When planning one’s first trip to Japan, it’s easy to figure out what the top priorities are on any itinerary: Tokyo and Kyoto, for sure, and from them, day trips to such places as Kamakura, Nara, Osaka or Hiroshima. Those are all must-see places, and for good reason!
But Japan has many more beautiful places to visit than the must-sees, and I would argue that any itinerary must leave room for at least one lesser-known stop, so I have gathered below some of my suggestions to spice up your next trip. These places may not be as high-profile as the others, but travelling through inner Japan has its own pleasures and it gives you a very different view of the country.
Kanazawa is a lovely town easily accessible by train from either Tokyo or Kyoto. Its main claim to fame is Kenrokuen, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, an astonishing traditional garden that is at its best during late fall, when the oak leaves turn blood red. In addition, though, Kanazawa also boasts a geisha district and a samurai distric, old quarters where traditional houses have been preserved or restored; walking down these streets really feels like traveling back in time.
The town’s second claim to fame is the gold leaf trade, so be sure to check out the many shops that make gorgeous, tasteful crafts using authentic gold. Two nights (one full day) is enough to check out the main sights, but I recommend three nights (two days) either to relax and take your time, or try to sneak in a day trip to Takayama.
Read about my trip to Kanazawa here.
The sacred mountain of Zen Buddhism, Koya-san is famous for its 1000-year-old cemetery, Okunoin, an ancient site where for centuries the trees have been growing around, and sometimes through, gravestones and mausoleums. Koya-san is a bit difficult to get to, because you have to chain multiple trains, cable cars and buses, so you should plan to stay between one and two nights there. To make the most out of the experience, you should stay at a Buddhist temple; some are pretty spartan, but others are not very different from a ryokan.
Read about my trip to Koya-san here.
The southern city of Fukuoka is only off the beaten path if you’re a foreigner like me; for the Japanese, it is one of the country’s top domestic destination. I have never met a single Japanese person who has been to the other towns listed here (except at the towns themselves, I guess!), but every one of them has been to Fukuoka and is a huge fan.
Fukuoka is known to have the world’s best ramen, and for its many yatai, food carts where people huddle around a stove or a griddle to eat different specialties. If you’re going to travel around Kyushu, one or two full days are enough to see Fukuoka; if you plan to use it as a base to explore the island, plan three or four days because there are a lot of highlights!
Read about my trip to Fukuoka here.
Perhaps the least-known spot on this list, Naoshima is a tiny little island devoted to modern art. There are a handful of contemporary art museums that are as remarkable architecturally as the collections they house, and the whole island is dotted with open-air sculptures, notably Yayoi Kusama’s Yellow Pumpkin.
I visited Naoshima as a day-trip from Osaka, so it’s definitely doable, but I regretted it instantly: it takes forever to chain trains and ferries to get there and back, leaving you precious little time to explore the island. You should book two nights at an apartment or an inn in town.
Read about my trip to Naoshima here.
It’s easy to disregard Nagasaki in favor of its more famous, better connected sister, Hiroshima, but if you’re in Kyushu, it’s very much worth a day-trip. In addition to its sobering Atomic Bomb Museum, which is similar to (and as excellent as) Hiroshima’s, the city is also worth visiting for its international atmosphere: as one of the first Japanese ports of entry for American and European merchants, Nagasaki has several Western neighborhoods, including a Dutch residence and beautiful American gardens.
Read about my trip to Nagasaki here.