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Off the Beaten Path in Japan

While most tourists flock to Japan’s big cities and temple towns, the country’s charming villages and unspoiled nature have been drawing locals for centuries. Veronica Inveen strays off the beaten path to three lovely towns just a short ride from Tokyo and Kyoto.

Published on Mar 12, 2018


Bordered by persimmon orchards and bamboo forests, the town of Shuzenji, on the Izu Peninsula, is a three-hour drive from Tokyo and a scenic weekend getaway. The iconic Mount Fuji is visible from nearly every corner of Shuzenji, and the ocean is only a stone’s throw away, meaning fresh seafood is plentiful—visit Numazu Fish Market for a taste of the best. The town’s quaint downtown area houses the 1,200-year-old Shuzenji Temple encircled by a secret garden fit for fairy tales. Shizuoka is said to grow the best wasabi in the country, and the town is filled with shops serving ice cream flavored with the zesty root, a tasty combination of hot and cold. Visit Wahu Nagiya for home-sewn linen bags with eye-popping patterns; they’re souvenirs to suit everyone back home. The family-run Baird Brewery brews a range of Shuzenji-made beers, and, for a room with a view, stay at the new Izu Marriott Hotel Shuzenji (doubles from ¥12,000) that sits on a hill overlooking the city and Mount Fuji. The major draws here are the comfortable rooms, each equipped with a personal onsen, which pays homage to the town’s claim to fame, the Shuzenji Onsen, one of the oldest and most famous in Japan.

The historic Shuzenji Temple

Fresh from Numazu Fish Market

Baird Beer's Heritage Helles Lager

A private onsen room at Izu Marriott Hotel Shuzenji

Handmade bags at Wahu Nagiya


A 30-minute train ride from Kyoto Station will whisk you to the historic town of Omihachiman, right off of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake. Dissected by its famed canals, the small castle-studded town was built in 1585 on the ancient Nakasendo highway—the former hub of canal transportation from Tokyo to Kyoto. Old merchant homes now house cozy cafés and boutiques; look out for regional delicacies like marbled Omi beef (Shiga’s specialty), and fresh fish from Lake Biwa. Stop by Club Harie for a sugar fix; the bakery offers both European- and Japanese-style treats like bouncy cheesecakes, and boasts an aroma of fresh bread so enticing that you’ll be seduced in from the Himure Hachimangu shrine across the street. The shrine, which sits at the bottom of Mount Hachiman, offers a glimpse of the Edo period with its thousand-yearold wooden walls and stone statues. Get an authentic feel of the ancient city by staying at the Machiya Inn (doubles from ¥21,000), a restored home from the 18th century that was originally part of a sake brewery. And speaking of the drink, Shiga is known for its pure water—an essential ingredient in excellent sake. End an evening with a tour of Fujii Honke, a sake brewery established in 1831 that provided the liquor to the Japanese Imperial Court and important shrines all over the country. Run by fourth-generation brewer Mr Fujii Tetsuya, the sake is as crisp and clear as the waters of Lake Biwa.

Lake Biwa

Canals weave through Omihachiman


Hop on the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station, and in little more than an hour you’ll be nestled at the foot of Nagano Prefecture’s Mount Asama in the resort town of Karuizawa. Since the 18th century, the alpine town has lured in members of the imperial family as well as poets, painters and writers as a holiday destination for its restorative waters and guesthouse culture. Today it’s clear the presence of the creatives rubbed off: stylish restaurants and cafés dot the city’s streets, while modernist art museums like Hiroshi Senju Museum Karuizawa and Karuizawa New Art Museum draw a global audience for their cutting-edge design and displays. A tradition of fine dining from the visiting imperial family carries on with local boutique farms and Villa d’Est Winery nourishing the burned-out urbanites visiting on breaks from the Tokyo bustle. In winter, ski nearby Mount Yagasaki; in summer, hike Mount Asama; and onsen-hop all year round. The new Karuizawa Marriott Hotel (doubles from ¥28,000) offers ryokan-style rooms with futons and shoji paper blinds, and the open-air bathhouse, with views of the lush surrounding landscape, is just one more reason to get out of town.

Karuizawa's Hiroshi Senju Museum

Japanese guest room at Karuizawa Marriott

The onsen at Karuizawa Marriott


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