Photo:Juli on Flickr

Getting Right Out of Town: Central Japan’s Top Weekend Getaways

Like many people in Japan, I work a Monday to Friday, though not always 9 to 5, white collar job. It can be stressful at times, and it can also wear you down physically as well as mentally.

To that end, I have always believed it is vital, especially in as intense a working culture as Japan, to make sure I have an adequate amount of “me” time. To that end, as much as I can afford to on my meagre salary, I try to get out of town on the weekends. Sometimes it’s just about a day trip to a nice onsen or some obscure tthemple I may have read about. Other times I may opt to stay overnight and indulge in some good food, pleasant drinks and a relaxing ambience. So, today I would like to introduce you to five of my favourite weekend haunts. Hopefully amongst these suggestions you’ll find one or two places that fit your budget as well as your interests.

Since I’m from Osaka, I’m going to concentrate on places that are within a 2 or 3 hour journey of the city itself.

1. Arima Onsen, Hyogo Prefecture

Conveniently located just behind Mount Rokko, on the outskirts of Kobe, Arima onsen is perfectly positioned to provide a weekend retreat to the stressed-out salarymen of the nearby urban hubs of Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe.

Photo: Carol Lin on Flickr

The Onsen at Arima has a storied history dating back as far as the 7th century, when the noted Buddhist monk Gyoki was a patron. The onsen received a further glowing endorsement from one of Gyoki’s progeny, Ninsai, another noted monk from history, in the 12th century. Ninsai was so said to be so impressed with the onsen that he went so far as to support its further development and expansion from that point on.

Arima Onsen was also a frequent hangout of the feudal warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi during the 16th century.

Photo: Carol Lin on Flickr

There are two types of onsen to be found in Arima, both of which are renowned for their rejuvenative qualities, the gold and the silver.

The gold onsen contains iron and salt, said to be good for both the skin and the circulatory system. It also gives the onsen a distinctive yellow-brown hue.

The silver onsen is fortified with radium and carbonate, it has the appearance of ordinary water, but again has a variety of medicinal benefits.

2.Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture

As the home of one of Japan’s most famous castles, Himeji has no shortage of historic and cultural sites to see and enjoy. The castle, which is finally due to reopen after a renovation lasting almost 6 years, is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown. However, there are plenty of other things to see and do in this wonderful little town.

Photo: Stéfan on Flickr

Himeji also has a large zoo with a selection of animals from all across the world.

Photo: Juga Paazmaya on Flickr

Not only the Himeji Castle and the Himeji Zoo it also has the Himeji City Museum of Art. Don't miss it.

One can also enjoy some great local food in the many bars and restaurants dotted around the city centre. I also recommend taking the time to check out some of Himeji’s famous Shoutengai (shopping arcades). You’ll find great souvenirs here as well as a host of other bargains.

3.Biwako, Shiga Prefecture

Lake Biwa, to give this place its correct English title, is Japan’s largest inland body of water, with a total surface area of around 670km. Its freshwater reservoir provides drinking water for around 15 milllion people across the Kansai area. If you’re into wildlife, then Biwako will make for a very interesting trip. The lake is one of the world’s most ancient, with a geological history going back about 4 million years. Given its vast age, Biwako has developed its own, hugely diverse eco-system, with around 1100 different animal species calling the region home.

Photo: go.biwako on Flickr

For a relaxing and de-stressing weekend break from the urban drudgery, nothing quite beats sitting back on your balcony, at one of the many hotels overlooking the river, enjoying a cool drink as you watch the sunset. It’s truly breathtaking.

4.Tokushima, Tokushima Prefecture

Just a short ferry ride across the bay of Osaka will bring you to Tokushima, Shikoku Island’s most northerly prefecture. It may be less than 2 hours from Osaka, but this sleepy region has a decidedly different character from what you’ll find in the big city. Local inns, small family run restaurants and bars and friendly people characterize what is one of central Japan’s most charming hidden gems.

Photo: Shoko Muraguchi on Flickr

IF you’re a foodie like me, I recommend taking the time to try “Naruto Kintoki”. These delicious sweet potatoes are famed as being amongst the best not only in Japan, but in the entire world. Whilst regular sweet potatoes are grown submerged in soil, the Naruto Kintoki are grown using a thinner, sandier soil. As the potatoes develop, this soil forms a thin crust over the potatoes given them a unique taste.

Photo: t-mizo on Flickr

Whilst is is often tempting to garnish your sweet potato with butter and/or salt I recommend trying Naruto Kintoki unseasoned the first time around. You may be surprised at just how flavourful it can be. For those who like their drinks with a bit more of a kick than conventional beers and wines, Tokushima also offers a variety of shochu, brewed using the Naruto kintoki. Imagine vodka, with a slightly sweet aftertaste and you’re getting pretty close.

5.Mie Prefecture

About 90 minutes north of Osaka, you will enter Mie Prefecture. Said by many to be the gateway between east and west Japan, Mie sits right in between the central Japan powerhouses of Kyoto and Osaka to the South-west, and Nagoya to the North-east.

Photo: Carlos Honda on Flickr

Around 60% of the prefecture is covered in forests and woodlands, making for some excellent hiking opportunities as well as a means to truly disconnect from the city for a day or two.

Photo: japan_style on Flickr

If fine goods are of interest to you, you can also find some of Japan’s finest pottery in Mie. In particular, look out for the Iga and Yokkaichi Banko Pottery brands.

As you can see, Japan offers plenty of retreats for the weary worker. Whether it’s hiking in the forests, enjoying a seaview or luxuriating in the onsen, there’s something for everyone. So next time you feel stressed, get out of town, hit up one of these locations, and most importantly, relax!

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