Japan’s hidden secrets: From Tokyo’s springs to the villages of Saga

From wandering through Tokyo’s traditional Shibamata shopping district to experiencing the unique mountain villages of Saga, search out hidden secrets of Japan

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For some, Tokyo is all about dazzling neon lights, soaring skyscrapers and anime, for others it is spring cherry blossom and serene gardens all wrapped up in ancient traditions that have remained unchanged for centuries.

That’s the beauty of the Japanese capital; it is like a microcosm for the country itself. Even as Japan hurtles towards the future, it somehow manages to keep a firm grip on its past. But that is all part of the charm in Japan, where ultra-modern trains will whisk you to ancient sites and fast-paced cities give way to timeless volcanic landscapes.

If you want to sample the variety that makes Japan so unique, why not opt for a twin-centre trip? By starting off in Tokyo you can explore historic temples and shrines as well as shop and walk your way around downtown while dining at buzzing eateries. Then you can escape to the lush island of Kyushu, a place of forested mountains and steaming volcanoes, rice fields and seaside communities.

The Saga prefecture on Kyushu is home to traditional thatch and tiled houses, sake breweries and one of Japan’s most famous shrines, as well as mountain villages and farming communities. It immerses you in a completely different side of Japanese life.

Here we outline how you can combine Tokyo with Saga and the sights you shouldn’t miss when creating the perfect Japanese itinerary…

Japan is a haven for curious travellers and boasts two sides; city and country, old and new, future-facing and traditional

TOKYO

Shibamata

Step back in time in this Tokyo neighbourhood. Here you can stroll along the quaint main street and visit the ornate Shibamata Taishakuten Temple, famous for its highly intricate wooden carvings.

This traditional eastern area is set right by the Edogawa River and local dishes often include river fish, as well as rice flower balls called dango. Bathe in hot springs, take tea in lush gardens and spot the statue of Tora-san, the fictional hero of 48 movies who supposedly called this neighbourhood home.

Meiji Jingu

Find peace after walking through a towering torii gate to the surprising forest set within Meiji Jingu where you’ll find a Shinto shrine

Set within one of the busiest areas of Tokyo is this surprising forest wrapped around a shrine which is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken. Walk through the towering torii gate and let the sense of peace envelop you as you stroll among the trees. You may see weddings taking place here, or visitors writing wishes on wooden plaques known as emas. It may seem hard to believe, but in the first three days in each New Year more than three million visitors will descend on the shrine.

Shinjuku

With shopping centres and bars and restaurants, galleries and pretty gardens, not to mention the Kabukicho red light district, Shinjuku is Tokyo’s buzzing entertainment centre with enough to see and do to keep you entertained your whole trip. Head to an izakaya bar for an authentic experience, where everyone goes after work for drinks and snacks including yakitori, sashimi, pizza and French fries.

Shinjuku is Tokyo’s buzzing entertainment centre and is a great place to thrill your senses

SAGA

Hizenhamashuku Area

After a flight of around two hours to Kyushu-Saga International Airport, you can head straight for Hizenhamashuku Area in Kashima City, famous for its production of sake, thanks to the vast swathes of rice fields that dominate the landscape of this prefecture. Take a sake tour and visit the various breweries specialising in this fermented rice drink, then enjoy a guided tasting. Make sure you also visit the traditional thatched samurai houses that are protected here, offering a glimpse into the area’s history.

Yutoku Inari Shrine

Founded in 1687, this vast red-hued shrine is one of the most famous in Japan. Dedicated to the deity Inari Okami, the complex is decorated with fox statues, said to have been Inari’s messengers, while beautiful stone carvings and red tori gates are also a feature. Built into a forested hillside, the greens of the scenery are a beautiful contrast to the vermilion shrine itself, the complex also offers magnificent views and attracts millions of spiritual visitors each year.

Dating back to 1687, the red Yutoku Inari Shrine is one of the most famous in Japan

Rural life

Head into the verdant mountains of Saga prefecture and you will discover the villages and farming communities that have not just become self-sufficient but also created a market for their produce. The pretty villages, surrounded by forests, wildflower meadows and rice fields, have become the heart of self-sufficient production with eateries that serve up meals using only local ingredients. Equally the company Naowashi has become a famous brand for its production of strong paper, often used in interior design throughout the country.

Tara

Barbecued oysters are a delicacy in the town of Tara – and boast a fuller taste thanks to the nutrients in the Ariake Sea 

Perhaps the most famous travel photo associated with Japan, these three red Kaichu Torii gates are set within the Ariake Sea, the entrance to the Oouo Shrine. Here there is such a vast tidal difference that at some times of day you can walk through the red gates and at others they just peek above the water, creating a great photo opportunity.

The nearby town of Tara is known as ‘the town where you can see the gravity of the moon’ thanks to the tide. But it is also famous for its oysters, said to be much richer than normal thanks to the nutrients of the Ariake Sea. Try them for yourself at the many oyster huts where they are grilled on the barbecue.

These three red Kaichu Torii gates are set within the Ariake Sea, the entrance to the Oouo Shrine, and make an epic photo opportunity

Saga City

Finish off your Japanese adventure with Saga City, the prefecture’s capital and a city steeped in history and tradition. You can take a workshop tour and see beautiful detailed glass Hizen Vidro vessels being blown using a unique Japanese technique. Then discover more about the handmade cotton carpets called Nabeshima Dantsu. Tightly woven and said to become more comfortable with use, these colourful carpets are often used in tea rooms and living rooms.

Finally, take in the old earthen storehouses of Yanagi machi, the pretty town just outside Saga City that has often been used as a film set, and you’ll be ready to plunge back into all the modern delights of Tokyo after your trip back in time. 

Discover some of the traditional art of Nabeshima Dantsu, a design of handmade cotton carpets used in tea rooms 

For more information visit www.kyushuandtokyo.org 

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