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8 Outstanding Hidden Gems in Japan You Won’t Want to Miss

8 Outstanding Hidden Gems in Japan You Won’t Want to Miss

Japan’s hidden gems you didn’t know existed: Discover Japan off the beaten path.

Japan’s hidden gems are so worthy of a visit. Castles, shrines, museums, islands and beaches make exploring attractions in Japan off the tourist trail a must.

This blog post highlights eight lesser-known Japan tourist spots you will want to visit.

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Japan Map of Hidden Gems

Fukuoka #1

Situated in the far west of Japan, in the Kyushu prefecture, you’re not going to go past Fukuoka on the traditional tourist route of Tokyo – Kyoto, so extending your trip into Kyushu will reveal one of the unique places to visit in Japan.

When you read most guides to Fukuoka, you’d think the only interesting things to do were see the Fukuoka Tower, visit the mall, and eat at the unique street food stalls called Yatai set up in the Nakasu area at night. That’s just touching the surface of this amazing city, as there are many other unusual things to do in Fukuoka.

One of the reasons I came to Fukuoka was to visit Ainoshima, one of the places in Japan that is a cat island where 150 furry residents live among just 500 humans; it’s as adorable as it sounds.

The pretty Tochoji Pagoda is also a must-see, but when it comes to shrines and temples, do not miss Nanzoin Temple. It’s home to the world’s largest bronze reclining Buddha statue, but despite its immense size, it is hidden from view until you enter the area where it sits. It blew me away when I rounded the corner and is undoubtedly one of Japan’s hidden gems worth visiting. 

Despite all the incredible things Fukuoka offers a visitor, one of my best-ever Japan memories comes from the fish market, where I attempted to order a meal via my bad Japanese and the medium of sign language, earning me hugs from the fishermen in their wellies seated at the next table. A moment never to be forgotten!

Check out the Get Your Guide website if you fancy joining a customised tour of Fukoka with a local.

bronze reclining Buddha statue, one of Japan's hidden gems.
Image of Buddha Statue and words by Differentville.

Nagoya #2

A trip to Nagoya was not on my original plan – I ended up there to fill some extra days. Not enough days, as it turned out, as there are heaps to do in this lesser-known city between Tokyo and Osaka. 

The city has a green-roofed castle, great food, and excellent museums, yet it remains relatively unknown to visitors arriving to do the main Japan sightseeing route. I’m a train enthusiast, so for me, the SC Maglev and Railway Park was a must-stop; the model railway is a sight to behold. 

Nagoya isn’t considered a shrine city; however, I spent a whole day visiting some amazing and unusual ones, including the Wakeoe Shrine, which, with its cute umbrellas and hanging ribbons, is made for Instagram. Osu, Nagoya’s main shopping area, is also really fun – and I loved the cute Miwa ‘bunny’ Shrine tucked behind it. 

My other must-see was Kodama, the unofficial Ghibli-themed café that is so cute that even Ghibli executives working on the nearby Ghibli Park recommend I visit it. 

With just two and a half days here, I needed more time to see everything Nagoya had to offer, so my top tip is not to underestimate how long to stay (this travel guide to how many days to spend in Nagoya can help). 

Nagoya is easily accessible on the bullet train, making it a great stop between Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto. It’s also a good jumping-off point for the Japanese Alps region. 

Image of Wakeoe Shrine and words by Japlanease.

Gujo Hachiman #3

One of my favourite Japanese alpine hidden gems is Gujo Hachiman, nestled in Gifu Prefecture. While this compact town is little-known amongst foreign visitors, it features Japan’s oldest wooden reconstructed castle, dating back to the 16th century and is a lovely, uncrowded alternative to Kyoto. I’d heard of Gujo Hachiman when I visited nearby Takayama, so I was thrilled to make the trip!

For me, the easiest way to reach Gujo City was by hiring a car and taking the E41 highway. The scenic drive is only 1 hour and 20 minutes from Nagoya’s city centre, making a Gujo Hachiman day trip very easy. However, if you have the time, I recommend spending the night in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) to experience exceptional local hospitality.

Gujo Hachiman has plenty of things to see and do. I began the day at Gujo Hachiman Castle and was left in awe by sweeping views over the surrounding town in the valley below. From there, I headed into the town and enjoyed seeing koi fish swimming in the street-side canals.

If you love unique cultural things as I do, check out the Sampuru (Japanese replica food) stores, as over half of the country’s samples come from Gujo Hachiman. In the afternoon, I loved strolling around the town’s preserved streets from the 17th-century Edo Period and visiting some lovely temples and shrines. Gujo Hachiman is a magical place you’re sure not to forget!

White wooden Japanese castle with tiered roofing.
Image of Gujo Hachiman Castle and words by The Invisible Tourist.

Takayama #4

It wasn’t until my fifth journey to Japan, when researching lesser-visited destinations to explore on a month-long trip, that I first discovered Takayama. 

Nestled in the Japanese Alps in the scenic Hida region of Japan, Takayama is a small town that offers unique cultural experiences and glimpses of traditional Japan. 

I reached the town via the highway bus from Kanazawa; however, Takayama is easily accessible from major cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka via train. Catch the Shinkansen to Nagoya Station and transfer to the JR Hida Limited Express train to Takayama Station. The journey takes about 4.5 hours from Tokyo or 3.5 hours from Osaka. If coming from Nagoya you can also book a round-trip bus tour to Takayama.

Once you arrive in Takayama, you’ll find the town is very walkable – we spent most of our two days in Takayama exploring the town on foot. The first thing you should do in Takayama is stroll around the Sanmachi historic district. 

In this area, Takayama’s Old Town consists of well-preserved 17th-century Edo period-style streets. You’ll find many sake breweries lining the streets, where you can sample many different kinds of local sake. There are also souvenir stores, boutiques, cafes and restaurants aplenty. 

Other must-do activities include trying regional specialities at the Miyagawa Morning Market, visiting the Yoshijima Heritage House (a hundred-year-old traditional merchant house) and exploring the Hida Folk Village. This open-air museum contains over 30 traditional Edo-period houses from across the Hida region, including the famed thatched roof houses that have made the nearby Unesco World Heritage Site of Shirakawa-go famous. 

houses with thatched roofs along a riverbank in Japan.
Image of thatched houses at Hida Folk Museum and words by Tessomewhere.

Yuzawa #5

Yuzawa, a small hot spring town in the Niigata Prefecture, was the hidden gem of our recent trip to Japan. 

We ended up visiting Yuzawa because it’s the gateway to Kiyotsu Gorge, a designated place of national scenic beauty, but as we soon learned, there are plenty of other things to do in Yuzawa as well!

During our visit, we rode the Kogen Ropeway, which leads to the Alpine Botanical Garden; we tackled an easy hike to Fudo Falls and enjoyed the free foot baths around town. We also spent a fun afternoon at Echigo Yuzawa Station, where we sampled different types of sake at the Echigo Sake Museum Ponshukan, and then visited the train station’s onsen, where the waters are infused with sake!

Our favourite restaurant was Nakanoya Soba Yuzawa for a soba noodle and tempura lunch set. The food was delicious, and for those interested, they even offer a sake tasting – are you sensing a theme here?

Of course, we also went on a day trip to Kiyotsu Gorge, which was our whole reason for coming to Yuzawa. The scenery was lush and green, and we had a great time exploring the art installations inside the Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel. One of the highlights was a tunnel of mirrors with neon orange lights.

Getting to Yuzawa

Getting to Yuzawa was super easy. If you’re coming from Tokyo, you can catch the Jōetsu Shinkansen at Tokyo Station travelling towards Niigata. The journey is 1 hour and 14 minutes, and you get off at Echigo Yuzawa Station. 

While the short travel time makes it possible to visit on a day trip, I suggest spending 2-3 days in Yuzawa to enjoy everything it offers and go on a day trip to Kiyotsu Gorge. However, if you’re visiting in winter and just want an action-packed day of skiing or snowboarding, you can certainly do so on a day trip!

tunnel lit by red mirrors in Japan.
Image of Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel and words by That Backpacker.

Koyasan #6

Koyasan is definitely one of the hidden gems in Japan you have to see, and it was one of the highlights on my Japan travel itinerary. Hardly any other place has cast such a spell over me with its almost magical atmosphere as this small hidden gem in Japan. Koyasan is considered the most sacred place in Japan and is home to around 600 monks who live in more than 100 temples.

Surrounded by magnificent nature, it is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Japan. In fact, the first picture I saw of this place won me over and made me want to visit Koyasan.

I recommend spending at least one night in Koyasan. You can eat with the monks in one of the temples and even spend the night there. Learn more about the life of the monks and join them in their ceremonies and meditations.

The big highlight, however, is the monks’ morning prayers. You can cross the vast forest cemetery of Koyasan early in the morning and listen to the monks’ morning ceremony. Even though I couldn’t understand the language, simply listening to their voices felt so moving.

Later, you should definitely revisit the cemetery in daylight. When the sunlight shines through the enormous trees, the path is bathed in a mystical, magical atmosphere that you are unlikely to find anywhere else.

To visit Koyasan, you can take the train from Osaka and then the cable car, which will take you up Mount Koya. From there you can explore alone or join a Mt. Koya Guided Private Walking Day Tour.

pathway lined with tall pine trees and stone pagoda statues in Japan.
Image of Koyasan cemetery and words by Vicki Viaja.

Iriomote #7

Iriomote is one of the remote hidden gems in Japan, that is an island. It has a tiny population of 2,500 despite it being is the largest island in the Yaeyama Islands in the Japanese Prefecture of Okinawa. Scattered with jungle and mangrove forests and beautiful beaches it is an idyllic place in Japan hidden from the crowds.

Getting to Iriomote from Naha, Okinawa, was a challenging task. I took an hour’s flight to the island of Ishigaki. From there, I had to take an hour ferry ride to Iriomote. What intrigued me the most about visiting Iriomote was the remoteness, the unique endemic species that live on the island, and the adventurous outdoor activities.

Outdoor activities on Iriomote

Since Iriomote does take planning and effort to visit, it is best to stay overnight. I spent three days on the island in a small hotel, Pension Hoshinosuna near Hoshizuna Beach (famous for its star-shaped sand). One of those days, I booked a day trip to Pinaisara Falls, which was one of the most adventurous activities I’ve ever done.

To get to Pinaisara Falls, we kayaked 45 minutes to the base of the falls, then hiked another 45 minutes to the top of Pinaisara Falls. Our tour guide made us a traditional Okinawan dish called Soba on top of the falls. We then returned to the kayaks and spent another 45 minutes paddling back to the vehicle.

Iriomote Island is also famous for snorkelling and scuba diving. I snorkelled at Hoshiuna Beach and saw abundant marine wildlife, from various fish species to large spider conchs. Iriomote remains one of my favourite destinations in Japan because of its remoteness and adventurous activities.

Love Adventure? Book a Guided 2-Hour Canyoning Tour in Iriomote.

mangrove waterway viewed from a kayak in Iriomote, a hidden gem in Japan.
Image of Iriomote mangroves and words by Zimmin Around The World.

Seto Inland Sea #8

Nestled between Honshu and Shikoku, Seto Inland Sea is an inland body of water with several islands. It remains a lesser-known tourist spot in Japan and is not on many first-time visitor itineraries, mainly due to the limitation of ferry schedules and connections. Nevertheless, it is one of the cool places to visit in Japan and is worth seeing.

I was hesitant about visiting Seto until I heard about the Setouchi Triennale, an international art festival highlighting seven islands in the Inland Sea.

The festival showcases contemporary artwork from around the world, and it was an incredible experience to design my own art tour in the Seto Inland Sea.

Many featured exhibits remain on the islands long after the festival has finished, so on my island-hopping trip, I discovered a lot of hidden gems that only a few tourists know about. 

Island Hopping in the Seto Inland Sea

Shodoshima is the largest island, and had fun riding a bike and exploring the attractions on the island. These include the “Santorini and Mykonos inspired” windmills and olive plantations, Kankakei Gorge, and the Twenty-Four Eyes Movie Village, which is a preserved set of a famous Japanese film.

Naoshima Island is much more than Yayoi Kusama’s work (shown in the photograph below). The Bennesse House Contemporary Art Museum and Hotel is a fabulous place to stay, and the Teshima Art Museum is a unique space to discover, designed by architect Ryue Nishizawa. 

Join a private 2-day tour of Naoshima from Osaka or Kyoto to see Japan off the beaten path.

Another offbeat attraction is in Takamatsu, the hub connecting all Inland Sea islands. I was told that Ritsurin Garden is an excellent example of traditional Japanese garden design, and this beautiful site had fallen off many travellers’ radar. The scenery in this garden truly encompasses many other famous ones in Japan, making it one of the must-visit hidden gems in Japan.

art installation of a yellow squash vegetable at the end of a pier by the sea. One of the hidden gems in Japan.
Image of art installation and words by KNYCX Journeying.
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