For a country that is known for its urban jungles, modern high rises and technologically advanced gadgets; there are surprisingly plenty of corners in Japan where one can still experience the medieval atmosphere of centuries ago. While most go to Kyoto to have their fill of old-town Japan, there are plenty of other options throughout the country if you know where to look.
Without further ado, here are some traditional Japanese old towns that you can check out during your next visit.
Located in Saitama Prefecture, Kawagoe is a town that is known for its well-preserved Edo-era streetscape, which features traditional warehouses, merchant houses and a bell tower. Its relatively short distance from Tokyo makes it an easy day trip.
The streets are lined with old-fashioned shops and restaurants that sell local specialities, such as sweet potato snacks and traditional Japanese sweets.
One of the highlights of Kawagoe is the Toki no Kane bell tower, which was originally built in 1639 and has been rebuilt several times since then. The tower chimes four times a day and is one of the symbols of Kawagoe. A few doors down from the bell tower is a beautiful Starbucks outlet set in one of the old merchant houses and features a Japanese garden at the back.
The town is also home to plenty of temples and shrines such as the Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine and Kumano Shrine. The Hikawa Shrine is particularly popular among women across the country who visit to receive blessings for good fortune in love and marriage.
How to get there: There are a few ways to get to Kawagoe. A straightforward method is to take the Marunouchi Line on Tokyo’s metro to Ikebukuro Station and connect there via the Tobu Tojo Line to Kawagoe. From Kawagoe’s main station, you can take the #01 bus to the old town. Alternatively, you can also book this join-in 1-day tour of Kawagoe and Karuizawa from Tokyo.
Surrounded by the mountains of Japan’s Chubu Region, the village of Shirakawa-go has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995. However, its status as a travel destination for foreign tourists only came about fairly recently when photos of its distinctive thatched roof houses were featured fairly often on social media.
Save for the droves of day trippers, Shirakawa-go remains to be a quiet agricultural village. The Gassho-zukuri style architecture remains to be the top draw and a typical trip here usually revolves around a village walk, a climb up to the Ogimachi Joseki Observatory for the iconic view of the village as well as a meal at the local restaurant.
How to get there: Shirakawa-go is easily accessible by bus from either Takayama or Kanazawa, with a duration between 50 minutes to 1.5 hours. You can also participate in a join-in tour of Shirakawa-go from Nagoya that also covers Takayama. It is also commonly done as a combined tour that includes Shirakawa-go, Takayama and Kanazawa.
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A personal favourite, Takayama is probably one of the most charming old towns in Japan. It is also said to be the largest after Kyoto, as it escaped bombing during World War 2 due to Takayama’s relative isolation. The 3-lane Sanmachi is jampacked with traditional old houses, art galleries, sake breweries and restaurants serving the well-known Hida beef.
While here, make sure to try the Hida Beef Sush from one of the stalls. It’s served on a thin rice cracker and makes for a good introduction to the speciality meat in the region.
If you have time to spare, go for the Higashiyama Walking Course, a 3.5km long walking trail covering ancient temples and shrines to the east of the old town.
How to get there: Takayama is accessible through Takayama’s own JR Station, with trains coming from Toyama and Nagoya.
Kanazawa is famous for having multiple pockets of old towns dotting the city. Unlike other places in Japan where the historic quarters comprise just one main stretch, in Kanazawa you will find more than one geisha districts and even a samurai quarter.
The main and largest one is Higashi-Chaya which houses a number of traditional teahouses. You can still catch a real geisha performance in some of them. At Kaikaro Teahouse, they have special geisha evenings at certain days of the year.
When in Kanazawa, you must try the soft-serve ice cream from the famous gold leaf store.
Hakuichi (open daily from 9AM to 6PM) sells all sorts of gold leaf items including its star product, the gold leaf ice cream. It is literally soft serve vanilla ice cream wrapped in 24k gold foil.
If you have time to spare, you should also check out Kenrokuen. This is amongst Japan’s three most beautiful gardens. There is a different scene to be observed with each season, from the plum and cherry blossoms in spring, flowers in summer, autumn colours in fall and the snow-covered foliage in winter.
How to get there: Kanazawa is connected to Tokyo through the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen, where it is just under 3 hours away.
Kurashiki is a quaint old town located in Okayama Prefecture, in western Japan. The town is known for its picturesque canal district, which is lined with white-walled storehouses and willow trees. The district is called the Bikan Historical Quarter and is a well-preserved example of a traditional Japanese merchant town from the Edo period.
It is particularly picturesque due to the canal running in the middle of the historic quarter. In the day, you will find men offering rides on wooden, slow-moving boats.
The canal district is home to many small shops, cafes and museums which showcase the town’s history and culture. The Ohara Museum of Art is one of the most famous museums in the district, displaying a collection of Western and Japanese art, including works by Monet, Picasso, and Matisse. Momotaro Museum and Ohashi House (an old merchant house) round up the other notable attractions in the old quarter.
The best way to enjoy, like most old towns, is to walk around and discover the surprises that await. Alternatively, you can also go for a rickshaw ride with a “driver” showing you the ins and outs of the old quarter.
Another popular attraction in Kurashiki is the Kurashiki Ivy Square, a former spinning mill that has been converted into a shopping and dining complex. The complex is surrounded by ivy-covered walls and features a variety of shops and restaurants, as well as a small museum that showcases the history of the spinning mill.
How to get there: The nearby city of Okayama has a shinkansen station and is accessible with most JR passes. From Okayama, you can take a local JR train to Kurashiki. From the station, it’s either an 18-minute walk or a short bus ride away to the historic quarter through buses #51 or #62.
Ouchijuku is one of the most unique looking old towns in Japan. Located in an isolated area in between Aizu-Wakamatsu and Nikko, the town of Ouchijuku developed during medieval times as a postal town. Couriers delivering mail on foot needed a place to stay in between larger and more established cities and as such, Ouchijuku provided a place to eat and sleep along the way.
Today, Ouchijuku’s straw roofs set in a row and low-rise townscape make for a quaint and sublime view, especially from the viewing deck. The town is highly compact and consists of just one main street filled with souvenir shops and restaurants. At the end of the street are a few small temples and shrines that are deserving of a look while there.
How to get there: Due to its relative isolation, public transport services to Ouchijuku are infrequent. Your best bet is to take the train to Yunokami Onsen and take a 15-minute taxi ride from there.
If you think Tokyo is just about ultra-modern concrete jungles, think again. While many historic areas were destroyed during the war, a few pockets still exist and can be easily explored if you know where to look.
Yanaka, just 2 stations from Ueno, is known among locals as one of the few places in Tokyo where one can still feel a nostalgic ambiance. The area offers quite a few attractions, including Yanaka Ginza which has plenty of family-run shops – a huge contrast from the more well-known Ginza of Tokyo.
The area around Yanaka has more than seventy temples. Tennoji Temple is the largest and was built in the 13th century.
In the edge of Yanaka, you will find the Ueno Sakuragi Atari. It’s a complex consisting of three buildings that date back from the pre-war Showa era. Aside from having plenty of photo opportunities to capture the retro side of Tokyo, the venue has also been transformed into a multi-concept space where you can chill and have a beer or enjoy some freshly baked pastries.
How to get there: The nearest station to Yanaka is Nippori Station in Tokyo.
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