Hidden history in mountain valleys
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.