Lesser Known Places to Visit in Japan

Toroki Falls is part of the fairytale landscape of Yakushima, one of Japan's magical destinations yet to hit the mainstream
Toroki Falls is part of the fairytale landscape of Yakushima, one of Japan's magical destinations yet to hit the mainstream | © Horizon Images / Motion / Alamy
Photo of Gethin Morgan
Junior Picture Researcher16 April 2021

Japan really does have it all. Whether you’re looking for adventure or are in search of spirituality, whether you prefer untouched landscapes or futuristic cityscapes, this country has all the food, culture, history and nature you could hope for. So avoid the obvious destinations like Tokyo, Osaka and Mount Fuji, and consider these lesser known places in Japan.

Tottori

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Tottori Sand Dunes, Tottori Prefecture, Japan
© Philipp Zechner / Alamy
You’ll have to keep reminding yourself that you’re not in the Middle East when you’re on the back of a camel, crossing 30sqkm (11.6sqmi) of sand dunes on the western coast of Japan. That is, unless you’re visiting in winter, when the dunes are covered in snow – an even more surreal sight. Visit the Sand Museum, where you’ll find some of the world’s most intricate sand sculptures, or head inland for classically soothing Japanese forests, shrines and hot springs.

Lake Biwa

Natural Feature
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Long exposure shot of Shirahige shrine Torii gate at sunrise, Lake Biwa, Shiga Prefecture, Japan
© Cavan Images / Alamy
Japan’s largest freshwater lake is not spoken about nearly enough. Lake Biwa, near Kyoto, is a huge body of water that offers fantastic kayaking, paddle boarding, windsurfing and yachting experiences. On the lake’s western side is the Shirahige Shrine Torii Gate, which makes for a stunning holiday photo, while on the eastern side is the pretty city of Hikone, where you’ll find the Hikone Castle, one of Japan’s best preserved castles, and one of only five that’s listed as a national treasure.

Shirakawa-go

Architectural Landmark
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Gassho-zukuri Houses at Shirakawa-go, Gifu Japan_HHNT6H
© Horizon Images / Motion / Alamy
Transport yourself to the fairytale village of Shirakawa-go, Gifu Prefecture, a perfectly maintained traditional village that boasts Unesco World Heritage status. The gassho-zukuri houses here have thatched roofs and have stood for centuries despite being built without nails – wooden beams slot together so precisely that they continue to stand strong today. Shirakawa-go is a year-round destination; it’s up to you whether you’d rather see it covered in snow or surrounded by cherry blossoms. Whatever your choice, it’ll be a magical experience.

Fukuoka

Ruins
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Fukuoka, Japan - April 02 2019 : Colorful Flower Bed in Maizuru park, Fukuoka. There are beautiful cherry blossoms in springtime.
© sjpark / Alamy
This is a great alternative city trip in southwest Japan. Its proximity to South Korea has helped develop a unique culture, heavily influenced by mainland Asia. The ruins of Fukuoka Castle can be found in the picturesque Maizuru Park, while finding a view of the Fukuoka Tower is a must in the evening. As night falls, the 234m (768ft) seaside tower, decorated with 8,000 half-mirrors, dramatically lights up the city. If you’re looking for somewhere to stay, take a look at our selection of Fukuoka’s best hotels.

Matsuyama

Health Spa
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Matsuyama, Japan from Matsuyama Castle.
© Sean Pavone / Alamy
Take the stunning Shimanami Kaidō expressway across the Seto Inland Sea, hopping from island to island until you reach Shikoku – one of Japan’s smallest main islands – and eventually arrive in its largest city, Matsuyama. This is a really friendly city with excellent food – try local delicacies taimeshi and imbari yakibut tamago gohan – but its biggest draw is Dogo Onsen, one of Japan’s oldest hot spring resorts. Make a wellness pilgrimage here and be wowed by the wooden bathhouse said to have inspired Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001).

Kanazawa

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Tea House in Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa, Japan
© Anthony Shaw / Alamy Stock Photo
Kanazawa is one of the best places to delve into the history of Japan. The Nagamachi district, full of beautifully preserved brown townhouses, is steeped in samurai history. This is also one of Japan’s only active geisha cities, with a number of districts lined with geisha teahouses. By far the best attraction in Kanazawa, though, is the mesmeric Kenrokuen Gardens. You can spend hours here gazing at the popping colour of flowers and trees reflecting in the water, while charming touches of architecture blend seamlessly into Japan’s most breathtaking public garden – something we do not say lightly.

Miyazaki

Natural Feature
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Takachiho Gorge Manai Fall, Miyazaki Prefecture, Japan, autumn
© Image navi – QxQ images / Alamy
Miyazaki Prefecture might just be Japan’s number one adventure destination. There’s seemingly endless nature to explore – row down the ethereal Takachiho Gorge, climb Mount Takachihonomine and take a photo with the legendary spear planted at its peak, or surf along the dramatic coastline. This is a place steeped in mythology, and spending some time in Takachiho, or the cliffside Udo Shrine, will help you scrub up on your Japanese folklore. You’ll need refueling after all of that and, luckily, this is one of the best areas in Japan for beef and sake.

Yakushima

Natural Feature
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Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen, Yaksuhima Island, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan
© lachouettephoto / Alamy
All of Yakushima’s wonders are natural. This small mountainous island is a subtropical paradise that inspired Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997). It’s hardly surprising when you trek through vast forests of cedar trees – the oldest of which is said to be 7,000 years old – that look like they’ve been drawn specifically for a fairytale. The best thing to do here is simply explore. You’ll find spellbinding waterfalls, hot springs and beaches, while the whole island is richly populated by flora and fauna. We recommend taking a dip in Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen, on the south coast, which can only be accessed when the tide is low, offering a scenic spot to get your soak on.

Kurashiki

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Kurashiki river in Kurashiki, Okayama, Japan. _W9AP6J
© Sean Hsu / Alamy
Head to Okayama Prefecture and you’ll find a historic city on the coast that looks like Japan’s answer to Venice. Kurashiki is easily one of the country’s most picturesque places, with a canal system originally built to support the city’s important status in the rice trade. Gentle paths of water carve through the streets, lined with overhanging willow trees and crossed via pretty stone bridges. Former storehouses along the canals have been converted into cafés, boutiques and museums, while just a block away lies a trendy shopping street perfect for some laid-back bargain-hunting.

Wakayama

Historical Landmark
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Wakayama Castle in Japan
© YAY Media AS / Alamy
Wakayama, perhaps overshadowed by nearby Osaka, is one of Japan’s most underrated cities. It boasts an incredible food scene, with legendary Wakayama ramen, as well as some of the nation’s best beef, fruit and soy sauce – Japanese soy sauce was invented down the road in Yuasa. Meanwhile, its coastal position means the seafood scene is just as strong. Head down to Kuroshio Market to sample the catch of the day, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch the daily tuna-filleting demonstration. When your stomach says no more, you can find the striking Wakayama Castle, a selection of charming Japanese gardens and sandy beaches, or take a day trip out of the city to make the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route – an inspiring journey through some of the most spiritually moving shrines in Japan.
These recommendations were updated on April 16, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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