Alternative ways to experience classic Japan

While many first-time travellers to Japan will spend much of their time in the futuristic metropolis of Tokyo, the true soul of the country is found beyond the city limits, shaped by sublime wilderness and rooted in ancient pastimes. To the south, discover the peerless beauty of the Seto Inland Sea, best explored by cruise; meanwhile in the far-flung north, unspoilt volcanic islands offer adventurous hiking trails and rich culinary heritage. 

Japan offers up portals to the past, too: meet some of the last artisans creating samurai armour; learn the time-honoured skills of ceramists; and partake in a tea ceremony run by Kyoto’s revered geikos, a type of entertainer and hostess unique to Kyoto and Japan’s west. These experiences combine to unlock unsung, ancient and wild aspects of the Land of the Rising Sun.

1. Visit a samurai armoury

Distinguished by their masked helmets, complete with bristled moustache, it’s easy to imagine why samurai were so feared. Although Japan’s feudal class of warriors is long gone, it remains world-famous and visitors flock to see vestiges of old samurai culture locked behind museum glass. However, in the southern prefecture of Kagoshima, the masters of the Marutake Sangyo armoury are keeping one part of the samurai culture alive, hand-making original samurai armour using 300-year-old methods. Every detail is designed to their customers’ specifications, with each piece taking up to a year to complete. And while it’s possible to visit Marutake’s Samurai Store in Tokyo, ordering custom-made armour from the Kagoshima workshop is a one-off opportunity.

“Travellers tend to be absorbed by the quality of the craftmanship” says Joshua Lassman, founder of Untold Japan, which offers visits to the workshop on its tours. “There are countless pieces of samurai armour in castles and museums around Japan, but what a visit to these artisans offers is an intimate encounter with living history.”

2. Try crafting traditional pottery

Many of Japan’s arts and crafts are so familiar around the world, they’ve become part of many non-Japanese languages; origami, manga, bonsai. But one of the most widespread and historically important is pottery. Japan’s history and culture can be traced through its ceramics, with excavations in 1998 revealing earthenware from 14,500 BCE: some of the oldest ever discovered.

Today, Japan’s pottery crafts scene is still thriving, with differing styles across regions, prefectures and even cities. It’s best experienced at the remote villages of Arita and Imari, or the coastal city of Karatsu, all located in the Saga Prefecture of northwest Kyushu. Here, you can join pottery classes with local experts, easily booked through specialist tour operators. Informative visits cover everything from collecting the clay, and the shaping and design process, to varnishing and firing the clay in traditional kilns. The result is an authentic piece of Japan you can take home.

3. See Kyoto’s hidden side

Visitors to Japan’s former capital city often make for the popular Kinkakuji Golden Pavilion and Kiyomizudera, two of the city’s 1,500-odd temples. But there are plenty of lesser-known temples worth uncovering, too. One such example is the 17th century Kodaiji temple, which sits in the same Higashiyama district as the city’s famous entertainment area of Gion, yet offers a quiet, contemplative atmosphere that feels worlds away. Here, admire the tranquil rock gardens and take part in a traditional tea ceremony, which in Japanese Buddhism, is believed to be a spiritual offering to the Buddha.

For travellers in the know, it’s also possible to partake in an exclusive evening with a top-level geiko and maiko (a geiko’s apprentice), hosted in one of the city’s beautiful historical teahouses. These experiences are as popular among locals and evenings typically include intricately prepared bento boxes, live music and traditional games.

4. Cruise the Seto Inland Sea

Snaking between southern Honshu (Japan’s largest island) and the north coast of Shikoku (Japan’s smallest main island) is the Seto Inland Sea, a vast waterway that touches the shores of 11 prefectures, each with its own character, coastline and islands. Today, Naoshima is the best-known internationally, with its art museums and installations, including Yayoi Kusama’s portside pumpkin. But much of the archipelago remains undiscovered by travellers, such as the cat-stalked, cafe-lined alleyways of Onomichi or the salt ice cream of Hakatajima. There’s also idyllic Shodoshima, dubbed the ‘Olive Island’, thanks to its century-old olive farms.

One of the best ways to take in the scenery is by boarding one of the few luxury yachts that tour the region. One such example is a wooden panelled houseboat named guntû, designed to resemble a traditional ‘onsen ryokan’, a Japanese hot springs inn. As Joshua of Untold Japan explains, the onboard experience balances five-star luxury with Japanese tradition. “Passengers enjoy the finest of local Setouchi ingredients, from olive-fed Wagyu beef to a sushi dinner made using Seto Sea fish,” he says. “There are free-flowing drinks and even an on-board spa where guests can soak in a Hinoki bath (a bath infused with Japanese Hinoki oils) while looking out across the Inland Sea.”

5. Explore remote volcanic isles

Suspended in the Sea of Japan at the country’s northernmost tip are Rishiri and Rebun, two mountainous islands notable for their untamed scenery. These remote outposts, which form part of Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, Japan’s northernmost protected area, rarely feature on the tourist trail. However, the terracotta cliffs, alpine wildflowers and deep-turquoise coastal waters justify the journey.

Botanists and birders will flock to the clifftop meadows of the Momoiwa trek on the southern tip of Rebun island to spot some of its 300-plus flower species and enjoy its panoramic sea views. Meanwhile, trails to Rebun’s northernmost Cape Sukoton allow hikers to glimpse the nearby uninhabited island of Todo, home to a colony of sea lions. Across the water on Rishiri, tackle the extinct, conical volcanic peak on hiking trails, which afford panoramic stargazing decks and marshlands home to endangered bird species such as the Yellow-Breasted Bunting and migratory birds like the Taiga bean goose.

These islands are also a culinary hotspot, producing some of Japan’s most prized kombu — kelps that local farmers harvest and dry using traditional methods. The region is also famed for its sea urchins; creamy, saffron-coloured delicacies that are easily devoured but linger on in the memory.

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