Where to Visit in Japan (Other than Tokyo and Kyoto)?

I sometimes get asked where one should visit in Japan. The question often comes from travelers who only have a week or, at best, two in the country. Usually, their itinerary already includes Tokyo and Kyoto, and they are looking for recommendations to spice up their itinerary by introducing one or two off-the-beaten-path locations.

Unfortunately, I feel like I fail most people terribly, and I can never give a satisfactory answer to the fairly straightforward question of where to visit in Japan. There are several reasons behind my failure. First of all, I am a lawyer. So, I use many caveats in my speech/writing (on the condition, subject to, to the extent, provided that, may (or may not), etc.). It is almost guaranteed that you will have no grounds to sue me if the destination I recommend does not live up to your expectations.

Second, over the years, it gradually became more difficult to put myself in the shoes of a first-time visitor and think about what one may expect from their first trip to Japan, leading me to overthink and fail to provide simple suggestions. However, this is hopefully about to change. Thanks to the travel writing/photography jobs I have been assigned, I was, in the last year or so, gently forced to get out of my head and slowly learn to write about a destination in a way that a potential first-time visitor could relate to. For my subjective opinions and lengthy ramblings, I thankfully always have this site (e.g., Japan Is Actually Not That Beautiful or Why I Don`t Like Airbnb). For relatively more useful writing, my Japan Travel Guide or My Three Favorite Cities in Japan posts may be safer bets.

Red temple reflecting on a water in Uji
Byodo-in Temple in Uji near Kyoto, August 2023

So in light of the above and subject to the conditions set therein, these are some of my recommendations on how to build your Japan trip itinerary. I first briefly discuss whether Tokyo and/or Kyoto should be included in all Japan itineraries and then list selective destinations that are easy to access from Kyoto and Tokyo.

Table of Contents

    Should you include Kyoto and/or Tokyo in your Japan trip itinerary?

    This post is mainly for people who travel to Japan for the first time. While Kyoto and Tokyo are often already included in those itineraries, there may still be some questions.

    Kyoto: mon amour

    If this is someone`s first trip to Japan, I would never (ever) recommend that they skip Kyoto out (the kind of recommendation that is more common nowadays than you would think). One week, two weeks, or a year-long itinerary, Kyoto is a wonderful destination worthy of being included in every first trip to Japan itinerary.

    Kyoto - Pontochio Dining
    Kyoto at night, August 2012

    Kyoto is one of those places that I categorize as “a classic destination,” a city that will never fall out of fashion. The old capital of Japan is extremely rich in terms of the sites that represent Japan`s history and culture, and I find visiting Kyoto to be an essential step in putting every other place that one visits in Japan in a better context.

    I recently wrote about why you should visit Kyoto. In a separate post, I listed some of my favorite places in Kyoto. I would recommend spending at least three (ideally four) full days in Kyoto to visit some of the mesmerizingly beautiful landmarks. If your itinerary has room for a bit of splurging, having an extra day to venture aimlessly through the city`s narrow streets and check out the tiny little shops and cafes is also always a good idea.

    Tokyo: where I call home

    Tokyo, where I live, is more a matter of personal preference. When I first visited Japan in 2012, I did not visit Tokyo. On my second visit, I stayed in Tokyo only for one day. Now, I live here, and I adore living in Tokyo—it is clean, organized, convenient, safe, and has some of Japan`s best parks and gardens. But as a travel destination, I could probably do without it.

    After all, it is a giant metropole (both in terms of size and population). Granted, it is not a typical one. However, uncovering its multiple layers to appreciate how Tokyo differs from other metropoles may not be possible during one short visit. When I first visited Tokyo, I could not appreciate what makes the city stand out among all the other big cities. I felt like I wasted my time here, which I could probably have devoted to somewhere else in Japan.

    Lady walking in the middle of ginko trees in Tokyo Japan
    Tokyo in the fall, November 2019

    Do not get me wrong. Tokyo is, without a doubt, one of the culturally richest cities not only in Japan but in the world. They say that the city also has a very interesting nightlife (I was already 40 when I moved here, so ask me about the wee hours of the morning, but not what happens after dark). And if you build your itinerary around specific museums, sites, and eateries and are looking for a packed urban-focused itinerary, the city has plenty to offer.

    Where else to visit if your itinerary is centered around Kyoto?

    If Kyoto will be the main stop during your Japan trip, these are some easily accessible destinations from Kyoto that you may consider adding to your itinerary. The list below does not include already very popular destinations such as Hiroshima, Himeji, or Kobe, which are all close to Kyoto/Osaka thanks to the direct Shinkansen line.

    Onomichi and Shimanami Kaido Cycling Route: seven bridges and atmospheric small city

    Onomichi, one of the starting points of Japan`s most popular cycling route, Shimanami Kaido, is a little less than 2-hours from Kyoto by Shinkansen. One night stay in Onomichi, followed by a day or two of biking along Shimanami Kaido, will surely introduce an alternative side of Japan.

    Onomichi offers a very good representation of the small city vibe in Japan. That is one of the small cities in Japan that at first makes you feel like there is nothing to see but then slowly opens up – first an atmospheric shotengai (covered market), then a picturesque shrine, and at night a good selection of izakaya (Japanese pubs) with the perfect local vibe and in the case of Onomichi, also the magnificent Seto Inland Sea scenery.

    Roadside giant dolls in Japan
    Local residents waiving at bikers along Shimanami Kaido, May 2019

    Shimanami Kaido is a 70-kilometer cycling trail that connects the main island of Japan, Honshu, to one of its most secluded islands, Shikoku, over the Seto Inland Sea. You get to bike over six state-of-the-art bridges in Japan. The route, with an early morning start, can be done in a day (as I did). But most people, for rightful reasons, spread it two or more days to allow more time for side trips along the route. If you have any extra day, spending a night at one of the tiny islands of the Setouchi Inland Sea and experiencing a rural side of Japan centered around sea and fishery is also a good option.

    Shikoku: experience the rural Japan in Tokushima

    Shikoku, known to international visitors with its famous Shikoku Pilgrimage Route covering 88 Buddhist temples, is one of Japan’s most rural islands. While the island is not served by Shinkansen, thanks to alternative rapid trains, it takes only three hours to get to Tokushima, one of the principal cities of Shikoku, from Kyoto.

    Tariyuji Temple Shikoku
    Tariyuji Temple along Shikoku Pilgrimage Route

    Tokushima Prefecture, home to the city of the same name, is one of the culturally most rewarding regions in Shikoku. In addition to some of the most beautiful temples on the Shikoku Pilgrimage Route, the prefecture is also home to Iya Valley, which centuries ago was the hiding ground of Heike soldiers trying to escape the Genji Clan after the Genpei War. The valley today still evokes the sense of isolation and remoteness that attracted the Heike soldiers. To soak in the valley’s beauty, you can stay at the Iya Onsen Hotel, with baths positioned right by the Iya River. The valley is also home to picturesque vine bridges that connect the two sides of the river.

    These are some posts from the blog about Shikoku Destinations – the Pilgrimage Route and a temple stay in Cape Ashizuri.

    Kanazawa: a local star

    Kanazawa is one of my favorite mid-size cities in Japan. It is connected to both Tokyo (Shinkansen) and Kyoto (limited express) by direct trains that take just over two hours.

    Kanazawa Castle

    I find the city`s nickname, “Little Kyoto,” to be a little condescending as the city has so much to offer on its own. Home to some of the finest contemporary art museums in Japan, lively eating/drinking culture (including exquisite Kaisei cuisine), and the streets that still carry the Edo era aura, the mid-size Kanazawa is a wonderful urban option for those looking to get a feel of both historical and modern sites of a locally famous but internationally still less known Japanese cities. I wrote about my Kanazawa suggestions after a ten-day long stay a few years ago.

    Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route: hiking in a culturally rich region

    Kumano Kodo, the ancient pilgrimage route, is fairly famous in its own right. Designated as UNESCO Heritage in 2004, Kumano Kodo is a network of pilgrimage routes spread to Yoshino, Omine, Kumano Sanzan, and Koyasan. These routes connect not only to each other but also to the ancient capitals of Japan, Nara, and Kyoto via the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route.

    Women walking in a forest in Japan in Kumano Kodo
    A local guide leading the way in Kumano Kodo, February 2018

    Among the five different routes that form Kumano Kodo, the Nakahechi Route is the most popular one. Its starting point, Tanabe City, is connected to Osaka via a direct train service that takes around 2,5 hours.

    The route, commonly done in three nights/four days, is a wonderful way to combine a hiking trip with a culturally exceptionally rich one. You stay at a different guest house each night, often run by families, and walk for 4 to 7 hours every day. I hiked the Nakahechi Route in 2018 and wrote about it for my blog, Nakahechi Route of Kumano Kodo.

    Iseji Route: coastal version of Nakahechi Route of Kumano Kodo

    Iseji Route that starts in Ise City (accessible from Osaka/Kyoto in about two hours) is also one of the five routes that form Kumano Kodo. Iseji Route follows a coastline (with many mountain passes and forest sections) and has a very different vibe from the Nakahechi Route, which mostly goes through the forest.

    The travel infrastructure along the Iseji Route is not as developed as in Nakahechi (it is more difficult to book accommodation along the way; in most cases, you need to call for a reservation). However, for those who want to mix some forest and mountain hiking with stays in small fishing towns, I find the Iseji Route to be an excellent alternative to the Nakahechi Route. Since it is also substantially less explored, it will definitely satisfy those looking for more off-the-beaten-path experiences. I walked part of the trail in February 2020 and wrote about it for my blog, Iseji Route of Kumano Kodo.

    Where else to visit if your itinerary is centered around Tokyo?

    As for destinations that are more easily accessible from Tokyo, Hakone is a popular choice. The town is home to a large selection of ryokan and onsen-type facilities, but the main draw is the mighty Mount Fuji – the highest mountain in Japan. Hakone is a beautiful place, no doubt. But seeing Mount Fuji and its iconic peak is far from guaranteed, particularly during summer.

    These are some alternative destinations easily accessible from Tokyo that, despite the lack of Mount Fuji views, still have a lot to offer.

    Nikko: a wonderful alternative for sightseeing and easy hiking

    If you do not have many days to spare and looking for a day or just an overnight trip away from Tokyo, Nikko is a great option that offers both cultural and nature activities. If you have been following this blog, you might have already noticed that I love Nikko, particularly Okunikko (aka the inner Nikko).

    Fall in Japan, by lake Yunoko in Nikko
    Lake Yunoko in Okunikko, October 2021

    Nikko is one of the most important religious centers in Japan. Toshogu Shinto Shrine, built in the 17th Century during the Edo Period, is one of the landmarks. The shrine is where Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the shogunate that ruled Japan for 250 years, is enshrined.

    I regularly visit Nikko, but not necessarily for shrine visits. Okunikko, the region that starts at picturesque Lake Chuzenji and ends at Lake Yunoko, is home to a network of (easy) hiking trails that take hikers through an incredible variety of landscape scenery. The region is exceptionally beautiful during the autumn color season, which starts in early October.

    Tohoku: the most underrated region of Japan

    Tohoku, tucked between Hokkaido and Kanto, is easily one of the most rewarding and enigmatic destinations in Japan. Its beautiful nature feels more untouched than most other places in Japan. However, nature is not the only thing that Tohoku has to offer. The region is also impressively rich in terms of activities centered around the appreciation of the traditional Japanese culture. The locals are admirably dedicated to keeping the traditional arts and crafts alive by passing the baton to the younger generations. There are many centuries-old sake and soy sauce breweries. Ryokan-style accommodation in Tohoku feels very different than elsewhere in Japan. The experience in a small onsen town in Tohoku allows one to get a glimpse of daily life in Japan during the Edo Period.

    Snowy forest with onsen in Japan
    Ganita in Nyuto Onsen village in Akita, January 2022

    If you are visiting Japan in the winter, a visit to one of Tohoku`s onsen towns—Ginzan, Kuroishi, or my favorite, Nyuto—guarantees a fairytale-like experience. Imagine being in a forest of tall trees covered in snow and enjoying the scenery from the warmth of an onsen tucked in the middle of the forest.

    Aoni Onsen in Aomori
    Fall colors seen through the windows of one of the baths in Aoni Onsen, October 2021

    Tohoku is also one of the best fall foliage viewing destinations in Japan. I once took the train from Tokyo to Aomori (in a little over three hours) and used local trains or a hotel shuttle to get to Aoni Onsen, hidden in the middle of a forest. It was my favorite onsen and fall experience in Japan. Oirase Stream is another popular Tohoku destination that is also highly popular during the autumn colors season.

    Even if you are not on nationwide JR Rail Pass, JR East Tohoku Pass is a five days pass (30,000 Japanese Yen) that allows you unlimited rides on all Shinkansen and JR lines in Tohoku (with Tokyo departure) for five days (you are allowed to buy more than one pass per person covering different dates or consecutive five-day periods).

    You can read more about some of my Tohoku favorites here.

    Matsumoto: art, nature and history

    Matsumoto is having quite the moment among the foreign residents of Japan. I recently visited the city located in Nagano Prefecture in September. It was a long weekend trip and the city, in addition to its own wonders, worked out perfect as a base town for a three-day trip including several side trips.

    Yayoi Kusama`s “Pumpkin” as displayed in Matsumoto City Museum of Art

    Accessible with limited express in less than 3 hours from Tokyo, Matsumoto is the hometown of renowned Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. She generously donated a large selection of her artwork to the Matsumoto City Museum of Art, where you will likely experience a fraction of the crowds that you would need to deal with elsewhere to enjoy Kusama`s work.

    Castle in Japan as seen from outside
    Matsumoto Castle

    Matsumoto is also home to one of the remaining 12 original castles in Japan. Matsumoto Castle, built in 1594, is referred to as “Crow Castle” due to its black exterior.

    Kamikochi Nagano
    Kamikochi, one of the most picturesque hiking destinations in Japan, November 2019

    While the city itself has more than enough sites to keep you busy for at least two days, it is also a getaway point to Japan’s most picturesque hiking destination. Kamikochi is only an hour’s drive from Matsumoto. The nature area hosts many hiking trails, some of which lead to Japan`s highest and scariest peaks.

    Another rewarding day trip from Matsumoto is Nagiso, one of the most well-preserved towns along Japan’s ancient postal route—the Nakasendo Route—that connected Kyoto to Tokyo during the Edo Period. The town is home to traditional Japanese-style homes that are today mainly occupied by cafes, shops, and guest houses.

    Where else to visit in Japan?

    Above is a list of the alternative places you may consider for your Tokyo and/or Kyoto-focused itinerary. But if you are not short on time and are interested in wandering outside these two cities and the destinations within their orbit, there are countless other destinations in Japan. You can check out my Japan travel guide here.

    Getting off the mainland to visit the smaller islands is a wonderful option to experience the “extremely” rural life centered around the ocean. These are some of my favorite islands in Japan.

    If you like hiking, you are in luck. Mountains cover 70% of Japan`s land and host thousands of trails fit for both beginner and advanced hikers; these are some of the hikes in Japan that are easily accessible with public transportation. There is also a separate post about multi-day pilgrimage routes of Japan.

    To experience Japan’s famous onsen (hot springs) culture, check out my post, listing some of my favorite onsen.

    If you visit Japan during the fall colors season, these are some of my favorite fall foliage viewing destinations in the country.

    I hope you enjoy your trip to Japan. Japan is one of the most popular repeat destinations in the world. The country always finds its way to your heart and lures you back countless times (speaking from experience).

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