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Most visitors to Japan tend to stick to the traditional tourist trail of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. I did this on my first trip to Japan too! After living in Japan and since visiting again, I wish I had ventured off the beaten path in Japan sooner!
Exploring smaller cities or towns in Japan can really expand your travel experience. While Tokyo is a great city to explore (who doesn’t like the craziness of this city?!) and Kyoto is filled with more traditional experiences like shrines and temples, there are so many other cities and places that are worth adding to your itinerary!
To help you choose, I’ve included a guide to places that are off the beaten path in Japan that you should consider adding to your Japan trip!
1. Naoshima Island
Naoshima island is heaven if you’re a fan of modern art. Here you’ll find outdoor art installations (including the famous “giant pumpkin” by famous Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama). Naoshima is also home to the Chichu Art Museum, which also has beautiful works by Monet (it’s also fun to experience the novelty of removing your shoes to see the artwork!)
Even if you’re not a huge art expert, this beautiful island is worth a visit for the views alone. The water is a beautiful blue color, and as you go whizzing down the hills on a bicycle, you can’t help but wonder whether you’ve found yourself on some tropical, deserted island.
The “giant pumpkin” by Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama
Takayama is famous for its traditional wooden shop fronts. Think little alleyways filled with boutique shops and small restaurants.
Takayama is especially worth a visit if you’re planning to visit Shirakawago. Initially, I only planned on visiting Takayama as a brief stop before I traveled to Shirakawa-go, but I am SO glad I spent the night here! If you want to experience rural Japan (and you don’t have a car), Takayama is the ideal place for that. The old town is much less “touristy” than the Higashiyama District in Kyoto. This makes Takayama an ideal city to include in your itinerary if you’re looking to experience places off the beaten path in Japan.
Traditional Japanese shop fronts in Takayama
Shirakawago is an incredibly famous town in Japan. UNESCO World Heritage-listed, the houses here are built with what is called the “Gassho Style” where homes are made with thatched roofs. These homes are so different to modern day houses that it takes about three full days to remove an old roof and replace it with a new one. The community here takes turns patrolling the area during the summer in case there are any fires (one of the downsides of living in a wooden house!)
I visited in the summer, but Shirakwago is most famous during the winter when the homes are lit up and covered in snow. This makes the area look like something out of a magical wonderland!
Gassho Style houses in Shirakawa-go
4. Kamikochi (also known as “the Japanese Alps”)
Kamikochi, located in central Japan is known as the “Japanese Alps” and is perfect for those who enjoy hiking or the outdoors. Kamikochi is more popular with local Japanese and Taiwanese tourists who are “in the know.” I spent 3 nights here, though you could visit just for the weekend and still not feel rushed. It was a great way to unwind, and get away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo!
Even if you’re not a huge hiker, Kamikochi has many “easy” or accessible hikes you can do. Some people visit even just for the day and don’t do any hiking!
Beautiful views in Kamikochi
This island prefecture has a world of experiences. Do you like food? Hokkaido is known for its seafood, dairy products, and fresh produce. Or are you a snow bunny? People visit Hokkaido every winter for its winter sports!
Sapporo is also home to an annual winter festival known for its ice sculptures. Conversely, if you’re more of a warm weather sort of person, Hokkaido is worth a visit in the summer. Less humid than Kyoto and Tokyo, Hokkaido is known for its beautiful flower fields during the summer. We loved our visit to Hokkaido, and were SO glad our Japanese friends suggested we visit!
Sunflower fields in Hokkaido
While Yokohama is still a major city, it’s 100% worth a visit. Most visitors to Tokyo don’t even realize Yokohama exists. It’s only a 15-20 min train ride from Tokyo!
Why should you visit Yokohama? Yokohama is home to the cup noodle museum (where you can make your very own cup noodles!) and is also home to Japan’s oldest Chinatown.
Looking up at the gates in Chinatown, Yokohama
I’m not going to lie…Okinawa is the only place on this list that I haven’t had the chance to visit yet. Everyone keeps on telling me how I need to visit Okinawa, and I have to admit, I am itching to go! This island is home to the Ryukyuan people who are the longest living people in the world and is famous for its beautiful beaches.
Japan is a country filled with such diverse landscapes. If you’re visiting Japan for the first time, make sure you include somewhere little bit “left of center” or off the beaten path in Japan. You won’t regret your decision!
And if you’re planning a trip to Japan, make sure you download my free phrase guide. Just click the image below!
Tell me: if you were heading to Japan, what place from this list would you add to your itinerary?
Or if you’ve been to Japan before, what’s missing from this list?
Do you have any tips for traveling off the beaten path in Japan?
Worried about the language barrier on your upcoming vacation to Japan?
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