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Japan is one of the top destinations in the world, boasting cultural marvels such as UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kyoto and beyond, to world-class shopping in the Tokyo metropolis. If you really want to know the insider info on where to visit, take a look at our round-up of the best places to see, as recommended by locals.
When many people think of Hokkaido, they think of the Sapporo Snow Festival and the meters of deep powdery snow that falls on this northernmost prefecture of Japan every winter. But summertime can be a fantastic time to visit Hokkaido and escape the stifling humidity that pervades the rest of the country. The endless lavender fields of Furano make for a peaceful nature walk that will have you never wanting to go home.
About 30 minutes by train from the prefectural capital Sapporo is the town of Otaru, home to the Otaru Canal. A water route that was used to support shipping in decades past, the canal is no longer in use but has been preserved as an historic site. The charming waterway lined with brick warehouses is just one of several attractions in Otaru, which include a German-style brewery and a music box museum.
This former castle town in Akita may no longer have a castle, but Kakunodate does have one of the best-preserved samurai districts in all of Japan. Rent a traditional kimono for an unforgettable step into the past, particularly during the springtime when the town is awash in the pink petals of weeping cherry blossom trees.
While the city of Kanazawa offers many attractions, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is easily the most highly underrated among foreign travelers to Japan. The museum building alone is an architectural masterpiece, a round glass structure that invites visitors in from all sides to roam, play, and explore like a park. The museum houses a mixtures of free and paid exhibits, including Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich’s iconic installation ‘Swimming Pool’.
This quiet, secluded village at the foot of Mount Haku in Gifu prefecture is famous for its traditional cottages with pointed thatch roofs. The area experiences some of the heaviest snowfall in Japan, which creates an arrestingly beautiful scene in the wintertime when Shirakawa is blanketed in fresh snow.
Among locals, Kusatsu Onsen is one of the top three most famous hot spring resorts in Japan. This charming town in Gunma prefecture has streets lined with quaint shops and restaurants, traditional bathhouses, and ryokan inns. At the center of town is the yubatake, the hot spring field from which the town’s restorative waters gush forth.
Unplug from the modern world at this spiritual retreat atop Mount Koya in Wakayama prefecture. Koyasan is the home of Shingon Buddhism in Japan, and around fifty of the hundred or so temples on Mount Koya offer temple stays, known as ‘shokubo’, where guests can stay overnight, observe morning services and daily prayers, and practice Ajikan meditation and the hand-copying of Buddhist sutras. Many of the temples offer WiFi and Western-style toilets for those looking for a slightly less austere stay.
The remote island of Naoshima in the Seto Inland Sea is home to an incredible array of contemporary art. Just a few thousand people live on the island, but many more visitors per year come to see the collection housed on Naoshima, which includes works from both international and Japanese artists, as well as traditional buildings converted into art installations.
The oldest bath house in Japan, Dogo Onsen is located in Ehime prefecture on the island of Shikoku. Most Japanese people know it from the 1906 novel Botchan – required reading for primary school – which takes place in the town around Dogo Onsen. The historic bath house was also the inspiration for the public bath featured in the Studio Ghibli animated feature Spirited Away.
Fukuoka is home to some of the best street food in Japan, centered around the Nakasu waterfront district. Enjoy skewers of grilled chicken, steaming hot pot, and bowls of Hakata pork bone ramen while rubbing elbows with the friendly locals.
The Yakushima rainforest, located on a small island off the coast of Kagoshima, is a place of unspoilt natural beauty. With its moss-covered rocks, thousand-year-old cedar trees, and abundance of rivers, gorges, and waterfalls, Yakushima is a must for lovers of the outdoors. However, it is one of the wettest places in the world, so don’t forget your rainproof gear!
Ishigaki is where the locals go when they want a taste of paradise. You can expect to find white sand beaches, clear water for snorkeling, and a taste of ancient Ryukyu culture, rulers over the Okinawa archipelago for centuries before it became a part of Japan. However, be sure to book your tickets early, as flights to Ishigaki often sell out due to popular local demand.