What areas to visit besides Tokyo/Kyoto?
My boyfriend and I are in our early thirties and traveling to Japan for the first two weeks of December---we will be visiting Tokyo and Kyoto but also want to spend time in a couple of other less known, less hectic places with especially gorgeous natural beauty, rich history and culinary delights---it seems like there are dozens of amazing places---but given the time of year, which two should we pick and why? I really appreciate your insight!!!
The style of sushi that Nara is known for is called kakinoha zushi: usually marinated mackerel or salmon (not the freshwater local stuff) on top of vinegared rice, and wrapped in a persimmon leaf. My friend who goes back to visit relatives in Nara tells me it's beautiful around there, and the historical sites are wonderful, but it isn't the best destination for food.
For short trips from Tokyo, to varying degrees, the following are good places for food/culture:
Nara- ancient capital, pastoral setting, largest Buddha statue in Japan, many temples, simple cuisine
Kamakura- not as ancient but a former capital, seaside/hilly setting, most beautiful Buddha statue in Japan, temples, a major shrine, decent but slightly disappointing food scene
Hakone- mountain lakes around Mt. Fuji, a bit touristy, hot springs, good ryokan food
Atami- Seaside hot spring town close to Tokyo, good seafood, slightly touristy but in a domestic way
Osaka- one of the largest cities in the world
Kobe- pleasant city, fairly cosmopolitan, good dining
If you're willing to hop a flight or spend a day on the train:
Nigata- best rice in the world perhaps, good sake
Fukuoka- very nice city, street stall culture (see the Chowhound coverage on this), Kyushu cuisine, shochu, motsu nabe, tonkotsu ramen
Sapporo- seafood, miso ramen, snow
Hakodate (I'm headed here in November)- was the the open port in the north, some western influence, seafood
Nara is really nice but you'll get the same feel as Kyoto only smaller. I wouldn't spend too much time there. The pancake type food the person is mentioning is called an "okonomiyaki". They're quite good. For a real interesting experience, you may want to go to Sapporo (Hokkaido Island) up north. It is quite a bit different than the rest of Japan in that there is a lot of snow there and they have much more expansive geography. Good Luck.
Nara is a short trip from Kyoto/Osaka, not Tokyo. Maybe Silerjay meant to put it under "From Kyoto"?
As FDawson said, however, Nara is a low-key version of Kyoto and not known for good food. (Have okonomiyaki in Osaka, not Nara.)
If you're going to visit Kyoto, I'd recommend not just to stay in the city, but to go to Arashiyama and Kiyotaki (fewer tourists). I love Arashiyama. It's quiet and beautiful. You can stay at a ryokan in the mountain and also hike. However, Dec. is not the best time to visit. Arashiyama is beautiful in the fall.
Kyushu will be warmer and the food will be good.
Shikoku will be also warmer and the food is good, esp. fish and udon. Shikoku is a short trip from Kyoto/Osaka.
Nikko. Nikko. Nikko.
It's an hour or so from Tokyo. Using the private rail line from Asakusa station in Tokyo, you can get a special round trip package, including admission for shrines, for around 3000Y.
I think it's one of the loveliest areas in Japan. Very green and lush, puctuated with the most gorgeous temples and shrines. Quiet in comparison to Tokyo, but there will be alot of Japanese tourists at the shrines (not sure about December).
We stayed at Logette Sanbois, a Ryokan there. Probably our favorite lodging of our recent two week trip. Great meals featuring local specialties. Friendly owners. Very scenic location. Good value in my opinion.
One night in Nikko may be enough. I wish we'd had a second night in order to explore the falls and Lake Chuzenji (???). The only real drawbacks are that there is limited English language explanation for the different temples, etc. and definitely quiet after nightfall. But it was a great respite after several very busy nights in Tokyo.
I would also second Takayama. Another very lovely town, but with a very different feel from Nikko. Lots of interesting "merchant shops" - the tofu shop, the sake shop, the miso shop, etc. I think Takayama is a great place to go for experiencing some of the traditional culture of Japan in a very accessible way and on a smaller scale.
We went to a beautiful open air riverside onsen (hot spring) in Takayama that also had overnight lodging. We were only there for the day. Not sure how accessible the hot springs are without a car though. No doubt some are accessible by bus.
Two weeks isn't a lot of time, especially considering that you'll want to spend time in your two main destinations (I can spend two weeks in Tokyo and only scratch the surface). There are plenty of places you can visit between Tokyo and Kyoto. Kamakura and Hakone are the obvious places. Silverjay's suggestion for Atami is a good one. From Atami, it's an easy shot down the Izu peninsula, which is very nice (I've only been down the coast). Izu is known for the coastal onsen towns, as well as the onsens in the mountains. Here's a link to a post on Izu: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/332232
I hope the OP eventually writes a report of his trip.
Although I have relatives there, I don't know enough about Shizuoka prefecture, but places like Shizuoka city and Hamamatsu are known for their seafood. I like to check this site from time to time: http://www2.wbs.ne.jp/~shizlife/index...
Especially the Shizuoka sushi blog: http://shizuokasushi.wordpress.com/
Hamamatsu is known for their unagi.
I've also been fascinated by Nagoya. It's rich with a unique food culture. I wrote about some here: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/337781
Gifu prefecture near Nagoya has a lot of historical sites worth visiting, though most of it takes you further away from the path to Kyoto.
I strongly suggest that you start your trip in Kyoto if you can because you should still be able to catch some of the fall foliage around the temple grounds and the mountains around Kyoto. I was there during the last week of November a couple years back and it was around peak foliage and Kyoto was jammed with domestic tourists. I think the mass of tourists are gone by the time December hits (I'm not sure about this though).
We too are going to Japan for but in early November. Besides Tokyo and Kyoto, we're planning to visit
*a day trip to Nara
My husband, who lived in Kyoto for two years, planned the trip for us, our 1 year old daughter, and another couple so we had the baby to think of, but he picked most of the places because of the outdoor beauty and history. This board is the best site to find food advice, and I would also check out www.bento.com for possible destinations. I believe Robb S., who posts on CH, is involved with it. Anyway, I'm sure you'll have a great time no matter where you go there.