Exploring Japan Beyond the Usual: 5 Off-the-Beaten-Track Destinations

When most people think of Japan, they immediately conjure images of bustling Tokyo, ancient Kyoto, or vibrant Osaka. While these are undoubtedly amazing destinations, there is so much more to this beautiful country that often goes unnoticed. To experience the authentic, less-crowded, and more unique side of Japan, you need to venture off the beaten track. In this guide, we’ll take you on a journey through five lesser-known destinations, uncovering the rich tapestry of Japanese culture, history, and natural beauty.

Travelling Around Japan by Train: The Best Way to Explore

Before we dive into these hidden gems, it’s essential to discuss the most efficient and enjoyable way to explore Japan – by train. Japan’s extensive and efficient rail network is renowned worldwide. The Shinkansen (bullet trains) connect major cities, making it incredibly convenient to move from one place to another. You can purchase a Japan Rail Pass for unlimited travel on JR lines (which include bullet trains) for a fixed duration, which is incredibly cost-effective for tourists.

Now, let’s embark on our journey to discover five off-the-beaten-track destinations in Japan.

1. Kanazawa

Kanazawa, a city that time forgot.

Kanazawa, located on the west coast of Japan, often gets overlooked in favor of more famous destinations. This is precisely what makes it a hidden gem. Known as “Little Kyoto” due to its well-preserved Edo-era districts, Kanazawa offers a glimpse into traditional Japan without the crowds.

What to See and Do in Kanazawa

1. Kenrokuen Garden: Considered one of Japan’s top three gardens, Kenrokuen is a beautifully landscaped green space, especially enchanting during the cherry blossom season.

2. Nagamachi Samurai District: Wander through this historic area and feel like you’ve traveled back in time to the days of the samurai.

3. Omicho Market: Taste fresh seafood and local delicacies in this bustling market, a paradise for food lovers.

4. Kanazawa Castle: Explore this iconic castle and its stunning surroundings, offering excellent photo opportunities.

5. Geisha Districts: Kanazawa is one of the few places where you can experience geisha culture without the crowds found in Kyoto.

FAQs about Kanazawa

Q: How do I get to Kanazawa from Tokyo? A: You can take the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station, and in just 2.5 to 3 hours, you’ll find yourself in Kanazawa.

Q: Is English spoken in Kanazawa? A: While English isn’t as widely spoken as in major cities, you can usually find some English-speaking staff in hotels, restaurants, and tourist sites.

2. Yakushima

Yakushima, a mystical island where nature reigns supreme.

For nature enthusiasts, Yakushima is an unspoiled paradise. This mystical island, located in the southern part of Japan, is a UNESCO World Heritage site renowned for its ancient cedar forests and untouched landscapes.

What to See and Do in Yakushima

1. Jomon Sugi: This 7,000-year-old cedar tree is an awe-inspiring testament to the power and longevity of nature.

2. Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine: Hike through the lush, moss-covered forests and marvel at the crystal-clear streams.

3. Senpiro Waterfall: Witness the beauty and power of cascading waterfalls surrounded by pristine wilderness.

4. Yakusugi Land: Explore various cedar trails and feel dwarfed by the towering ancient trees.

5. Star Gazing: Yakushima’s remote location and low light pollution make it a fantastic spot for stargazing.

FAQs about Yakushima

Q: How do I get to Yakushima from Tokyo? A: Take a flight from Tokyo to Kagoshima, and then a ferry from Kagoshima to Yakushima. The journey is well worth it.

Q: Can I stay on the island? A: Yes, there are accommodations available on the island, ranging from budget-friendly hostels to more upscale resorts.

Photo by Erik on Unsplash

3. Tohoku

Tohoku, a region of history, beauty, and cultural richness.

Tohoku, in the northern part of Japan’s main island of Honshu, is a hidden treasure trove of culture and natural beauty. It’s often overshadowed by more famous regions, but it’s a must-visit for those looking for a serene and authentic experience.

What to See and Do in Tohoku

1. Hirosaki Castle: This beautifully preserved Edo-period castle is surrounded by stunning cherry blossom trees, making it a fantastic spot for spring visits.

2. Hiraizumi: Explore the historic temples and gardens in this UNESCO World Heritage site, which transports you back to Japan’s Heian period.

3. Towada-Hachimantai National Park: Enjoy pristine lakes, volcanic landscapes, and serene hiking trails.

4. Yamadera: Climb the 1,000 stone steps leading to the mountaintop temple for breathtaking views and a sense of accomplishment.

5. Oirase Gorge: Stroll along the picturesque gorge with its clear, meandering river and lush foliage.

FAQs about Tohoku

Q: What’s the best way to travel around Tohoku? A: A JR East Pass is an excellent option for unlimited train travel within the region.

Q: When is the best time to visit Hirosaki Castle for cherry blossoms? A: Late April to early May is the prime cherry blossom season.

4. Naoshima

Naoshima, where art and nature harmonize.

Naoshima is a tiny island in the Seto Inland Sea, known for its unique blend of contemporary art and natural beauty. It’s often called “Art Island” for its numerous art installations, museums, and galleries set amidst stunning landscapes.

What to See and Do on Naoshima

1. Benesse House: A museum and hotel in one, offering contemporary art and stunning views of the surrounding sea and islands.

2. Chichu Art Museum: An architectural masterpiece that integrates art and nature seamlessly.

3. Art House Project: Explore various art installations and experiences scattered throughout the island’s traditional villages.

4. Ando Museum: Learn about the renowned architect Tadao Ando, who designed many of the island’s structures.

5. Beaches and Nature: Don’t forget to relax on the beautiful beaches and soak in the serene atmosphere.

FAQs about Naoshima

Q: How do I get to Naoshima from Tokyo? A: Take a Shinkansen to Okayama, and from there, take a train to Uno Port. Then, hop on a ferry to Naoshima.

Q: Are there accommodations on the island? A: Yes, there are various hotels and guesthouses on Naoshima, but booking in advance is recommended, especially during the art festivals.

Benesse House

5. Shikoku

Shikoku, a land of spirituality and scenic beauty.

Shikoku is the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, but it’s big on character, culture, and natural beauty. It’s known for its pilgrimage routes, stunning landscapes, and a more laid-back way of life.

What to See and Do in Shikoku

1. Shikoku Pilgrimage: Embark on a journey of self-discovery by walking or cycling the pilgrimage route, visiting 88 Buddhist temples.

2. Ritsurin Garden: A beautifully landscaped traditional Japanese garden in Takamatsu, offering a peaceful escape from the bustling cities.

3. Iya Valley: Explore the remote and stunning valley, known for its vine bridges and serene countryside.

4. Naruto Whirlpools: Witness the natural wonder of the Naruto whirlpools, formed by powerful tidal currents.

5. Kochi Castle: Visit this hilltop castle and enjoy panoramic views of Kochi City.

FAQs about Shikoku

Q: How do I get to Shikoku from Tokyo? A: Take a Shinkansen to Okayama, and from there, you can access Shikoku by train or bus.

Q: Is it necessary to do the entire Shikoku Pilgrimage? A: No, you can choose to visit specific temples or sections of the pilgrimage, depending on your interests and time.


Travelling around Japan unveils a world of diverse experiences. While Tokyo and Kyoto have their charm, the true essence of Japan lies beyond these mainstream destinations. These five off-the-beaten-track locations – Kanazawa, Yakushima, Tohoku, Naoshima, and Shikoku – offer a glimpse of Japan’s hidden beauty, history, and culture. So, if you’re seeking a more authentic and less-crowded adventure, consider exploring these lesser-known gems. Japan is a country of contrasts, where the ancient and the modern coexist, and the off-the-beaten-track destinations reflect this beautifully.

As you plan your journey, don’t forget to enjoy the convenience and comfort of Japan’s incredible rail network. The train journeys themselves often become unforgettable parts of your adventure, offering scenic views of the Japanese countryside and a unique perspective on this extraordinary nation.

So, pack your bags, hop on that Shinkansen, and get ready to explore the hidden treasures of Japan that most tourists miss. Remember, sometimes the best experiences are found off the beaten track.