Japan Today
Traditional Kyoto-style buildings.
Traditional Kyoto-style buildings. Image: Sean Pavone/iStock

Avoid the crowds in Japan's ancient capital by visiting a 'Little Kyoto'

By Laura Payne

Kyoto has been using its name to boost tourism in various regions of Japan for over 30 years. In 1985—with a goal to work together in preserving local history and culture as well as promote tourism — Kyoto and 26 municipalities formed the All Japan Kyoto Association (also called the All Japan Kyoto Committee).

Cities and towns belonging to the association carry the nickname “Little Kyoto” and meet at least one of three conditions:

  • Possessing natural or manmade scenery resembling Kyoto’s
  • Having a historical connection with Kyoto
  • Maintaining traditional industries and culture

As of the early 2020s, over three dozen municipalities across Japan’s main islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu promote themselves using the Little Kyoto title. Many are located in rural or little-known areas and are not often visited by tourists. Meanwhile, Kyoto itself has been dealing with issues related to overtourism for years. To ease the strain on Kyoto, perhaps it is time travelers spread out to one of the many Little Kyotos. Here are three of the Little Kyoto highlights from around Japan.

Cherry blossoms and samurai homes in Akita

Head to the samurai district to see weeping cherry blossoms, historic residences or autumn foliage. Image: Sean Pavone/iStock

A bullet train from Tokyo can take you north to Akita Prefecture — famous for its nature, nihonshu (rice wine, also called sake) and Akita inu (Akita dogs) — in just a few hours. A Little Kyoto known as Kakunodate is directly accessible via this bullet train.

Stroll around Kakunodate’s historic samurai district to see buildings preserved from Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868). Some of these buildings are private homes while others such as the Aoyagi House are museums open to visitors, educating people about the lives of samurai who once resided in Kakunodate.

From late April to early May, the samurai district is alight with weeping cherry blossom trees — many of which were brought from Kyoto in the 1600s. These weeping cherry blossoms are the pride of Kakunodate and are designated National Natural Monuments. The nearby Hinokinai River is also a popular cherry blossom viewing and picnic spot in the spring.

Even if you visit Kakunodate outside of spring, you can experience the city’s cherry blossom pride through kabazaiku (items made with the bark of cherry blossom trees). Low-ranking samurai originally made and sold kabazaiku as a side job and later helped develop the craft as a local industry. The Kakunodate Kabazaiku Denshokan (Cherry Bark Woodcraft Museum) displays the history of this craft alongside other artifacts from local history, and sometimes hosts craft workshops. Kabazaiku items can also be purchased at local souvenir shops.

Matcha and the sea in Aichi

Enjoy locally-produced matcha in the Former Konoe Residence or a nearby cafe. Image: Brunch/Pixta

Take an express train from Nagoya to reach Nishio, a Little Kyoto of Aichi Prefecture. Nishio is a must-see for fans of matcha tea because it is one of Japan’s top matcha producers, growing about 20% of the domestic supply of tencha (raw tea that is made into matcha). The Nishio Matcha brand is known for its quality and dedication to producing single origin tea — only tea that is grown and processed locally can be called Nishio Matcha.

Head to the Nishio City History Park and for a fee you can drink a bowl of local matcha at the Former Konoe Residence — a traditional-style home that was relocated to Nishio from Kyoto. After enjoying your tea, you can explore the Former Konoe Residence’s garden or the History Park’s reconstructed remnants of Nishio Castle, which stood until Japan’s modernization period in the late 19th century.

If you love matcha desserts, cafes and shops around Nishio serve cakes, parfaits and other treats made with locally-produced tea. Historic shops like Saijoen Aiya and Aoiseicha offer hands-on experiences to visitors with advance reservations such as tea factory tours and demonstrations of how to make a bowl of matcha with traditional utensils.

See ocean views from inside a sculpture called Ohirune House. Image: chan14/Pixta

If you spend more than one day in Nishio and want to enjoy Japan’s ocean scenery, head to Kira Onsen or Sakushima. Kira Onsen is home to swimming beaches and ocean-view hot spring resorts. Meanwhile, Sakushima is a small island with no traffic signals and only a few hundred residents. The island is accessible in about 20 minutes from the mainland via ferry, and is most famous for outdoor art installations such as Ohirune House — a sculpture made of black boxes that visitors can climb into. Rental bicycles are a popular way to explore Sakushima, but the island is also small enough to traverse on foot.

Ninjas and poetry in Mie

Discover the stories of Japan’s historic ninjas inside the multilingual Igaryu ninja museum. Image: Buuchi/Pixta

The roots of traditional and historic Japan run throughout Mie Prefecture, which is located east of Kyoto. The city of Iga is particularly famous as the home of Igaryu ninja and Matsuo Basho, one of Japan’s most famous haiku poets who traveled throughout Japan in the 17th century.

The Igaryu Ninja Museum tells visitors true stories of Japan’s ninja through a diverse collection of exhibits. Hundreds of tools, artifacts and weapons related to historic ninjas are on display with multilingual explanations. On certain weekdays and most weekends, visitors can see some of these artifacts in action through shows that demonstrate ninja weapons and martial arts. The museum also maintains a “ninja house,” a seemingly normal traditional-style residence that is equipped with hidden doors and other features ninjas used to hide their tools and protect their identities as spies.

Poetry fans, meanwhile, can make a pilgrimage to various sites related to the haiku master Basho. The home where Basho was born and raised — which features a studio where he wrote his first collection of poems — is about a 15-minute walk from the ninja museum. Minomushi-an, a retreat where Basho would go to write poetry, is about a 20-minute walk from Basho’s birth house. Basho had five such retreats around Japan but Minomushi-an is the only one standing today.

Iga is accessible by train from Nagoya or Osaka.

Even more Little Kyotos

The All Japan Kyoto Association’s website compiles travel information about the dozens of cities and towns that call themselves Little Kyoto. If you want to experience traditional Japan while avoiding the overtourism prevalent in Kyoto proper, make the journey to one of these municipalities and discover the lesser-known hidden gems of Japan.

© Japan Today

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Pretty sure it's okay to name whatever you want however you want. It's terrible presumptuous of Kyoto to make stipulations on other cities!

0 ( +3 / -3 )

I always thought of Kawagoe in Saitama (Koedo) as a "little Kyoto", just with better craft beer. But it is getting quite crowded recently, being so close to Tokyo

2 ( +2 / -0 )

timeon Koedo is Little Edo (old name of Tokyo)... Kawagoe never assumed itself to be little Kyoto. The kura buildings in Kawagoe do not reflect what Kyoto is about.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Now this place will be overrun with tourists.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Kanazawa! Nice sights, wonderful handcrafted souvenirs and great food.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

My city is on the list as one of the Little Kyotos. The area has been lined with pretty streetlight lanterns and the blocks are in a grid-pattern like Kyoto but that's about as close to Kyoto as it gets. The area is said to be home to the most snack bars per square meter in the country. (Not sure if this is true or not.) It's basically an area of drunkeness and good times at night. Haven't seen a geisha, maiko or anything resembling ancient Japanese high culture around "Little Kyoto".

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I was an ALT on Sakushima.

Lovely place,but not suitable for mass tourism.

This article is irresponsible journalism.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Foreign tourist..

Don't ruin it..

Follow rules..

And behave well..

0 ( +3 / -3 )

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