15 Best Hidden Gems in Japan
Unmasking Japan's Hidden Gems: 15 Lesser-known Treasures Worth Exploring
If you are an experienced traveler with already various trips to Japan under your belt, you might be struggling to look for new exciting things to do for your next trip to Japan.
Japan is a country of awe-inspiring beauty and captivating traditions. While iconic destinations like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto draw crowds, there is a wealth of hidden gems waiting to be discovered. This is also true for culinary and cultural experiences. If you already have tried Sushi, Tempura, and Ramen; and have already taken sushi preparation classes and Samurai/Ninja costume experiences; don’t worry. There is still a lot to discover.
In this article, we invite you on a journey off the beaten path as we unveil the 15 best-hidden treasures Japan has to offer. From the enchanting hot spring towns of Kyushu to the culinary delights of Sendai and the serene islands of Shikoku, we’ll take you on a voyage of exploration through lesser-known regions, uncovering the cultural, natural, and gastronomic wonders that make Japan truly extraordinary.
*Please note that this article contains affiliate links.
1. Spend a nice day with an excursion from Tokyo to North Kanto
The northern Kanto region in Japan, encompassing Tochigi, Ibaraki, and Gunma prefectures, offers a multitude of attractions for foreign travelers while also happening to be easily accessible from central Tokyo.
Tochigi captivates with its serene nature and cultural heritage, highlighted by the stunning Nikko Toshogu Shrine and the breathtaking beauty of Nikko National Park. Ibaraki entices with its diverse landscapes, including the impressive Ushiku Great Buddha and the historical charm of Mito. Gunma allures visitors with its soothing hot springs, such as Kusatsu Onsen, and the majestic peaks of Mount Tanigawa.
This region offers a blend of natural wonders, rich history, and relaxing retreats, providing a captivating experience for all.
For more information about things that you can do in these nearby prefectures from Tokyo, check out the following links!
2. Relax and recharge your energy at Onsen Towns in Kyushu
Onsen, or hot springs, are another popular “must” experiences in Japan. Although many of the more popular Onsen towns are located in the northern areas, the southern island of Kyushu also offers remarkable hot spring towns for a rejuvenating experience.
Beppu Onsen, renowned globally, captivates with its “Eight Hells” thermal pools and diverse bathing options. Kurokawa Onsen, nestled in a picturesque valley, exudes traditional charm with secluded outdoor baths surrounded by nature. Its rustic atmosphere enhances relaxation. Ibusuki Onsen showcases a unique twist with sand baths where visitors are buried in warm volcanic sand, known for its therapeutic qualities. The coastal scenery adds to the allure.
These are just some of the many towns in Kyushu that embody the essence of Japanese hot springs, providing tranquil retreats and a chance to immerse in the country’s rich cultural heritage.
For more information about Onsen towns in the Kyushu area, check out the following article!
3. Discover the lesser known three Prefectures in Hokuriku
*Introduce Ishikawa, Toyama, Fukui
Hokuriku, encompassing Ishikawa, Toyama, and Fukui prefectures, enthralls travelers with its captivating allure. This area might be one of the most looked over, but I assure you there is so much that you can enjoy in these prefectures.
Ishikawa, home to Kanazawa, boasts a blend of tradition and modernity, with its well-preserved samurai and geisha districts and the awe-inspiring Kenrokuen Garden. Toyama mesmerizes with its stunning Alpine scenery, including the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route and the picturesque village of Shirakawa-go. Fukui, known for its rich history, entices visitors with its grand Eiheiji Temple and the prehistoric wonders of the Fukui Dinosaur Museum.
Hokuriku’s distinct charm lies in its cultural treasures, breathtaking landscapes, and a delightful fusion of past and present.
For more information about this area, be sure to check the following article!
4. Immerse yourself in the amazing natures in Tohoku
The Tohoku region, located in the northmost part of the Honshu main island, includes Aomori, Fukushima, and Akita prefectures (among others), and is a nature lover’s paradise.
Aomori showcases captivating landscapes with its enchanting Shirakami-Sanchi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site adorned with ancient beech forests. Fukushima offers a diverse range of natural wonders, including the awe-inspiring Bandai-san mountain range and the tranquil Lake Inawashiro. Akita entices with its scenic beauty, such as the mesmerizing Oga Peninsula and the breathtaking Oirase Gorge.
With their pristine forests, majestic mountains, and picturesque coastlines, the Tohoku prefectures present an opportunity to immerse in the serene and breathtaking nature of Japan.
5. Hop around the beautiful and unique Islands in Shikoku
Shikoku beckons travelers with its captivating islands and enchanting landscapes. Setouchi, renowned for its stunning beauty, encompasses multiple islands scattered across the Seto Inland Sea.
Naoshima Island, a paradise for art enthusiasts, hosts contemporary art installations amidst its serene surroundings. Shodoshima Island entices with olive groves, picturesque coastal cliffs, and the famous Monkey Park. Megijima Island boasts ancient caves and mesmerizing views from its summit.
These islands offer a perfect blend of cultural heritage, scenic vistas, and artistic wonders, providing a memorable experience for visitors seeking tranquility, inspiration, and the splendor of coastal Japan.
Mainland Shikoku is also a lesser-known area in Japan full of hidden gems. Check out the following articles for more information about these four prefectures!
6. Be amazed by the wide variety of Regional Udon
Udon, a beloved Japanese dish, is a must-try for any foreign traveler. These thick and chewy wheat noodles are renowned for their versatility and delicious flavors.
Regional variations add extra charm to the udon experience. In Kagawa Prefecture, the birthplace of udon, Sanuki udon reigns supreme, often enjoyed with a simple soy-based broth and a variety of toppings. In Osaka, kake-udon is popular, featuring a rich soy-based broth with green onions and tempura. In Nagoya, kishimen offers wide flat udon noodles in soy-based soup, while in Tokyo, you can savor the delightful flavors of kitsune udon with sweet fried tofu.
Udon truly delights taste buds across Japan. And if you want to know more about this tasty dish, check out the following article.
7. Experience meat heaven with Regional Wagyu Beef
Wagyu beef, a culinary treasure of Japan, is a delicacy that every foreign traveler should savor. Known for its exceptional marbling, tenderness, and rich flavor, Wagyu is a true indulgence.
The renowned regions for Wagyu production include Kobe, Matsusaka, and Ohmi. Kobe beef, from Hyogo Prefecture, offers a melt-in-your-mouth texture and is best enjoyed as sukiyaki or teppanyaki. Matsusaka beef, from Mie Prefecture, boasts a sublime balance of marbling and tenderness, often savored as shabu-shabu or yakiniku. Ohmi beef, from Shiga Prefecture, captivates with its delicate flavor, ideal for sukiyaki or steak.
These regional variations showcase the unparalleled quality and culinary artistry of Wagyu beef, providing an unforgettable dining experience.
Check out the following article for more information about Wagyu!
8. A lesser-known, but definitely delicious Zunda Mochi from Sendai
Mochi-based sweets (soft and chewy rice cakes) can be found all across Japan. However, depending on what region you are, the type of mochi and the way it is prepared can vary a lot. Zunda Mochi (ずんだ餅), a beloved treat hailing from Sendai, is a delight for any foreign traveler. This delicacy combines two distinct elements: mochi and zunda (a unique sweet green soybean paste).
The zunda paste, made from crushed edamame beans, offers a creamy and slightly nutty flavor that beautifully complements the sticky mochi. Sendai is renowned for its love of Zunda Mochi, and you’ll find it widely available in local confectionery shops, tea houses, and even as street food.
Don’t miss the chance to savor this regional specialty that perfectly balances sweetness and texture.
9. Gyutan (Beef Tongue) : a “must-eat” when visiting Miyagi
Gyutan (牛タン), a culinary gem originating from Miyagi prefecture is a must-try for any foreign traveler. This delectable dish features grilled beef tongue that is tender, flavorful and melts in your mouth.
Miyagi’s proximity to cattle farms ensures high-quality beef and the skilled preparation and grilling techniques elevate the taste to perfection. The gyutan is often seasoned with a savory soy-based sauce, enhancing its rich umami flavors. This local specialty has gained widespread popularity, with dedicated gyutan restaurants showcasing the region’s culinary prowess.
Don’t miss the opportunity to savor this succulent and unique dish that exemplifies Miyagi’s gastronomic heritage.
10. Umi Budo (Sea Grapes), Okinawa
Umi Budo (海ぶどう), a delightful delicacy from Okinawa, is a treat that foreign travelers should not miss. Also known as “sea grapes” or “green caviar,” Umi Budo is a type of seaweed that resembles tiny, vibrant green bubbles.
Bursting with a unique texture and briny flavor, these seaweed spheres provide a refreshing and satisfying culinary experience. Umi Budo is often enjoyed raw as a topping or incorporated into various dishes like salads or sushi. This specialty of Okinawa showcases the region’s abundant marine resources and offers a taste of the ocean’s bounty in a truly captivating and delicious way.
11. Izakaya Bar Hopping
Izakaya in Japan are lively and casual establishments where locals gather to enjoy drinks and delicious small plates of food. These traditional gastropubs offer a relaxed atmosphere, a wide variety of dishes, and an opportunity to savor the vibrant flavors of Japanese cuisine while socializing with friends and colleagues.
In Japan, you will find many of these Izakaya lined up in streets and alleys, and many people like to do bar-hopping. this might sound a little difficult to do if you’re not a local, but luckily for you, there are bar hopping tours that you can be part of to have this experience. The good thing about these tours is that an English-speaking guide will be there to explain about the foods and the culture. You will also meet new people who are also interested in this experience!
Check out the following links for more information about these bar-hopping tours!
12. Watching Sumo Morning Practice: it doesn’t get any more Japanese than this!
Sumo wrestling, Japan’s national sport, is a captivating display of power, tradition, and ritual. Massive wrestlers clad in loincloths engage in intense matches aiming to force their opponent out of the ring or touch the ground. If you happen to travel to one of the places where competitions are happening, don’t even think twice to go watch this completely unique Japanese experience.
However, there is a good chance that you won’t be traveling nearby one of the competition sites during competition season (unless you’re actually aiming to do so). In that case, there are tours that you can take where you can see Sumo Morning Practices. These tours are also really good opportunities to get close and see how these athletes train in order to perform at their best during the tournament season.
Witness the raw strength and centuries-old customs that surround this unique and revered form of competition.
Check out the following links for more information about this Sumo morning practice tour!
13. Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony
The Traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony is a serene and highly ritualized experience that embodies harmony, respect, and mindfulness. Participants witness the precise preparation and graceful serving of matcha tea, partaking in a moment of tranquility and cultural significance while appreciating the beauty of simplicity and grace.
These tea ceremonies can be experienced in many places across the country, but especially in Kyoto. Some of these tea ceremonies are specially curated for international visitors (English explanations included). You can also choose from a variety of experiences such as renting a Kimono or even see an authentic Geisha show.
You can also check out more information about Tea Ceremonies in Kyoto and Tokyo from the following articles.
14. Bonsai Workshop
Bonsai, an ancient Japanese art form, involves the cultivation and shaping of miniature trees. Through meticulous pruning and styling, Bonsai artists create living masterpieces that reflect nature’s beauty on a small scale. Bonsai represents harmony, patience, and reverence for nature, captivating both the eye and the soul.
Although Bonsai has become an internationally known art form, wouldn’t it be really cool to get to know the art of Bonsai in the country of Bonsai? In Tokyo, for example, you can visit the Shunkaen Bonsai Museum located in Edogawa ward. It is a great opportunity to get in touch with this fascinating discipline that has become so universally loved by many people.
You can make reservations for the museum from the following link.
15. Make Your Own Samurai Knife with a Certified Swordsmith
Swordsmiths in Japan, known as Kajiya (鍛冶屋), are skilled artisans who meticulously craft traditional swords known as “katana.” Honoring centuries-old techniques, they forge these blades with exceptional precision, balance, and beauty. Swordsmithing is a revered art form, embodying the country’s rich cultural heritage and the pursuit of perfection in craftsmanship.
How cool it would be to have an opportunity to make your own Japanese sword!? Although it will not be a “sword”, there are tours where you can make your own Japanese knife. If you happen to visit the Gifu area, don’t forget to check this activity out!
Author’s Top Recommendation
All of these locations, foods, and activities that I’ve introduced in this article are, although relatively lesser known, experiences that will certainly enrich your journey in Japan. The usual touristic experiences are also greatly enjoyable, but wouldn’t it be nice to be able to tell your friends and family about little-known experiences that they didn’t even know were a thing in Japan?
I, personally, recommend visiting the Tohoku area because it has such a different feel than that of the major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. In other words, it will be a completely different experience, giving more variety to your overall trip.
In the case of foods, I would not only recommend that you try the Zunda mochi, but I would go as far as to say that you should try any kind of “mochi” related sweets when you have a chance. As I previously mentioned, mochi-based sweets come in so many different presentations, and these are not easily replicable overseas.
And for experiences, I would definitely recommend the sumo practice tour. To go watch Sumo is not really a “hidden gem” so to say, but to be able to see them practice is something many don’t know you can actually do. It is a good chance to get to see them up close.
▽Check out the best hidden gems in popular cities in Japan!▽
I hope this article was helpful to you. One interesting thing about visiting Japan is that there is a very specific “starter pack” type of experience for those who are visiting for the first time, making it relatively easy to plan your trip. However, as I mentioned in the beginning, Japan has so many fascinating and unique experiences to offer, that it can get really difficult to narrow it down for those who are visiting Japan for the second or third time.
This is when I hope this article helps to give you some ideas. In the end, I really hope you have a nice trip to Japan!
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