Off the Beaten Path: A Comprehensive Guide to Visiting Rural Japan

View of Japan's rural area

Back in our previous Japan post, we talked about what it’s like to travel to Japan on your own, particularly in Tokyo. We’ve covered the basic dos and don’ts when checking out the Land of the Rising Sun for the first time.

If you’re going to visit Japan, don’t settle for Tokyo. Although this place is amazing, this city doesn’t define the whole country. There’s a lot to see outside the capital.

Go off the beaten path and immerse yourself in Japan’s rural areas.

Why Visit the Countryside Areas of Japan

Photo by Nakae via Flickr Creative Commons

Japan is more than just Tokyo’s vibrant nightlife, seemingly endless energy and gastronomical delights. You’ll fall in love with what the countryside locations have to offer.

Here are great reasons to visit rural Japan:

Incredible Natural Scenery

Nature lovers, rejoice, as Japan has many breathtakingly beautiful nature spots to see. When you go on a nature vacation in this country, you’ll be amazed at the sights you’ll see on the way to the countryside.

You can look forward to seeing:

  • A crystal-clear river coming down from the mountain
  • A gorgeous field of flowers (especially the ones blooming in Hokkaido)
  • A lush green bamboo forest
  • Expansive rolling rice fields

Another great thing about this is that these areas aren’t typically crowded, as they’re not well-known to a lot of tourists. If you want a break from the urban sprawl, make sure to add exploring the Japanese countryside to your travel bucket list.

Tasty Seafood

There’s more to Japan’s cuisine than teppanyaki, Kobe beef and ramen. When you venture to Japan’s rural towns, you’re bound to stumble upon fresh and delicious seafood. Smaller cities, as well as villages, typically have a seafood specialty or two. Stopping by the Japanese countryside, therefore, will surely be worth your while.

One seafood you should give a shot is the formidable pufferfish, also known as fugu. This seafood is popular in Shimonoseki, a major fishing port situated in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Although Fugu is expensive, it’s a delicacy that has an exquisite and unique flavor — something you should try at least once when you travel to Japan’s rural areas.

Make sure you’re eating fugu only from reputable restaurants in Japan. The reason is that only licensed Japanese chefs are allowed to cook up a safe and delectable fugu dish. The wrong preparation or cut can poison or even kill a diner, as the internal organs of a pufferfish are more toxic than cyanide.

Great Culture and Friendly People

The culture of Japan in big cities can be a little difficult to see due to pop culture. When you check out the rural locations of the country, you get the opportunity to have an amazing cultural experience and learn about the history of that place.

What’s more, you’ll enjoy meeting the people in the countryside. When you’re exploring the city, you’re likely to come across busy people, such as salarymen in a rush.

Things are different in the countryside, though. The people in rural Japan seem friendlier. Plus, the pace of life feels slower and less intense. Don’t be surprised when a stranger you meet down the road smiles at you and greets you with a cheery “Konnichiwa!” (Remember to greet back, OK?)

Little Surprises Along the Way

You’re bound to come across little treasures when you travel to Japan’s rural locations. You could, for instance, find a vending machine in the middle of a rice field. When you’re hiking along the mountains, you may stumble upon a hidden shrine that you can enjoy minus the crowds. These unexpected discoveries will make your trip more memorable.

Japan Rural Areas You Should Visit

Photo by Nicholas Cole via Flickr Creative Commons

Japan has so many countryside locations you can visit. Some are just a train ride or two away from Tokyo or Osaka. Others may take a whole day to get to your destination. Where you plan to go is ultimately up to you.

If you’re not sure where to begin, consider these lesser-known countryside areas of Japan:

Kawagoe

You can find this rural location in Saitama, a prefecture neighboring Tokyo. Saitama prefecture has loads of simple and charming villages that serve as a testament to the area’s uniqueness.

One of these villages is Kawagoe. A trip to this rural area will transport you back in time, as this place retains the charm of the olden days. You’ll surely appreciate the old village vibes and historical structures that you won’t get when you stay in Tokyo.

Getting Here: You can get to Kawagoe by riding one of three different railway companies: JR, Tobu and Seibu. If you want the fastest route, ride a Tobu Toju train at Ikebukuro going to Kawagoe station. The journey should take approximately half an hour.

Takayama

Situated in the mountainous region of Hida is Takayama, a tiny city in central Japan’s Gifu prefecture. This remote paradise is perfect for travelers searching for off-the-beaten rural paths in the country.

One activity you should include in your rural Japan travel itinerary is to check out Takayama’s Old Town. This scenic spot encompasses everything authentic and historical about the village. This town did a marvelous job of preserving historic buildings between the 1600s and the 1800s.

Getting Here: From JR Nagoya Station, transfer to the Takayama Main Line and take a train going to the JR Takayama Station. This trip is straightforward if you’re staying in the city of Nagoya.

Traveling to Takayama from other major cities, however, requires an additional step.

If you’re starting from Tokyo or Osaka, you’ll need to take the JR Tokaido Shinkansen (Japanese bullet train) traveling to Nagoya. The journey will take four hours if you’re coming from Tokyo. On the other hand, you’ll spend approximately over two hours if you start from Osaka. Given the lengthy travel times, make sure that you plan your trips wisely.

Minoo

This countryside location is easily accessible from Osaka. This wonderfully tranquil town features the Minoo Waterfall, an excellent place to satisfy your Instagram fix and enjoy the beauty of nature.

Getting Here: From Hankyu Umeda Station, ride the train going to Ishibashi station. Then, transfer to the Hankyu Minoo Line and alight at Minoo station. The whole trip won’t take you more than an hour if you’re coming from Osaka.

Tips When Traveling to Japan’s Rural Locations

Photo by max max via Flickr Creative Commons

The way things run in Japan’s countryside areas is different from what you’ll find in big cities like Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.

When you’re going to explore rural Japan either by yourself or with someone else, keep these few important travel tips in mind:

Business Hours are Recommendations

When you see business signage that says “8:00 ~ 22:00” in a big city like Tokyo, you can safely assume that the establishment opens at eight in the morning and closes shop at ten in the evening.

Time, however, takes on a different meaning in Japan’s rural locations.

Sometimes, restaurant or shop owners need to close their establishment at any time without any advance notice. They could, for instance, have errands to run in the middle of the day or have sold out their goods or products earlier than expected.

If you’re unsure whether the establishment is open or not, look for the sign that says 営業中 (pronounced as eigyo-chu). These words mean that the business is still serving customers.

Drive to Get to the Scenic Rural Spots

Unlike Tokyo where you can access tourist destinations by hopping on a train or a bus, many scenic spots are either hidden or far from public transportation stations or terminals. If you want easy access to these off-the-beaten rural paths, you’ll want to go with private transportation.

Take note, though, that Japan (just like the UK) drives on the left side of the road. You’ll also need an international driver’s license if you want to rent a car.

Accept the Generosity of the Locals

The locals you may meet from the countryside are incredibly generous. They could give you anything, such as a free meal or drink from the vending machine, a free tour around the area or a handcrafted souvenir.

Graciously refusing, and later on accepting the gift, is the proper approach in this situation. When a villager hands you a gift, initially pretend that you don’t want it. If they keep on insisting, accept the gift with a smile and say thank you in Japanese.

Rural Japan offers tons of undiscovered beauty and fun to all sorts of travelers. When you visit the land of the rising sun in the future, don’t just stay in the big cities. Get out of the urban sprawl and check out Japan’s hidden and less crowded countryside areas.

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