If someone asks you what the best historical destinations in Japan are, chances are you’re going to say ‘Kyoto and Osaka’. This may very well be true but one of the best things about Japan is that history is everywhere you go, whether it’s an old castle city or a small pottery town in the remote mountains. There is no limit to the samurai towns, folktales and impressive architecture, so how on earth can you narrow it down if you’re Japan is your next holiday destination? Speaking from an albeit limited experience, one or two weeks does not feel like enough.
So, here’s one of the many possible ‘historical Japan’ itineraries that, if you don’t mind lots of travelling on the Shinkansen, will give you some insight into just how diverse Japan’s culture really is…
Kakunodate (Akita Prefecture)
Nicknamed Little Kyoto of Michinoku, Kakunodate is home to many samurai houses and one of the best places to see an example of a Japanese castle town. Today, these houses are privately owned by the descendants of the samurai warriors although many are open to the public. Along with its remaining shrines and merchants’ storehouses, there is a strong sense that Kakunodate’s history is still alive today.
A beautiful tunnel of cherry blossoms along the Hinokinai-gawa Fiver bloom in spring and is designated a Place of Scenic Beauty by the national government. It is a popular spot all year round as the foliage changes with the seasons.
Festivals are held to celebrate the four seasons; the Sakura Matsuri in spring, the Sasara-mai Dance in summer and the Hiburi-kamakura in winter, where a bundle of rice straw is set alight and swung around to ward off evil. Perhaps the most exciting is the Yama-buttsuke Matsuri, where giant samurai-themed floats collide.
Kawagoe (Saitama Prefecture)
Known as ‘Ko-edo’ or ‘Little Edo’ because of its architecture, Kawagoe City flourished as a castle town in the 17th century and its streets are still lined with traditional merchants’ houses. A bell tolling the time, originally built in the 17th century and now in its fourth generation, is another important symbol of the city.
A visit to the impressive Toshugu Shrine, honouring the Tokugawa family, is absolutely essential. Built in 1633 following the death of the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu, it was mostly destroyed in a fire five years later but has been fully restored.
The Kawagoe Matsuri, where seven-meter tall floats parade the city, is one of the three best festivals in the Kanto region. Another of Kawagoe’s specialities is Kashiya-yokocho, a confectionary lane with shops selling a wide range of nostalgic Japanese sweets, rice crackers and other snacks.
Kamakura (Kanagawa Prefecture)
Kamakura has flourished since the warlord Minamoto Yoritomo established a new government there in 1192. With its many historical temples and rich natural scenery, the city draws visitors throughout the year.
Perhaps the most important monument to visit is the Daibutsu (Great Buddha) at the Kotokuin Temple, which stands at 13.35 meters and weighs 121 tons. It has stood in Kamakura since its construction in 1252. For an additional fee, visitors can even go inside the statue! From there, there is the Engaku-ji Temple, with its extensive grounds and Sanmon Gate, said to bring enlightenment to those who pass through it, the Kencho-ji Temple with its wooden structures and huge bells, and the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine, where you will learn of the various samurai legends.
Even more breath-taking is the Wakamiya-oji Street, built by Shogun Yoritomo and stretching 1800 metres to the sea. The avenue of cherry blossoms leading to the Hachiman-gu Shrine is a sight to behold in the spring.
Seto City (Aichi Prefecture)
Not everyone necessarily associates ceramics with historical Japan, even though this craft is instrinsic to the heritage of Seto City. Walking down the Kamagaki-no-komichi at the foot of the mountains, where plates and cups are embedded into the walkways’ stone walls, will give you a sense of the everyday life of Seto’s craftspeople. A visit to the Seto Ceramics and Glass Art Center will give you the perfect opportunity to observe or experience the city’s crafts. The unusual Kamagami-jinja Shrine is dedicated to the people who have passed on ceramic manufacturing methods through generations and the Ceramics Festival held in early September drives their importance back home.
If you are a car fanatic, a visit to the Toyota Automobile Museum in nearby Nagakute town is essential. You may even spot your favourite model among the 120 automobiles from the end of the 19th century to the 1940s.
Kiso (Nagano Prefecture)
Nestled in a steep valley area in the upper reaches of the Kiso-gawa River is Kiso. It is home to the famous Nakasen-do highway, an essential point of transportation that connected present day Tokyo and Kyoto between the 17th and 19th century. The most scenic part of the highway is the Kiso-ji Road, which is surrounded by steep mountains. At the mouth of Kiso-ji is the former post station Magome-juku, where rows of old houses line the stone-paved sloping roads.
From Magome, you can reach Tsumago, which hosts the Bunka-Bunsei-Fuzoku-Emaki Gyoretsu on 23 November each year. People dress in costumes from the Bunka-Bunsei period (late Edo period). If you’re up for a challenge, you can climb the 3,067-meter-high Mt. Ontake-san, known as a holy mountain that has been visited by many worshippers since the 18th century.
Shirakawa-go (Gifu Prefecture)
A registered UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, Shirakawa-go is a quiet yet beautiful mountain village at the foot of Mt. Haku-san. With 114 thatched roof houses, rice fields and a river running through it, this village is truly Japanese in every sense of the word.
Amazingly, 27 thatched roof houses have been relocated from various areas in the village to the nearby Gassho-zukuri Minka-en outdoor museum. A temple, coalhouse and horse paddock have also been built to preserve the old scenery and there are live performances of traditional industrial arts such as dyeing and soba noodle making. Of course, the village is home to its own Doburoku Festivals every autumn. Its namesake is a white, unrefined sake served to visitors during the festival period.
Takayama (Gifu Prefecture)
During the Takayama Matsuri, intricately crafted festival floats are displayed around the city, a testament to the region’s history of craftsmanship. Held in spring and autumn, it attracts thousands of visitors from across the world.
Those who are interested in the local artistry will want to visit the Hida no Sato, an outdoor museum displaying traditional architecture and thatched roof houses, some of which have been relocated from Shirakawa-go.
The Takayama Jinya, a 17th century government house, is the last one of its kind in Japan and is open to the public. A farmer’s market is also held in front of the house every morning, where artisans sell everything from pickles to carvings.
Nada Go-go (Hyogo Prefecture)
Nada Go-go is the name of the five areas that lie between Kobe and Nishinomiya. The area is most famous for its high quality sake breweries, many of which line the Sakagura-no-michi, or Sake Brewery Street. The name of Nada became known throughout Japan in the 18th century for three reasons; its excellent quality water for making sake, its high quality rice and its convenient location for transportation by sea. All three are, of course, essential for the production and distribution of sake.
Visitors can watch the process of sake brewing at the Hama-fuku-tsuru Brewery factory and then try it at the tasting corner. Most of the brewers have their own museums to pass on the process of sake brewing. Even if you’re not a particular fan of the taste of sake, Nada Go-go really should be on your ‘to do’ list for the experience alone.
Miyajima (Hiroshima Prefecture)
A short boat ride away from Hiroshima is Miyajima Island, worshipped as a sacred place since ancient times. The island is home to several important cultural assets; including the floating tori gate, the Five Story Pagoda, built in 1407, that stands almost 30 meters high, the Hall of One Thousand Mats, built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi but never completed and Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, the appearance of which changes dramatically with the tide.
The founder of the Shingon Buddhist sect meditated at the summit of Mt. Misen 1,200 years ago. Visitors can take a ropeway to the mountain and take in the majesty of the island’s stunning ancient scenery.
In many ways, Miyajima Island has not changed since the Itsukushima Shrine was constructed in the 6th century. It is still widely visited by pilgrims and inhabited by curious deer who are treated as messengers of the gods, and it has lost none of its mysterious aura.
Usuki (Oita Prefecture)
Usuki is home to one of the most unique National Treaures of its kind, a group of more than 60 Buddha figures carved out of the natural rock of a cliff, known as ‘Usuki Sekibutsu’. A Buddha carving of this kind is known as ‘Magai-butsu’ and Usuki takes it to a whole new level. Mysterious and incredibly impressive, this largest scale of Magai-butsu is believed to have been carved around 1,000 years ago.
If you visit Usuki in autumn, twenty thousand Japanese table lamps will be lit in celebration of the bamboo lantern festivals. A trip to the stone pavement called ‘Nioza Historical Street’ and Usuki Castle, built under the prosperous rule of the feudal lord Sorin Otomo, are in order at any time of the year.
This is just but a tiny sample of the historical towns and cities to visit in Japan. There is no shortage of places to visit and stories to discover but, as the most well-versed travellers know, you have to take the path less travelled to find them. I am lucky enough to have visited one of these destinations, Miyajima Island, already but I am hoping that it be a lot more the next time I go to Japan, hopefully next year. The thing I love about Japan the most is, without a doubt, its unique history.
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All images taken from the Japan Guide website. Image of Seto taken from Japanican and image of Usuki taken from Trip Advisor.