“The beaten path is the safest, but the traffic’s terrible” ~ Jeffery Taylor.
As tourism has been absolutely booming over the last few years along the country’s “Golden Route,” it’s easy to want to avoid the crowds and explore Japan off the beaten path! While planning a trip to Japan may seem a bit intimidating, I can empathise that it’s not always an easy task to find these lesser-known destinations in Japan. Where do you start?
Have no fear my newfound friend. I’ve done my fair share of research and travelling off the beaten path in Japan (as well as the well-trodden areas) as this is part of being an invisible tourist. I’m all about seeing the best of a country while simultaneously doing what I can to avoid contributing to overtourism issues (and this also includes knowing what to pack for Japan).
If you’re looking to tailor your very own Japan off the beaten track itinerary, this handy guide to less-travelled spots including cultural experiences in Japan will provide you with some inspiration for your own adventure. Here you’ll find many of the destinations I’ve visited in person, as well as some others that are on my Japan bucket list.
If you’re interested in discovering how to not look like a tourist by visiting the Japan less travelled and hidden gems, read on for more!
This guide to exploring Japan off the beaten path will cover:
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Discover the Japan Less Travelled
But there are literally so many lesser-known and secret places in Japan that many tourists seem to miss during their whirlwind visit. And I don’t want that for you!
As I’m pretty much addicted to all things Japan, I’m forever looking for new destinations and planning my future visits there. This guide explores a range of places I’ve visited and researched including small towns in Japan, the best nature in Japan, things to do at each destination and much more categorised by region.
I’ve even found some alternatives to popular destinations so keep an eye out for my tips along the way.
With that said, are you ready to venture off Japan’s Golden Route? Let’s begin by starting in the south in Okinawa and working up north towards Hokkaido to make things easy. Which locations will you choose to add to your Japan trip?
Kyushu Off the Beaten Path
We all know Japan is famous for snow-capped mountains and amazing autumn foliage. But did you know there’s a place to escape with sandy beaches and turquoise waters that could be mistaken for Hawaii? Complete with coral bays, Okinawa is an ideal destination for snorkelling and diving.
As the crow flies, the laid-back Islands of Okinawa (Okinawa Shoto 沖縄諸島) are situated just over 100 kilometres south-west of Japan’s mainland. The isolated location of the islands and tropical climate means it’s the perfect destination to visit in Japan off the beaten track.
Once you’ve seen the stunning landscape and learnt more about local life there, it’s easy to see why this cluster of seventeen isles are home to the oldest centenarians (and supercentenarians) in the world!
Things to do in Okinawa off the beaten path
As Japan’s third-largest island, Kyushu 九州 is bursting with beauty and historical gems to uncover. Its largest city of Fukuoka is actually closer to Seoul (South Korea) than it is to Tokyo, which resulted in Fukuoka’s port playing a vital role in trade to Asia and beyond throughout the centuries.
Kyushu is home to Japan’s most active volcano, Mt Aso, which itself is a hint that there are many onsen towns (ht springs) to relax and unwind across the island.
Takachiho Gorge is an incredibly stunning beauty. Over millennia the Gokase River has carved its way through towering volcanic basalt to create a scene that could easily be mistaken for Iceland! Visitors can hike above the gorge and admire the view below or enjoy a paddle boat ride beside cascading waterfalls.
Boasting incredible natural scenery from mountainous landscapes to sub-tropical islands in Kagoshima, stunning architecture of Kumamoto Castle and the dark past of port city Nagasaki, Kyushu holds numerous rewards for those who dare to venture off the beaten path in Japan.
TIP: Read my full 2 Days in Nagasaki Itinerary: City of Million Dollar Views for details of how to spend your time there, plus my review of visiting Huis Ten Bosch and enjoy one day in Arita, the birthplace of Japanese porcelain!
Things to do on Kyushu Island off the beaten path
Chūgoku Off the Beaten Path
Located only a 15 minute train ride away from Okayama city, Kurashiki 倉敷 can be described as the “Venice of Japan” and is practically undiscovered by foreign tourists. If that’s not a good enough reason to wander off the beaten track in Japan then I’m not sure what is!
As I’ve discussed in detail in my Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter guide, there are some similarities between Kurashiki and Venice. Both have beautifully preserved canals, specialty local cuisines and cultural experiences.
If you’re a huge lover of art and culture, Kurashiki is a must to add to your Japan itinerary. Although it’s a small town, Kurashiki was the birthplace of denim in Japan as well as the very first museum dedicated to Western art.
And not just any ordinary Western art, but huge names such as Monet, Picasso and Pollock. Visit this almost secret place in Japan before other foreign tourists find out!
Things to do in Kurashiki off the beaten path
Here are a small selection of things to do, for even more check my Kurashiki travel guide:
You would be forgiven for thinking the expansive Tottori sand dunes 鳥取砂丘 were right out of the Middle East. Considering Japan has such a diverse landscape, thankfully you don’t have to go that far! During the winter months, the Tottori sand dunes, stretching 16 kilometres along the Sea of Japan, can be covered in snow which makes for an unusual sight.
The wavy dunes are the prefecture’s top attraction, dating back over 100,000 years and some as tall as 50 metres high. Recently, the dunes have begun to attract more foreign tourists. Despite “sand graffiti” being illegal here for over a decade, authorities are targeting visitors who etch their names into the sand for a photo. Please be respectful of this area’s history and don’t be THAT tourist.
On a completely separate note I have no idea why, but every time I hear “Tottori” I end up singing “Totoro, Totooooo-ro” in my head. Is it just me? (If you’re not sure who Totoro is, he’s a popular character from a Studio Ghibli animated film from the 1980’s).
Things to do in Tottori off the beaten path
Shikoku Off the Beaten Path
This area of the country is considered one of Japan’s most beautiful. The main island of Shikoku overlooks a cluster of isles prominent on the horizon of the Seto Inland Sea. Here, destinations such as Takamatsu, Naoshima Island and Iya Valley are perfect for getting off the beaten track in Japan.
The port town of Takamatsu 高松 is a rising star in the Japan off the beaten path category. Prior to the creation of the Seto Ohashi Bridge that stretches from Kagawa prefecture to Okayama prefecture on the mainland, Takamatsu used to be the main entry point to Shikoku.
Home to an impressive castle, beautiful scenery of Ritsurinko-en gardens and the local specialty of Sanuki udon noodles, you’ll be able to slow down and relax in Takamatsu.
Just off the coast of Takamatsu is Megijima Island (not to be confused with Miyajima Island, although pictures do remind me of Miyajima a little).
In Japanese folklore, Megijima Island is also known as “Ogre Island” in the popular regional tale of Momotoro, the “Peach Boy”. There is a quirky museum dedicated to him a hop, skip and jump away in Kurashiki.
Things to do in Shikoku off the beaten path
Kansai Off the Beaten Path
Perhaps one of Japan’s most visited areas by international visitors, the Kansai region has plenty of lesser-travelled locations discover. Beyond the large cities of Osaka, Nara, Kyoto there are a selection of hidden gems to explore.
You don’t need to wander far off the beaten path in Japan to discover alternatives to popular destinations!
TIP: My detailed guide to day trips from Osaka will help you explore more of the Kansai region.
As mentioned to my guide to day trips from Osaka, Japan’s largest freshwater body Lake Biwa 琵琶湖 almost brushes the Shiga border of neighbouring Kyoto and is a lovely alternative to popular Miyajima (Itsukushima) Island. A similar Grand Torii gate floats on the lake’s surface, creating an almost identical image to its more famous sibling found in the country’s south. Hikone Castle is also worth a visit.
Within Wakayama prefecture 和歌山県, the Kii Peninsula area is recognised for its lush forests and ancient pilgrimage routes.
Known as the Kumano Kodo, an ancient network of trails and shrines trace across the peninsula and have attracted pilgrims from as far as Kyoto and Osaka for over 1,000 years. Here, Mt Koya (affectionately known as Koyasan) is the main attraction and headquarters of Shingon Buddhism.
Things to do in Kansai off the beaten path
Chūbu Off the Beaten Path
If you’re planning to be at one with nature in Japan, the alpine region of Nagano 長野 will be perfect for you. This is where you’ll find each of Japan’s 30 highest peaks (except Mt Fuji) so it’s no surprise the area is synonymous for snowy adventures. Despite this, Nagano transforms into a gorgeous emerald beauty in the off-season and is the ideal base for treks and activities.
Aside from hosting the 1998 Winter Olympic Games, Nagano is mostly known for Zenko-ji, one of Japan’s most important temples. Dating back to the 7th century, it’s believed to house the first ever Buddhist statue brought to the country and has survived countless earthquakes and natural disasters. Over time, the town developed around the temple and is now one of the few remaining pilgrim sites in Japan. It’s truly humbling to visit!
TIP: Keep your eye out for the most Japanese thing you’ll see in Nagano: A temple-shaped vending machine dispensing omamori (Japanese lucky charms) at Zenko-ji.
Contrary to popular belief, the cheeky snow monkeys of Jigokudani Monkey Park are there year-round… even in summer! Visiting during the warmer months definitely has its perks (hint: fluffy snow monkey babies and fewer tourists).
Things to do in Nagano off the beaten path
If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you’re seeking more places to go in Japan off the beaten path. Lucky for you we’re only halfway through and I have more spots up my sleeve to share! Incredible Matsumoto 松本 is one such place.
Towering above the town below, Matsumoto Castle (Matsumoto-jo) is one of four castles listed as National Treasures of Japan. Known colloquially as the “Black Crow” this must-see structure is actually Japan’s oldest wooden castle!
Inside the castle is a collection of impressive weaponry and artefacts collected throughout the reigns of its leaders from the 16th century.
The steep 60° angle of the staircases inside caused my head to spin and made me wonder how ninjas actually managed to hurl themselves up and down them.
TIP: If you’re petite like me (5’2”), you may find your legs not long enough to descend the old wooden stairs without shuffling down on your bottom!
What many tourists don’t realise is Matsumoto is a wonderful town for art and culture lovers. If you’re familiar with the yellow and red polka-dot pumpkins on Naoshima Island, Yayoi Kusama was commissioned to create them and her works are celebrated at Matsumoto City Museum of Art.
Things to do in Matsumoto off the beaten path
Is Kyoto too busy and overcrowded for your liking? Takayama 高山 is the perfect alternative! I absolutely LOVE Takayama (and wrote all about it in my full 2 day Takayama itinerary). In my opinion, Takayama was the most surprising Japan off the beaten path destination I’ve visited so far, its enchanting townhouse-lined streets full of pleasant surprises. i’m dying to revisit!
If you can’t get enough of Hida beef, love exploring hidden temples and sampling ALL the sake, Takayama should be high on your Japan off the beaten track itinerary. According to statistics, only 6% of tourists visiting Japan make the journey to Takayama.
Aside from the historical old-town area, it’s likely you’ll have much of the city to yourself.
TIP: Head into the breweries to sample shots of sake. The one I visited cost JPY 300 to sample twelve bottles of sake (yes, seriously), each varying in flavour, aroma and the amount the rice was polished. This system is based on goodwill so please don’t be that annoying tourist who goes overboard and ruins this experience for everyone.
While many tourists to Takayama visit popular Shirakawa-go 白川郷 as day trip, it’s recently becoming clear the town is falling victim to overcrowding. Tourists have been known to wait in line for two hours to get photos of the town from an elevated vantage point!
If you’re intrigued of the idea of Shirakawa-go without the crowds, I’ve written about my visit to Hida No Sato Folk Village, the perfect alternative complete with beautiful scenery and grassho-thatched farmhouses.
TIP: Nearby Gero Onsen is a must if you want to literally soak up the local culture in a traditional Japanese hot spring town, too! Read my detailed itinerary to Gero Onsen here.
Things to do in Takayama off the beaten path
Have you heard of the “Unseen side of Mt Fuji?” Once the main gateway to climbing Mt Fuji’s summit by pilgrims from Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto, Fujinomiya 富士宮 is now often overlooked by foreign visitors to Japan. And it shouldn’t be!
In the middle of Tokyo and Kyoto, Fujinomiya can be reached by bullet train and is home to numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites, stunning natural scenery, delicious local specialties, a community feel and much more.
There are so many things to do in Fujinomiya over a weekend, and the best part is you can enjoy some of the best Mt Fuji views in the entire country WITHOUT the crowds.
I mean, just look at the sunrise view from my hotel room below!
Things to do in Fujinomiya off the beaten path
Hokuriku Off the Beaten Path
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to walk in the footsteps on samurais? Have a peek in their homes and see the beauty they surrounded themselves with? You’ll be able to in Kanazawa 金沢! Find out exactly how with my 2 day Kanazawa itinerary.
Dubbed as “Little Kyoto”, Kanazawa shines with traditional pride in its well-preserved Nagamachi district. Aged brown townhouses line the streets of Japan’s other active geisha city after Kyoto.
If you’re incredibly lucky you may be able to spot one during your visit or even dress up as one yourself. If not, it’s easy to imagine these ladies gracing the streets and samurais going about their daily lives.
One of Japan’s top gardens, Kenroku-en is here in Kanazawa. I thoroughly enjoyed strolling around these grounds with such different varieties of landscapes around every corner!
Every spot is a little photo opportunity with ponds, bridges, cherry blossoms, mosses, autumn colours… Stunning in every season. Kenroku-en used to be part of Kanazawa Castle‘s outer gardens and Japan’s oldest water fountain is located inside.
TIP: Kanazawa is also famed for its gold leaf. It’s said the 20 tonnes of gold leaf used to cover Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto came from this city. Even the Kanji name for Kanazawa has the symbol for gold in it (金)! Why not pick up a small souvenir featuring gold leaf during your trip?
Things to do in Kanazawa off the beaten path
Niigata 新潟市 is known for its stunning fall foliage, making it a nice alternative to popular Nikko. Off the coast of Nigata lies Sado Island with a fascinating history.
Once used as an island for political exiles, today you can visit the former gold mines, enjoy the tranquil scenery of Senkaku Bay, or learn more about the once-endangered toki bird at Toki Forest Park.
Are you hoping to see some snow during winter? just 75mins from Tokyo is the ski resort town of Gala Yuzawa. Catering to skiers and non-skiers alike, you’re able to see breathtaking views over the region!
TIP: Read my full guide to a Gala Yuzawa day trip from Tokyo for all the details, including how to visit the sake vending machines at nearby Echigo Yuzawa!
Things to do in Niigata off the beaten path
Tōhoku Off the Beaten Path
As we reach the northernmost point of Japan’s main island of Honshu, we hit the lovely unchartered area of Aomori. Aomori city 青森 would be an ideal place to escape the crowds of international visitors to Kyoto, Nara and Osaka if you’re visiting towards the end of April during the cherry blossom season!
Iconic Hirosaki Castle is surrounded by over 50 varieties of cherry blossoms, framing the structure in a flurry of delicate pink hues. Doesn’t paddling a small boat beneath in the moat beneath these blossoms sound dreamy? The perfect Japan off the beaten path experience.
You’ll also be treated to a seemingly endless street of cherry trees along the “World’s Longest Cherry-Lined Road”, boasting 6,500 cherry trees and stretching for 20 kilometres! An incredible of snow-capped Mt Iwaki rewards visitors who stroll along this southern road during spring.
Things to do in Aomori off the beaten path
Hokkaido Off the Beaten Path
I’m yet to visit Japan’s second-largest island, but there are plenty of reasons why I want to! As well as the famed Sapporo Snow Festival, mountainous Hokkaido 北海道 seems to be a hiker’s paradise with an assortment of wildlife to be spotted throughout the region. Brown bears and deer forage through the lush wilderness while beautiful red-crowned cranes dance in the snow to attract a mate.
Hokkaido is home to six national parks than span from the forests to the sea, the largest being Daisetsuzan National Park. With so much variety in scenery, Hokkaido has delightful treasures to be found around every corner.
Things to do in Hokkaido off the beaten path
Concluding places to visit in Japan off the beaten track
It could be argued that the stunning areas of Nikko and Hakone should be included in this guide, but I decided against it. Even though Nikko and Hakone are technically off the beaten path, they still manage to be quite popular spots for fall foliage and crowds. Exactly what we are trying to avoid!
What did you think of these lesser-known Japan tourist attractions? I wanted to share some cities along Japan’s “New Golden Route” as the original Golden Route is becoming overworn with tourist love. Plus I’m a big believer that it’s always rewarding stepping outside your comfort zone. There is so much stunning natural beauty, rich history and beautiful culture to be found in all regions of Japan, not just the most popular tourist spots.
Now you know where to head in Japan off the beaten path with my comprehensive guide, what’s stopping you from adding a few of these locations to your trip? Let me know in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this article, I’ve written about many more off the beaten path destinations and hidden gems on my Japan travel blog to inspire you and help with your Japan trip planning, so go take a look.
Want to learn my strategies for how to “blend in” anywhere around the globe? Find out by reading my #1 Amazon New Release Book!
Until next time,
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