Everyone goes to Tokyo and Kyoto during their time in Japan--and with good reason! These world-famous cities offer amazing history, plentiful shopping, and enough activities to fill up your entire trip itinerary.
But Japan has so much more to offer than just these fun---but very touristy--locations. If you have some extra time and a sense of adventure, consider checking out some of Japan’s internationally lesser-known destinations that offer just as much excitement with fewer crowds!
Don’t forget to bring your camera! These destinations offer some breath-taking (but still very accessible) scenery. Your Instagram followers will thank you!
Ready to go? Hajimemashou! Let’s get started!
Located just over an hour outside of Tokyo, this scenic island is a popular spot for locals to escape the excitement of the metropolis for a day. The island is connected to the mainland by a long pedestrian bridge and is easily accessible on foot.
Enoshima is a historic island offering shrines, temples, and even a beautiful view of Mt.Fuji over the ocean on clear days. Go into the Iwaya Caves and explore the pathways carved deep inside the island to find the local dragon god enshrined there. Clap your hands to make a wish- and see if he answers!
After a fun day of exploring and hitting the nearby beaches, try some of the local specialty- shirasu fish. Then kick back and relax in the luxurious Enoshima Island Spa where you can bathe in the outdoor hot spring pools and see a magnificent view of the sunset over the ocean.
This trip is a great add-on if you are already planning to visit the nearby Kamakura---famous for the giant Kamakura Buddha. The beaches along the coast are also worth exploring and are one of the best locations for surfing near Tokyo. Enjoy a nice walk along the coast to find amazing seashells and some very fresh seafood.
The small city of Uji can be found between Kyoto and Nara in Kyoto Prefecture. Home to rolling green hills, Uji is a center of tea production and shipment. You can experience the process behind the making of Japanese tea by going on a tour of one of the many nearby tea plantations.
No trip to Uji is complete without partaking in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. You can experience the complex elegance of a full tea ceremony or a condensed (and less expensive) version of the ceremony at one of Uji’s many tea houses located in and around the town.
Adventurous foodies can enjoy tea flavored ice cream, cakes, candies, and more made from the local tea harvest.
The beautiful scenery of Uji has fascinated Japanese artists for centuries and has been captured in traditional ukiyo-e woodblock prints and most famously, Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji.
For art and culture enthusiasts, Uji offers several museums including the Tale of Genji Museum. There is also a collection of shrines and temples located on both sides of the beautiful Uji River that runs through the city. The most spectacular of the temples is the World Heritage Site Byoudou-in and its stunning Phoenix Hall.
If you are coming from Kyoto, Uji is an excellent stop on your way down to Nara. Spend a few hours learning about fine Japanese teas and appreciating the scenery in Uji before continuing south to visit Todai-ji temple and play with wild deer in Nara.
Located in the mountains south of Osaka in Wakayama Prefecture, Mount Koya (called Koyasan) offers a unique spiritual experience. Ride the scenic cable car deep into the mountains to arrive at an elegant village comprised mostly of Buddhist temples.
In addition to the numerous temples, Koyasan also offers shrines, museums, restaurants, and shops to entertain guests. However, the true highlight of any visit to Koyasan is Okunoin- a temple and vast Buddhist cemetery. Follow the trail through ancient trees and stone lanterns to the inner sanctum. No photography is allowed inside, so to see the magnificence of the hall of ten thousand lanterns you will have to experience it for yourself!
The food served at the local inns and temples is beautifully prepared and features seasonal, local ingredients. Because the village has such a strong Buddhist influence the majority of the dishes served here are vegetarian. Delight in creative displays of tofu, mountain vegetables, and other seasonal specialties.
For the best experience and a true immersion in the local culture consider staying at one of the temples. A temple stay is a great way to experience Buddhist culture first hand- the most ambitious guests can wake up before sunrise and join the monks for a relaxing morning meditation.
A ‘Koyasan-World Heritage Ticket’ purchased from Namba Station in Osaka grants the holder a round-trip journey from Namba to Koyasan Station, discounts to temples and shops in the village, and unlimited 2-day bus travel in Koyasan. Using this pass makes the otherwise remote village easy to get to and explore!
Just a quick trip outside of Okayama City, this historic village offers traditional architecture mixed with creative buildings. The canals weaving through the streets have given Kurashiki its nickname- the “Venice of Japan”. While strolling along the cobblestone roads you can find old storehouses that have been artistically transformed into museums, restaurants, cafes, and shops.
Visit some of the intriguing sights such as Ivy Square or the Ohara Western Art Museum and then relax on a leisurely boat ride through the town. Cherry blossom trees line the streets, so if you time your trip right you can enjoy a magical springtime ride through a river of pink sakura petals.
A trip to Kurashiki is easily paired with a day spent exploring the nearby city of Okayama. It is also a good place to stop, rest, and do some exploring if you are taking the shinkansen (bullet train) south to Hiroshima.
While the famous floating torii gate appears in just about every guide book about Japan, most visitors don’t make the trip out to see it for themselves. Located outside of Hiroshima, the island of Itsukushima (also known as Miyajima) is often forgotten, but the island has an assortment of attractions that make it well worth the short ferry ride there!
Of course, the main attraction on the island is Itsukushima Shrine, a Shinto shrine with a massive torii gate built in the sea. At high tide, both the gate and the main shrine appear to be floating above the water. When the tide recedes, visitors can walk out and take pictures beneath the elegant structure and collect various seashells along the shore.
The island hosts other temples and shrines in addition to a lovely park and hiking trails up the sacred Mount Misen. Due to the number of ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) located on Itsukshima, many guests spend their evening wandering the streets in yukata robes and geta sandals to browse shops selling traditional crafts and enjoy fresh seafood on the beach.
The wild deer of Miyajima are similar to their cousins in Nara--they wander the streets and sometimes even invite themselves into shops! You can purchase some special deer senbei crackers and make friends with the fuzzy locals.
Itsukushima is easily accessible from Hiroshima and the entire trip from the city to the island shore can be done in under an hour.
Ready to go?
Excited to explore off the beaten path? Awesome! Just keep in mind that while large cities like Tokyo or Kyoto are well equipped to accommodate foreign guests and non-speakers of Japanese, the above recommendations are less common destinations for international visitors.
While these locations are very popular with Japanese tourists, they are not as familiar with foreign guests and require a bit more advance preparation to enjoy. Be prepared to order local specialties in Japanese and practice your conversational skills with innkeepers and bus drivers.
So before you pack your bags, be sure to brush up on your conversation skills! Be sure to review ‘Asking Questions’, ‘Talking About the Future’, and ‘Talking about the Weather’ in Japanese.
Going to lesser-known areas is a fantastic way to see a side of Japan that is different than what most visitors experience in the big cities. You will get to delight in tasty regional specialties, enjoy some breath-taking scenery, and hopefully practice the Japanese skills that you have worked so hard to learn. So don’t be afraid to be a little adventurous!
行ってらっしゃい！Itterasshai! Safe travels!