Stunningly Beautiful Sights in Japan's Least-Visited Prefectures
Despite its reputation as a “small” island nation, Japan is a country with a surprising amount of natural diversity and stunning scenery across its 47 prefectures. With all this diversity, every Japanese prefecture has something special to offer. You may have heard of the snow festival in Hokkaido or the tropical beaches of Okinawa, but what about the Naruto Whirlpools of Tokushima Prefecture or the terraced rice fields of Kochi Prefecture? Today we will be exploring two amazing sights in each of Japan's 5 least-visited prefectures!
Aug 18 2020 (Jan 13 2021)
5 Japanese Prefectures You May Have Never Heard of!
Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto are grand, but if you came to this article, chances are you are looking for something a little different, something off the beaten path, and something that will surely give you stories to bring home to your friends. In the true spirit of adventure, you aim to go where the others haven’t.
Furthermore, now more than ever, avoiding large tourist attractions and well-known areas is a good idea, so embrace that wanderlust and go into the unknown! In today's article, we will be covering two hidden gems for each one of Japan's top five least-visited prefectures: Fukui, Kochi, Shimane, Tokushima, and Akita.
According to JNTO (The Japan National Tourism Organization), each one of these five prefectures was visited by less than a third of a percent (<0.3%) of international tourists who visited Japan in 2018 and 2019.
Fukui: Connect with Your Inner Zen and Marvel at Nature
Fukui Prefecture is located directly North of Kyoto Prefecture and is accessible by train in about an hour. It happens to be the least-visited prefecture in all of Japan, perhaps due to its proximity to other popular Kansai prefectures such as Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara.
Having said that, if you are staying in the Kansai area, making a day trip to Fukui is very easy and certainly worth it! Fukui is home to some beautiful seaside scenery and peaceful forest settings, both of which we will be looking at below.
Stunning Temples, Old and New
A small town in Fukui called Katsuyama is home to two breathtaking temples, one with more than 1,300 years of history and the other with less than 40.
Heisenji Hakusan Shrine
The older temple is called Heisenji Hakusan Shrine, and is known as one of Japan's tranquil "moss temples." Originally established in 717, Hakusan Heisenji Temple, as it was then called, grew to become one of the largest religious complexes in all of Japan during the Sengoku Period, and was home to more than 8,000 warrior monks spread across its 48 shrines and 36 temples (Buddhism and Shintoism were intertwined at that time). Sadly, the entire complex was burnt to the ground during a battle in 1574, with the majority of the buildings being left to be reclaimed by nature. Today, the complex is a vast, peaceful spot covered in green moss and filled with towering pine trees. It is beautiful whether it is raining or the sun is peeking through the gaps in the foliage and has an atmosphere that evokes its long-lost past.
In contrast to the long history of Heisenji Hakusan Shrine, Kiyodaiji Temple—located just 8 minutes away by car—was opened in 1987. However, this doesn't take away from how impressive the temple is. Kiyodaiji is known for its giant Buddha statue, which is one of the largest of its kind in Japan at 17 meters high. It is even bigger than the famous buddha in Nara and is the fifth largest Buddha in Japan overall. The Buddha statue sits in a large hall with hundreds of smaller buddha statues sunken into the wall in a Game of Thrones-type atmosphere that is quite impressive. The temple grounds themselves are also beautifully kept and are home to a stunning five-story pagoda to boot. When in Katsuyama, it is worth visiting both temples as they offer completely different experiences.
Located in a small coastal town called Mikunicho, the stunning Tojinbo cliffs stretch for a kilometer along the shore and feature pillars of uniquely-shaped rock. The cliffs are designated as a natural monument and consist of a geologically rare rock formation made of pyroxene andesite, which can only be found in three places in the world. Visitors can enjoy the rugged cliffs from above, or take a 30-minute boat cruise through the water below, passing various famous formations and navigating between towering rock faces. Other than the cliffs themselves, the area includes a cute retro shopping street lined with charming shops and restaurants and is a great place to spend an afternoon. If planning an overnight stay, the nearby Awara Onsen is the perfect place to enjoy a traditional Japanese ryokan with hot springs.
Kochi: The Best of Both Mountains and Beaches
Kochi prefecture is a great place to get away, as it is the second-least-visited prefecture in Japan. You can really connect with nature here, because 84% of Kochi is covered in trees and its northern border is lined with mountains. It could be that people don't visit Kochi often because it's hidden in all this wilderness! In addition, its southern border runs along the Pacific Ocean and has many serene seaside towns. The following two hidden gems showcase both faces of Kochi, one deep in the mountains and the other on the ocean.
The Terraced Rice Fields of Yusuhara Town
For those looking to stray far off the beaten path, this is the place for you. Located deep into the mountains of Kochi Prefecture, Yusuhara is as charming as a Japanese countryside town can be. Just a little way from the tiny town center, there lies something rather special: the terraced rice fields of Yusuhara. These rice fields offer a rare look at an agricultural oddity that is about as photogenic as can be. Once just a small mountain village, Yusuhara developed the "Kamizai Senmaida," or terraced rice fields, due to the lack of flat land in the mountain town. Terraces like this are quite a rare sight in Japan and it has been lauded for its beauty and uniqueness.
Other than the rice fields, the area offers some spectacular hiking routes through the mountains and is also home to a museum of renowned architect Kengo Kuma, who also designed six amazing buildings in the area. As it is rather far out in the countryside, consider staying the night in Yusuhara Town at one of the Minshuku (traditional Japanese guest houses) and take a soak in the local hot springs.
The Emerald Sea of Kashiwajima
This little island at the southwest tip of Kochi Prefecture is home to the charming seaside village of Otsuki Town. Much like Yusuhara Town, Kashiwajima is best accessed by car, so get ready for a road trip if you'd like to visit! Kashiwajima remains relatively unknown and is a lovely getaway from the city. But more than that, it harbors some truly magnificent ocean. The water here is a stunning shade of blue and boasts a clarity that is almost unbelievable. Some even say that the water is clearer than in Okinawa, and indeed, the boats here seem to float serenely on a sheet of glass. It is possible to swim in the peaceful harbor and enjoy snorkeling there, but you can also try diving in and around this area, which is home to some 1000 different kinds of fish! For those looking for a secluded beach or diving holiday in a tiny Japanese town, it doesn't get much better than this!
Shimane: Gods and Strange Nature
Shimane is the third-least-visited prefecture and has the second smallest population of any prefecture in Japan. Perhaps due to its small population, there are not enough people to spread the word about how amazing it is! It is located in the northwestern part of Honshu and borders the sea of Japan. It is a land full of natural mystery and legends of the divine. Let’s take a look at two places in Shimane that are bound to capture your imagination with their unique legends and history.
Izumo Taisha, Japan’s Oldest Shinto Shrine
Izumo Taisha is said to be Japan’s oldest Shinto shrine and is second in prestige only to the Ise Grand Shrine in Mie prefecture. According to Shinto legend, all of Japan was once controlled from the Izumo area, and around November every year, Shinto gods from across Japan gather at Izumo Taisha for a meeting of the divine. During this period, the people of the Izumo area are said to refrain from making too much noise for about a week, so as to not disturb the meeting. Once the gods are ready to return to their respective homes, a special Kaminari festival is held at the shrine to see them off. Another fun fact about Izumo Taisha is one of the mythical creator gods of Japan, Okuninushi no Okami, is enshrined here!
Like many of our other locations, getting to Izumo Taisha Shrine is a bit of a trek, taking 4 hours by train from Okayama, or 4 hours by bus from Hiroshima. It is also possible to get to the Izumo area directly from Tokyo on an overnight sleeper train called the Sunrise Izumo. Having said that, anyone with a passion for Shinto and Japanese mythology shouldn't miss out on visiting Izumo Taisha!
Kotogahama: The Beach of Singing Sands
“The beach of the singing sands,” otherwise known as Kotogahama, is curious indeed. The name, which resembles something out of a fantasy novel, comes from the squeaking noise that is produced by applying pressure to the sand. Just by walking on the beach, you will be accompanied by the “voice” of the sands with every step, and because of this, Kotogahama has been recognized as one of three strangest beaches in Japan.
Aside from its unique sand, Kotogahama is also just a nice beach in general where many people enjoy swimming during the summer. Kotogahama is only about an hour away from Izumo City, so it would certainly be worth visiting along with Izumo Taisha.
Tokushima: Test Your Courage by Walking on Vines and Witnessing Whirlpools
Coming in at rank 4 of the least-visited prefectures, Tokushima is located on the eastern side of Japan’s second-smallest main island, Shikoku. Tokushima can be reached from Osaka in only two and a half hours by bus and is the home of Japan’s famous Awa Odori festival dance. People may avoid visiting Tokushima as it requires hopping to Shikoku, or maybe it’s overshadowed by its famous neighbor Kobe! In any event, aside from its cultural relevance, Tokushima is overflowing with natural beauty, which is what we will be focusing on today.
Cross the Vine Bridges in the Iya Valley
If you are up for a real adventure, the remote Iya Valley is sure to capture your imagination. The Iya Valley is a great escape into nature, known for its hiking, hot springs, and deep gorges which are spanned by some incredible vine bridges!
Like something straight out of a fairytale, these bridges span chasms and hang above flowing rivers, all surrounded by lush forests in a grand natural setting. These bridges were originally created by samurai from the Heike clan after defeat in the 12th century and were made out of vines so that they could be easily cut down to stop pursuing enemies in their tracks. There are now only 3 bridges remaining.
The Kazurabashi Vine Bridge stretches 45 meters across a river, suspended 14 meters in the air. This traditional bridge, which is indeed made of real vines (albeit with hidden steel wires included for support and safety), is quite a sight to behold and equally enjoyable to cross as you hike through the Iya Valley. The bridge is a designated cultural asset and is rebuilt every 3 years to maintain its form and safety. A bit further up the river are two more bridges that are more secluded and less visited, although equally worth seeing.
As it is very remote, you might want to consider staying at one of the hot spring hotels in the area, Iya Onsen Hotel or Shin-Iya Onsen Hotel Kazurabashi.
See the Fury of Nature with the Naruto Whirlpools
Over the beautiful blue waters of the Kii channel stretches a huge suspension bridge. Down below in the tumultuous rapids you can spot a rarity of nature, giant whirlpools! The Naruto city whirlpools are a striking and powerful sight to see. These natural phenomena can range in size from roughly the length of a human at 2m in diameter, to monstrous whirlpools 20 meters across, which are reported to be the largest in the world! In order to get a good view of the whirlpools, you will need to either view them from 45 meters up on the Onaruto Bridge or take a sightseeing ferry to get right up close. While it may seem scary, the whirlpools pose no actual threat to the boats and you get a one of a kind view!
Akita: Warm Up or Chill Out
Finally, our 5th least-visited prefecture, Akita, is known for its thoroughbred dogs but has a lot more to offer than just pricey puppies. Akita is located in the north of Japan’s largest island Honshu and is also famous for its snow and natural beauty, making it a great wintertime spot to visit. Akita may be less visited due to its proximity to Hokkaido, which is more well-known as a winter getaway, Let’s take a look at two things you can particularly enjoy during the colder months, whether you want to indulge in snowy festivities or warm-up away from the chill.
Soak up the Spirit of Akita at Nyuto Onsen
Not just a single entity, Nyuto Onsen consists of seven Ryokan (Japanese-style Inns), each using water from a different hot spring. This means that each is different not only in design but in water quality as well, and many visitors try to visit all of the onsen during their stay.
The rustic atmosphere of Nyuto Onsen can be traced back 300 years, and it really feels as though you stepped back in time to a simpler world. Enjoy relaxing in this beautiful and natural setting as you soak in the uniquely cloudy hot spring water. Nyuto Onsen is actually located in Towada-Hachimantai National Park and has easy access to hiking trails. Hike among the beautiful nature of Mount Hachimantai and wash away the fatigue of the day at the hot springs!
Experience Igloos of All Sizes at the Kamakura Festival
As mentioned at the beginning of this section, Sapporo is known for its snow festival every year. It’s a huge event that draws thousands of people from both inside and outside of Japan. But if you would like to have a similar experience while avoiding the overwhelming crowds, Akita Prefecture’s Kamakura Festival in Yokote City is the thing for you.
Held on February 15th and 16th every year, this tradition has been passed down for over 400 years! Charming igloos large and small dot the landscape and are lit up at night, giving off a warm and inviting glow. You can enter the larger Kamakura, pay your respects to the snow spirits which they honor, and enjoy rice cakes and amazake (a non-alcoholic sweet rice wine) inside. The small version of the Kamakura can be seen in large numbers next to the Yokote River. When they are lit up at night, they create a breathtaking scene of hundreds of little spirits in a vast sea of snow.
Even during other seasons, Akita is a great place to go to escape the crowds. If you're curious about what life in the Japanese countryside is like, why not go and experience it first hand?
As you can see, just because the prefectures listed above are the least visited in Japan, doesn't mean there isn’t anything to enjoy there! In truth, some areas may be a bit harder to access, but you might want to take advantage of this and the low number of visitors to enjoy these hidden gems away from the crowds.
If you are interested in other obscure and hidden places in Japan consider checking out "5 Infamously Scary Places in Japan You Shouldn't Visit (And One You Should!)" before you go!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.