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The “must-sees” are must-sees for a reason, but the real magic happens when you get away from the big-ticket sites. All of a sudden, people are coming out of their houses to say hello, surprised and delighted to find a foreigner in their little town. They’re ushering you into their family-run cafe to try the local speciality, offering to guide you round the neighbourhood for free, or persuading you to join them for beers and karaoke.
If it sounds like we’re exaggerating, we promise — we’re not. After 20 years of experience, we can safely say that in Japan, going miles out of your way (sometimes literally) to befriend a stranger isn’t the exception, it’s the norm.
And best of all, Japan is full of these places. Beautiful places with incredible histories, delicious food, and stunning natural beauty. The seven towns on this list are just a few of our favourites, but no matter which region you’re in, there’s somewhere wonderful waiting to be discovered.
Where is it? Near the Japan Sea coast of Hyogo Prefecture, northwest of Kyoto and Osaka.
Why do we love it? We like to say that Kinosaki Onsen is the Disneyland version of an idyllic Japanese town — except better, because it’s real. A visit to Kinosaki is all about partaking in that beloved Japanese tradition: hot-spring bathing. In the centre of town, bathhouses, cafés and traditional inns line a picture-perfect, willow-lined stream, while visitors wearing colourful yukata bathrobes wander from one to another, interspersing rejuvenating soaks with equally rejuvenating snacks and drinks.
Who’s it great for? If you’re keen to immerse yourself (literally and figuratively) in the time-honoured tradition of onsen-bathing, there are few better places to do it.
Where is it? On the south coast of western Honshu Island, across the water from Takamatsu and the “art islands” of the Seto Inland Sea.
Why do we love it? Even without its fine-art pedigree, Kurashiki would get our vote. Its beautiful canal district is lined with white-walled storehouses dating back to the town’s heyday as a rice trading centre. Today, they’ve been converted into bijou accommodation, fascinating little museums, and lovely waterside cafés, making this a beautiful place just to relax and wander. The town’s pièce de la resistance is the ionic-columned Ohara Museum, the oldest museum of Western art in Japan, which contains works by famous names from Picasso to Pollock, as well as a wing dedicated to Japanese craft arts.
Who’s it great for? If you like offbeat museums, Kurashiki is a treasure trove. In addition to the Ohara Museum you’ll find museums dedicated to toys, folk crafts, retro piggy-banks, and the beloved Japanese folk tale “Peach Boy” — amongst others.
Where is it? In the far west of Honshu Island, on the Japan Sea Coast.
Why do we love it? Hagi is one of those rare places that you just can’t oversell. This former castle town was once the capital of the Mori Clan, and its beautiful old streets lined with samurai and merchant houses have changed little since the feudal era. Koi carp swim in streams along residential streets, stone lanterns light atmospheric graveyards, and the shops overflow with Hagiyaki — one of the most celebrated types of pottery in Japan. Get up early to watch the morning mist rising from the mountains, spend the day cycling around town, then watch the sunset behind Mount Shizukiyama from the beach. This is the Japan we always dreamt of visiting, and we still can’t really believe it actually exists.
Who’s it great for? Honestly, if you’re at all interested in historical Japan, we can’t imagine why you wouldn’t love Hagi. We’ve yet to meet someone who didn’t.
Where is it? Hakodate lies at the southernmost tip of Japan’s northernmost island, across the water from Aomori.
Why do we love it? It’s famous in Japan for its mountaintop panorama, ranked one of the three best night views in the country, but even without it, Hakodate would win us over with its port-town swagger and rakish charms. Start with a breakfast of sea urchin at the morning seafood market, then wander its red-brick warehouses dating back to the early days of foreign trade. Next, scale the 107-metre observation tower overlooking the star-shaped site of Goryokaku Fort, then head to Onuma Park for an afternoon of nature walks and squid-ink ice cream beneath the watchful eye of Mount Komagatake. Finally, round it all off with an evening of bar-hopping in the maze-like alleyways of Daimon-Yokocho.
Who’s it great for? If you’re looking to balance out Hokkaido’s rugged national parks and remote mountain ranges with somewhere a bit more lively, Hakodate is a fantastic choice.
Where is it? Just 15 minutes by local train from Takayama, in the heart of the Hida region of the Japanese Alps.
Why do we love it? Hida Furukawa is what most people expect Takayama to be before they arrive: a beautifully preserved, feudal-era town deep in the mountains of central Honshu. Like Takayama, its streets are lined with white-walled storehouses, artisan workshops, sake breweries and restaurants. Unlike Takayama, however, it’s almost completely devoid of tourists. Furukawa’s canal district is among the loveliest anywhere we’ve seen in Japan, its Hida beef is good enough to rival Kobe’s, and its spring festival is as fun as Takayama’s but with a fraction of the crowds. Are there any downsides? Not that we can think of.
Who’s it great for? If you dream of discovering a traditional, alpine town away from the hustle and bustle, look no further.
Where is it? Between two lakes and the Sea of Japan, at the western end of Honshu Island.
Why do we love it? In any other country, sleepy Matsue might be a top-ten tourist attraction. It has one of only 12 original samurai castles still standing in Japan, and a landscaped garden that many consider to be the finest in the country. It has a beautifully preserved samurai district, including the former residence of 19th-century Irish writer Lafcadio Hearn (the reason most English-language announcements are delivered in an Irish brogue). It’s also only an hour by train from one of Japan’s three most important Shinto shrines, where the country’s eight million gods are said to gather for their yearly conference. On top of all that, Matsue has a proud regional culture full of quirks that the locals are always keen to share — including their own word for “thank you”: dan-dan.
Who’s it great for? If Matsue’s castle or garden were in Kyoto, they’d be mobbed. This is your chance to see classic Japanese sights in a quiet, laid-back city away from the crowds.
Where is it? On the northern coast of Shikoku Island, facing Okayama across the Seto Inland Sea.
Why do we love it? Takamatsu is best-known as the home of Ritsurin, one of the renowned “top three” gardens in Japan, but that’s not why we love it. Though the garden is well worth a visit, what we really love about Takamatsu is the atmosphere of the place. It’s the rinky-dink streetcars that trundle through the streets, depositing their passengers at local bathhouses. It’s the miles-long covered arcade lined with restaurants and cafés that feels more like Milan than Japan. It’s the hole-in-the-wall “self-service” udon shops that’ll change the way you think about noodles forever. It’s the little backstreets that feel like the Japan of a century ago, and the punts that propel you around the old castle moat.
Who’s it great for? If you’re planning on visiting the “art islands” of the Seto Inland Sea, don’t stay on Naoshima — choose Takamatsu! Just hop on the ferry each morning and pick an island to explore.