Big cities like Tokyo and Osaka aren’t exactly relaxing and chances are, you’ve already been there, done that. If you’re looking for a tranquil getaway and a taste of the old world of Japan, head into the countryside. Japan’s rural landscape is a world away from its mega cities, boasting diverse flora and fauna, mountains, forests, and rich cultural experiences across the country. You could spend years in Japan without even scratching the surface, but these inspiring destinations make for great introductions to an older way of life.
Lay of the land: Recognized as one of the most secluded spots in Japan, Iya Valley lies in the mountainous part of the Tokushima Prefecture in Shikoku. Because it’s still an isolated area that’s hard to access, its unique heritage and natural charm remain unspoiled. Old tales and legends have said the ancestors of Iya were warriors who fled to the secret valley after war in the 12th century, adding to the area’s mysterious and enchanting aura.
What to Do: Have a heart-throbbing experience walking across the primitive vine bridges – the Kazurabashi is largest of the three surviving suspension bridges. The bridges are fastened to the big cedar trees at both ends and secured by vines and steel cables. Another way to get in touch with the ancient culture is to spend half a day touring around the nearby Ochiai Shuraku Settlement. The village has been around for 300 years, since Edo period, and is registered as a preservation district. While you’re there, you can learn to live like a local by taking soba-noodle making classes and farming.
Not to be missed is a scenic drive along the mountains and gorge of Iya. You’ll pass by a Peeing Boy statue at the edge of the cliff, which of course, looks as if he’s peeing down the gorge. Goofy statues aside, the landscape is particularly gorgeous in the fall when the maple trees turn yellow and red. If you’re after something more adventurous, the Yoshino River at Oboke (大步危) and Kobuke (小步危) is famous among rafters for the torrent current and scenic canyon experience.
Lay of the land: A registered UNESCO World Heritage site, the pilgrimage route of Kumano Kodo in Kii Mountain on the Wakayama peninsula is known as a sacred mystic ancient trail. Thousands of years old, the picturesque passes by waterfalls,mountains, Shinto shrines and temples. The remote location has retained its ancient traditions and protected its natural beauty.
What to Do: Hike Kumano Kodo – one of the most beautiful, yet overlooked, trails on earth. The seven routes have different levels of difficulty and take about four or five days to complete; however you can also book a one-day excursion for a brief introduction to the trail. The routes are clearly labeled so don’t worry about getting lost. After your hike, take a soak in the Kawayu onsen. Essentially, it’s a huge open-air river onsen near the eastern route of Kumano Kodo. Dig a hole in the river bed and hot spring water will ooze out its way.
Lay of the land: Another UNESCO World Heritage in Japan, Shirakawago village is hidden away in the Japan Alps, less than an hour away from Takayama in the Gifu Prefecture. Famous for its thatched-roof houses called gassho-zukuri (合掌), built over 250 years ago, the village is surrounded by rice paddies and lush trees. Unwind and inhale crisp mountain air, appreciating the quiet country pleasures.
What to Do: Make your way up to the Shiroyama Viewpoint for a breathtaking panoramic view of the village. The village also hosts a kind of light show every winter – on seven designated days in January and February, the farmhouses are softly lit up in the evening. With the snow-covered roofs and all, it’s just like a winter wonderland. The experience is not complete without spending a night or two in an ancient gassho houses. Relax in the traditional lodging for a rustic experience along with traditional Japanese cuisine, home-brewed sake and bend-over-backwards hospitality from local villagers.