Things to Do in Rural Japan
So you landed in Japan on an ESL grant or some other job, hoping that you might be able to live in Tokyo or Yokohama, but instead you were posted in some one-horse town in the boonies. You might be able to visit Akihabara if you can take a few days off from your job, but your daily life looks to be a boring one. How can you make your days in the countryside a worthwhile experience? Here are some interesting things you are more likely to find in rural Japan than in the cities.
Japan is known for its powder snow in the north, scuba diving points in the south, and lots of hiking trails in between. There are millions of enthusiasts of both river fishing and sea fishing. Depending on where you live, there are places to go canoeing, or rafting, or cave exploring. There is a reason Japan makes most of the cameras sold in the world. The landscape is gorgeous.
Camping has become the national pastime of late. You can find over two thousand designated camping grounds across Japan usually with running water and decent toilet facilities. In any other country such grounds would become a nest of squatters and illegal dwellers. Japan’s camping grounds are not only clean and virtually crime free, but very sparsely used. Whether you are camping in the mountains or near the beach, on a weekday you are more likely than not to have the place all to yourself.
If you are a sailor, it might interest you to know that Japan has a glut of boat owners and a shortage of sailing crew. When I was a student, I would just hang out at the marina looking for someone who might need a crew for the weekend. The coastline of rural Japan is beautiful from the sea.
Japan has been inhabited at least since early Neolithic times, and has more than 1200 years of recorded history. Every region has its own folklores, legends, historical events, and customs passed down the centuries. Very little of it is known outside of Japan. But some scholars, like Lafcadio Hearn, have made a name for themselves translating old Japanese tales into English. Such a long and varied history means that there are remains of ancient settlements buried everywhere. There are over 465,000 known archeological sites. Over a thousand new sites are unearthed each year. This is very inconvenient for construction workers because every time some ruin is unearthed, it must be excavated and recorded before the construction can continue. This means that there are many archeological excavations being performed all around Japan at all times. Many volunteers are needed to brush away the dirt and recover the relics from the past. Some are even paying jobs. Be sure to wear long sleeves and bring a hat and lots of sunscreen. It could entail some work in the sun.
There are 80,000 shrines and another 80,000 temples in Japan. The Japanese have spent centuries trying to find their inner selves. In modern parlance, we were introspective before it was cool. Most of the earliest European Buddhist monks in history were mostly ordained in Ceylon, Burma, Siam, and other places with a strong European presence, but recently Japan has become a popular destination for those seeking spirituality. Of course, not all such visitors mean to convert to Buddhism wholesale. They are merely here to savor the experience. Most Zen temples welcome people who want to use their facilities for meditation. And then there are other spiritual traditions such as the Shikoku Pilgrimage and the Ise Pilgrimage.
Shikoku Pilgrimage is the tour of 88 Buddhist temples of Shikoku island. The trip is made on foot, on bicycle, or by bus tour, with those traveling on foot and bicycle held in higher esteem. Although it is not a requirement to finish the longest course, the full pilgrimage spans 1400 kilometers. Given the mild nature of religious devotion in Japan, the participants tend to take the challenge more for the experience than for salvation.
A much less pious pilgrimage is dedicated to the Grand Shrine of Ise. There was a spontaneous boom in pilgrimages to this shrine during the Edo period during which millions of pilgrims travelled by foot to this location from all over Japan. What triggered this sudden exuberance or why it ended remains unexplained. It is largely remembered as a wild movable festival. The place is quiet now save for a steady trickle of visitors and the remnants of the boomtowns that once profited off the pilgrims. But the point is, most of these holy monuments are open to all who care to attend regardless of the extent of their piety. And there are many such locations all over Japan, most of them in the quiet rural areas.
Even after centuries of over development, the Japanese archipelago is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world. Although many species of unusual mammals and birds are lost to history, it is still a place of interest for biologists from around the world, particularly entomologists. 225 species of butterflies and 189 species of dragonflies are known to live in the Japanese islands, compared to 58 and 43 in the British islands. In fact, insect collecting is something of a national pastime. Many notable people, including the eminent manga artist Osamu Tezuka and Pokemon game creator Satoshi Tajiri spent their childhoods collecting insects. Japan is located in the intersection of migratory birds. People from Africa or Australia may not be impressed with the number of birds in Japan, but what we lack in sheer numbers we make up for in diversity. Of course nature appreciation is something you can only do when there is some actual nature around. Not easy to do in the cities.
Did you ever stop to think about what a diverse sports environment Japan has? It took a century for Japanese baseball players to become world class, and for skiers and skaters to win gold medals. Japanese soccer and rugby teams still have a way to go, but that’s not stopping them from trying. Then there are the indigenous sports like kendo, karate, and aikido. Japan is still one of the world’s dominant forces in judo.
There are lots of obscure martial arts that the rest of the world has hardly heard about. My friend Jess Geritty, the fashion model and TV personality, posted on Facebook her experience with yabusame, Japanese horseback archery.
Sports that require wide open spaces are not easy to enjoy in the cities. A day at the golf course, for example, can cost up to 20 times more in the Tokyo area compared to say, Kyushu. Rural areas also tend to have there own unique variety of sports. Shihanmato, for example, is a form of short bow archery that traditionally belongs to the Nichinan area of Miyazaki prefecture. Since almost every feudal domain had its own martial art, there are many distinct local styles still being practiced.
Japan has more active volcanoes than any other developed nation. It has a coastline longer than that of the United States. It has cities built over cities built over cities. Japan once produced more gold and silver than all of Europe. Abandoned tunnels like Toi Gold Mine in Shizuoka, Iwami Silver Mine in Shimane, and Taio Gold Mine in Oita have been turned into tourist attractions. Chances are, you can climb a volcano, explore the coastline, and tour a creepy mine all in the same prefecture. (Oddly enough, I have yet to see an English language web page of someone who did a tour of all the abandoned mines in Japan). Most of Japan’s natural underground caves are too small to have international recognition like Carlsbad Caverns, but there are probably more natural caves in Japan, a volcanic island nation, than most other countries. The Japanese archipelago has 6,852 islands, of which only 400 are inhabited. If you are into exploring islands, there are plenty to choose from. There are boats all around Japan that transport adventurous sports fishermen to uninhabited islands for a fee. There are over 27,000 geothermal springs in Japan and over 20,000 hot spring baths open to the public in one way or another. If you want to go on a tour of beautiful onsen baths you won’t have to look very far from where you are.
People of the cities travel to Kyushu and Hokkaido for the roads; the long winding mountain trails and the roads of wide open plains. It is cool to drive a car through the Wangan Highway in the canyon of Tokyo skyscrapers, but navigating the congested streets of the city is not everyone’s idea of a joy ride. The rural areas are a different matter. There are excellent roads everywhere, most of them empty. Enthusiasts of cars and motorcycles gather from around the country during the holidays. The Dodo 106 (yes, that is an actual name of a road) in Hokkaido, the Venus Line in Nagano, and the Yamanami Highway in Kyushu are some of the popular destinations for motorcycle enthusiasts.
There are six major styles of pottery in Japan, 25 regional styles, and hundreds of sub-regional styles. No matter where you are in Japan, there is bound to be a style of pottery specific to your area. There are over a hundred different types of hand woven traditional fabric being made in Japan just counting the best known ones, and more than 20 distinct types of lacquerware. And that is just counting the traditional ones. If you add the more modern styles and methods, the list is endless. And of course there are such crafts as metal ware, glassware, bamboo and wood crafts. Wherever you are in Japan, there is a traditional craft endemic to the area. These crafts can be experienced in various forms. Some places offer classes. Other places allow you to visit workshops. For the most part, these are not things you can experience in the cities.
If you are a visitor to Japan stuck in a rural town, I urge you to have a little perspective. For example, Oita is a place nobody has ever heard of. The size of the economy of Oita prefecture is 44th among the 47 prefectures of Japan. The population is 33rd among 47. So that would be a pretty representative example of a Japanese boonyland. You might get there and exclaim “My God! There is nothing here!” And yet, the economy of Oita prefecture is roughly equal to that of the entire nation of Libya. The population is three times that of Iceland. It speaks volumes about the scale of Japan as a nation when one of its poorest, least populated prefectures has enough resources to qualify as a small country. It also underscores the fact that wherever you are in Japan there are numerous opportunities for great experiences.