16 Unique Places in Japan That Are Not Widely Known But Are Absolutely Mesmerizing
Japan is replete with enthralling nature and culture, so it is no wonder that its iconic landmarks and attractions draw visitors from all over. However, if crowds are not your thing or you are looking to experience a more unexplored side of Japan, fret not. There are many fabulous spots that are lesser-known and also offer a rewarding time with their spellbinding beauty and historic value. Read on to learn more about 16 off-the-beaten-path places that offer all different kinds of sights!
May 31 2022 (Mar 20 2023)
1. Noboribetsu Onsen (Hokkaido)
Soaking in an onsen (hot spring) is one of the best ways to experience Japan, as it is a centuries-old custom with deep roots all throughout the country. The northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido is no exception, and to experience piping hot waters that yield a once-in-a-lifetime experience, head over to Noboribetsu Onsen, which is derived from the Ainu word “Nupurupetsu” (dark, cloudy river). Stand transfixed at Noboribetsu Onsen as it furiously spews 10,000 tons of muddy water daily from the nearby Jigokudani Valley, an old crater created by a volcanic eruption around 10,000 years ago. You can thus rest assured that these hot spring waters are freshly delivered to you from Mother Nature!
You can immerse yourself in these muddy waters joyfully, as they are comprised of nine types of water, including salt/saline springs, sulphuric springs, and radium springs! Here, you can treat your skin to rejuvenating detoxification and emerge from the onsen waters, feeling totally cleansed. To complete your trip, you may want to sign up for a night cruise and witness Jigokudani be illuminated and transformed into an eye-catching dreamscape at night.
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2. Risshakuji Temple (Yamagata)
Yearning for a place that will offer you an eclectic mix of spiritual solace along with physical activity? Situated in the sky-piercing mountains northeast of Yamagata City, Risshakuji Temple encourages you to have a good workout since you need to climb up 1,015 stone steps from the mountain entrance in order to reach it. You can feel the immense awe building inside of you as you make your way up to the secluded temple, and when you reach your destination you can savor a bird’s eye view of the surrounding majestic mountains. Take in a deep breath, pray to the gods at the temple, and feel a sense of bliss that can only come from being so close to the heavens above.
Aside from its novel location, Risshakuji Temple's claim to fame is a poem crafted by Japan's most famous haiku poet, Basho upon visiting this temple. Apparently, Basho stopped over at Risshakuji temple in the late 1600s and composed the haiku, struck by the poignant silence of the area. If Risshakuji struck even Basho’s fancy and ignited his imagination, there is no arguing that it must possess ethereal vibes. Be sure to visit there to recharge yourself both mentally and spiritually!
3. Frost-Covered Trees of Zao (Yamagata)
Winter enthusiasts will feel right at home in the region of Zao, which is a volcanic mountain range that borders Miyagi and Yamagata. When you visit Zao from mid-January to late February, you will be able to observe an extraordinary phenomenon that feels like a setting in a fantasy novel – fir trees heavily covered with snow for as far as your eyes can see! The snow on these trees is naturally curated by the northwest Siberian wind, thus acting as a stunning cloak.
To obtain a panoramic view of this awesome visual feast, it would be best to take the Zao Ropeway which will transport you to Zao-Sancho Station. Once there, savor the sight of these snow-covered trees standing tall and proud for miles and miles. This spectacle looks so unreal that they are known as the "Zao Snow Monsters." After you get your fill of these monsters, you can engage in winter sports like snowboarding and skiing. Skiing in and out of these monsters will certainly make you feel like a character in an adventure film.
4. Ashikaga Flower Park (Tochigi)
Although offering stunning sights of seasonal flowers all throughout the year, Ashikaga Flower Park in Tochigi Prefecture is famous for its hanging wisteria, creating a mystical sight as you walk among the delicately hanging blossoms while breathing in the sweet scent wafting through the air. Its appeal is not difficult to grasp – in fact, CNN thinks that this flower park is worthy of acclaim and nominated it as one of the world’s top ten dream destinations in 2014.
Come April or May, be sure to pay the park a visit and let your spirits soar as you take in the majestic sight of 350 wisteria trees in bloom. A spectacular riot of differently colored wisteria awaits you, including blue, pink, white, violet, and yellow. Also not to be missed is a hundred-year-old wisteria tree that is so huge that its thick branches have to be supported to create a breathtaking umbrella of blue wisteria flowers.
5. Mount Kano (Chiba)
For travelers who wish to make Tokyo the focal point of their trip but spend some quality time with nature as well, Mount Kano will be the answer to your prayers. Mount Kano is Chiba Prefecture’s second-highest mountain at 379 meters high and provides breathtaking views of rural Chiba. Although located in close proximity to Tokyo, it allows visitors to envelop themselves in bountiful nature, offering a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of the city.
One memorable place you should include in your itinerary is the Kanozan Kujukutani Outlook Park. Overlooking the nearby Kujukutani Valley, this deck offers you first row seats to admire the “unkai'' (sea of clouds) that usually appears in the mornings from late autumn to early spring. You will surely be arrested by the thick, mesmerizing clouds of mist that float over Kujukutani Valley and give rise to this ethereal sight.
6. Sado Island (Niigata)
If you’re a hiking enthusiast, you may gravitate towards the idea of trekking at Sado Island, an island that is chock full of natural attractions. Situated 45 kilometers off the coast of Niigata, it allows you to immerse yourself in verdant forests and crystal-blue seas. Be sure to check out Ishina Natural Cedar Forest, as it gives you the chance to observe various unique birds and flowers. This walkway is also home to gigantic, ancient cedar trees, some of which are hundreds of years old and have been twisted and bent by the elements, lending an otherworldly and mystical touch to the surroundings.
Sado Island offers a microcosm of Japanese history, which will amaze history and culture buffs. For example, the "tarai bune" are a type of boat made from repurposed wash bins and has become a symbol of Sado Island. Visitors can even enjoy rides in these tiny boats, weaving through the waves of the Sea of Japan. Sado Island was also employed as a gold and silver mining location, and you can explore the remnants of these mines and visualize what life must have been like for these determined miners during the Edo (1603 - 1867) period.
7. Hiyo Koke no Sato Moss Garden (Ishikawa)
Hiyo Koke no Sato Moss Garden consists of a huge, vibrant moss garden that will transport you to a transcendental setting that would not be out of place in a Studio Ghibli movie. These heart-stopping stretches of green moss have been lovingly tended by the village residents for generations, thus ensuring its vitality. In fact, they curate the land such that 48 kinds of moss not only coexist seamlessly, but also juxtapose nicely against each other to create a harmonious scene.
In fact, Hiyo Koke no Sato Moss Garden received so much acclaim that the former Japanese emperor personally planted cedar trees during the 66th National Planted Tree Festival. These towering cedar trees only add to the splendid greenery, so why not visit this place that was visited by the emperor himself and be enveloped by the warm embrace of Mother Nature?
8. Karasawa Cirque (Nagano)
Autumn foliage is a beloved seasonal sight in Japan, with popular spots filling up with crowds during the peak season. However, if you prefer to have a picturesque place away from the crowded tourist spots, Karasawa Cirque in Nagano would be an ideal destination from late September to early October. Avid and athletic trekkers may particularly enjoy the challenge of trekking the 30 kilometers that are required to reach Karasawa Cirque. Located 2,300 meters above sea level, the maple leaves will dazzle your eyes with vivid hues of red, yellow, orange, and green against the rocky backdrop of the Japan Alps.
One thing to note: the trek typically takes about six hours, so many visitors choose to pitch their tents or stay overnight at Karasawa Hyutte or Karasawa Goya, both of which are mountain huts. This allows you more time to soak in the tranquility of Karasawa Cirque, breathing in the fresh mountain air.
9. Hamamatsu Flower Park (Shizuoka)
Hamamatsu Flower Park is a botanical garden that hosts over 3,000 different species of plants, offering sights of splendid colors and beautiful collaborations of flowers. One notable pairing is the cherry blossom trees creating a stunning backdrop for the tulip fields, carpeting the ground with a whimsy of colors.
Spring is not the only time one should visit the park, as its seasonal flowers dye the precincts every shade of the rainbow throughout the year. For those who are looking for a leisurely way to enjoy the sights, you can hop on the Flower Train and listen to the explanations provided by the guides, offering an enjoyable and educational experience.
10. Maruyama Senmaida Rice Terraces (Mie)
The Maruyama Senmaida rice terraces are an agricultural wonderland that demonstrates the ingenuity and hard work of the local farmers as they leverage the local climatic and environmental conditions to grow their rice. These terraces rise 100 meters up the sides of the hills, with about 1,340 rice paddies of all shapes and sides carved into the formidable hills.
The terraces offer different sights throughout the year, filling up with water and reflecting the sky during the spring, turning green with fresh rice crops dancing in the wind during the summer, the gold rice crops seemingly glittering during the autumn, and being covered with snow during the winter.
11. Adachi Museum of Art (Shimane)
The Adachi Museum of Art combines the best of art and nature, two rejuvenating and introspective fields, under one roof. Art aficionados and nature lovers should feel right at home, as this museum enables you to develop a profound appreciation of Japanese-style aesthetics with its collection of artworks, including those by Taikan Yokoyama, one of the great masters of Japanese painting.
Its Japanese garden is also in a league of its own, as it has been selected as the best Japanese garden in Japan for many consecutive years by the Journal of Japanese Gardens. Visitors will certainly understand why, as looking out of the windows from the museum will make you feel that the garden is like a pretty painting that portrays the marvels of nature. Stop by the Adachi Museum of Art to experience how art seamlessly intertwines with nature, bringing about a sense of peace and serenity!
12. Kojima Town (Okayama)
If you are keen on fashion, try visiting Kojima Town in Okayama, which has made a name for itself as the go-to place if you wish to buy jeans that are imbued with a unique sense of Japanese-style aesthetics. In fact, your journey will begin right when you arrive at JR Kojima Station, as you will be welcomed by many pictures of denim jeans imprinted on coin lockers and vending machines.
Hopping on a “Kojima Jeans Bus” and alighting at Kojima Jeans Street will allow you to spend a leisurely afternoon strolling down the streets and marveling at the sights, such as a diverse range of jeans flapping in the wind on the electrical lines above you. There are also galleries that display avant-garde products related to denim jeans, creating an image of the history of denim jeans-making in Kojima.
13. Akiyoshi Cave (Yamaguchi)
Stretching for 10 kilometers about 100 meters under Akiyoshi Plateau in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Akiyoshi Cave enables visitors to take a respite from the stresses of modern life. It is known as one of the largest underground limestone caves in Japan, and will steal your breath away with its impressive stalactites and stalagmites.
And that’s not all – Akiyoshi Cave displays some exclusive formations that are difficult to find elsewhere. A highlight is a rock formation called “Hyakumaizara” (hundred saucers), which will surely stop you in your tracks as you gape in awe at how these “saucers” are stacked so spectacularly on top of each other. This cave is a perfect way to be reminded of the fact that great things take time, as after all, these natural masterpieces were painstakingly sculptured by Mother Nature for a few hundred thousand years!
14. Onomichi City (Hiroshima)
Cat lovers, rejoice! Onomichi City in Hiroshima boasts a huge cat population. In fact, the cat population is such an integral part of the city that the tourism authorities once launched a novel project that enabled visitors to use Google Street View and explore its streets through the lens of a cat. It goes without saying that you will have a whale of a time strolling down the streets and taking in the adorable kittens and cats.
As if in homage to its cat inhabitants, Onomichi City also has a “maneki-neko” (beckoning cat) museum that showcases about 3,000 maneki-neko objects, some of which are valuable imported items and period artifacts. The maneki-neko is an indispensable figurine in Japanese culture, as its raised paws are said to symbolize good luck and prosperity for businesses. Hence, a visit to this museum is not to be missed, as you can gather authentic insights into the prized maneki-neko.
15. Tsujunkyo Bridge (Kumamoto)
Kumamoto is home to not just Kumamoto Castle - one of Japan’s top 3 castles - but also Tsujunkyo Bridge, situated in Yamato City. Tsujunkyo Bridge is comprised of towering stone aqueducts and is truly a sight to behold as water is discharged at high velocity from the central section. Many people head over to Tsujunkyo Bridge from May to November to behold this magnificent “waterfall” in action.
Originally constructed in 1854 to provide water to stimulate the growth of crops, Tsujunkyo Bridge is still able to transport 15,000 cubic meters of water daily. Although these gallons of water are not needed for irrigation nowadays, they are still useful in flushing silt out from the aqueducts so that Tsujunkyo Bridge can be maintained in tip-top condition.
16. Gunkanjima (Nagasaki)
If you wish to explore an abandoned island up close and personal, look no further than Gunkanjima, otherwise known as “Battleship Island.” Located a mere boat ride from Nagasaki Port, Gunkanjima used to house a prosperous mining town. It attracted aspiring miners far and wide, who built so many reinforced-concrete apartments and industrial buildings that Gunkanjima came to resemble the warship “Tosa.”
Unfortunately, all this hive of activity came to a stop when the mine was abandoned in 1974, thus causing the buildings to deteriorate under the natural elements. These buildings eventually became dilapidated, which ironically attracted interest for the eerie and otherworldly vibes they evoked. Films like “Skyfall” have already leveraged Gunkanjima for shooting, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t visit Gunkanjima to experience the air of mystique for yourself!
Find Your Own Captivating and Unknown Corner of Japan
From onsens to islands to quaint towns and flower parks, Japan has something for everyone, ranging from the intrepid adventurer to the nature lover and the art aficionados. This is exactly the sort of idyll that entrances visitors worldwide, and hopefully you found at least one attraction in this list that makes you want to visit. Do incorporate these lesser-known but equally mesmerizing attractions into your itinerary so that you can develop a nuanced perspective of Japan that most travelers are not privy to!
Title image: BoonritP / Shutterstock.com
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.