When it comes to exploring Japan, travellers often stick to the big-name destinations such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. While there’s certainly plenty to see in these well-known cities, Japan’s lesser-explored countryside has just as much to offer and can be an extremely rewarding experience, and also offers the space for social distancing.
In fact, the rural prefectures of Nara and Wakayama – tucked up beside Osaka in the Kansai region of Japan – have so much history and culture, it’s surprising more travellers don’t visit. Their easy-to-reach location means they make an ideal add-on to any traditional itinerary, while their sprawling scenery and ancient temples show a side of Japan that the bigger cities can’t provide.
Here’s how to get the best out of Nara and Wakayama over four days. With direct trains from Osaka – and a great public transport network while you’re there – it couldn’t be easier to explore these prefectures...
DAY 1: SHRINES & SAKE
Start in the city of Sakurai in Nara, where you’ll find Ohmiwa Jinja Shrine – thought to be Japan’s oldest Shinto shrine. It stands at the base of Mount Miwa, shrouded in cedar forest that casts sunlight onto the thatched roofs. The shrine’s exact age is unknown but it predates the custom of having deities enshrined in the main hall and instead directs worship to the mountain that towers behind it.
To reach the shrine, take a train to Miwa station or – if you’re feeling adventurous – instead alight at Tenri station and follow the Yamanobe-no-Michi walking trail through the rural countryside. This well-signposted route follows part ofJapan’s most ancient road for around 10km passing shrines and wooden houses standing among the rice fields.
Once you’ve explored the shrine’s elaborate grounds, grab lunch at Senjutei (293 Shiba, Sakurai-shi), a 10-minute walk away: Miwa is said to be the birthplace of somen (thin wheat flour noodles), so where better to sample them than in one of the city’s oldest noodle restaurants? Nearby, you’ll also find Imanishi Sake Brewery. The brewery is particularly renowned because not only is it Miwa’s only sake brewery, but Miwa is said to be where the god of sake resides, which is why you’ll find sake breweries across Japan with sugidama (cedar branches wrapped into balls) hanging from their doorways – the branches taken from the cedar forests surrounding Ohmiwa Jinja Shrine. You can enjoy an hour’s tour of the brewery, followed by a sake tasting.
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