When I think about Japan, cities like Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka come to my mind. But Japan is much more that visiting its capital. Traveling to Japan can be an amazing experience if you want focus on discovering its countryside and the local traditions.
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The luxury train adventure:
Seven Stars is the first luxury cruise sleeper train in the country, crossing the island of Kyushu and stopping along the way, allowing passengers to take part in different excursions. The interior of the train has been designed by Eiji Mitooka on the creation concept of JR Kyushu Chairman Koji Karaike. Local artisans have helped furnishing the interior with a fusion between Japanese and Western designs.
There are two trips you can take on the Sever Stars: a 4-day/3-nights journey or a 2-day/1 night journey. There are only 14 rooms on board the train, keeping the journey quite intimate for its passengers. The prices for a 4-day journey in a regular suite start at 655,000 yens (about £4930).
The Shiki-shima is a concept of a sightseeing train, with two observation cars at each end, a lounge and a dining car, all having large panoramic windows. The train has specific trips for each season, with dedicated sightseeing stops and hot springs visits.
The Shiki-shima has a dedicated team of professional cooks on board which will make every meal special, from squid and salmon roe rice bowl at breakfast to Japanese-French fusion dishes for dinner. All the ingredients are locally sourced and the meals are inspired by the traditions of the areas the train is passing through.
The train is unfortunately sold out until the end of 2018 but you can still apply for a ticket on their website.
Mizukaze, or the Twilight Express, is a luxury train with large panoramic windows and a “nostalgic modern” design. With a capacity of only 34 passengers, the Twilight Express passes through the Sanyo and Sanin regions, from Kyoto to Osaka, with ground excursions organised in the cities along the way.
The train’s dining menu has been designed by two chef Yoshihiro Murata, the owner of the Kikuoi restaurant in Kyoto and by Hajime Yoneda, the owner of Hajime restaurant in Osaka, featuring the traditional Japanese cuisine (washoku) based on ingredients sourced from along the route.
The Royal Express
The Royal Express is Japan’s newest luxury train, which started its service in September 2017. The train connects Yokohama (half an hour from central Tokyo – if you plan on staying in the capital check out this complete accommodation guide of Tokyo) to Shimoda City at the southern end of the Izu Peninsula. The journey takes around 3 hours and it includes live music and a meal. The price for a one-way ticket starts at 25,000 yens (around £170).
There are also cruise plan options with return tickets, overnight accommodation, meals and activities in Izu. The prices for a cruise option starts at 135,000 yens (around £930) based on sharing rooms.
The train has a capacity of 100 people and allows children on board as well.
The unspoiled nature expedition:
Yaku is not your usual island when you go to sunbathe and enjoy the beaches. Almost the entire island is covered by a cedar forest in which you will find the oldest trees in Japan, many over 1000 years old but also one that is believed to be over 7000 years old!
Yuku is a great destination if you like hiking because of the forest trails that cross rivers and waterfalls and go up high in the mountains, which are over 2000 meters high. Even if the island is quite small, measuring only 17 miles wide, you can s till spend quite a lot of time here enjoying the unspoiled nature. Because of the rainforest climate, the deep woods with moss covered trees and the crystal-clear rivers forming waterfalls which tumble down from the versants of the mountains, local usually say that the island has a mystical fairy tale feel to it.
If you are hiking on Yaku island for several days you should know that the mountain lodges are free for overnight accommodation but you need to bring your own food and sleeping bag.
Naoshima is also called the art island because of the numerous contemporary art museums on it and the sculpture installation that goes throughout the island. Most of the structures on the island have been designed by the well-known Japanese architect, Pritzker Prize-winning Tadao Ando. The public buildings and the schools on the island have been designer by another modern Japanese architect, Ishii Kazuhiro
The island is owned by Benesse Holdings, Inc, a company which since 1995 is sponsoring the Benesse Prize at the Biennale of Venice, commissioning winners to create art specifically for this island.
The best place to stay on the island is the Benesse House, one of the first buildings designed by Tadao Ando in Naoshima. Each room is like a modern art gallery, offering beautiful views over the sea.
If you plan to visit Naoshima island in 2019 make sure to attend the Setouchi Triennale, a festival held every three years where 100 artists all over Japan are exhibiting their work here.
Think of Yoron island like the Maldives of Japan! With azure coloured waters, white sandy beaches, great tropical weather and many cultural traditions, Yoron is the perfect place to escape the busy megacities of Japan.
The entire island is surrounded by a coral reef barrier which you can see by taking a trip on a glass bottom boat or by snorkelling above them.
One of the main attractions of the Yoron island is the Yurigahama phantom island. From April to October, during low tide, a sandbar appears about 2 meters away from Ooganeku Beach. The interesting part is that it seems to move and never appear in the same place twice.
Only on Yoron island you can experience the unique traditional drinking ritual called Yoron Kenpo, where locals drink Brown sugar shōchū (a local alcohol) while making offerings to the Gods. Some locals here still speak their own language, Yunnu Futuba, which is a dialect of the indigenous languages of the Ryukyu Islands from the Southern part of the Japanese archipelago.
Tokashiki island had two main beaches located on the west coast, where you can enjoy swimming and tanning, from May until October, when the temperatures stay above 20 degrees Celsius.
The island is quite hilly, covered with forest in which you can hike to reach observatory decks overlooking the surroundings.
From January to March you can go on a tour to watch the humpback whales coming close to the shore all the way from the Bering Sea, searching form warmer waters to breed.
The cultural summer festivals experience:
Awa Dance is one of the biggest dance festivals in Japan, taking place between the 12th and the 15th of August each year in Shikoku, the smallest island out of the four main of Japan.
During the festival, groups of dancers and musicians wearing traditional obon dance costumes are parading through the streets singing and playing local instruments like the taiko drums, the kane bell, the shamisen lute and the shinobue flute. The Awa Odori dance is performed in circles around a raise platform called yakura. The Obon is a festival of the afterlife, where the spirits of the loved ones who left the earth are believed to come back to visit the living.
The Nebuta festival takes place in Aomori and it is probably one of the most spectacular and colourful festivals in Japan. It usually takes place between the 2nd and the 7th of August.
Every day there is a parade of giant lanterns floats made from painted washi paper over a wire frame, depicting on mythical stories and gods. These lanterns take a year to build because of their sizes, almost 9 meters wide and 5 meters high. They are pushed around town by human power, accompanied by team of drummers and hundreds of dancers. In the last day of the festival, the lanterns are put onto boats and paddled around the bay, while the sky is covered in fireworks.
Gion is a festival that borrows its name from the district with the same name in Kyoto. It lasts for the entire month of July, with two main parades on the 17th and the 24th of July, when floats called yamaboko are proceeding along the streets of Kyoto.
During the evenings before the parade, Kyoto’s town centre is closed for traffic, becoming a huge pedestrian area. On the side of the streets there will be night stalls selling traditional food and sweets, while girls dressed up with summer kimonos will walk around the area.
During these evenings people from the old kimono merchant district will open their houses to visitors, to exhibit their valuable family collections and it’s a great opportunity to get to know how a traditional Japanese house looks like on the inside. This is a very popular festival so make sure you book your place to stay in Kyoto ahead of time.
All-Okinawa is a festival that takes place during the last weekend of August, in Okinawa. Eisa is known as the traditional Okinawan folk dance and it is different from any other festival in Japan. The dance is performed by 20 or 30 men and women aligned in doubled lines or circles. It is a dance meant to honour the spirit of the ancestors, telling them farewell, and this is why the performers are usually quite young.
The costumes of the performers are usually bright and colourful, depicting the local tradition and the gender of the dancer.
During the annual parade, over 1000 Eisa dancers are showing off their traditional and creative skills on the main boulevard of Naha.
The Kanto Matsuri festival is held every year at the beginning of August in the town of Akita, in hope for a good harvest. The name of the festival actually means “Pole lantern festival”. The kanto pole has different sizes and can weight up to 50kg. On each pole there are attached paper lanterns with real candles inside. The festival is a skill show-off, as the poles are balanced by one person only using different techniques (some balance them on their palms, some on their heads, some on their backs or shoulders).
The main event of the festival is the Night Parade, when different groups carry almost 250 kanto poles and show off their skills during a 90 minutes performance along the Chuo Dori street.
The cycling routes:
Shimanami Kaido is a 70 km long cycling route running from Onomichi City on Japan’s main island, Honshu, to the island of Shikoku, passing six other islands along the way. The road has a cycle path for the entire length and 14 shops to rent or drop off a bike.
The views over the Seto Inland Sea are breath-taking and you can stop on each of the islands to explore more and spend the night in a camping site. The route can be done in one day if you are a good cyclist but it’s better to just take your time and enjoy the ride. Along the way you will cross the longest suspension bridge in the world, Kurushima Bridge, 4045 meters long.
Biei is a small town in the Hokkaido region famous for its rolling hills and flower fields, best explored by bike. There are plenty of cycling routes here and if you rent a bike at a local shop in town, you will receive a map as well. Because of the hilly terrain you might want to choose an electric bike rather than a classic one.
The streets around Biei are narrow and picturesque, no wonder the area is used in many commercials. One of highlights of the area is Shikisai Hill with over 20 different coloured flower gardens, including lavender. Visiting Shikisai Hill is free but a 200 yens (around £1.5) donation to mention the fields is encouraged.
Kamikochi is also called the Alps of Japan because of its spectacular mountain ranges, the highest in the country. The scenery is unique because whilst Kamikochi is quite a flat valley, it is surrounded by mount Hotaka in the north and by active volcano Yake to the south.
The Valley of Kamikochi is cut through by Azura river, forming ponds along the way. The best way of exploring Kamikochi is by foot but because the area is quite flat, you can cycle as well.
Be aware that there are only a few hotels in the area and the access is permitted only by bus or taxi. Private cars are not allowed to access the town. Also, the resort is only opened from mid-April until mid-November.
The traditional hot springs experience:
Hakone is probably the most popular hot spring resort in Japan, with over 10 different bath houses. The best way to experience the hot springs like a Japanese is to stay in a Ryokan, a traditional inn where you can have a taste of the local lifestyle and hospitality. They include an elaborate dinner in the evening and breakfast in the morning cooked by the hosts. The rooms in a Ryokan come with traditional flooring, such as tatami mats, sliding doors made out of wooden frames covered with opaque or translucent paper and futons, the Japanese mattresses that are laid directly on the tatami.
You can experience the hot springs from Hakone either in the Ryokan or at a public bath open to the general public.
The hot springs in Kusatsu are thought to be able to cure every illness but lovesickness, which I think it’s a lovely saying. The high quality of the water made a German doctor recommend this hot spring for its health benefits.
Kusatsu is located up high in the mountains, at 1200 meters altitude, where in winter you can go skiing and in summer you can go hiking. Either activity you choose, in the evening you can relax your sore muscles in the waters of the hot spring at the public baths. There are many small community bath houses are town which are free, two of them offering a special experience called jikanyu. This is a bathing therapy where you take a dip in a 48 degrees Celsius hot water for exactly three minutes.
Yufuin is a very scenic town at the base of Mount Yufu, alongside a river. The town itself is different than other resort towns because its main street is lines with cafes, small shops and museums, with the public baths hidden on the side.
Many of the local Ryokan with hot springs are opening their doors to non-staying guests during the day time.
Yufuin is also known to have a very atmospheric scenery, especially in the mornings when the mist raises from the nearby lake Kinrinko.
Beppu is one of the largest hot spring resorts in Japan, with plenty of bath experiences to choose from: hot water baths, mud baths, steam baths or sand baths. There are 2,909 different hot springs vents throughout the city, coming from 8 streams.
One of the highlights of the city is the “Tour of Hell” path, 8 manmade ponds with very hot water, one of them being populated with crocodiles. The ponds have different colours and themes, like the “Sea Hell” – which is blue, the “Oniishibozu Jigoku” – which is in a pool of mud or the “blood pond hell” – which is red due to the clay at the bottom. There is even a geyser which erupts every 30-40 minutes called the “spout hell”.
Dogo is located in Matsuyama on Shikoku Island, preferred in the past by the Imperial Family of Japan. The springs have also been mentioned in many books and were frequented by different writers as well.
While exploring the streets of Dogo you will see many Ryokan guests walking around town wearing their yukata, a light kimono used to cover the body after bathing in a communal bath.
The main public bath in Dogo is Onsen Honkan, made from wood in a traditional Japanese style. The inside is a work of art as well, with different rooms, staircases and people walking around. The baths are gender separated and built out of stone. There is also a special room dedicated to the Imperial Family, the Yushinden, which you can visit.
Shikoku 88 temples
Everyone heard of the Camino de Santiago but did you hear about the Shikoku pilgrimage from Japan? This is a circular route of around 1200 km long which passes 88 temples and 20 bangai. There are hundreds of temples on the islands but only 88 are considered to be part of this route.
People are doing this pilgrimage as a healing journey. Some do it for religious reasons, some for the memory of a loved one who passed away, some to discover themselves.
Usually pilgrims are wearing white clothes, a conical hat and walking sticks. Locals tend to be very friendly and help pilgrims by giving them water and snacks along the route and allowing them to sleep for free at their humble homes.
Kumano Kodo is the only other Unesco World Heritage pilgrimage route, besides Camino de Santiago. There are seven trails under the name of Kumano Kodo, only a few still in good condition because of the modern development. The trails usually go through the forest, up the Kii Mountains. You can start either from Kyoto or Osaka.
The purpose of this pilgrimage is to get to worship the three major Buddhist shrines: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha.
Disclaimer: This psot has been written in collaboration with Japan Experience.
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