Japan’s 5 Best Places Most Travelers Miss

In today’s Japan Travel Q&A we answer a question about the Japan’s best off-the-beaten path destinations from Rivka in Grand Rapids, Michigan:

“What are the best destinations in Japan that aren’t ‘touristy,’ and most people know nothing about?”

Don’t feel like watching a video? Read below for today’s answer!

Most travelers to Japan tend to focus on Tokyo and Kyoto, which are both amazing cities.

But if you want to get off the beaten path, here are our picks for The 5 Best Places In Japan That Most Travelers Miss!

Hokkaido Japan Furano Flower Fields Farm Tomita

The Furano Flower Fields, Hokkaido

Hokkaido

While not a complete “secret,” it’s a shame that so many Japan travelers miss Hokkaido!

Hokkaido is Japan’s northernmost island and a nature-lover’s paradise.

It’s home to national parks, lakes and hot springs, brilliant flowers, and some of the world’s best powder skiing and snowboarding (at famous resorts like Niseko).

Niseko Hokkaido Japan Grand Hirafu Mount Yotei

Niseko, Hokkaido: View of Mt. Yotei from the slopes of Grand Hirafu

It’s also a major foodie destination, offering some of Japan’s best seafood, and a variety of local specialties (there’s a reason it was a featured destination on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations!)

While best known for its winter offerings – including the impressive Sapporo Snow Festival – Hokkaido is just as appealing in summer.

The Furano Flower Fields are an amazing reason to visit in summer, and summer is also the perfect time to take advantage of Hokkaido’s many national parks, pristine lakes, adventure sports, wildlife, and fresh Sapporo beer.

Cityscape Odori Park view Sapporo Hokkaido Japan

Odori Park, Sapporo, Hokkaido

On top of all this, Hokkaido offers some exquisite ryokans (read more about ryokans), where you can enjoy traditional Japanese hospitality in beautiful natural surroundings, and an incredible meal featuring local and seasonal ingredients.

Getting to Hokkaido:

From within Japan, the easiest way to get to Hokkaido is by short domestic flight. There are plenty of daily flights from throughout Japan into Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport.

It also serves many international flights from throughout Asia, and even Honolulu.

Map of Hokkaido:

Okinawa

Okinawa is – surprisingly! – one of Japan’s most underrated destinations.

Most people have heard of Okinawa, but few realize what an amazing place it is.

What makes Okinawa so appealing? Fantastic weather, warm people, stunning beaches and a fascinating history.

Okinawa Japan Kerama Tokashiki Aharen Beach

Okinawa, Japan

Despite being part of Japan, the traditional Ryukyu culture lives on in Okinawa, and everywhere you go you’ll see living evidence of the Ryukyu: from the food to the music and architecture.

If you want to experience a laid-back version of Japan that almost all foreign tourists miss, Okinawa is the place to visit!

Okinawa Japan

Okinawa, Japan

Each island has its charms, but if you only visit one place we recommend the Yaeyama Islands.

Located closer to Taiwan than to mainland Japan, the Yaeyama Islands feel almost like a different country, and have a wonderful island vibe.

Getting to Okinawa:

From within Japan, the easiest way to get to Okinawa is by short domestic flight. There are daily flights from several Japanese cities into Naha Airport on Okinawa’s main island.

It also serves many international flights from throughout Asia.

To skip the main island and fly directly to the Yaeyama Islands, there are a handful of daily flights into New Ishigaki Airport, on Ishigaki Island (part of the Yaeyama Islands).

Map of Okinawa:

Kyushu

Kyushu is one of Japan’s 4 main islands (along with Hokkaido above), yet completely missed by most travelers to Japan.

Kyushu is a destination in and of itself: home to the cosmopolitan city of Fukuoka (also known as Hakata), the city of Nagasaki, and too many natural wonders to list (an ancient forest, volcanoes, countless hot springs, and more!).

It’s also the birthplace of shochu, Japan’s most popular distilled liquor.

shochu kyushu nagasaki japan

Shochu bar in Nagasaki, Kyushu

Kyushu’s major city, Fukuoka, is perhaps Japan’s most “livable” large city, with friendly people, great food, relatively temperate weather, and a very manageable size (not to mention good public transport).

Fukuoka (Hakata) is one of the best places in Japan to try ramen, especially at one of the city’s famous yatai (street stalls).

Beppu is Japan’s most famous onsen (hot spring) town, though for a less “gaudy” experience try the more laid-back town of Yufuin or the remote village of Kurokawa Onsen.

If you like volcanoes, Mt. Aso is one of Japan’s most impressive – and nearby, visit the stunning Takachiho and enjoy a boat ride through the impressive gorge!

Takachiho Gorge Minainotaki Waterfall Gokase River Miyazaki Prefecture Mt Aso Kyushu Japan

The Minainotaki waterfall cascades into the Gokase River at Miyazaki prefecture’s Takachiho Gorge, Kyushu

Perhaps the best place to experience Kyushu’s natural wonders is on the remote island of Yakushima, a few hours’ ferry ride from Kagoshima (Kyushu’s southernmost city).

Yakushima features a UNESCO World Heritage ancient forest, sea turtles, fantastic hiking and more.

Getting to Kyushu:

The gateway to Kyushu is Fukuoka city, also known as Hakata. From within Japan, the easiest way to get to Kyushu is often by shinkansen (bullet train) to Hakata Station.

In some cases, a short domestic flight to Fukuoka Airport may make the most sense – and Fukuoka Airport also serves many international flights from throughout Asia.

Map of Kyushu:

Shikoku

Shikoku is another of Japan’s 4 major islands (along with Hokkaido and Kyushu, above), and is one of Japan’s least explored gems.

If you’re after beautiful nature, peaceful rural villages, and a remote Japan experience, then Shikoku is a perfect choice!

Shikoku is home to the pristine Iya Valley, the fantastic art island Naoshima, Japan’s best udon noodles, the boisterous Awa Odori dancing festival (held every August), and so much more.

Kyushu Japan Naoshima Island Art Yayoi Kusama Pumpkin Sculpture

Yayoi Kusama’s Iconic Pumpkin Sculpture, Naoshima Island, Shikoku

Perhaps the best way to experience Shikoku is to explore its gorgeous interior, where you’ll find hiking, rafting, hot springs and waterfalls.

And for a truly one-of-a-kind experience, we recommend the art island, Naoshima. Naoshima is a tiny island in the Inland Sea renowned for its art museums, galleries and magical atmosphere.

In recent years it’s become increasingly popular with art connoisseurs and luxury travelers who come for the art (particularly Benesse House and the Chichu Museum), and the chance to stay at an unbelievable museum-hotel.

Getting to Shikoku:

Shikoku is easily reached by train or car, but the best route will depend on where you are visiting.

Most travelers enter Shikoku via the major cities of Takamatsu or Tokushima. Depending on your plans and how much of the island you plan to explore, a private driver or rental car may be the best option, as transport links within the island are relatively limited.

If traveling to Naoshima, you can take the shinkansen (bullet train) to Okayama city, transfer to a train to Uno, and then take a short ferry (20 minutes) across. There is also a ferry from Takamatsu city, which takes about 1 hour.

Map of Shikoku:

Osaka

And finally, a curveball!

Osaka is Japan’s second city, and on the surface might not seem like an off-the-beaten-path destination.

But the truth is that Osaka is too often skipped by travelers (in favor of Tokyo and Kyoto), yet consistently a favorite among Japan connoisseurs.

What makes Osaka so great? It’s an attractive and energetic city, with Japan’s most outgoing people, and an amazing eating and drinking culture.

osaka japan takoyaki street food octopus balls namba dotonbori

Takoyaki stall on Osaka’s Dotonbori

The food is what draws many culinary travelers to Osaka.

People in Osaka live to eat and drink, which gives rise to a famous local expression, Kuidaore (“to eat oneself to ruin”)!

Osaka’s most famous street food is takoyaki (pictured above), fried bite-sized balls filled with octopus and other goodies.

The city is also home to Michelin-starred restaurants and a great place to sample other street food and haute cuisine.

But Osaka is not just for food lovers!

Osaka Castle Japan

Osaka Castle

Osaka Castle is an impressive reconstruction, and the Osaka Castle Park is a beautiful place to spend a few hours.

The city is also home to one of the largest and most impressive aquariums in the world, Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, a world-class destination for families and marine wildlife lovers.

Getting to Osaka:

Osaka is about 27 miles (43 km) from the ancient capital, Kyoto. Various train lines connect the two cities, and it’s a very easy trip.

From elsewhere within Japan, the easiest way to get to Osaka is usually by shinkansen (bullet train).

By air, Osaka is served by two airports: Kansai International (KIX) and Osaka International (ITM). It’s extremely easy to reach Osaka from a huge number of destinations in Japan and throughout the world.

Map of Osaka:

Looking for more ideas on where to visit in Japan? Don’t miss our 25 Places in Japan to Add to Your Bucket List.

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What are the best places in Japan that aren't
About Andres Zuleta

Andres is the founder of Boutique Japan.

Unlike a lot of travel companies, we don't work from a cubicle!

In 2005, I first moved from New York City to Tokyo to study Japanese, and living in Tokyo changed my life, leading me to want to dedicate my life to helping others really experience Japan, the way I have been able to do so!

  • Nicola Butcher

    Dear Andres,

    Thank you for writing this opinion piece. I lived in Japan from 2009 to 2010 and long to return to discover Kurokawa onsen and Naoshima. I just wanted to highlight that you have written, ‘Perhaps the best way to get to Kyushu’ in the ‘Shikoku’ section. I was an English teacher so notice consistency.

  • Nicola-san, thanks for pointing that out! I just corrected the typo.