Japan is not just temples, gardens and ultra-modern cities. The country conceals plenty of other treasures that are little known to Western tourists. To visit them is to get a whole different image of the Land of the Rising Sun, far from the clichés that have made it so popular. Dare to go off the beaten path and approach this highly fascinating country from a different angle, free of any prejudices. Around 30 min from Tokyo, Hakona, known for its spas, offers an unobstructed view of Mount Fuji and a holiday spot at 1,000m of altitude. Two hours by car from Kyoto, discover the fascinating village of Miyama. Here you will get a real insight into the traditional and rural Japan of the days of yore. In summer you can even stay in an authentic Japanese cottage.
Even though huge skyscrapers make up the main panorama of Japan's larger cities, nature and beautiful landscapes are never far away, as is the case with Mount Fuji, which can be seen between the buildings of Tokyo. For the Japanese, this legendary volcano is the subject of sacred worship: in the novel "Tokyo Fiancée" by Amélie Nothomb, the writer explains that it is by climbing it that one becomes Japanese. A climb that requires a fair amount of physical preparation, it's not for nothing that a Japanese proverb claims: "He who climbs Mount Fuji once is a wise man, he who climbs it twice is a fool." However, it is an exceptional experience that you will not regret having accomplished. If you prefer more laidback walks, no problem, just head to the Japanese countryside to admire lush vegetation and rice paddies as far as the eye can see. Don't hesitate to mingle with the locals; the Japanese have a real sense of hospitality and you will hold onto an unforgettable memory of these people.
Japan's coastlines are dotted with mountain hamlets, small fishing villages, gulfs and hidden coves. From the Sea of Japan to the Inland Sea, these contrasting landscapes stretch as far as the eye can see and offer a different image of Japan, one that is authentic and wild, which you don't expect to find when you are in Tokyo or Kyoto. The Izu peninsula with its large tourist cities (Atami and Ito) and plenty of accommodation and spas lies on the east coast. The Noto-Hanto peninsula, meanwhile, located in the north of the island of Honshu, is a place of wild landscapes and traditional rural life. Many fabulous festivals are held here in July and August. The large coastal zones of the region of Tokohu, devastated by the tsunami of 11 March 2011, still show the after-effects of this disaster and the reconstruction is going slowly.
Japan is a country where the fauna and flora is extremely rich and diverse. This incredible ecosystem resulting from favourable climatic and geographical conditions also reflects the respect and civic-mindedness of the Japanese with regard to the environment. The diversity of the micro-climates makes the Japanese flora very diverse, with many forests (of bamboo for example), white and red plum trees, cherry trees and lotus flowers. As for the fauna, in Japan you can find seals, walruses, snow monkeys, antelopes, tanuki, deer, and toki (or crested ibis), one of the symbols of Japan. Unfortunately, these species are currently in danger of extinction.
Complex and very different from our own, Japanese culture is extremely fascinating because of its diversity. Traditional Japanese arts, like Ikebana (flower arrangement) and tea ceremonies, are more than just simple formalities: they transmit spiritual values that incarnate beauty, elegance and spirituality. To practise an art in the Land of the Rising Sun is to impart a philosophy of life. The art of ceramics, porcelain and painting are famous for their refined beauty. Japanese art is indeed characterised by its delicacy and attention to detail. You will find plenty of museums and art galleries in Japan where you can admire works by local artists. There is also the possibility of giving these very common practises a try. In short, you will discover an entire world of aesthetics.
Japanese traditions have been passed down from generation to generation. Japanese culture is markedly different from the other Asian cultures and is all the more unique for it. For example, Japanese gardens are a reflection of a particular vision and organisation of nature, and represent a place of contrast with reality where the Japanese come to relax and forget the problems of daily life. Traditional figures, geishas represent the Japanese arts to a certain extent: the ideas that many people have of these artists in their own right are often erroneous. This profession dating back to the 17th century is now in decline.
A country not lacking in temples, a large number of these historical and spiritual sites were built nearly a thousand years ago and should not be missed. Through them you will discover an unexpected culture and wisdom that is light years away from our occidental spirit. In Japan, Buddhism coexists with Shinto, an ancient indigenous religion based on the worship of ancestors and harmony with nature. The temples and their Buddhas constitute real works of art, just like the the magnificent Japanese gardens that surround them. They are harmonious spots that provide the ideal place for meditation and contemplation, or for simply recharging your batteries in a quiet and relaxing setting.
To really get a feel of the cultural differences between the West and the Land of the Rising Sun, you should go out and walk around the happening district of Shinjuku. Roads full of neon lights, colourful signs, luxury boutiques, and bars and restaurant stand next to the skyscrapers and city hall in Tokyo's business district. While on the topic, Tokyo's city hall was designed by architect Kenzo Tange and offers an unobstructed view over the city via its two observation decks. In Japan, the chaotic urbanisation of the large cities does not mean that any traditions have been lost. The Tokyo Imperial Palace is just one example of this. Only the gardens and moats are accessible by the common folk. Visitors will just have to be content with seeing the Prussian-inspired Nijubashi Bridge and the few remains of Edo Castle. A visit to the Nijo Castle in Kyoto is a must for its history, its gardens, and its 'song of the nightingale'.