15 Beautiful Japanese Villages You Absolutely Have to Visit
- Published: Sep 16 2021
- Last updated:
While major cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka are world-famous Japanese tourist destinations, if you're seeking a little more tranquility on your travels, you might be better suited journeying to one of Japan’s countryside villages. Steeped in history and culture and often set amongst breathtaking natural scenery, Japan's most beautiful villages are a haven for those desiring a break from city life. Selected by the Association of the Most Beautiful Villages in Japan for their overall scenic qualities along with history, tradition, and culture, here are 15 of Japan's most beautiful villages!
1. Biei (Hokkaido)
Just over two hours from Sapporo by train, Biei and the surrounding countryside are amongst some of the most beautiful spots in Hokkaido. Biei is famous for its colorful rolling hills and fields of pretty flower parks, all visible from a number of different vantage points. The natural beauty of the region has regularly attracted advertisers and has been featured as the backdrop for a number of television shows in Japan, with many trees becoming local landmarks in the process.
Two of Biei's most scenic areas are Patchwork Road and Panorama Road. As its name suggests, Patchwork Road is a beautiful mishmash of colorful fields and flower gardens to the northeast of Biei. It covers an area rather than just a single road, which is particularly breathtaking during the vibrant seasons of summer and autumn. Here you'll find some of Biei's famous trees, such as the Ken and Mary poplar tree, which was the star of a car commercial in the 1970s. The enchanting trees on nearby Mild Seven Hill and the Seven Stars tree got their names after being similarly used in marketing campaigns for cigarettes. You can enjoy mesmerizing views of Patchwork Road from Hokusei Hill Observatory, a pyramid-like viewing tower near the Ken and Mary tree. Nearby is Zerubu Hill, one of Biei's many beautiful flower gardens.
South of Patchwork Road is Panorama Road, which again covers a region rather than a road. Here you'll find one of Biei's most iconic sights in Shikisai Hill, the largest and most stunning flower park in the area. Shikisai Hill's neat sweeping fields are filled with a kaleidoscopic range of colorful flowers that change with each season. Walking routes around the flower park offer incredible views of the gardens which sit beneath a dramatic range of volcanic mountains. Another smaller flower park, Kanno Farm, lies a little further south towards the town of Furano and is also famous for its beautiful lavender fields during the summer. Meanwhile, a half-hour drive from the center of Biei is the Shirogane Blue Pond, a man-made pond with a brilliant blue hue sitting beside the Biei River created by a rare type of mineral-rich local water.
2. Tsurui (Hokkaido)
The tiny town of Tsurui is located in eastern Hokkaido, around a 40 min drive from the city of Kushiro. Tsurui sits on the edge of Kushiro Shitsugen National Park, Japan's largest marshland that hosts a vibrant ecosystem most commonly associated with the red-crowned crane. Thanks to a concerted conservation effort, a population of around 1,000 red-crowned cranes now live in the area all year round.
One of the world's rarest species of crane, the red-crowned crane is traditionally a symbol of good luck and longevity and is a huge draw for nature lovers and wildlife photographers. There are several scenic spots in and around Tsurui where cranes can be seen, including the Tsurui Ito Tancho Crane Sanctuary close to the center of town. Hundreds of red-crowned cranes gather here during the snowy winter months, where they can be seen dancing and leaping in unison as part of their mating ritual.
Tsurui is also a spectacular place to visit outside of winter, with the village's array of cherry blossoms bursting into color during spring. In the summer, much of the Kushiro marshland and surrounding countryside becomes awash with thick vibrant green, and deer and foxes are commonly spotted in the national park. Agriculture and dairy farming are the main industries in Tsurui, and in spring and summer the town is surrounded by green fields of grazing cows. After summer, Tsurui’s landscape changes again, transforming from lush green into several shades of autumn orange and red.
3. Higashinaruse (Akita)
Home to less than 3,000 people, the historic town of Higashinaruse is located in the south-eastern corner of Akita Prefecture. The tranquil town boasts a gorgeous rural landscape and is filled with rice fields and surrounded by forest-covered mountains. Over ninety percent of Higashinaruse's total area is forested and laced with crystal-clean rivers, streams, and lakes, many of which are popular fishing spots with anglers looking to catch local trout and char fish.
The town sits beneath the Kurikoma mountain range, which stretches across Akita and the neighboring prefectures of Iwate and Miyagi. Many natural springs flow through the town, and there are a number of “onsen” (hot spring) spa resorts dotted in and around the area. Magnificent waterfalls can also be found along walking trails in Higashirasune's forests, with the Fudo Waterfall, just on the edge of the town, and the 20m-tall Tensho Waterfall in the Iwaikawa Aigawa National Forest being two of the most impressive.
Higashinaruse enjoys four very distinct seasons, making the town a great place to visit any time of year. In spring and summer, the forests burst into life. By mid-summer, the landscape is a dense patchwork of beautiful, lush greens, and come autumn, much of the forest around Higashinaruse turns a spectacular palette of orange and red. One of the best places to admire Higashinaruse's gorgeous autumn colors is amongst the beech forest that circles Lake Sukawa.
Higashinaruse also enjoys heavy snowfall during winter, with the region often layered in at least two meters of snowfall each year. This makes Higashinaruse a popular skiing destination, with the Jeunesse Kurikoma ski resort enjoying particularly beautiful fresh powdered snow. At night, look to the sky for a spectacular view of the stars - in 1999, Hirashinaruse was granted the title of having the most beautiful starry sky in Japan.
4. Kitashiobara (Fukushima)
Another remote rural village, Kitashiobara is similarly located in the north of Fukushima Prefecture amongst lush forests and dynamic mountain ranges. Kitashiobara is just over an hour's drive from Koriyama, which can be reached via shinkansen on the Tohoku-Hokkaido line. Kitashiobara was originally formed through the merging of three smaller villages located on the edge of the Bandai Asahi National Park. Today, Kitashiobara is a popular resort town, particularly with skiers who come to hit the slopes during the snowy winter season.
Sat in the shadow of Mt. Bandai, Kitashiobara is hugely popular with hikers who can enjoy countless spectacular views from any number of the region's walking trails. The view from the summit of Mt. Bandai offers a sensational panorama of the area's natural beauty, including breathtaking views of Lake Inawashiro, just one of several spectacular lakes around Kitashiobara. There are also plenty of scenic hiking trails around the three lakes to the north of the town, Lake Onogawa, Lake Akimoto, and Lake Hibara. Meanwhile, the Goshikinuma Nature Trail is one not to be missed, passing alongside the spectacular acidic waters of the Goshikinuma Ponds. The water of each pond flaunts a spectacular color, from emerald green to various shades of gorgeous blues, and even red.
Besides nature, Kitashiobara is also a great place for art lovers, particularly fans of Salvador Dali. The Morohashi Museum of Modern Art houses the world's third-largest collection of Dali's artworks. Set in a palatial building close to Lake Akimoto, the Morohashi Museum's collection of western art also includes paintings by legends like Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse.
5. Kiso (Nagano)
Roughly an hour from Matsumoto by train, the town of Kiso sits between the mountains of the Central Alps, with Mt. Ontake dominating the skyline to the west. Kiso is another former post town, located deep in the beautiful forests of the Kiso Valley along the historic Nakasendo highway, a 500 km route that connected Kyoto and Tokyo during the Edo period (1603 – 1868). Kiso, then known as Yabuhara-juku, was the 35th of the 69 stations along the Nakasendo.
Today, much of the former Nakasendo route forms several hiking and walking trails. One former section of the Nakasendo route, the Nakasendo Toriitouge Pass, is now a popular trekking spot. The route passes through a dense forest of Japanese horse chestnut trees and connects Yabuhara-juku to Narai-juku. Here you'll find a beautifully preserved section of the Nakasendo trail, lined with gorgeous traditional old wooden houses and shops.
Elsewhere, two walking paths lead through the Mizukizawa Natural Forest, passing huge ancient cypress trees, many of which are hundreds of years old. The mountains around Kiso also make the town a popular skiing spot in the winter. The Yabuhara Kogen Ski Resort has a range of slopes catering to all levels, from complete beginners to experienced pros.
6. Nagiso (Nagano)
Less than an hour south of Kiso and just over an hour north of Nagoya by train is the town of Nagiso. Nagiso is another picturesque former post town with many exquisitely preserved traditional Japanese homes that can be seen along the old Nakasendo road. Just like Kiso, Nagiso is similarly framed by mountains and dense forests with a wide range of hiking trails. One of the most beautiful forest walks in the area leads to the Tadachi Falls, the collective name for seven impressive waterfalls in the Otaki River Valley.
Nagiso is most famous as being the starting point for Tsumago, a charming post town marking the beginning of the trail to Magome on the old Nakasendo road. If you plan to hike the old Nakasendo trail to Magome in neighboring the Gifu Prefecture, it's around a two-hour walk from Tsumago. Both Tsumago and Magome have been perfectly preserved to look as they did during the Edo period. Tsumago's streets are particularly beautiful and have even been declared a Nationally Designated Architectural Preservation Site. Tsumago's traditional old houses, shops, restaurants, and temples evoke images of a bygone age. A particular highlight is the Waki-honjin, a former inn where the Meiji Emperor once stayed, now a museum. At the Nagiso Town Museum just next door you can admire the interior of a traditional Japanese home while learning more about life in the area during the Edo period.
7. Hayakawa (Yamanashi)
The village of Hayakawa in Yamanashi Prefecture has the distinction of being the least populated town in Japan with only 1,050 residents as of 2019. Nestled deep beneath Japan's Southern Alps, Hayakawa is a substantial leap off the beaten track! While it'll take a couple of trains and a bus to reach the tiny town from the nearest city of Shizuoka, those willing to make the trip will be rewarded with a beautiful traditional old town set amongst some of Japan's most spectacular countryside. The area is particularly beautiful during the autumn when the forest leaves glow orange and red.
Hayakawa is most famous for the district of Akasawa, an area of traditional houses and historic inns and temples. Perfectly preserved, it looks as though little has changed in centuries. Akasawa was a common stopping point for pilgrims along the 36-kilometer trek to Mt. Shichimen from nearby Mt. Minobu. The pilgrimage takes several days to complete, and Akasawa became a popular place to rest en route.
Many hikers and devotees still trek the ancient pilgrimage between the two mountains. Several ancient and impressive temples dot the forests along the way, and there are spectacular views of the tip of Mt. Fuji from the summit of both mountains. A few of Akasawa's traditional inns still remain, with those staying overnight being able to bask in a stunning night sky filled with stars. Hayakawa is also home to the world's oldest hotel, Nishiyama Onsen, which was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as being over 1,300 years old, having first opened in 705.
8. Totsukawa (Nara)
Totsukawa in Nara Prefecture is another mountain town along a historic pilgrimage route. Though home to less than 4,000 people, the town covers a wide area of beautiful scenery and is Japan's largest village in terms of area. Located at the southern tip of Nara Prefecture, Totsukawa is set amongst a gorgeous landscape of hot springs, forests, mountains, rivers, and waterfalls. Like Hayakawa, Totsukawa is incredibly remote, and reaching the town without a car is fairly difficult. Public transport is limited to just a couple of bus routes from either Yamato Yagi Station or Shingu Station in neighboring Wakayama Prefecture.
Yet those that do make it to Totsukawa will be met with breathtaking and unspoiled scenery. Totsukawa is located on the ancient trails that form part of the historic Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route, and pilgrims have passed by here for over 1,000 years. Totsukawa's Tamaki Shrine at the top of Mt. Tamaki is a sacred part of the route and has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status as one of the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. Alongside spectacular views, the atmospheric Tamaki Shrine is also surrounded by a number of stunning cedar trees, some of which are over 3,000 years old.
Amongst Totsukawa's famous sights is the Tanize Suspension Bridge, which stretches over 270 m across and 16 m above the Totsukawa River. From the swaying bridge, there are incredible views of the river and the valleys. You'll also find spectacular scenes of the valley and the bridge from the Moriyama Observation Deck, which can be reached via a steep hike behind the Takeharahachiman Shrine on the north side of the river. Elsewhere, the 32 m Sasanotaki Waterfall is recognized as one of Japan's 100 Best Waterfalls, which is set amongst a bamboo forest just off the Taki River. Totsukawa's waters are also famous for their hot springs and Tosenji Onsen, recognized as one of the 100 Best Hot Springs in Japan.
9. Yoshino (Nara)
In the heart of Nara Prefecture is the scenic historical town of Yoshino. By far the biggest draw here are the cherry blossom trees of Mt. Yoshino. Covered with over 30,000 cherry blossom trees, Mt. Yoshino is one of the most famous and popular cherry blossom viewing locations in Japan. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2004, around 8 km of roads and paths leading to the top of Mt. Yoshino are surrounded by thousands of cherry trees that bloom each April. However, Mt. Yoshino is not only a springtime destination – autumn turns much of the forest into a spectacular shade of orange and red while summer sees hydrangeas in full bloom.
There are several parks and observation points to witness breathtaking views of Mt. Yoshino's cherry trees and other scenery. Also en route are shops selling souvenirs and local snacks, restaurants, hotels, and ancient temples and shrines. Mt. Yoshino has been part of the pilgrimage route to Mt. Omine for several centuries and the historic Yoshimizu Shrine is an important landmark. Dating back from the 8th century, the temple briefly became the seat of the Japanese Emperor in the 14th century. Now housing a collection of important historical artifacts, Yoshimizu Shrine is now beloved for its sensational views of the mountain's cherry trees.
10. Ine (Kyoto)
Located on the coast in far north Kyoto Prefecture, the town of Ine is a fishing port with a long, fascinating history. About an hour from Amanohashidate by bus, Ine is set on a beautiful bay overlooking the Sea of Japan and is most famous for its traditional distinctive boat houses. Called "funaya," Ine boat houses line the water's edge all around Ine Bay. Mostly made from wood, these traditional fishermen's houses are raised over the water to allow boats to be moored underneath. The living quarters of the house are on the upper floor above the water. There are over 200 traditional funaya houses still standing in Ine, the best views of which are from the water on a boat tour from Ine Bay or from Amanohashidate.
Though the funaya are fascinating to see, Ine is still a working port and fishing remains the town's main industry. Other highlights include the Mukai Sake Brewery, which is close to the center of town and has been brewing sake since 1754. The brewery is known for its unique red sake, Ine Mankai, which is made from red rice and was served to world leaders during the G20 Summit in Osaka in 2019.
11. Kamikatsu (Tokushima)
Kamikatsu is another picturesque mountain town located on the island of Shikoku across the Seto Inland Sea. Though called a town, Kamikatsu is effectively the name given to a community of around fifty neighboring settlements spread across the region. These settlements are dotted all over the mountains at various altitudes between 100 - 700 m. The mountains are just a part of Kamikatsu's idyllic scenery.
The town is most famous for its countless picturesque terraced rice fields that stretch out in front of a backdrop of mountain peaks. A long and winding mountain road leads up to the Kashihara Rice Terraces which offers one of the best views over Kamikatsu's paddy fields, which have been declared one of the 100 Best Terraced Fields in Japan. The mountains of Kamikatsu are also blessed with a number of superb waterfalls, most notably the Kanjoga and Onbuchi waterfalls in the far northeast of town.
Perhaps the last thing you'd expect to find in the tiny town of Kamikatsu is an American brewery, yet this is where the craft beer brewery Rise and Win is based. A variety of beers are brewed here, including an IPA, a stout, and a white beer made from local yuko fruits, a citrus fruit similar to an orange that is native to Japan. All of the beers brewed here supply the Rise and Win’s own taproom in Tokyo and can be sampled in Kamikatsu in the brewery's onsite bar.
12. Kamijima (Ehime)
The village of Kamijima is spread across 25 islands in the Seto Inland Sea in Ehime Prefecture. The islands of Kamijima lie within the Setonaikai National Park, Japan's largest national park that encompasses over 9,000 km² of land and water around the Seto Inland Sea. Only seven of the islands are inhabited and only a handful of those are currently connected. The main islands of Yuge, Sashima, and Ikina are linked by bridge with the other four inhabited islands reachable by ferry. There are sublime views of the islands and sea to be found all around the coastlines of Kamijima. Cycling and hiking are popular activities, with the views from the Kushiyama Observation Deck well worth biking or trekking for.
The islands are noted for their cherry blossom trees that bloom in the spring, particularly around Mt. Sekizen on Iwagi island. The main island of Yuge is also a popular summer destination thanks to the beautiful golden sands of Matsubara Beach on its east coast. Ikina Island has a good selection of places to eat and local shops and is the easiest of Kamijima's islands to reach. A new bridge connecting Ikina Island to Iwagi Island is due to open in 2022.
Kamijima's smaller and more remote islands have plenty to see too. Uoshima is around a 50-minute ferry ride from Yuge and is famous for octopus fishing. Takaikami Island, home to a population of only 15 people, has become famous for the big and bold manga murals that cover the buildings in the island's harbor. The uninhabited Teshima Island features an unusual art installation by the German Gerhard Richter called “14 Panes of Glass for Toyoshima."
13. Minamioguni (Kumamoto)
Minamioguni is located in the north of Kumamoto Prefecture at the foot of Mt. Aso. The historic heart of the village is centered around the Tanoharu River, just one of several rivers that wind through the town. Here, Minamioguni's old streets are lined with traditional Japanese shops and restaurants. On all sides of the Marurin Bridge are several onsen, taking advantage of the natural waters that flow from the surrounding mountains.
Minamioguni's rivers also feature a number of beautiful waterfalls that can be found throughout the town's forests. Amongst the most picturesque are the two falls that flow side by side where two rivers meet. Called “Meotodaki,” or “husband and wife falls,” the two waterfalls are where the Tanoharu and Oda rivers meet and become the Tsuetate River.
Around the Manganji River are several more sights to see. Amongst them is Konpira-sugi, a 1,000-year-old cedar tree that is over 12m in circumference. The monolithic tree has twice been struck by lightning and the burn marks from the last strike are still visible. Declared a Nationally Designated Natural Monument, Minamioguni's Konpira-sugi tree is still going strong despite its advancing years. Nearby, the beautiful Manganji Temple that dates from the 13th century and the neighboring garden is also well worth exploring. Further along the Manganji River, the public Kawayu Onsen might be a little too public for some. Recently voted Japan's most embarrassing public bath, the onsen is in the heart of the river right next to the passing road, meaning bathers have to run the risk of baring all to anyone who passes by.
Surrounding the old town are several plateaus with observation decks from where you can admire Minamioguni's beautiful landscape and the many surrounding mountain ranges. A hike to see the incredible panoramic views from the Hiranodai Kogen Observatory is well worth making the effort for. Similarly, beautiful views can be enjoyed at Oshido Stone hill in the south of the village, famous for the collection of ancient and mysterious megaliths that were believed to have been placed here around 4,000 years ago.
14. Shiiba (Miyazaki)
Shiiba is another beautiful town surrounded by some of the most breathtaking and unspoiled natural scenery in Japan. Nestled at the foot of the Kyushu Mountains, the town is located far off the beaten track and is a popular place to hike. Shiiba is also rich in cultural heritage and there are several buildings and landmarks that have been recognized for their historical significance. Amongst them are the ancient farming houses found in the tiny mountainside hamlet of Tonegawa. Built with a unique architectural style that works in harmony with the mountainous terrain, the houses of Tonegawa have been protected as an Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings.
A large part of Shiiba's cultural history revolves around battles fought between two samurai clans in the 12th century. In 1191, samurai from the Heike Clan retreated to Shiiba after they were defeated by the Genji Clan. A warrior from the Genji Clan, Nasu Daihachiro, was sent to Shiiba to destroy what remained of the Heike Clan. Instead, he fell in love with Tsurutomi, a Heike princess, in a story of doomed love reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. The couple stayed together for several years and had a daughter together before they were eventually forced to separate by the Shogun.
In the center of Shiiba stands Tsurutomiyashiki, which was once Nasu Daihachiro and Tsurutomi's home. The current building is a model based on the original and was reconstructed around 300 years ago. Built in an architectural style unique to Shiiba, Tsurutomiyashiki was designated as an Important Cultural Property of Japan in 1956. Nearby is Shiiba Itsukushima Shrine, which is believed to have been built by Daihachiro Nasu in honor of the defeated Heike Clan and still stands over the town today. An enormous cedar tree, the second tallest in Japan, said to have been planted by Nasu Daihachiro at the Tonegawa Shrine was designated as a National Natural Monument in 1935.
The tale of Daihachiro Nasu and Tsurutomi is celebrated in the town every year during the 3-day Heike Festival, where the town's men and boys wear traditional samurai outfits and the women and girls dress as princesses. Shiiba is well-known as a town of performance art, with traditional "kagura" folk songs and dances also taking place each year. You can learn more about Shiiba's folk art traditions and the legacy of Dihachiro Nasu and Tsurutomi at the Shiiba Folk Art Museum, which explores the town's rituals, culture, and customs in depth.
15. Kikai (Kagoshima)
Kikai is located on the small island of Kikaijima in Kagoshima Prefecture. Part of the Amami Islands and closer to Okinawa than mainland Kagoshima, Kikaijima has a circumference of fewer than 50 km. Kikai is relatively flat with no mountains or particularly steep hills, which makes it a great place to explore on foot or by bike. Kikai's subtropical climate is most famous for the production of sugar cane grown in fields throughout the island. Huge banyan trees and a variety of citrus fruits are also found on the island, as are a diverse range of colorful tropical butterflies. Kikaijima is a coral island, which are common in tropical seas, and is thought to be rising at a speed of around 2mm a year.
There are excellent views of the sea and the nearby fields from Hyakunodai Park, the highest point on the island, at just over 200 m above sea level. All around the coast are a plethora of places to see Kikaijima's uplifted coral. Cape Tonbi and the Araki Nakazato Promenade are two of the best spots to witness Kakaijima's geologic origins up close.
The village of Aden is home to one of Kikai's most famous sights, the old lanes and streets lined with thick, high walls traditionally made from coral fossils. The walls were built to protect the area's houses, and especially their thatched roofs, from the harsh winds and storms that hit the island during typhoon season. If you're keen to see the beautiful coral reefs that live under the sea, you can either scuba dive or snorkel in the gorgeous clear tropical waters off the island, with Hawaii Beach on Cape Tonbi a particular highlight. Meanwhile, from December to April you can spot migrating whales in the sea off the coast near the Araki-Nakazato Promenade.
There’s So Much to See and Explore in Japan’s Most Beautiful Villages
As you can see, Japan is blessed with an almost endless array of beautiful villages that can be found right across the country. If you're looking for idyllic rural towns off the beaten path, isolated and snowy winter escapes, or somewhere to relax by the sea away from it all, why not plan a trip to one of the gorgeous towns and villages on our list! If you’d like to explore the full list of Japan’s most beautiful villages, you can find them all on the Association of the Most Beautiful Villages of Japan’s website.
Title image credit: gandhi / PIXTA
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.