Discover Japan’s hidden gems

Top tips for travellers looking to experience some of the country’s less-publicized attractions. (Getty)
Updated 25 October 2019

Discover Japan’s hidden gems

Hidden history in mountain valleys




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The Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are a UNESCO World Heritage Site in a remote forested mountain valley which has plenty of snowfall. The three villages — Ogimachi, Ainokura and Suganuma — are famed for their large, multistory farmhouses, constructed in a classic architectural style, gasshō-zukuri (‘prayer-hands construction’ as the roof looks like two hands joined in prayer), which allows snow to easily fall from their roofs.

The villages — surrounded as they are by steep, tough-to-cross mountains — were effectively cut off from the outside world until the 1950s, meaning the region has developed its own unique traditions (silkworm production was a major source of income for a couple of centuries). Aesthetically and culturally, these villages are like nowhere else on earth.

The Ghibli Museum in Mitaka




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Dedicated to the work of the multi-award-winning animated film-production company Studio Ghibli (“My Neighbor Totoro,” “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle”) and designed by director Hayao Miyazaki, the Ghibli Museum is a work of art in itself. Numerous spiral staircases lead to exhibits and interior bridges, but also, sometimes, to dead ends. Miyazaki laid out a manifesto of sorts when he designed it, stating how he wanted it to “put together as if it were a film — not arrogant, magnificent, flamboyant, or suffocating. Quality space where people can feel at home.” He also stressed that it was not only for Ghibli fans with pre-existing knowledge of the studio’s work, but a place where visitors “can enjoy by just looking, can understand the artists’ spirits, and can gain new insights into animation.” It’s as beautiful as the studio’s painstakingly crafted films.

Yoro’s peculiar park




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The Site of Reversible Destiny is unlike any other park, as you’ll realize when you’re offered a helmet upon entering. Designed by the late avant-garde artists and architects Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins, it’s full of steep hills, weird angles, pitch-black rooms, deep holes (only partly cordoned off, but thankfully not in the pitch-black rooms), and discombobulating sights. In The Critical Resemblance House, for example, furniture juts out of walls and ceilings, while the Insect Mountain Range is simply a tall pile of rocks that you’re encouraged to scramble up to reach water at the top.

The Site of Reversible Destiny isn’t for everyone — as evidenced by the wildly varied reviews online (e.g. “Memorably weird. (4/5)” vs. “I couldn’t comprehend how to enjoy the park. (1/5)”). It’s a health-and-safety nightmare — and probably best avoided with young children or older folk — but it’s certainly a unique experience.

The island art gallery of Naoshima




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Located on Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, this island town is basically one giant public-art exhibition. Yayoi Kusama’s famed pumpkin sculpture is perhaps its most-famous piece — located by Miyanoura Port — but Naoshima is also home to a number of museums, including Chichu Art Museum, which boasts paintings from Monet’s “Water Lilies” series; the contemporary Benesse House Museum; and works from numerous acclaimed international artists (James Turrell, Lee Ufan, and more) housed in staggering buildings designed by Tadao Ando. For lovers of art and architecture, a trip to this remote locale is a must.

Iya Valley’s vine bridges




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The gorgeous Iya Valley region is home to some of Japan’s most-dramatic scenery. This idyllic site isn’t really a ‘hidden gem’ any longer (its remote location meant it was once the go-to escape route for samurai fleeing their enemies)  — it’s a popular spot for tourists from across the world — but it’s quieter than many of the country’s other great hiking spots, and retains its old-school charm. And the best place to feast your eyes on the verdant valleys and mountain streams is from one of its historic vine bridges, perhaps the most famous of which is the 45-meter-long Iya No Kazurabashi, which leads to Biwa Waterfall. Your first steps on the vine bridges may be somewhat nerve-wracking, but they’re reliable, and well worth the mild panic.

Kobe’s annual light festival




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In January 1995, the Great Hanshin earthquake struck Kobe, leading to the deaths of around 4,600 of the city’s residents (and 6,434 people in total), the outbreak of hundreds of fires, and irreparable damage to almost 400,000 buildings. It was the country’s worst earthquake in over 70 years.

Every December since that year, the city hosts the Kobe Luminarie — a two-week-long festival of light (with lights donated by the Italian government) designed to commemorate that awful event. Every evening, major roads in the area are closed and millions fill the streets to view a display of hand-painted lights — powered by biomass — that offers a poignant but optimistic counter to the darkness that so many had to endure as the earthquake wrecked the area’s power supplies. A memorial naming all those who died is posted during the night.

The dystopian video arcade of Kawasaki




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The Anata-no Warehouse (‘Your Warehouse’) is a great spot for gamers to visit. Modeled on Hong Kong’s (in)famous Kowloon Walled City, this grimy, cyberpunk dystopia is all rusting metal, flickering lights, and rundown industrial-chic. It’s an odd spot for sightseeing, but definitely worth the trip. The real attraction, though, is the arcade’s enviable collection of retro and high-tech games.

The feline freehold of Aoshima




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Japan has a few ‘cat islands’ (and a ‘rabbit island,’ Okunoshima) but the most famous is Aoshima in the Ehime Prefecture, where cats reportedly outnumber human residents by somewhere around 36:1. The island is only about 1.6 kilometers long, and was once a fishing village with a (human) population of around 900. That dwindled rapidly though, and this year, the Asahi Shimbun Globe reported that there are now just six residents, and around 140 cats, which generally rely on tourists for food. Most of the cats have now been neutered or spayed, to prevent the pussy posse becoming unsustainable.  


Archaeologists unveil possible shrine to Rome’s first king

Updated 21 February 2020

Archaeologists unveil possible shrine to Rome’s first king

  • Possible shrine to Romulus is found at the heart of Rome, on the site of the old Roman forum
  • The founder of Rome was abandoned by the banks of the river Tiber, before being nursed back to health by a she-wolf

ROME: Archaeologists said on Friday they had discovered an ancient cenotaph that almost certainly commemorated the legendary founder of Rome, Romulus, buried in the heart of the Italian capital.
The small chamber containing a simple sarcophagus and round stone block was originally found at the start of the last century beneath the Capitoline Hill inside the old Roman forum.
However, officials say the significance of the find has only just become clear following fresh excavations and new research.
Alfonsina Russo, the head of the Colosseum Archaeological Park, said the site probably dated back to the sixth century BC, and was located in the most ancient part of the city which was directly linked in historical texts to Rome’s first king.
“This area is highly symbolic. This surely cannot be Romulus’ tomb, but it is a place of memory, a cenotaph,” Russo told Reuters TV.
The shrine is buried beneath the entrance to the Curia, one of the meeting places for Roman senators which was subsequently converted into a church — a move that protected it from being dismantled for its stones as happened to other forum buildings.

The underground chamber was also located close to the “Lapis Niger,” an antique slab of marble that was venerated by Romans and covered a stone column that was dedicated to “the King” and appeared to curse anyone who thought to disturb it.
Russo said the Roman poet Horace and ancient Roman historian Marcus Terentius Varro had related that Romulus was buried behind the “rostra” — a tribune where speakers addressed the crowd in the forum. “The rostra are right here,” she said.
No body was found in the sarcophagus, which was made of volcanic tuff rock, but according to at least one legend, Romulus vanished into the sky following his death to become the God Quirinus, meaning that possibly he never had a tomb.
According to the myth, Romulus and his brother Remus, the sons of the god Mars, were abandoned by the banks of the river Tiber where a she-wolf found them and fed them with her milk.
The brothers are said to have founded Rome at the site in 753 BC and ended up fighting over who should be in charge. Romulus killed Remus.