For any traveller to Japan, the fast-paced bustling city of Tokyo and the rich traditions of Kyoto are always high on the list of places to see. However, it can come as a surprise just how many wonderful places to visit lie between the two. While most people speed between the two on the Shinkansen, it can sometimes be better to take advantage of the some of the stops along the way and explore some undiscovered parts of Japan. From seaside towns to the foothills of Fuji, we will delve into these less-travelled secret treasures.
Starting with Shizuoka, south of Tokyo and close to Mt Fuji, we can look deeper into the history of Japan. A short walk from the bullet train station in Shizuoka is Sunpo Castle, a key location in Japan’s history. The castle was the childhood home of the historical figure, the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. After the castle was destroyed, he had it reconstructed in 1585 and prepared for the famous battle of Sekigahara. After successfully creating the beginnings of modern-day Tokyo, the shogun retired to Sunpo Castle. It is a major historical landmark, despite not being as famous as other castles. It is surrounded by cherry blossom trees, and is beautiful in Spring. However, it also has many azalea plants, which burst into bloom in May, giving it a different appeal than most other castles.
Nearby, there is a teahouse. This is a perfect way to take a break after exploring the castle and park as Shizuoka is home to green tea in Japan. 40% of Japan’s green tea production takes place in Shizuoka and there are a number of different varieties grown and developed in the region.
Maibara is often thought of as an unsuspecting stop on the journey between Tokyo and Kyoto. However, as it is in Shiga, it is very close to Lake Biwa, which opens up a world of possibilities. Lake Biwa is the largest lake in Japan and is full of different towns to visit and things to do. However, for something really special, Chikubu Island, located around 40 minutes from Maibara station (10 minutes by train to Hikone and 30 minutes by ferry), is the place to go. Chikubu Island is an uninhabited island in the middle of the lake. Rather, it is known as a spiritual place and is home to Hogon-ji Temple and Tsukubu Suma-jinja Shrine. The island is said to have been visited by one of the Buddhist deities of happiness, Benzaiten, which led to the building of the temple. The island is a calm, tranquil mix of nature and spirituality. Visiting Chikubu Island is truly a unique experience.
Atami is a pretty seaside town in Shizuoka prefecture, south of Tokyo. It is a traditional fishing town and a historical onsen town. There is really no better combination than fresh seafood and relaxing hot springs. Chikurin-an-mizuno is a hot springs resort which allows visitors to bathe in the natural hot spring water while surrounded by the forested beauty of the resort grounds. It operates in a very traditional manner and is perfect for getting the true cultural experience of onsen. Atami is also home to the Akao Herb and Rose Garden, a collection of 12 themed gardens with a vast variety of herbs and flowers from all over the world. While roses are the star flower of the garden, there are also hundreds of tulips, cherry blossoms, plum blossoms and other flowers.
Nagoya is the capital of Aichi Prefecture and is traditionally an industrial city. Due to the amount of different companies and industries that have worked out this city, there are a number of different museums commemorating different aspects of the culture. Visiting the various museums in Nagoya is a way to experience some of the often-forgotten aspects of Japanese culture and history. The Science Museum is one of the most prominent and features one of the largest planetariums in the world. Despite most of the exhibits being in Japanese only, the planetarium shows and a number of exhibits are visual enough that they are able to be enjoyed regardless. Nagoya is also home to the Railway Museum, documenting the history of trains in Japan and Noritake Garden, a museum and garden devoted to showing the history of Noritake Ceramics, a traditional Japanese style of ceramic. Toyota is one of the biggest companies working out of Nagoya and has their own museums, one to show automobile history and one to display the latest technology and advancements. On the less commercial side, there is the Tokugawa Art Museum, with a large collection of historical objects belonging to the Tokugawa shogunate. Visiting various museums in Nagoya is a great way to learn about more niche aspects of Japanese life and culture.
When planning a trip to Japan, there are always a few standout places to visit – Tokyo and Kyoto being the most popular. And with a bullet train to connect the two, it is easier than ever to go between them. However, taking advantage of the stops along the way to see some of the lesser-known parts of Japan can be it’s own cultural journey. Whether it’s a seaside onsen or a city of museums, there is something for everyone on the journey between Tokyo and Kyoto.