Thanks to an increase in cheap fares to Japan, the fact it’s only a short plane ride – relatively – and it shares a time zone, more and more Australians are heading over to sample the culture.
And it’s well worth the trip. Japan is an amazing place with a diverse culture and some of the most spectacular urban landscapes on Earth. The countryside isn’t bad either, as anyone who’s visited the mountains can attest to. With a booming snow culture and some of the most consistent seasons in the world, Japan has started rivalling Europe and North America as a must-ski destination. And look, if you stick to Tokyo, Kyoto and the slopes, you’re going to have a great time. The cities are spectacular and all-consuming, and the mountains are well worth the time.
But there’s so much more of this amazing country to explore, and more tourists need to take the time to get off the beaten track a little bit.
So we’ve put together a list of lesser travelled places around Japan that are well worth checking out.
Hokkaido is Japan’s northernmost island and a nature lover’s paradise.
It’s home to lakes, hot springs, astonishing natural beauty, and some of the world’s best powder skiing and snowboarding.
Most importantly, it’s a major foodie destination with some of Japans best seafood on offer. Anthony Bourdain even took his tv show there.
You’ll find it pretty busy in winter with all the locals heading up the mountains, but it’s just as great a place to visit in summer.
The Furano Flower Fields are in full bloom and it’s the perfect time to wander Hokkaido’s many national parks, swim in its lakes and general just soak up the serenity. Plus it’s home to Sapporo beer!
On top of all this, Hokkaido offers outsiders a traditional ryokans experience. A ryokan is a type of traditional Japanese inn that typically features tatami-matted rooms, communal baths where visitors may wear yukata (kimonos) and talk with the owner.
It’s a short domestic flight from most cities in Japan, so the easiest way for Australians to get there is to catch a connection from Tokyo. If you prefer to travel at a slightly slower pace, the bullet trains will take you there, and there are also bus services.
Apart from some diehards knowing it as the home of Mr Miyagi – Karate Kid forever! – most people don’t know much about one of Japan’s most underrated destinations.
It’s the complete package, with fantastic weather year-round, stunning beaches and a complicated and fascinating history.
The Ryukyu – once an independent kingdom before being annexed by Japan in 1872 – culture lives on in Okinawa, and it’s a very different feel to the majority of Japan.
There’s a bunch of islands to visit and they’re all lovely, but the Yaeyama Islands are the stand out for sure.
They’re geographically closer to China than Japan, and the vibe you get is neither Chinese or Japanese, but something uniquely their own.
There are daily flights from several Japanese cities into Naha Airport on Okinawa’s main island. There’s also a handful of daily flights into New Ishigaki Airport, on Ishigaki Island (part of the Yaeyama Islands).
Despite being home to Fukuoka and Nagasaki, the most southern of Japan’s 4 main islands is largely ignored by western tourists.
Fukuoka maybe Japan’s most livable city, with friendly people, great food, good weather, and isn’t overwhelmingly huge like Tokyo. The public transport makes it especially easy to navigate, and it’s the birthplace of shochu, Japan’s most popular liquor!
It’s also home to some of the best ramen in Japan. Make sure you grab some from one of the many yatai (street stalls)
Outside of Fukuoka, Beppu is Japan’s most famous onsen town, though if you’re keen for something a little more laid back Yufuin or the remote village of Kurokawa Onsen might be more to your liking.
If you like volcanoes, Mt. Aso is a must see, and in nearby Takachiho make sure you take a boat ride down the river and through the spectacular gorge!
Maybe Kyushu’s most spectacular must visit is the island of Yakushima, a few hours’ ferry ride from Kagoshima (Kyushu’s southernmost city).
Yakushima features an ancient forest – a UNESCO World Heritage site – sea turtles, amazing hiking and some of the most beautiful and untouched natural beauty in all of Japan.
The bullet train or a short flight into Fukuoka are the easiest way to get to Kyushu. From there buses, local trains and ferries can take you where you need to go.
If you’re after a less populated remote Japanese experience, then Shikoku is perfect for you.
Shikoku is home to the pristine Iya Valley, the eclectic art island – yes you read that right – Naoshima and Japan’s best udon noodles! If partying with the locals is your thing, then the Awa Odori dancing festival (held every August) is definitely your jam.
Upon landing on Shikoku, it’s best to head inland and explore its gorgeous interior, where you’ll find hiking, rafting, hot springs and waterfalls. Oh my!
And for a truly one-of-a-kind experience, you really can’t go past Naoshima. Naoshima is a tiny island in the Inland Sea – such a great name – renowned for its art museums, galleries and magical atmosphere.
In recent years it’s become increasingly popular with art connoisseurs and luxury travellers who come to see Benesse House and the Chichu Museum and the chance to stay at a museum-hotel. Literally living amongst art!
The train is probably the best way to get to Shikoku, but there are plenty of busses as well.
Most travellers enter Shikoku via the major cities of Takamatsu or Tokushima. Depending on your plans and how much of the island you plan to explore, a private driver or rental car may be the best option.
If you’re heading to Naoshima, you can take the shinkansen (bullet train) to Okayama city, transfer to a train to Uno, and then take a short ferry.
Osaka is Japan’s second city, so isn’t exactly off the beaten path right? Wrong!
Osaka is consistently skipped by westerners who prefer to visit Tokyo and Kyoto – the anagram lovers Tokyo! But it’s one of the most popular cities amongst Japanese tourists. What makes Osaka-ians are Japan’s most outgoing people, the food culture in Osaka is off the hook.
People in Osaka live to eat and drink. The even have a local word for it – Kuidaore – which literally means “to eat oneself to ruin”! That’s a group of people I can relate to. Expect the sake to keep flowing long into the night.
Osaka’s most famous street food – takoyaki – consists of fried bite-sized balls filled with octopus and other goodies. Yes, Osaka is the home of octopus balls, and it’s one of the best hunger busters anywhere in the world. If fine dining is more your go there’s more Michelin stars than you can poke a stick at, and plenty of traditional and modern Japanese restaurants to try.
It’s also home to one of the most perfect examples of ancient Shogunate Japan. Osaka Castle is a unique look at feudal life in Japan and the spectacular gardens are a great place to spend a few hours.
The city is also home to one of the largest and most impressive aquariums in the world, a sure-fire hit for families with some bored little-ones in tow.
Osaka is only about 30 minutes drive from Kyoto, so it’s super easy to get there direct from Japan’s ancient capital. Flights to Kyoto leave Australia daily.
Otherwise, domestic flights and the trusty bullet train are your best bet!