6 Secret Japan Spots You Haven’t Heard Of
Some unique adventures off the tourist trail.
Over nine million international tourists visited Japan in the first half of 2015 alone, which makes for a lot of crowd bumping in the quest for that Golden Temple selfie. But there are still plenty of opportunities in the Land of the Rising Sun for unique adventures off the main tourist trail. So whether you’re after some quirky animal hangs, a hidden vinyl jazz bar, an escape into the wild, a book-lover’s paradise or a slightly wacky Buddhist temple, we’ll get you out of the crowds and into an authentic Japanese experience.
#1 Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, Kyoto
If, like many travellers to Kyoto, you took a day trip out to the Arashiyama district at the base of the western mountains, you probably had a wonderful time Instagramming the soaring Bamboo Grove, visiting a few temples, eating matcha ice cream and generally feeling like you were winning at life. But it’s likely that you missed one of the most fascinating and under-the-radar temples in all of Japan.
Past the canopy of bamboo shoots and up into the northern suburbs, you will find Otagi Nenbutsu-ji nestled in among the forest. Scattered throughout this relatively small site are 1200 Buddhist statues, each with their own endearing and sometimes hilarious personality.
Amid the rows of stone figures that line pathways and skirt temple buildings, there are a multitude of expressions including faces depicting calmness, sorrow, pure joy, and despair. There are little Buddha dudes that are hugging, praying over beads, cradling dogs, laughing, even having a tipple! And you can experience all of this with barely another visitor on site.
#2 JBS Bar, Shibuya, Tokyo
In a back street in one of Tokyo’s busiest areas, known for its human sea crossing, giant stationary store and izakaya joints, lies a narrow bar hidden on the second floor above the street. With walls lined with over 11,000 records – the private collection of owner Kobayashi-san – JBS Bar is a compact music-lover’s paradise. Pull up one of only 13 seats, order a whisky or Yebisu Japanese all-malt beer and expect to hear jazz, soul, and blues greats like Muddy Waters, B.B. King or Howlin’ Wolf. Don’t be afraid to go alone (remember the 13 seats?) and while away a few hours of listening bliss, curated by a man who clearly knows a thing or two about quality vinyl tunes.
#3 Umimirai Library, Kanazawa
Book nerds rejoice: there’s a giant white library with port-hole windows in one of Japan’s coolest cities! So, when you’re done checking out Kanazawa’s creative art wonder that is the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, and one of Japan’s top three gardens (and don’t underestimate the Japanese ability to grow good garden) Kenrokuen, steer northwest towards the seaside and jump out at Umimirai Library, a modern ode to the printed book.
Built over three stories, which includes a huge loft and cylindrical central elevator tower, this architectural gem was intended as a forest-like space, perfect for reading, researching or wandering aimlessly staring up at the 6000 circular windows lining the building. Sure, you might not be able to find many books in English, but you can pore over illustrated history books of Kanazawa’s ninja past, or picture-read Manga, right?
#4 Zao Fox Village, Miyagi prefecture
We all know about the explosion of cat cafes across Japan (it’s even spread to Australia). Add to that the opening of owl and goat cafes, the popularity of visiting the deer in Nara and the rabbits of ‘bunny island’ in Okunoshima, and it’s pretty safe to say that the Japanese love to get up close and personal to their kawaii animals.
But did you know about the Zao Fox Village, where you can hang out with six different species of these fluffy trixters and not even fear for your life? Nestled near the beautiful Mount Zao, an active volcano in northern Honshu, this fox sanctuary has over 100 animals, the most common of which is the adorable Japanese Red Fox. For around $1.20AUD you can pick up some snacks to feed these fluffy-tailed creatures (which you are advised to not feed by hand despite them being quite tame, but rather throw to the ground, as they are, after all, a wild animal).
If, after roaming with the foxes in the main grounds of the sanctuary, you are left wanting a big animal hug, not to worry – there is also an on-site petting zoo with bunnies, goats and ponies. Kawaii indeed!
#5 Rebun Island, Hokkaido
Many head to Japan for the epic snow fields in winter, and for a relatively small country, it’s certainly got more than it’s share of huge mountains and wild places. But the outdoor fun doesn’t stop in the warmer months, as where there are mountains, there is hiking – and Japan has seemingly endless opportunities to get your trek on.
With the recent announcement that trials of free Wi-Fi have begun on Mt Fuji, and with the existence of a soda machine already at the summit, you may be searching for a hiking getaway that’s a little more remote. And on Rebun Island, 50 kilometres off the coast of the wilds of Hokkaido, you’re going to find just that. At 29 kilometres long, this hidden gem in the Sea of Japan features an abundance of rare alpine flowers, green spaces, and striking coastline, especially in the southwest of the island at Motochi. It takes around eight hours to hike the length of the island, but smaller tracks are also available and a walk past the crystal clear waters of Sukai Cape is a must. It’s basically eight hours you’ll be talking about for 80 years.
#6 Kumano Kodo, Osaka
As home to some of the world’s busiest cities and most-popular slopes, finding a peaceful place to wander in Japan can be tough.
But, in the Kii Mountains, south-east of Osaka, you’ll find the ancient and serene Kumano Kodo trail. Built in the 6th century, the elaborate trail network sprawled out over the peninsula, it was a popular pilgrimage among devotees of the Shinto-Buddhist hybrid Shugendo religion for centuries.
Despite being neglected during the Meiji Restoration of 1868, thousands of local and international visitors flock to walk the track the track every year.
Three main shrines – known collectively as the Kumano Sanzen – lie along the route, and can be reached within the space of a couple of days, depending on the route taken. For those pressed for time, the 2km path from Hosshinmon-Oji to Kumano Hongu Taisha provides a good taste of the living tradition on offer.
The trail is easily reached by train from Osaka’s Kansai Airport, and a number of operators offer regular day trips. For more information, visit the website.
(Lead image: Katie Manor)