Last Updated on October 25, 2020 by queenie mak
Japan is known for cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. And these are some of the biggest cities that any first-time traveller to Japan must visit.
But there are other parts of Japan that are lesser-known to travellers. There are many Japan off the beaten path places are true hidden gems and are worth discovering.
Most of these hidden gems can be visited as a day trip or in a few days. But if you really want to slow things down and see the lesser-known side of Japan, consider staying for a few more days or even a few weeks.
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Off the beaten path in Japan: Things you need to know before going
Before you travel to Japan, take a look at my post on everything you need to know before going to Japan. I included a lot of travel information including how to get around Japan and other travel tips.
Here are few additional tips for travelling off the beaten track in Japan:
- Get an IC Card, a rechargeable smartcard like Pasmo, Suica, ICOCA or any other smartcards that allow you to take public transportation easily. You can use any one of these cards throughout the entire country.
- Check train schedules and fares with Hyperdia
- If you are travelling quickly throughout Japan, consider getting a Japan Rail Pass. The railway pass can potentially save you a lot of money!
- Japan is a safe country for solo female travellers but as always, practice your regular safety precautions wherever you go
11 Best Japan Off the Beaten Path Places
I love exploring off the beaten path places and there are many in Japan that you can explore as a solo traveller. Here are my top 11 favourites:
- Shimanami Kaido
- Mount Aso
Ito is a famous onsen (hot spring) resort town on the eastern coast of Izu Peninsula. The seaside town on an area with high volcanic activity, which means there are lots of onsens. In fact, Ito has one of the largest hot spring water outputs in Japan. The town pumps out 32,000 litres of hot spring water every minute!
While you are in Ito, visit one of many public baths including Tokaikan, a historic building with intricate wood details and have tea at the tea house. And if you are in Ito on the weekend or public holiday, you can use their public bath as well.
Also visit Izu Kogen, a region just south of Ito where you can climb (or take chairlift) Mount Omuro, an extinct volcano with a walking trail around the perimeter of the crater. On a clear day, you can see as far as Mount Fuji. Also, hike the 10km hiking trail along the Jogasaki Coast where you can see stone formations and the jagged coast formed by molten lava.
If you want to visit an onsen town and visit an off the beaten path city in Japan, skip Hakone and visit Ito instead.
How to get to Ito
You can easily visit Ito while you are spending a few days in Tokyo. Ito is 128km southwest of Tokyo and there is a direct train from Tokyo Station to Ito Station that takes 101 minutes and costs ¥4,200.
Uji is a small town south of Kyoto and is known for producing green tea and matcha green tea. Most visitors will take a day trip to Nara from Kyoto and skip Uji. But this small town has so much charm and is not over-run by tourists. Uji is one of the best off beaten track places in Kansai Region that you should not miss.
The perfect day in Uji starts with a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site, Byōdō-in Temple, which is also the same temple featured on the ¥10 coin. Then hike up the hill across Uji-gawa River until you reach Daikichiyama Observation Deck to see a view of Uji. And on the way back down, visit other temples like Ujigami Shrine, Uji Shrine, Eishin-in Temple, Koshoji Temple and Mimuroto-ji Temple. And finally, end your day strolling along Omotesando Road, the main street in Uji where you can sample some matcha green tea treats.
How to get to Uji
Uji is 18km south of Kyoto. From Kyoto Station, take the train to Uji Station, which takes 25 minutes and costs ¥240.
Known for its picturesque canal with weeping willow trees in the historical quarter, Kurashiki is one of the best Japan off the beaten track city that you should not miss.
The small town in Okayama Prefecture has the most charming city centre known as Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter. You can see the canal by strolling along either side of the canal, on a traditional boat tour, or taking a rickshaw tour.
Kurashiki was once an important point along the rice distribution route. When you see typical Kurashiki houses (austere white-washed walls with black and white latticework), they were previously rice warehouses and are now converted to shops and restaurants.
Besides the picturesque historical quarter and charming houses, there are many things to do in Kurashiki, including some of the best museums like Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki Museum of Folkcraft, Momotaro Karakuri Museum and Ohashi House. Also, check out the denim products made in Kojima and local Kurashiki cuisine including fruits that are grown only in Okayama Prefecture.
How to get to Kurashiki
Kurashiki is 18km southwest of Okayama City. From Okayama Station, take the train to Kurashiki Station. It takes only 17 minutes and costs ¥330.
Teshima is a small island in the Seto Inland Sea and is part of Kagawa Prefecture. Toxic waste was illegally dumped on the island for many years but it has been cleaned up since and transformed into a modern art destination.
The biggest attractions on Teshima Island are the five museums/art galleries including Teshima Art Museum, Les Archives du Coeur, Teshima 8 Million Lab, Needle Factory and Teshima Yokoo House. And the best way to get to each of these attractions is by renting an electric bicycle.
If you love modern art installations, beautiful natural landscapes and see an off the beaten path island in Japan, definitely visit Teshima Island!
How to get to Teshima
The journey to Teshima starts from Okayama. Take a train from Okayama Station to Uno Station with a transfer at Chayamachi Station. The train ride takes 50 minutes and costs ¥590.
Then walk 5 minutes towards Uno Ferry Port and catch one of the ferries to Teshima Ieura Port. The ferry ticket costs ¥770 and the ferry ride takes between 25 to 40 minutes (depending on the boat).
If you are planning a trip to Teshima, then you might as well add Naoshima to your trip itinerary too. They are both art islands in the Seto Inland Sea and are both excellent modern art destinations in Japan.
Naoshima is famous for Yayoi Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin, aka Naoshima Pumpkin (and there is also a Red Pumpkin) and modern museum buildings designed by Tadao Ando, a self-taught Japanese architect.
Besides the polka dot artwork and modern buildings, there are plenty of contemporary artworks at Chichu Art Museum, Lee Ufan Museum, Benesse House Museum, Ando Museum, Art House Project, Miyanoura Gallery 6 and Naoshima Bath (I Heart Yu). And you can see all the museums in Naoshima all in the same day.
How to get to Naoshima
Similar to Teshima, the journey to Naoshima starts from Okayama. Take a train from Okayama Station to Uno Station with a transfer at Chayamachi Station. The train ride takes 50 minutes and costs ¥590.
Then walk 5 minutes towards the same ferry port, Uno Ferry Port and catch one of the ferries to Miyanoura Port in Naoshima. The ferry ticket costs ¥300 and the ferry ride takes 20 minutes.
Onomichi City is a quaint port town in Hiroshima Prefecture known for its many temples, cats and cycling. The city consists of the slopes mainland and some of the neighbouring islands in the Seto Inland Sea connected by Shimanami Kaido, one of the world’s best bike routes, which is also the next off the beaten path spot.
There are many highlights along Onomichi Temple Walk including Tennei-ji Temple, one of 25 temples along the 2.5km marked path. The route merges with Neko no Hosomichi (Cat Alley), where many live cats and fukuishineko, lucky stone cats reside. And if you are visiting during spring, then you must either hike up or take the ropeway up Senko-ji Mountain to see a panoramic view of Onomichi, Senko-ji Temple and cherry blossoms in full bloom.
After seeing all the attractions in Onomichi, try a bowl of famous Onomichi ramen and desserts made with Setouchi lemons, as 60% of Japan’s lemons are grown in this region.
How to get to Onomichi
Onomichi is 40km east of Hiroshima. From Hiroshima Station, the train journey to Onomichi Station takes less than 2 hours (with 1 transfer in between) and costs ¥1,520.
7. Shimanami Kaido
Shimanami Kaido is Japan’s bet bikeway and connects Onomichi on the main island of Honshu and Imabari on Shikoku Island. The entire bikeway is 70km long and connects six islands in the Seto Inland Sea.
The dedicated bike route has five bridges including Ikuchi Bridge and Innoshima Bridge. Along the bikeway, there are many attractions including the colourful Kosanji Temple, the stark white marble statues at Miraishin no Oka (The Hill of Hope), Hirayama Ikuo Museum of Art and Shiomachi Shopping Alleys where you will find little shops and cafes.
It would take two days biking the entire bikeway (from Onomichi to Imabari and back to Onomichi). But you can still see the best highlights on Shimanami Kaido in 1 day by cycling half the route from Onomichi, see all the attractions mentioned above, and cycle back to Onomichi.
How to get to Shimanami Kaido
The beginning of Shimanami Kaido bikeway starts in Onomichi. Follow the instructions above and start your bike journey from Onomichi.
There are many bike rentals in Onomichi. The cheapest and most convenient bike rental is located at Ekimae-kowan Car Park at the harbour.
Takeo is a small onsen town in Saga Prefecture on Kyushu Island. A perfect day in Takeo includes a stroll through the town, soaking in ancient hot springs at Takeo-Onsen Tower, visit the sacred 3,000-year-old camphor tree at Takeo Shrine and seeing cherry blossoms in Mifuneyama Rakuen Park during spring.
Another highlight of Takeo is the art and light exhibition by teamLab at Mifuneyama Rakuen Hotel where interactive installation with Murano glass and LED lights are displayed. The modern art and light installations continue into Mifuneyama Rakuen Park where colourful lights light up the park when the sun goes down.
If you are visiting Kyushu Island, make sure to include this Japan off the beaten track town in your itinerary.
How to get to Takeo
Takeo is 87km southwest of Fukuoka on Kyushu Island. From Hakata Station in Fukuoka, take the train to Takeo-Onsen Station. The train ride takes 1 hour 20 minutes and costs ¥3,100.
While many travellers may not know about Kumamoto in Kyushu, the city has many historical temples and shrines, including Kumamoto Castle, one of the top three castles in Japan.
There are other temples and shrine on the castle premise including Kato Shrine, Kumamoto-jo Inari Shrine and Honmaru Goten Palace. As of June 1, 2020, visitors can only see part of the Kumamoto Castle complex on an elevated walkway due to the damages from the earthquake in 2016. But it is still worth seeing.
For the rest of your day in Kumamoto, visit the Honmyo-ji Temple on the hillside where you can also see an obstructed view of Kumamoto. Stroll through Shimotori Shopping Arcade and Sakuranobaba Johsaien Castle Town and try some unique Japanese snacks and buy Kumamoto souvenirs (with Kumamoto’s most beloved iconic mascot, Kumamon Bear). And visit Suizen-ji Jojuen Garden, a big Japanese garden with a beautiful lake built in the 17th-century.
Don’t leave Kumamoto without having a bowl (or two) of Kumamoto ramen. The broth is made with tonkotsu pork and kogashi garlic is added for extra flavour.
How to get to Kumamoto
If you are flying within Japan, you can fly to Aso Kumamoto Airport which is 17km from Kumamoto City. The city is also connected by Japan’s railway system. It takes only 40 minutes and costs ¥5,030 to take the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Hakata Station in Fukuoka to Kumamoto Station.
10. Mount Aso
Mount Aso is an active volcano near the Aso town in Kumamoto Prefecture. But most visitors will visit the volcanic mountain as a day trip from Kumamoto instead of staying in Aso.
As part of the Aso-Gogaku mountain range, the active volcano has five peaks: Nekodake, Takadake, Eboshidake, Kishimadake, and Nakadake. At the highest peak, Mount Nakadake, it has one of the world’s largest caldera. The active volcano has a crater measures 25 kilometres and has a circumference of over 100 kilometres.
However, due to continuous volcanic activity, it may or may not be possible to see the crater up-close. But there are still many hiking trails on the mountain, horseback riding at Kusasenro-ga-hama, which is next to Aso Volcano Museum.
On the way down up Mount Aso, you will see Mount Komezuka on the right-hand side. It looks like an inverted bowl of rice. You can get a better view of the bowl-shaped mountain if you climb up Mount Kishimadake.
How to get to Mount Aso
You can visit Mount Aso from Kumamoto without a car. Take Kyushu Odan Bus #1, #3 or #7 from Kumamoto Bus Terminal to Aso Station (1 hour 56 minutes, ¥1,500). At Aso Station, buy a return bus ticket for the Mount Aso Bus and the bus will take you to the top of the volcanic mountain (30-40 minutes, ¥1,200).
Kagoshima is the southernmost city on Kyushu Island. It is a thriving port city with an active volcano, Sakurajima, and the gateway to many remote islands in southern Japan.
A trip to Kagoshima must include a visit to Sakurajima, the symbol of Kagoshima. You can hike on various hiking trails like Nagisa Lava Trail, dip your feet in free Nagisa Park Foot Bath, enjoy onsens baths, bike riding, and take a sightseeing tour around the “island”.
Furthermore, check out different views of Sakurajima from different parts of Kagoshima including the zen Sengan-en Garden and Shiroyama Observatory. It is also worthwhile to visit Kagoshima City Museum of Meiji Restoration and Kagoshima City Museum of Art.
If you are a foodie, check out different Kagoshima cuisine at Kagoshima Furusato Food Village and take a tour of Kagoshima Fish Market and have fresh seafood for breakfast.
And if you want to explore beyond the city of Kagoshima, many ferries can take you to a few islands in southern Japan including Yakushima Island and Okinawa.
How to get to Kagoshima
Domestic and international flights fly directly into Kagoshima Airport. And it takes 45 minutes and ¥1,300 to take the Airport Limousine Bus from the airport to the city centre.
Alternatively, Japan Railway connects Kagoshima to the rest of Kyushu. The Shinkansen (bullet train) can take you to Kagoshima-Chuo Station from Kumamoto Station in only 57 minutes and costs ¥6,870 and from Hakata Station in Fukuoka, it takes 97 minutes and costs ¥10,640. These fares are covered by Japan Rail Passes and JR Kyushu Rail Passes.
Off the beaten path Japan: are you including these in your itinerary?
I love Japan and am always willing to go back to Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto – some of the best cities in the country.
But I also love exploring the places that are off the beaten path in Japan. During my last trip, I was able to find and explore these lesser-known cities and had such an awesome time.
I’ll continue to add more to the list when I discover more. So bookmark this post for future reference.
And now the big question is – which one of these hidden gems are you interested in visiting? You can easily make a Japan off the beaten track itinerary and visit all of these hidden gems! Let me know in the comments!