There are few countries that boast a culture as beguiling as Japan’s. The country’s distinctive customs are evident at every turn; from the pulsing streets of Tokyo to the antiquated back alleys of Kyoto. Travel just a short way from the major cities and you’ll find the following cultural gems to flavour your Japanese adventure.
Nestled in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture, Hida Takayama has retained an enchantingly traditional touch. The vermillion arch of the Nakabashi Bridge is a breathtaking sight in any season, just a short stroll from the delightful Miyagawa Morning Market.
Takayama’s wonderfully preserved Old Town is a place to wander and wonder at shops, sake breweries and street vendors that have been in operation for centuries. Be sure to nosh on traditional street food and sample the regional sake – they’ve been perfecting their recipes since the 1600s.
Jump aboard a ferry from Hiroshima to Miyajima and don’t forget your camera. A gorgeous pagoda rises above the trees to welcome you to this captivating island, the birthplace of the shakushi, or rice scoop – an essential item in any Japanese household.
Catch the ropeway up Mount Misen and marvel at the sweeping island views, stroll through the Old Town or visit with the semi-tame deer, which are rumoured to be sacred messengers from the gods. Be sure to time it all so you catch a glimpse of the majestic Itsukushima torii gate at high tide, when it appears to be floating on the water.
Koyasan is the heartland of Shingon Buddhism and offers fascinating insights into Japan’s traditional religious life. The Okunoin Cemetery is the largest in Japan, and wending through its ancient stonework, giant trees and mossy tombs is a spiritual experience that will leave its impression on your memory forever.
Visit the Kongobuji Temple to explore one of Japan’s beloved National Treasures. The temple is known for its exquisitely painted sliding doors and large rock garden, but it is the sensation of blissful tranquillity that makes Kongobuji a must.
Matsumoto Castle has remained remarkably untouched by fire, earthquakes and the ravages of war, making it one of the best-preserved castles in Japan. It is also famous for its unusual black colour, which inspired the nickname “The Crow Castle” and was chosen to strike fear and foreboding in the hearts of enemies. You’ll need to take off your shoes to explore inside and there are some steep stairs to navigate, but it’s part of the adventure of exploring Japan’s oldest five-tiered wooden castle.
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Shirakawago lies in a mountain valley that will make your heart ache with beauty.
The 250-year-old farmhouses have steep, thatched roofs, designed to combat the valley’s heavy winter snow. The resulting generous attic space was used to cultivate silk worms, the region’s primary industry for many years. Take a stroll down Shirakawago’s small main street and browse the stores for divine silk souvenirs, as well as unique Japanese sweets and excellent local sake.
Just an hour from Kyoto or Osaka lies Nara, the first permanent capital of Japan. The capital was moved in the eighth century, but Nara is still home to many fascinating historical treasures.
Pay your respects to Daibutsu, the 15-metre tall bronze Buddha housed in magnificent Tōdaiji Temple, the largest wooden building in the world. You might notice people wriggling through a hole in a wooden pillar at the back of the temple. It’s the exact size of the Daibutsu’s nostril, and a pass through is said to imbue you with Buddha’s enlightenment.
Wendy Wu Tours incorporates these cultural gems in its four thrilling Japan itineraries: Discover Japan, Jewels of Japan, A Week in Japan and Highlights of Japan. Wendy Wu’s expert local guides have a commitment to helping you immerse yourself in Japan’s cultural wonders in the most authentic way possible.