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Little Kyoto Towns: Five of the Best

Kyoto may be synonymous with ‘old Japan’ for travelers, but that city by no means has the monopoly on must-see historical sites. Up and down the Japanese archipelago lay a multitude of smaller towns that superbly preserve the atmosphere and appearance of the pre-modern era. Many of these have each been dubbed ‘Little Kyoto’ and can substitute, at least partly, for a trip to the former Imperial capital itself. Our picks below though, we’d contend, are also well worth a visit for those with Kyoto already ticked off on their itinerary.

Little Kyoto Towns: Five of the Best

Index

  • Kakunodate (Akita Prefecture)

  • Tsuwano’s Tonomachi Street (Shimane Prefecture)

  • Hida Furukawacho and Gujo Hachiman (Gifu Prefecture)

  • Hagi (Yamaguchi Prefecture)

  • Kakunodate (Akita Prefecture)

    Kakunodate (Akita Prefecture)

    Kakunodate (Akita Prefecture)

    Kakunodate, which in the present day is part of Akita’s Senboku district, developed in the early 17th century as a castle town with a sizable samurai population. Though only the ruins of the castle remain, the town’s winding, narrow streets contain a number of well-preserved samurai residences that convey the heady atmosphere of the days when this warrior class dominated Japanese society’s lesser ranks.

    Kakunodate (Akita Prefecture)

    Kakunodate (Akita Prefecture)

    The fact that many samurai were also cultured aesthetes, as well as feared warriors, is evident in the serene traditional garden of one standout samurai abode, that of the Ishiguro Clan. Family descendants inhabit the building to this day, with the current Ishiguro-san and his son always keen to give visitors a tour. Nestled between the samurai houses are a number of small museums, craft shops, and cafes. A rickshaw ride is a superb way to see Kakunodate, especially in spring when the cherry blossom trees that line the streets are in bloom.

    The Ishiguro Manor
    rating 115 Reviews
    Address
    Akita Pref. Sembokushi Kakunodatemachiomotemachishimochou 1
    Phone
    0187551496
  • Tsuwano’s Tonomachi Street (Shimane Prefecture)

    Tsuwano’s Tonomachi Street (Shimane Prefecture)

    Tsuwano’s Tonomachi Street (Shimane Prefecture)

    Tsuwano in Shimane Prefecture is home to Tonomachi Street, an avenue that was once home to the senior-ranking samurai of the Tsuwano domain. Residences along the tree-lined street retain their original stately appearance, and are joined by a clear-watered canal containing around 20,000 colorful koi carp. At one corner of Tonomachi Street sits the former house of the Kamei family, who were chief retainers to the neighborhood samurai for eleven generations. This imposing structure is one of Japan’s officially designated Tangible Cultural Properties. June is regarded as the best month to visit, when the district’s abundance of irises come into spectacular full bloom.

    Tsuwano Tonomachi Road
    Address
    Shimane Pref. Kanoashiguntsuwanochou Ushiroda
    Phone
  • Hida Furukawacho and Gujo Hachiman (Gifu Prefecture)

    Hida Furukawacho (Gifu Prefecture)

    Hida Furukawacho (Gifu Prefecture)

    The historic Gifu Prefecture city of Hida is best known for its distinctive gassho-zukuri (‘praying hands’) houses, but the area also boasts its own ‘Little Kyoto’ that shouldn’t be missed when visiting. Known as Hida Furukawacho, the town grew up around the Miyagawa River in the 16th century. Rows of traditional townhouses, many featuring charming cloud-pattern carvings which were the ‘branding’ of each local craftsman, are joined by two sake breweries and a handful of temples.

    飛騨古川の町並み
    Address
    岐阜県飛騨市古川町壱之町、三之町
    Phone
    0577732111
    Gujo Hachiman (Gifu Prefecture)

    Gujo Hachiman (Gifu Prefecture)

    Another Gifu location that has something of a ‘Little Kyoto’ vibe is Gujo Hachiman. This again is a town with 16th century origins, and sits at the foot of the immaculately preserved castle of the same name. Here historic townhouses are clustered around the picturesque Yoshida River, while fish swim leisurely along backstreet streams.

    郡上八幡の古い町並み
    Address
    岐阜県郡上市八幡町柳町、八幡町職人町、八幡町鍛冶屋町
    Phone
    0575670002
  • Hagi (Yamaguchi Prefecture)

    Hagi (Yamaguchi Prefecture)

    Hagi (Yamaguchi Prefecture)

    The Yamaguchi Prefecture town of Hagi thrived during the Edo period (1603-1867), when it was home to the formidable Mori Clan which played a major role in 1868’s Meiji Restoration (the return to the throne of the Japanese emperor). Hagi’s castle has since been reduced to mere ruins, but the downtown district’s former samurai mansions, as well as the workshops of the merchants who enjoyed some trickle-down wealth from the warrior class, are very much intact with the former retaining their original splendor. Several temples are also located in this quarter, along with a couple of small museums. A rickshaw tour makes a great way to zip around this history-steeped location.

    Hagi Castle Ruins
    Address
    Yamaguchi Pref. Hagishi Horiuchi 1-1
    Phone
    0838253139
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