Castles, onsens, a silver mine and more – Top 5 places in Japan that you have not heard about

Japan’s hidden gems: 5 magical places you’ve probably never visited

It is no secret that Hongkongers love travelling to Japan. From January to March this year, the country has already clocked more than 8 million overseas visitors, according to JTB Tourism Research and Consulting.

The Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) has reported that Hong Kong travellers to Japan so far this year have reached the highest number in February, with over 179,000 visitors – though numbers in the past six months peaked in December with over 209,000 Hongkongers arriving in the country. However, the number of visitors from China, South Korea and Taiwan are still leaps ahead: in March, 691,300 Chinese, 585,600 Korean and 402,400 Taiwanese travellers visited Japan, compared to Hong Kong’s 171,400. Still not bad considering Hong Kong has a relatively small population.

Without exaggeration, we can say that Hongkongers have extensively explored the land northeast. However, there are still some hidden gems that diehard Japanophiles may yet have to discover.

Paul Christie, CEO of Walk Japan – a walking tour operator specialising in Japan, which has introduced a new Onsen Gastronomy tour series this year – revealed to us five hidden gems not easily accessible to foreign tourists.

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Gujo Hachiman Castle was built in 1559 by the local feudal lord. This castle had been destroyed and rebuilt in 1933. Unlike most reconstructed castles, Gujo Hachiman castle was rebuilt using wood rather than concrete. This castle is on top of the steep hill of Mount Hachiman, overlooking the town of Gujo Hachiman below. 郡上八幡城は元々1559年に建てられ、廃城となった際に取りこわされました。現在のお城は1933年に再建され、木造4層5階建の天守閣等は郡上市重要文化財に指定されているそう。80年を超える木造天守は日本最古の木造再建城。丘のてっぺんにそびえ建っているお城なので、郡上八幡の街から見るお城はとても威厳がありました✨ @instagram #gujohachiman#castle#japanesecastle#takayama#gifu#japan#郡上八幡城#郡上八幡#高山#お城#岐阜#チェジュ島行きたい#일본여행#ประเทศญี่ปุ่น

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1. Gujo-Hachiman, Gifu
Although Gujo-Hachiman is an elegant castle town with a genteel atmosphere, it is little known and receives relatively few visitors. Squeezed into a narrow valley, between towering verdant mountains and at the confluence of three rivers, Gujo-Hachiman is a tightly packed streetscape of quiet lanes and cobbled paths, which colourful koi carp swim languidly in water channels. Unexpectedly, given its Old-World charm, Gujo-Hachiman is the centre of world’s plastic food industry, and produces extraordinarily tasty-looking replicas of every kind of Japanese dish. Visitors can try their hand at creating a morsel to take home.

Tatsukuni specialises in chanko-nabe, the dish favoured by Japan’s famed sumo wrestlers. The owner, a retired wrestler, provides a warm welcome and will happily describe his life in sumo while plying his guests with some of the best sake produced in the region.

The Oita Kumamoto bath facility in Nagayu Onsen, a quiet town set deep in the Oita countryside. It is considered one of the loveliest onsen hot spring resorts in Japan.

2. Nagayu Onsen, Oita
Nagayu Onsen, set deep in the Oita countryside, is one of the loveliest onsen hot spring resorts found anywhere in Japan. The relaxing quiet of the town is complemented by classic ryokan inns, which serve exquisite, multi-course dinners to relish after soaking in the accommodation’s onsen.

Lamune Onsen, which is named after its naturally fizzing carbonated thermal waters, is an intriguing building designed by Terunobu Fujimori, one of Japan’s lesser-known but no less great architects. A very recent addition to the town is Kur Park Nagayu, a residential, therapy onsen centre created by Shigeru Ban, another acclaimed Japanese architect. A short drive from Nagayu Onsen is the delightful, historic town of Taketa, which is overlooked by the imposing remains of Oka-jo castle.

3. Yunotsu Onsen, Shimane
Yunotsu Onsen is a pleasantly, old-fashioned onsen hot spring town on the Sea of Japan coast. Although known for the therapeutic benefits of its mineral rich waters, the town once also served as a port to the nearby Iwami Ginzan silver mine. The mine, which today is listed as a World Heritage Site, closed many centuries ago and the old road that was once used to transport silver from the mine to ships at Yunotsu’s port is now a lovely, 12km hiking trail.

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石見銀山は島根県大田市にある銀山です。1309年に周防の大内弘幸が石見に来訪し北斗妙見大菩薩の託宣により銀を発見したという伝説があり この頃から露天掘りが始まっていたと考えられています。戦国時代から江戸時代にかけて最盛期を迎え 当時の日本は世界の銀の約3分の1を産出したとも推定されていますが その大部分がこちらからと思われます。尼子氏と大内氏による奪還戦が行われ 後に毛利氏も争いに加わりました。現在は閉山されていますが 当時銀山採掘のために掘られた間歩と呼ばれる坑道や水抜き坑が700余り確認されています。今回一般にも開放されている龍源寺間歩に伺って来ました。坑道は約600mありますが そのうち一般に公開されているのは273mで坑道の壁面には当時のノミの跡がそのまま残っています。手作業の痕跡を垣間見ながら坑内の散策を行なって来ました。 #石見銀山#世界遺産#島根#iwamiginzan#worldheritage#shimane

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Yunotsu’s inns have their own onsen baths but visitors should also venture to the town’s two public hot springs, Motoyu and Yakushiyu, where the friendly locals congregate. Legend has it that Motoyu was discovered more than 1,300 years ago while Yakushiyu sprang forth after an earthquake 240 years ago. The waters at both these onsens are reputed to have the power to cure many ailments while the appealing retro character of the buildings housing both these springs only adds to the enjoyment of relaxing in them.

4. Momo-shima, Hiroshima
Momoshima is a 40-minute ferry journey from the thriving port town of Onomichi across Japan’s gentle Seto Inland Sea. A little populated and quiet island, Momoshima has become the home of Yukinori Yanagi, one of Japan’s major artists, and the site of ArtBase, his latest project using art as a catalyst for the revival of the islands of the region. ArtBase, which is housed in an old school, displays works by Yanagi and other top Japanese artists including Noriyuki Haraguchi, Takahiro Iwasaki and Kana Yoshida.

Yanagi, who studied architecture under world-famous Frank Gehry before turning to art, undertakes much of the hard labour himself in reviving the school and other redundant buildings on the island. Currently, he’s converting a long disused farmhouse into accommodation with his distinctive artistic imprint for visitors to stay in.

Yanagi san also conceived the extraordinary Seirensho on Inujima and some of his artwork is on permanent display at the famed Benesse House Museum on Naoshima. Both Inujima and Naoshima are also in the Seto Inland Sea.

5. Shimoda, Shizuoka
At the southernmost tip of the Izu Peninsula, Shimoda can only be reached by taking a slow train or car along Izu’s intricate east coastline. It is now a small and pleasant seaside town, but in the 1850s, Shimoda was briefly at the centre of a political crisis over what relations Japan should have with foreign powers. Shimoda port was opened to American trade under the Convention of Kanagawa, negotiated by Commodore Matthew Perry in 1854. An unsuccessful attempt to board Perry’s Black Ships in 1854 set in motion the demise of the samurai in 1868.

The Izu Geo Trail on the Dogashima coastline.

Shimoda’s quiet, atmospheric streets lined with beautiful period buildings, which belie the momentous historical events that unfolded here 160 years ago, are a delight to stroll around. On the outskirts of town is Gyokusen-ji temple where Townsend Harris, the first US Consul General to Japan, lived. In grounds here are the graves of American and Russian sailors from the 1850s; a touching reminder of the earliest overseas visitors to Shimoda.

Note – This story was originally published on SCMP and has been republished on this website

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First published in 1903, the South China Morning Post is Hong Kong’s premier English language newspaper, providing news 24/7, in-depth and quick scan reads, informative infographics, critical analysis, community discussions plus access to the most comprehensive news archive in Hong Kong. Over the decades it has built an enviable reputation for authoritative, influential and independent reporting on Hong Kong, China and the rest of Asia.