A detailed guide to rural Japanese travel getaways, with comprehensive facts on using Japanese inns, transportation, and baths -- plus abundant insights on Japanese culture.
Copyright © 1992-2013 Randy R. Johnson, all rights reserved.
Full Destination Table of Contents
Appendices:Lodging Info Trains Baths Language
Wait a Minute! How Do I Get There?
Introduction My Links to Resources about Japan
Disclaimer Copyright Information
No Log-in! No banners! No Pop-ups! No Java! No Ads! This is a non-commercial site
If you're interested in World Travel, drop by My Travel Page, a collection of notes, stories, travel tips, and a few photos from my 6 years On the Road, mostly around the Third World.
+ Wait a Minute! How Do I Get There?...to China, Taiwan, Korea, Russia
+ International Ferry Information
This is not a professional guide book; this is my guide book.
It does not include prices, maps, lists of telephone numbers, timetables, and such. You can find dozens of fine travel guides to Japan that provide such details, as well as phrase books, food guides, climactic tables, shopping, airline routes, city information, more detailed descriptions of all the sights, and information on how to travel around as cheaply as possible. Look for them in your bookstore, and use a good one when you travel to Japan.
Japan is a very expensive country to visit. This guide does not list any prices, in order to prevent becoming quickly out of date, and also to allow the reader to vicariously enjoy these destinations without the bother of knowing just how much it would cost. Lodging, meal, and transportation costs are fairly standard throughout the country. Consult a serious travel guide for the current estimated costs per day.
Much of the information in this guide is based on the author's personal experiences, preferences, and opinions. If you don't agree with them, good for you. I encourage you to read other books, and to get out there and form your own opinions.
What!? You want more information about Japan than what I've got here? OK.
My Japan Links Page is a really good start. I've put a lot of work into my references -- I keep them up to date -- and it's not just a list of some stuff I heard about. I recommend all of my links as good sources of information. Many of them will also lead you to plenty of other resources.
If you live in Japan -- or if you have access to a Japanese Bookstore, and some friends who can read Japanese -- you should definitely head to my section under Bookstores where I discuss Japanese Travel Guide Books!
Before you can set out into the pleasant Japanese countryside, you must first get your airplane tickets (and visas!), and at least an initial hotel reservation, and then get there from the airport, and all of that. Some of you, gentle readers (I hope), already live in Japan, and you can skip all of these considerations and just get out there. Others of you have no (current) plans at all to travel to Japan, and you can just sit back and enjoy learning some new information about Japan and its culture.
But for you prospective tourists and travelers who are now frantically searching the 'net and looking forward to soon stepping into Japan -- perhaps for the first time -- you need to know "How do I get there to start with?"
This guide does not provide basic information on how to get to Japan, and where to first stay, and how to get around the cities when you first arrive. But of course you will find plenty of resources on the internet and elsewhere, anxious to give you their information. I encourage you to use the many fine travel guide books available, and definitely use a good travel agent (or two) to get your air tickets and initial hotel accommodations in Japan.
I refer you to my main Japan Page Links section, where I provide my own concise list of internet resources for helping you to get into town from the airport, plan train schedules, get a rail pass, make reservations at rural inns, possibly arrange for tours to help you enjoy your visit in Japan, and collect lots more specific (and up-to-date) destination information than I can provide. I'm sure you will find plenty of other good resources of information, but that is my contribution.
Use your good travel guides to show you around Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara. And if you have the time to strike out farther into the countryside, this book may be one of your guides. In any case, and for all of you -- whether you ever set foot in Japan or not -- I hope it may help you to become better acquainted with, and to appreciate the Japanese people and their fascinating culture.
International Ferries: Okay, while I do not want to get into trying to give airline information (groan), one very interesting area of information which is fairly hard to come by (in English!) is the schedules for International Ferries from Japan to China, Taiwan, Korea, and Russia. So I've created a short page to give some of this information. Click the link above.
Good choice! Japan is a fascinating country with a depth of culture and history that is matched by very few others in world history! Japan is at once exotic and esoteric, yet at the same time as maddeningly bustling and busy as any other modern industrialized country. While comfort and convenience are everywhere for the traveler, attempts to find and understand Japan's soul are well-documented, but very elusive.
Many westerners have spent entire lifetimes in Japan in order to study only one of its myriad cultural aspects -- Zen, Shinto, tea ceremony, caligraphy, theatre (noh, kabuki, bunraku, gagaku, kyogen, butoh), dance, martial arts (including judo, aikido, kendo, karate), archery, pottery, poetry, unique musical instruments, landscape gardening, architecture, or cooking.
Japan is also a very expensive and challenging place to visit. The exchange
rates make expenses intimidating, while the very real language barrier makes
casual independent tourism daunting. Hiring a car to drive Japan's highways
and byways is an adventure most tourists will rightly avoid. It is unusual
for so developed and so modern a country to play so 'hard-to-get' -- could
I even say 'inscrutable'? And so most tourists come on organized tours and/or
use tour guides. But this challenge also means that those who are prepared
to step off of the tour-guide routes may easily find themselves in
'places where few foreign tourists have gone before!'.
This informal guide will lead you to a number of very interesting places to visit in the Japanese countryside. It will help you to get there, find a nice place to stay, and knowledgeably enjoy the many cultural encounters you will be exposed to there. I almost called it "Off the Beaten Track...", but that would be very presumptuous, since almost every track has been well trodden in Japan. "Getaways" connotes pleasantly quiet places to get away from the general hustle and bustle for a few days, and my favorites are listed here, as well as some pretty good alternatives. I have also included notes on some of the cities and better known places that you may pass through along the way.
I've included a number of historical notes to help increase your interest in some of these areas. Following the destination descriptions are a number of very comprehensive Appendices, including a general guide to using lodgings in rural Japan, and other sections to help the traveler in using trains, buses, ferries, baths, and footwear. I've also added some notes on Japanese religions and language.
In fact, a very large portion of this guide -- the Appendices -- is dedicated to general information to help any traveler in understanding and using traditional Japanese inns, the Japanese rail, bus, and ferry systems, and generally navigating Japanese Culture. So listen up!
Some of the destinations described here are well known, and a few are actually on the foreign tourist track. But many of them are unknown even to foreigners who live in Japan, and to many Japanese people as well. These are not necessarily "the best" places in Japan; they are some of the nicest places that I have personally visited and enjoyed over several years of living and traveling in Japan over the last twenty-some years. When I recommend towns, lodgings, books, and websites, I will tell you if I have personally visited, tried, or read them so you will know that they are not just copied from someone else's experience. This is My Personal Guide to Japan -- not just a list of links.
Believe me, in the process of finding them, I visited a lot more places that were just too crowded, noisy and otherwise spoiled by tourism -- and also a number of very quiet places that were not really interesting enough to recommend. (There are also some very crowded tourist spots in Japan that never were in the least bit interesting.) I know there are many more wonderful places in Japan that I have not visited myself, and I'm not going to try and tell you about them.
The "beaten track" of foreign tourists in Japan is very narrow. The majority of vacations to Japan include Tokyo -- with visits to Nikko, Kamakura, and maybe Hakone -- followed by Kyoto, with a visit to Nara. By that time, your two weeks are up and it's time to go home. In fact, these are great places that really should not be missed, with some of the finest sights to be seen in the country. They are also very well prepared to make things easy for foreign tourists, and I cannot recommend that you skip any of them. I even have a few notes in here about some unknown spots at these big tourist attractions.
Once they step off the main routes, however, foreign tourists may be surprised to find how very few people in Japan really understand any English, and that the English signs and brochures disappear when they leave the bullet train routes. This does not mean that you have left the tourist track, it just means that you have stepped out of the narrow foreign tourist route and onto the broad Japanese tourist track which covers virtually all of Japan. Now the challenge is to find genuinely wonderful places that are not so crowded and spoiled by mass tourism that they have lost any real charm and serenity they might have once had. Call it the slow lane of the Japanese tourist track.
Foreign tourists will have bigger challenges if they step into that world without any familiarity with Japanese language and customs. I have tried to give detailed directions whenever possible, but do not lull yourself into thinking that you can get anywhere using this guide, without having to ask directions several times along the way.
So in part, this guide is for the many English-enabled expatriates who live in Japan and would love to (actually long to) get out to a really pleasant and quiet getaway, but just don't know where to find it. They will have acquired the basics of rudimentary Japanese conversation, customs, and etiquette -- not to mention how to decipher a train schedule -- that will be sufficient to find their own way and make themselves understood in the countryside. That's why I've included several pleasant places that have more historical and cultural interest than scenic splendor. And whether you are a tourist or a resident, do not miss the experience of Japanese Hot Springs!
Once you've spent a little time in Japan, and seen the internationally known sights, you may long for some place different, and maybe even less discovered. If you are new to Japan and its language, you can make do with a good phrasebook, a flexible schedule, the spirit of adventure and a good deal of patience. Still, to make things much smoother for both yourself and the Japanese people you deal with in some of these out-of-the-way places, it is highly recommended that you bring along someone who speaks at least a little Japanese.
One of the wonderful surprises of getting out into the Japanese countryside, even (or perhaps especially) if it is not a beauty spot, is the opportunity to see and meet rural Japanese people. Residents of the larger metropolitan areas are as modern, in their own Japanese way, as residents of New York or Paris. They follow the latest western fashions, go to night clubs, and spend a lot of time in cars, office buildings, department stores, and modern apartments. You can work in a Japanese city for a couple of years without ever meeting working-class or rural agricultural people.
The farther you get into the countryside, the farther you go back in time. You will find extended families living in large old wooden houses, dressed in more traditional clothes, and getting on with fairly simple lives -- aided by some modern appliances and, perhaps, in touch with 21st century Japan only through the nightly television news. These are certainly not simple or ignorant people, but they remain content with a style of life closer to their grandparents' than that of their children, many of whom escape to the bright lights of the cities.
You can find ordinary Japanese people almost everywhere. Unless it is a national park, every desolate stretch of coast, every isolated mountain valley has a little hamlet or a few solitary houses where you can meet people quite different from your friends in the city. If you don't speak any Japanese, these contacts will be brief and less personal, but rewarding nonetheless.
One more caveat: Once you get out into the countryside, you may find very few (if any) places that take credit cards, and few places where you can change money. You'll need to get plenty of Yen in the city and carry it with you -- as the Japanese do.
The easiest way -- in my opinion -- to get cash initially is to bring US Dollar (or maybe UK Pound) travelers checks and exchange them at the airport. You can also exchange travelers checks at "most" large banks in cities, but it can take a little time -- up to half an hour. Unlike in most countries, you actually get a slightly better exchange rate for travelers checks than for cash. Almost no places except banks accept travelers checks of any currency in Japan.
Banks and ATM machines Inside of Banks in cities can give you a Cash Advance on your Visa/Master Card CREDIT card, IF you have the PIN Number; but there are fees and you begin paying interest on this immediately.
You can use your own bank ATM (debit) card to draw money directly out of your own bank account (but conveted to Yen) at ATM machines at "many" larger Post Offices around the country. They should take your ATM cash card from home -- but they are not open all the time.
You can use your bank ATM card at CitiBank ATM Machines, many of which are open 24-hours a day, in major airports and other Locations Listed Here (on my Links Page).
Since 2007, you can withdraw money with your ATM or Credit cards (those that use the "Plus" or "Cirrus" networks) at more than 13,000 ATMs installed in Seven-Eleven Stores all over Japan! Many are open 24-hours. Again, fees may apply.
In all cases, the cash you get is in Japanese Yen. From ATM machines, it is almost always in units of ¥10,000 notes, worth around US$100 each.
It's a good idea to notify your bank that you will be traveling overseas, so they are not alarmed by activity in Japan, which could lead them to block your cards! Fees usually also apply when using the ATM, but you won't see them until you get your bank statement.
The four main islands of Japan, from north to south, are:
Hokkaido , Honshu , Shikoku , and Kyushu .
The main island of Honshu is commonly divided into geographical regions, each comprising several prefectures (which we would call provinces or states). From northeast to southwest they are:
Tohoku , Kanto , Chubu , Kansai , and Chugoku .
Each location, below, lists its prefecture, to help you find it. The prefectures are fairly recent, and some areas are still referred to by one or two historically earlier geographical designations. Many of the destinations are marked on the large Japan Map I have on my Japan Page.
I've organized the destinations by geographical area, but I tend to jump around the map a bit. First we follow the long Japan Sea Coast, then move into the central mountain area, down to southwestern Honshu around the Inland Sea, and back up to Kansai and the heartland of Japan. Then we move up to the Kanto area around Tokyo and on to the more isolated Northeast region -- called Tohoku -- and Hokkaido Island. I've added a few notes about Kyushu and Shikoku Islands, which are farther afield, and less visited by me. (Lots more good Japan maps are found at the Japan National Tourist Organization site.)
Will I Really Enjoy These Places?
This guide is not a tourism promotion and I will try not to make these places sound a lot better than they are. Not every place I mention will be wonderful for everyone, and I will give you an idea of what you will and will not find, so you can choose for yourself. But my personal tastes will be evident enough for you to know the places I really like the best. In the introduction to each locale I will give you my clear estimation of its worthiness as a destination; some are more exciting than others.
I have tried to be accurate about calling a city a city, so that you don't expect a small town and arrive at a place with a few hundred thousand population. Still, one or two hundred thousand is not really a large city in Japan, and some of the provincial cities have some quite large and interesting traditional areas. Likewise, what I call a village should at least have the feeling of a village, and not be a "town" of 20,000 people. There are places that could be called hamlets, which I usually refer to as "small villages".
I have sometimes hyphenated Japanese place names, at least in their first instance, as an aid to pronunciation. You may also find different spellings of the same place name, even in the same paragraph -- examples are Hegura and Hekura, Ito and Itou. These are generally intentional, to aid in successful web searches, as translations often vary.
Even if you never use this guide, or even set foot in Japan, I hope you will enjoy learning something about Japan and its people from reading it.
So, let's get out there!
It is easy to think of Japan as stretching from north to south, and while it generally does, most of the main island of Honshu runs mostly east to west. A backbone of high mountains runs down most of the center of the island, separating the northern and southern coastal regions. The northern side of Honshu Island faces Korea and Russia across the large Japan Sea (Nihon Kai). [See the East Asia map, just above, as well as my Detailed Japan Map.] The sea is a bit rougher here, and the weather not as moderate as on the Pacific side. All of Japan's major population centers -- and the bullet-train routes -- are along the south (Pacific) side of Honshu, which we usually think of as facing east. While there are several medium-sized cities on the Japan Sea coast (Hagi, Matsue, Tottori, Fukui, Kanagawa, and Niigata), it is not nearly as populated or as well visited as the more populous southern areas.
Japanese tourists on a weekend excursion will jot up to one place on the Japan Sea, then head back (south) to the cities. But if you have plenty of time you can make a quite pleasant journey (or several of them) all along stretches of the Japan Sea coast. Like any trip along a coastline, this route is particularly nice by car, because you also have the luxury of stopping whenever you want, to enjoy the scenery. Also, there are several quiet peninsulas that are not served by trains, and only sporadically by bus.
I have traveled much of this coast myself by a combination of car, train, and bus, but there are still many quiet little corners left to be discovered. The San-in, Miyazu, Obama, Hokuriku, and Echigo Main rail lines combine to trace the Japan Sea coast from Shimonoseki (at the southwest tip of Honshu Island) to Niigata, and the Uetsu Line continues far up into the more isolated northeast (Tohoku) area of Honshu.
Hagi is a nice historic old Samurai and castle town far from the mainstream of Japan, near the far western tip of Honshu Island. The castle is only a ruin now, out on a point by the sea. But several streets of old buildings are preserved in the town (well, really a small city), and some have become museums. There is also some sea coast and a pleasant beach. Hagi is situated at the mouth of the Abu river where it divides into two rivers, locally called the Hashimoto-gawa and Matsumoto-gawa. These make a large well-defensible 'island' of the old Hagi city.
Hagi was an important feudal center but now is a small city, relatively quiet and laid-back (for Japan). Away from the small city center around the station, it is mostly one and two-story buildings, with actual open spaces in between. The city is flat and is easiest to get around on a bicycle (rented at the station). While Hagi may not be a "must see" destination, it is quite pleasant for a couple of days of visiting, and a good place to stop over whenever you're in the area.
You can get a good sightseeing map in English at the information counter in the station. Take a leisurely stroll around Joka-Machi, the old Samurai quarter which was divided into three neighborhoods by social class. It's well restored and really does have an atmosphere from a few hundred years ago, except for the curio shops, of course -- but there aren't all that many.
The Kikuya, an old noble family house with various outbuildings, is in the heart of this district and it's now an interesting museum. An informative pamphlet in English is provided. There is also the Kumaya Art Museum in town. The ruins of the castle are in a quietly pleasant park by the sea, at the end of Kiku-ga-hama beach. Just a bit north of the station are the large stone furnaces of the Hansha-ro, a smelter constructed in 1858 to produce metals for shipbuilding and weapons. Oranges are grown in this pocket of mild climate, and Hagi is long famous for its pottery, as well.
Naturally, there are various shrines and temples, including the Kasuga Shrine near Joka-Machi, and the Sho-in Shrine back across the tracks. The old Shoku-Son-Juku academy can be visited in the precincts of the Shoin Shrine. You can also visit the homes of several famous Japanese statesmen from Hagi, who led the movement toward the Meiji Restoration at the turn of the century, including Hirobumi Ito.
Kiku-ga-hama is the beach area and it's on a calm protected inlet. This is a long, wide, tree-shaded strand along one side of town, but only a few minutes from the station by bicycle. You can swim here if it's high summer. This is a good area to get a room; the farther out you go, the quieter it is.
Hagi is almost to the western tip of Honshu Island, on the Japan Sea coast facing Korea. The fastest route is to take the San-yo Shinkansen (bullet train) to Ogori from which there are direct buses across the mountains to Hagi (Higashi Hagi station); they leave from right outside the Shinkansen side of the station. The Japan Railways (JR) Bus takes about an hour and a half, a private express bus takes just an hour and ten minutes; these buses alternate, with one leaving less than every hour. Total travel time is under 7 hours from Tokyo, 4 hours from Osaka.
If you're coming from Shimonoseki
Go to one of the minshuku/ryokan agents at the station and ask for a place on Kiku-ga-hama beach. Get a map at the station first so you can get the lay of the land. It's a small city, so other areas would not be at all inconvenient. Now go rent bicycles, and the bicycle shop will deliver your luggage to your inn by truck -- you just pedal off and explore on the way! Just call them to pick up your luggage when you're ready to leave town! Don't expect this service in every town. In Hagi we stayed at:
Horiuchi 2 Hagi-shi,
It was cheap, basic, and nothing special, but right across the street from a quiet area of Kiku-ga-hama beach. There are several others very nearby. There is also a Youth Hostel and a nearby Kokumin Shukusha very near the castle-park, beyond the end of the beach.
It's best to get meals included at your inn (as usual). There are not a lot of restaurants away from the station area. We found the Suna-Dokei (hourglass) Coffee Shop a very pleasant and friendly place to stop in for a break and a cuppa. It's on the main road across from Kiku-ga-hama beach.
"Favorite Getaways in Rural Japan" Revision 1.71h (HTML text version) Updated July, 2012 Copyright (c) 1991-2013 by Randy R. Johnson This book is distributed for free. It can be reproduced and passed along, in whole or in part, with proper attribution to title, author, and copyright, as long as it is free. It cannot be included, in whole or in part, in any other publication media -- whether physical, electronic, or otherwise -- for which there is any charge, monetary or in kind, whether for profit or not, without the express written authorization of the author. Or else. This restriction is not meant to apply to normal and regular fees for telephone calls and ordinary connect charges for electronic bulletin boards, on-line services, or Internet Service Providers, accompanying the otherwise free electronic downloading of this document. The latest version of this guide is kept on Randy's WWW site: http://ease.com/~randyj/japan.htm. The HTML version of this document has been broken into 20 parts, for easier loading.