The country is littered throughout with charming small towns and villages that offer travelers a more authentic local appeal than Tokyo or Osaka. And although Japanese culture is much the same in every region, each of these gorgeous small towns is worth seeing for its own individual charm.
The village of Shirakawa-go is in Gifu Prefecture, and is by far one of Japan’s most famous small towns. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1995, the village is famed for its farmhouses with Gassho-zukuri roofs “folded like hands in prayer”. Near the center of the village sits the Gassho-zukuri Minkaen – a museum dedicated to these time-honored buildings. The atmosphere of this mountain village bursts with traditional Japanese rustic charm in every eyeful and is equally lovely in every season; spring offers a canopy of cherry blossoms and summer covers the surrounding area in bright greens. Winters give Shirakawa-go an especial aura of drowsy peacefulness, when the thatched roofs are covered in a thick layer of snow.
Hiraizumi is a town in the northern prefecture of Iwate. As the seat of the powerful Fujiwara clan, the town once aspired to be as culturally affluent as Kyoto, but slowly dwindled over centuries into the modest town that exists today. The Buddhist temples of Hiraizumi are some of Japan’s UNESCO treasures. The chief must-see is Chusonji Temple – still as elegantly decked in gold-leaf, lacquer, and mother-of-pearl as it was during Hiraizumi’s golden age. Nearby Motsuji sets the heart at ease with its restored “Pure Land” landscape garden, creating in its idyllic features the image of a Buddhist paradise.
While visiting Shikoku Island, consider taking a trip into Kagawa Prefecture for a stop in the town of Kotohira. The appeal of the town is in Kotohira-gu Shrine (also known as Konpira-san), a Shinto shrine dedicated to seafaring. A shrine visit for the adventurous traveler, Kotohira-gu features one of Japan’s more challenging approaches, with pilgrims ascending a long stone staircase 1,368 steps to reach the inner hall of the shrine. The path along the way offers plenty of distraction, with little souvenir shops, restaurants serving traditional sweets, and even a sake museum along the path. Persevering travelers are rewarded with a magnificent view of the valley below and a shrine hall featuring pictures of the ships, battlecruisers, and space rockets of crews petitioning the protection of the shrine.
Iga Ueno is a town steeped in ninja culture. Hattori Hanzo, the most famous ninja of the Sengoku period, was born there, and the legacy of the ninja is preserved at the Iga Ninja Museum. Aside from the exhibits and demonstrations featuring authentic ninja tools and weapons, the museum is an actual ninja house complete with trap doors and secret rooms. The town celebrates their connection to ninja culture with a ninja festival during the month of April. The museum is near the other must-see of the town: Iga Ueno Castle, a fine example of a Japanese feudal keep.
Matsushima is a town is in Miyagi prefecture that displays one of Japan’s most enchanting scenes. Celebrated by the pen of famed haiku poet Matsuo Basho, Matsushima Bay captivates visitors with its picturesque views that take in over 200 islands covered in pine trees. The best way to see the bay is via a cruise around the bay, winding around the rocky islets topped in wavy, bristling green trees. Step out onto the largest island via a long red bridge to explore underneath the dense pine grove, all the way to the other end of the island for a magnificent view of Matsushima Bay.
Biei is a small town in Hokkaido, and a choice destination for travelers looking to experience Japan’s natural splendor. Though Hokkaido is known chiefly as Japan’s winter playground, Biei entices summer visitors with rolling hills covered in a rainbow carpet of flowers. Shikisai Hill is the top spot in the town for flower viewing. It is also worth making the trip for the Blue Pond, a pristine little body of water turned a startling shade of aquamarine by natural mineral deposits. These breathtaking scenes make visitors feel like they stepped into an impressionist painting, making Biei a worthwhile stop in Hokkaido.
Kamakura is from the Tokyo area for travelers looking for a relaxing break from Tokyo’s nonstop hustle. Take a trip to this town for a moment of contemplation in front of the Great Buddha of Kamakura, a massive bronze statue of a seated Amida Buddha. The grounds of Kotoku-in Temple, which houses the Buddha, is excellent for a wandering stroll through the densely forested grounds, where you may even catch a glimpse of Buddha’s sandals displayed between the charming temple buildings. Those interested in more of the town’s history should check out the Kamakura Gozan – the Five Great Zen Temples of Kamakura.
Hikone is a castle town on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest freshwater lake, and a must-visit for travelers with an interest in Japanese medieval history. The jewel of the city is Hikone Castle – an Edo-era feudal castle built in the mid-1600s on the shore overlooking the lake. Much of the castle, including the central keep, is still intact since it was first built, and is considered a national treasure. Spring and autumn are fantastic at Hikone, which presents a pretty picture in cherry blossoms or autumn leaves.
If Japan had to designate the holy city of the Shinto religion, it would be the humble town of Ise, home to the Ise Grand Shrine. The shrine is dedicated to Amaterasu, Shinto sun goddess and legendary ancestor of the Imperial family. Though not Japan’s most opulent shrine, the inner and outer shrine buildings are the embodiment of Shinto beliefs in nature’s renewal, being rebuilt of cypress wood every twenty years. The path between the inner and outer shrine, Oharaimachi, is a step back in time to the Edo period with the restaurants and shops maintaining an authentic classical Japanese atmosphere.
Yoshino is a town tucked up in the Kii Mountain Range of Nara Prefecture, and while many small towns of Japan boast seasonal charms, Yoshino is the best place to be during cherry blossom season. From Late March to early April, the slopes of Mount Yoshino burst into a forest of springtime color with over 30,000 cherry trees. Travelers interested in walking the UNESCO Heritage Kii Mountain Range Pilgrimage Routes will be interested in the temples and shrines of the area, especially Kinpusen-ji Temple and Yoshimizu Shrine, which offer excellent places to enjoy the beautiful blossoms.