Started in June 2016, Unfamiliar Japan, or UJT, is an attempt to introduce Japan from an unconventional perspective. Rather than take time presenting Japan’s major tourist destinations, we strive to show would-be travelers the nation’s off-the-beaten paths and forgotten aspects. We want to introduce you to everything you won’t find in typical Japan travel itinerary. Although we are also offering you a tour-guiding service and can talk with you about customized guided tours in Japan (see the Rates/Contact page on this site if you are interested), it is just a secondary side to our primary aim: to reveal as many lesser-known places and obscure aspects of the country as possible, hoping to finally conjure up somethingーsomething like a glimpse of real Japanーin the eyes of the travelers.

The map of Japan by Abraham Ortelius (オルテリウスの日本地図)
Map of Japan by Abraham Ortelius, published in Europe in 1595. (Courtesy of the Open University of Japan Library.)

The intention of UJT is two-fold: 1) To introduce Japan’s less well-known places and unique aspects, 2) To introduce them in a way that is not stereotypical, and not influenced by the context of modern-day tourism. We know that, when Bruno Taut talks about Katsura Imperial Villa, for example, he pays attention to the things which may be commonly regarded as on the periphery, like a bamboo gutter on a nondescript building, a wave-like oval window on the side wall of an tokonoma alcove, or small creatures native to Japan, such as a Japanese tree frog, a Japanese grass lizard or a Japanese pond turtle, living in a compound. And he talks about them with the same passion and sincerity as he does about the villa’s renowned Japanese garden. On the contrary, looking at Japan’s tourist industry today, sometimes it seems that everything is, by and large, strictly governed by efficiency, profits and safety. The situation is like this for good reason. However, if details happen to be overlooked, we want to focus on them and bring them to light.

Tsunazaka Slope in Mita, taken by Felice Beato (ベアト撮影、江戸時代の三田綱坂)
Tsunazaka Slope in Mita, taken by Felice Beato around 1863. (Photo: Courtesy of the Open University of Japan Library.)

Outline of Japan

Japan is an island country mainly consisting of four large islands: Honshu (the main island), Kyushu, Shikoku, and Hokkaido. The total area of Japan is approximately 380,000 square kilometers, which is roughly equivalent to that of Germany or the State of California. And more than 120 million people live in the country.

Map of East Asia published in Italy around 1860 (1860年頃の東アジアの地図)
Map of East Asia published in Italy around 1860. (Courtesy of the Open University of Japan Library.)

Japan is divided into 47 “prefectures” for administrative purposes. But when we want to get a whole picture of Japan easily, studying it prefecture by prefecture is a rather tiresome and time-consuming job. That is why we sometimes combine several nearby prefectures into large “Regions.”

Japan's seven regions and Sapporo clock Tower (日本の7つの地方と北海道時計台)
Left: Regions of Japan Right: Sapporo Clock Tower in Hokkaido.

The Japan’s northernmost region is Hokkaido, where the summer is “generally” cool and the winter is long and cold. It is blessed with a large land area and relatively pristine nature, offering rich habitats for a variety of wild animals, including Yezo shika deer, Hokkaido red squirrels, and brown bears. The Tohoku Region boasts of large-scale rice cultivation, producing almost a quarter of the rice harvest in Japan. Fruit growing also thrives in Tohoku, and Aomori Prefecture is known as the country’s No.1 apple producer.

Apples of Aomori and Shinjuku, Tokyo (青森のリンゴと東京の風景)
Left: Apples waiting for harvesting in Owani Town, Aomori, Tohoku Region. Right: A busy street of East Shinjuku in Tokyo, Kanto Region.

With Tokyo as its hub, the Kanto Region plays a central role in Japan in various fields, including politics, economy, culture, and transportation. And about one-third of the country’s population lives in this region. The Chubu Region has three very tall mountain ranges in its central part; they are collectively called the “Roofs of Japan,” with some of the peaks exceeding 3,000m. Chubu also includes Mt. Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan, on its southeast edge and Nagoya, the region’s biggest city, on its southwest edge.

Mt. Fuji and Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto (富士山と清水寺)
Left: Mt. Fuji in December, with Suruga Bay in the foreground, Chubu Region. Right: Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto, Kinki Region.

Roughly speaking, the Kinki Region has two faces, old and new. Kyoto and Nara are the prefectures that have long, ancient histories, while Osaka has many modern high-rise buildings and large-scale amusement facilities like Universal Studios Japan. Besides the historical structures in Kyoto and Nara, Kinki has many tourists spots, including Lake Biwa, Osaka Castle, and Himeji Castle, among others. The Chugoku-Shikoku Region mainly consists of its two parts: Chugoku, which is the western part of Honshu, and Shikoku, the smallest of the four large islands of Japan. Sandwiched between these two lands are the calm waters of the beautiful Seto Inland Sea.

Seto Inland Sea and Shikoku pilgrims (瀬戸内海とお遍路さん)
Left: The Seto Inland Sea in the Chugoku-Shikoku Region. Right: A party of pilgrims (ohenro-san) in Shikoku.

Thanks to the influence of two warm ocean currents, Kuroshio and Tsushima, Kyushu has a relatively warm climate, and its waters are good for fishing. A couple of very active volcanoes are located here, including Mt. Aso, Mt. Sakurajima, and Mt. Unzen. Okinawa Prefecture also belongs to the Kyushu Region, although this sub-tropical inland chain is considerably far from the main island of Kyushu.

Railway in Aso and a beach in Okinawa (阿蘇と沖縄)
Left: The track of the Minami-Aso Railway Line running through Aso area in Kumamoto, Kyushu Region. Right: Nishihama Beach on Akajima Island, Okinawa.

Top photo: “Party” by Tetsu Sawamura, courtesy of the photographer.
Map-1: IAPONIAE INSULAE DESCRIPTIO Ludovico Teisera auctere. . .cum Imperatorio, Regio et Brabantiae privelegio decennali. This is called the “first modern map of Japan,” and it set the standard for many Japan’s maps to come until the mid-17th century. It is surprising to find how accurately Japan is described here (for a map created in the 16th century). Well, of course, Hokkaido is missing here, but considering the fact that the northern island was not commonly regarded as a Japan’s official territory at that time, maybe it makes sense. In this map, the Korean Peninsula is illustrated like a long island between the Asian Continent (China) at the left edge and the Japanese archipelago.
Second photo: Felice Beato was an Italian-British photographer who was in Japan from 1863 to 1884. The location of this photograph is the present-day Mita district in Minato Ward, Tokyo. The building on the right side is a daimyo mansion owned by the Shimabara Domain in the Hizen Province, and the people with a Japanese sword in front of the building are real samurai, not a fake. Today, the buildings of Keio University stand on this site. The upper-right area surrounded by the wooden fences was the premises of the Iyo-Matsuyama Domain, and this is the place where ten out of the forty-seven Ako-roshi, including Oishi Chikara and Horibe Yasubee, committed seppuku in 1703. Now the Italian Embassy building stands on this site. The slope in the photograph still exists today, though the road has long been paved.
Map-2: ANTICO, C. (engraver) / LA COREA, LA MANCHURIA, L’IMPERO DEL’GIAPONNE e L’Isole Kurille. This map appeared in “The Commercial Atlas” published in Italy around 1860. The contours are illustrated in detail. Japan’s land area is bordered in yellow. But interestingly enough, Southern Sakhalin (above Hokkaido) is counted as Japan’s territory here, while the Kuril Islands (called the Chishima Islands in Japan) are not. These northern areas are controversial ones politically and historically. In particular, Japan has been continuing to ask Russia for the “return” of part of the Kuril Islands.
All the other photos: Property of Unfamiliar Japan Tours .com.

Ota Shrine in Kyoto