star-shaped leaves that radiate from the momiji, the maple indigenous to eastern Asia, autumn in Japan is exhilarating. Walking through Kiyosumi Gardens (3-3 Kiyosumi, Kōtō-ku) in Tokyo on a recent visit, I glanced up at a constellation of red, orange, yellow and green leaves that interlocked to form a scrim. As the sun shone through, my world was bathed in kaleidoscopic color.

That evening, I went to Rikugi-en (16-3-6 Honkomagome, Bunkyō-ku)—like Kiyosumi, a classical Edo-period strolling garden. Stage lights illuminated the momiji, so that their bright bodies flexed against the night like lanterns. Fog machines generated mist, obscuring the ground. Both Rikugi-en and Kiyosumi are part of the Autumn Leaves Stamp Rally, an annual event during which ecstatic pilgrims visit all nine of Tokyo's main gardens, receiving a stamp in a booklet for each one.

The Japanese, ever attuned to the seasons, love the cherry blossom. But kōyō, or autumn color, is cherished with nearly the same ardor. Beginning in the 17th century, Japanese gardeners, in typically exacting manner, arranged more than 300 varieties of maple around temples, inns, and residences in pleasure-giving color configurations. Momiji leaves are thin but taut, like sheets of crystallized honey, and can refract and filter light, like natural stained glass. Japan is full of unusually red trees, and in the sunlight the leaves glow like rubies.

Kiyomizu-dera, an eighth-century temple in Kyoto.
Kiyomizu-dera, an eighth-century temple in Kyoto, is surrounded by the fiery leaves of Japanese maples every October. Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Getty Images.

In recent years, media attention and foreign enthusiasm, particularly from the Chinese, have raised the passion for Japanese leaf-chasing to a kind of fervor. From mid-October until early December, websites track the changing of the leaves from northeast to southwest. There are colorful trees all over the country, but most visitors cluster around the major cities, where hotels print daily foliage updates for guests. Such obsessiveness adds to the frenzied quality of the pursuit. But a chance to see the leaves at full wattage is a lesson in savoring the moment before the startlingly vivid colors fade.

Because Kyoto was not bombed during World War II, its trees and temples are generally older than Tokyo's and are particularly prized. The Zen temple Enrian (2 Saganisonin Monzen Zenkōji Yamachō, Ukyō-ku) is open only five weeks a year for visitors to see its famed 350-year-old tree, bred so its leaves turn blood-red. Visiting Rurikōin, I saw a crowd of fiery maples, whose predominant color, orange, was projected through a window onto a black lacquered floor.

Founded in 778, Kiyomizu-dera Temple ( is perched atop a 13-meter cliff. It looks like the biblical ark suspended on an amber ocean of maple leaves. Young women dressed in cream, teal and camel lingered over the view of the hills and vermilion pagodas sprouting from the scarlet forests. I gazed out at the horizon, to a landscape pulsing with color and the old city itself, and my heart throbbed with happiness.



Since the turn of the millennium, Japanese architects have created dazzling structures characterized by transparency and lightness. Add the following buildings to your itinerary for a glimpse of the future of architecture.

1. Sumida Hokusai Museum, Tokyo
A solo endeavor by Kazuyo Sejima of mega-firm SANAA, this 2016 museum in Tokyo's Sumida ward brings together more than 1,800 prints by 19th-century artist Katsushika Hokusai. Its bold spaces recall the lines of his woodcuts.

The Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo.
The Sumida Hokusai Museum in Tokyo. Prism by Dukas/Getty Images.

2. Musashino Art University Museum & Library, Tokyo
Sou Fujimoto, Japan's most in-demand architect, specializes in minimal environments that invite exploration, such as a house made of stacked glass boxes. His 2010 library has a labyrinthine interior with a single, spiraling wall of books.

3. Toyama Kirari, Toyama
Kengo Kuma's résumé includes Tokyo's national stadium, where the 2020 olympics will be held. For this 2015 building in Toyama, on Honshu's west coast, he squeezed a public library, bank and museum of glass art into a single bristling envelope.

4. Awaji Yumebutai Park & Conference Center, Awaji Island
Tadao Ando updates Japan's tradition of garden design. Located on an island that lies between Honshu and Shikoku, this complex, which includes a Westin Hotel, features 1,000 fountains and a terrace of 100 planted flower enclosures.




This major body of water, surrounded by the main islands of Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku, offers a beguiling mix of art, culture and history. Epic Road's Mark Lakin (, a member of T+L’s Travel Advisory Board, can book this tour of the region.; from US$1,000 per person per day.

From Tokyo, take an 80-minute flight to Takamatsu, a city on the northern shore of Shikoku.


 DAY 1 
In Takamatsu, visit the 17th-century Risurin Park and Shikoku Village, an open-air museum of vernacular architecture. At nearby Konpira-san, hike 1,368 steps to a Shinto Shrine. Stay at Kotohira Kadan (; doubles from ¥28,230), a traditional ryokan-onsen.

 DAY 2 
Drive south to Mount Tsurugi, then climb to the top for panoramic views. Head into the secluded Iya Valley and spend the night at Tougenkyo-Iya (; doubles from ¥282), a group of thatched-roof villas.

 DAY 3 
Travel by car and ferry to Naoshima, an island in the Inland Sea that showcases contemporary art, with such site-specific pieces as a polka-dot pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama. Stay at Benesse House (; doubles from ¥31,850), a Tadao Ando–designed museum with guest rooms.

 DAY 4 
Spend a day on two more art-centric islands with Benesse sites nearby: on Teshima, visit the Teshima Art Museum, shaped like a drop of water, and on Injuima, the Injuima Seirensho Art Museum, in the ruins of a factory. Travel to Kurashiki, on Honshu’s southwestern coast, and stay at Ryokan Kurashiki (; doubles from ¥39,525).


 DAY 5 
Illustration By Lucinda Rogers.Tour Kurashiki's superb Ohara Museum of Art ( The city is a short drive from the town of Kojima, where you can visit Japanese denim ateliers on "Jeans Street."



A Ryokan
That Floats

Guntû is a cross between a traditional inn and a luxury yacht. Lisa Grainger takes a sybaritic sail around the Seto Inland Sea.

BOUNDED BY THE ISLANDS of Honshu to the north, Shikoku to the south, and Kyushu to the southwest, and surrounded by a gently hilly shoreline, the Seto Inland Sea stretches roughly 400 kilometers from east to west. It's been an important commercial waterway between the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Japan for millennia. And while pleasure boats have long navigated its waters, it's a good bet that none have been as luxurious as the Guntû (; from ¥396,390 per person for two nights), a small, exceedingly comfortable cruise ship with ultra-minimalist décor that bills itself as a "floating hotel."

The 81-meter-long vessel, designed by Tokyo-based residential architect Yasushi Horibe, couldn't be more Japanese. Stepping aboard at a private marina in Onomichi, a port town near Hiroshima, I noticed that the only adornment in the ship's lobby was a polished slice of tree trunk that supported a vase holding a single lily. My wood-paneled cabin, which had floor-to-ceiling windows, was outfitted with simple handcrafted furniture. There were crisp cotton kimonos in my bathroom, fresh ginger juice in my fridge, and books on bonsai in my snug sitting room. It was like the inside of a dream ryokan—only afloat.

The top deck of Guntû reflects its minimalist design.
The top deck of Guntû reflects its minimalist design. Tetsuya Ito/Courtesy of Guntû.

The three-decker boat has just 19 cabins—the largest is an airy 271⁄2 square meters—making it feel more like a private yacht than a ship. The top deck is designed as a single living area, but I rarely bumped into the other (elegantly dressed, Japanese) passengers during my three-day sail. Some were relishing their private balconies with outdoor tubs; others were having spa treatments or soaking in the onboard bathhouses.

The Seto Inland Sea has 3,000 islands, only some of which are inhabited, and I took daily excursions on the ship’s two speedboats. On Kashima Island, I saw fishermen bringing in nets full of coveted pin-size baby sardines. After landing at Miyajima Island one morning before the crowds arrived, I explored its cobblestoned streets, climbed the ancient stone stairs leading to the top of a forested hillside, and got a closer look at Itskushima, the famous sixth-century Shinto shrine that appears to rise out of the bay during high tide.

The ship's guest rooms have private balconies, many with outdoor tubs.
The ship's guest rooms have private balconies, many with outdoor tubs. Tetsuya Ito/Courtesy of Guntû.

Mostly, though, I reveled in the Guntû's refined spaces. I was served an unforgettable 11-course dinner created by Tokyo chef Atsuhisa Furukawa from local seafood and Wagyu beef so tender I could cut it with a chopstick; each tiny course was served on a different handmade plate. I also took advantage of the many masters on board: a shiatsu masseuse who unknotted my back with skill; a pastry chef who taught me the intricacies of making and drinking matcha; and a star chef, Nobua Sakamoto (of Nobu in Awajishima), who showed me how to cut and roll sushi. There can be few lovelier places to learn how to make—or to eat—maki than at his six-seat wooden bar, as the islands drift by and passing fishermen wave from their boats.



Some of the country's biggest cheerleaders stateside share reliable favorites that highlight Japanese ingredients and the joys of a humble but perfectly cooked meal.

1. Yuyado Samakoto, Ishikawa Prefecture
"This remote ryokan on the Noto Peninsula could be the most wabi-sabi inn in japan," says Nancy Singleton Hachisu, author of Japan: The Cookbook. "Shinichiro Sakamoto and his wife, Mihoko, make all the food in-house, including the pickles, preserves and smoked fish. Soba is hand-rolled each day and treated with the respect it deserves." meals are served only to ryokan guests. 15-47 Uedomachi-jisha, Suzu-shi; +81 766 82 0584; doubles from ¥18,070.

Soba noodles.
Soba noodles. James Ellerker/Gallery Stock.

2. The Terrace, Naoshima Island
After a day of art at Benesse House, says Anne Soh Woods, founder of Kikori Whiskey, "continue the sensory experience at the museum’s exceptional restaurant. Its presentation of French cuisine with a Japanese bent is as awe-inspiring as the setting."; tasting menu ¥12,990.

3. Wappado, Ohara, Kyoto Prefecture
"Wappado is a small farmhouse restaurant near Kyoto, where I grew up," says Yoshi Okai, head chef at Otoko in Austin, Texas. "I love it because every ingredient is sourced from the area." Look for tempura of seasonal vegetables and coal-roasted skewers of organic chicken and fish.; set menu from ¥2,485.

4. Obana, Arakawa, Tokyo Prefecture
This restaurant specializes in one thing: unagi, or freshwater eel. "Obana is among the best unagi restaurants in Japan," says Nobu Matsuhisa of Nobu Restaurants & Hotels. "They do only a few preparations, which are very simple and very Japanese." 5-33-1 Minamisenju; +81 3 3801 4670; mains ¥5,985–¥8,020.




This journey through the southernmost of Japan's four main islands takes in local cuisine, relaxing onsens, and strikingly diverse landscapes. Tesia Smith (, a member of the T+L A-List of top travel advisors, can book this and similar tours.; from US$500 per day.

From Tokyo, take a two-hour flight to Fukuoka, a city on the island’s northern shore. Book your return flight from Kagoshima, on the southern side.


 DAY 1 
Spend the day in Fukuoka's Hakata district exploring the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum ( and the eighth- century Kushida Shrine. A food tour by Fukuoka Walks ( encompasses the Yanagibashi Rengo Fish market, a department-store food hall, and the city's lasting street vendors. Stay at the Grand Hyatt (; doubles from ¥21,120).


 DAY 2 
Drive two hours south to Kurokawa, a classic hot-spring town. Check in to Yamamizuki Ryokan (; doubles from ¥37,270) and soak in its outdoor baths next to a peaceful river before a kaiseki dinner and a night on a traditional tatami.

 DAY 3 
Drive two hours south to the mountain town of Takachiho, then rent a rowboat to navigate the Gokase River, which winds through the dramatic Takachiho Gorge, passing waterfalls. Continue driving two hours along Kyushu's eastern coast to Kirishima-Yaku National Park. Stay at Wasure no Sato Gajoen (; doubles from ¥28,460), a collection of cottages on the bank of the Amorigawa River.

 DAY 4 
Check out more of Kirishima-Yaku's active volcanoes, magnificent woodlands, and rustic onsens before the 90-minute drive to Kagoshima for your return flight.




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