Off the beaten path Japan.
Let’s face it, you already know you are most likely going to spend a pretty penny just getting to Japan and traveling within. You might as well see the most beautiful parts of it! Trust me when I say staying in Tokyo for more than a few days can be fun but a bit of sensory overload. Keep reading to learn how to experience off the beaten path Japan!
If two weeks is all the time you have, I highly recommend getting a Japan rail pass! For around $400, this pass allows foreigners to hop on and off any JR train or shinkansen (bullet-train). While in Tokyo, I also recommend getting a Suica (or Pasmo) card. To make the most of your trip, here are 4 destinations you may want to consider visiting to avoid feeling claustrophobic in Tokyo!
If you love beautiful flowers, amazing seafood, and fine Japanese scotch, Hokkaido is the place to be! By taking a short flight from Tokyo’s Haneda airport, you’ll find yourself on Japan’s northernmost sting-ray shaped island. You’ll most likely fly into Hokkaido’s Sapporo airport, but from there you definitely want to hop on a local train to the canal town of Otaru. Otaru is a seaside town facing the waters between northern Japan and Russia. What I love about Otaru is the European feel it has to it.
From the train station you can take a bus to the Yoiichi Nikka Whiskey distillery. This particular distillery was where Masataka Taketsuru and his Scottish wife Rita lived and crafted their prized spirits. Just make sure to bring cash for the items you might want to purchase and don’t miss the free samples!
Honshu is the largest, most populated island in Japan. While most live in and visit the Tokyo area, there is so much more than Honshu has to offer. To get your fix of cute animals in their natural habitat, make your way to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey park in the town of Yamanouchi. To get there, use your rail pass and take a bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano, then a local train from Nagano to Yudanaka station.
This place not only is home to the Japanese Macaques, the most northern living primate in the world, but a hot-spring heaven. If you are looking for the onsen experience, look no further! There are plenty of ryokans (traditional Japanese B&B) to choose from, but my personal recommendation is the Shimaya Ryokan. The owner is very helpful and speaks a bit of english. Upon request, he will drive you to the monkey park in his personal van! The best time to go visit in my opinion, is October.
The transitioning warm colors of the maple trees are in full swing, and the temperature is perfect. Don't miss the delicious chicken ramen and local fresh apple juice at the Enza cafe, right outside the entrance of the monkey park. It’s worth it!
Near and dear to my heart is the island of Kyushu. My best advice to see Kyushu the right way is to get your international driver’s license and rent a car. Although you could still travel by train, the best parts are seen by car.
There is a beautiful gorge about an hour and a half away from my hometown Miyazaki called the Takachiho Gorge. It is said to be a “power spot”, meaning a positive energy derived from nature with the power to heal. You can rent canoes to pass the gorge yourself, weather permitting. Be sure to check for any recent earthquakes that may have shifted rocks in the gorge in which case they will not allow you to canoe for your own personal safety. This happened to me after the Kumamoto earthquake in 2016!
If you are looking for some unique photo opportunities check out Miyazaki’s Heiwadai peace monument and Haniwa park. Another fantastic view is the Udo Shrine of fertility. Its right on the coast, about 30-40 minutes from Miyazaki.
For those not able to rent a car, don’t worry! Just simply riding a bicycle around town, around the Miyazaki shrine and exploring is one of my favorite things to do. Don’t be afraid to venture down Tachibana-dori at night, where people let loose after a hard day’s work and the awesomely strange and eccentric come to gamble, eat, drink, and sing to their heart’s content. I am 100% positive that you should never miss an opportunity to hang w/ locals in a tiny 15 people max occupancy karaoke bar. Some of my fondest memories begin there, or lack of memory (haha).
If you visit in the summer months, a great way to cool off from the intense humidity is to head to Aoshima beach! There are a few cafe’s and a promenade with a few soft cream shops and shops that sell the extremely expensive Miyazaki mango. I saw a $50 mango there, but my grandma loves me and bought me a $15 mango. If you are a history and architecture lover, check out Aya craft castle! It is only accessible by car but if you want to see some cool samurai artifacts and beautifully handcrafted ceramics this is the place to be! When you go inside, make sure to go all the way to the top and step outside and you’ll feel like a samurai looking out for the next invasion. It is a stunning view!
Okay Studio Ghibli fans, eat your hearts out! This island just a boat ride away from Kyusu was the inspiration for the Hayao Miyazaki movie “Princess Mononoke”. The best way to access this island is by taking a short flight from Kyushu or a jet-foil boat from the city of Kagoshima. I highly recommend the jet-foil so you can get a great view of the active volcano, Sakurajima.
If you love the forest, get ready. Shiratani Unsuikyo is a moss covered forest nestled in the mountains of Yakushima. Beautiful rivers and streams make for a great soundtrack to your 4 hour hike through the magical moss forest! You may even see a wild macaque hanging around somewhere.
One thing to keep in mind that this is not a very populated island, majority of it is protected UNESCO site. Food is not readily available 24/7! A lot of restaurants shut down earlier than normal. Either arrange something with your accommodation, or make a reservation in advance. If you can’t make a reservation, just make sure to plan on eating before 8pm. If you are okay with cheap but delicious convenience foods head to the A-coop for your everyday needs. Most hotels/lodges will have a kettle available to you in your room. That is a great option to save money, but if you are a bit of a foodie you don’t want to miss trying the island specialty, fried flying fish! It’s delicious!
These places are worth visiting! Always remember you can tailor your travel experience to how you like to travel. I hope these destinations give you some inspiration on how to experience off the beaten path Japan! - Alisa
Special thanks to Alisa Browning for writing this amazing article for the travel blog. Be sure to check her out on Instagram for more lovely photos!