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Off the beaten track first timers 2019/5/22 11:54
Hi all,

My husband and I are going to Japan for the first time Oct 9-21. That gives us 11 full days. We are avid travelers, seek adventure, and love experiencing the "real" side of a country rather than doing the typical tourist track. That being said, not against doing touristy things, just want it to be worth it. We love nature and beautiful scenery, great food (I'm a vegetarian, husband is not), history, and would like to do a balance of city life and country life. Will likely minimize our time in Tokyo to see as much of the rest of the country as possible. Budget conscious. Would also love to explore the fall foliage.

As of now, really struggling to determine what we should do with our time. It seems like it will be on the colder side for going too far north and going too far south will take travel time we just don't have. The itinerary I am currently playing with includes:
Tokyo (2 days)
Gunma Prefecture for an onsen
Kyoto (2 days)
Hakone / Mt Fuji

As I realize many of these options are the standard tourist destinations, totally open to ALL suggestions. Whats special and unique that's really worth getting to do? Not afraid to be in the middle of no where and not afraid of long travel hours occasionally. HELP!

Thanks so much
by Elana Sara Banin (guest)  

Re: Off the beaten track first timers 2019/5/22 16:14
What you corrently have suggested is 10 days worth of stuff. And if honest. Two days for Kyoto is not enough.

With only 11 days. You don't have the time to go off the beaten track. Stick to what you currently have suggested. And don't try to re-invent the wheel with your itinerary.
by hakata14 (guest) rate this post as useful

Re: Off the beaten track first timers 2019/5/22 16:52
Hi! You are a bit early for autumn colours and some parts of your trip could still be quite warm. What I would suggest is to try to push a few mountain areas toward the end of your trip where you are more likely to get colour, e.g. if you were coming back from Hiroshima, go to Takayama (stay at Hotel Associa for very good value Onsen resort), bus to Kamikochi (stay at Kamikochi Onsen Hotel for nice onsen) then bus to Matsumoto, check out castle before train back to Tokyo. If that was at the end of your trip you'd have a good chance of fall colours at Kamikochi, and some chance at Takayama.

While I agree that 2 days in Kyoto is short, personally it is so crowded these days (and aside from the sites and hills it is a pretty unnattractive city anyway) I wouldn't look to add time to it, I tend to think Nara is a more pleasant spot to stay a few nights for several reasons. Or you could stay in Uji and catch the train into Kyoto. Uji is quite green and pleasant. Kyoto is a lovely place, but it is a very hot city because of its topography. Mid October could still be plenty hot unless it is drizzly. I like it in December better, less crowds, and cool to cold.

by Lazy Pious (guest) rate this post as useful

Re: Off the beaten track first timers 2019/5/22 19:09
Well your itinerary is a pretty standard, relatively rushed itinerary. No time for off the beaten track. Itfs not to say itfs a bad itinerary, itfs just not what you seem to be looking for.

If you want off the beaten track I would:
Option 1:
- stay only in Kansai: 4 days min Kyoto, 2 -3 day Nara and surroundings ,1 day Ise, mountains in Wakayama or Nara Prefecture (eg Dorogawa onsen) , 1 day Hikone, plus a few other destinations, potentially 1 day Osaka for the big city feeling.
Option 2:
-Tokyo &Tohoku. Eg 4 days Tokyo, then Nikko, Aizu Wakamatsu, Yamadera, Towadako, Hachimantai, Hiraizumi plus maybe a few other places in between.

Obviously there are other options too.

In your list you donft have enough days anywhere to really do off the beaten track, unless you just donft do any of the highlights. But eg for Kanazawa it just would not make sense to go all the way there and then not to visit the garden and castle.

In Kyoto you can be a bit more picky. Do one highlight at the opening hour of it and then do a little bit off the beaten track for the rest of the day, as long as you are okay to only see 1 or 2 highlights during your stay in Kyoto.

Enjoy planning your trip to Japan!
by LikeBike (guest) rate this post as useful

Re: Off the beaten track first timers 2019/5/22 19:33
I've got to generally agree with the other people here and the locations chosen can in theory be completed but you won't have much time to explore much of what each location has to offer.

In general - both Kyoto and Tokyo are world class cities such as Barcelona, London or Paris which each have weeks worth of things to do. This is often why people normally complete the Tokyo - Kyoto - Osaka triangle over 1-2 weeks.

What is not as well known is that both Tokyo and Kyoto both have many potential day trips which include great hiking, beautiful scenery and a complete dearth of crowds if you miss weekends and major public holidays.

Some examples of day trip from Tokyo include;
Nikko (best overnight)

Kamakura (a good alternative if not visiting Kyoto)

Yokohama or Kawasaki


Takeo is meant to be a nice option for hiking as well....

For Kyoto day trips - where do I start

Uji: https://www.japan-guide.com/community/mfedley/report-1075
Hikone: https://www.japan-guide.com/community/mfedley/report-1074

I've got posts on most of the following but got lazy finding links but also include: Nara, Asuka, Ohara, Mt Hei, Osaka and others.

The Kansai trip mentioned is a nice one - specifically if you can have you own car in the outer Nara area which is quite picturesque. The Kii Peninsula is also amazing and I would say is truly off the beaten track. Search up the Kumano Kodo or look on my pages for info. There are also some great art islands around Okayama which are quite interesting as well.

The Tohoku route also mentioned is quite interesting and worth a good look
by mfedley rate this post as useful

Re: Off the beaten track first timers 2019/5/22 20:32
With the exception of Gunma, it's all standard tourist destinations and too much for 10 days. I think you should look at visiting the Kii Peninsula/Kumano Kodo/Koyasan, or Shikoku, or Tohoku, or Hokkaido.
by Sal1980 rate this post as useful

Re: Off the beaten track first timers 2019/5/22 21:24
I do a 10/11 day trip that includes Tokyo/Kyoto/Hiroshima/Kanazawa/Takayama and that covers many of the famous places without being too rushed, so 10 days should be fine. That schedule (10/11 days) can include Matsumoto and Shirakawa-go without too much problem, some mountain scenery and castles, so you should have a great trip.
by JapanCustomTours rate this post as useful

Re: Off the beaten track first timers 2019/5/22 23:21
This is amazing guys, thanks so much. I need to process all of this and get back to you all with follow up questions. It seems like many of you are recommending just stick with the north or just stick with the south. Is there no trail (with some on and some off track choices) that allows us to experience both in our limited time?

Also, assuming we will get a train pass. Are most of the places you all mentioned easily accessible by bus after the train? I don't think we want to rent a car given how expensive the rail pass is. Thoughts on transportation and how to determine the best mode of it between locations is welcome as well.

Thank you thank you.
by Elana Sara Banin (guest) rate this post as useful

Re: Off the beaten track first timers 2019/5/22 23:49

Unlike all the other respondents, I'm going to come in as a fellow vegetarian to comment on things. If you're actually a pescatarian and eat fish or have no problem with a seafood based broth disregard nearly everything I am saying because you will have absolutely no problem. (I've heard a lot of people who are actually pescatarians refer to themselves as vegetarians. I had an argument with my former personal trainer about this because she didn't seem to get I didn't eat fish.)

Many places can be a huge challenge in Japan as a vegetarian. It's gotten 1000% better in the last 4-5 years, but it's not like Europe or even the US. Shirakawa Go and Takayama both come to mind as places where being vegetarian can be sucky. I went to several places listed on HappyCow in 2017 and they were all closed. The only place open was the Indian place, which was friendly and nice, but it was the 4th or 5th place we tried. I am pretty sure Shirakawa Go has nowhere to eat. Unless you are spending a fortune in Kamikochi, want to just eat sweets, or stay in a cabin and do your own cooking, you're not going to find anything.

I think the famous floating torii in Miyajima is going to still be under construction in the Fall, so be aware of that before you go, if you still want to follow your itinerary.

I've not done the Kumano Kodo, but the Tanabe website does a great job of letting you know which ryokans will work with a vegetarian diet.

The majority of ryokans in Hakone will not work with you and it can be challenging finding food.

I personally think if it were me and I wanted to do something more unique for 11 days, like @LikeBike suggested I would do either Tokyo or Kyoto. I think you could do a really interesting trip to Tohoku with a JR East Tohoku Pass. Many places would be reachable by train and/or bus. Despite being easy to reach, I thought Matsushima near Sendai was a lot less overwhelmed with tourists than I expected. I really liked Towadako, though you might hit it for the koyo crowds. I'm trying two different places in Hanamaki which supposedly are going to do vegetarian for me, but I'm a little nervous. Hiraizumi is beautiful. Kakunodate is a lovely old samurai town, and I think koyo doesn't bring the same crowds as sakura. Morioka is pleasant.

You could also think about a Nagano-Niigata pass. I've found a lot of ryokan in the Nagano area have made efforts to try to accommodate vegetarians. I love Matsumoto and Nagano cities. Neither was packed with foreign tourists. I'd love to go to Togakushi jinja. I've not yet been but I have friends who went to Shiba onsen and loved it. I know several ryokan there say they will accommodate vegetarians. I loved the ruins of Ueda Castle and the former battlefield of Kawanakajima had some lovely koyo and no one there but locals. I know @Lazy Pious likes Bessho onsen, but I can't speak for the food situation. In Nagano, I loved the traditional dumplings at Irahodo, though my daughter liked the pizza place we ate more. Karuizawa might also work for you. I've not spent as much time in Niigata so I can't speak for places there.

Good luck!
by rkold rate this post as useful

Re: Off the beaten track first timers 2019/5/22 23:55
If you stick to only one region there are regional train passes that are cheaper than the country wide train pass. (there is a page on this web page that explains all the different train passes).

As said, your current trip is fine, it is just not "off the beaten track". So I guess it depends how much percentage of your trip should be off and how much can be on the beaten track.

On this web page there is great information about all the regions of Japan including some off the beaten track.
by LikeBike rate this post as useful

Re: Off the beaten track first timers 2019/5/23 00:21
Kyoto has gotten a huge amount of bad press these days because of the huge crowds that are now guaranteed at all of the "must see" places (making them "must avoid no matter what" places as far as I'm concerned), but in my own personal experience, there are dozens of places in and around Kyoto that are not at all crowded, but are as good as, or better than, the "must see" places in some of the less famous cities. My recommendation would be to spend more time in Kyoto as a home base, and go to some of these sublime but less crowded sites (skip the "must see" places altogether, is my strong suggestion). Examples might be Mimurotoji and Manpukuji in Uji (both of which I personally find much more enjoyable than the "must-see" Byodoin there), various temples in Ohara (including but not limited to Sanzenin), and Yoshiminedera (I hate to even mention this one because I think it is an absolute gem, and it would be a pity if it got "discovered" and a lot of people started going there). These are just a few examples; if you do a little research you can find a LOT more, some of them being closer to central Kyoto (but you said you don't mind a little travel, and most of these places are heavy on the "nature" aspects; Kurama is another one if you want a nice hike). The point is, why flit around to a bunch of far-flung places if you can comfortably base yourself in a dynamic, multi-faceted (and quintessentially "Japanese") city with loads of great lodging and dining options and make leisurely day trips? Note that the places I mentioned are ones that Japanese people are likely to go to (moreso than the "Top Ten" places, which they have probably already been to and won't want to visit anyway because they don't like huge throngs of foreign tourists), so they will have a bit more of a sense of "real Japan" than the places with endless busloads of visitors. Also, all of them have wonderful outdoor settings and/or fine gardens, along with oodles of history.

Gunma is a good idea. Or possibly Nagano prefecture (Togakushi is indeed well worth visiting!), which also has hot springs and some very good scenery. (The Koumi line provides an outstanding segment for a recreational train ride, and you can't get any more "middle of nowhere" than that.) I would skip Kanazawa simply because aside from Kenrokuen I don't think it has much that would be particularly unique, for a first-time visitor. (It is a very nice city, but you have limited time.) If you want to see a fabulous landscape garden, make a day trip from Kyoto to Ritsurin Koen in Takamatsu, which will also give you a very enjoyable train ride. It will likely be much less crowded than Kenrokuen.

Miyajima and Hakone are two of the worst places you can go if you want to avoid crowds, although you didn't specifically mention that as a priority. But I think you can find equally nice places if you want to experience the "real" Japan. For views of Mt. Fuji, how about Minobu-san (a gem, in my book), Shimizu, or the Miura Peninsula? All of these are easy day trips from Tokyo and much more "real Japan" than the places where tourists outnumber locals by a ratio of at least 10 to 1. But you need a bit of a spirit of adventure and a willingness to do your homework to visit such places.

Finally, especially if you have a rail pass, Tohoku offers numerous possibilities for splendid day trips out of Tokyo (maintaining the efficiency and comfort of a stable home base without changing hotels), or you can possibly spend a night or two there. This could be an alternative to Gunma if you want a nice hot spring.
by Kim (guest) rate this post as useful

Re: Off the beaten track first timers 2019/5/23 00:30
Before we answer too many questions - I just wanted to double check something before we give you too lofty plans.

You've mentioned traveling on a budget twice - how tight is your budget as this can significantly affect where you may visit?

HINT - fish stock is extremely common in Japan which was what one person was alluding to before. Never underestimate this and thehappycow and indian restaurants will be a godsend to vegetarians in Japan.

If budgets are tight - note that there are some bus passes which are easily the cheapest way of traveling around the country between major cities period. I've never used it myself due to being a time snob - but they are comfortable and not that slow.....
by mfedley rate this post as useful

Re: Off the beaten track first timers 2019/5/24 06:37
Combing through all of these incredibly detailed and thoughtful responses is no small feat. Thank you so much everyone.

My takeaway was to group all of your suggestions by region
[for future people as confused as I am:
Kansai/ Kyoto: Nara, Ise, Wakayama, Osaka, Uji, Nara, Asuka, Ohara, Mt Hei, Osaka, Takamatsu

Kii Peninsula: Kumano Kodo

Tokyo/Central: Nikko, Aizu Wakamatsu, Yamadera, Towadako, Hachimantai, Hiraizumi, Kamakura, Yokohama or Kawasaki,Takeo, Nagano-Niigata, Matsumoto, Togakush, Mt Fuji (Minobu-san, Shimizu, or the Miura Peninsula)i

North - Sendai, Matsushima; Towadako, Hanamaki, Hiraizumi, Kakunodate, Koyo]

Planning to look in more detail at each of these places and then decide which region makes the most sense to focus on. Leaning toward Kyoto/Kii Peninsula from the quick google imaging but not sure yet.

to the person who gave the detail vegetarian response, thank you a million times over. Super helpful.

Phew, I have my work cut out for me. Welcome others to continue to chime in with agreement on which of these places are the most special, because the sheer diversity between all of you is sort of amazing.

Be back soon :)
by Elana Sara Banin (guest) rate this post as useful

Re: Off the beaten track first timers 2019/5/24 20:19
I forgot to mention that a night in a shukubo in Koyasan will mean amazing vegetarian meals.

And my comment about it being too rushed was because it doesn't do the places justice. You can physically do it, but that doesn't mean it is the best choice. Just my 2 cents.
by Sal1980 rate this post as useful

Re: Off the beaten track first timers 2019/5/24 21:52

Before booking a ryokan at Koya-san please read the information on Happy Cow about Koya-san. Many of the temples are "vegetarian style." If you are not vegetarian and/or don't care about fish broth in foods it's a non issue. If you care about fish broth only some of the temples are actually vegetarian and Happy Cow will have recommendations on ones which are.

It's super easy being vegetarian in places like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, but other places are definitely more challenging unless you want to live on pizza or Indian food and some places don't even have those options. Happy Cow is mostly great, but it is frustrating when they list someplace like Nagano, but most places are Nagano-ken not Nagano City.

I am personally working with a friend fluent in Japan to try to help make sure my meals in Hanamaki onsen are completely meat free. I'm excited to visit there.

Good luck!

BTW Koyo is not a city, it's the Japanese word for leaf viewing. So in early to in October you are likely to get some koyo or Fall foliage viewing if you are in more northern areas.

I would honestly make a few itineraries and make sure all of them have dinning options in advance.
by rkold rate this post as useful

Re: Off the beaten track first timers 2019/5/28 16:15
Kawasaki Information

Kawasaki Daishi is very popular place among Japanese people, but really off the beaten for the foreign traveler. You can see the atmosphere of 1000 year history of temple, but you may never see any foreign tourist, it is not like Asakusa. And they have English tour guide program.

by Mikiho (guest) rate this post as useful

Re: Off the beaten track first timers 2019/5/28 16:23
This temple in Kawasaki is also one of the better places to buy Darumas as well!!
by mfedley rate this post as useful

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