When touring Japan, Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka are certainly top destinations in the country that should not be missed by any traveler. But Japan is full of so many culturally intriguing and visually dazzling locations; it is worth making some time in your travel schedule to see these oft-missed gems.
Travel to up to the mountainous Hida region of Gifu prefecture and stop in Takayama. At the heart of the city is Old Town Takayama, a well-preserved time capsule of the medieval Edo period. Three narrow streets known as the Sanmachi Suji are lined with old-fashioned shops, houses, and restaurants elegantly built in traditional style. Perhaps the finest example is the old government office, Takayama Jinya – at one time Japan’s largest rice storehouse. The best time to visit Takayama is in the spring or autumn seasons, when the city is known for a special festival known for incredible floats.
Discover Hiroshima, the chief city of Japan’s Chugoku region. After World War 2, Hiroshima was determined to rise from the ashes of nuclear destruction and establish itself as a city of peace. The central fixture of the city is the Peace Memorial Park. The park features sweeping lawns with a number of stirring monuments, including the A-Bomb Dome, The Cenotaph for the A-Bomb Victims, even a museum that tells their stories. Other monuments of old Hiroshima have been carefully rebuilt to remember the city’s ancient history, including Hiroshima Castle and nearby Shukkeien landscape garden.
Nagasaki is unenviably known as the second of two cities to have suffered nuclear devastation. Although there is a Peace Park there much like Hiroshima’s, complete with a magnificent statue at the center, only visiting these kinds of monuments is much like reading only half of the city’s captivating story. Make time to enjoy the stately elegance of Glover Garden, the sacred atmosphere of Oura Church with the 26 Martyrs Monument, and the historic Dutch houses full of classical Western style in the old Dejima district while touring Nagasaki.
Nara was the first permanent capital city Japan ever had, and much of the city has a real old-time feel to it. But the reason you should visit, the reason Nara is beloved as a destination, is the thousands of adorable Sika deer wandering around Nara Deer Park and nearby Todaiji Temple. These cute creatures are protected by Nara as a sacred guardian of the city, and though wild most of them are surprisingly friendly to strangers, even bowing to receive one of the special deer crackers sold at stalls around the park. Todaiji Temple is also worth exploring. The Great Eastern Temple is a grand sight to behold, and houses one of Japan’s largest Buddha statues.
Fill your vacation with views of Japan’s natural splendor in Hakone, a breathtaking location on the Izu Peninsula. The entire region lies within the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park and is filled with a variety of picture-perfect nature scenes. One of the best places to take in the sights is on a cruise over Lake Ashi, which features a splendid panorama of greenery-covered mountains by the lakeside town of Hakone. For a view that can only be described as spectacular, soar overhead from a gondola on the Hakone Ropeway, which, if the weather is favorable, offers awe-inspiring views of Mount Fuji. The ropeway descends into Owakudani, a mysterious volcanic caldera wreathed in sulfur and smoke, where you can taste the local specialty: eggs that have been hard boiled in a volcanic pool.
Take a spiritual retreat into Wakayama prefecture as you visit Mount Koya, to behold one of Japan’s most sacred mountain temples. The center of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism, Mt. Koya (or “Koyasan”) features some truly magnificent temple sites that make you feel perfectly cut off from the world and its worries. Plan an overnight stay in a temple for an opportunity to truly experience life as a Buddhist monk. Visitors dine on healthy vegetarian monks’ food, enjoy a tour of Okunoin, the fascinating mausoleum of Shingon Buddhism’s founder, Kobo Daishi, and awake the next morning to attend morning prayers with the monks.
Naoshima is a small island that is a resort getaway for lovers of modern art. Naoshima is also called “Art Island” for its many museums and architectural wonders. Many of the museums including Bennesse House Museum, Chichu Art Museum and Lee Ufan Museum were stylishly designed by acclaimed Japanese architect Tadao Ando. These museums house a wide variety of works from various Japanese and international artists, including paintings, sculptures, and other art pieces – some of them take entire rooms to display! Much of the island is designed around a theme of coexistence with nature. Be sure to admire the two giant pumpkins – artworks for which Naoshima is famous.
Kanazawa is filled with many of the historical trappings befitting an old castle town, but the city’s treasure is undoubtedly Kenrokuen Garden. Hailed as the chief of Japan’s Three Great Gardens, Kenrokuen is the perfect place for a nice long stroll, where visitors can admire the various flowers, trees and ponds, with scattered teahouses and other traditional structures. Spring and autumn are the most beautiful, resplendent in either cherry blossoms or fall colors. Kanazawa offers plenty of other cultural opportunities to enjoy as well, with both an old-fashioned samurai district called Nagamachi, and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art.
Himeji is a beautiful city surrounded by sea and mountains in Hyogo prefecture, boasting one of Japan’s most iconic national treasures. The most prominent feature of the city is Japan’s most enduring and preeminent feudal fortress, Himeji Castle. The castle keep was constructed in the early 1600s by legendary samurai general Toyotomi Hideyoshi, which has survived in its original form to this day. Himeji is called “White Heron Castle” for its glistening white exterior and walls that seem to spread from the central tower like wings. Next to the castle is Kokoen, a fairly new landscape garden constructed to commemorate the anniversary of Himeji Castle, featuring 9 separate gardens depicting different Edo-era garden styles.
Sapporo is that largest city in Hokkaido prefecture, and it is by far the top place to be during winter in Japan. While Hokkaido is celebrated as Japan’s winter playground, going in February during the Sapporo Snow Festival is a definite must. Massive creations built entirely of snow and ice depict famous landmarks and larger-than-life characters. These can be seen at locations across the city, including Susukino – Sapporo’s brightly lit entertainment district, the best place in town to grab a bite to eat. In the heart of the city sits Odori park, an expansive strip of greenery stretching over 12 city blocks – the perfect spot to take a breather while exploring Sapporo.