Stunning landscapes, unique regional cuisine and charming traditional inns – 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. Here, we pick three of the best spots.
Ponder art scattered across Naoshima Island
At first glance Naoshima island appears to be typical small Japanese fishing community. On arrival at the hillside-ringed port of Honmura you are met by a welcoming party of small swaying boats, and in town – if you can call it a town; it’s more of an overgrown village really – the majority of homes are traditional one- or two storey buildings with curved blacktiled roofs, and perfectly manicured bushes poking out above low walls.
But looks can deceive: this backwater has been transformed in recent decades to become one of Japan’s premier art spots. It all started in 1985 when Fukutake Publishing Company (now the Benesse Corporation) took over part of the islands, bringing with them Tadao Ando, a minimalist architect endowed with the seemingly magical ability to transform concrete into organic-looking structures that merge perfectly with their surroundings. His showpiece, the Benesse House Museum, is a spiral of curved walls encompassing ever-changing exhibitions of modern Japanese art, with the bonus of an excellent café-restaurant with sea views. In the following years this master magician created two more museums for the island: one dedicated to the paintings and sculptures of the Korean artist Lee Ufan, and Chichu Art Museum, a completely underground space housing several of Monet’s Water Lilies series, as well as a sphere sculpture and light installations from contemporary American artists Walter de Maria and James Turrell. The collections in both are permanent exhibits, and the museums have been designed to present and complement them.
However, half the fun of the art work in Naoshima is that most of it isn’t kept inside museums at all. Visitors are invited to scout out sculptures dotted all around the island. Within this cultural safari, perhaps the most eye-catching work (and no doubt the most photographed) is Yayoi Kusama’s large yellow-and black ‘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, and the Art House Project in Honmura, where empty houses – some nearing a state of utter disrepair – were restored and taken over by leading installation artists.
If you want to get as close as you can to the artwork, Benesse House Museum (www.benesseartsite.jp/en
) offers rooms (from 1,900RMB per night for a twin) in the museum itself, each decorated with paintings from the foundation’s private collection, as well as suites (from 3,895RMB per night) in a separate beach-side building. For those on a smaller budget, yurts on the beach (from 230RMB per person) at Tsutsujiso (www.tsutsujiso.com
) or the Japanese style rooms (from 250RMB) at Bamboo Village (www.bamboovillage37.com
) are good options.
Return flights to Osaka cost from 4,035RMB (with China Eastern (www.flychinaeastern.com
). After a two-hour train ride from Shin-Osaka station to Uno Port (transferring via Okayama), take the 15-minute ferry across to Naoshima.
Unwind and inhale mountain air at Takayama
Japan, the birth place of the bullet train, has its fair share of exciting train rides, but there are perhaps none more thrilling than the journey up to the city of Takayama from Nagoya. It’s well worth investing in a seat on the Wide View Hida Limited Express, which, as the name suggests, has gloriously panoramic windows. For the last hour of the trip,the train wends alongside a turquoise river and pine-covered, misty hills that sometimes part to reveal snowy mountains behind. It’s a dramatic prologue to picturesque Takayama, a city that seems not to have received the memo about Japan’s transmutation into a land of futuristic urban landscapes.
Here high-rises are few, and beside the gentle, wide river ambling through the city centre you’ll find streets lined with historic buildings. Most are now stores selling traditional folk crafts – aimed at tourists, to be sure, but there isn’t a hint of tacky anywhere – or sake microbreweries (these are marked by the traditional signpost of giant balls of cedar leaves hanging outside). The rest are small restaurants and inns. Step into one of these and you’re likely to find the owner wearing a traditional kimono.
To the northeast of the centre city is a collection of small temples, each of which seems like a study in minimalist elegance. Outside, white prayer banners flutter and oddly shaped, asymmetrical trees tower over the buildings, reminding the visitor that here nature is god. To the southeast is Shiroyama Park, which is less a park and more 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 traffic-light, 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 onsen (traditional hot springs) located at many of the city’s hotels (the map from the tourist office marks out which places have them). The fullbody onsen are mostly single-sex and require you to completely strip off, but if you don’t fancy that, you can also dip your toes into the free-to-use footspas that many of the hotels have outside their entrances.
For a traditional inn and onsen experience, stay at Takayama Kanko Hotel (www.takayama-kh.co.jp
). A 595RMB plan includes accommodation in a traditional room with mat beds, breakfast and a 14-course dinner feast, as well as access to the indoor and outdoor onsen. Alternatively, Sakura Guest House (www.sakura-guesthouse.com
) offers clean and comfortable twin (375RMB) and dorm beds (160RMB), with bikes for hire and great views of the distant mountains.
Return flights from Beijingto Tokyo cost from 2,500RMB with Delta (www.delta.com
). From Tokyoit’s a four-hour train ride (transferring via Nagoya) to Takayama.
Go tropical island hopping in Yaeyama
The remotest inhabited point from Japan’s mainland, the 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 and harbour more exotic fish in the tropical waters between them than they do people on them. Ishigaki, one of the largest islands in the chain, makes an ideal base for exploring the surrounding archipelago. Despite its airport and busy ferry terminal, it still has a very slow pace of life, with ambling locals dressed in flowery shirts.
Perhaps the laid-back attitude is the secret to the locals’ impressive longevity – they live long even in comparison with the rest of Japan, which has the longest lived population in the world – but numerous studies suggest that their diet also plays a part. Get in on the action with lip-smacking soba noodles at Noriba Shokudo (619 Tonoshiro, Ishigaki; +81 98 0827745), a home-style restaurant that’s so good it has a celebrity following. Or try the beef cuts– superb, even by Japan’s high wagyu standards – at Yaefuku Farm (988Okawa, Ishigaki; +81 98 0839 239).
Excellent eating aside, the main reason to visit Ishigaki and the surrounding islands is their natural beauty. 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 explorer.
On Ishigaki, the centrally located Hotel Nikko Yaeyama (www.nikko-yaeyama.com
) has a pool and rooms from 670RMB a night. Alternatively, Ishigaki is also home to Club Med Kabira Beach (www.clubmed.com
), an all-inclusive resort with its own private cove.
Return flights from Beijing via Shanghai to Naha in Okinawa are available from 3,000RMB with China Eastern (www.flychinaeastern.com
). From Naha, return flights to Ishigaki with JAL (www.jal.co.jp
) cost from 980RMB.