Japan is a modern country, moving ever faster, and it is easy when visiting to get caught up in the Japanese enthusiasm for the shiny, flashy and new, whether it is manga or karaoke or the latest food craze. Japan, especially Tokyo, can be as loud and glitzy as any city on earth – perhaps more than any other.
But many Westerners, in particular, come less for the high-speed rail and higher-speed street life, and more for the seductive images of the past, be they of geishas or gardens, zen monasteries or the elegant, leisurely kaiseki dinner.
So arriving in Japan can be something of a shock. Even a city as lovely as Kyoto may be far less “classic Japan” than we might have hoped, at least until we unwind and find its timeless treasures, until we enter a garden gate or catch a fleeting glimpse of a geisha on her way to work.
But there are places in and around Kyoto, where life continues at a traditional pace, in largely traditional surroundings. They’re still part of the modern world, to be sure, but each has preserved a little bit of the flavor of old Japan, before neon signs, goth teens and earbuds appeared. Here are five of them:
Nothern Kyoto City: Ohara, Kurama, Kibune: Kyoto’s residents know where they can go if they want to escape the busy-ness of city life: this lovely natural area that stretches north from Kyoto through the northern mountains and along the slender lake Biwa-ko, is a slice of natural beauty that reaches almost all the way to the Sea of Japan. The rural farming village of Ohara features the beautiful Sanzen-in temple, complete with its highly-photogenic garden, Yusei-en, and several acres of hydrangeas that bloom in the spring and summer. There’s also a hike to a waterfall and to the nearby village of Jakko-in, another traditional village. Further on are a pair of valleys, Kurama and Kibune, with lovely hiking to several sites, the beautiful temple Kurama-dera, and Kurama’s onsen, one of the few traditional hot springs within striking distance of Kyoto.
The Hida Minzoku Mura Folk Village: OK, so this look back into Japan’s village past is not exactly authentic, the various houses that make it up having been disassembled and moved here from all over Japan. But still, the Hida folk village, or Hida-no-Sato, is a wonderful chance to see many styles of traditional Japanese houses and buildings in a natural setting. There are displays of rural life, showing how it was lived in centuries past, and there are even some good views of the Japan Alps.
Koya-san: This small monastic complex, founded in the 9th century on a high plain surrounded by eight mountain peaks, is one of Japan’s most enticing, unusual locales. It’s cool temperatures set it apart, but not as much as its spiritual places, including Oku-no-in, a memorial hall that is surrounded by a beautiful, and possibly spooky Buddhist cemetery. This is where followers of Kobo Daishi, who founded the Shingon sect in 816 C.E., wait for him to leave his tomb in the same cemetery, when the future Buddha, Maitreya, arrives. It is a place of palpable spiritual devotion, and the complex has grown over the 12 centuries since Kobo Dashi founded it to contain more than 100 temples and shrines.
Gion and Geiko Odori: Apart from perhaps a samurai, nothing says Old Japan like the elegant, otherworldly geisha. With her powdered skin, elaborate hair-do and extravagantly colorful kimono, the geisha is a singular figure in Japan. Gion, the biggest geisha district remaining in Japan, is one of the few places where you’d see a real geisha, or geiko as they call them in Kyoto, walking on the streets. It could be hard for tourists to see these entertainers at work, as most geisha houses do not allow first-time customers. However, the seasonal geisha dances (Geiko Odori) held by the various geisha houses in which they work, are a sight to see, and relatively rare, usually just in the spring and late fall. The local tourist bureau will know which events are being held, if any, while you’re in Kyoto.
Kamikochi and the Northern Japan Alps: What can take us further back in time than a place where nature rules, and the sights are not temples and gardens, but nature itself? Most of Japan is mountainous, but there are few natural places that can beat Kamikochi and the alpine mountains that surround it. With trails of all levels of difficulty, some of which can be hiked for up to a week, with stops at mountain huts and a few onsen, the one flaw is that since the area is only open from May through October, you may have to compete with many others who are eager to get back to the land. But with some timing, early departures and weekday trips, you may be able to find a little bit of nature all to yourself.