If you're planning a trip to Japan, don't spend all your time in Tokyo and Kyoto -- jump on a Shinkansen bullet train and head for Hagi, an unblemished gem at the far western tip of Honshu, the main island. A medieval castle town famous for its working ceramic kilns, tiny canals teeming with colorful "koi" carp, and seventeenth-century wooden samurai houses, Hagi is Japan distilled. It was here that the Meiji Restoration, which liberated Japan from feudal rule, was born in the late 1860s. Many of the houses where high-ranking Meiji plotters secretly met are perfectly preserved and open to visitors -- remarkable since fires and earthquakes have destroyed so many of Japan's historic buildings. The train ride from Tokyo, on the super-punctual Shinkansen, is an experience in itself; with a Rail Pass, you can stop off anywhere en route. An overnight bus from Hagi back to Tokyo saves time and a night's hotel costs.
Where to Stay
Hokumon Yashiki is a luxury ryokan (traditional-style inn) once frequented by the ruling Mori clan (011-81-0838-22-7521; $200 a night).
Where to Eat
For great whitebait and whale (local specialties), try any of the small, local eateries around the Tamachi shopping arcade.
Where to Shop
About 130 old shops cluster along Tamachi arcade. Seek out the Saito-an shop, which sells ceramics by both master and unknown potters. (Hagi's rough, peach-colored tea-ceremony bowls are prized for the delicate changes they undergo as they absorb liquid.)
Take part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in the serene Hanano-e Teahouse in Shizuki Koen garden.
To reach Hagi, take the Kodama Shinkansen from Tokyo to Ogori (5 hours, 35 minutes), then a bus to Hagi.