Undiscovered Japan - 10 destinations off-the-beaten-path

In this article, we delve into the concept of off-the-beaten-path travel, uncovering Japan's lesser-known destinations. Travelling off the beaten path in Japan means venturing into areas where traditional customs are more pronounced, landscapes remain unspoiled, and the pace of life is reflective of a Japan less influenced by the rapid modernization seen in its cities.

In this article, we will guide you through ten such off-the-beaten-path destinations in Japan. Each place, with its unique charm and character. So, let's embark on this adventure, ready to uncover the hidden gems of Japan and the unique experiences they hold.



Kagoshima with Sakura-jima in the background

Kagoshima, a city in Japan's southern Kyushu region, presents a remarkable blend of natural beauty and cultural depth. Its most notable geographical feature is the active Sakurajima volcano, which forms a striking backdrop to the city's skyline. Kagoshima offers a unique combination of scenic landscapes, rich history, and a variety of recreational activities, making it an enticing destination for travelers seeking an immersive experience in Japan.

A stroll through Kagoshima's city center leads to Shiroyama Park. The park's Observation Deck provides panoramic views that encompass the Sakurajima volcano, the cityscape, and the expansive Kagoshima Bay.

Travelers can embark on a ferry to Sakurajima. At arrival, the Sakurajima Volcanic Shore Park and Footbath provide a chance to experience the island's natural amenities. Other notable spots like Yunohira View Place and Arimura Lava Observatory offer unique perspectives of Mount Sakurajima and its surrounding lava fields.

Other noteworthy places are Sengan-en Garden, a traditional Japanese garden with historical roots, the Terukuni Shrine, dating back to the 19th century, and the Sakurajima Magma Hot Spring, known for its communal geothermal springs. The city's artistic and historical aspects come to light at the Nagashima Museum, where visitors can appreciate local artwork and the museum's unique architecture.


Togakushi Village

A stone statue of a lion with moss growing on it, at Togakushi

Togakushi Village, located in the heart of Japan is a place where natural beauty and cultural heritage seamlessly intertwine. Marked by dense forests and mountainous terrain, the journey through Togakushi Village is highlighted by the Togakushi Jinja Temple, a sacred complex of five shrines connected by paths lined with ancient cedar trees. The Upper Togakushi Shrine, with a history stretching back 2,000 years, is set against a serene mountain backdrop. In contrast, the Lower Togakushi Shrine features an ornately designed pavilion nestled in the forest.

Adjacent to Togakushi Village lies the Myoko Togakushi Renzan National Park, a compact nature reserve offering a diverse array of outdoor activities such as camping and kayaking. The park is home to scenic peaks, hot springs, lakes, and notable spots like Kagami Ike pond, renowned for its reflective waters and picturesque hiking trails. During winter, there is also the Togakushi Ski Resort and Kurohime Kogen Snow Park, known for its year-round appeal, and the Iizuna Resort. An intriguing aspect of Togakushi Village is its connection to ninja history, showcased at the Togakushi Ninja Trick Mansion. Visitors can engage with exhibits and artifacts that provide insights into the enigmatic world of ninjas.
In conclusion, Togakushi Village represents a harmonious blend of culture, history, and natural beauty, that ranges from spiritual shrines and historical pathways to the immersive beauty of its natural surroundings and the thrill of winter sports.



Panoramic view of Hakodate, Japan

Hakodate, a city in southern Hokkaido, Japan, is one of the first Japanese harbor cities to be opened to international trade. The city center, with its array of landmarks, serves as a starting point for visitors to immerse themselves in Hakodate's vibrant history. Walking through Hakodate unveils a variety of historical and cultural landmarks, such as the Hakodate Hachimangu, an ancient Shinto shrine, the Gothic-style Catholic Church Hakodate Motomachi and the 19th-century Russian-influenced Hakodate Orthodox Church.

Hakodate is also home to unique attractions and viewing points. Goryokaku Park, a star-shaped fort turned park, is renowned for its cherry blossoms and the Goryōkaku Tower provides panoramic views of the city, mountains, and the historical fort. Mount Hakodate is known for its spectacular city light views, accessible via cable car or hiking trails.  The city also offers varied shopping and dining experiences. The historic Kanemori Red Brick Warehouse combines retail with dining, encapsulating Hakodate's trade history. Donburi Yokocho in the Hakodate Morning Market is a haven for seafood enthusiasts, while Daimon Yokocho offers a culinary journey through Japanese food and drink, while Hakodate Meijikan, housed in a converted warehouse, is ideal for souvenir shopping.
In conclusion, Hakodate is a city where history, culture, and natural beauty converge, as Hakodate offers a rich and varied experience.



Aso Area, Japan

The Aso area, located in the central part of Kyushu, Japan, has a unique geography dominated by one of the world’s largest calderas. As travelers arrive, they find themselves at the doorstep of an adventure in a landscape shaped by volcanic activity.

Mount Naka, part of the Aso Five Peaks, presents a compelling first stop for visitors. The mountain's active caldera, with its occasional plumes of smoke, offers a unique natural spectacle. However, it's crucial for travelers to be aware of the safety guidelines and access restrictions that may be in place, considering the volcanic activity.
The journey continues with a visit to Mount Aso Nakadake, the most active among the Aso peaks. Accessibility to the crater can vary due to volcanic gases, but when conditions permit, it provides a rare opportunity to witness the power of nature up close. Nearby, the serene Shirakawa Suigen Spring offers a contrast with its clear waters, allowing visitors to experience the tranquility and purity of the area. 
A visit to Oshido Stone Hill rewards travelers with panoramic views and a chance to appreciate the unusual rock formations that characterize the region.
For those seeking adventure, Aso Nature Land provides various activities like paragliding and hot air ballooning. The area is also known for its horseback riding opportunities, with El Patio Ranch and Aso Kusasenri Horse Riding Club. 
Other experiences in the Aso area include a ride on the Minamiaso Railway Trolley Train "Yusuge," offering picturesque views along the route, the Aso Cuddly Dominion, which provides an up-close experience with bears and other species.


Takachiho Gorge

A waterfall in a canyon at Takachiho Gorge, Japan

Takachiho Gorge, located in Miyazaki Prefecture on the island of Kyushu, is a geographical marvel, renowned for its deep gorges and basalt columns. Intrinsically linked to Japanese mythology, it makes for a significant cultural destination as well as a natural one.

Visitors' first encounter with Takachiho Gorge is a striking experience. The gorge, with its river canyon, cascading waterfalls, and unique basalt formations, offers a stunning display of nature's artistry. The main attraction is the Manai Falls, which cascades down the gorge and is considered one of Japan's most beautiful waterfalls. Visitors have various ways to enjoy the gorge, including walking along its paved path or renting a boat to view the cliffs and waterfall from the water.
The area is dotted with ancient shrines, each with its own story. Amanoiwato-jinja Shrine is particularly notable for its ornate design and the sacred cave nearby, which plays a crucial role in Japanese mythology. Other noteworthy shrines are the Amanoyasugawara, set within a cave, and the serene Kushifuru-jinja Shrine. Visitors can also see Takachiho Shrine, known for its nightly Kagura dances, which narrate stories from Shinto mythology. 
The most popular way to experience Takachiho Gorge is renting a rowboat and navigating the Gokase River, which runs through the gorge. As this allows for an up-close view of the gorge’s beauty. Additionally, the Amaterasu Railway offers open-air train rides that provide scenic views of the gorge and surrounding area, including the impressive Takachiho Iron Bridge.


Kusatsu Onsen

Kusatsu Onsen

Kusatsu Onsen is one of Japan's top hot spring destinations. Situated in Gunma Prefecture, this renowned spa town, has abundant and highly acidic waters, with a rich history as a therapeutic center. Visitors to Kusatsu Onsen are immediately greeted by the town's unique hot spring culture. Among the highlights is Shirahata Hot Spring, known for its traditional wooden baths and milky waters and Ohtaki no Yu, which offers a spacious, traditional bath experience with varying water temperatures. Then there is Sainokawara Open-air Bath, set in a picturesque environment, and Jizo no Yu Mae Footbath. Goza no Yu completes the experience with its indoor baths and scenic views. These facilities are not just bathing spots but integral parts of Kusatsu's cultural fabric.
The Kusatsu Onsen area is not limited to hot springs alone; it also offers the Kusatsu Onsen Ski Resort, with its gentle slopes and cozy eateries, a winter favorite. In contrast, Sainokawara Park provides a serene setting with its natural heated pools and walking trails. For more panoramic views, Yokoteyama, Japan's highest ski resort, offers breathtaking vistas and seasonal sports. While Nozori Lake, nestled amidst lush hillsides, is a perfect spot for nature lovers. 
A bit further, you will find Chatsubomigoke Park, offering a unique landscape with its moss-covered terrain and acidic springs.  



Matsushima, Japan

Matsushima, renowned for its status as one of Japan's three most scenic views, unfolds as a picturesque panorama to the arriving traveler. The area, situated in Miyagi Prefecture, is noted for its bay dotted with pine-clad islands. A defining activity in Matsushima is the scenic boat tour, the perfect way to appreciate the beauty of the bay. Companies like Matsushima Pleasure Boat and Marubun Matsushima Kisen provide tours through the pine-covered islands that dot the bay. The exploration of Matsushima continues with visits to various vantage points for panoramic views. These include hilltop shrines and temple grounds.
There is also the option to rent kimonos from places like Ume Luv Rental Kimono, or Visit  Fukuurajima Island Teahouse or Kanrantei Tea House for an insight into the tradition of the Japanese tea ceremony. 
Matsushima is also home to significant historical and religious sites. The Shiogama Shrine, along with the Entsū-in and Zuiganji Temples. The Matsushima Fish Market lets you dive into the local seafood culture. Here, visitors can taste dishes like the oyster burger.


Chichibu and Nagatoro

Boats on a river In Nagatoro, Japan

Chichibu and Nagatoro in the Saitama Prefecture of Japan, present a harmonious blend of cultural richness and outdoor excitement. Chichibu is celebrated for its historical temples and vibrant festivals, while Nagatoro is a haven for adventure enthusiasts, offering thrilling activities amidst stunning natural landscapes.
Chichibu is home to the revered Chichibu Shrine, known for its intricate sculptures, particularly during the famous Chichibu Night Festival. Nearby, the Hodosan Shrine sits at the base of Mount Hodo, adorned with colorful carvings and accessible via a scenic ropeway. Nosaka-ji, forming part of the Chichibu 34 Kannon Sanctuary, further adds to the area’s allure. The region's natural beauty is showcased in Hitsujiyama Park, particularly during the spring when the park's flower fields bloom in a vibrant display.
Shifting focus to Nagatoro, the area offers an array of outdoor activities, making it a paradise for adventure seekers. The Nagatoro Valley, with its forested river canyon and unique rock formations, provides opportunities for river cruises and hiking. Visitors can experience rafting and the Forest Adventure Chichibu obstacle course. Paragliding at Dodaira Sky Park Paragliding School and river boating along the Nagatoro Line are other notable activities.
Both Chichibu and Nagatoro share access to attractions like the Nishizawa Gorge, with its picturesque streams and waterfalls. The Icicles of Ashigakubo, especially captivating when illuminated at night, provide a magical winter spectacle. The Hodosan Ropeway on Mount Hodo offers scenic gondola rides and hiking trails.



Otaru canals, Hokkaido, Japan

Otaru is a coastal city in Hokkaido, known for its well-preserved canal area and historical buildings. Otaru's past as a major fishing and trade hub has left a lasting impact on its architecture and culture, making it a unique blend of history, nature, and modernity. The journey in Otaru begins in the Old Port Quarter and Canal Area, where visitors can explore the heritage buildings. A visit to The Herring Mansion offers insights into the city's fishing history and the lifestyle of the wealthy herring merchants.  
Otaru’s artistic side is showcased at the Otaru Music Box Museum, home to an extensive collection of intricately designed music boxes, whilst the city's tradition in sake brewing is evident at the Tanaka Sake Brewery, where visitors can engage in the sake-making process and enjoy tastings. Kitaichi Glass and Otaru Taishou Glass Palace further highlight local craftsmanship, offering unique glasswork.
Nature plays a central role in Otaru’s appeal. The journey to the Blue Grotto and the Blue Cave Boat Cruise allows a look at the natural beauty of the coastal area. The Otaru Shukutsu Panorama Observation Deck offers sweeping views of the city and its surrounding landscapes. Otaru Tenguyama, accessible by ropeway, provides not only winter sports opportunities but also year-round recreational activities. For shopping, the Nantaru Market and Sankaku Market are hubs for fresh local produce and seafood, while the Otaru Canal Warehouse, along with Otaru Denuki Koji, offer a unique shopping and dining experience. A fun way to enjoy the city’s charm is through boat tours on its restored canal.



A pool with hot springs in the middle of a hill at Beppu, Japan

Beppu is renowned for its extensive array of hot springs. Situated on the island of Kyushu, Beppu stands out as one of Japan's most famous hot spring resorts. The city is notable not just for the sheer number of its thermal baths but also for the diversity they offer, catering to a wide range of preferences and experiences. The thermal waters of Beppu are not only a source of relaxation but also an integral part of the city’s cultural fabric. 
From the steamy sands of the beach to the tranquil waters of traditional onsens, the city offers a variety of baths, including foot, sand, and mud baths. Each type associated with different health benefits, making them a must-try for visitors.
Among the highlights is Kannawa Steam Bath, where visitors can immerse themselves in a mystical atmosphere created by the steamy surroundings. Umi Jigoku Foot bath offers a quick stop to relax, while Hyotan Onsen provides a choice between indoor and outdoor baths. On the other hand, Beppu Beach Sandbath offers a unique form of relaxation, where visitors get buried in warm sands. Hamawaki Hot Spring and Kamado Jigoku add to the variety with their communal vibe and hell-themed park, respectively.
Beyond the hot springs, Beppu offers scenic and recreational spots such as Jumonji Viewpoint and Beppu Park. The Beppu Ropeway is an ideal way to enjoy views from Mount Tsurumi, while Beppu Rakutenchi & Kijima Kogen Park provide amusement park thrills, including cable car rides. The Beppu "Jigoku Meguri" Hells Tour is a unique attraction, offering a thematic exploration of the hot springs.  The city’s diverse hot springs, scenic views, cultural experiences, and recreational activities make it a unique travel destination.



The exploration of Japan's lesser-known destinations presents a journey through a Japan less trodden. Each destination, unique in its charm and character, offers a distinctive experience – from cultural immersions and natural explorations to various recreational activities.  
Each location visited in this journey stands out for its individual charm. Whether it's the serene beauty of Togakushi Village, the historical depth of Hakodate, or the volcanic wonders of the Aso area, these destinations exemplify the diversity beyond the popular tourist circuits.