My Top Ten Off-the-Beaten-Track Destinations in Japan (1)

Japan has been a country that I have always liked. A family favourite, I used to visit the land of the rising sun at least once a year. Instead of visiting as many countries as possible, I much prefer visiting a country extensively before moving on: only then one can really experience the true beauty of the land.

As a result though, I have been to quite a lot of places in Japan, in fact perhaps more so than most Japanese people. Looking through the ‘Places I have been to’ map I have created on Google Map, (Facebook offers a similar app, but it just wasn’t precise enough for me),  the pins on Japanese territory actually disguised most of the country from the eye, yet still formed the outline of the country…

When I was struggling to think of things to write about in this exam season, I thought to myself, why not create a list of places that I like in Japan? So here we have it, the top ten off the beaten track destinations for me in Japan, roughly from the North to the South of the Country:

Rebun Island 礼文, Hokkaido

Situated just off the Northern tip of the Northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido, Rebun is closer to Russia than to Tokyo. To get here, one has to first find their way to the northernmost town of Wakkanai (a town dotted with signs in the Russian language) , about 5 hours from the nearest major city. Once you have reach the port of Wakkanai, it’s another two hours on the ferry before you arrive at the port of Kafuka on the island.

So yes, Rebun is as off-the beaten-track as it gets in Japan.

An island with a population just under 3,000, Rebun lies entirely in a national park. The views of the natural environment on the island and beyond clearly justifies this. The photo above is the Cape Sukoton, the northernmost point on the island. The views are just stunning.

You might have realised I stressed repeatedly the fact that everything in the vicinity is the ‘Northernmost’. This is a Japanese favourite: putting up a sign in any places of any geographical interest, as if the visitor has no idea.

(But most visitors are Japanese, OF COURSE they know, THAT’S WHY they are here)

Achievement unlocked: used the Northernmost Toilet. YAY
The view towards Mt. Rishiri (Yes, it’s named after Mt. Fuji.)

Standing just off the ocean right in front of you, at the end of land and civilisation, hearing the water crashing onto the rocks, in a sudden all those hectic traveling required to get here does not seem to matter anymore, you are just glad that you get to enjoy the nature like this.

ウニ丼:Sea Urchin Rice

The local delicacy of Rebun is the sea urchin, perhaps one of the finest (thus most expensive) ingredients used in Sushi. It’s eaten raw, and it’s certainly very different from the ordinary salmon sushi you find in supermarkets in the UK. Its rather strong taste meant that only the Japanese people seem to value them as a treasure for the taste buds…

However, if you do happen to enjoy them, be warned: the sea urchin of Rebun is MILES BETTER from any other you will ever have, even if you are comparing with the ones served in major Japanese cities. After having it in Rebun, you are unlikely to find sea urchins anywhere to be delicious anymore.

I have stopped eating them.

Biei 美瑛, Hokkaido

Views from the ‘Patchwork Road’ パッチワークの路

In the middle of Hokkaido, Biei is an area that is quickly attracting the tourists’ attention, especially those from East Asia. In a way, you can sum up the place in a phrase: this is the Provence of Japan.

The patchwork landscape of trees, flowers, farms. Such a view just transcends the imagination of us urban folks. There is a reason why people wanted to move to the countryside.

You can tour the area on different modes of transport: renting a car is perhaps the most effective way. However, having a go at it on two wheels is a great idea too. Me and my cousin started off at the Biei railway station to rent a bike, and set off to enjoy the landscape with bags of convenient store food ready for a picnic lunch.

We stumbled across this small farm shop in the middle of nowhere (Yes, middle of noweheres in Japan WILL HAVE vending machines) and naturally we stopped here for the picnic (with ice cold drinks!) With a view like this accompanying us, and the gradient not particularly challenging and reasonable weather, this has to be one of the best biking journeys I have ever done.

Farm Tomita ファーム富田: the rainbow, famous and popular all over East Asia 

Since this ‘is’ Provence, I suppose you will be asking where the lavender is. To the south of Biei is the town of Furano, the capital of lavender in Japan. Farm Tomita is the most popular of all, famous for its rainbow fields and swamped with tourists throughout the flowering season. It’s not difficult to work out why.

This was my computer wallpaper for about… 2 years?

Because of this recent surge in popularity of the region, it has gotten a lot easier to go to Biei and Furano. Direct trains from the provincial capital Sapporo takes about 2 hours. Alternatively, drive. The roads from Biei to Furano are surrounded by flower farms!

Nebuta Festival ねぶた祭, Aomori

Now to the North-East of Japan. An area ravaged by the earthquake and the tsunami two years ago, I am glad to report that it is slowly recovering. Radiation should not be a concern, as long as one avoids visiting the actual nuclear plant (not that they let you anyway)

Aomori is a city to the north of the main island Honshu, famous domestically (and to a lesser extent, in Asia) for its apples. Don’t worry, I am not recommending an apple orchard, although there are plenty of them.

The summer season in northeastern is painfully short: it only lasts a maximum of two months (July/August) before the land retreats back into its usual freeze. Therefore, the natives from the Northeast make a huge deal out of the arrival of summer. A HUGE DEAL.

There are many traditional summer festivals in Japan, with the Nebuta festival held annually in the city of Aomori between 2nd and 6th of August (days flexible) arguably the biggest and the most important one.

Now, a nebuta (ねぶた) is a kind of human-powered floats of warrior figures, like the ones above. These floats are constructed of wooden bases and metal frames. Japanese papers, called washi, are painted onto the frames. These amazing floats are finished off with the historical figures or kabuki being painted on the paper. These floats can take up to a year to complete.

However, for us foreigners the biggest part of the fun is to join the dancing. Firstly, you need to get yourself the dancing costume, called a Haneto. It feels like a summer dress. It is a dress, and guys will find it weird at first. But EVERYBODY would be wearing it so don’t worry about standing out.

The so-called dancing is more like following the floats and jumping around, so again don’t worry as there is no routine to learn. According to Wikipedia, you are suppose to shout ‘Rasserā’ which roughly translates to ‘Are you going dancing?’ I have no idea about this beforehand, so I just tried to mimic what everybody else were saying.


Yamadera 山寺 (‘Mountain Temple’), Yamagata

There’s no doubt that any typical tour of Japan would include visiting Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Especially in the area around Kyoto (which we will get to later), there are thousands, literally thousands of them.

The Risshaku-Ji, aka Yamadera, is one that stands out thought. In the middles of the mountains in Yamagata prefecture, this is truly a ‘Mountain Temple’. I was there on a day of continuous snow and fog, and that only served to make the temples more mystic than it already is.

Legs vs. Steps. Battle of Midway

There are 1,015 steps between you and the top, and the snowy condition certainly didn’t help. Well, at least I wasn’t cold at all. It took me about 40 minutes to get there. But according to guidebooks, there are retired people doing this journey EVERY DAY. So trust me we can all do it. The Japanese girls can probably do it in heels.

the TOP!

The temple has its own railway station on the Senzan line between Yamagata and Sendai.

Saitama Railway Museum 鉄道博物館 , Saitama

See all these trains in the roundhouse?

For railway buffs or seasoned traveler in Japan, they will know Omiya as a major stop on the Shinkensen bullet train. And that was the only point of interest about it.

However since 2007 it had jumped to become one of the must-visit points of Tokyo for me. Because of the Railway Museum.

If you have been to my blog before, I suppose I don’t have to stress again my love for trains and models. I GET TO SEE BOTH HERE!

Just like other Railway Museums (say, the one in York), you can see many locomotives, and my personal favourite the railway model dioramas. For those of you who are quite interested in getting your hands on controlling some trains, the simulators are a must-try. Those who actually designed for the Japanese Railway to drive their drivers.

To get to the Railway Museum in Saitama, there (pretty much any) a northbound train from Tokyo or Ueno to Omiya, and then transfer onto the New Shuttle to the Tetsudō-Hakubutsukan Station (‘Railway Museum’).

There are similar establishments in Nagoya, Osaka and Kitakyushu. But really, this is the newest and the best.

So here’s the first five, the next five will come next week!