For a lot of first-time visitors of Japan, planning an itinerary can be a big challenge. With so many sites and attractions to choose from, how can they even pick which ones to prioritize? Because of that, many decide to just stick to the so-called “golden route” of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. That is perfectly fine, as these three cities are home to some of the world’s most iconic historical and cultural sites, best entertainment districts, and most beautiful natural scenic spots, and it is impossible to run out of things to do there. However, for those who are looking to try something different, and go off the beaten path, there are also numerous options available for you. Below are just 6 of Japan’s must-visit hidden gems:
Located in Miyagi Prefecture, a 30-minute train ride away from Sendai, Matsushima is a nature-lover’s paradise that is considered to be one of the top three most scenic views in the country. It is highly recommended to those who are looking to be one with nature, as its 260 lush islets and stunning bay are home to dense forests and diverse flora and fauna, and overflow with breathtaking natural beauty.
To explore the area, you can take a tour of Matsushima Bay aboard a sightseeing boat, and enjoy the refreshing views. You can also hop off the cruise, and spend some time checking out some of the islets, particularly Oshima Island, which offers many serene walking trails that go deep into the pine forests. You can also visit Fukuura Island, which is accessible from the mainland via a bridge that is 252 meters long, and also has a variety of walking paths and a botanical garden.
You can find more information on the must-see attractions in Matsushima on the official Matsushima Tourism Association website.
Less than two hours away by train from Tokyo, Atami has a long reputation of being one of the best onsen or hot spring destinations in Japan. From as far back as 8th century, its warm and relaxing onsen waters attract not only locals but also foreigners wanting to get away from their busy and hectic lives.
A highly recommended nature day trip from Tokyo, it has many natural onsen that even legendary shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu gave high praises to. It also has the Atami Castle, which has a big collection of historical artifacts and exhibits and has an observation area that offers fantastic views of the city.
For information on onsen, ryokan, and other spots to see in Atami, go to the official Atami City Tourism Association website.
Akan Mashu National Park
Hokkaido is the northernmost island of Japan, and it offers many opportunities to get close to nature. In the eastern part of the island, there is the Akan Mashu National Park, which is a gorgeous and well-preserved nature attraction, best known for its three lakes: Lake Akan, which can be explored by taking a tourist sightseeing boat tour; Lake Mashu, which boasts of its clear waters that you can observe from its observation decks built along its caldera rim; and Lake Kussharo, which is the biggest among the three, and is home to many outdoor hot spring baths and hiking trails.
In addition, it has the Kawayu Onsen, which has high-quality and acidic hot spring waters, perfect for a relaxing bath; and the Akankohan, which is a quaint Ainu village that is great for shopping for some traditional Ainu handicrafts.
To learn more about what to do and what to see there, visit the official website of the Akan Mashu National Park.
A peninsula off the coast of the island of Honshu, Izu is a great outdoor and nature sightseeing spot not too far from Tokyo. It has an abundance of amazing landscapes, pristine beaches, and therapeutic onsen, as well as mild climate all-year round, which locals and foreign thoroughly enjoy.
For some unforgettable outdoor adventures, you can go to Jogasaki Coast, which offers a 10-kilometer long hiking trail that follows the coastline, affording you picturesque views of the sparkling Pacific and the horizon, or visit Cape Irozaki, which has a vast collection of interesting rock formations and landscapes, with the blue ocean in the background. You should also try the boat tour around Dogashima to photograph some cool cliffs and caves, and stroll along Shirahama Beach to try snorkeling or surfing, enjoy authentic local foods, and shop for souvenirs.
To help you plan your visit to Izu, go to the Izu Peninsula Tourism website.
Tucked in the mountains of southwest Tohoku, Yamagata is a scenic prefecture that is home to many natural parks and diverse wildlife. Any time of the year, it offers top-rated sites and attractions that can give you numerous memorable experiences.
If you are visiting in winter, you should go to Zao Onsen, and be amazed at the thick and fine powder white snow, as you ski or snowboard past the snow-covered trees they call snow monsters. In autumn, you should climb up the Yamadera temple complex to get the best views of the colorful foliage. In the summer, the Dewa Senzan offers a pilgrimage route that introduces you to the area’s long and rich Shinto and Buddhist traditions. In spring, the region offers many good sakura viewing spots.
Go to the Yamagata Tourist Association website for more information on Yamagata.
Found in Shizuoka Prefecture, surrounded by the Amagi Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Kawazu is a small, quiet town popular for its early-blooming cherry trees every spring season. It holds the Kawazuzakura Matsuri from early February to early March every year, and welcomes crowds of tourist from all over Japan and the world who want to witness the spectacular sakura in full bloom earlier than the rest of the country.
If you are planning an itinerary for your Kawazu trip, go to the official website of Kawazu Town for more information.