Japan is one of the most incredible countries in the world on multiple levels. The culture, the food, the technology, and of course the people are alone enough reasons to visit. But the country itself is truly fascinating and mysterious. If you are planning to travel to Japan, of course you should visit the major tourist destinations but, I encourage you to get off-the-beaten path and discover a side of Japan usually reserved for the Japanese alone and occasionally for those in the know. To get you started, here are five must-do off-the-beaten path travel destinations in Japan, for the intrepid traveler in all of us.
Many don’t realize that Japan does not only consist of one island but of several. Hokkaido is the largest and more northerly prefecture (a prefecture in Japan is like a state in the United States) and is a hiker, fisherman, and adventurer’s dream given the scenic and idyllic backdrop the island provides for your adventures. There are several national parks on Hokkaido but the crown jewel of them all is Daisetsuzan. It boasts several dormant volcanoes Mt. Asahidake and Mt. Asahi are among the favorites. There are several hot springs which the locals believe have healing properties, in addition to wildflowers, waterfalls, snow peaked mountains and plenty of opportunities to see the famous Eurasian brown bear that lives on the island in abundance. If you visit Daisetsuzan National Park be prepared to hike as that is the most popular activity to do in the park.
At the far end of the Okinawa prefecture, in the western most part of the Yaeyama Island chain, Yonaguni is certainly off-the-beaten path. There are approximately 1700 residents on this small island and oddly there is no shortage of things to do on Yonaguni.
The highlight however of visiting Yonaguni is the diving. 70 feet below the surface on the southeast coast exists one of the most interesting and unique rock formations that defy the rules of natural erosion and the opportunity to see hammerhead sharks in their natural habitat. Then once you’ve completed your dive, make your way to island’s brewery to sample the local brand of “hanazake” or “sake.”
Any geologically interesting and one of the most biodiverse places on earth, Yakushima is a must-do. From beach to snow capped mountain peaks Yakushima has it all. The mountains on Yakushima are not volcanic and since the island receives the most rainfall of all the islands is it the most verdant and lush settings year-round. Yakushima also boasts the title of being one of the word’s oldest UNESCO World Heritage sites. If you are a bird or turtle watcher Yakushima is for you.
Located in the Sea of Japan in Niigata Prefecture, Sado Island is the sixth largest island of Japan, known for its rich history. The island was once a penal colony for Japanese exiles as early as the 8th century. In the late 13th century, the famous Buddhist monk made the island his home for a few years. A gold discovery in 1601 allowed the island to flourish for several centuries. Now the island is known for its tourism, temples, and ruins. The residents of Sado are world-famous for their Taiko drumming which draws thousands of visitors to the island each year to see their performances.
Shirakawa and Gokayama Villages
Japan is known for its modernity, infrastructure, technology, and infrastructure and rightly so. However, for those travelers interested in seeing what “old world” Japan looked like, then look no further than the villages of Shirakawa and Gokayama. The houses in Shirikawa were built in the traditional “minka” or “gassho-zukuri”. Both villages are UNESCO World Heritage sites, nestled in the mountains on the west side of the country from the major city centers located in the east. Shirakawa village is located near the sacred mountain Mount Haku or Hakusan a dormant volcano and one of Japan’s Three Holy Mountains. The villages relatively isolated locations are what has allowed to the villages to survive the test of time and to remain intact largely as they have always been.
So, if you are feeling a little adventurous and you’re down to explore the many wonders of Japan, including those a little harder to get to, this list is for you. What you will gain from your travel experience will be well worth the effort of getting there. Happy travels!