Traditional Japanese towns


Most urban areas and major cities in Japan are covered with modern skyscrapers, but well-preserved historic districts can still be found dotted across the country. If you’ve already ticked Kyoto’s fabled Gion District off your bucket list and are looking for more, here are 8 quaint traditional Japanese towns that are worth visiting. 


1. Higashi Chaya District – Kanazawa


Traditional Japanese towns - higashi chaya district
Image credit: @mimi_moment_

Besides Kyoto’s Gion, Kanazawa’s Higashi Chaya District is one of the few remaining traditional tea house districts in Japan. Spared from the damages of war and natural disasters, the beautiful chayas are well-preserved, retaining a nostalgic atmosphere of the Edo era.  

Traditional Japanese towns - higashi chaya district
Image credit: @kidocchi.photo

While the word “chaya” (茶屋) translates to “tea house”, it’s neither a place to drink tea nor a shop that sells tea. It refers to traditional districts where geishas entertain affluent guests with elegant performances. Currently, there are 5 tea houses in the Higashi Chaya District, 2 of which are open to the public.  

Traditional Japanese towns - higashi chaya district
Image credit: @y_7colors_

Traditional wooden buildings with lattice windows (kimusuko; 木虫籠), an architectural feature unique to the townhouses, line the district. The wooden lattice makes it difficult for visitors to peek in from the outside, giving the tea houses some privacy from the gaze of tourists. 

Traditional Japanese towns - gold leaf ice cream
Soft serve ice cream with gold leaf
Image credit: @naookamot0

While you’re there, we recommend giving the famous gold leaf soft serve (¥891, ~USD8.58) a try as the city has been known for its gold leaf production since the end of the 1500s. Shops selling handicrafts and lacquerware containing gold leaf are also aplenty. If you’re looking for a unique souvenir to commemorate your trip, hit up these shops. 

Traditional Japanese towns - higashi chaya district
Image credit:
@yukke.24

Opening hours: 24 Hours, Daily
Address: 1 Chome-13 Higashiyama, Kanazawa, 920-0831 Ishikawa


2. Old Town – Takayama


Traditional Japanese towns - old town takayama
Image credit: @yamadam12345

Located in the heart of Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture, Old Town is a former merchant town that was prosperous during the Edo period. Often dubbed the “little Kyoto of Hida”, the area is considered one of the best preserved merchant districts in the country. 

Traditional Japanese towns - old town takayama
Image credit: @andytanumihardja

Special care has been taken to ensure that the scenic townscape is maintained. This includes running electric cables underground, as opposed to suspending them above the streets. Thanks to its historic townscape, Old Town attracts many visitors.  

Most traditional buildings and warehouses in the district date back to as early as the late-Edo to Meiji period. Today, many of these old buildings have been transformed into shops, cafes, and even sake breweries. When the area is abuzz with tourists in the day, you can get a feel of the lively atmosphere that permeated Old Town in the olden days.  

Traditional Japanese towns - hida beef skewers
Grilled Hida beef
Image credit: @ceritayessica

One of the must-tries is the fabled Hida beef – high-quality Japanese beef from a specific type of cattle that’s raised in the region.  

Traditional Japanese towns - old town takayama
Image credit: @kyodanbe

Opening hours: 24 Hours, Daily
Address: 20 Kamisannomachi, Takayama, 506-0846 Gifu


3. Ōuchi-juku – Shimogō


Traditional Japanese towns - ouchijuku
Image credit: @koudai.___

Situated in the small town of Shimogō, Ōuchijuku is a former post town (shukuba; 宿場) that thrived during the Edo period. Due to its location along the Aizu-Nishi Kaidō route – an important historic road that connected Aziu Wakamatsu city to Nikko – travellers who passed by Ōuchijuku would make a pit stop there before continuing on their journey. 

Traditional Japanese towns - ouchijuku
Image credit: @sonichero0722

Even now, the town is lined with traditional houses boasting thatched roofs built over 400 years ago. The special roof is made with Japanese pampas grass, which allows houses to stay cool in the summer and warm during the colder months.  

Traditional Japanese towns - ouchijuku in winter
Image credit: @richann14

As the roofs are vulnerable to fire, water is sprayed on the houses on 1st September each year. Villagers also work together to reroof roofs periodically, as consistent upkeep is required to preserve the traditional roofing.

Traditional Japanese towns - negi soba
Negi soba
Image credit: @toshi_d_photos

Aside from admiring the rows of thatched houses, you should also visit the local restaurants for a taste of the area’s local speciality – negi soba. Unlike the usual soba dish, where your bowl of noodles is served with a topping of freshly sliced green onions, negi soba comes with a whole Japanese long onion that doubles as chopsticks. 

Traditional Japanese towns - ouchijuku in winter
Image credit: @richann14

Opening hours: 24 Hours, Daily
Address: Ouchi, Shimogo, Minamiaizu District, 969-5207 Fukushima


4. Nakamachi – Matsumoto


Traditional Japanese towns - nakamachi
Image credit: @saana_photo

Nakamachi is a former merchant district, lined with characteristic black-and-white stone wall buildings with criss-cross patterns, in Matsumoto City.  

Traditional Japanese towns - nakamachi
Image credit: @tktmo

The distinctive design of these buildings was motivated by pragmatic reasons. During the Edo period, frequent and big fires resulted in the loss of many facilities and townhouses. 

In a bid to make the buildings more fire resistant, merchants built houses with namako walls (なまこ壁; namako kabe). The white criss-cross patterns on black slab walls are meant to make the building fireproof and resilient against natural disasters. 

Traditional Japanese towns - nakamachi
Image adapted from: @tsutsuuraura_jpn

Today, Nakamachi is still lined with many storehouses with said designs, making for a unique townscape that is different from what you’d expect to find at a traditional Japanese town.

The area has been transformed into a quaint shopping district, with handicraft shops, cafes, and restaurants occupying the storehouses. It is a great place to spend a leisurely afternoon after you’re done sightseeing at the nearby Matsumoto Castle and Matsumoto City Art Museum.  

Traditional Japanese towns - nakamachi
Image credit: Xiu Ting Wong 

Opening hours: 24 Hours, Daily
Address: 3 Chome-2-14 Central, Matsumoto, 390-0811 Nagano


5. Ine – Kyoto


Traditional Japanese towns - ine
Image credit: @thewanderingcam

To escape from the hordes of tourists in Kyoto city, hop on a train and head northwards, towards Ine. Dubbed the “Venice of Japan”, the quiet fishing village is located just 3 hours away from Kyoto. 

Traditional Japanese towns - ine
Image credit: @nkt0703

Boathouses (舟屋; funaya) – traditional houses unique to the area – are lined in rows and built on the waters of Ine Bay, giving the illusion of “floating” structures. 

Typically, the houses have 2 storeys. The 1st floor is used to accommodate fishing boats and gears, while the 2nd functions as living quarters for fishermen. The houses are believed to have existed since the Edo period and over 200 funayas remain in the fishing village presently. 

Traditional Japanese towns - ine
Image credit: @_ti.ro.l_

The fishing village was designated as part of the Groups of Traditional Buildings in 2005, and it mandates the preservation and protection of the traditional boathouses. 

Traditional Japanese towns - ine
Image credit:
@____y.eon

If you’d like to spend the night in Ine, you can stay in a funaya that has been converted into a guesthouse. There, you can wake up to stunning views of the sea. 

Traditional Japanese towns - ine
Image credit:
@erikaaaaa058

Opening hours: 24 Hours, Daily
Address: 77 Hirata, Ine, Yoza District, 626-0423 Kyoto


6. Tsumago-juku – Nagiso


Traditional Japanese towns - tsumago juku
Image credit: @hmasatoh

Tsumago-juku, a post town located at the south-western tip of Kiso Valley, is a long and narrow traditional town that is about 6km long. It is 1 of the 69 post towns on the Nakasendō, an important ancient route that connected Tokyo to Kyoto during the Edo period.  

Traditional Japanese towns - tsumago juku
Image credit: @alucky_yuya72

In its heyday, Tsumago-juku was a thriving town that served as a convenient rest stop for travellers. However, by the Meiji era, the town lost its function as a post station. Newer and better railways and routes were constructed, bypassing the town and rendering it obsolete.  

Traditional Japanese towns - tsumago juku
Image credit: @yukkamemagic

But in the 1960s, preservation efforts were reviewed and a series of conservation work began in the town. Most of the traditional buildings in the town today have been restored to its former glory, retaining the old atmosphere of the Edo period.

Traditional Japanese towns - tsumago juku in winter
Image credit: @takayoshi_ao

In order to protect the historical townscape, no cars are allowed on the main street. The people of Tsumago-juku even created the 3 principles of “no selling, no renting, and no destroying” in an effort to protect the town for generations to come.

Traditional Japanese towns - tsumago juku
Image credit: @greenwood_tree 

Opening hours: 8.30AM-5PM, Daily
Address: 2159-2 Nagiso, Kiso District, 399-5302 Nagano


7. Kitsuki – Oita


Traditional Japanese towns - kitsuki
Image credit: @tourismoita

Kitsuki is an ancient castle town (jōkamachi; 城下町) located in Oita Prefecture. Castle towns refer to towns that sprung up and border castles throughout Japan. Feudal lords would reside in the castle, while his samurai warriors live in said towns surrounding the castle.

Traditional Japanese towns - kitsuki
Image credit: @snowmandemo

Kitsuki is best known for its unique “sandwich” layout – 2 samurai districts are set atop elevated hills, with a merchant district interposed in the middle. Visitors can get a sense of the everyday life of samurais and tradesmens during the Edo period.  

Though there are multiple slopes connecting the samurai and merchant districts, Suyanosaka (酢屋の坂) is the most popular. Literally translated to “the slope of the vinegar shop”, the name is derived from the fact that vinegar shops used to line the hill. 

Traditional Japanese towns - kitsuki castle
Image credit: @cocoa_brunch

End your sightseeing at Kitsuki Castle, which is said to be the smallest castle in Japan. Despite its humble size, the castle boasts a superb view that overlooks the castle town and the sea.  

Traditional Japanese towns - kitsuki
Image credit: @snowmandemo

Opening hours: 24 Hours, Daily
Address: Kitsuki, 873-0001 Oita


8. Oharai-machi – Ise


Traditional Japanese towns - oharai machi
Image credit: @akemini122

Spanning over 800m long, the beautiful cobbled street of Oharai-machi leads up to the sacred inner shrine of Ise Jingu. Visitors will find Oharai-machi abuzz with activity as the area is lined with an array of souvenir shops, restaurants, and cafes. 

Traditional Japanese towns - oharai machi
Image credit: @meyoutravels

During the Edo period, pilgrimages to the shrine were in vogue and many would travel there for purification purposes. Over time, the street leading up to the shrine became immensely popular. Shops selling souvenirs and woodblock prints were set up to cater to travellers who came from all over the nation.

Traditional Japanese towns - oharai machi
Image credit: @ko_3.rms

Though the pilgrimage town has managed to retain an old atmosphere with its traditional buildings and storefronts, only a selected few are true-blue historic buildings from the past. 

Opened in 1993, Okage Yokocho – a small section in the middle of the pilgrimage road – is actually a reproduction of the busy temple town from the past.

Traditional Japanese towns - akafuku mochi
Image credit: @k.irie.1101

When you’re there, be sure to give regional specialities such as akafuku mochi, a chewy mochi wrapped with a layer of sweet bean paste, and Ise udon a try.  

Traditional Japanese towns - isuzu river
Isuzu river, which flows through the Ise Grand Shrine.
Image credit: @sinccchanon

Opening hours: 9.30AM-5PM, Daily
Address: 52 Ujinakanokiricho, Ise, 516-8558 Mie


Picturesque traditional Japanese towns


From quaint fishing villages to well-preserved merchant towns, each of these traditional Japanese towns have their own quirks and charms. Consider exploring these historic districts the next time you’re in Japan. 

For more places to visit in Japan, check these out:


Cover image adapted from: @thewanderingcam

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