They are known as the “golden triangle”: Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. For many first-time visitors to Japan, these famous cities make up the obvious itinerary, a greatest hits album of Japan’s attractions, a triumvirate that takes in history, tradition, art, fashion, food and drink.
This journey strikes a perfect balance between the immensity of Tokyo, the beauty of Kyoto, and the charm of Osaka. And all are connected by bullet train, so it’s completely understandable that newbies to Japan would focus on these cities.
However, what if it’s your second trip to Japan, or even your third? What if you want to break away from the pack and discover parts of the country that are rarely visited, and yet still have so much to offer?
Then you need to focus on the following destinations: the alternative Japan. From island paradise to alpine splendour, historic villages to vibrant cities, you will never tire of exploring.
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT Think of Kanazawa as “the other Kyoto” (even though the locals hate the comparison). This is a city with so many of the attractions it’s more famous brethren boasts, from temples, to teahouses, to geisha culture, to beautifully manicured gardens. It’s also on a shinkansen line, just 2.5 hours from Tokyo (and the same from Kyoto), making Kanazawa an obvious and highly rewarding destination.
DON’T MISS No one should visit Kanazawa and miss out on Kenrokuen, a sprawling and beautifully landscaped garden in the middle of the city. There’s also Kanazawa Castle, plus Nagamachi, a former samurai district, and Higashi Chaya and Nishi Chaya, two well-preserved teahouse districts.
THE SIDE TRIP There’s plenty to discover in the Ishikawa prefecture, including the Noto Peninsula, a rural area with some lovely coastal villages, and Kaga Onsen, a series of four spa towns.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Kanazawa is fine to visit any time of the year, though autumn and spring provide the best weather. See visitkanazawa.jp
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT This southern hub, on the island of Kyushu, is known as one of the friendliest cities in Japan, and it also has some of its best food. It’s accessible via a 2.5-hour shinkansen ride from Osaka, or five hours from Tokyo. Fukuoka is a port city with temples, castles, and a burgeoning yatai, or street-food culture.
DON’T MISS The best place to find yatai stands at night is on Nakasu Island, in the middle of the city (try the yakitori, or the porky Hakata-style ramen). Also check out Shofukuji Temple, founded in 1195, the first Zen temple in Japan.
THE SIDE TRIP Fukuoka provides easy access to all of Kyushu: try historic Dazaifu, charming Kitakyushu, or go a little further afield to the spa town of Beppu.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Fukuoka can be pretty hot and sticky in summer and cold in winter so autumn and spring are your happy mediums. See
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT If you like to ski and you like Japan, chances are you already know about Niseko and Hakuba. These two resorts are wildly popular with Australians, and reasonably so. However, those looking for something different should try Yuzawa, a grouping of more than a dozen interconnected ski resorts that enjoy massive snowfall, and easy connection to Tokyo via a 1.5-hour shinkansen ride.
DON’T MISS The two largest resorts here, Naeba and Kagura, offer diverse terrain and excellent off-mountain facilities – which include many onsen in which to soak away any ski-related pains.
THE SIDE TRIP Yuzawa is also very close to Minamiuonuma, another impressive series of interconnected ski resorts. And don’t forget Niigata city, famous for its sake, close by.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Yuzawa enjoys a long ski season, from late November all the way through to May. Try to avoid visiting on weekends, when the crowds from Tokyo arrive. See enjoyniigata.com
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT All the best food comes from Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. The best seafood, the best vegetables, the best dairy, the best wheat – it’s all sourced from Hokkaido. And so where better to sample this feast than the island’s main hub, Sapporo, a vibrant, friendly city that’s also home to one of Japan’s most famous breweries.
DON’T MISS Lovers of ramen, the Japanese noodle soup, should spend an evening at Ganso Sapporo Yokocho, otherwise known as “Ramen Alley”, a strip of 17 ramen restaurants serving classic Sapporo-style miso ramen. It’s also worth visiting a few of the city’s markets, including Nijo Market, and the seafood-specialist Curb Market. Plus do the tour of the Sapporo Brewery.
THE SIDE TRIP You’ve heard of Niseko, right? Every Australian’s favourite ski resort? It’s about three hours by bus from Sapporo. There’s also Otaru, a charming harbour town, close by.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Sapporo is very cold in winter, though this is the time to see the Snow Festival (held in February) and ski at Niseko. Summer is lovely, too. See En.visit-hokkaido.jp
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT The tragic history of Hiroshima, just 1.5 hours south-west of Kyoto, is well known; however, what’s possibly not as widely appreciated is that the modern city is a vibrant and highly enjoyable place to visit, where that history is acknowledged, while the future is celebrated. Spend a few nights in Hiroshima’s downtown area and you will be hooked.
DON’T MISS Visit the Peace Park, a moving space created on the site of that atomic bomb blast; but also leave time for the completely reconstructed Hiroshima Castle, beautiful Shukkeien Garden, and a sample of Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki in the Okonomimura area.
THE SIDE TRIP Bring your camera when you visit Miyajima, the island that’s nearby to Hiroshima, with its famous, recently fully-restored “floating” torii gate. Onomichi is also a lovely town.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Autumn and spring are best for a visit to Hiroshima, which can be quite humid in summer, and cold in winter. Avoid Golden Week if possible. See hiroshimacvb.jp
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT Nagano city has plenty going for it: it’s a beautiful alpine hub just a little over an hour by train from Tokyo, a historic city filled with shrines, temples and museums, a sporting mecca, and the home of a famous ninja school. Perhaps the best thing about Nagano city, however, is that it provides access to the rest of Nagano prefecture, a gorgeous area filled with ski resorts, onsen towns, historic villages, and even several wine regions.
DON’T MISS In Nagano city, check out the Togakushi Ninja Museum, dedicated to all things ninja, and the impressive Zenkoji Temple.
THE SIDE TRIP There’s so much to cover here: see the famous snow monkeys at Yamanouchi; visit the home of soba noodles in Matsumoto; have a soak at Nozawa Onsen; enjoy alpine splendour (and whisky) in Karuizawa; go hiking in Kamikochi; go skiing in Hakuba; and enjoy the quaint beauty of Takayama.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Winter is always popular in Nagano, given all of the nearby ski resorts; however, it’s beautiful year-round. See
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT Though it’s perennially popular with domestic tourists, Hirosaki, a bit over five hours north of Tokyo by train, rarely features on foreigners’ itineraries. That’s a shame, as this historic city is culturally rich, with a well-preserved castle and samurai district, plus thousands of cherry trees, making this a popular destination for hanami, or cherry blossom viewing.
DON’T MISS Hirosaki Castle was built in 1810, one of only a small number of castles in Japan not rebuilt in the modern era. For that reason alone it’s worth a visit, though during cherry blossom season (late April to early May) it is particularly spectacular. Hirosaki is also Japan’s premier producer of apples – be sure to try all the local varieties, including famous Fujis.
THE SIDE TRIP From Hirosaki it’s easy to visit Aomori city, famous for its summer lantern festival, and also Lake Towada, popular for hiking and boating.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Try to visit during cherry blossom season, from late April to early May. Otherwise, Hirosaki is very cold in winter, but pleasant at all other times. See Hirosaki-kanko.or.jp
OKINAWA HONTO, OKINAWA
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT This is the Japan you have probably not been picturing: tropical islands, white-sand beaches, warm, crystal-clear waters. The islands of the Okinawa prefecture extend more than 1000 kilometres south of Kyushu, to the same latitude as Taiwan, and they are incredibly beautiful, as well as having their fair share of history. Get to the main island, Okinawa Honto, via a 3.5-hour flight from Tokyo.
DON’T MISS Snorkelling and scuba diving are huge, and there are some great sites off Okinawa Honto. On dry land, check out the Peace Park war memorial, historic Shuri Castle, and the ruins of Nakagusuku Castle.
THE SIDE TRIP Continue flying south to the Yaeyama Islands, Okinawa’s southernmost group: tropical, laidback destinations where there’s little to do but swim and relax.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Okinawa is rainy during summer (mid-year); however, autumn and spring are perfection, and even winter is beautiful. See
NAOSHIMA ISLAND, KAGAWA
Photo: Getty Images
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT Naoshima is every art lover’s dream: an island filled with world-class galleries and open-air installations, a rural area that was being deserted by locals until the Benesse Corporation arrived in the 1990s and began an art movement that has allowed Naoshima to reinvent itself. The island is accessible via ferry from the town of Uno, itself about 2.5 hours on the train from Kyoto.
DON’T MISS The Benesse Corporation’s art galleries were designed by renowned architect Ando Tadao, and include Chichu Art Museum, Lee Ufan Museum, and Benesse House. Artist Yayoi Kusama’s iconic yellow pumpkin can be found on a short pier near Benesse House.
THE SIDE TRIP Before crossing to the island, check out Okayama, a relatively quiet city with beautiful gardens, which are truly spectacular during cherry blossom season. From Naoshima, you can also take a ferry to Takamatsu on the island of Shikoku.
MAKE IT HAPPEN Winter in Naoshima is great, with clear skies and crisp air with spring and autumn also popular. See Okayama-japan.jp
KINOSAKI ONSEN, HYOGO
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT Picture your ideal onsen town: a quaint, historic place filled with artisan shops and outdoor spas, where visitors clop about in wooden geta sandals and flowing yukata robes, to a background of forested hills dotted with temples. Essentially, you’re picturing Kinosaki Onsen. This town, about three hours by train north of Kyoto, is the ideal of a Japanese onsen resort, and well worth the detour to visit.
DON’T MISS Obviously you’re here to soak in warm, mineral-rich waters – Kinosaki has seven onsen, the highlight of which is beautiful Goshono-yu. The town also has a few very cool retro arcades.
THE SIDE Izushi, about 30 minutes away by car, is a beautiful little castle town with several historic sites, as well as a host of local artisans, a traditional kabuki theatre, and its own style of soba noodles.
MAKE IT HAPPEN This is a year-round destination – there’s no bad time to soak in a Japanese onsen. Just avoid Golden Week, a run of multiple national holidays, in early May. See Visitkinosaki.com
IF YOU MUST HAVE TOKYO AND KYOTO… SIX PLACES OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
This neighbourhood of western Tokyo is like a little Shibuya, with plenty of attractions, including high-end shopping, vintage stores, parks and gardens, a great nightlife scene, and even one of Tokyo’s best-known museums, but far fewer crowds. Kichijoji is regularly voted Tokyo’s most liveable neighbourhood, and it’s easy to see why.
In the Meguro area, just 10 minutes south of Shibuya, Gakugei-Daigaku is a charming, laidback neighbourhood with more than enough to keep you interested. There’s excellent food – get ramen at Bigiya, udon at Onya, or Italian snacks and wine at Osteria Ri Carica – boutique shopping at Book and Sons and Yuyujin, and even a sento, or bathhouse.
Though not technically in Tokyo city, Yokohama still forms part of Greater Tokyo, and it’s easy to visit as a day trip, just 25 minutes on the train from Tokyo station. It’s a busy, though friendly port town with a ramen museum, a Kirin brewery, the traditional Sankeien Garden, and a very popular Chinatown district.
About 30 minutes south of Kyoto city, Uji is an important historical centre, and the home of Byodoin Temple, a stunning, world heritage-listed edifice, the likeness of which appears on the 10-yen coin. There are several more impressive temples and shrines to visit here, plus Uji is famous for the quality of its green tea.
Set on the shores of the Sea of Japan, in the far north of the Kyoto prefecture, the Ine area is home to Ine no Funaya, a fishing village like no other. Here, more than 200 traditional boat houses line the shores of Ine Bay, creating a unique vista; some offer accommodation, and a boat tour here is a must.
Millions of travellers visit Fushimi, just south of central Kyoto, for one reason only: to see Fushimi Inari Shrine, the long series of red torii gates leading up a mountain path. It’s worth exploring further, however, as this area is a hotspot for sake production, and Fushimi Sake District is home to 40 breweries whose histories stretch back to the 1600s.