7 Historic Japanese Towns to Revel in the Beauty of Traditional Japan
Japan's historic towns are supremely Instagrammable—but to many, Kyoto is the only place that comes to mind. So, this article introduces seven places from the Kanto and Kansai regions that are highly recommended for their historical townscapes! There is even a place just 30 minutes from the center of Tokyo where you will feel like you have traveled back in time.
1. Sawara (Chiba Prefecture)
Sawara in Katori City, Chiba Prefecture is a beautiful town with buildings that are 100 to 200 years old. There is a lovely 30-minute (round trip) boat ride (1,300 JPY/adult, 700 JPY/elementary school students) on the Ono River that runs through the town which offers views of historic merchant houses and storehouses. After a boat ride, walk around the town to enjoy the sights. There are historic buildings that are open to the public, and some have even been turned into cafes.
I would also like to recommend Katori Jingu, located about 10 minutes by taxi from Sawara Station. It is a Shinto shrine that was built about 300 years ago and is distinguished by its beautiful vermilion gate.
Access: About 1 hour and 15 minutes on an express intercity bus from Tokyo Station; about an hour to Sawara Station from Narita Airport Terminal 1 Station.
2. Kawagoe (Saitama Prefecture)
Kawagoe, known as "Little Edo" (Tokyo was called Edo till 1868) for its townscape, is easy to access from central Tokyo. There are kimono rental shops in the area, so you can see the sights dressed in a kimono.
There are many shops offering takeout food, such as treats made with the Kawagoe specialty—sweet potato—and grilled unagi (eel) skewers. Enjoy great food at reasonable prices, without any fuss!
The tall building in the second photograph is the Toki no Kane (Time Bell Tower), which was built about 400 years ago. The current tower is a reconstruction that was built after a great fire in 1893. The bell is still rung four times a day to tell the time.
My No. 1 Kawagoe recommendation is the local craft beer COEDO. It has a unique and captivating aroma and flavor. Why not enjoy a special Kawagoe dinner in a pub or bar housed within a renovated storehouse?
Access: Approx. 30 minutes from Ikebukuro Station to Kawagoe Station on the Tobu Tojo Line (express or semi-express train).
3. Higashi Chaya District (Ishikawa Prefecture)
When the Hokuriku Shinkansen was built, Kanazawa City in Ishikawa Prefecture became much more accessible from Tokyo. The Kaga Domain, which ruled over the area during the Edo Period (1603 - 1868), had great financial power, so the area is known for its outstanding cultural wealth as can be seen in its crafts and gardens.
Higashi Chaya District in Kanazawa City retains the visage of a district that used to be filled with "ochaya" or "chaya". An "ochaya/chaya" is not a tea room (although "cha" is tea and "ya" is house), but rather, a social space where geisha entertain guests. Today, some of the chaya operate as Japanese-style cafes during the day, but at night, they retain the tradition of not accepting customers without referrals.
Still, there is much to see during the day, including shops selling cosmetics made with gold leaf as well as jewelry and knickknacks made using traditional Kanazawa crafting techniques. There is even a chaya that is designated as a national treasure and open for the public to look inside.
Access: Approx. 3 hours on a shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kanazawa Station. Approx. 10 minutes by bus and an additional 5-minute walk from Kanazawa Station. It is about 2 hours and 45 minutes from Osaka Station to Kanazawa Station on a limited express train.
4. Sannen-zaka (Sannei-zaka) (Kyoto Prefecture)
Sannen-zaka (Sannei-zaka) is a hill on the main path leading up to Kiyomizu Temple, which is the temple with the most visitors in Kyoto. It is a charming area with a cobblestone trail flanked on both sides by historic machiya*. There are many shops selling items with Japanese-style patterns and scents, and it is easy to lose track of time here. Photos of the hill from the bottom are often used in travel catalogs, but if you look back down the hill from the top, you can get a photo with the Sannei-zaka sign on the left.
*Machiya refers to traditional wooden townhouses.
I've been here many times when visiting Kyoto and recommend going around dusk. Kiyomizu Temple and Kodaiji Temple, which are nearby, are lit up at night depending on the time of year. The beauty of the temples lit up together with the city nightscape is breathtaking.
Access: It takes about 18 minutes by train from Kyoto Station to Gion-shijo Station and another 1 minute on foot from Gion-shijo Station to reach Sannen-zaka.
5. Oharai-machi (Mie Prefecture)
Ise Jingu, which is the Shinto shrine with the highest standing in Japan, is said to have been built about 2,000 years ago and remains highly revered by the Japanese people to this day. The 800m cobblestone street that leads to its inner shrine is Oharai-machi, an area that retains its historic facade. As would be expected of a place that many worshipers visited over the years, there is much to see and eat!
Okage Yokocho, which is a part of Oharai-machi, is not to be missed. The townscape from about 150 years ago has been recreated here, including the main store of Akafuku, a famous confectioner, which is in a 140-year-old building.
There are shops selling a variety of wonderful food that Ise is famous for, including Ise Udon noodles and sushi with Ise Ebi (Japanese spiny lobster) and Matsusaka beef.
Access: Approx. 2.5 hours from Osaka Station and another 15 minutes by bus from Kintetsu/JR Ise Station.
6. Omihachiman City (Shiga Prefecture)
Omihachiman City, which sits on the banks of Japan's largest lake, Lake Biwa, flourished during the Edo Period as a commercial hub thanks to its convenient location. The city still retains many of the large storage houses and residences from that time.
The Hachiman-bori Canal, which flows into Lake Biwa, is particularly beautiful. There is a boat ride on the canal to enjoy views of white-walled buildings and machiya on the banks. There are also cherry trees along the canal that blossom in the spring, so it is also a great place for cherry blossom viewing.
If you want to enjoy the city on foot, stroll down Shinmachi Street and Nagaharacho Street near the canal. They are part of an Important Preservation District of Historical Buildings designated by the national government and have historical structures that are open to the public, such as the Former Nishikawa Residence.
Access: Approx. 40 minutes from Kyoto to Omihachiman Station on the JR Biwako Line and another 7 minutes by bus from the station.
7. Kurashiki (Okayama Prefecture)
Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter is an area filled with stately buildings such as ones with shiro shikkui walls (shiro shikkui is a type of plaster made primarily with calcium hydroxide and no added pigments) and latticed "namako" walls (as shown in the second photograph). To see Kurashiki, first enjoy the scenery on a boat ride down the Kurashiki River.
After the boat ride, walk around the town to enjoy shopping and visiting the cafes. If you're looking for souvenirs, my recommendation is to go to Nyochikudo. The shop is housed within a renovated machiya and sells masking tapes. There are also cute letter paper and uchiwa fans, so it's an irresistible space for lovers of stationery and other knickknacks.
Access: Approx. 50 minutes on the Tokaido Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka Station to Okayama Station and another 16 minutes to Kurashiki Station on the Sanyo Main Line.
All of the towns introduced here have beautiful facades that are in harmony with the nature surrounding them. Why not include them in your travel itinerary? Be sure to refer to this article when planning your next trip to Japan!
*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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