Most visitors to Japan are drawn to Tokyo or Kyoto, but the country also has plenty of rural pleasures, write Gabrielle Jaffe and Jake Newby.
Stunning landscapes, unique regional cuisine and charming traditional restaurants – whether you’re a foodie, history buff, art aficionado or simply a nature lover, Japan’s countryside has many places worth escaping the cities for. We’ve picked three of the best.
On arrival at the hillside-ringed port of Honmura you are met by a welcoming party of small swaying boats and at first glance, Naoshima island certainly appears to be a typical Japanese fishing community. But looks can be very deceptive, because this backwater has been transformed to become one of Japan’s premier art spots.
Benesse House Museum, designed by minimalist architect Tadao Ando, is a spiral of curved walls encompassing ever-changing exhibitions of modern Japanese art, plus it houses an excellent café with sea views. Ando also created two more museums for the island: one dedicated to the works of Korean artist Lee Ufan, and Chichu Art Museum, an underground space housing several of Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ works, as well as a sphere sculpture and light installations from contemporary American artists Walter de Maria and James Turrell.
However, half the fun of the artwork in Naoshima is that most of it isn’t inside the museums. Visitors can scout out sculptures dotted all around the island and perhaps the best-known of these works is Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Pumpkin’. Placed as it is at the end of a pier jutting out into a sweeping cove, it is a lesson in pure perspective. Also not-to-be missed is the ‘I♥’ (in Japanese the character is pronounced ‘yu’) bathhouse in Miyanoura Port, where you can bathe surrounded by artworks.
Take a two-hour train ride from Osaka to Uno Port (transferring via Okayama). Then catch the 15-minute ferry across to Naoshima.
Japan, the birthplace of the bullet train, has its fair share of exciting train rides, but there are perhaps none more thrilling than the journey to Takayama from Nagoya. The Wide View Hida Limited Express, as the name suggests, has gloriously panoramic windows. The train winds alongside a turquoise river and pine-covered, misty hills that sometimes part to reveal snowy mountains behind. The journey is a dramatic prologue to picturesque Takayama, a city that seems to have missed out on Japan’s transmutation into a land of futuristic landscapes.
Beside the gentle, wide river ambling through the city centre you’ll find streets lined with historic buildings. To the northeast is a collection of elegantly small temples. Outside, white banners flutter and asymmetrical trees tower over the buildings, reminding the visitor that here nature is revered. To the southeast is Shiroyama Park, a forested hill boasting shaded trails, and vistas of the low-rise city below.
With the city centre covering a relatively small area and the roads so light on traffic, Takayama is easy to explore on foot or by bike. To reward yourself after the day’s trek, you can spend the evening soaking in one of the onsens (traditional hot springs) located at many of the city’s hotels.
Take a four-hour train ride (transferring via Nagoya) to Takayama.
The remotest inhabited point from Japan’s mainland, Yaeyama Islands are closer to Taipei than Tokyo. Stretching out lazily to the southwest of Okinawa Island, towards Taiwan, these islands have a scattered population of just 55,000.
Ishigaki is one of the largest islands and makes an ideal base for exploring the surrounding archipelago. In the northwest of Ishigaki is Kabira Bay, with white sands, turquoise waters and small glass-bottomed boats that let you view the coral reefs teaming with tropical fish and turtles beneath.
Ishigaki’s port offers a fleet of regular high-speed boats to whisk visitors away to the surrounding islands. Of these, Taketomi, a ten-minute ferry from Ishigaki, features some of the best beaches, including Star Sand Beach, so-called because of the tiny star-shaped pieces of coral that can be found there, and Kondoi Beach, a larger area more suitable for swimming.
The island also features tours by buffalo-drawn wooden carts, accompanied by guides playing Okinawan lutes.
For the more active, Iriomote Island, a 40-minute ferry from Ishigaki, offers river kayaking and hiking opportunities. The island is 90 percent jungle and home to wild boar and extremely rare wildcats – perfect for those wanting to indulge their inner intrepid explorer.
From Tokyo fly to Ishigaki (via Naha) with JAL www.jal.co.jp.
Need to know
Emirates flies direct to Osaka from Dhs5,715 return and direct to Tokyo from Dhs4,925 return.
Dubai to Japan
Flight time: From nine hours for direct flights
Time difference: Five hours ahead of Dubai
Dhs1 = 28 Japanese Yen