The description “off the beaten path” these days just seems to mean anything that isn’t the #1 city or landmark in any country (think Milano instead of Venice in Italy, Brooklyn instead of Manhattan in NYC, etc.). But in the age of mass tourism, even 2nd or 3rd tier destinations can often feel overwhelmed with crowds. That’s why I decided to put together this list of actually off the beaten path destinations worth visiting in Japan. These are all places that I visited while living over there, where I saw almost no tourists.
1. Okuoikojo Station
This very hard to pronounce train station is the most beautiful in the whole country (not arguing about that one; I mean, just look at the picture). Located deep in the mountains of Shizuoka prefecture and accessible by a rack railway, this train station looks like it was almost randomly placed on an island in the middle of a beautiful turquoise lake. The perfect photo spot and doable as a long day trip from Tokyo (although you can also stay overnight in nearby Ryokans aka Japanese style Inns).
How to get there:
From Tokyo or Osaka, take the train to JR Kanaya station (covered by the JR Pass). There, transfer to the Oigawa Main Line and get off at the final stop, Senzu Station. Finally, transfer to the Oigawa Ikawa Line and get off at Okuoikojo Station! To get to the best viewing spot, it is a short 20-minute hike across the bridge and up a hill (signs clearly mark the path).
2. Isawa Onsen
Japanese Onsen (aka hot springs) can be found across the entire country (thank you volcanoes). There are many famous ones such as Nyuto Onsen, Ginzan Onsen, or Hakone that attract thousands of visitors each year. But there are also more hidden ones such as Isawa Onsen which I was lucky to stumble upon on the way back from a trip to Nagano. Located in Yamanashi prefecture, Isawa is one of Japan’s best wine producers, with vineyards, shops, and even a free tasting center. But in 1961, hot springs were also discovered here, which prompted the town to rebrand itself into an Onsen town, nowadays mixing the best of wine and spa!
How to get there
From Tokyo, a limited express train runs from Shinjuku to Isawa Onsen directly (covered by the JR Pass). Alternatively, you can take the Keio Line to Takao station and transfer there to the JR Chuo Line to get to Isawa Onsen Station.
3. Miho no Matsubara
Japan loves to create listicles almost as much as Buzzfeed. Top three night views, top three mountains, top three gardens, etc. (just have a look at this article to see their obsession with creating top 3 destinations). Miho no Matsubara is one of the country’s top 3 “new views”, but despite this, it sees very few crowds compared to other sightseeing spots. The reason to come here is for the incredible and iconic view of Mount Fuji, the ocean, and the beautiful green pine trees. If you can, try coming in winter or late fall/early spring. Mount Fuji is best visible on clear, colder days, and it would be a shame to travel all the way out there only to see it shrouded in clouds.
How to get there:
Take the train to JR Shimizu Station (covered by the JR Pass), there get off and get on the bus going to Miho no Matsubara and get off at Miho no Matsubara Iriguchi (if in doubt, just tell the bus driver “Miho no Matsubara ni oritai”, “I want to get off at Miho no Matsubara” and he will stop for you). From there, it’s a 10-minute walk to the ocean, with signs pointing you in the right direction.
4. Kominato Railway
Trains in Japan are magical. From the super fast Shinkansen Bullet train that takes you around the country in a blink to commuter trains that run on-time 99% of the time, trains are one of the best ways to get around the country. But some trains’ main draw is actually not getting from A to B, but the journey itself. One of those is the Kominato Railway in Chiba Prefecture, a small local/tourist line that runs through the Boso Peninsula in Chiba prefecture. If you ever wanted to see rural Japan scenery with old houses, small villages and rice fields, this is a great and easy way to do so. I would especially recommend this journey during springtime when beautiful pink Sakura cherry blossoms and yellow rape flower fields dot the landscape. In summer, the train becomes open-air to provide relief from the summer heat and in winter, stoves are installed to keep you warm while marveling at the landscape.
How to get there:
The Kominato Railway departs from JR Goi Station in Chiba prefecture (accessible from Tokyo via the JR Uchibo and Sazanami Line). There are only trains every two hours or so, so make sure you time your arrival at Goi Station right, or you will be left waiting for quite some time.
5. Tokyo Islands
Most people will be aware of Okinawa, Japan’s tropical paradise and prime summer beach destination. But only few might know that you can find the same tropical adventures in Tokyo! Well, technically. The Tokyo Islands are a chain of 11 islands between 1 and 24 hours away from the bustling city by boat or by airplane and are a great alternative to the sometimes overrun Okinawa. The easiest accessible, Oshima, Niijima and Kozushima, each with their own unique attractions and landscape, can be reached in 1–2 hours by aiplane (or overnight by boat) while the furthest, Ogasawara Islands, are only accessible via a 24 hours ferry ride and offer the most unique flora and fauna of them all. I will release a separate Tokyo Islands Travel Guide in the future so stay tuned!
How to get there:
Ferries depart from Tokyo’s Takeshiba Port, where you can also buy tickets. Speed ferries book out earlier and depart during the daytime, while overnight ferries only leave in the evening but have more space. During the main season (June-September) there are daily flights from Haneda airport to the major Islands with Airports.
Uwajima, despite the name, is not an island but a town in Southern Shikoku known for three things: a castle, bullfighting and…penises. Uwajima Castle is one of 12 only original castles in Japan, definitely worth visiting if you want to see pre-Meiji era architecture. Bullfights are only taking place five days per year, however, there are bull statues and other related tourist attractions across the city, allowing you to learn about the tradition even in the off-season. These fights are not the traditional way as in Spain where a Matador fights a Bull until death, but rather fights between two bulls until the loser either flees or gets on his knees. And about Penises; Taga shrine houses some interesting statues and items that you would not expect to see at a traditional place of worship. I won’t tell you more, you’ll have to go there yourself to see it.
How to get there:
Uwajima can be reached from Matsuyama, the biggest city in Ehime prefecture, via a 1.5-hour train ride on the limited express Yosan-line. To get to Matsuyama from Tokyo, you can either fly there or take the Shinkansen Bullet Train to Okayama and there, transfer to the Yosan-line all the way to Matsuyama.
Technically, this is not a destination, but going on hikes in Japan’s stunning landscape is a great way to see some unique natural beauty and avoid crowds. As Japan consists of roughly 70% mountains, there are way too many hikes to list them all, but some of my favorites include:
- Jogasaki Coast: A beginner-friendly coastal hike in Shizuoka prefecture next to the ocean with great views and stunning volcanic rock formations.
- Mt. Mitake: A popular day hike from Tokyo, with waterfalls and a shrine complex on top.
- Oonoyama: Lesser known hike in Kanagawa prefecture with a beautiful wide-open plateau on top providing views out on the ocean and Mt. Fuji.
- Mt. Tsukuba: A popular sightseeing spot (actually one of the few sightseeing spots) in Ibaraki Prefecture. Often named as the sister mountain to Mt. Fuji, this one is much smaller and as it is freestanding, it provides great 360° views, sometimes all the way to Tokyo.
I hope this list inspired you to explore, if not these places, perhaps some other ones that aren’t found inside every guidebook. I truly believe there are interesting places in every corner of this country if you are willing to look for them!