Friday, 11 June 2021

Japan off the beaten track: 5 lesser-known ways to explore the country

Japan is certainly one of the most popular tourist spots in the world. But don’t settle on the same old sites. Getting a little off-track with hidden spots will pay dividends.

It’s easy for Japan to feel familiar. After all, who hasn’t seen or heard about the snow-capped dome of Mount Fuji, the fun fashion experiment of Harajuku, and the hushed sensuality of Kyoto’s geishas? But take the time to look beyond the big-ticket sites and you’ll discover villages untouched by westernisation, deserted tracts of wilderness and cultural experiences of extra-terrestrial quirkiness.

From traditional snow country to blissfully empty (yes, empty) tropical beaches to a hotel staffed by a dinosaur, here are five offbeat destinations that’ll make Japan feel anything but familiar.

1. A hotel with a robot receptionist

If you want to see the endgame of the current robotics revolution, check-in to the Henn na Hotel in Sasebo, Nagasaki. Literally translated as “Weird Hotel,” this 144-room accommodation on the southern island of Kyushu is billed as the world’s first hotel staffed by robots. Step inside the sliding glass doors and the only flesh-and-blood organisms you’ll see are fellow guests. At reception, a kind and smiling humanoid receptionist (for English speakers) or chirpy-voiced android (for Japanese speakers) will happily check you in. At the cloakroom, a robotic arm will store your luggage for you. Then, an automated trolley will show you and your luggage to the room, where your own face (registered during check-in and detected with facial recognition technology) is all that’s needed to open the door. But even if you don’t end up warming to your trusty iRemocon, a smart remote controller who will help you turn off the lights and monitor your room — you can at least take comfort in the financial savings that come from replacing people with gadgets. Prices for the rooms start at ¥15,400 (S$186).

japanese snow monkey japan unique
Snow monkeys can primarily be found at Joshinetsu Kogen National Park in Nagano. Photo credit: Shutterstock

2. Go skiing in a village

Almost everybody who skis knows Niseko and its fabled powder dumps; that’s why it can sometimes feel like a Vegas-style ski resort where foreigners outnumber locals. To discover the real Japan in winter, Nozawa Onsen is an exquisite village where meandering cobblestone alleys connect centuries-old shrines, traditional sweet stores and family-run noodle shops. As its name suggests, Nozawa has an abundance of geothermally heated water. Over 30 hot springs supply 13 public bathhouses, the pinnacle of which is glorious outdoor onsen Oyu – an Edo-style wooden structure in the centre of town that’s the ultimate apres ski destination for tired muscles. (Tip: the bath is free but a donation is requested for upkeep.)

Foodies, meanwhile, will delight in Ogama onsen, where one can cook vegetables and eggs in pools of scalding spring water. Located 249km northwest of Tokyo, Nozawa also offers a variety of off piste activities; day trips can be arranged to see photogenic snow monkeys warming up in piping-hot pools at Jigokudani Monkey Park in Joshinetsu Kogen National Park – about 1.5 hours away. And while the nightlife might not have the vibrancy of mega resorts like Niseko, Nozawa’s undeniable charm is what makes it a ski trip you’ll never forget.

3. Dine with ninjas, goats and owls

This nation known for precision and polish offers plenty in the form of unpredictable peculiarity. Perhaps the purest embodiment of this is its talent for conjuring bizarre restaurant themes. There are prison-themed restaurants, maid cafés, a ninja restaurant where masked waiters stealthily appear with food, and a futuristic version of conveyor belt sushi where food is delivered by high-speed “train”, just to name a few.

And no visit to Tokyo is complete without experiencing the Japanese penchant for mixing creatures with coffee. Beyond the conventional cat cafe there are owl cafes, hedgehog cafes, rabbit cafes, and reptile cafes.

4. Visit a tropical beach

iriomote star sand okinawa beach japan tropical island
Rock and star sand of Hoshizuna no Hama beach, Iriomote island in Okinawa, Japan. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Okinawa’s subtropical location (closer to Taiwan than Tokyo), pure white beaches, and slow-paced lifestyle makes it the most un-Japanese place you can find without leaving the country. Shimmering turquoise waters and an average annual temperature of 23 degrees also makes it a tropical beach destination to rival any beach in South-east Asia. The capital, Naha, on the main island of Okinawa Honto, is the perfect jumping-off-point for the rest of the 161-island chain. In particular, the Yaeyama Islands (one of the three main island groups) represents a microcosm of Okinawa’s signature drawcards: beaches made of star-shaped grains of sand (found on Hoshizuna-no-Hama on remote Iriomote Island), a distinct indigenous culture (Taketomi Island has one of Okinawa’s few preserved traditional Ryukyu villages) and warm beaches made for swimming (Yonehara on Ishigaki Island boasts some of the best snorkelling in Okinawa). If all that doesn’t upend what you think you know about Japan, then the experience of gliding in emerald waters in a water buffalo taxi surrounded by locals in straw hats and sandals surely will.

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The historical bridge made with vine in Tokushima, Japan. Photo credit: Shutterstock

5. Head to the mountains

Home to forest-cloaked mountains, thatched roof farmhouses and winding one-lane roads, Iya Valley is one of Japan’s last uncharted territories. Tucked deep in the mountainous heart of Shikoku, it’s so far off the beaten path that it’s been described as the “lost Japan”. Because of the area’s inaccessibility, a car is the best way to reach the region’s highlights, like the fascinating Okuiya Niju Kazurabashi vine bridges that were used from the 12th century to transport people across the Iya River. And while walking along the widely-spaced planks to the other side is a rite of passage, those prone to vertigo can opt instead to pull themselves across in a wooden cart via the nearby Wild Monkey Bridge. After, there’s no better place to retire than the 200-metre-high Iya Onsen Hotel, overlooking dramatic green hills. The hotel’s hidden gem is its open-air bath, located in the gorge below and accessed by a Gibli-esque rickety cable car. Soak in the hot water beside the rushing river and savour this perfect slice of Japan’s past.

SEE ALSO: 8 Japanese cafés to visit in Singapore

This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings on 18 November 2016 and updated on 11 June 2021.

PHOTOS HENN A HOTEL / NOZAWA ONSEN FACEBOOK / KAWAII MONSTER CAFE FACEBOOK / OKINAWA TOURISM FACEBOOK / IYA ONSEN HOTEL

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