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 Japan 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 you visit some of these Japan off-the-beaten-track places, take a look at my post on everything you need to know before going to Japan. I included many travel information, including how to get around Japan and other travel tips.
Here are a 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 smartcard 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
Japan Off the Beaten Path: 11 Japan Hidden Gems
I love exploring off the beaten path in Japan, and there are many in this beautiful country where 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 in Japan and get off the beaten path, 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 overrun by tourists. Uji is one of the best off-beaten track places in the 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, 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-beaten-track cities you must visit!
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 into 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 the 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, 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 and 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 seeing an off-the-beaten-path island in Japan, 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 plan a trip to Teshima, you might as well add Naoshima to your itinerary. They are both art islands in the Seto Inland Sea and 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, plenty of contemporary artworks are at the 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 on 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 to 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, the next off-the-beaten-path spot in Japan.
There are many highlights along the 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, 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 best bikeway and connects Onomichi on the main island of Honshu and Imabari on Shikoku Island. The 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 to bike 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, seeing all the above attractions, and cycling 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 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, visiting 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 visit Kyushu Island, 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.
Other temples and shrines are 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, 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. Japan’s railway system also connects the city. 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 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 measuring 25 kilometres and a circumference of over 100 kilometres.
However, due to continuous volcanic activity, seeing the crater up close may or may not be possible. But there are still many hiking trails on the mountain and horseback riding at Kusasenro-ga-hama, next to Aso Volcano Museum.
On the way down Mount Aso, you will see Mount Komezuka on the right-hand side. It looks like an inverted bowl of rice. You can better view the bowl-shaped mountain by climbing 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 trails like Nagisa Lava Trail, dip your feet in free Nagisa Park Foot Bath, enjoy onsens baths, bike ride, 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 the Kagoshima City Museum of Meiji Restoration and the 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 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. Japan Rail Passes cover these fares and JR Kyushu Rail Passes.
Off the beaten path Japan: which of these Japan hidden gems are you going to see?
I love Japan and am always willing to go back to Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto – some of the country’s best cities.
But I also love exploring the places in Japan that are off the beaten path. During my last trip, I was able to find and explore these lesser-known cities which are some of the best Japan hidden gems.
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 Japan off the beaten-track cities are you interested in visiting? You can easily make a Japan off-the-beaten path itinerary and visit all of these hidden gems!
Or you can follow my one-month itinerary in Japan and see the best cities in the country and some of the off the Japan beaten path cities mentioned in this post. Let me know in the comments which of these Japan hidden gems you will see!
Thank you for reading my Japan off-the-beaten-path post
You might also like these other posts on solo travel in Japan:
Introduction to Japan
- Solo Travel to Japan: 17 best cities for solo travellers
- Things I wish I knew before going to Japan
- Japanese Food Culture: 11 must-try food
- One month in Japan: from Tokyo to Hiroshima
- 5-day Tokyo itinerary for first-time visitors
- Where to stay in Tokyo for solo travellers
- Tokyo Food Guide: 42 best places to eat in Tokyo
- Kyoto 2-day itinerary
- Uji day trip from Kyoto
- Nara day trip from Kyoto or Osaka
- 2-day Osaka itinerary
- Osaka to Kobe day trip: 1-day itinerary
- Himeji day trip from Osaka
- Naoshima Art Island: 1-day itinerary
- How to spend one day on Teshima Island
- 17 Best things to do in Kurashiki Japan
- 13 Top things to do in Onomichi Japan
- Shimanami Kaido: how to spend one day cycling Japan’s best bike route
- Hiroshima 2-day itinerary
- Day trip to Miyajima from Hiroshima
- 10-day Kyushu Island itinerary
- 25 Best things to do in Fukuoka Japan
- Day trip to Dazaifu from Fukuoka
- Kumamoto City in one day
- Day trip to Mount Aso from Kumamoto
- 11 Top things to do in Kagoshima Japan