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Exploring Traditional Japan

David Pettitt

Think of Japan and for many the first thought is of gargantuan cities and a modern, even futuristic, lifestyle. Yet the country has a rich history and with a little effort it is not difficult to experience a traditional life that has remained unchanged for centuries. Below are some ideas for those wishing to explore another side of Japanese life.

Matsumoto, Nagano and Jigokudani

Travel into the Japanese Alps to Matsumoto – an ancient castle town with pretty streets surrounded by 3,000 metre peaks. Visit the 16th century MatsumotoCastle – one of the most complete and beautiful citadels in Japan – or travel travel to Nagano, location of the 1998 Winter Olympics, and Jigokudani Park which is home to the famous ‘snow’ monkeys. Translated, Jigokudani means ‘hell’s valley’ and the geothermic hot springs are popular with vistors and the Japanese macaques alike.

A small Japanese snow monkey macaque at Jigokudani in Japan

Takayama and Shirakawa-go

The drive to Takayama through the Japanese Alps is spectacular. The town has a beautifully preserved centre and its inaccessibility from the rest of Japan has meant the town developed its own unique culture. From Takayama visit Shirakawa-go and the villages of Ogimachi, Suganuma and Ainokura. All three are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are best known for their thatched farmhouses known as ‘gassho-zukuri’ and a traditional rural life found in few other parts of Japan.

Traditional thatched village homes of Shirakawa Go in Japan

Tsumago and the Kiso Valley

Explore the stunning Kiso Valley region of the central Japanese Alps staying in Tsumago – one of the best preserved post towns in Japan. Similar to the famed Pony Express, these towns serviced the 500km long Nakasendo trade route that ran between Kyoto and ancient Edo, Tokyo, from 1603 to 1867. Tsumago is also the starting point for many memorable walks along sections of the old trade route between Nakasendo to Magome. Well maintained, the trail traverses beautiful countryside.

Historic post town of Tsumago in Japan

Kotohira

Catch a train to Shikoku Island, the smallest of Japan’s main islands and arguably the most beautiful. Best known for the Kompirasan shrine dedicated to seafarers, the shrine is set on Mt Zozu and reached by a steep climb of over 1,300 stone steps. Most only make it up to the main hall, however, for the more adventurous the additional 583 steps along a paved, forested path to the inner shrine complex is well worth the extra effort.

Wooden prayer tablets at a Japanese temple

Hokkaido Island

Hokkaido in the far north of Japan provides a distinct contrast to the busy main Honshu Island. The volcanic landscape is often spectacular and the natural hot springs are an enjoyable comfort in what is a cooler climate. Famous for both its beer and noodles, any visit in the picturesque region is complemented by the delicious, and different, food and drink found here – a unique experience for those wishing to understand Japanese culture at a slower pace.

Colourful homes of Asahikawa on Hokkaido Island in Japan

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