Japan Off The Beaten Path – Japan is everything that people say it is, and so much more.
For the repeat-travelers, ones avoiding the tourist traps, there’s plenty of deep culture left to discover. For those who’ve booked an extra-long stay or are looking for something a bit different, you’ve come to the right country; novelty and variety abound.
Condensed cities hosting populations in the millions offer a staggering number of activities. Historical structures, isolated communities, and nigh-inaccessible, untouched nature offer a glimpse at Japan you won’t see on TV. You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to places to visit.
For those wanting a bit more of an ‘off the beaten path’ experience, then have we got a list for you. Below, we’ve curated our version of the best ten underrated places you should go in Japan. Most have been thoroughly covered by the locals, but Western media hasn’t quite made it out this far yet, so now is the best time to visit.
Read on and prepare to cram your itinerary!
Japan Off The Beaten Path – 10 Underrated Destinations You Should Visit!
Here are our ten favorite off-the-beaten-path places to visit in Japan:
- Narai Juku
- Dogo Onsen
- Nachi Falls
- Kurokawa Onsen
1. Narai Juku
The quaint, historic post town of Narai Juku has been standing since the Edo Period (1600s to the 1800s). Post towns were purposely built along major merchant and pilgrim routes to accommodate travelers.
It’s famous for a number of things: being the historic mid-way point between Kyoto and Tokyo, having the longest stretch of traditionally built houses on its route, and, most notably, its ability to retain a beautiful, nostalgic atmosphere for hundreds of years.
Narai Juku offers a calming exploration experience. Visitors enjoy activities such as visiting original kominka residences or its picturesque bridge and learning about its history at the museum. If you plan ahead, this is a great place to start hiking the famous Nakasendo trail.
If you’d like to read more about it, click on this link to our Narai Juku article.
Magome is another Japanese post town that’s very popular with the locals. It has been beautifully restored with a stunning broad stone walkway designed specifically for visitors. Easy navigation, combined with well-manicured landscaping, creates Edo-era photo opportunities everywhere you look!
The houses here are as historic as they get, and some have opened up as souvenir shops and restaurants.
Many travelers come to visit the memorial museum of Shimazaki Toson, a figure in Japanese history who hailed from Magome. Others challenge the Tsumago to Magome hiking trail. Thanks to the restorations, plenty head to Magome’s lookout point to get some stunning photos and take pictures along the main walkway in town. During winter, we recommend getting up and out early to beat the crows for photos.
If you’d like to read more about it, click on this link to our Magome blog post.
3. Dogo Onsen
Even if you haven’t heard of the famous Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama of the Shikoku Island, you’ve probably seen it on screen! Its main attraction is the Dogo Onsen Honkan. Does it look familiar? Fans of Hayao Miyazaki’s film, Spirited Away, won’t be surprised to learn that its interior inspired the bath house.
In real life, this onsen was just as luxe, one of the most frequented baths by the imperial family. Of course, the Honkan is a must-see, but the area has plenty of other fantastic sights, right out of the gate-literally.
The station is a gorgeous representation of the Meiji period architecture (right near Dogo Onsen Honkan). There is also a clock built straight out of the novel “Botchan”, a fantastic arcade that sells food and souvenirs, and opportunities to try wearing yukata. Relax by soaking in onsen or breathing in the fresh air at one of many shrines and temples.
If you’d like to read more about it, click on this link to our Dogo Onsen article.
4. Nachi Falls
A staggering 133m high, Nachi Falls is the tallest waterfall in all of Japan. Nachi Falls is located next to Kumano Nachi Taisha, one of the main destinations along the ancient Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route. The shrine’s use of Buddhist and Shinto iconography makes it unique to the Kumano region.
The waterfall itself was revered as the original religious site long before the pagoda and shrine complex were built. Even today, it’s believed to offer a spiritual experience to those witnessing its falls.
If you’d like to read more about it, click on this link: Nachi Falls.
Ine, located north of Kyoto, is one of the most unique communities in Japan. It was, and still is, a historic fishing village with eye-catching waterfront architecture. This outstanding architecture is the ‘funaya’, waterfront boat houses.
The top floor is residential, and the ‘ground’ floor acts as a garage for the family’s waterboats. Ine’s waterfront used to be almost totally occluded by these houses, and even now, over 200 stand along the coast.
Most funaya stayed within the family, but some have been converted into guest houses for visitors. Only a handful accept English-ready reservations, so bookings can be tight.
Although staying in one of the funaya homes is key to Ine’s charm, the coastline is even more beautiful when viewed from one of the boats! A relaxing fishing village, visitors spend their time cycling, fishing, and enjoying views from the observation points. Catch a boat tour to see the architecture from afar and enjoy the local atmosphere-plus some tasty, down-home fish dishes.
If you want more info about this village, check this out: Ine Village.
6. Kurokawa Onsen
Historic onsen towns are sprinkled all over Japan. While they’ve all got their own charm and aesthetic, there’s something particularly special about Kurokawa Onsen, considered to be one of the most attractive in Japan.
It might be the nostalgic atmosphere that seeps from the original wooden buildings, its unique location right in the middle of nature, or the river that flows right through the middle of the town. Whatever it is that draws people here, Kurokawa Onsen is definitely worth a visit. The onsen provides a great stop in Western Kyuushuu for travelers going to and fro, too.
Here, expect roads to be lined with historic buildings and onsen bathhouses and small souvenir shops passed down within the family for generations. The food at local cafes and restaurants will be local favorites and mom’s-style cooking, and none of the crowds you might expect for being such a beloved onsen!
If you’d like to read more about it, click on this link to our Kurokawa Onsen article.
Takayama is in the mountainous Hida region, welcoming visitors with traditional life and stunning seasonal transitions. Takayama has an old-town aesthetic, gorgeous background of mountains, and rivers flowing through town. Because of its easy-to-access location, many tourists find that adding Takayama to their itineraries adds a bit of old-world charm without eating a substantial chunk of the trip.
The number one activity in Takayama is actually the Takakama Festival, which happens in both spring and autumn. Held over two days during both seasons, this festival is a splendid display of floats, song, and dance, and plenty of local, home-grown scenes. The event is so popular that guests often run out of accommodation options in town and book hotels in neighboring areas, so be warned!
You can learn more about festivals in Japan here.
Akita, located in the northern Tohoku region, is a best-kept winter secret in Japan. Like Tohoku’s other prefectures, Akita is known for its stunning mountain ranges, long and mesmerizing coastline, hot spring towns, and historic sites.
Nyuto Onsen and Kakunodate (a well-preserved samurai city) are two towns worth a stop, while Akita’s Kamakura Festival draws crowds in search of winter fun. The ice sculptures and igloo displays keep guests coming even during Tohoku’s frigid months!
At the end of winter, Akita hosts the Amekko (Japanese candy) festival. Beloved by kids young and old, the most popular part of this festival is actually the Akitainu dog parade. Owners and families parade their pooches down Omachi Hachiko Street – something you can’t miss if you visit for the festival!
If you’d like to read more about this wonderful region, click on this link to our Akita blog post.
Fukuoka is the largest city in Kyushu and one of the top ten largest cities in Japan, but it rarely appears in tourist guides or must-see lists. We think it’s time to change that. Fukuoka is a bustling city, full of young people, start-ups, and putting special emphasis on new business development and eco-living. All of this makes it a great city for young travelers looking to experience Japan.
Fukuoka is the birthplace of Hakata ramen, now served worldwide at Ichiran ramen chains! Of course, each ramen-ya has its own take on the local favorite. Japanese visitors take gourmet-go-round trips and try as many shops as possible while walking through town. It’s an activity we think foreign guests should try, too! The best way to do this is by strolling through the throngs of yatai food stalls from dusk till dawn. These popular mini-restaurants seat 6-10 guests, and many even manage to bring in crowds waiting for a seat.
Fukuoka also hosts the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival. This is a famous festival with a timed race where intricately decorated floats are pushed along a 5-kilometer course through the city. Fukuoka is great on its own, but it’s considered the gateway to two more fantastic (and underloved) areas, Saga and Kagoshima, too.
Asahikawa, located on the northern island of Hokkaido, is actually the prefecture’s second-largest city. That said, in light of its much more famous sister Sapporo, Asahikawa has stayed fairly off the radar of tourist itineraries.
For foodies, you can’t go past a bowl of Asahikawa ramen without giving it a shot. Asahikawa’s original local ramen is one food no visitor should miss a chance to try. More heavily reliant on soy sauce than Hokkaido miso ramen or mouth-watering tonkotsu, the dark broth is a first for plenty, foreign and Japanese alike. Because of the harsh Asahikawa winters, the ramen here often features a thin, hardened layer of lard on top.
Don’t be turned off though! The idea is that these extra lipids help trap heat in the bowl longer, like a layer of blubber protecting arctic-dwelling ramen critters. On the outskirts of town, there’s a ramen village offering mega-portions of Asahikawa ramen, as if the normal size weren’t plenty to sustain you through a blizzard.
Aside from that, there are heaps to do and see in Asahikawa, including exploring the Otokoyama Sake Brewing Museum, perusing Furaito Alley, visiting the Snow Crystal Museum, skiing and snowboarding, cycling, and shopping!
More info about this beautiful city here: Asahikawa.
So, where to?
Wherever you plan to visit, if you can squeeze in one or two of these not-yet-buzzing local hideouts, we promise you won’t regret it. You don’t need to be a Japanese history-buff to enjoy some slow-paced travel in one of these sleepy local towns. There’s plenty of city life too, if you know where to look! Don’t limit your adventures to what you can find in travel books. Get out to where the locals visit and discover the real Japan.
Find all our tips to travel to Japan here: Japan Travel Blog.