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Hidden Gems of Rural Japan

2024-06-10

With its stunning landscapes, rich culture, and delicious cuisine, Japan has seen a surge in popularity as a tourist destination in recent years. Many visitors, perhaps on a recent holiday, have experienced the bustling streets of Tokyo and Kyoto, especially during the cherry blossom season, when the beauty of Japan is on full display.

However, beyond these well-trodden tourist hotspots lies a vast, lesser-known Japan brimming with hidden gems. These rural retreats offer a tranquil alternative to the busy city scenes, showcasing the country’s beauty in serene, enchanting settings. In this guide, we’ll explore three hidden gems in rural Japan, each a perfect escape, promising to enrich your next journey with experiences beyond the usual tourist trails. Let’s begin!

 

1. Tsushima, Nagasaki

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Tsushima, an enchanting island nestled halfway between Japan and South Korea, is a realm where nature and history merge to create a unique and unforgettable experience. This serene locale, less traversed by the mainstream tourist, offers a journey into the untouched beauty and rich history of rural Japan. While gamers might recognize Tsushima as the backdrop of the popular PlayStation game Ghost of Tsushima, the real island’s allure goes far beyond its virtual frame. Its rolling hills, dense forests, and tranquil shores are steeped in history and tradition, making it a fascinating destination for those looking to uncover the hidden facets of Japan.

How to get to Tsushima

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Reaching Tsushima is part of the adventure. The island is accessible by ferry from Fukuoka on Japan’s large western island of Kyushu, with the journey offering scenic views of the Korea Strait. Alternatively, direct flights to Tsushima Airport from Nagasaki and Fukuoka airports provide a quicker route, instantly transporting you to this secluded haven.

Things to do in Tsushima

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Tsushima is a treasure trove of natural beauty and historical depth. The island invites you to explore its hidden corners and uncover layers of history and tradition that define its essence. Below are some of the most enriching experiences Tsushima has to offer.

Explore Tsushima’s rich history

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Tsushima’s landscape is dotted with relics of a bygone era, each telling tales of the island’s historical significance. The ruins of Kaneda Castle, once a formidable fortress, now offer a glimpse into the island’s feudal past, with stone walls and foundations that evoke images of samurai battles.

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Close by, Okido-jinja Shrine stands as a testament to the spiritual history of the region, with its unique architecture and sacred atmosphere inviting reflection and respect. As you venture through these historical sites, you can almost hear the whispers of untold stories, the footsteps of ancient warriors and monks, who once walked these paths. Each site provides a fascinating journey, enabling one to piece together the history of Tsushima, revealing its pivotal role in maritime interactions between Japan and the Korean peninsula.

Nature walks and hiking

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Tsushima beckons nature lovers with its verdant landscapes and diverse terrains. The island's natural beauty can be best experienced on foot, with trails winding through ancient forests, rolling hills, and rugged coastlines.

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A hike to the summit of Mount Shiratake is a must for any visitor, offering beautiful panoramic views of the island and the shimmering sea beyond. The trails are lined with various flora and fauna, many unique to Tsushima, showcasing the island's ecological diversity.

Wildlife observation

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Tsushima is a sanctuary for various species, including the elusive Tsushima Leopard Cat, the most famous animal on the island. Dedicated conservation areas and wildlife reserves offer opportunities for visitors to observe these rare creatures in their natural habitat, along with other animals such as deer and many species of bird.

Beach hopping

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The coastline of Tsushima is a mosaic of hidden coves and pristine beaches, each offering a tranquil escape from the bustling world. Aso Bay, with its calm waters and picturesque setting, is ideal for a peaceful day spent by the sea. Meanwhile, Miuda Beach, known for its crystal-clear waters and soft sands, is perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and beachcombing.

Where to stay in Tsushima: Temple Stay Tsushima Seizanji

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Nestled on a gentle hill overlooking the nearest town, Temple Stay Tsushima Seizanji offers a unique lodging experience, combining the serene beauty of a traditional Japanese temple with the comforts of a modern hostel. From its peaceful grounds, guests are treated to captivating views of the azure sea and refreshing coastal breezes.

Seizanji provides a restful shukubo (temple lodging) experience where you can rejuvenate both body and mind in a peaceful and spiritual setting. Seizanji features a dining room on the ground floor, with guestrooms and communal baths across the second to fourth floors. Embracing the calm of the environment, guests can unwind at their leisure, supported by the convenience of Wi-Fi, making it suitable for those who need to stay connected.

Accommodations include Japanese-style rooms that have purposely not included TVs to promote a slow-paced, mindful experience that allows guests to fully immerse themselves in the tranquil surroundings. For those desiring more conventional comforts, western-style rooms are available, complete with a TV.

In line with the ethos of a contemplative retreat, Seizanji offers guests the opportunity to engage in a Zazen meditation experience. The practice occurs early in the morning amid the clear air and tranquility.

 

2. Tsuwano, Shimane

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Tsuwano, often referred to as “Little Kyoto”, captures the essence of traditional Japan with its picturesque streets, historic shrines, and vibrant koi-filled waterways. Nestled in the western part of Shimane Prefecture, this charming town offers a peaceful retreat into Japan’s historic past. Its well-preserved samurai district, ancient shrines, and friendly local atmosphere make Tsuwano an ideal destination for those seeking to experience the tranquility and beauty of rural Japan.

How to get to Tsuwano

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Access to Tsuwano is facilitated through a scenic train journey from major cities like Hiroshima or by bus and car, winding through the lush landscapes of Shimane Prefecture. The town’s remote location adds to its charm, offering visitors a sense of discovery as they journey through the countryside to reach this hidden gem.

Things to do in Tsuwano

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There’re plenty of things to see and do in Tsuwano, where the legacy of samurai culture and the tranquility of rural Japan blend seamlessly.

Stroll through historic streets

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The historic district of Tsuwano, with its well-preserved samurai houses and ancient waterways, offers a picturesque journey back in time. Walking along the narrow streets, you are accompanied by the soothing sounds of flowing water, with vibrant koi fish adding a splash of color to the clear streams that line the paths. These waterways, essential in the town's history for daily use and defense, now serve as a serene reminder of the past.

The architecture here, featuring wooden facades and traditional storehouses, reflects the town's historical significance and aesthetic charm. Strolling through these streets, visitors can immerse themselves in the tranquil atmosphere of feudal Japan, making it a peaceful and reflective experience.

Visit Tsuwano’s shrines and temples

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Tsuwano is dotted with spiritual landmarks that offer a glimpse into the town’s religious heritage. Taikodani Inari Shrine, nestled on the hillside, is particularly notable for its striking torii gates, which create a vibrant pathway reminiscent of Kyoto’s famous Fushimi Inari Shrine. These gates lead to a serene shrine complex where visitors can experience the spiritual ambience and enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding area. Other historical temples and shrines are scattered throughout Tsuwano, offering peaceful retreats for prayer, meditation, and understanding local religious practices.

Experience Tsuwano’s festivals

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Tsuwano's unique culture is vividly displayed during its festivals, which are deeply rooted in the region's history and local traditions. The Tsuwano Yabusame Festival, held annually in April, is a highlight. It showcases the art of horseback archery, a skill honed by samurai warriors. This event provides a thrilling spectacle and connects spectators with the town's martial traditions and community spirit.

Where to stay in Tsuwano: Tsuwano Onsen Yutorelo Tsuwano

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Tsuwano Onsen Yutorelo Tsuwano is the only hot spring inn in the Tsuwano area. Here, guests can delve into the heritage of Tsuwano, savor local cuisine, and unwind in a unique and natural setting. The inn features a large public bath and an open-air bath with views of Mount Aono. The hot spring water also provides therapeutic benefits for various health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and sleep disorders.

With seven rooms — including a special accommodation with a Finnish sauna and exclusive views, as well as practical western-style rooms — Yutorelo Tsuwano caters to a range of preferences, ensuring a tailored and rejuvenating stay.

 

3. Shodoshima, Kagawa

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Shodoshima, known as the “Olive Islands”, is a serene gem in the Seto Inland Sea. As the first place in Japan to successfully cultivate olives, Shodoshima boasts lush olive groves and a Mediterranean-like atmosphere.

The island’s diverse landscape includes sandy beaches, rugged coastlines, and scenic mountain paths, making it the perfect destination for those seeking both relaxation and adventure. With its charming fishing villages, ancient soy sauce breweries, and interesting art installations, Shodoshima offers a unique fusion of experiences that encapsulate the essence of rural Japan.

How to get to Shodoshima

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Accessing Shodoshima is convenient from major cities like Kobe and Okayama, with regular ferry services connecting the island to the mainland. These ferry rides provide a scenic introduction to the tranquil beauty of the Seto Inland Sea, setting the stage for the island's serene and inviting ambience.

Things to do in Shodoshima

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In Shodoshima there is a plethora of activities that promise to enrich your visit with unforgettable memories.

Explore olive parks and groves

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Shodoshima’s identity is deeply intertwined with olives, and visiting the island’s olive parks and groves is a must to understand this connection. These verdant spaces offer insight into the process of olive cultivation and provide opportunities to taste and purchase olive-based products, from gourmet olive oils to beauty items.

The Olive Park, with its picturesque windmill and panoramic views of the Seto Inland Sea, is a highlight, offering an educational yet relaxing experience. Here, visitors can stroll through manicured gardens, participate in olive-picking activities (usually around October), and learn about the island's pioneering role in Japan’s olive industry.

Soy sauce brewery tours

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The rich aroma of fermenting soybeans guides visitors through Shodoshima’s ancient soy sauce brewing tradition. The island’s breweries, some dating back centuries, open their doors to curious visitors keen to delve into the art of soy sauce production.

Tours typically include a walk through the dark, wooden fermentation houses where massive cedar barrels hold the fermenting sauce, followed by tastings that reveal the depth and variety of flavors that soy sauce can offer. This experience is not only a treat for the taste buds but also a journey through the culinary history of Japan, with Shodoshima playing a vital role in this savory saga.

Where to stay in Shodoshima: Bay Resort Hotel Shodoshima

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Bay Resort Hotel Shodoshima, situated on the beautiful bay of Shodoshima Island, offers guests an unparalleled view of the Kankakei Gorge and the Seto Inland Sea from every one of its rooms. The hotel boasts a design that harmonizes with its locale. It features spacious rooms adorned with oriental decor and large windows that frame the breathtaking landscape, providing a serene backdrop for a relaxing stay.

The hotel caters to various preferences with its range of accommodations, from a luxurious Royal Suite, which offers the most expansive views and most lavish comforts, to the intimate Japanese and western-style rooms that combine traditional aesthetics with modern hotel conveniences, perfect for those seeking a peaceful retreat.

The on-site natural onsen (hot spring) provides a soothing experience with its warm, sodium-rich waters, complemented by private outdoor baths offering stunning sea and sky views.

 

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