Forget Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. For a unique and authentic visit, discover off-the-beaten-path Japan. Rural Japan’s lush mountains, island getaways and quiet onsen towns with steaming hot spring baths are all essential destinations for those who wish to see a more local side to the country.
Here are our top recommendations for places to go off the beaten path in Japan, for travellers willing to see what lies beyond the neon lights and skyscrapers of the big cities.
- Hakone National Park
- Shikoku Island
- Takayama, Hida
- Miyajima Island
- Mount Koya, Kansai
- Matsumoto, Japanese Alps
- Naoshima Island
- Kinosaki Onsen
1. Hakone National Park
You won’t believe that Hakone National Park lies less than 100 kilometres away from hectic Tokyo, with its epic mountain views (look out for Fuji-san on a clear day), forest-lined lake and thermal hot springs.
True to Japanese style, the park is easy to navigate with an efficient and convenient transport system of trains, buses, cable cars, a funicular and a boat cruise. In the vast expanses of Hakone, you can really take in a breath of fresh air, explore at your leisure and recline in the mineral-rich waters of onsen baths.
Hakone is particularly beautiful during sakura cherry blossom season and the autumn months, when the leaves turn rich reds and oranges. If you're visiting Japan during summer, you can also climb Mount Fuji between July and September. Read our when to visit Japan guide for more details.
2. Shikoku Island
Shikoku is the smallest of Japan’s four main islands and home to areas of incredible natural beauty.
The Dogo Onsen hot springs here are the oldest in Japan, with traditional wooden bathhouses and ryokan guesthouses, while the intricate landscape gardens of Ritsurin Koen in Takamatsu (pictured) make for a peaceful and contemplative visit.
The main attraction on Shikoku is Iya Valley with its dramatic peaks and rugged cliffs. The area was once used as a secret hideaway by fugitives, but today you can enjoy getting lost in the region’s winding roads, vine bridges and riverside hot spring escapes (look out for the famous Peeing Boy statue en route!).
3. Takayama, Hida
Tucked away in the lush forests of the Japanese Alps, the charming rural town of Takayama exists almost as a time capsule of the Edo period. The architecture dates to the 16th century and the narrow alleys of teahouses and sake breweries feel a world away from Japan’s fast-paced metropolises.
Peruse local crafts at a morning market, sip on locally-brewed sake or take a cycle tour of the region for stunning alpine views. The three-sister mountain ranges of Hida, Kiso and Akaishi are said to be the home of mountain spirits, giving this destination in the Japanese Alps a celestial level of serenity.