Japan's best hidden gems

Best hidden gems in Japan – an Off-the-beaten-track Japan bucket list!

Wondering where to find the most beautiful hidden gems in Japan? Perhaps you’ve already seen the main attractions in Kyoto and Tokyo and are keen to now explore Japan off-the-beaten-track?

The (bucket) list below contains some great tips on lesser explored places in Japan, which are still just as beautiful and worth-visiting as their more famous counterparts. From amazing natural attractions, small cultural cities you’ve never heard of, and hidden gems I can’t help but hope make it onto my next Japan itinerary.

All the beautiful Japanese destinations below are listed more-or-less in order of direction – from Northeast to Southwest.

Hiking the Kumano Kodo is an amazing way to see Japan's nature

OTARU, Hokkaido

by Sarah from A Social Nomad

Perched on the northern coast of Hokkaido Island, Otaru really is one of Japan’s hidden gems.  It’s often overlooked as visitors travel to Sapporo, but it’s worth taking the time to come here for a variety of reasons.  Otaru is just 30 minutes by train from Sapporo but is a world away from the big city life. 

Otaru was built around the fishing industry and specifically herrings so it’s hard to come here and not see some evidence of this now largely defunct industry.  The mansions, or Nishin Goten,  built by those who did well in the industry are stunning and it’s easy to walk by – and even explore some of them inside.  The Bank of Japan was also headquartered here and the original building is now a museum of money, where you’ll not only learn a thing or two but also get the chance to explore the old vaults.  It’s not the only museum in Otaru, the town is positively bursting with them. There’s a literary museum, a museum of the music box, a Venetian Art gallery – and that’s just the start – find out more about Otaru’s museums here

Otaru’s canal was completed in 1923, and is now used for pleasure craft only, but it also makes a pleasant stroll or cruise past the reutilized warehouses which are now gorgeous cafes and stores. 

NASU

by Jordan from Inspired by Maps

One of the best off-the-beaten-track travel destinations in Japan has to be Nasu, a famous onsen town with hiking, skiing, strawberry picking, and even a kawaii alpaca farm. Located in the northern corner of Tochigi prefecture, the Nasu Highlands is a tranquil mountainous area built on the slopes of Mt. Nasu.

While almost unknown to international tourists, the area is famed throughout Japan as the Nasu Imperial Villa location — a retreat used by the Japanese Imperial Family. The Imperial Family still visits annually during August and September, meaning you might spot the Princess while visiting. In 2011 half of the grounds of the Imperial villa were opened to the public admittance and renamed Nasu Heisei no Mori Park, increasing the allure of Nasu.

Besides this imperial connection, the excellent onsens, nature appreciation opportunity, gorgeous hotels, charming restaurants, and ever-changing seasonal foliage displays make Nasu such a special place to visit. Being Japan, there is also a bevy of zany attractions to explore in Nasu including the Nasu Teddy Bear Museum, The Nasu Safari Park (where you can feed lions yourself), or animatronic dinosaur robots at the Blancvert Nasu Hotel & Hot Spring.

Even better? Nasu is conveniently located and reachable on the JR Tohoku Shinkansen line from Tokyo Station in around 70 minutes. You’ll need to get off at the Nasushiobara Station, and either use local buses or hire a car to get around.

SNOW MONKEYS IN NAGANO

by Carole from Travels with Carole

Visiting the snow monkeys at the Jigokudani Yaen-Koen Snow Monkey Park in Nagano Prefecture is just a short Bullet Train ride from Tokyo.  Several companies offer easy package trips, and you should plan to spend the night in an onsen and perhaps visit a temple as well.  Said to be the only monkeys in the world that lounge in hot springs, these red-faced Japanese macaques do this in cold weather to keep warm.  In warmer weather, they prefer sunbathing, so winter is prime time to plan a visit. 

These highly social monkeys are indigenous to Japan and are the world’s northernmost wild primate.  Visiting them requires a long but scenic trek through a quiet forest and up some steep steps, during which you can indulge in a little forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku as this practice is known in Japan.  Once at the hot spring, you’ll find that there are usually plenty of monkeys and they are not afraid of humans.  Their prime activity is grooming each other, and watching them is mesmerizing. 

MAGOME

by Emma from Emma Daydream Believing

If you are looking for a unique experience in Japan, make sure you visit the tiny historic post-town of Magome-Juku. Located in the beautiful Kiso Valley, Magome is part of an ancient road that once connected Kyoto and Edo (current day Tokyo) during the Edo Period. 

On arrival, you will be transported back in time and it’s easy to imagine Samurai wandering the cobbled streets on official business. Most people visiting Magome will be there to walk the Magome to Tsumago Trail. This leisurely walk will take you through a well-maintained section of old Nakasendo route scenic woods – you will traverse through scenic woodlands and quaint Japanese villages before arriving in Tsumago a few hours later. This easy and safe hike is well sign-posted and perfect for solo-travellers. 

Other must-dos include enjoying a delicious traditional Japanese dinner at Michelin rated Haginoya (make sure you book in advance!) or tasty piping hot ramen at Ontaya. For the coffee lovers, you can’t leave without stopping by Hillbilly Coffee Company; it’s the perfect rest-stop before climbing the steep hill which forms the main street. 

You can reach Magome by catching a train to nearby Nakatsugawa Station, and from there you will need to jump on the local bus which will take you to Magome in 30 minutes.

MOSS TEMPLE, KYOTO

by James from Travel Collecting

Saiho-ji Temple, also called the Moss Temple or Koke-dera, is a hidden gem in Kyoto that very few international visitors see. The temple dates from 749. In the late 19th century, it was abandoned and eventually flooded due to neglect.  This proved to a blessing in disguise, because moss grew in the damp environment.  The result today is a magical garden filled with moss between tall trees around a heart-shaped pond. The pond is created in the shape of the Japanese kanji character for ‘heart’ by three well-placed islands.  Tiny teahouses are scattered through the woods, and an old wooden boat nestles on the shore of the pond.  A path meanders though the moss, under the trees, around the pond and between the tea pavilions. 

Visiting the temple is a little complicated.  You need to request an invitation up to two months in advance and provide a special return self-addressed postcard that will act as your ticket.  The return postcard can only be sent to a Japanese address, so the easiest thing to do is ask your hotel to arrange it for you.  Then when you arrive at your designated time and date, you show your postcard, pay the admission fee, and participate in a temple ritual before entering the garden.  This could be copying the ‘heart sutra’ in Japanese calligraphy or perhaps joining in Buddhist chanting.  It adds a fascinating cultural element to your visit, making it even more of a special, off-the-beaten-path Japanese experience.

To get to Saiho-ji, either take a taxi or bus No.73 from Kyoto JT station (get off at “Kokedera” stop) or take the Karasuma subway line to Shijo Station and transfer to bus no. 29 to the Kokedera-michi stop.

SHIRAKAWA-GO, Gifu

by Audrey from That Backpacker

Shirakawa-go is a charming village situated in the heart of the Japanese Alps and it is best known for its thatched-roof farmhouses said to resemble hands clasped together in prayer. This unique architectural style developed over many generations, and it was specifically designed to withstand heavy snowfalls.
When you visit Shirakawa-go, you can’t miss going up the Tenshukaku Observatory; this is where you get those postcard-perfect views of the town. You can take the bus up (¥200) and then walk back down stopping at the different lookout points. 

Back in town, you can easily spend a few hours walking around the farmhouses and admiring the rice fields, gardens in bloom, and canals filled with coy fish. There are lots of cafes, ice cream shops and handicraft stores to visit. 

Then, when you cross over the bridge to the other side of the Sho River, you can tour Gassho-zukuri Minkaen. This is an open-air museum where many of the farmhouses were relocated to better preserve them. There are a total of 26 structures including houses, a stable, a temple, a tea room and more. You’ll get a map when you first enter that will show you what each building’s original use was, and then you can explore at your leisure.

You can visit Shirakawa-go on a day trip, but if you have a bit more time, it is possible to book an overnight stay in one of the farmhouses.

Getting to Shirakawa-go requires a bit of effort, but the reward is getting to explore one of the most beautiful villages in all of Japan. If you’re coming from Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka, you’ll have to travel by train to either Nagoya or Kanazawa and switch over to a bus from there. There are direct bus links from Takayama, Nagoya, Kanazawa, Toyama, Gokayama and Shin-Takaoka.

KANAZAWA

by Vicki from Vicki Viaja

Japan is full of beautiful travel destinations, so it can be challenging to decide which one to choose. Unfortunately, the city of Kanazawa is all too often overlooked. It’s a shame because there are so many fantastic things to do in Kanazawa.

Kanazawa Castle is particularly popular in this Japanese city. However, even if the castle is, indeed, impressive, the real highlight is the castle park, the Kenrokuen garden. You can walk around for hours and hardly get enough of the plants and ponds that are waiting for you here. It is, therefore, not surprising that the park is also a popular photo spot for Japanese girls in traditional clothes.

In the traditional districts of the city, like the Geisha District and the Samurai District, there is a lot of impressive Japanese culture and architecture to experience. This is the perfect place to immerse yourself in Japanese culture further and imagine what it must have been like here in ancient times.

If you visit Kanazawa in early June, you can also experience the city’s famous samurai festival. The whole town is on its feet and celebrates, sings, and dances in Kanazawa’s streets.

FUKUI

by JB from Will Fly For Food

Chubu refers to a region in Japan encompassing nine prefectures in the middle of Honshu Island.  Some people may have heard of Nagano, Aichi (Nagoya), and Gifu (Shirakawa-go), but not as many are familiar with Fukui which according to tourism statistics is the least visited prefecture in Japan.

To be fair, there’s a reason for that.  Fukui doesn’t have any popular attractions to lure in foreign visitors but what it does have makes it an interesting stop for people looking to do something more offbeat in Japan.  It’s home to the spectacular Tojinbo Cliffs and the surprising Prefectural Dinosaur Museum.

The cliffs of Tojinbo stretch for over a kilometer and feature columnar jointing the likes of which I didn’t know existed in Japan.  They average about thirty meters in height and offer sweeping views of the Sea of Japan.

The Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum exhibits over forty dinosaur skeletons, including fossils from four unique species that were first excavated and identified in Fukui.  You’ve heard of Tyrannosaurus Rex.  But have you heard of Fukuiraptor or Fukuisaurus?  You can learn about them at this fascinating and very modern museum that features a few life-sized animatronic dinosaurs that snap and hiss at passing tourists.

Fukui is just one of many interesting stops you can make in central Japan.  You can easily explore Fukui and the rest of the Chubu Region using a Takayama Hokuriku Pass.  It’s a JR pass that gives you unlimited travel in central Japan for five consecutive days.

MATSUZAKI

by Wendy from The Nomadic Vegan

This small port town on the Izu peninsula has been rightfully dubbed as one of the “Most Beautiful Villages in Japan”. Since there’s no train station in Matsuzaki, it’s a bit more difficult to access than the towns on the eastern side of the peninsula. But this is a blessing in disguise, as it has resulted in much less tourist development. You’re unlikely to see any other foreigners here.

The most noticeable feature of the town itself is its distinctive “namako kabe” architecture. You will see homes and other buildings decorated with this black and white lattice design, created by a local artist named Chohachi Irie. But the real attraction is the stunning coastal scenery that surrounds Matsuzaki. A great way to experience the landscape is by walking the Sanpo Trail, which passes through three inlets and includes multiple viewpoints and beaches where you can stop for a swim.

Also be sure to try the local specialty, “sakura mochi”. You may be familiar with these words already, as “sakura” are cherry blossoms and “mochi” is a popular sweet treat made from sticky rice. “Sakura mochi” is mochi that’s filled with adzuki bean paste and wrapped in a salted cherry tree leaf. The result is a unique mix of sweet and salty flavors, and it’s also suitable for gluten-free and vegan visitors to Japan.

HAKONE

by Amanda from Fly Stay Luxe

If there’s one thing the Japanese are known for, it’s their love of bathing in an Onsen (hot springs). And there’s no better place to experience this relaxing pastime than in the beautiful mountain village around Hakone. 

Hakone is located only an hour and a half train ride south of Tokyo, and is perfect for a day trip. But to really experience the best of this region, I recommend spending at least a night (or two) in a traditional Ryokan (Japanese Inn). Most ryokans in the area feature an Onsen, which is fed from the underground thermal springs surrounding Mount Hakone, an active volcano. 

The Hakone Freepass covers most public transport in Hakone, allowing the region to be explored via train, bus, boat, and cable car.  One of the most popular things to do in Hakone is to catch the cable car up Mount Hakone, where you can (safely) watch the volcanic gases steaming out from the mountain side. Afterwards, the cable car continues back down the other side to Lake Ashinoko, where an old pirate ship awaited to take you on a cruise across the lake. On a clear day, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of Mount Fuji.

Other things to do around Hakone include; visiting the Hakone Open Air Museum, seeing the Hakone Shrine and giant Torii Gate on the shores of Lake Ashinoko, hiking to some beautiful waterfalls, and eating fabulous food in Hakone-Yumoto. 

NAGOYA

by Lena from Nagoya is not Boring

Japan’s third populous city, Nagoya, is often overlooked by travelers. But the city really has a lot to offer, making it a secret tip for people who want to experience the big cities of Japan minus the crowds. Here are some top things to do in Nagoya.

If you are a history buff you need to check out Nagoya as it played a very important role in Japanese history. The 3 great warlords who unified the country were born around Nagoya and you can learn about their accomplishments at Nagoya Castle as well as the Tokugawa Art Museum.

If you prefer street food and sub-culture like Cosplay, Anime, and Manga, you want to check out the Osu Shopping Streets where you can find Instagram-worthy street foods as well as electronics stores and everything an Otaku dreams of.

Talking about food, the local cuisine in Nagoya is very different from other parts of the country. Try red Miso dishes such as Miso Nikomi Udon (Udon noodles stewed in a red Miso sauce) or Miso Katsu (deep-fried pork cutlet with Miso sauce), or enjoy the specialty of the city called Hitsumabushi (grilled freshwater eel on rice).

Nagoya is easy to get to from all major cities as it is a stop on the Tokaido Shinkansen that connects Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo. In only a couple of hours, you can reach Nagoya from all major tourist cities.

NISHIO

by Lena from Nagoya Foodie

If you want to get really off the beaten track in Japan I recommend a day trip to Nishio. The city is the second-largest producer of Matcha green tea powder and has a lot to offer visitors, especially those who love Matcha.

Not only are there countless cute cafes and shops selling Matcha sweets like parfaits, soft-serve ice cream, pudding, and cakes, but also a couple of places where you can really experience Matcha like never before.

Join a tour of the Aoiseicha Matcha Factory to learn how Matcha is grown, harvested, dried, and ground. This tour includes a visit to the tea fields, the factory, and the cafe where you can enjoy a delicious cup of Matcha tea with some traditional Japanese confection.

If you want to have Matcha for lunch you can do that at Shokakuen where they serve Matcha Soba (as well as delicious Matcha sweets).

A visit to Nishio wouldn’t be complete without checking out the Nishio City History Park where Nishio Castle used to be located as well as the current location of the Former Konoe Residence, a beautiful tea house where you can enjoy yet another delicious cup of Matcha green tea.

To get to Nishio you must first make your way to Nagoya. From there take the Meitetsu Line bound for Kirayoshida. The trip takes 50 minutes and costs 810 yen one way.

OKUNOIN CEMETARY, KOYA-SAN

by Talek from Travels with Talek

One off-the-beaten-track Japan site worth going out of your way for is Okunoin Cemetery in Koya-san, Japan.

Founded 1200 years ago, the cemetery is the oldest in Japan and the final resting place of hundreds of thousands of souls.

The cemetery is the center of Shingdon Buddhism and adherents to that religion travel far distances to worship at the tomb of the religion’s founder, Kobo Daishi.  Despite having died over a thousand years ago, monks tending the founder’s tomb set out food for him daily in the belief that he is meditating.

One of the most interesting features of the cemetery are the Jizo Bosatsu, little statues representing children who died prematurely.  They dot the landscape of the cemetery and relatives dress the statues in red aprons and woolen hats so they may remain warm in their journey to the afterlife.

Other interesting features are the monuments. Following the tenants of Shingdon, some monuments are dedicated to insects, enemies killed in wars or other unusual groups. For an extraordinary experience, take the night tour of the cemetery led by local monks.  

HIKING THE KUMANO KODO PILGRAMAGE TRAIL

by me

I’m not sure what compelled me to solo hike the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail just two weeks into my first backpacking experience. I was neither an experienced traveller nor hiker, but with my backpack and map in tow I headed off along the mountainous trail. Much of the hike is through thick forest, with roots underfoot and endless twists and turns, but occasional views of the Japanese mountains enthralled me through gaps in the trees.

This route, once walked by emperors and samarais, has always been open to everyone. The Shinto-Buddhist beliefs of both nature worship and human tolerance can felt upon the breeze. Every few miles I passed another shrine or Japanese temple, beautifully preserved in woodland clearings. Many hikers purchase a stamp book and search for the stamps left at each shrine, left for travellers to commemorate their journey in a unique way.

The Kumano Kodo trail also passes through Yunomine, a fantastic overnight stop due its natural hot springs – the onsens here are said to have healing properties – and the incredible Nachi Falls, the longest falls in Japan.

NAOSHIMA

by Erika from Erika’s Travelventures

Naoshima is one of the Seto Inland Sea islands, located off the coast of Japan’s main island, between Osaka and Hiroshima. Naoshima is the perfect off-the-beaten-path destination because it has something for everyone: quirky art, history, culture, beaches, and a relaxed traditional atmosphere. Decades ago, Naoshima and the other Seto Inland Sea islands were suffering from depopulation. To address this, the islands attracted Japanese and international artists to showcase their sculptures and build museums here. This brought tourists back to the region, and revived the islands.

When you visit Naoshima, you can see many different art installations scattered throughout the island. The most famous one is a yellow, polka-dotted pumpkin by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Fabulous museums on Naoshima include the Chichu Art Museum, Benesse House, and the Lee Ufan Museum. Many of Naoshima’s abandoned residential buildings and offices were transformed into art spaces and museums too. In addition to regular hostels and ryokan to stay in Naoshima, there are some quirky accommodation options that are art pieces in themselves too! If you need a break from viewing art, rent a bicycle, go on a stroll through the villages or take a dip at the local beach!

KURASHIKI

by Alyse from The Invisible Tourist

Have you heard of the old-world town of Kurashiki, just 15 minutes’ train ride away from Okayama? This beautifully preserved Edo period (1603-1867) area is little-known amongst foreign tourists! With its canal-lined streets and centuries old buildings, Kurashiki is known as the “Venice of Japan”. The town even features local “gondoliers” who showcase the local attractions to visitors on relaxing boat rides.

The old, iconic merchant warehouses in Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter were used to store rice that was exported through the country during the Edo period. As a result, the local area became quite wealthy. Today, Kurashiki is a lovely place to spend a day or two learning about Japanese culture, as the warehouse has since been converted into boutique shops, restaurants and quirky museums.

It may be hard to believe but this sleepy town is the home to the first dedicated Western art museum in Japan. The Ohara Museum of Art opened in 1930 and houses an impressive private collection including great masters such as Picasso, Cezanne and Monet. The story for how this museum came to be in Kurashiki is fascinating so I recommend visiting someday to find out how!

ADACHI MUSEUM OF ART

by Helen from Differentville

Why is this a hidden gem? Well, not only is this museum in Shimane Prefecture in north Honshu full of some of Japan’s most revered paintings, The Adachi Museum of Art also has what’s been voted the most beautiful garden in Japan 17 years running by US publication the Journal of Japanese Gardening.

But what’s really amazing is that you don’t wander around them to appreciate their beauty. Instead, they are made to be viewed from the inside through the windows, just like paintings are seen through their frame. It’s stunningly beautiful and the stories behind elements of its design are fascinating.

Take the waterfall that streams down one of the mountains in the background, it’s not real. Museum founder Zenko Adachi had that built to match his favourite painting Waterfall in Nachi by Taikan Yokoyama. As you do!

If you want to visit the museum, you get the train to the town of Yasugi, the museum then offers a shuttle bus from the station. While you can do the trip on a long day trip from the hub of Okayama, the nearby town of Matsue is another hidden gem in this area with one of Japan’s last intact castles, an amazing Samurai history and heaps of tea-making traditions so you might want to spend a night or two there. Here are some ideas of things to do in Matsue if you do.

OKUNOSHIMA (Rabbit Island)

By Beth from Frugal Female Abroad 

Okunoshima or Rabbit Island is an amazing island to check out, especially if you like ruins and cute fluffy animals. This island was a poisonous gas manufacturing plant during World War 2. But the buildings have been since left to mother nature to reclaim. 

Besides the hauntings of yesteryear, the island has another attraction. Bunnies. And lots of them. The island is home to a large population of rabbits. It is rumoured that these rabbits are descendants of the ones that were used when gas was being produced here. 

There are walking trails around the island. There’s also a beach so that you can relax. A museum has now been built on the island too. You can take in incredible sea views from the summit of the island. A lighthouse also stands proud on Okunoshima. 

Buy the rabbit food before catching the ferry. There is a small shop near the terminal. Make sure you buy a lot of food as the rabbits will chase you down for food. You don’t want to disappoint the bunnies by running out early. Or yourself as it’s super fun to feed them. 

It is difficult to walk around the island, check out the ruined buildings, have lunch, admire the rabbits and see the museum all in one day. However, it is perfectly doable as a day trip from Kyoto if you catch an early train. It’s worth the effort! 

TAKACHIHO GORGE, KYUSHU

by Kenny from Knycx Journeying

Takachiho Gorge is located in a small town in Miyazaki Prefecture. While it may not be on many people’s travel bucket list, it is one of Kyushu’s best-kept secrets that you should not miss when you are exploring the island.  

The spectacle is a narrow passage of Gokase River, crafted by rocks through a long process of volcanic actions. The vertical cliffs are 17 meters high, well-preserved and hidden in the dense green foliage. What makes Takachiho Gorge unique in its genre is the waterfalls. The water cascades down Minainotaki Waterfall cascading down to the river in the Gorge is truly an impressive sight. 

There are two ways to explore Takachiho Gorge. Take a walk on the paths along the edge of the cliffs where you could have an overview of the entire chasm from above. The trail eventually leads to the Takachiho Gorge Boat Rental Station, where you could rent a boat and enter the gorge. Get up close to admire the rock formations and hear the rumbling sound of the waterfall – but be careful that you may get wet if you row right into the falls.  

CAPE TOI

by Stephanie from Poppin’ Smoke

The name Toi Misaki translates to “far cape,” and Cape Toi is indeed far from most of the popular attractions in Japan. But this stunning and unique destination on the southern coast of Miyazaki prefecture on the island of Kyushu is well worth the effort required to get there.

The main draws at Cape Toi are the wild horses (Misaki uma) and the sweeping views of the ocean. You will see the horses grazing peacefully across the rolling green hills with the backdrop of endless blue ocean. Climb to the top of the Cape Toi Lighthouse to see a complete 360 degree view of the area, but just about any view from the park is breathtaking. Depending on your vantage point, you can see Kagoshima across Shibushi Bay or the beautiful coast of Miyazaki.

The Cape Toi Visitor Center, open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00 to 17:15, is well worth your time to learn more about the horses and the history of Cape Toi.

The best way to see Cape Toi is to rent a car and drive down the stunning Nichinan Coast of Miyazaki. The views and terrain are similar to the coast of California, and this adventure is sure to be of your most unique and memorable experiences in Japan!

VOLCANOES IN KYUSHU

by me

My favourite week in Japan was exploring the volcanoes and multicoloured hot springs in Kyushu. I began in the small town of Beppu, which is home to several hot springs locally known as ‘hells’ due to their distinctive bright colours. Only Yellowstone, USA, expels more water per day, and the water here reaches up to 200 degrees Celcius. You can also see one of the worlds most frequently occurring geysers, referred to as ‘Tornado Hell’. 

Just 60 miles away by train is Aso Volcano, one of the biggest volcanoes in the world. This volcano looks incredible as it steams overhead, and when it’s judged safe to climb up to the crater, you can peer into its aqua blue crater lake. The surrounding nature of beautiful rolling mountainside is calming in comparison to its volcanic centre point.

From Aso, I took the train to Kagoshima, another active volcano which occasionally covers the locals nearby in blankets of ash. I had a fabulous day taking the 15-minute ferry over to Sakurajima Island (which translates to ‘cherry blossom’) and saw this amazing volcano up close. Finally, I ended my trip in Fukuoka, my favourite city in Japan.

YAEYAMA ISLANDS

by Stefan from Nomadic Boys

The Yaeyama Islands is where to head if you want to experience tropical Japan. This is an area of the country surrounded by coral reefs, jungle, unspoiled beaches and world-class diving. Surprised? We sure were, particularly when we found out that gay travel to the Yaeyama islands is warmly received. 
This little-known side of Japan is the southernmost region of the country, some 1,240 miles (2,000km) from Tokyo – closer to Taiwan. The Yaeyama islands offer a total change of scenery from the mainland. When we found out about this tropical side to Japan amongst the diving community, we jumped at the chance to visit.

The highlight of this unique region is the diving. Yaeyama is surrounded by healthy coral making it an ideal destination for enthusiastic divers like us. Ishigaki is the main island and transport hub for the Yaeyama Islands. There are daily flights to and from Tokyo/Kyoto airports. We based ourselves here because our dives started from here. 

The most famous diving site is the Yonaguni Monument – a submerged rock formation, often nicknamed Japan’s “underwater pyramid”. It was discovered in the 1980s and to this day, no one has any idea if it’s natural or man-made. You can also see Hammerhead sharks (between December and February) and Manta Rays at the cleaning station near Kabira Beach on Ishigaki (particularly between June and September). The beauty of diving in the Yaeyama islands is that every dive is rounded off with a visit to a stunning beach – the ones on Taketomi islands were our favourites. 

OGASAWARA ISLANDS

by Cristina from Honest Travel Stories

When you think about Japan, how do you imagine it to be? Huge cities bustling with light, music, and color? Tea ceremonies and geisha experiences? Well, what if I’d tell you that in the same subprefecture as Tokyo, there is a group of islands that look like Hawaii? Would you believe me?

Enter Bonin Islands, aka Ogasawara Islands in Japanese. This archipelago is a tropical hideaway that most people don’t even know about. It’s located about 1000 km from Tokyo, but it’s still part of the same administration as the metropolis.

This place is special in so many ways. Historically, it was either occupied by the Japanese, by the Europeans or the US army, so people here have a very interesting ancestry. The islands were never connected to the continent, so the fauna and flora in here are quite unique, which let this archipelago to become a natural World Heritage Site.

What keeps it so special is the fact that you can only reach this place by boat, and the trip takes more than 24 hours on a good weather day. This makes it both interesting and off the beaten path. And it makes it kind of a success story: if you went here, you’re definitely not like the other people. You’re truly special! Exactly like this place.

Which of these hidden gems in Japan would you like to visit the most?

And let us know if there are any we missed!

14 Comments

  1. I was going to visit Japan in March, however, I couldn’t due to corona. This is a great list of things to do! I hadn’t heard of most of these before reading your article. Thanks for the ideas!

  2. Snow monkeys?? Sign me up!! I also love the little thatched roof country houses. These are all so unique and I would love to visit so many of them!

  3. I love hidden gems and this article is full of them! Magome sounds amazing, I love exploring older areas that have such character! Moss Temple also sounds like my kind of thing; thanks James for telling us to book months in advance. I would hate to show up and be disappointed!

  4. This is a perfect bucketlist for Japan! I have not visited Japan yet, but when I do this is ALL on my list 🙂 Thanks for all the great ideas!

  5. So many places I didn’t know! In this list I only visited Kanazawa and I loved it! They have the most beautiful garden, a dream during cherry blossom season!

  6. Wow! A great collection of places I’ve never heard of and now want to go to. In particular Rabbit Island, Shirakawa-go, and the Moss temple. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Fab post! It is always nice to see blogs showing some of Japan’s more interesting (and less obvious spots!) I totally agree with all of these picks, but I think you’re suggestion of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail has to be the best option.

    …followed by sushi in Otaru. 😉

    You made me miss Japan (and all that amazing regional grub!)

  8. Japan is such a beautiful country! I loved visiting exactly two years ago. Out of everything in this article, I got to visit Hakone and Mount Koya. I want to go back and see more on this list, especially the snow monkeys in Nagano. 🙂

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