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If you’re planning to visit the land of the rising sun then there is much to explore off the beaten path in Japan.
For many first time visitors, Japan’s major cities, such as Tokyo and Kyoto, are often the first places that people want to see.
However, if you’re making a return trip to Japan, or if you want to avoid the crowds, you might be looking for new ideas and different parts of the country to explore.
That’s where our guide to off the beaten path Japan comes in.
Starting in Hokkaido, our guide to off the beaten path Japan runs from north to south, ending in the southern region of Kyushu.
Our guide to some of the lesser travelled areas of Japan takes a detour off the tourist trail based on our own travels far and wide to towns, cities and regions right across the country.
We explain how to get to each destination by train from the nearest major city, such as Tokyo or Kyoto.
Where applicable we’ve also included if you can fly to the destination. Japan has numerous airports and internal flights can be pretty cheap
At the end of the article we go into much greater detail about how to travel across Japan (you can skip ahead to that part here). We also look at whether you need a Japan Rail Pass or not, or if a regional rail pass might be a better option.
But for now, let’s explore some of the best destinations off the beaten path in Japan.
Sat on the north eastern coast of Hokkaido is the small city of Abashiri. By far Abashiri’s main attraction are the huge drifting ice floes that gather in the nearby Sea of Okhotsk each year in the height of winter.
Formed by the freezing Siberian winds that blow across the sea, the ice floes drift all the way from the coast of eastern Russia.
From January to March each year, you can take a cruise on one of the ice-breaking ships that sail through the incredible seascape formed by this huge patchwork of compacted ice.
Back on dry land, Abashiri also home to a number of interesting local museums. The Abashiri Prison Museum features a number of the historic former prison buildings that were once located throughout Hokkaido.
You can learn more about the drift ice that forms off the coast of Abashiri at the nearby Okhotsk Ryuhyo Museum, while the Hokkaido Museum of Northern People features an excellent display of artefacts and information about the various indigenous peoples who live in some of the world’s most remote northerly communities.
How to Get to Abashiri:
• By air: The easiest way to get to Abashiri is by plane. The nearest airport to Abashiri is Memanbetsu Airport which is around 40 minutes away by bus.
• There are daily flights to Memanbetsu Airport from Tokyo and Sapporo.
• By train: It’s around a 6 hour train journey from Sapporo Station to Abashiri JR Station. This route is covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
Right on the southern tip of Hokkaido, Hakodate is one of the most unique cities in Japan.
The city’s Motomachi area is lined with beautiful historic buildings that were built by the Western merchants and traders who settled here after Japan opened to international trade in 1854.
Among them are the spectacular Old Public Hall of Hakodate Ward and the elegant Former Hakodate Branch Office of Hokkaido Government.
Nearby are a cluster of historic churches, including the Russian Orthodox Church, the Protestant St John’s Church and the Catholic Church of Hakodate.
On the opposite side of the city, Goryokaku, a star-shaped former military fort, is now a beautiful public park and a beautiful spot for cherry blossom viewing in the spring.
You’ll find some of the very best seafood in Japan at Hakodate Morning Market, while the Kanamori red brick warehouses in Hakodate harbour are now home to countless shops, food stalls, restaurants and even a rambunctious beer hall.
Plus there are incredible views across the city from the observatory at the peak of Mount Hakodate, reached via the Hakodate Ropeway, especially when the city is lit up at night.
→ Read More: The Perfect Hakodate Itinerary
How to Get to Hakodate:
• By train: Take the Shinkansen to Shin-Hakodate Hokuto Station, then a local train to Hakodate Station – this journey is covered by the Japan Rail Pass
• By air: There are direct flights to Hakodate Airport from Tokyo Haneda, Nagoya or Osaka airports.
›› Search for flights to Hakodate here.
Located at the very top of Japan’s main island of Honshu, Aomori is perhaps most famous for the Nebuta Matsuri festival that takes place every year across the first week of August.
The highlight of Aomori’s Nebuta Matsuri festival are the stunning illuminated floats that are paraded through the city’s streets during the festival, accompanied by teams of taiko drummers and musicians.
If you can’t make it to Aomori in the first week of August then you can see a large collection of floats used in previous festivals at the Nebuta Museum WA RASSE. The museum also charts the history of the festival, as well as revealing how the floats are made.
Another of the city’s other main attractions is the Aomori Museum of Art, a vast building that showcases a wide range of modern art by contemporary artists, most famous for Yoshitomo Nara’s eight and a half metre tall Aomori Dog.
Nearby is the Sannai Maruyama Special Historical Site, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sannai Maruyama is an archeological site that features nearly 2000 artefacts that were discovered here in the 1990s, some of which are nearly 6,000 years old.
How to Get To Aomori:
• By train: Take the Shinkansen to Shin-Aomori Station, then a local train to Aomori Station – journey is covered by the Japan Rail Pass
• By air: There are also direct flights to Aomori Airport from Tokyo Haneda, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe and Sapporo airports
›› Find the best deals on flights to Aomori here.
Hirosaki is a historic city that’s around 40 minutes by train from Aomori. The city’s main draw is Hirosaki Castle.
First built in 1611, the surviving castle is considered to be one of Japan’s 12 original castles (most of the castles in Japan are replicas of long-destroyed castles that didn’t survive the end of the Edo era).
Opposite the castle is Tsugaru-han Neputa Village. Here there are many of the beautifully decorated floats, kites and drums that are used in local festivals on display. The centre also has a beautiful traditional Japanese garden too.
Hirosaki also has a number of well maintained former samurai houses in the streets surrounding Hirosaki Castle. Open to the public and free to enter, the houses are a fascinating insight into how Hirosaki’s high-ranking samurai would have lived during the rule of the Tsugara clan.
How to Get to Hirosaki:
• By train: Take the JR Ou Line to Hirosaki Station from either Aomori or Akita stations – this journey is covered by the Japan Rail Pass
Kakunodate is another town rich in samurai history. Kakunodate’s former samurai district features some of the best preserved examples of Edo period houses still standing in Japan today. Several streets of beautifully preserved historic houses lie at the heart of the town, most of which are open to the public.
Among the many historic houses that can be visited, the Aoyagi Samurai House is one of the largest in Kakunodate and features an extensive collection of samurai memorabilia. An impressive array of battle armour and weaponry is also displayed throughout the home’s various buildings.
Kakunodate is also a great place to eat. Be sure to try oyakodon with an extra helping of Inaniwa udon noodles, two local specialities, at Sakura no Sato on Bukeyashiki Street.
Pick up some local pickles and soy sauce at Ando Soy Sauce and Miso Brewery, located inside a grand old shop that is worth calling into just to admire the stunning interiors.
Beside samurai, Kakunodate is also another town famous for its cherry blossom trees. The picturesque samurai district’s streets are filled with weeping beautiful cherry blossom trees, while hundreds of cherry blossom trees also stretch along the town’s Hinokinai River.
How to Get to Kakunodate:
• By train: Take the Shinkansen to Kakunodate Station on the Akita Shinkansen line – this journey is covered by the Japan Rail Pass
Matsushima is a beautiful town overlooking Miyagi’s coast about half an hour from the city of Sendai. The historic town is famous for its bay and the collection of pine tree covered islands that connect to the mainland by picturesque red bridges.
Two of the islands, Fukuurajima and Oshima, feature gentle walking paths and offer wonderful views of Matsushima bay.
In the town, Godaido Temple is connected to the main town by a series of short bridges, while there are more beautiful views of the sea from the historic Kanrantei tea house just next door, which is famous for its spectacularly decorated sliding doors.
There are several boat tours of Matsushima Bay every day, which offer a closer look at many of the islands dotted around the coastline.
There are also several temples in Matsushima that are also well worth exploring. Entsuin Temple is set amongst beautifully manicured gardens, while just next door Zuiganji Temple features room after room of beautifully decorated sliding doors with a range of natural motifs.
If you get peckish, Matsushima is also a great place to try one of Miyagi prefecture’s local delicacies, grilled beef tongue.
How to Get to Matsushima:
• By train: Take the JR Senseki Line to Matsushimakaigan Station from Sendai Station – covered by the Japan Rail Pass
The city of Yamagata is perhaps most famous as the gateway to Yamadera Temple, one of the most impressive temple complexes in Japan. Just 20 minutes by train from Yamagata Station, Yamadera is a sprawling collection of temples spread across a mountain – Yamadera literally means “mountain temple” in Japanese.
Over 1,000 steps lead to the temple buildings at the top of Yamadera, which has attracted pilgrims for centuries. The steps lead through glorious forests, passing by countless stone statues of deities. The hike is particularly special in autumn, when the forest’s trees turn a kaleidoscopic range of yellows, oranges and reds.
Though Yamadera is the main attraction there’s plenty to enjoy in the lively city of Yamagata too.
In the centre of the city there are several beautiful Western-style public buildings that date from the early 20th century. Bunshokan, the grand former prefectural office built in an English neo-Renaissance style in 1916, is now a museum and open to the public free of charge.
The grounds of what was once Yamagata Castle is now the grounds of Kajo Park. Some of the castle’s walls and its former moat skirt the edge of the park.
Inside Kajo Park is the pale pink Old Saiseikan Hospital Building, a fascinating early Japanese hospital with a unique circular design. The nearby Yamagata Museum of Art has an excellent collection of artworks by big-hitters such as Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir and Degas amongst others.
How to Get to Yamagata:
• By train: Take the Yamagata Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Yamagata Station – journey covered by the Japan Rail Pass
• By air: There are direct flights to Yamagata Airport from Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Sapporo
›› Find the best prices on flights to Yamagata here
The city of Aizuwakamatsu has plenty to explore for those looking to go off the beaten path in Japan.
At the centre of Aizuwakamatsu is Tsurugajo, the city’s castle, a replica of the original castle that was rebuilt in 1965.
Inside Tsurugajo is a museum about the history of the castle, and there are fantastic views of the city and Mount Bandai from the top of the tower.
Oyakuen, a small Japanese garden near the castle, is a beautiful spot to relax with a cup of matcha tea whilst admiring the gorgeous view.
Aizuwakamatsu’s main street, Nanoka-machi Street, is lined with a beautiful range of historic Edo-period and Showa-era buildings. Sake lovers should stop in at either Suehiro Sake Brewery or Miyaizumi Sake Brewery where you can taste and buy some of the award-winning local nihonshu.
On the edge of the city is Sazae Temple, one of the most unique temples in Japan. Sazae Temple was built in 1796 and features a double helix staircase.
The only wooden double-helix in the world, Sazaedo is a fascinating structure. The ingenious layout of the temple means that those ascending to the top of the tower don’t pass those who are coming down.
How to Get to Aizuwakamatsu:
• By train: Take the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Koriyama Station, then a local train on the JR Ban-Etsusai line to Aizuwakamatsu Station – this journey covered by the Japan Rail Pass
The historic town of Ouchijuku is a popular day trip from Aizuwakamatsu. Ouchijuku was one of many post towns found along highways that connected Tokyo to other parts of Japan. Post towns emerged along those routes as somewhere travellers could get something to eat and a place to stay overnight.
Ouchijuku is a faithfully preserved example of an Edo-era post town. All signs of modernity have been hidden, with electricity cables and air conditioning units kept out of sight.
Historic thatched-roof buildings line both sides of the town’s main street, which are home to numerous shops and restaurants, while the town’s former inn is now the Ouchijuku Town Museum.
From the top end of the town is the famous view of Ouchijuku’s main street, where the thatched roofed houses can be seen lined up in a row.
Don’t miss the local delicacy of negi soba, which can be enjoyed at a number of the town’s restaurants. Negi soba is made of delicious locally-made buckwheat soba noodles served in a broth and eaten using a large leek instead of chopsticks.
How to Get to Ouchijuku:
• The easiest way to visit Ouchijuku is on a day trip from Aizuwakamatsu, first by train via the Aizu Line from Aizuwakamatsu Station to Yunokamionsen Station, followed by a bus to Ouchijuku.
• This journey is not covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
Despite only being a couple of hours from Tokyo by Shinkansen, Niigata is often overlooked as a destination as many people prefer to head south from Tokyo towards Kyoto.
Looking out on the Sea of Japan, there’s plenty to see in Niigata to fill a couple of days, mostly centred around the Shinano River.
Inside the towering Bandajima Skyscraper is Niigata Bandaijima Art Museum, which hosts a number of exhibitions by contemporary artists throughout the year. As well as the art, don’t miss the spectacular views from the observation deck on the tower’s 55th floor.
On the opposite side of the Shinano River is a collection of historic old port buildings, one of which is now the Niigata City History Museum.
Niigata is famous for the high quality of its rice and good rice makes incredible sake. The whole region is known for producing some of the best sakes in Japan, many of which you can try at Ponshukan inside Niigata Station.
Here over 100 different types of locally produced sake can be sampled from the dispensing machines located inside the Ponshukan store. For ¥500 you get five tokens and a small cup to refill with a serving of the sakes of your choice.
How to Get to Niigata:
• By train: From Tokyo via the Joetsu Shinkansen to Niigata Station – covered by the Japan Rail Pass
• By plane: direct flights to Niigata Airport from Tokyo Narita Airport, Osaka, Nagoya, Sapporo, Kobe, Fukuoka and Okinawa.
›› Find the best price on flights to Niigata Airport here
Tucked away from the Sea of Japan by Wakasa Bay, Tsuruga blends natural scenery with plenty of local history.
Facing Wakasa Bay in the west of Tsuruga is Kehi no Matsubara, a gorgeous area of pine trees with a long sandy beach that has been declared a Nationally-Designated Site of Scenic Beauty.
In the centre of Tsuruga is Kehi Jingu Shrine, famous for its 11 metre-high wooden torii gate, one of the largest in Japan.
Some of Tsuruga port’s former industrial buildings have been repurposed and given a new lease of life. Two former red brick warehouses now house a variety of shops and restaurants, as well as a huge diorama of the city of Tsuruga as it would have looked in the early 20th century.
As Japan’s vice-consul to Lithuania in 1940, Sugihara defied orders and issued thousands of Japanese visas to Jews looking to escape eastern Europe. Many of the Jews fleeing persecution with the help of Sugihara’s visas landed in Tsuruga when reaching Japan.
How to Get to Tsuruga:
• By train: The limited express Thunderbird train takes less than an hour to get to Tsuruga Station from Kyoto Station and is covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
Once the seat of one of the most powerful samurai clans in Japan, Kanazawa is rich in culture and history. The prominence that came from being a wealthy samurai town can still be seen throughout Kanazawa today.
At the centre of the town is the reconstructed Kanazawa Castle. The castle’s grounds are filled with plum blossoms which burst into colour in the spring. Opposite the castle is Kenrokuen, considered to be the finest and most beautiful Japanese garden in the country.
For a colourful dose of modernity, head to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art for a diverse and often interactive hit of modern art. Meanwhile, don’t miss Kanazawa’s Omicho market for some of the finest and freshest seafood in town.
How to Get to Kanazawa:
• By train: There are direct trains on the Hokuriku Shinkansen service from Tokyo Station to Kanazawa Station. The journey takes just under two hours and is covered by the Japan Rail Pass
Much like Kanazawa, Matsumoto is another historic former samurai town.
The city is dominated by the towering black Matsumoto Castle, which is another of Japan’s 12 original castles. Alongside Himeji Castle, Matsumoto Castle is probably the finest example of all of Japan’s surviving castles.
Nearby, the picturesque district of Nakamachi also retains an air of the Edo period. Nakamachi’s streets are lined with historic storehouses and buildings that today are home to numerous shops, cafes, and restaurants.
Just across the Metobe River, the narrow shopping street of Nawate-dori, meaning “Frog Street”, is the perfect place to pick up some local souvenirs.
Meanwhile the Matsumoto City Museum of Art celebrates the work of the city’s most famous descendent, Yayoi Kusama. Alongside exhibitions of other Japanese artists, there are several of Kusama’s most famous works, including the Yellow Pumpkins most commonly associated with Japan’s art island of Naoshima.
How to Get to Matsumoto:
• By train: Take the the JR Azusa Limited Express from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station to Matsumoto Station. This route is covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
If you really want to go off the beaten track in Japan then there are plenty of great places to go hiking throughout the country. One of the best places to hike is Kamikochi, a mountainous valley in the Japanese Alps in Nagano.
Located inside the Chubu-Sangaku National Park, Kamikochi features several hiking trails that follow the crystal clear Azusa River for several kilometres through spectacular woods and forests.
At the heart of Kamikochi is the Kappabashi Bridge, where you can find a handful of excellent hotels and ryokans that offer half-board stays. Kamikochi is perfect for those looking for a relaxing return to nature or for experienced hikers looking for a more strenuous challenge.
The trails that follow along both sides of the river are mostly flat and easy to navigate. Venture further, however, and there are much more difficult multi-day treks that reach as far as the peaks of the nearby Mount Hotaka and Mount Yari.
Wherever you hike in Kamikochi, always remember to keep an eye out for monkeys and especially for bears.
→ See Also: The Complete Guide to Hiking in Kamikochi
How to Get to Kamikochi:
• The easiest way to reach Kamikochi from Tokyo is by bus from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal. The journey takes just under 5 hours.
There are also direct buses to Kamikochi from Osaka and Kyoto. For more information see bus timetables here.
• There are also direct buses to Kamikochi from Nagano and Matsumoto that take around 2 hours.
Kusatsu Onsen is a historic onsen town tucked away in the far west of Gunma Prefecture. The volcanic mineral hot spring waters that flow through Kusatsu are said to bring many health benefits.
Several hotels operate public and private onsen throughout the town, which has seen visitors come to bathe in its restorative waters for centuries.
In the heart of the Kusatsu is Yubatake, a large, man-made geothermal pool which collects and draws the region’s hot spring water into the town.
Either side of Yubatake there are public foot baths that are free to use. You can see traditional performances that show how the steaming hot mountain waters were originally cooled so that they were safe to bathe in inside Kusatsu Onsen Netsunoyu.
Blanketed in snow in the winter, there are plenty of restaurants and food stands to keep you well fed in Kusatsu, particularly along narrow Sainokawara Street to the west of Yubatake.
The same winding street leads to Sainokawara Park, where walking paths pass by streams and rock pools of hot spring waters. At the far end of the park is Sainokawara Open-air Bath, an open air onsen surrounded by trees.
How to Get to Kusatsu Onsen:
• Kusatsu Onsen can be reached by a combination of train and bus.
• The easiest route from Tokyo is to take a JR Kusastsu limited express service from Ueno Station to Naganohara Kusatsu-guchi Station. This is covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
• From Naganohara Kusatsu-guchi Station it’s around a half an hour bus journey to Kusatsu Onsen Bus Terminal. More details can be found here.
The capital of Tochigi Prefecture, Utsunomiya is perhaps most famous for its gyoza. There are countless restaurants in the city that dish up a dazzling variety of delicious dumplings. If you’re looking for the best gyoza as you wander off the beaten path in Japan, then Utsunomiya is the place to come.
There’s more to Utsunomiya than just gyoza however. Right in the centre of the city you’ll find Utsunomiya Futaarayama Shrine, whose entrance is marked by an enormous wooden torii gate and a long, steep staircase.
On the edge of the city is Oya History Museum, an enormous and deep network of former caves that were once mined for the local Oya stone.
Nearby is Oya Temple, which is built into the side of a cliff. The temple is over 1200 years old, and is believed to have been established by Kobo Daisho, the founder of a school of Buddhism called Shingon Buddhism (more on him later).
Inside the temple is a relief carving on the cliff-face of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. Said to have been carved in 810, this is believed to be the oldest stone carving of Buddha in Japan. Just a few steps away and just as impressive is a 27 metre tall statue of Heiwa Kannon.
How to Get to Utsonomiya:
• By train: Utsonomiya Station is around 50 minutes from Tokyo Station via Shinkansen, a journey covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
Mito is less than an hour and a half from Tokyo by train. Mito’s most famous attraction is Kairakuen Garden, said to be one of the three best landscaped gardens in all of Japan.
Kairakuen was opened as a public park in 1841 and is famous for the 3,000 plum trees that fill the garden that come into bloom each spring. Besides plum trees Kairakuen also features a peaceful bamboo grove and enormous ancient giant cedar trees.
Opposite Kairakuen Garden, overlooking Senba Lake, is the Museum of Modern Art, which holds regular exhibitions by Japanese contemporary artists.
In the centre of the Mito is Kodokan, a former school for the children of local samurai that is now open to the public. The school was opened in the same year as Kairakuen and is now set amongst a peaceful garden that’s also filled with plum trees.
Mito is also conveniently located for access to another of Ibaraki’s most famous attractions, Hitachi Seaside Park.
Overlooking the Ibaraki coastline, Hitachi Seaside Park is famous for its sloping flower fields that turn a variety of vibrant colours at different times of the year.
In spring the park’s nemophila are a sea of blue, and by autumn the kokia bushes slowly turn from green to a deep red, creating a magnificent natural landscape.
How to Get to Mito:
• By train: Limited Express trains from Tokyo Station reach Mito Station in around 1 hour and 20 minutes. This journey is covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
It may seem odd to describe the second largest city in Japan as off the beaten track. Yet Yokohama is frequently overlooked, especially as a day trip from Tokyo, with people tending to visit the likes of Kamakura or Nikko instead.
Only half an hour from Tokyo by train, Yokohama is the perfect day trip from the capital, though there is plenty to keep you busy for several days if you decide to stay longer.
Yokohama is one of Japan’s most cosmopolitan cities. Not only is Yokohama home to the largest Chinatown in Japan, there are several beautiful old Western-style houses to explore in the historic Yamate region of the city.
Most of Yokohama’s main sights are located in and around the port area. The Red Brick Warehouses, once part of an industrialised port, have been converted into a grand retail space, with a variety of shops and restaurants.
A short walk away, Yamashita Park is a wonderful place to relax, with rose gardens and a frequent flower displays held throughout the year.
Yokohama is also perfect if you’re travelling with kids (or if you’re just young at heart). Here you can watch the 18 metre tall Gundam robot take a walk at the Gundam Factory. You can also ride the giant ferris wheel and all manner of rides at Yokohama Cosmoworld and even create your own flavour of instant noodles at The Cup Noodle Museum.
How to Get To Yokohama:
• By train: Yokohama Station is around 30 minutes from the centre of Tokyo on the Ueno-Tokyo metro line or the Yokosuka metro line. Both lines are covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
Atami is an onsen town located at the top of the beautiful Izu Peninsula. Built into the steep slopes that descend down to Sagami Bay, Atami is famous for the huge fireworks festival that takes place several times a year.
Some of the most spectacular views of Atami’s bay can be seen from the MOA Museum of Art. Positioned high on top of the city, the museum features a vast collection of Japanese and Asian art, all housed inside a stunning building.
Just outside Atami Station are two shotengai, the covered shopping streets that can be found in cities throughout Japan. These are a great place to buy some local souvenirs as well as try local specialities – don’t miss the satsuma-age, or fried fishcakes, from Maruten on Heiwa-dori.
Another reason to visit Atami is to explore the stunning Jogasaki coast on the Izu Peninsula. From Atami Station take the Ito Line train that trickles south along the rocky shoreline to Jogasaki Kaigan Station.
A short walk away are numerous trails of volcanic rock that lead along the Jogasaki coast. A great place for diving, there are also a handful of unexpected museums in the area too, including the New York Lamp Museum & Flower Garden and the Izu Teddy Bear Museum.
How to Get to Atami and the Izu Peninsula:
• By train: From Tokyo, Atami Station is only 45 minutes away on the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen, which is covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
• The Jogasaki coast can be reached from Atami Station on the luxury Odoriko Line and the regular Ito Line, both of which are covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
Nagahama is a small city situated on the north-east side of Lake Biwa.
The city’s biggest attraction are the picturesque old streets around Kurokabe Square, a warren of well preserved Edo-era shops, cafes and restaurants.
Nagahama is also famous for its locally produced glass, and there are numerous shops selling glass souvenirs and ornaments throughout the town.
Nagahama is also home to a number of historic temples, including the grand Daitsu-ji Temple. Entered via an imposing entrance gate, inside Daitsu-ji Temple are several beautifully decorated rooms with painted sliding doors and a magnificent main hall.
The Hikiyama Museum features an excellent exhibition about the annual festival that takes place at the nearby Hachiman-gu Shrine. The festival is famous for the kabuki plays that are performed by local children.
There are more breathtaking interiors at Keiunkan, a magnificent Japanese villa that dates from the late 19th century that is open to the public.
How to Get to Nagahama:
• By train: Direct trains from Kyoto Station reach Nagahama Station in just over an hour on the Tokaido-Sanyo line, covered by the JR Rail Pass.
Omichachiman is another small city near Lake Biwa with a charming old town.
Most of the city’s highlights can be found in the Shinmachi region, whose streets are lined with wonderful old houses that nod to Omihachiman’s prosperity as a post town during the Edo period.
Also dotted around the town are several historic Western-inspired buildings, most notably the striking Haku’un-kan, or White Cloud building, that was originally built to be a school.
You can take a pleasant boat ride along the narrow Hachiman-bori canal that threads through the old town. Nearby you’ll find Himure Hachimangu, an ancient and atmospheric temple known for its annual festivals.
A ropeway just beyond Himure Hachimangu temple leads to the observatory at the top of Hachimanyama, where there are fantastic views of the city.
Don’t leave town without trying delicious omi wagyu beef, a regional speciality comparable with (and just as delicious as) the more famous Kobe beef.
How to Get to Omihachiman:
• By train: Omihachiman Station is just 35 minutes from Kyoto Station on the Tokaido-Sanyo line, which is again covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
Located on the Shima Peninsula, the city of Ise is home to what is considered to be the most important Shinto shrine in Japan, Ise Grand Shrine.
The Ise Grand Shrine actually consists of two different sites, known as the Inner Shrine and the Outer Shrine, which are around six kilometres apart from each other.
Ise Grand Shrine is dedicated to the goddess of the sun, the most important deity in the Shinto religion, and the whole shrine complex is considered to be one of the most venerated sites in Japan.
The entrance to Ise’s Outer Shrine is just a five minute walk from the city’s main Iseshi Station. Ise’s Inner Shrine is on the southern outskirts of the city and reached via Okage Yokocho, a beautiful network of Edo-era shops and restaurants.
Close to Ise in Fautami-ura is another of Japan’s most famous religious sites, Futamiokitama Shrine. Facing the sea, Futamiokitama Shrine is most famous for its two wedded rocks, called Meoto-Iwa in Japanese, which are joined together by a sacred rope called a shimenawa.
Nearby is Hinjitsukan, a beautiful former guesthouse built in 1898 that has been designated an Important Cultural Property.
How to Get There:
• By train: Ise’s main train station is Iseshi Station which has direct trains to Nagoya Station.
• The fastest service from Nagoya to Iseshi Station is the Kintetsu Limited Express which is not covered by the Japan Rail Pass. The journey on the Rapid Mie line takes a little longer but is covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
Hidden high amongst the tree-lined mountains of Wakayama Prefecture, the small town of Koyasan is almost the definition of off the beaten path Japan.
Arriving by public transport means taking a combination of train, cable car and local bus. Those who do make the trip to Koyasan will find one of the most beautiful towns in Japan.
Koyasan is home to countless temples and shrines, thanks to Kobo Daishi, the monk who founded a sect of Buddhism called Shingon-Buddhism in Koyasan in the 8th Century.
At the entrance of Koyasan stands a commanding vermillion gate that dates from the 11th century. Throughout the town are several ancient grand temples, including the sprawling Danjo-garan Temple complex and Kongobuji temple.
Koyasan has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries, and is part of the Kumano Kodo route, a collection of pilgrim trails that have been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. At the far end of the town is the breathtaking Okunoin cemetery, where Kobo Daishi is buried, along with over 200,000 others.
How to Get to Koyasan:
• By train: Koyasan is easiest to reach by train from Osaka’s Namba Station. From here take the Nankai-Koya line to Gokurakubashi Station, from where it’s a cable car ride to Koyasan Station and then a bus into the centre of the town. This journey is not covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
• The Koyasan World Heritage Ticket includes the cost of return trains to Koyasan from Namba Station, as well as the fare for the cable car and all local buses in Koyasan. More information on the Koyasan World Heritage ticket can be found here.
• By car: Koyasan is perhaps most easily reached by car. The drive to Koyasan takes in some of the most beautiful and remote areas of off the beaten path Japan.
We’d suggest hiring a car in Wakayama city or at Kansai International Airport. It’s about an hour’s drive to Koyasan from either location.
›› You can find the best prices on hire cars in Japan with Discover Cars here.
Only an hour south of Osaka by train, Wakayama is a bustling city that can easily be explored in a day or so. The city’s biggest attraction is Wakayama Castle, a reconstruction of the castle that originally stood on the site and was first built in the late 16th century.
Today Wakayama Castle houses a museum about its history alongside plenty of displays of ancient artefacts such as samurai armour and traditional weaponry. There are also wonderful views of the city from the top of the castle tower.
Elsewhere, the Museum of Modern Art features a number of large scale exhibitions by contemporary artists throughout the year.
South of the city centre is Kimii-dera, one of the oldest and most important temples in the city. A steep climb of over 230 steps leads to the temple’s main hall, from where there are sensational panoramic views of Wakayama Bay.
How to Get to Wakayama:
• By train: Wakayama is most easily reached from Osaka. From Osaka Station the Osaka Loop Line takes just over an hour to get to Wakayama Station. This is covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
Back on the Sea of Japan, Tottori is most famous for its huge sweeping sand dunes.
Located on the edge of the city, Tottori’s sand dunes are a phenomenal sight, rising and sloping for over nine miles along the shoreline.
Next to the dunes is The Sand Museum, a unique exhibition of sand art that is not to be missed. Each year sand artists from all over the world come to the Sand Museum to create phenomenally adventurous and detailed works of art on a specific theme.
Though most people visit Tottori for its famous dunes, there’s more to enjoy here than just sand. Tottori is also famous for its hot spring waters. There are a number of hotels and ryokans with onsens located in the centre of the city.
Next to the ruins of Tottori castle is Jinpukaku Mansion, a grand Western-inspired home built for the head of the local Ikeda clan in 1907.
The house was used for the visit of Emperor Taisho whilst he was still prince during his tour of the region. Today, Jinpukaku Mansion is open to the public along with its stylish Japanese gardens.
How to Get to Tottori:
• By train: There are direct trains to Tottori Station from Kyoto and Okayama. These trains use tracks operated by private (non JR) train companies for part of the journey. Because of this Japan Rail Pass holders will need to pay an extra surcharge to use these trains. The additional fee is around 1,800¥ depending on the train.
• By air: There are direct daily flights between Tottori Airport and Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.
›› Find the best deals on flights to Tottori here.
Overlooking Lake Shinji in Shimane Prefecture, Matsue is another city that flourished thanks to its connection to a wealthy samurai clan. The city’s main attraction is Matsue Castle, another of Japan’s 12 original castles.
Built in the early 1600s, Matsue Castle has been beautifully preserved and is one of the finest castles in Japan. Boat tours are available of the Kyobashi River that circles that castle and feeds into its moat.
Matsue was also the home city of Lafcadio Hearn, the Greek-Irish writer and teacher who moved to Japan in 1890. Hearn’s book, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan, was published in 1894 and documented his findings upon his travels around Japan.
Hearn’s book was one of the earliest accounts of life in Japan by a foreigner, in a country that until recently had been closed to outsiders. Hearn’s former house in Matsue, where he lived for 15 months, is now a museum dedicated to his fascinating life and his writing.
Well worth a trip out of town is the Adachi Museum of Art, not only for it’s excellent art collection but also its stunning Japanese garden.
How to Get to Matsue:
• By train: Matsue Station can be reached from Tottori Station by San-In Line-Limited Express trains. The journey takes around 1 hour and 20 minutes.
The historic district of Bikan in Kurashiki features some of the most picturesque Edo-style streets in all of Japan. Centred around the Kurashiki river, Bikan is lined with classic shophouses and traditional old white and black stone storehouses.
A thriving area, today Kurashiki’s historic buildings are home to a multitude of shops, cafes and restaurants.
Kurashiki, and in particular a small cluster of shops in Bikan called Denim Street, is famous as being the birthplace of Japan’s denim industry. The city is renowned throughout the world for the incredibly high quality of the denim that is made here.
Several local history museums and art galleries can also be found either side of the Kurashiki River, with the Ōhara Museum of Art being the cream of the crop. Amongst the Ōhara Museum of Art’s collection are works by artists such as Monet, Gaugin, Degas and Cezane.
How to Get to Kurashiki:
• By train: Kurashiki Station is just a 20 minute journey from Okayama Station on the Sanyo Line, which is covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
The minuscule town of Nagoro is about as far off Japan’s beaten path as it is possible to go.
Hidden deep within the Iya Valley in a remote corner of Shikoku’s Tokushima Prefecture, Nagoro is little more than an idyllic rural village made famous by one local resident, Tsukimi Ayano, who has populated the town with hundreds of life-size models of former residents.
Now known as the Scarecrow Village, Nagoro was once home to around 300 people, but due to the steady decline in Japan’s rural population, the town now has less than 30 residents.
Tsukimi Ayano created Nagoro’s first scarecrow in 2003, and now there are hundreds of scarecrow figures propped up throughout the village.
Scarecrow farmers work in the fields, others congregate outside long abandoned houses while another fishes in the Iya River. Meanwhile, hundreds of scarecrows fill the hall of town’s former high school.
This is one of Japan’s more bizarre hidden gems and something that needs to be seen to be believed. There is literally nothing else to do here – there are no shops or restaurants in Nagoro and there’s not even a single vending machine – but it is truly one of a kind and a wonderful showcase of one person’s ingenuity.
How to Get to Nagoro:
• Nagoro is so remote that the only way to get to Nagoro is by car. The nearest train station is over an hour away, from which public transport to the town is incredibly sporadic.
›› Find the best prices on hire cars in Japan with Discover Cars here.
Matsuyama is another historic city dominated by its castle. Matsuyama Castle is perched high on Mount Katsuyama, with the easiest way to reach it by either a chairlift or cable car.
Matsuyama’s castle is another of Japan’s 12 original castles and is a particularly impressive example of the dedication and detail that went into building the defensive forts.
The current castle was built in 1820 to replace an earlier castle which was destroyed after being struck by lightning. As well as the faithful preservation of the building and its interior, there are sensational views of the entire region from the top floor of Matsuyama Castle.
Just beneath Matsuyama Castle is another spectacular landmark, Bansuiso, a French-style mansion built in 1922 by Count Hisamatsu, a descendent of the local feudal clan.
Perhaps Matsuyama’s most famous landmark is Dogo Onsen Honkan, one of the oldest and most beautiful onsen in Japan. Dating from the late 1800s, Dogo Onsen Honkan is often cited as the inspiration for the bathhouse in the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away.
How to Get to Matsuyama:
• By train: The JR Shiokaze limited express trains connect Matsuyama Station on Shikoku to Okayama Station on Japan’s main island of Honshu. This journey is covered by the Japan Rail Pass
• By air: There are daily flights between Matsuyama Airport and Tokyo’s Narita and Haneda Airports, as well as to destinations further south, such as Fukuoka, Kagoshima and Okinawa.
›› Find the best prices for flights to Matsuyama here.
On the opposite side of Shikoku and facing the Pacific Ocean is the city of Kochi. Just like Matsuyama, Kochi also has its own original castle, located right in the heart of the city.
Another wonderfully preserved piece of Japanese history, Kochi Castle today houses several exhibits connected to its past. Once again there are tremendous city views from the observation room on the top floor of the castle.
In Kochi’s bustling city centre, alongside plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants, is Harimaya Bridge. A local landmark, according to folklore the vermillion bridge was the setting of a brief but ultimately doomed romantic encounter between a monk and a merchant’s daughter.
To the south of the city is Katsurahama beach, a quiet spot protected by pine trees with small picturesque shrines dotted along the shore.
How to Get to Kochi:
• By train: Kochi Station can be reached from Okayama Station by train on the Dosan Line limited express train which is covered by the Japan Rail Pass
• By air: There are flights between Kochi Airport and several airports in Japan, including Tokyo’s Narita and Haneda airports, as well as Kobe and Fukuoka airports.
›› Find the best prices on flights to Kochi here.
Along with a clutch of other nearby towns, Imari is the centre of Japan’s porcelain industry. Beautiful porcelain designed and made in nearby Arita were exported all over the world from Imari from the 17th century right throughout the Edo period.
For hundreds of years, locally produced porcelain (known as Imari ware) was highly prized in the West for its intricate and detailed designs and bold, rich colours.
In Imari, elaborate porcelain tiles, vases and figurines are displayed throughout the city, and even decorate the two main bridges that cross the Imari River.
While in Imari it’s well worth taking a trip to the nearby town of Arita, where there are several shops selling all kinds of porcelain goods. There’s a great collection of Imari ware on display at Kyushu Ceramic Museum. While in Arita, don’t miss Sueyama Shrine’s beautiful porcelain torii gate.
A trip to the small town of Okawachiyama from Imari is a must too. This is where much of the local porcelain has been made for several centuries. There are still several pottery workshops in Okawachiyama today, whose kilns can be spotted on a stroll through the town.
How to Get to Imari:
• By train: Imari Station can be reached from Fukuoka’s Meinohama Station on the JR Chikuhi Line. Trains on this line are covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
• Imari Station is also served by trains on the Nishi-Kyushu Line, operated by Matsuura Railway. This line is not covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
Nagasaki is a fascinating and fun-loving city with a complex history. Nagasaki was one of the few cities in Japan to allow trade with foreign nations during the country’s period of isolation in the Edo era.
Evidence of this can be seen on Dejima, the man-made island that was inhabited by Portuguese and then Dutch merchants who were granted permission to trade goods with Japan.
In the 16th Century, missionaries from Europe also brought Christianity to Japan via Nagasaki. Two of the city’s most famous landmarks are Catholic churches, Oura Church and Urakami Cathedral.
Sat overlooking the city inside Glover Garden are a collection of historic Western-style houses that were home to British traders who settled in Nagasaki during the late 19th and early 20th century. The Former Glover House and the Former Ringer House have both been declared Important Cultural Properties and enjoy wonderful views over Nagasaki.
The most spellbinding views of the city are reserved for Mount Inasayama Observatory, reached via a cable car from Fuchi Shrine.
There are plenty of options for day trips from Nagasaki too. The beautiful Goto Islands can be reached by boat, where many of Nagasaki’s early Christian converts fled to escape persecution. As well as breathtaking scenery there are also dozens of once-hidden Christian churches dotted around the islands.
You can also visit the infamous island of Hashima, also known as Battleship Island, from Nagasaki. Guided boat trips take you on a tour of the island that was once the most densely populated place on earth.
How to Get to Nagasaki:
• By train: Nagasaki Station is served by the Nishi Kyushu Shinkansen which is covered by the Japan Rail Pass
• By air: Nagasaki Airport is located around 25 miles outside of the city centre. There are daily flights between Nagasaki and Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe and other destinations in Japan.
›› Find the best prices on flights to Nagasaki here.
Kumamoto is a laid-back city on the western edge of Kyushu. The city’s most famous landmark is easily Kumamoto Castle.
Many parts of the castle, including the keep, are modern replicas of the original buildings, but Kumamoto Castle is still regarded as one of the finest in Japan.
Some parts of Kumamoto Castle are original, such as the impressive Uto Turret, which was built in 1607. The castle was badly damaged during an earthquake that hit Kumamoto in 2016, repairs from which are still ongoing.
Another of Kumamoto’s main highlights is Suizenji Koen, a wonderful Japanese garden created by the head of a local samurai clan in the 1600s. The garden replicates the key stops on the old Tokkaido route that connected Tokyo and Kyoto. Amongst the garden’s highlights are a replica of Mount Fuji.
Kumamoto also has a connection with Lafcadio Hearn – he lived here for four years after living in Matsue. His former home in Kumamoto is also a small museum in the centre of the city, now slightly at odds with the department stores at shopping streets it’s now surrounded by.
How to Get to Kumamoto:
• By train: Kumamoto Station is served by the Kyushu Shinkansen service, trains on which are covered by the Japan Rail Pass
• By air: Aso Kumamoto Airport is located around 12 miles outside the city centre. Buses from the airport run throughout the day, with the journey taking around an hour and costing ¥960.
›› To find the best deals on flights to Kumamoto click here.
The city of Beppu in Oita Prefecture is perhaps the most famous onsen resort in Japan.
There are over 2,000 hot spring vents located throughout Beppu, with the mountainous Beppu Onsen area the most active in the city. Dozens of plumes of thick white steam can be seen constantly pouring into the sky throughout the area.
Beppu’s most famous landmarks are by far the seven hells, a collection of picturesque hot-spring ponds which are dotted around the city’s Kannawa and Kamegawa regions.
These seven hells (or jigoku) vary greatly in appearance, from the blood red Chinoike Jigoku, the milky white Shiraike Jigoku and perhaps the most beautiful of the seven, the bubbling blue waters of Umi Jigoku.
Around Beppu Onsen are a number of public foot baths that are free to use. Also, while in Beppu Onsen don’t miss the change to tuck into some hell steam cuisine.
At Jigoku Mushi you can steam a selection of ingredients in subterranean ovens powered by Beppu’s thermal spring waters. Ingredients ranging from seafood, meat, vegetables to create a range of delicious and healthy freshly steamed dishes.
While in Beppu, don’t miss the chance to visit the hundreds of adorable wild monkeys at Takasakiyama Monkey Park. Over 1,000 wild monkeys live in the mountains above Beppu.
Similar to the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano, the monkeys in Takasakiyama Monkey Park run free and are encouraged to the area (and away from the city and neighbouring farms) by the promise of regular feedings.
Largely ignorant of the human visitors, the monkeys most lounge in the sunshine and groom in groups until the wardens begin feeding time.
How to Get to Beppu:
• By train: Beppu Station can be reached by train from Fukuoka’s Hakata Station via the Sonic Nichirin limited express train in just under two hours.
• From Kokura Station in the north of Kyushu the journey takes around 1 hour 20 minutes on the same train, which is covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
• By air: Oita Airport is around 25 miles outside Beppu. Buses between Beppu’s city centre and Oita Airport take just under an hour and the journey costs ¥1,500.
›› Find the best deals on flights to Oita Airport on Skyscanner here.
The most southerly spot on our list of destinations off the beaten path in Japan is the city of Kagoshima.
As the capital of Kagoshima Prefecture, Kagoshima’s most prominent landmark is Sakurajima, a giant stratovolcano that towers over the city.
Sakurajima is Japan’s most active volcano – thousands of small eruptions take place each year. Once an island, an eruption in 1914 saw Sakurajima become a peninsula. Once the lava flows from that eruption had cooled the island had become forever connecting with the mainland.
Despite it’s frequent eruptions, around 4,000 people live on Sakurajima, which is a great place to explore.
Ferries from Kagoshima port run to Sakurajima 24 hours a day, where you can walk along the volcanic coastline, dip your feet in the free foot bath and greet the island’s huge army of stray, friendly cats.
Elsewhere, perhaps Kogishima’s second most popular tourist attraction is Sengan-en, the former Edo-era home of a powerful feudal lord that is now open to the public, along with its gorgeous Japanese garden.
In Ibusuki City, an hour and a half to the south of Kagoshima by train, you can enjoy a truly unique and revitalising experience with a steamy sand bath. Buried up to the neck in geothermally-heated black volcanic sand, sand baths are said to have all kinds of health benefits, including improved blood circulation and the removal of toxins from the body.
How to Get to Kagoshima:
• By train: Kagoshimachuo Station is the most southerly Shinkansen stop in Japan.
• The fastest journey by Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kagoshima (via either the Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen trains) is around 7 hours. Do note that these trains can’t be used by holders of the Japan Rail Pass.
• Instead, passengers with a Japan Rail Pass will need to take the slightly slower Hikari and Sakura Shinkansen instead, with a change of train needed at either Osaka or Hakata Station on the way.
• By air: Kagoshima Airport is located around 25 miles north of the city. There are daily flights to Kagoshima from several airports around Japan, including both of Tokyo’s international airports. Flights from Tokyo to Kagoshima take around 2 hours.
The Kagoshima-Airport Limousine Bus service takes 40 minutes to reach the city centre, with the journey costing ¥1,400.
›› To find the best deals on flights to Kagoshima click here.
The most common way to travel across Japan is by train, particularly on the Shinkansen.
An experience as much as a form of travel, riding the bullet train in Japan is a fantastic way to explore Japan.
However, not many people realise that flying is often a cheaper and a much faster way of travelling longer distances in Japan.
Here’s everything you need to know about going off the beaten path by train or by plane.
Most of the places on our list are served directly by train, often by a combination of a Shinkansen followed by a connecting local train service.
The vast majority of train services in Japan are operated by Japan Railways, though there are a number of other private rail companies in Japan.
In many of the more remote areas it’s common to find train services operated by smaller companies other than JR.
Trains operated by these companies are not covered by the Japan Rail Pass, which only includes services run by JR Railways.
This means that even if you have a Japan Rail Pass, you might need to buy an extra ticket if you take a train that is operated by a different train company.
If you’re thinking of taking multiple train journeys to venture to some of the hidden gems featured on our list, then buying a Japan Rail Pass could save you a fair bit of money on train fares.
The JR Rail Pass allows travel on all JR trains in Japan over a set period of time.
Available only to visitors to Japan, the Japan Rail Pass is available for periods of 7, 14, or 21 consecutive days.
Even with the recent price hike that saw the cost of the JR Rail Pass rise by nearly 70%, the pass still offers good value for money when compared to booking several individual tickets.
One upside of the increase in prices is that the Japan Rail Pass now also includes the option to travel on the fastest long distance Nozomi and Mizuho bullet trains.
However, if you’re not planning on travelling by Shinkansen very often, or if you only intend to take a few local train journeys during your trip, then there’s no need to buy a Japan Rail Pass.
In that case, the cost of the Japan Rail Pass will be much more than the cost of just a few train journeys.
›› If you’re looking to save money on train travel in Japan you can order a 7, 14, or 21 day Japan Rail Pass in advance here.
As well as the Japan Rail Pass, there are also a huge range of regional JR passes available.
JR’s regional passes offer unlimited travel for shorter periods of time on all JR trains within specific regions of Japan.
Similarly, the Tohoku Pass covers all JR trains in Japan’s northern Tohoku region.
If you’re only travelling within a specific area of Japan then a regional rail pass could be a cheaper alternative to the Japan Rail Pass.
›› If you think a Regional JR Pass might be a better option for you, check out all of the available passes here.
While everyone loves a bullet train, in many cases it is often quicker and cheaper to travel within Japan by plane.
There are hundreds of daily domestic flights across Japan every day. Most cities and regions in Japan have their own airport, and internal flights in Japan are quick and generally very affordable.
For example, flights from Tokyo to Nagasaki take just just under 2 hours, compared to over 7 hours by Shinkansen. Depending on when you travel, the same flights can also be as little as ¥7,000 one way per person, compared to around ¥30,000 per person on the Shinkansen.
›› To search for the best deals on flights to destinations across Japan, click here.
If you’d prefer to travel by car then Japan is a great place to explore by road.
Many of the destinations on our list are certainly easier to explore with your own set of wheels, particularly Koyasan, Nagoro and those on the island of Shikoku.
If you plan on hiring a car in Japan you will need an International Driving Permit from your home country. You will need to obtain this before arriving in Japan.
›› There are dozens of car hire companies to choose from with offices throughout Japan. We always use Discover Cars to find the best deals on car hire wherever we travel.
Discovery Cars will find the best prices from all of the local car hire companies so that you can compare total costs and find the best vehicle for your trip.
If you need somewhere to stay as you travel around Japan’s hidden gems then you’ll always find great accommodation with a warm welcome wherever you wind up.
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