After a few days or so in Tokyo, most visitors to Japan find great relief in visiting Kyoto, which offers many contrasts to the modern megalopolis. Where Tokyo is huge and sprawling, Kyoto is smaller and ringed by mountains, which help a visitor feel oriented. Where Tokyo is all lights and traffic and modern architecture, Kyoto is largely composed of smaller, wooden buildings in a more traditional style. Walking among them, one feels as though one is finally experiencing “the real Japan.”
But what does one do after a few days in Kyoto, when one realizes that despite its relatively smaller size, Kyoto (population 1.5 million) is still a rather large city, with busy traffic, a noisy subway and shiny new shopping districts?
This is when the taste one has developed for Kyoto’s beautiful wooden buildings and quiet side streets has developed into a full-blown desire to see other small cities that offer the same glimpses into Japan’s premodern past, when life was human scale, buildings were made of natural materials, and the sounds of the modern world weren’t quite so prominent.
This is when one wants to go to some of the smaller towns in Japan, so-called “Little Kyotos” that offer a more human scale reminiscent of Japan’s old capital – but even smaller.
This city of 175,000 was for a time the seat of the Shogunate during the Kamakura Period, and has a long and often violent political history. Despite the bloodshed in its vicinity over the centuries, Kamakura retains all of its beauty and grandeur, along with a physical situation, between lush green hills and the pounding surf of open ocean, that feels fresh and open.
Some of its temples are among the most grand in all of Japan, and the promenades that lead from the hilltop temples down to the bay are elegant and full of interesting shops and restaurants. Kamakura has the added benefit of being situated only an hour by train from Tokyo, and the additional advantage of being overlooked by most foreign tourists. This is the one “little Kyoto” that absolutely must be seen.
Though it has its modern sections, particularly along the way from the train station towards its main tourist sites, Nara (population 366,000) features several of Japan’s biggest and most charming tourist sites, including one of its most unusual: the Nara Deer Park, where hundreds of tame deer wander free, looking (sometimes aggressively) for something to eat from the thousands of tourists, mostly Japanese, who come here to see some of the country’s most impressive cultural treasures.
Chief among those treasures is Todaiji, the largest freestanding wooden structure on the planet, a stunning building that is itself home to the largest bronze Buddha in the world – just one of the Seven Great Temples complex in the city.
Like Kyoto itself, this “little Kyoto” is situated in a small bowl of a valley, but this bowl is surrounded by the Japanese Alps. Because of this, and unlike “big” Kyoto, Hida-Takayama’s geographic isolation has allowed it to develop a bit out of the stream of Japanese history. Hida-Takayama (called so to distinguish it from other cities called Takayama), is a city of 92,000, a number of whom are among Japan’s greatest carpenters, many of whom are said to have worked on the greatest traditional structures in Kyoto itself.
Hida-Takayama is well known for its high annual snowfall, as well as its annual Takayama festival, one of the three most beautiful in Japan. Other popular sights in Hida-Takayama include its large public bath, a number of old private houses, and nearby the Hida Minzoku Mura Folk Village.
This “Little Kyoto” sits on Sea of Japan coast, but is still just a 2.5 hour shinkansen trip from Tokyo. Because this city, like Kyoto, wasn’t bombed extensively during World War II, many of its traditional old wooden building still line the main street, giving it a timeless quality that easily satisfies our definition of a “little Kyoto.”
Indeed, this city of half a million, while only somewhat smaller than Kyoto, has continued to live up to its name, which literally means “marsh of gold,” its artisans turning out the gold leaf that covers Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion. Its Kenrokuen garden, located around the ruins of the imposing 16th century Kanazawa Castle, is known as one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan, and its cobblestone streets, old geisha district, and picturesque Onosho Canal are all wonderful places to walk.
There are other small cities in Japan that deserve the “little Kyoto” designation, including Kakunodate, Hirosaki and Toono, all in northern Honshu. Many are mountain towns, some are known for their cherry blossoms or temples, but all are more reasons to escape the big cities and look for all the things one loves about Kyoto.