Most first-time visitors to Japan stick to the ‘Golden Route,’ the popular itinerary that starts in the bustling metropolis of Tokyo, then follows a path through through Hakone, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima before looping back to the capital. They’re all fantastic destinations, but travellers should look beyond those familiar cities and sights to experience some of the country’s lesser-known locales.

“For many travellers, the ‘Golden Route’ has become a familiar and iconic way to experience Japan, but it is far from the only way,” said Ken Toyoda , the Executive Director of the Japan National Tourism Office in Toronto.  

“So many of Japan’s most incredible destinations are not yet on the average traveller’s radar, and so we saw an opportunity to introduce them to the parts of Japan that are quieter, but no less compelling.”

Here are some of those under-the-radar destinations in Japan that the JNTO is highlighting for travellers looking for authentic Japanese experiences:

Eastern Hokkaido: Japan’s northernmost island boasting a rugged, wintery landscape

If you love snow and wildlife, Eastern Hokkaido is the place for you. This region is known for its harsh winters, but also for its breathtaking beauty and unique attractions. You can visit the Shiretoko National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to brown bears, deer, foxes, and eagles. You can also enjoy the ice floes that drift along the coast of Abashiri and Shari, or take a cruise on an icebreaker ship. For a relaxing soak in a natural hot spring, head to Akan-Mashu National Park, where you can find lakes, volcanoes, and forests.

Nasu: The temperate highlands of Tochigi Prefecture, dotted with Jizo statues

Nasu is a popular resort area in Tochigi Prefecture, located about two hours by train from Tokyo. Nasu is famous for its hot springs, ski slopes, hiking trails, and scenic views of the Nasu mountain range. One of the most unique attractions in Nasu is the Nasu Heisei-no-mori Forest, where you can find over 2,000 Jizo statues scattered among the trees. Jizo is a Buddhist deity who protects children, travelers, and the deceased. The statues were donated by people from all over Japan to commemorate the Heisei era (1989-2019). You can walk around the forest and admire the different expressions and poses of the Jizo statues, or join a guided tour to learn more about their history and meaning.

Hokuriku: A seaside region home to Kanazawa, where traditional Japanese culture thrives

Hokuriku is a region on the Sea of Japan coast that includes the prefectures of Ishikawa, Toyama, and Fukui. Hokuriku is known for its rich history, art, and cuisine, as well as its beautiful natural scenery. One of the most popular destinations in Hokuriku is Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture. Kanazawa is often called “Little Kyoto” because of its well-preserved samurai and geisha districts, as well as its numerous temples and gardens. Kanazawa is also famous for its gold leaf crafts, lacquerware, and Kutani porcelain. You can visit the Kanazawa 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art to see some of the most innovative and creative works by Japanese and international artists.

Mount Hachimantai: A mountainous expanse bordering Akita beloved for its autumn colours

Mount Hachimantai is a volcanic mountain that straddles the border between Iwate and Akita prefectures. Mount Hachimantai is part of the Towada-Hachimantai National Park, which covers an area of over 850 square kilometers. Mount Hachimantai is a popular destination for hiking, skiing, and hot spring bathing. One of the most spectacular sights in Mount Hachimantai is the autumn foliage, which turns the mountain into a kaleidoscope of reds, yellows, and oranges. You can enjoy the autumn colours from late September to early November by driving along the Hachimantai Aspite Line or taking a ropeway to the summit.

Tottori and Shimane: Two western prefectures home to sword-making, art museums, and UNESCO-recognized silver mines

Tottori and Shimane are two prefectures in the western part of Honshu island that are often overlooked by tourists. However, these two prefectures have a lot to offer for those who are interested in Japanese history, culture, and nature. Tottori is famous for its sand dunes, which are the largest in Japan and stretch for 16 kilometers along the coast. You can enjoy various activities on the sand dunes such as camel riding, sandboarding, or paragliding. Tottori is also home to the Tottori Prefectural Museum of Art, which houses a collection of works by French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Shimane is known for its sword-making tradition, which dates back to over 1,000 years ago. You can visit the Sekishu Washi Center to learn about the traditional paper-making technique that is used to make sword sheaths. Shimane is also home to the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. The silver mine was active from the 16th to the 20th century and played an important role in Japan’s economic development.

Okinawa and Amami: Where dense jungles and mangroves give way to picturesque beaches

If you are looking for a tropical paradise in Japan, look no further than Okinawa and Amami. These islands are located in the southernmost part of Japan, and have a distinct culture and history from the mainland. You can enjoy the warm weather, the turquoise sea, and the white sand beaches all year round. You can also explore the rich marine life by snorkeling or diving in the coral reefs. Some of the highlights include Ishigaki Island, Miyako Island, Zamami Island, and Amami Oshima Island.

Kagoshima, Unzen, and Aso: Kyushu’s wonders, encompassing grassy plateaus, Samurai-style lodgings, and a volcanic caldera

Kyushu is the third-largest island of Japan, and has a lot to offer for travelers who want to experience a different side of Japan. Kagoshima is a city that faces the active volcano Sakurajima, which erupts frequently and creates a spectacular sight. You can also visit the Sengan-en Garden, a former residence of the Shimazu clan that ruled over Kagoshima for centuries. Unzen is a town that is famous for its hot springs and its hellish landscape of steaming vents and boiling pools. You can stay in a traditional ryokan (inn) and enjoy the local cuisine. Aso is a town that is located in the center of a massive volcanic caldera, which is one of the largest in the world. You can hike around the crater rim or take a cable car to the summit of Mount Aso.

Southern Nara and Wakayama: Where one can walk ancient pilgrimage routes and stay in a deep-forest temple

If you are interested in Japan’s spiritual heritage, Southern Nara and Wakayama are ideal destinations for you. These areas are dotted with ancient temples and shrines that are connected by pilgrimage routes. You can walk along the Kumano Kodo Trail or the Yamanobe-no-Michi Trail and immerse yourself in nature and history. You can also stay overnight at a temple lodging (shukubo) and experience the Buddhist way of life. Some of the most famous temples include Koyasan (Mount Koya), Yoshino (Mount Yoshino), Hasedera (Hase Temple), and Nachi Taisha (Nachi Grand Shrine).

Ise-Shima: Home to the country’s most sacred shrine, luxurious hotels and the famous female free-divers known as Ama

Ise-Shima is a peninsula that is located in Mie Prefecture, east of Osaka. It is best known for being the site of Ise Jingu (Ise Grand Shrine), which is considered to be the most sacred shrine in Japan. The shrine is dedicated to Amaterasu, the sun goddess and ancestor of the imperial family. The shrine buildings are rebuilt every 20 years according to an ancient tradition. You can also visit other attractions such as Meoto Iwa (the Wedded Rocks), Mikimoto Pearl Island (where cultured pearls were invented), and Toba Aquarium (one of the largest aquariums in Japan). If you want to splurge on your accommodation, you can choose from several luxury hotels that offer stunning views of the sea and the islands. You can also witness the ama divers, who are women who dive for pearls, abalone, and other seafood without using any equipment.

Matsumoto and Takayama: A duo of alpine towns boasting Edo-period architecture and feudal castles

Matsumoto and Takayama are two towns that are located in the Japanese Alps region, west of Tokyo. They are both famous for their well-preserved historic buildings that date back to the Edo period (1603-1868). Matsumoto is home to Matsumoto Castle, one of the oldest and most beautiful castles in Japan. It has a distinctive black-and-white exterior and an impressive wooden structure. You can also visit the Matsumoto City Museum of Art, which features works by Yayoi Kusama, a renowned contemporary artist who was born in Matsumoto. Takayama is known for its old town area (Sanmachi), where you can find many traditional shops, restaurants, sake breweries, and museums. You can also visit the Takayama Jinya (Takayama Government Office), which was used by the shogunate officials during the Edo period.

Setouchi: A coastal region covered in bridges, offering historic port cities and magnificent views of an inland sea

Setouchi is a region that encompasses several prefectures along the Seto Inland Sea (Setonaikai), which is a body of water that separates Honshu (the main island) from Shikoku (the fourth-largest island). The region is known for its scenic beauty and cultural diversity. You can visit some of the historic port cities such as Hiroshima (where you can see the Atomic Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Park), Onomichi (where you can walk along the Temple Walk or cycle across several islands on the Shimanami Kaido route), Kurashiki (where you can admire the canal area with its old warehouses), Matsuyama (where you can relax at Dogo Onsen or visit Matsuyama Castle), Takamatsu (where you can enjoy udon noodles or visit Ritsurin Garden), Okayama (where you can see Okayama Castle or Korakuen Garden), Kobe (where you can taste Kobe beef or visit Kobe Harborland), Himeji (where you can see Himeji Castle or Mount Shosha), Naoshima (where you can see contemporary art installations or visit Benesse House Museum), Miyajima (where you can see Itsukushima Shrine or Mount Misen), Shodoshima (where you can see olive groves or Kankakei Gorge), Tomonoura (where you can see fishing boats or Sensuijima Island), etc.

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