Japan represents different things to different travelers. To some, Japan is a country of cutting-edge modernity, a place whose capital, Tokyo, with its neon skyline and 13 million people, is like something out of a science fiction film. To others, Japan is a spiritual place, a country steeped in tradition, its deep forests, valleys and ancient coastal highways closely tied to Hiroshige’s paintings. And while Japan is famous for its dual nature of hyper-modernity and heritage, it’s more than that. It’s a haiku with many different layers and meanings. For every popular tourist attraction and landmark, there's a lesser-known tourist attraction and landmark it its shadow. Here are 5 must see places in Japan you probably never heard of.
Secret Garden: Saihoji, Japan
Kyoto has several secret gardens. Some are highlighted in guidebooks, and then there are the lesser-known ones, the "green gems" that are tucked away like long forgotten fairytales. The secret garden at the Saihoji temple in Kyoto, Japan, is considered the first Zen meditation garden. Created in the Nara period, between 729-749, the ancient space features maple trees and bamboo groves. But it’s the garden’s many shades of moss that make it look like something out of the land of fairies; soft yellow and green hues coat the garden floor like an imperial carpet. Since the 1970s, the Buddhist monks who tend to the Saihoji temple have put restrictions on visitors, adding another layer of secretiveness to the secret garden. In order to visit, tourists must not only get a postcard reservation, but they also need to engage in an activity such as meditating or chanting once they enter.
JBS Bar: Shibuya, Tokyo
Walking into the JBS Bar is like walking into a short story by Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most famous novelist. The walls of the narrow, second floor jazz bar –jazukissa, in Japanese –in Tokyo’s busiest area are lined with over 11,000 records, the private collection of the owner, Kobayashi-san. (In 1974, before he found international fame as a writer, Huruki Murakami opened a jazz bar called Peter the Cat.) The JBS Bar –the JBS standing for jazz, blues and soul -isn’t a bar in the traditional sense; with only 13 sets, it’s more like a listening room, a curated experience for aficionados who want to sip Yebisu and listen to vinyl recordings of Coltrane, Mingus, and Muddy Waters.
Culinary Crawl: Osaka, Japan
Osaka may be the second largest city in Japan but it’s the country’s culinary capital. If Tokyo is Japan’s heart, and Kyoto its spirit, then Osaka is the country’s appetite. In fact, there’s a popular saying in Japan that says Osaka people will spend all of their money in pursuit of good food and drink. While the city is home to great street food, it’s the culinary legacies in restaurants in the neighborhoods of Tsuruhashi and Fukushima that attract foodies from around the globe. There are 91 Michelin star restaurants in Osaka, a stunning number that’s sure to test the mettle of the most devout gourmand. Every year, Osaka hosts the International Festival Utage (Feast), a 10-day celebration of the foods and flavors found in Japan’s 47 prefectures.
Yatsushiro to Hayato, by Rail
When you think of rail journeys, chances are you think of gap year backpackers exploring Europe with cheap train passes. The Orient Express and Trans-Siberian probably come to mind, too. Not to mention Japanese bullet trains. But there’s more to Japanese rail travel than trains that move at the speed of light. One of the most scenic rail journeys in Japan can be found on Kyushu, the country’s third largest island and home to one of the world’s largest active volcanoes. The JR Hiatsu line from Yatsushiro to Hayato snakes its way through beautiful valleys, rolls past the Kumagawa River, and opens onto stunning views of the Kirishima mountain range. Look closely and you’ll see Mount Sakarajima smoldering in the distance.
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Located on the western coast of Honshu, Kanazawa was Japan’s best-kept secret until a bullet train extension shortened the trip from Tokyo to 2 ? hours. Still, this beautiful town welcomes a fraction of the visitors as Japan’s other must-see destinations. Kanazawa’s Higashi Chayagai district is famous for its wooden teahouses. There’s a beautiful samurai residence in Nagamachi, as well as the 21st Century Contemporary Art Museum. Kanazawa’s claim to fame, however, is its sushi. It’s as good as what you’ll find in Tokyo, and half the price. You’ll find the freshest sushi at Sentori, Kagayasuke, and the Omi-cho Market.
When you travel to Japan, don’t be afraid to venture off the beaten path. You never know what sort of treasure you’re going to stumble upon. To find out more about a trip to Japan, check out Affordable World's vacation packages that start with just $1399 with airfare, hotels, local transfers, and tours.