If you`re reading this, you probably have some interest in Japan. Perhaps you live there, perhaps you`ve been there on holiday. If you`re interested in exploring the country a little more, I hope this list will give you some inspiration to do so. After all, Japan is a big place, with 3000km separating the northern tip of Hokkaido and the last flick of the Okinawa archipelago. This is an entirely subjective list of ten brilliant places which are not as well known or visited as they deserve to be.
1. Matsuyama and Dogo Onsen, Ehime Prefecture, Shikoku
Hot spring lovers need look no further than this charming city which sits on the north coast of Shikoku, facing Hiroshima across the Inland Sea. The two are only an hour apart by ferry, making it perfectly possible to visit both in the same trip. Matsuyama has all the things I want in a Japanese city; great food, nearby beaches, an imposing castle on a hill, and a population who are quite a few cards short of a collective deck. I don’t know if I was just lucky when I went, but about every third person seemed to be quite spectacularly dotty (apologies to any Matsuyamans who may have happened on this page, but I assure you I mean this as a compliment When you tire of Matsuyama, hop on the No.1 tram to Dogo Onsen, a spectacular bathing facility which was frequented by Natsume Soseki and plays a central role in his semi-autobiographical novel `Botchan`. In his day, for eight sen (100 sen = 1 yen) you could get a bath, food, and a massage. Would that those days were still with us; however, today you must part with a rather larger sum (1500 yen), but you will get your own private room to relax in, a yukata, towel, tea, sweets and access to the Emperor`s bath, which is as steamy as the directors cut of Debbie Does Dallas. Even today, it’s a bargain. Finally, don’t leave town without eating Botchan Dango (they rather go to town with their Soseki connections), which is a delicious confection of soft sweetened dango (mochi balls) on a stick in traffic light colours.
Other info: JR Shikoku has a `Birthday Ticket` deal, where if one member of your party (up to four people) has a birthday in the month of travel, you are eligible for 3 days unlimited travel (including Green Cars) in Shikoku for 10,000 yen.
2. Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture, Kyushu
I won`t lie. Hirado takes some getting to. First get yourself to Fukuoka. Then take a bus or train to Sasebo, a town whose questionable claims to fame include burgers (say Sasebo to any Japanese person, and there`s a very good chance the immediate reply will be `burger`) a twinning with Albuquerque and having the westernmost JR station in Japan. From Sasebo, take another bus (or hire a car if you have the hang of that driving business) across the Hirado Great Bridge, and enjoy the rural scenery as you descend into Hirado City.
Why would you want to do all this? Well, unless you’re a history buff, you probably won’t. Hirado’s glory days are long gone, but in the 16th and 17th centuries this was one of the busiest trading posts in all Japan. Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese and English traders all lived and worked here, bringing wealth, technology and perhaps more importantly, Christianity. Francis Xavier, the famous Jesuit missionary, first came ashore here in an attempt to make Japan an Asian outpost of Catholicism. In this he failed, but Nagasaki remains the Japanese centre of Christianity, and Hirado is one of few places where you can see the streets at their busiest on a Sunday morning, with the faithful piling into the Church of St Francis to receive their weekly blessing. The secular amongst us, however, will still find it worth a visit; the view from the church, of Hirado Castle standing proud above the glittering Sea of Japan, is unforgettable for preacher and layman alike.
3. Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, Honshu
Okay, so Kobe is hardly a `hidden gem`. But, its proximity to other more famous sites such as Osaka, Kyoto and Nara can often lead to it being overlooked by the hurried sightseer, and this is a shame. Indeed, the very fact that it is none of these places may be its strong point; not as hectic as Osaka and not as touristy as Kyoto, it makes a thoroughly pleasant base for exploring Kansai, and an excellent destination in its own right.
This, however, you can find out from any guidebook. I want to tell you about the sake distilleries of Nada, just one stop from the centre of Kobe on the Sanyo mainline. For a ridiculously low price (500 yen) you can see a real, working sake distillery, and try various kinds of the brew under the guidance of the master brewer. A personal recommendation is the Shushinkan, founded in 1751. The master there is an English lover, and if you keep complimenting his English, he will keep bringing out the sake (well beyond the five `official` tasting sakes). Be careful, though; this can lead to embarrassing drunkenness at an inappropriate time of the day; my last visit ended up with 11 glasses being polished off before 12pm, and the five minute train ride back to Kobe ended up being a 3 hour round trip via Himeji, 60 miles west.
4. Rishiri Island, Hokkaido
Imagine Mount Fuji, plopped down in the middle of the sea, and that`s pretty much what Rishiri is. As with Hirado, Rishiri is not really `on the way` to anywhere, except perhaps Russia. But it is very much worth the journey for anyone who likes hiking, cycling and other wholesome outdoor type pursuits. To get there, first get to Sapporo. Then take a train to Wakkanai, the most northerly station in all of Japan. It is also the most boring place I have ever been to; just think of it as a kind of trial that must be overcome to reach the wonders of Rishiri. Your first glimpse of the island will probably come from the train on the way to Wakkanai, a tantalizingly perfect cone, its peak shrouded in great fluffy pillows of cloud. When you arrive on the island, put on your stoutest hiking boots, and start the climb, all 1721 metres of it, to the summit. You will soon climb above the cloud cover of the lower part of the island, and from there you are in Wonderland. The only clouds are now below you, so the weather is splendid, and the view stretches all the way to Sakhalin, some 110 kilometres away to the north. Whatever you do, don`t forget your camera.
5. Somewhere, Japan
When the Japanese go on holiday, they like it to be planned. Planned to an extent that would make a Sandhurst trained officer feel he was a happy-go-lucky, spontaneous type in comparison. `Assemble 0800 hours. Board bus 0810 hours for 43 minute journey to cathedral. Breakfast at 0855 hours in cathedral café`, that sort of thing. I once attended a presentation by a Japanese tour guide, about how guiding Westerners was different to guiding Japanese; it was particularly funny when he said that sometimes western tourists want to walk round a city away from their tour group. The audience, made almost entirely of `women of a certain age` gasped, utterly shocked at how anyone might do such a selfish, dangerous thing.
`But what if they got lost? ` shouted one?
`But what if they got murdered or shot? ` bawled another.
The hysteria was quite palpable. Flexibility and change on a Japanese holiday are about as welcome as syphilis.
So, as an antidote to this kind of rigid planning, here is what you need to do. Get on a train. Get off at any station which connects to another line. Ride that train for a number of stops equivalent to your age divided by three. Get off, and see where you are. No matter how uninteresting that place may look, spend a day there. Wander, get lost, get into a difficult looking but ultimately hilarious scrape involving someone’s cocker spaniel. Do anything, as long as you don’t plan it.
An alternative to this, if you think your Japanese is up to it, is to go to a ticket counter at your local station, ask for a ticket, and when asked `where to?`, just say `wherever you recommend`. The look of shock on the assistant’s face will be quite special.
6. Naoshima, Kagawa Prefecture, Shikoku
Naoshima is a smallish island in the Inland Sea, roughly equidistant between Okayama and Takamatsu. It used to have a thriving fishing industry, but when that floundered, the locals wondered what to do. Luckily for them, the Benesse Corporation decided to invest billions of yen turning the place into an `art island`. They hired one of Japan`s foremost architects, Ando Tadao, to design a Museum of Contemporary Art, and commissioned well known artists such as Yayoi Kusama and Cao Guin Qian to create installations which they then placed around the island. The result is like an artistic treasure hunt, best carried out by bike, as you criss-cross the island chancing upon a sculpture here, a fresco there, and all the while enjoying splendid views across the Inland Sea. A must for fans of modern art.
One word of warning, though. When you hire a bicycle from the information centre near the port, be sure to check the adequacy of the brakes. Failure to do this may result in a descent from Mr. Ando`s hilltop museum at a speed approaching that of sound, accompanied by frantic attempts to shout every curse word known to the English tongue while making private prayers for the saving of your soul to any deity who cares to listen. Take my word for it.
7. Seishun 18 kippu (Youth 18 ticket)
Despite its name, this ticket is available to anyone, regardless of age. It is a ticket, on sale for three periods every year roughly congruent with university holidays, which entitles the holder to 5 days unlimited travel on local trains in that period. It will next be available between February 20 and March 31 (university spring break), for travel between March 1 and April 10. The ticket can be used by one person on 5 days, or five people on the same day. It costs 11,000 yen, or 2,200 yen for each day of travel. Given that you can travel from Takaoka to Hiroshima on one of these days, which would normally cost 15,000 of your hard earned yen, you begin to see the savings possible.
The catch, of course, is the thing about local trains. You can go to Hiroshima, but it will take you 12 hours. However, you will see much more of the country on local trains, and perhaps discover a hidden gem or two? For my money, the local train between Mihara and Hiroshima is one of the most beautiful journeys in Japan, and doubly so if the cherry blossoms are flowering or the autumn leaves are in season.
So, learn to slow down, take a few days off work, and see Japan not as a blur from the window of the Shinkansen, but from the window of a slow train winding through rice paddies and gardens to a destination of nowhere in particular.
8. Shiretoko Peninsula, Hokkaido
I promise I`m not trying to send you all to the ends of the earth here, but Shiretoko is another place which is tremendously far away and still well worth the journey. Sticking out into the Sea of Okhotsk from the north-east tip of Hokkaido lies perhaps Japan`s last wilderness. Surrounded by sea ice in winter, populated by bear and deer in summer, Shiretoko is about as far from the madding crowd as you can get without actually popping over the sea to Siberian Russia. To get there, you must again start from Sapporo in Hokkaido. Get the train to Abashiri, and from there, take a bus up the peninsula, perhaps to the Iwaobetsu youth hostel, which is still not connected to the national grid. From there, you can explore the Kamuiwakka falls, a waterfall of geothermally heated water with a natural pool at the top for bathing, or climb Rausu-dake, a 1660 metre peak which is covered with snow all year round and commands views of the sea to east and west, and the Kuril Islands to the north, which Japan still disputes ownership of with Russia in the undignified manner of two bald men fighting over a comb.
In winter, when hiking is impossible for all but the most seriously equipped walker, you can ride an icebreaker boat around the peninsula to see huge frozen waterfalls and uninhabited islands, and for the ornithologists out there, one of the last remaining colonies of Steller`s Sea Eagle. When night falls, have a well deserved beer while watching the sun set on the Sea of Okhotsk. Do mind out for those bears, though.
9. Myoko kogen, Niigata Prefecture, Honshu
The ski season is with us, so it would be rude not to include at least one resort. For us Toyama people, Myoko Kogen has the advantage of being close (a couple of hours by train), cheap to get to (2000-3000 yen depending on where you are in the prefecture), having excellent skiing (Myoko Suginohara resort has the longest piste in Japan, at 8.5 km long), and not being as crowded as other resorts such as Hakuba and Naeba. In addition, you can stay at wonderful places like Tabataya, which will do you two nights accommodation, two days lift pass and four meals for the frankly ridiculously low price of 12,000 yen. Then, after a hard day carving powder (or in my case, a hard day slip-sliding down the piste with an action resembling a frog in a blender) you can head back to town to soak in an onsen and get some local sake inside you; after all, Hakkaisan, one of the finest examples of the stuff in Japan, is made just up the road. They do distillery tours with generous samples too, if all the skiing is too energetic for you.
10. Izu Islands, Tokyo, Honshu
What capital city contains; palm fringed beaches, fields of wild camellia, an active volcano and opportunities for scuba diving?
The answer is Tokyo, which may surprise anyone who has ever set foot in that largely treeless metropolis. But, get yourself on a boat from Shibaura harbour to the Izu Islands (administratively a part of Tokyo) and you will find yourself among all these natural wonders. The largest of the islands, Izu Oshima, offers the chance to climb to the crater of an active volcano (the last eruption was in the mid nineties), sample some of the best sushi in Japan, try numerous (free) open air hot spring baths, and breathe in what is almost certainly the cleanest air in Tokyo. If you happen to get bored of this, you could pop over to Mikurajima, where you can snorkel with wild dolphins, or Hachiojima, where you can get a very creditable plate of fish and chips from the Anchor pub before popping next door to the dive shop to get kitted out for scuba diving. If you`re in Tokyo, paradise is very much on your doorstep.