While you may know of sushi, anime, and karate (and if you don’t, we don’t know where you’ve been), the true gems of Japan are off the beaten path! With a bento box in hand, level up from tourist to globetrotter with the help of a Japanese local.
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Lots of Japan’s charm is in its contradictions—take Tokyo, for example. While marvels like the Tokyo Sky Tree scream photo-ops, travelers who dive into the more traditional Asakusa and Ueno districts can experience Tokyo’s temples, bars, and theaters like locals do. From small lantern-lit pathways to towers of neon advertisements, don’t let the crowds intimidate you—Tokyo is currently ranked as the world’s safest city.
Home base for history buffs, Kyoto is known for its Gion geisha district, thousands of temples and shrines, and delectable matcha ice cream. Seriously, don’t pass up the singular sweets in Kyoto—the triangular pastries, Kyoto Kit-Kats, and loop-dee-loop satisfy even the pickiest sweet tooth.
Foodies, rejoice! With savory and sweet delights on every corner, Osaka is a street food connoisseur's dream come true. Grab some takoyaki octopus balls and Osaka’s tasty seafood pancakes (okonomiyaki), but wait until you’re finished eating before seeing the elegant Osaka Castle and or the eclectic Spa World—in Japan, it’s rude to eat while you’re strolling.
Let’s be honest here—Hiroshima’s not-so-distant history is difficult to broach. While the city still carries scars of its past, Hiroshima is thriving and constantly growing in peace and creativity. From the turquoise waters off Miyajima Island to incredible monuments to victims of the atomic bomb, Hiroshima fearlessly shows the world Japan’s remarkable ability to rebuild and remember.
What started out as a small fishing village is now Japan’s second largest city—talk about growing up fast! Easy on your travel budget, Yokohama is home to what we love best, including the Kirin Beer Factory, the Ramen Museum, and the Cup Noodles Museum. Once you fill up on a lifetime supply of carbs, don’t settle in for a nap, or you’ll miss some of the most stunning nighttime views in urban Japan!
A short train ride from Kyoto, Nagoya claims dibs for the creation of pachinko and the birthplace of Toyota. Smaller scale than Tokyo (but definitely not smaller in adventure), the city is not only perfect for a day trip but also is an artist’s paradise. Home to numerous art museums, eclectic architecture, and stunning birds-eye views, even the most experienced sightseers will get a rush!
Call us food-obsessed, but we promise Kobe’s world-renowned beef steaks are far from overrated. Before settling in for the one steak to rule them all, jumpstart your luxurious Japanese adventure with a stroll around Nankinmachi (Kobe’s Chinatown), then take the cable car to Mount Rokko for a romantic evening above the clouds.
A favorite spot for locals and visitors, Nara is literally where the deer (but not the antelope) play. Protected by conservation laws, these iconic, petite deer are extremely tame and will actually snag granola bars from your backpack. While the deer are cute, the real treasures of Nara are the 1,300-year old shrines and temples. (Pro tip: A Shinto shrine usually has a large stone block at the entrance—step OVER it, not ON it! Only newbies step directly on the block, which is a respected part of the torii gate.)
If you’ve never heard of Sapporo’s legendary beer, you’ve got a chance to catch up here (in which case, we might forgive you). While Japan’s natural beauty is stunning year-round, Sapporo is the wintry kingdom of beer and ice. Home to the 1972 Winter Olympics, this mountainside city is second-to-none in skiing, ice-sculpting contests, and (of course) beer. Believe it or not, flights to Sapporo (and Japan in general) are quite affordable.
In terms of off-the-beaten-path adventures, Shizuoka truly deserves the title of hidden gem—not yet on most tourists’ radars, this urban yet cozy seaside town has incredible views of Mount Fuji and some of Japan’s best ramen shops. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, enter the ethereal landscape of Miho No Matsubara Beach, a black-rock beach with twisted seaside trees.
The city of 2,000 hot springs, Beppu offers visitors a chance to relax in style. Easily reached by the Shinkansen, or bullet train, Beppu is totally worth the extra trek for a day or two. Heated by nearby volcanoes, the thermal pools are known as the “8 Hells of Beppu,” but don’t let that deter you. With the area’s striking mountains and cable cars, the little spa town of Beppu is closer to heaven.
Venerated in ancient times by Buddhist and Shinto devotees, Mount Fuji is considered sacred to this day. Whether you choose to hike to the summit or view it from a distance, Mount Fuji is a must-see for visitors wanting to get to the heart of Japan. An active volcano, Mount Fuji is notoriously fickle about getting its picture taken, with fog and rain often obscuring the top. However, nothing dulls the thrill of seeing Fuji-san in person!
Put simply, the postcards can never do this place justice. A Zen Buddhist temple with a pristine lake and gleaming gold eaves, you would never guess that Kinkaku-ji is just a taxi ride away from downtown Kyoto. Kinkaku-ji’s famous reflection pool makes it seem as though an underwater kingdom exists beneath the surface.
Just an hour away from Hiroshima, the Itsukushima Shrine (also known as the Great Torii) rises out of the sea. There’s no better way to describe the Great Torii and its home, Miyajima Island, than as a myth come to life. With mountains rising in the background, the shrine appears to float on the water, like the gods themselves placed it there.
Although Japan is stunning year-round, the flower fields of Furano and Biei transform this countryside into a summertime scene from The Sound of Music. If you squint across the ocean from Hokkaido’s rainbow fields of lavender and poppies, you’ll just be able to make out the shores of Russia—that’s how far north you are in this astoundingly colorful prefecture.
Those who brave the entrance of Nara’s Todaiji Temple cross paths with the cutest, yet most aggressive animal on earth—the park’s deer. Considered messengers of the gods in Shintoism, these deer feel no guilt about head-butting the unwary or grabbing granola bars out of pockets. Slip past the deer to stand at the feet of one of the world’s largest Buddha Vairocana, then crawl through a massive wooden pillar (just the size of Buddha’s nostril) for blessings.
If crystal clear waters, white sand beaches, and mysterious island groves are your thing, Okinawa is about to be your home away from home. A prefecture of over 200 islands in the China Sea, Okinawa is all about relaxation and getting back to the basics. With lush mountains cradling bays of bright blue water, it’s no wonder that these serene islands are the birthplace of karate. (Pro tip: Rejuvenate your mind and body at Okinawa Karate Kaikan, the world’s first dojo.)
Known for steepled, thatched roofs, the remote mountain villages of Shirakawago and Gokayama have been around since 1000 A.D. Mostly untouched by the hand of time, these cottages are protected by “buffer zones” for developers. High in the Japanese Alps, these villages experience stunning seasonal changes, making them a must-see any time of year.
With its towering ads and neon lights, Shibuya is Tokyo’s most trendy entertainment district. From the whirling lights of Center Gai to the elegant walkways of Spain Slope, Shibuya’s shops churn out Japan’s hottest fashion and tech trends on a daily basis. After getting the rundown of Shibuya from a local guide, it’s a sitch to wind your way around these jam-packed spaces like a pro.
A suspension bridge made only of wood and living vines, Iya No Kazura brings intrepid travelers to the brink of a foggy gorge. Supposedly created by the founder of Shingon Buddhism and used for hundreds of years by refugees, bandits, warriors, and monks, the vine bridge still faithfully sways over the Iya River.
Just off the coast of Japan’s northeastern Mariko Bay, Jodogahama is a series of massive rocks and cliffs that jut out of the sea like a giant’s fingers. Weathered by centuries of monsoons, tsunamis, and ocean tides, the rocks are surrounded by bright, white sand beaches that bring to mind the Buddhist concept of “pure land,” exactly what Jodogahama is named for.
Shred the powder that blankets Sapporo, one of Hokkaido’s northernmost cities. With upward of 50 feet of snow every winter, Sapporo is literally a winter wonderland—and a skier’s utopia. With deep snow accumulating in January and February, the ski resorts in Sapporo are totally prepared to send you up and down the slopes in style, waiting with a cup of (hot chocolate) when you head back to the lodge.
These Japanese macaques know how to do a spa day, every day! Rather than freezing in Japan’s intense winters, the snow monkeys of Jigokudani soak in the mountain’s hot springs, which has been proven to reduce their stress levels. Everyone wants to see these zen monkeys (I mean, really, who wouldn’t?), so it’s worth checking in with a local Hero to beat the crowds.
Japan’s public baths, known as onsens, leave nothing to the imagination, so get ready to know more about your fellow travelers than you ever wanted. While many visitors balk at the thought of swimming around strangers in their birthday suits, these Japanese baths are the absolute perfect way to enjoy each other’s company while letting the tension drain out of your muscles.
When in Japan, do as the Japanese do, and sip matcha as the samurai did! Especially in Kyoto, tea ceremonies are world-renowned, somber and elegant affairs that have been passed down for generations. Tilt your teacup just so and relish the serenity as the tea touches your soul. Ask a local expert where to experience a tea ceremony firsthand.
The “sister trail” of Spain’s Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage to the three shrines of Kumano Kodo involves an intense hike. Winding along mossy stone paths, ancient groves, and Japan’s largest waterfall, Kumano Kodo is certainly a legendary, once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
To catch your breath outside of the hustle of urban Japan, jump on the bus to the mountain town of Kamikochi. At the foot of Japan’s snow-capped northern Alps, Kamikochi is the mythical home of Kami spirits and kappa, mischievous water spirits. No surprise there—Kamikochi means “where the gods descend,” and in Shintoism, mountains are the closest that people can be to the heavens.
With almost two million gallons of saltwater tanks, the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium is ideal for deep-sea diving without actually getting your feet wet. With some of the ocean’s most incredible (and alien) creatures, like the leggy Japanese spider crab and enormous whale shark, Churaumi brings out your inner kid as soon as you step through the door.
A very short train ride from Kyoto, Himeji Castle (Himeji-jo) is part of a sprawling ancient estate overlooking Himeji proper. The grounds of Himeji-jo feature stunning gardens and an unmatched look at ancient Japan—but honestly, we’re just obsessed with the castle’s chubby, smiling mascot, Shiromaru Hime!
Found in just about every city in Japan, conveyor-belt sushi restaurants likely will be the highlight of your entire trip—at least for your tastebuds! While you yourself can’t ride on the kaiten-zushi (“rotation sushi”) to each table, the sashimi, nigiri, and sushi take your taste buds on a journey. It’s best to go with a group here—with an affordable pay-by-the-plate set-up, your eyes easily can get bigger than your tummy (when it should be tummy>eyes).
It may not be possible to cast your worries to the bottom of the ocean, but getting buried up to your neck in sand is a pretty effective stress reliever (unless you’re claustrophobic). The sands of Ibusuki Beach are actually heated by Mount Fuji’s volcanic doppelganger, Kaimondake, making them wonderful for the ancient ritual of suna-mushi, or sand-bathing. Beachgoers are thoughtfully provided with towels, pillows, and a little rainbow umbrella, with sunburn the farthest thing from their minds.
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