Enjoy a Stroll Through History in a “Little Kyoto”! 5 Atmospheric, Historic Towns in Japan
There are many towns around Japan that people affectionately call "Little Kyoto". This article introduces some select spots from these lovely towns across the country.
What Is Little Kyoto?
There are many towns across Japan that retain historic facades and beautiful landscapes from times past. Those that have buildings or nature that evoke Kyoto, have historic ties with Kyoto, or have traditional industries and performing arts are often referred to as "Little Kyoto". Currently (as of June 2019), there are 43 locations in Japan that are called "Little Kyoto".
1. Kakunodate (Akita Prefecture)
Kakunodate is a castle town that was established in 1620 by Ashina Yoshihiro, who ruled the region at the time, and is called "Little Kyoto of Michinoku" (Michinoku being the former name for northeast Japan).
The area with rows of samurai houses in the northern part of the town has black wooden fences flanking the wide streets, creating a lovely setting to stroll in. It is breathtakingly beautiful in the spring, when the rows of weeping cherry trees along the fences are in bloom.
Another recommended spot in Kakunodate, which is famous for cherry blossoms, is the almost 2 km-long avenue of cherry trees along the Hinokinai River. What a wonderful feeling to take a riverside walk while enjoying the cherry trees!
Tomachi, in the southern part of the town, was once an area where merchants and townsfolk lived and now has shops and cafes in renovated old merchant houses and storehouses. There are many shops in Akita Prefecture serving its specialty kiritanpo (rice dumplings) and dishes made with local Hinai chicken, so be sure to try them!
Kakunodate is six stations on the Akita Shinkansen from Tokyo Station (about 3 hours).
2. Nishio (Aichi Prefecture)
Nishio City once flourished as the castle town to Nishio Castle, which was built during the latter half of the 16th century, and is called "Little Kyoto of Mikawa" (Mikawa referring to what is now the eastern half of Aichi). Nishio City is a great place for visiting historic temples, including the Konrenji Midado—the oldest surviving wooden structure in Aichi Prefecture and a national treasure.
The top thing to do in Nishio City is to stroll around the areas of Sakanamachi-dori and Junkaimachi-dori that retain vestiges from the time that the city was a castle town. Walking through the narrow streets and paths lined with wooden fences and tiled roofs makes one feel as if traveling back to a world 400 years ago. As a history buff, I found myself imagining how the town appeared and what people's lives were like back then.
Nishio City is also famous as one of Japan's leading producers of matcha green tea. If you're in Nishio, be sure to try "Nishio Matcha". It is characterized by a bright green color and soft flavor, and is recommended for people who are not keen on the bitterness that matcha often has.
There are shops in the city serving matcha and sweets made with matcha, as well as a temple that has links to matcha and a facility to see the matcha-making process, so be sure to check them out.
It takes about 2 hours and 40 minutes from Tokyo Station to Nishio, requiring a shinkansen and conventional train.
3. Tsuwano (Shimane Prefecture)
Tsuwano, known as the "Little Kyoto of San'in" (referring to the northern Chugoku region), is a castle town nestled among mountains that has the feel of a hidden village.
If you want to enjoy the castle town of Tsuwano, first stroll around the Tonomachi-dori area with its samurai houses characterized by traditional namako walls along cobblestone streets and white earthen walls. (Namako walls consist of lining up flat tiles on a wall surface and joining them with a mortar, made primarily of slaked lime, that is piled on to protrude. In the photo below, this is the criss-cross pattern in the bottom half of the wall.) It is an area that retains the appearance of times past, with many sights to see such as the Former Hanko Yorokan, the former site of the county seat, and a church built in the gothic style.
You can also see carp swimming gracefully in the canals along the white earthen walls. The canals are particularly appealing in May and June every year, when the Japanese iris planted along them bloom beautifully.
Not to miss in Tsuwano is the iconic Taikodani Inari Shrine. It is one of the five great Inari shrines of Japan, dedicated to the Inari deity of agriculture and harvest, and attracts approximately 1 million visitors every year.
It is possible to take a car close to the main shrine building, but the recommendation is to walk through the main path leading up to the shrine grounds. The path has a wonderfully mystic feel with a thousand torii gates—the perfect place to calm the mind before paying your respects at the main shrine.
There is a view of Tsuwano from the shrine grounds, so be sure to enjoy the beautiful scenery once you have paid your respects.
To get to Tsuwano, It takes about 90 minutes by air to Hagi-Iwami Airport from Haneda Airport and an additional one hour by car.
4. Hagi (Yamaguchi Prefecture)
Hagi City, which is referred to as the "Little Kyoto of the West", flourished for approximately 260 years as a castle town to Hagi Castle, built in 1604 by the feudal lord Mori Terumoto. The traditional layout of the city has remained unchanged, to the point that it is possible to take a walk with a map that was drawn during the Edo Period (1603-1868).
There is much to see in Hagi City, but if you want to enjoy the feel of a castle town, take a stroll through Kikuya Yokocho and Edoya Yokocho.
Kikuya Yokocho is an area known for the beauty of its white walls and namako walls, and it is recognized as one of Japan's 100 best streets. It has the historical residence of the wealthy Kikuya merchant family, as well as the birth home of the historical samurai Takasugi Shinsaku, so it is a must-visit for anyone interested in architecture and Japanese history.
One of the joys of traveling is the food. Hagi City, which faces the Sea of Japan, is famous for its fresh seafood, so be sure to try its best-known dishes, made with purple pufferfish and tilefish. Also, natsumikan (a distinct citrus fruit, literally meaning "summer orange") are a specialty of Hagi, and the marmalades and jellies made with them are perfect as souvenirs.
To get to Hagi City from Tokyo, it takes about 95 minutes by plane from Haneda Airport to Yamaguchi Ube Airport and an additional 70 minutes by car.
5. Imari City (Saga Prefecture)
Imari City, which is sometimes referred to as the "Little Kyoto of Saga", is famous as a ceramic town. "Imari ware" (the English term for the region's porcelain) dates back about 400 years and was popular in Europe starting from the 17th century, when it fascinated European aristocrats and left a great influence on porcelain production in Europe. When traveling abroad, I have been surprised to see high-quality antique imari ware in museums and palaces.
The recommended tourist destination in this ceramic town is Okawachiyama Village. It has approximately 30 pottery kilns with stores, so you can walk around and enjoy shopping. Some of the kilns offer pottery painting or wheel experiences, so be sure to try them if you are interested.
To get to Imari City from Tokyo, it takes about 2 hours by plane from Haneda Airport to Kyushu Saga International Airport and an additional 80 minutes by car.
There are many more places referred to as Little Kyoto in Japan, so why not take a tour of them to find your favorite?
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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