Japan Off The Beaten Path – For the repeat-travellers, the ones who want to avoid tourist traps, the ones who’ve book an extra-long stay, and the ones who are looking for something a bit different, you’ve come to the right country. Japan is everything that people say it is, but it is also so much more.
From condensed cities hosting populations in the millions with a staggering number of activities to do, to historical structures and communities located deep in the inlands and mountains that take detailed planning to get to, 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 some of the best 10 underrated places you should go in Japan. Whilst most are extremely coveted by the locals, for some reason they haven’t been touched by the hand of western media 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 is our 10 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).
It’s famous for a number of things: being the mid-way point between Kyoto and Tokyo for old-time travellers, boasting a number of olden style houses that stretch on for much longer than any other post towns, and, most notably, its ability to retain the beautiful nostalgic atmosphere of a town that’s hundreds of years old.
For those who are not sure what a post town is, they were essentially towns that had been purposely built alongside the major highways to accommodate travellers back in the day.
Narai Juku offers a calming exploration experience, with activities such as visiting an original residence, viewing a picturesque bridge, learning more about its history at the museum, and even hiking the famous Nakasendo trail (if you plan your trip well enough!).
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’s one that has been beautifully restored with a stunning broad stone walkway designed specifically for visitors to comb through the town easily. Combined with the well-attended foliage alongside the route, and you’ve got yourself picturesque photo opportunities everywhere you walk and look!
The houses here are as historic as they get, and some have opened up as souvenir shops and restaurants for you to visit and experience.
Some of the more popular activities here include visiting the memorial museum of Shimazaki Toson, a popular figure in Japanese history who hailed from Magome, completing the popular Tsumago to Magome hiking trail, head to Magome’s lookout point to get some stunning photos, and take pictures along the main walkway in town (pro tip: if it’s winter, we recommend you getting up earlier than the crowd and heading out to take some nice 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 which is located in Matsuyama of the Shikoku Island, you’ve probably seen it on screen at the least! Its main attraction is the Dogo Onsen Honkan.
This place has always been extremely popular, back in its hey-day as one of the most frequented onsen in the area for the Imperial Family, and now as the destination for Studio Ghibli fans (let’s face it, who isn’t a fan?) because its interior was actually used as the inspiration for Miyazaki’s popular film “Spirited Away”!
Whilst you can’t miss the Dogo Onsen Honkan when you’re there, the Dogo Onsen area actually offers plenty of activities to do and sights to see, including the station that is a gorgeous representation of the Meiji period architecture (right near Dogo Onsen Honkan), a clock that’s been built straight out of the novel “Botchan”, a fantastic arcade which sells food, souvenirs, and beautiful gifts that you can peruse whilst in your yukata after a long session in an onsen, and plenty of shrines and temples.
If you’d like to read more about it, click on this link to our Dogo Onsen article.
4. Nachi Falls
Standing at a staggering 133m high, Nachi Falls is the tallest waterfall in all of Japan, and knowledge of its beauty is spread across the land. Nachi Falls is located on the same site as the famous Kumano Nachi Taisha, a popular shrine and one of the main destinations for those who are on the long pilgrimage routes of Kumano Kodo.
People actually visit from far and wide to visit this shrine, as it is a perfect amalgamation of Buddhist and Shinto beliefs, something that is unique to the Kumano region.
The waterfall itself was coveted by the Japanese people back in the day and celebrated as the original religious site in the area, and even today, whilst it stands behind the shrine, it’s still 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 that you’ll be able to experience in Japan. It was, and still is, a historical fishing village that commands one of the most beautiful coastlines you’ll ever see. One of the most outstanding aspects of Ine in Kyoto are the ‘funaya’, which are waterfront boat houses that sit right on top of the water along the coastline.
They are double storey, with the top floor being used as the residential space, and the ‘ground’ floor being built as a garage for the family’s water boats. The coastline used to be littered with them, but even now, over 200 funaya still stand tall and proud in Ine, and it’s definitely a beautiful sight.
Most funaya still serve families, but some have been converted into guest houses for visitors now; however, there are only a handful so our tip would be to book it in as soon as you can!
The number one thing to do here (besides staying in a funaya) is to do a boat tour so that you can actually witness the beauty of the Ine coastline (what it’s actually famous for!) from the wataers. Aside from that, staying in Ine is a leisurely experience, with only a handful of things to do, such as cycling, fishing, views from the observation point, and just relaxing in the funaya.
If you want more info about this village, check this out: Ine Village.
6. Kurokawa Onsen
Historic onsen towns are sprinkled all over Japan, and whilst they’ve all got their own charm and aesthetic, there’s something particularly special about Kurokawa Onsen, which is considered to be one of the most attractive in all of Japan.
It might be its pure nostalgic atmosphere that’s a product of its original wooden building structures, or its unique location right in the middle of nature, or even the river that flows right through the middle of the town. Whatever it is, Kurokawa Onsen is definitely worth a visit, especially if you’re heading over to the western Kyushu region during your trip.
Here, expect roads to be lined with historic buildings and onsen bathhouses, small souvenir shops run by generations of the same family, small cafes and restaurants serving local fare, and none of the crowds you would expect for a intriguing place like this.
If you’d like to read more about it, click on this link to our Kurokawa Onsen article.
The popular city of Takayama in the mountainous Hida region commands a legion of crowds to its grounds during every season of the year, and it’s very easy to see why. It’s known for its historic aesthetic of an old town in Japan, with a gorgeous background of mountains and rivers flowing through the town, and because of its easy-to-access location, many tourists find that adding Takayama on their itineraries adds that rustic element to their trip without taking too much time and effort to organise around it.
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 glorious display of embellished floats, song and dance, and immense participation from the locals. Often it gets so busy that visitors won’t even be able to book accommodation in Takayama itself, and will need to look at neighboring alternatives.
You can learn more about festivals in Japan here.
The humble city of Akita, located in the northern Tohoku region, is not quite on the radar at the moment, and although we want to keep it that way, it’s too good of a destination not to share! True to the nature of prefectures located within Tohoku, Akita is known for its stunning mountain ranges, its long and mesmerising coastline, its hot spring towns, and its historic sites.
Amongst places to visit whilst here, including the famous Nyuto Onsen and Kakunodate (a well-preserved samurai city), Akita’s Kamakura Festival in winter draws hundreds of people in winter to its grounds for its unique snow igloos and ice sculptures.
At the end of winter, Akita also hosts an Amekko (Japanese candy) festival, which is great fun for the kids! The most popular part of this festival is actually when they parade Akita-Inus down Omachi Hachiko Street – something we highly recommend you don’t miss if you’re there!
If you’d like to read more about this wonderful region, click on this link to our Akita blog post.
Even though Fukuoka is the largest city in Kyushu, and even though it’s listed as Japan’s top ten most populated cities (think about it!), it’s not nearly on tourists’ radars as much as it should be, and that’s a shame because it actually has so much to offer.
One of the most interesting facts about Fukuoka is that it is the birth home of the hakata ramen, now famously being served all over the world through Ichiran ramen chains! Here, there are plenty of restaurants that you can pop into, to try original Hakata ramen if you’d like.
There is even a museum dedicated to ramen in the city that you can visit! Its food culture also offers unique experiences through ‘yatais’, which are food stalls that host between 6-10 people at a time, which generally open up in the evening until the early hours of the morning. They’re extremely popular, especially with locals, so often you’ll find people waiting in lines outside to get in.
Fukuoka also hosts the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival, a famous festival that consists of a time trial race where intricately decorated floats are pushed along a 5-kilometre course through the city. Have we mentioned that it’s also one of the more popular gateway to other hidden treasures such as Saga and Kagoshima?
Asahikawa, located on the northern island of Hokkaido, is a personal favourite of ours. Although it’s actually the second largest city in Hokkaido, after its much more famous sister Sapporo, Asahikawa has stayed fairly off the radar of tourist itineraries, and so we urged you now to explore what Asahikawa has to offer, because it’s a lot.
For foodies, you can’t go past a bowl of Asahikawa ramen without giving it a shot. More heavily reliant on a soy-sauce base, it’s darker aesthetic is probably something you’ll come across for the first time here. Because of how harsh the winter gets in Asahikawa, the ramen here is generally cooked with lots of oil, and when served, you’ll often see a thin, hard layer of lard sitting atop your bowl.
The science behind this is that the layer of oil will keep the broth hot for a longer period of time – genius! There’s actually a ramen village on the outskirts that you can visit, with stalls also serving a smaller portion alongside their normal sized potions so you can try and fit more in your stomach.
Aside from that, there are heaps to do and see in Asahikawa, including the exploring the Otokoyama Sake Brewing Museum, perusing the Furaito Alley, visiting the Snow Crystal Museum, skiing and snowboarding down the many ski villages in winter, cycling around during the warmer months, and shopping!
More info about this beautiful city here: Asahikawa.
Phew, what a list, right! I hope you enjoyed this list of off the beaten path destinations in Japan. We’ve covered everything from the west coast to the north coast to the eastern islands and back around again.
Wherever you are planning to visit, if you can squeeze in one, two, three, or even eight visits to any of the aforementioned cities, we promise you won’t regret it. Even those who aren’t history buffs need a day or two to unwind and get off the beaten path of Japan to really experience the unique country and its history, and what better way than get in where the locals love?