While most visitors tend to focus on the Big 3 (Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto), Japan is full of a variety of other types of places. Many times, some of the most interesting places won’t be found in guidebooks or be recommended by Japanese friends.
There are many advantages to exploring the Japan that exists outside of the big cities and heavily visited famous sites. Regional pride in Japan is very strong, and Japanese people are generally ecstatic to welcome visitors to their own slice of the country.
Being a mountainous island country, it’s no wonder that the countryside of Japan is so beautiful. There are endless miles of coast and beaches, rolling hills leading to high volcanic mountaintops, and lush bamboo forests lie beyond the urban sprawl, often relatively close to the major cities.
Man-made natural features are also easily accessible in the countryside. Visit any rice-growing town and you will be treated to gorgeous views of rice fields and the interesting growing and harvesting processes. Personally, I think the best times to go are in spring (late April and early May), when the rice is still being planted, or in late summer (August and September) when the rice is just about to be harvested and turns a bright yellow-green.
As I mentioned, every area of Japan is steeped in a deep sense of local pride. No matter where you go in Japan, you’ll hear about the local food, the local sake, the local fruit, etc. Every prefecture, and often every town, has its own unique things it is known for. Often it’s a food, which is great if you’re a foodie.
One example that I just happen to know well is Chiba Prefecture and peanuts. Chiba is known for peanuts, so throughout the prefecture you can get peanut ramen, peanut curry, peanut cookies, and peanut spreads made local. Some of these things are available in other prefectures, but if you’re interested in peanuts, you’d better head to Chiba!
The same is true of all the 47 prefectures in Japan, and traveling around searching for each region’s source of pride can be a great adventure.
Of course, there’s no such thing as “The Real Japan”. But often I feel that the view tourists glimpse from the train window in Shibuya is vastly different from the reality that many Japanese people live. Many people come away with an impression that Japan is completely super-high-tech, that everyone takes trains everywhere, people live in suits and school uniforms, and that everywhere is overcrowded and cramped.
When you get a chance to see what life is like in the country, you can see what growing up was like for many people before they moved away to the city. You’ll see that outside of the city, most people do have cars and drive, kids play baseball or go surfing after school, there’s quite a lot of open air and space, and it is possible to live a more easygoing and relaxed life in Japan. Sometimes you just have to get off the beaten track a little to find it.