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
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
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
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
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.