Ja­pan’s Un­sung Cities

World Travel Magazine - - Contents - WORDS & PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY ROBERT SCHRADER

Ja­pan’s most re­ward­ing cities are ones you never thought to visit. Dis­cover sto­ried cas­tles, glit­ter­ing panora­mas and del­i­ca­cies you won’t find any­where else.

When you think of ur­ban Ja­pan, you think of Tokyo—and maybe Osaka, or per­haps even Hiroshima. Re­gard­less of the Ja­pa­nese city in ques­tion, you prob­a­bly imag­ine a sprawl­ing me­trop­o­lis filled with mil­lions of peo­ple, ser­pen­tine rail lines and blar­ing neon signs that light busy thor­ough­fares all through the night. In fact, many of Ja­pan’s most in­cred­i­ble cities bear lit­tle re­sem­blance to this stereo­type— Ky­oto is per­haps the best-known coun­terex­am­ple. While you prob­a­bly won’t recog­nise the names of these un­sung Ja­pa­nese cities, from Hokkaido’s Hako­date to Shikoku’s Kochi, you’ll def­i­nitely want to

visit them by the time you fin­ish read­ing.

AOMORI

Lo­cated at the north­ern tip of Hon­shu is­land, un­der­rated Aomori ticks culi­nary and culi­nary boxes. At A-fac­tory, an im­pres­sive ar­ray of ap­ple-flavoured prod­ucts (and a self-serve cider bar) high­light the im­por­tance of ap­ple crops to the econ­omy of Aomori pre­fec­ture. If you can’t visit Aomori in Au­gust for the an­nual Nebuta Mat­suri Fes­ti­val, make sure to visit Nebuta House Warasse, where the mas­sive pa­per lanterns are on dis­play the rest of the year. Pop­u­lar ex­cur­sions from Aomori in­clude charm­ing Hirosaki Cas­tle and mas­sive Lake Towada, while un­der­stated lux­ury of Ho­tel Aomori (Hote­lao­mori.co.jp, rooms from S$129) makes you feel at home in the heart of the city.

Get­ting there: Ride the Shinkansen Hayabusa (cur­rently, the fastest train in Ja­pan) from Tokyo to Shin-aomori, then take a lo­cal train to Aomori Sta­tion. Or, hop one of sev­eral daily flights to Aomori from Tokyo’s Haneda Air­port.

FUKUOKA

Fukuoka is the largest city in Kyushu is­land and serves as the gate­way to all its in­cred­i­ble at­trac­tions. Walk up to the lit­tle-known Atago Jinja Shrine for a panorama of Fukuoka’s sparkling sky­line, or cool off dur­ing the hu­mid sum­mer months with a swim at Mo­mochi Sea­side Park. A day trip to the re­clin­ing Bud­dha at Nanzo-in will work up an ap­petite, which any of the 43 Miche­lin-starred restau­rant in Fukuoka (TIP: If you want to dine at Sagano, which has earned three stars, make reser­va­tions far in ad­vance) will de­li­ciously take care of. Grand Hy­att Fukuoka (Fukuoka.grand.hy­att.com, rooms from S$248) is ar­guably the most lux­u­ri­ous ho­tel in the city, though the ocean views you get at Hil­ton Fukuoka Sea­hawk (Hil­ton.com, rooms from S$200) are hard to beat.

Get­ting there: The Shinkansen No­zomi takes you di­rectly from Tokyo to Hakata sta­tion (Fukuoka’s bul­let train hub) in about six hours; oth­er­wise, take one of the nearly 50 daily flights from ei­ther of Tokyo’s air­ports to Fukuoka’s.

HAKO­DATE

For­merly reach­able only by plane, Hokkaido’s south­ern hub Hako­date gained a chance at great no­to­ri­ety when the Shinkansen con­nected it di­rectly to Tokyo by train for the first time, in 2017. And thanks to the city’s im­pres­sive range of at­trac­tions, which in­clude Hako­date Morn­ing Mar­ket (home to the “Danc­ing Squid” vi­ral in­ter­net sen­sa­tion), star-shaped Go­ryokaku Fort, the Rus­sian Or­tho­dox churches of Mo­tomachi and Mount Hako­date, whose night view is con­sis­tently rated the best in Ja­pan, it’s re­ally only a mat­ter of

This page, from top left, Danc­ing Squid in Hako­date Morn­ing Mark­ert; Himeji Cas­tle comes into view the mo­ment you step out of the sta­tion; Op­po­site, from top, Nebuta Mat­suri Lanterns hover over visi­tors to Aomori’s Nebuta House Wrasse; a quiet morn­ing at Nanzo-in, out­side of Fukuoka

time be­fore Hako­date’s se­cret is out. Bourou Noguchi Hako­date Ryokan (Bourou-hako­date.com, rooms from S$268) pairs an ul­tra-mod­ern take on the tra­di­tional Ja­pa­nese guest house with sooth­ing Ja­pa­nese hot springs that flow from nearby Yunokawa Onsen.

Get­ting there: Ride the Shinkansen Hayabusa about an hour past Shin-aomori sta­tion, then catch a lo­cal ser­vice to Hako­date sta­tion, which is just steps from Hako­date Morn­ing Mar­ket. Or, fly ANA non­stop from Tokyo-haneda.

HIMEJI

Himeji Cas­tle is widely known as the most stun­ning one in all of Ja­pan, hav­ing been built in the 17th cen­tury at what was then the apex of Ja­pa­nese ar­chi­tec­tural prow­ess. Af­ter rid­ing a boat through the cas­tle’s moat, or en­joy­ing views of it from the plat­form of Himeji Sta­tion and the hill­top Otokoyama Sen­hime Ten­mangu Shrine, get dressed for din­ner at the Miche­lin-starred Sushi­ichi, which serves up sushi and sake (what pairs bet­ter with Ja­pan’s finest cas­tle than an ac­claimed take on its most fa­mous food and bev­er­age) on tra­di­tional tatami mats. The four-star Ho­tel Nikko Himeji (Hotel­nikko­himeji.co.jp, rooms from S$92) like­wise pri­or­i­ties sim­plic­ity over sump­tu­ous­ness, though af­ter the day you’ve had you’re sure to sleep soundly.

Get­ting there: Himeji Sta­tion is just 90 min­utes from Shin-osaka Sta­tion via any west­bound Shinkansen.

KOCHI

Sit­u­ated right in the heart of oft-over­looked Shikoku is­land, Kochi is as ex­cel­lent as a jump­ing-off point for ad­ven­ture on the Seto In­land Sea as it is for a stand­alone city trip. Its own 17th-cen­tury cas­tle ri­vals the beauty of Himeji’s, to say noth­ing of the stun­ning panorama you en­joy from its open-to-the-pub­lic keep. Hirome Ichiba Mar­ket is a foodie’s par­adise, with sev­eral stalls serv­ing seared tataki-style Bonito, Kochi’s most fa­mous culi­nary spe­cialty. Take a spir­i­tual walk through the grounds of Chikurin-ji Pagoda, whose stone Bud­dhas wear knit­ted red caps to honor the mem­o­ries of ba­bies who didn’t make it past in­fancy, and make your home at the cen­tury-and-a-half old Jyo­seikan Ryokan (Jyo­seikan.co.jp, rooms from S$352).

Get­ting there: Take one of sev­eral non­stop flights from Tokyo-haneda to Kochi Air­port. Or, ride the Shinkansen to Okayama (3-4 hours west of Tokyo), then take the JR Nanpu Lim­ited Ex­press for 2.5 hours un­til you ar­rive at Kochi Sta­tion.

TAKAYAMA

Ev­ery­thing worth see­ing in Takayama cen­tres around the ruby red Nak­abashi Bridge, so you’ll want to make

This page, from top left, Kochi’s most fa­mous food is bonito tataki, which sees the sushi-grade fish seared over an open flame for just a few sec­onds Op­po­site, from top, this view­ing deck ad­ja­cent to Kochi’s Chikurin-ji Pagoda of­fers the best panorama of the city; Au­tumn leaves flank Takayama’s iconic Nak­abashi Bridge

sure this land­mark is your first stop, not your only one. Shop for lo­cal hand­i­crafts in the three streets of Edo-era San­machi Suji, or en­joy a serene stroll through the hill­side Hi­gashiyama Ceme­tery, which (per­haps sur­pris­ingly) is one of the city’s most pop­u­lar walk­ing tracks. Takayama sits within day-trip dis­tance of UNESCO World Her­itage site Shi­rakawa-go, though you might sim­ply de­cide to hunker down in the on­site onsen at the im­pec­ca­ble Hon­jin Hi­ra­noya Ka­choan (Hon­jin­hi­ra­noya.com, rooms with full board from S$417), par­tic­u­larly if you visit dur­ing the frigid win­ter months.

Get­ting there: The Wide-view Hida ex­press train runs di­rect to Takayama from Nagoya, which en­joys air and bul­let train con­nec­tions to Tokyo sev­eral times per hour.

TOTTORI

Tottori is most no­table for its prox­im­ity to Ja­pan’s only desert, it­self no­table as the set­ting for Kozo Abe’s sem­i­nal 1962 tome Woman in the Dunes. How­ever, the Tottori Sand Dunes (where you can ac­tu­ally spot real-life camels, in case you were cu­ri­ous) are but one rea­son why a trip to this small city on the north­ern shore of Hon­shu is so worth­while. Hakuto Shrine’s stone rab­bits make it a quirky coun­ter­point to the dunes them­selves, while lunch or din­ner at Wak­abayashi al­lows you crack open Tottori’s fa­mous crabs (the pre­fec­ture pro­duces more of them than any­where else in Ja­pan) while look­ing out onto a fish­er­man’s vil­lage. Ho­tel New Otani (Ne­wotani.co.jp, rooms from S$146) is the most high-end place to sleep, though you should keep in mind that Tottori isn’t known for lux­ury ho­tels.

Get­ting there: ANA flies non­stop from Tokyo-haneda to Tottori five times daily, while the train jour­ney from Osaka (on­board the Su­per Hakuto Lim­ited Ex­press) takes about three hours.

YOKO­HAMA

To the un­in­formed ob­server, Yoko­hama is sim­ply part of the Tokyo metro area. The mo­ment you ar­rive here, how­ever, you’ll re­al­ize how un­true this as­sump­tion is, whether you traipse through the turn-of-last-cen­tury Sankein-en Gar­den (one of the city’s top sakura spots), marvel at views of Tokyo Bay from Cosmo Clock 21 fer­ris wheel or en­joy a de­cid­edly mod­ern shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence in­side the his­tor­i­cal Red Brick Ware­house. The best place to eat in Yoko­hama is the city’s Chi­na­town (Ja­pan’s largest—try He­ich­inro Yoko­hama Hon­ten to sa­vor re­fined dim sum in an in­ti­mate, lux­u­ri­ous set­ting), while a sleep at the lav­ish In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal Yoko­hama Grand (Ihg.com, rooms from S$150) is rea­son alone to spend a night away from Tokyo.

Get­ting there: Any west­bound Shinkansen will take you from Tokyo sta­tion from Shin-yoko­hama in just 15 min­utes, while a taxi from Tokyo will run you about ¥14,000 (S$178) one-way.

This page, from top left, golden gingko leaves wel­come visi­tors to Takayama’s San­machi Suji; a rainy night in Yoko­hama’s fa­mous Chi­na­town Op­po­site, from top left, one of the friendly lo­cals who will greet you upon ar­rival at Tottori Sand Dunes; Yoko­hama’s Sankei-en at the peak of sakura sea­son

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