Local Obsessions

Japan's Beach Islands, Quiet Hikes, Coastal Trains, and Other National Treasures

by Richard Farmer
Photos courtesy of InsideJapan Tours.

When we get the itch for Japan, we scratch it — by buying very Japanese products, surrounding ourselves with Kusama dots, and bookmarking cool spots for future trips — including alllll of the places mentioned in this hit-list from InsideJapan Tours, an operator offering tailor-made small group tours. The below snapshots were taken by InsideJapan Tour guides over the course of a year without visitors. 

Nakayama-dera Plum Blossom

Located in rural Hyogo prefecture, a stone’s throw from the city of Takarazuka (in an area famous for the beloved all-female musical theater company Takarazuka Revue), is a temple that features as a stop on a number of pilgrimage routes in the Kansai region. It also happens to have a lovely plum tree grove. Plum blossoms bloom about a month before the more famous cherries and signal the coming of milder spring weather.

The Most Beautiful Streetscape in Asia

Kyoto’s Gion Shirakawa street in the heart of Kyoto’s geisha district is often said to be the most beautiful streetscape in Asia. Taking a rest among the blooms is a grey heron, perched on a roof after a busy morning of airborne cherry blossom viewing.

Quiet Delight in Kyoto

Although Daigo-ji temple ranks as one of Kyoto’s 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, it always remains delightfully quiet and tranquil due to its location in the far south-east of the city. The five-story pagoda is a designated National Treasure, with the huge temple complex spilling out onto the mountain behind it. Energetic worshippers can embark on an hour-long hike through the forest to reach the upper Kami-Daigo temple.

Temple Network in Kunisaki

The Kunisaki peninsula juts out into the ocean from the east side of Kyushu, the third-largest ofJapan’s four main islands. Far from the nearest train station, it takes some effort to reach, but visitors are rewarded with a network of temples which all feature a local version of the Nio guardian deities who guard the entrance to Buddhist sanctuaries. More commonly seen as wooden statues inside temple gates, the Nio of Kunisaki are carved out of stone, covered in moss, and standing in the open air.

Kyoto Sakura Light-up

In springtime, many temples in Kyoto throw open their doors in the evenings. There are just so many beautiful cherry trees to see that daylight hours just aren’t enough! These blooms were spotted at Chion-in temple’s light-up event, the nationwide headquarters of the Pure Land School of Buddhism in Japan.

A Beloved Garden for All Seasons

Kenrokuen Garden is ranked as one of the top three gardens in all of Japan (and residents of Kanazawa will insist that it’s the best of the three). Truly a garden for all seasons; plum blossoms in February, cherry blossoms in April, azaleas in May ... the list goes on! But it’s hard to beat the way the garden looks during peak bloom of the cherries.

Kanazawa Castle Sakura

From 1949 until 1989, the grounds of Kanazawa Castle on Japan’s west coast were used as the campus for Kanazawa University. The university outgrew the area and so was moved, and in the years since a long-term project to excavate the ruins and rebuild the castle structures has been underway. The main gate seen here surrounded by cherry blossoms is the only part of the castle that remains from Japan’s samurai era — a recognizable symbol of Kanazawa’s feudal past.

An Idyllic Mountain Getaway

Kamikochi is an idyllic mountain getaway in the mountains of central Japan’s Nagano prefecture. There’s a small settlement in the middle of the valley with a number of mountain lodges clustered around the Kappa-bashi Bridge, from which this photo was taken. Even in the summer the temperatures are delightfully cool, making it a pleasure to drift off to sleep with the window open to hear the murmuring of the Azusa River.

Water in the Japanese Alps

About an hour’s hike along the valley floor through the Kamikochi National Park in the Japanese Alps, the Myojin Pond exudes a special spiritual atmosphere. The pond is actually located within the grounds of a Shinto shrine, and the boat moored here is taken out onto the pond in October each year as part of the Shrine’s main festival.

Hagi Okan Hike

The Hagi Okan trail was constructed in the early 17th century to connect the remote castle town of Hagi to the rest of Japan. It was used by feudal lords and their samurai retainers to make the bi-annual journey to the seat of the Shogun ruler’s power in Edo (now Tokyo). Following the remains of the 50km trail takes the intrepid hiker deep into the forested mountains of rural Yamaguchi prefecture.

Japan's Alpine Hiking Trails

Nothing can beat breathing in lungfuls of the fresh cedar-scented mountain air along the hiking trails of the Kamikochi valley, deep in the Japanese Alps. The hikes along the valley floor are easily walkable, even for children, but intrepid adventures can turn towards the mountains themselves.

Fukuoka Oshima

A half-hour ferry ride from Munakata, near Kyushu’s largest city (and ramen capital of Japan!) of Fukuoka, lies Oshima island. With a population of less than 1,000 people, the island has a deeply spiritual feel, with dozens of Shinto shrines, large and small, dotting the island’s landscape. The Shinto torii gate standing in front of this tiny islet marks it as a sacred space and the home of a Kami, a Shinto deity.

Solitude Deep in the Valley

The deeper you hike into the Kamikochi valley, the less people you’ll see, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be entirely alone! It’s not uncommon to see troops of Japanese macaque monkeys frolicking near the river as you meander along the trails.

Aomori Juniko

The far-north of Japan’s Tohoku region is full of natural beauty. Within the Tsugaru Quasi-National Park is an area called Juniko, which means twelve lakes. This small lake is called Aoike, or Blue Pond. Nobody knows what causes the lake to be so consistently clear and cobalt blue — but it adds to the mysterious atmosphere.

Japan Canyon

Although the Juniko area in the far north of Japan’s Aomori prefecture is best-known for its walking trails connecting twelve small lakes, slightly removed and hidden from the trail is this special spot known as Japan Canyon – Japan’s answer to the Grand Canyon. It doesn’t hold a candle to the scale of its Arizona cousin, but walking between the white cliffs listening to the bush warblers singing, you suddenly realize you’re about as far from Tokyo as you could possibly get!

Resort Trains in Juniko

Three special resort trains link the prefectural capital of northern Aomori city to the rural hiking destination of Juniko. After a long day, there's nothing more rewarding than sipping on an ice cold local Beech Tree Beer while watching the setting sun — all while winding your way back to civilization by rail along the coast of the Sea of Japan.

Adachi Museum Garden

Founded 50 years ago by Adachi Zenko, a wealthy businessman from rural Shimane Prefecture who wanted to share his private art collection with the public, the Adachi Museum is known for its garden and its art. It has won the Best Garden in Japan award so many years consecutively that they might as well give up holding the competition.

Okinawa's Laid-Back Beach Island

Although the beaches of Japan’s southernmost islands of Okinawa are known around the world, the relatively unknown island of Amami is a stone’s throw away. If you want to experience Okinawa's palm trees, beaches, and laid-back vibe without the crowds, Amami is the place to go.

Keep Exploring Japan

Fathom Guide to Tokyo
Fathom Guide to Kyoto