Tokyo has been variously described as one of the most exciting, most metropolitan and most futuristic cities in the world. Frankly, we’d have to agree. If you’re planning a trip to Japan, though, it’s worth bearing in mind that the world outside its capital city is absolutely bursting with the sort of culture, nature and history you simply won’t find anywhere else.
Indeed, nearly 100 million souls reside in the 46 Japanese prefectures outside Tokyo — that makes for almost endless opportunities to become more familiar with one of the most oddly unique countries on earth.
Not yet convinced? Keep reading to learn why you should add at least a few outside-Tokyo destinations to your Japanese bucket list.
Slow down and discover the old world spirit of Kyoto
After exploring the bustling modernity of Tokyo, you may be ready for the quiet and almost meditative introspection of Kyoto.
While the rest of Japan seems to be eagerly following Tokyo’s lead into the ultramodern future, Kyoto is the country’s home base for the traditions of old. Indeed, the city of 1.5 million has historically been referred to as the City of Ten Thousand Shrines. Even today, some 2,000 temples and shrines exist within the Kyoto region.
Temple hunters who want the most bang for their sightseeing buck will want to head straight to one of the region’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The ancient collection consists of 13 Buddhist temples, three Shinto shrines and one very large flatland castle.
Especially popular is the famed 600-year-old Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji. The Zen Buddhist temple is easily one of the most popular sites in all of Japan, and it’s surrounded by a stunning minimalist garden.
Kyoto’s old spirit also lives on outside its temples, in the streets and alleyways of the city itself. Here, old women wake early in their traditional wooden townhouses, known as machiya, to clean their stoops with ladled water.
On the street, vendors hawk goods from times past — fishmongers, tofu sellers and tea merchants are all plentiful. And yes, you can even soak in an ancient public bath after a day of sightseeing in Kyoto City.
There really isn’t any other place in the world quite like Kyoto. Aside from its otherworldly temples and its deep respect for the county’s ancient ways, the town is also home to traditional geisha performances and an especially vibrant international dining scene. This is a special part of the world, you might say, where every last day is capable of yielding entirely new discoveries.
Eat like a maniac and party like a local in urban Osaka
Located just 50 kilometers (32 miles) southwest of Kyoto, the city of Osaka is one of the country’s cultural capitals. It’s also Japan’s second largest metropolitan area.
Aside from its nearly endless cultural amenities, Osaka is also known as Japan’s culinary capital. It once served as the center of Japan’s rice trade, and even today, Osaka is often referred to as the country’s kitchen. In fact, the phrase “eat till you drop” (kuidaore, or “to eat oneself bankrupt,” when translated literally) was actually coined to describe the Osakan obsession with food.
But make no mistake: Osaka is a phenomenal example of a modern Japanese city, with a booming finance and tourism economy. The city is also full-to-overflowing with architectural charm. You’ll see everything from strangely constructed museums and professional sports stadiums here to neon-gleaming pachinko parlors and soaring elevated highways.
It’s after dark, though, when Osaka truly comes to life. That’s when the locals come out to socialize in droves. You’ll see them wandering through the city’s bright neon streets and alleyways in search of food, drink and entertainment.
Don’t miss a visit to Dotonbori, a popular tourist-friendly district packed with nightlife and entertainment options. It’s constructed around the lovely Dotonbori Canal, where evening-time river cruises are offered.
Other reasons to visit Osaka:
- The otherworldly Osaka Castle Park, which features 600 cherry blossom trees and the four-century-old Osaka Castle itself.
- The traditional Japanese puppet plays, known as bunraku, that are regularly staged at Osaka’s National Bunraku Theatre. Traditional kabuki performances and Noh theater can also be seen around town.
- Osaka’s legendary Tenjin Matsuri festival, which you should definitely try to catch if you’re visiting Japan during mid-summer. Known as one of the country’s three top festivals, it includes enormous land and boat processions, and even larger crowds of celebratory locals.
Gaze upon Mt. Fuji in the stunning countryside of Hakone
Japan’s open-air countryside is a many-splendored thing, and you can get the best of it with a trip to Hakone, which sits about 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of Tokyo.
Known internationally as both an important historical zone and a vacation destination for fans of hot springs and fresh air, the spectacular mountain scenery of the Hakone area is certainly one of its strongest draws. The area is especially famous for its magnificent views of Mt. Fuji.
Public transportation connoisseurs will certainly enjoy exploring the region. Imagine taking a mountainside cable car, for instance, or even a funicular, a gondola, or a switchback railway to reach sites ranging from a traditional Japanese tea house to a wide open volcanic landscape shrouded in fog.
- If you’re a culinary adventurer, try the region’s famed black eggs. Eating them is said to add seven years to your life.
- This mountain-nestled town is home to the Hakone Open Air Museum, where more than 120 modern and contemporary sculptures sit among a breathtaking natural backdrop.
- Visitors are spoiled for choice where the region’s hot springs are concerned. One site you’ll want to remember, though, is the centrally located Hakone Kowakien Yunessun, a self-described “hot spring theme park” where visitors can bathe in coffee, sake or green tea.
No matter when you get around to booking your flight to Japan, keep this in mind: