The best off-the-beaten-path places in Japan

Experiencing the best of Japan beyond Tokyo

The best off-the-beaten-path places in Japan
By Ashley Owen

When people think of Japan, there are certain destinations that spring readily to mind. The futuristic skyline of Tokyo, the neon-lit streets of Osaka, the serene temples of Kyoto. These cities are fantastic places to visit – particularly on your first trip – but their rightful popularity can bring with it crowded attractions and high prices. Fortunately, Japan has far more to offer than just its major urban hubs. By stepping off the well-trodden tourist track and exploring the country’s more rural destinations, not only is it possible to escape the crowds but you also get the chance to experience a more authentic side of Japan.

Here are our recommendations for less-frequented areas to visit, where you can fully immerse yourself in Japan’s natural beauty and traditional culture.

Japan Okinawa Shuri Castle

Shuri Castle, Okinawa

1. Hokkaido's mountain peaks

Hokkaido is Japan’s northernmost island, a vast, untouched wilderness of mountains, lakes and forests teeming with wildlife. As both the largest and least-developed of the 47 prefectures, it’s one of the best places in the country to lose yourself in pristine scenery of epic proportions.

To reach Hokkaido, you can either fly or take the shinkansen (bullet train). Both domestic and international flights serve New Chitose Airport, just outside the city of Sapporo. It’s worth spending a day or two here before heading out to explore the rest of the prefecture. One of the largest cities in Japan, it’s most famous for its February snow festival and as the home of Sapporo beer.

One thing to consider when visiting Hokkaido is that – outside of big cities like Sapporo – public transportation is not so readily available. This remoteness is part of the reason why fewer tourists travel Hokkaido, but also why the experience can be so magical. To really make the most of the prefecture and see the more remote locations, hiring a car is strongly recommended.

Japan Hokkaido Beautiful flower field on the hill at Furano

Beautiful flower field in Furano

Off-the-beaten-path in Hokkaido

With your own transportation, the options for self-guided tours are endless. Trek over rugged mountain peaks in Daisetsuzan National Park, relax in steaming onsen (hot spring) baths while gazing out at bubbling volcanic pools in Noboribetsu or go camping under the stars in Shikotsu-Toya National Park.

One of the most beautiful spots in the prefecture is the Blue Pond in Biei. Its name comes from the otherworldly colour of the lake's water which, thanks to its mineral content and the white of the rocks at the bottom, glows a vivid cerulean. Combined with the stark branches of the dead silver birch trees emerging from it, it’s an unforgettable sight.

The climate in Hokkaido is colder than on Japan’s other islands, and the type of trip you have and activities you do very much depend on the time of year. The freezing winters bring vast amounts of snowfall, creating perfect conditions for world-class skiing and snowboarding at the many resorts across the island. There’s also a wealth of other snowy activities to enjoy, such as sledging, snow tubing, and drift ice tours.

The refreshing summers, meanwhile, provide welcome relief from the heat and humidity that grips the rest of the country. This time of year is ideal for hiking, canoeing, rafting, and admiring the carefully cultivated meadows of colourful flowers, like the lavender fields of Furano.

Japan Hokkaido Otaru

Otaru, Hokkaido

2. Snow and ice in rejuvenated Tohoku

The Tohoku region is made up of six prefectures clustered together at the northern tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu: Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi and Yamagata. United by their stunning natural scenery, top quality onsen resorts, and bitter winters, these prefectures are among the least-visited by international tourists despite their poetic beauty.

One of the reasons for this lack of popularity is that much of the area was impacted by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the ensuing nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Don’t let this put you off, however, as much reconstruction has successfully taken place since then and the region actively welcomes tourism as a means to help Tohoku thrive.

Access is possible by both plane and train. The journey from Tokyo to the main hub of Sendai in Miyagi takes about 90 minutes on the shinkansen, whilst a trip to the furthest north prefecture of Aomori will be around three hours. To minimise train costs, you might want to consider the Japan Rail East Pass for Tohoku, which gives tourists five days of unlimited travel on JR trains in the area. Having said that, renting a car is still the most convenient (and sometimes only) way to access the more rural parts of the region.

Tohoku Akita Iwate road snow

Snow on Iwate Road, Tohoku

What are onsen?

Onsen are natural hot spring baths with mineral-rich water, which are said to bring a wealth of health benefits to bathers. There are both indoor and outdoor varieties, with the vast majority being gender-segregated as bathers are nude. A key part of Japanese culture, an overnight stay at a traditional onsen ryokan inn is highly recommended.

Off-the-beaten-path in Tohoku

Just like Hokkaido, the time of year you visit makes a big difference here. In the summer, head to the sprawling Towada-Hachimantai National Park to hike craggy volcanic landscapes before soaking your tired muscles in rustic onsen resorts. Visit Miyagi’s Naruko Gorge for breathtaking views of the famous Ofukazawa Bridge – particularly in the autumn when the leaves change to blazing red and fiery orange – or take a day trip from Tokyo to Fukushima’s popular Oze National Park. And don’t miss Aomori city’s spectacular Nebuta festival in August. Huge, vivid floats depicting gods and samurai and illuminated from the inside are paraded through the streets, accompanied by energetic dancers and the infectious beat of taiko drums.

In winter snow and ice festivals abound, like the Iwate Snow Festival with its magnificent snow sculptures and fireworks, and the Yokote Kamakura Festival in Akita, where visitors can enter igloos made by local residents to enjoy sake and mochi rice cakes. This is also the time to ski and snowboard in a town like Zao Onsen in Yamagata. Zao is not only famous for hot springs and scenic slopes, but it’s also one of the only places in Japan where you can see ‘snow monsters’ – trees coated with thick layers of snow and ice, which take on curious monster-like shapes.

Japan Tohoku Naruko Gorge

Naruko Gorge, Tohuko

3. Japan's ancient capital of Nara

As Japan’s first capital, Nara is one of the most historically and culturally significant cities in the country. It’s home to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, although for many it’s the 1,200 adorable, semi-wild deer who roam Nara’s park and streets that are the biggest draw.

Nara is very easy to access. Located in the Kansai region, it’s less than an hour on the train from both Kyoto and Osaka cities. As such day trips here are common, but if you really want to get under Nara’s skin, an overnight trip or longer is highly recommended. Tourists numbers drop off spectacularly as evening approaches, and there’s nothing so peaceful as wandering the city’s serene temple grounds after dark.

Japan Nara Dee SBJ

Deer in the streets of Nara

Off-the-beaten-path in Nara

It may sound like Nara isn’t exactly a lesser-known destination, and to some extent that’s true. The big-name sights like Todaiji temple with its giant Buddha, Kofukuji temple and its towering pagoda, and the exquisite, lantern-lined Kasuga Taisha shrine, all attract plenty of visitors. However, if you stray just slightly from these locations, you’ll find a wealth of attractions that see only a fraction of these numbers.

For example, to the east of the city stands Mount Wakakusa, whose gentle grassy slopes offer a fantastic vantage point out over the city. If you’re here in January don’t miss the dramatic Wakakusa Yamayaki festival, which features an epic fireworks display before the entire mountainside is set ablaze. Back in the city centre, wander the narrow lanes of the old Naramachi merchant district to step back in time to ancient Nara, or find Zen at the Isuien and Yoshikien gardens with their impeccably-manicured landscapes.

Even Nara Park, one of the city’s most famous spots, is large enough that if you keep walking you’ll find an uncrowded spot where you can have the deer all to yourself. Simply purchase a pack of shika senbei (deer crackers) at one of the many stalls and watch your new best friends come running!

When you get peckish yourself, try a freshly-made local mochi rice cake from Nakatanidou, or sample local sake at Harushika brewery. For a real treat, track down the elusive Lamp Bar. This steampunk-style speakeasy is run by a world-class bartender, who creates phenomenal original cocktails to suit each individual customer.

Nara city is also an ideal base for exploring the rest of Nara prefecture. If you’re in Japan during sakura season, take a trip south to Yoshino. This mountain town is home to over 30,000 cherry trees and widely acknowledged as the country’s number one spot to see the blossoms.

Japan Nara Todaiji temple

Todaiji Temple, Nara

4. Volcanic Kagoshima

Tucked away at the southern tip of Kyushu (the most southern of Japan’s four main islands), Kagoshima is a friendly city with great weather and a lengthy history. It’s also home to one of the most active volcanos in the country, the mighty Sakurajima.

Kagoshima can be reached by bullet train in just under four hours from Osaka, or more quickly by plane. Flights from Tokyo take around an hour and a half, with the journey from Osaka taking just over an hour. You can see most of the city’s highlights in two or three days, but a longer stay will allow you to explore the wider prefecture too.

Japan Kagoshima volcanoes

Sakurajima volcano behind Kagoshima city

Off-the-beaten-path in Kagoshima

With the exception of Fukuoka in the north, Kyushu as a whole isn’t really on the tourist map yet, and Kagoshima prefecture is no exception. Rural and wild, it’s worlds away from Tokyo’s bustling streets – instead of skyscrapers, the rugged peak of Sakurajima looms constantly over Kagoshima city, erupting plumes of smoke several times a day and coating everything in fine ash.

You can take a boat out to Sakurajima for a closer look at this majestic volcano. Wander among the jagged black rocks of the Nagisa Lava Trail, or soak your feet in the free, heated outdoor foot baths. Back on the mainland, tour the elegant gardens, ponds and tea houses of Sengan-en, where you can also purchase some of the prefecture’s intricately-designed cut glass as a souvenir.

For a truly unique experience, head down to the quaint town of Ibusuki to try sand bathing. This traditional practise involves lying down on the beach and being buried up to your neck in the distinctive dark grey sand, which is naturally heated from below by volcanic water. It might sound strange, but it’s one of the most comfortable and relaxing sensations you’ll experience! The area’s volcanic nature also means there are plenty of regular onsen to be found, so take advantage of the many chances to unwind and rejuvenate during your stay.

If you have time, take an overnight trip to the remote and mysterious island of Yakushima. This primaeval forest world was the inspiration for Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, and when exploring it’s hard not to be transported to the film’s magical world. The ancient trees hide stunning hiking trails, which take you past cascading waterfalls and monkey-inhabited jungle to Jomon Sugi, said to be the oldest tree in Japan.

Japan Kagoshima sand bathing

Sandbathing in Kagoshima

5. A taste of the tropics in Okinawa

Okinawa is Japan as you’ve never imagined it. A subtropical island chain with its own distinctive culture, this is a laidback land of flawless beaches, sparkling azure ocean, and world-class scuba diving.

Okinawa was previously known as the Ryukyu Kingdom before becoming part of Japan, and much of its culture, festivals and crafts, as well as sightseeing spots like Shuri Castle, date back to this time. Almost everything about the prefecture – from the atmosphere and weather to the food and the music – is different from the mainland, which makes it a unique and interesting place to explore.

The best way to reach Okinawa is by air. Direct flights to the capital city of Naha take just under three hours from Tokyo and just over two from Osaka. To visit the smaller islands, you can either take a ferry or catch an onward flight. Depending on how much island-hopping you want to do, you could easily spend anything from a long weekend to a couple of weeks exploring the prefecture.

Japan Okinawa Manzamo Cape

Mazamo Cape, Okinawa

Off-the-beaten path in Okinawa

Okinawa has long been a favourite honeymoon destination for Japanese couples, and the main island also sees a reasonable number of tourists, particularly from other parts of Asia. It’s worth bearing in mind that there’s a noticeable US military presence on the main island, which results in the occasional noisy aircraft flying overhead. Once you leave the main island however, it’s a completely different story.

Each individual island in the prefecture has something unique to offer, and the best part is that – providing you avoid the major Japanese holidays – you may well find you have entire beaches to yourself during your visit. Some of the most beautiful coastlines can be found on Miyako Island, where the ocean is especially clear. The colour of the water here is absolutely stunning, a mix of all different shades of turquoise and aquamarine. Keep an eye out for jewellery made with gorgeous hotaru glass to bring a little bit of the colour back home with you. And if you’d rather explore beneath the ocean’s surface, head to Ishigaki where you can dive with huge, graceful manta rays, or the Kerama Islands to swim with sea turtles.

Japan Okinawa scubadiving2

Scuba diving in Okinawa

For a different island experience take a boat to Iriomote, which is almost entirely covered by mangroves and lush jungle, and is home to the elusive Iriomote wildcat. Meanwhile to learn more about Ryukyu culture, travel to Taketomi. Here you can walk around a traditional Ryukyu village of single-storey houses with distinctive red-tiled roofs and shisa lion statues standing guard. The island is also home to Kaiji Beach, famous for its delicate star-shaped ‘sand’, which is actually the skeletal remains of tiny sea creatures, said to bring good luck if you find some.

The best off-the-beaten-path places in Japan

By Ashley Owen

Ashley is a freelance travel writer from the UK who spent two years travelling around Japan, and writes about the country regularly for a variety of print and online publications. You can follow her on Instagram.

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