If you’re planning a trip to Japan, it’s likely you would have heard of the wonders of Tokyo and Kyoto by now. Those places are amazing, but what if you’re looking to explore off the beaten path in Japan?
Japan is an incredibly diverse country, and there are so many opportunities to explore Japan off the beaten path. While these places may be known to locals, many of them remain unknown amongst foreigners.
And the best part?
These less touristy places in Japan will be less crowded, quieter, and likely less expensive too!
WWB writer Lea will show you the top 8 lesser known and coolest places in Japan. You can use this guide to create your own off the beaten track Japan itinerary:
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Top 8 Off The Beaten Path Locations in Japan
1. Nagano and Matsumoto
Nagano is known as the “entryway to the Japanese Alps”, but it’s a laid back small city that’s one of the most underrated places in Japan.
Nagano is home to the Zenkoji Temple, one of Japan’s most important temples.
It is known as a Buddhist pilgrimage site, as the temple houses a “Hidden Buddha”statue from the 7th century.
Once every six years, a replica of the statue is brought out to be shown to the public. However, even on regular days, you can witness the monks conducting ancient prayer ceremonies at sunrise every morning.
From Nagano, you can also visit the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. This nature reserve is the only place in the world you can watch snow monkeys bath in hot spring water!
About an hour away by direct train from Nagano is Matsumoto. Matsumoto is known for Matsumoto Castle, Japan’s oldest castle that still retains its original wooden structure. Spend a day here and you’ll be able to relive your childhood samurai and ninja fantasies.
You might have heard of Hiroshima from your history books, but did you know that there is a lesser-known attraction close by?
Just a quick ferry ride away from Hiroshima, Miyajima is a small island that makes for a trip. The island’s actual name is Itsukushima, but it’s popularly known as Miyajima, or “shrine island”, and you’ll see why.
Miyajima is famous for its Grand Torii Gate, a UNESCO Heritage site that looks like it’s floating on the sea during high tide. The gates are part of the larger Itsukushima Shrine complex, which is also located out on the sea.
The highest peak on the island is Mount Misen, and it offers stunning panoramic views. You can get up there via the Miyajima Ropeway, or there are also a few hiking trails that will lead you to the peak.
While many people visit Miyajima as a day trip, staying overnight lets you enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the island. Plus, you’ll get to witness an amazing sunrise over the water – what could be better than that?
- Mount Aso and Takachiho Gorge
Mount Aso is Japan’s largest active volcano, that last erupted in 2016 but has since calmed down. The main crater, the Nakadake Crater, is a magnificent and otherworldly sight up close.
While the crater is open to visitors, there may be periodic restrictions depending on the level of volcanic activity. Be sure to check in on the official website before your trip as they provide real-time updates on any closures.
Not far from Mount Aso is Takachiko Gorge, a natural wonder that was created when Mount Aso erupted and flowed through the Gokase River. You can take a rowboat ride along the narrow chasm, while the 17-meter high Minainotaki Waterfall pours down around you.
You can also choose to walk on a paved trail along the edge of the gorge, for a different vantage point. It is truly a magical experience, but yet this wonder remains an off the beaten path location in Japan for many foreigners.
Kanazawa is an incredibly charming and well-preserved old city, due to it being one of the few places that were not affected by WW2 bombings.
Spending a day or two in Kanazawa will transport you back to the days of old. The cobbled alleyways of the Nagamachi Samurai District and Higashi Chaya Geisha district will certainly make you feel as if samurais and geishas were roaming the streets with you!
A visit to Kenroku-en Garden is a must in Kanazawa. Designed by the Maeda samurai family that ruled the area over hundreds of years, it is known as one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens.
Near the gardens is Kanazawa Castle, the Maeda family home. It has been restored in recent years and is free to visit.
Myoryuji Temple in Kanazawa is also known as the Ninja Temple, because it’s full of hidden tunnels, secret rooms, traps, and a labyrinth of corridors. It’s the perfect place to spend an afternoon pretending you’re an ancient spy.
Ine is a tranquil fishing community located on the seaside north of Kyoto. Its coastal location and tranquil green surroundings make it a peaceful place for some rest and relaxation.
What makes Ine particularly special are the “funaya”, or waterfront fishermen’s boathouses. These double-storey structures sit right on top of the water along the coastline, with the bottom floor being “boat parking” and the living area being on the floor above.
What’s particularly charming is that most of these houses are still occupied by local fishermen. However, there are a few that have now been opened up for visitors to stay. If you’d like to experience living in a funaya yourself, do check out Boathouse Kura or Funaya Maruichi.
Once in Ine, you can take a boat tour to view the scenery from the waters. Alternatively, sign up for a fishing expedition, or just wander around the lovely seaside town and soak up the sea breeze.
- Matsushima Bay
Long known among locals as one of the most scenic destinations in Japan, the beauty of Matsushima Bay has been said to have left a famed 17th century Japanese poet speechless.
Matsushima Bay is a cove with a view of 260 little pine-dotted islands. There are four well-known spots that offer different panoramic viewpoints of the scenery. Most of these spots are accessible via an easy hike or drive, and it is possible to visit all four spots in one day.
Alternatively, see the islands up close via a boat tour that will take you around the bay. These boats depart hourly, but it’s best to reserve tickets first.
Magome is an ancient postal town that used to connect travelers that walked the Nakasendo Way (the historic route between Tokyo and Kyoto) during the Edo period.
Magome has now been beautifully restored, with wide cobblestoned streets and old wooden houses. It has been called one of the prettiest towns in Japan, and it’s easy to see why.
Magome is a small town, but you could easily spend the day there, visiting the little shops and museums that are preserving a slice of history. There are also many quaint little restaurants and tea houses if you get tired and need a break.
Alternatively, walk in the footsteps (literally) of ancient travelers and hike the Magome-Tsumago trail.
This is a relatively easy 8km walk that will take you through the picturesque Japanese countryside until you reach Tsumago, another postal town that has a more rugged and rustic vibe than Magome.
- Nachi Falls
At 133m tall, Nachi Falls is Japan’s tallest waterfall with a single uninterrupted drop.
Set within an ancient evergreen forest and mountain range, Nachi Falls and its surroundings are not just a natural marvel, it is also a deeply spiritual site. In fact, it forms part of the UNESCO-registered Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes.
At the foot of the falls is Hiro-Jinja Shrine, dedicated to the deity of the Falls.
There is a viewing area close by where visitors may drink water from the falls, said to be blessed for longevity.
However, for an even more spectacular experience, visitors can hike up a 600-meter-long beautiful cobblestone path. There, you will get to see the falls from a different angle, while also visiting the Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine.
There is a thousand-year-old camphor tree at the Grand Shrine with a deity enshrined within its hollows, symbolising the merging between the natural world and the spiritual world.
What Does Off The Beaten Path Mean?
Going off the beaten path means visiting a place that may not be as popular or touristy.
While it may not be completely unknown or hidden, off-the-beaten-path locations will likely be quieter and less crowded.
There is also a secret thrill that comes from visiting a locale that not many other people have heard of!
By visiting off the beaten path places, you will also avoid contributing to over-tourism, which is becoming a problem in certain popular places like Tokyo and Kyoto.
Visiting some less touristy places in Japan encourages more sustainable forms of travel, while you can also help out smaller local businesses.
Now that’s a win-win if you ask me!
What Is The Most Beautiful Part Of Japan?
Japan, in general, is a gorgeous country with an exquisite sense of culture and heritage.
As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some people might swoon at the sight of a majestic waterfall, while others fall in love with a twinkling metropolitan nightscape.
That being said, all the off-the-beaten-track locations in Japan we’ve highlighted above are absolutely stunning.
Whether you prefer a charming old town, the natural splendor of a volcanic gorge, or a spiritual pilgrimage route, all these beautiful places are sure to be an experience you won’t forget.
Where Should You Avoid In Japan?
Japan is a relatively safe country, and one of the best places in the world to go to as a solo female traveler.
However, if you hate crowds and anything too touristy, here are some areas you may want to avoid:
- Kabukicho in Tokyo
- Takeshita Street in Harajuku, Tokyo
- The general Shinjuku area in Tokyo
- Akihabara in Tokyo
- Dotonbori in Osaka
- Arashiyama Bamboo Forest in Kyoto
- Higashiyama in Kyoto (note that Kyoto is particularly popular with tourists during cherry blossom season in the spring!)
- Mount Fuji view from Hakone
What To Eat
Japan is a food lovers’ dream come true, so be sure to carve out time to enjoy the food while on your Japan off the beaten path itinerary.
Japanese fresh produce is so high quality that you’ll be able to eat well on any budget.
Even if you think you’ve tried Japanese food in your home country, rest assured that what you’ll eat in Japan will blow your mind away.
Here are some food items that you absolutely must try in Japan:
- Sushi and sashimi
- Yakitori (skewers of meat grilled over a charcoal flame)
- Yakiniku (grilled meat slices)
- Teppanyaki (hot place grilling)
- Gyukatsu (deep-fried beef cutlets) or tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlets)
- Okonomiyaki (cabbage and meat pancakes – tastes way better than it sounds)
- Sukiyaki (hotpot)
How To Get Around
If you’re curating a Japan off the beaten track itinerary that would cover multiple stops, I would highly recommend getting a Japan Rail Pass. JR Passes can be used on any JR Line train in Japan and are only available for foreign tourists.
A JR Pass can be bought for 7, 14, or 21 days.
- A 7-day JR pass for adults costs about USD 307,
- a 14-day pass about USD 484,
- while a 21-day JR Pass costs about USD 570.
This is significantly cheaper than how much single-trip train rides between cities would cost otherwise. You may also use your JR Pass for certain lines within the cities.
You must book your JR Pass online before arriving, and pick it up when you’re there. You can book it online here.
Unique Tips You Should Know When Visiting Japan
- Don’t be overwhelmed by the idea of visiting a country that speaks a foreign language. This is why apps like Google Translate or TripLingo exist. You can use these apps to read signs, menus, and instructions quite easily.
- It can be hard to navigate around without internet access. Wifi may not be as prevalent in Japan as you expect, particularly in off the beaten path locations. You should pre-order a PocketWifi or a Japanese sim card before your trip, and arrange to pick it up at the airport upon arrival.
- Japanese culture frowns upon eating while walking. Even if you buy food from a street vendor or convenience store, you should finish it by the store before moving on.
- The Japanese culture is generally quite modest. Do be respectful, particularly in temples or places of worship.
- It’s also considered rude to talk on the phone or listen to music out loud on trains. Use your headphones if you absolutely need to.
There are so many really cool off the beaten path places in Japan just waiting for you to explore! What are you waiting for?!