Five Lesser-Known Destinations in Japan

Ryokan-hopped through Tokyo? Shokudo-skipped through Kyoto? We adventure through Japan’s quieter corners to bring you five lesser-known destinations worth making tracks for

While Japan's doors remained firmly closed to the entire world, time was on our side to reflect on our last trip to the Land of the Rising Sun. Sure, we ticked off the dazzling cities, where days were spent feasting in stellar shokudos and resting at elegant ryokans, but we skirted around the lesser-visited towns and villages - the spots that are thick with culture and thin on tourist footfall. With that in mind, we've been on a hunt to find the destinations that remain virtually untouched by tour groups. Covering a nature-rich national park, stunning shrines and charming coastal towns, these five destinations should feature on any East Asian itinerary.

Five of our favourite under-the-radar Japan destinations

Ise-Shima National Park

Why we can't wait to visit again: It's the perfect detox destination. Just a two-hour drive from Kyoto, this luscious landscape pours into the Pacific like a chartreuse-coloured oil spill. While this wild environment might look like God's own work, it's actually bound by a web of tight rules designed to protect it from exploitation. Sustainability is the keyword here. Check out the ama divers, a contingent of women who spend their days free-diving down to the seabed, where they help to preserve the aquatic ecosystem by hand, then grab a sea kayak and go exploring. You'll find us wiggling around Ago Bay, before slurping a well-earned pint of local ale.

Where we're staying: Amanemu. Located at the foothills of the park, this minimalist space embodies the tranquillity of a Buddhist temple. Submerge into serenity in the steam of the onsen baths, enjoy dishes crafted from regional fruits and vegetables, or book a personalised spa journey for a truly transformative wellness experience.

Before you go: Read this feature on prefectures best suited to the slower-paced explorer, where we encounter timeless traditions on an itinerary that will whisk you from Ishikawa to Gifu.


Why we can't wait to visit again: Who doesn't love a beach holiday? Okay, this might not be a seaside getaway as you know it, but this lesser-visited city on Japan's Izu Peninsula has theatrical coastal views made for sunset strolls, which more than makes up for its lack of stylish beach bars. Before sundowners at KAI Anjin ryokan, there's lots to pack in. There are the Barbie-pink gardens of Komuroyama Park to ogle, eight onsens in which to bathe and Mount Omuro or the Jogasaki coastline to hike. The brave can geotag themselves on Jogasaki Suspension Bridge, which floats above an 18m drop.

Where we're staying: KAI Anjin. Sea-facing bedrooms make for a cosy coastal hideout, while turntables and plush sofas create an effortless home-from-home vibe.

Before you go: Check out the photographer Mark Edward Harris, specifically his The Way of The Japanese Bath series, to get a flavour of what to expect when visiting one of Itō's traditional onsen.


Why we can't wait to visit again: You'll no doubt have seen this place fleetingly on Instagram. The huge Yayoi Kusama pumpkin sculpture, set against a shimmering expanse of opalescent, still waters? Yep, that's Naoshima. It's often referred to as Japan's "art island", but we make it our base from which to paddle to neighbouring outcrops. Hop over to nearby Takamatsu for a portion of Sanuki udon noodles, a delicious local speciality, then carry on to Megijima Island, a sleepy mound that peeps out of the Seto Inland Sea. It's referred to as "Ogre Island" in the old Japanese folk tale of Momotarō, but it's lovelier than it sounds.

Where we're staying: Benesse House. This art-filled space is ideal for those with a love of design, who'll enjoy flitting between the property's museum, park and beach house.

Before you go: Take a peek at the work of photographer Charles Fréger. In his Yokainoshima series, he documents the outlandish costumes worn during ancient Japanese rituals at festivals and ceremonies. Keep your eyes peeled for that ogre.


Why we can't wait to visit again: The Venice of Japan, Kurashiki is scored by canals that are gently caressed by bowing willows. It's home to Ohara Museum of Art, set in a striking temple in the heart of the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter, and the vestiges of its past life as a wealthy trading hub remain in its traditional architecture, embroidered with trailing greenery. Fashion buyers with an eye on high-quality casual wear have long known of this destination; the Kojima District is the birthplace of Japanese denim. Don't even think about leaving without a pair of selvedge jeans stuffed in your suitcase. On a tight budget? Grab a scoop of Kurashiki's famous denim-blue ice cream, instead.

Where we're staying: This tiny house sleeps up to four people and makes for a seriously cool off-grid adobe. Bicycles are included, should you wish to explore the surrounding trails.

Before you go: Pay an online visit to Jeans Street (yes, this famous thoroughfare in Kojima has its own website) to see exactly why it's so popular among the world's most discerning denim lovers.



Why we can't wait to visit again: As the old Japanese saying goes, "Never say kekko (meaning beautiful or splendid) until you've seen Nikko". Safe to say, this spiritual town, which was once the centre of Shinto and Buddhist worship, is spectacular. It's most famous for Toshogu, Japan's most lavishly decorated shrine, though there are plenty of others to visit. Nikko National Park, meanwhile, is home to wild monkeys, roaring waterfalls and a few steaming hot springs. The cherry on the cake? It's easily reached from Tokyo by train.

Where we're staying: Hotel Shikisai - partly for its top-notch in-house restaurant, but largely for the slick bedrooms. A hot tub on our terrace? Yes, please.

Before you go: Watch Seven Samurai, a classic film set in 16th-century Japan, for an introduction to Japanese cinema.

This article was updated on 26 October 2022, and it contains affiliate links, which means SUITCASE may earn a small commission if you click through and book.

Zenbo Seinei, Exterior
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