We know there are questions around travel amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Read our note here.
Japan offers many bucket list attractions for world travelers, from walking beneath the cherry blossoms to basking in the bright lights of Tokyo. But beyond the traditional sites — Tokyo Tower, Mount Fuji, and the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Kyoto, to name a few — you'll find experiences that are unlike anywhere else in the world. From a bay filled with glow-in-the-dark squids to an island inhabited mostly by cats, here are some of the more underrated (and unusual) destinations in Japan.
Ghibli Museum (Mitaka)
Birthed from one of Japan’s most renowned animation studios, the Ghibli Museum in the suburban city of Mitaka outside Tokyo is a place where the young-at-heart can explore one of Japan’s most significant art forms. As the brainchild of Hayao Miyazaki, one of Japan’s most famous animators, the Ghibli displays some of the artist’s most memorable works. The first floor features a small theater that screens short animated films produced by the studio, in addition to whimsical rooms that showcase the history of animation. Children under 12 will love the “Cat Bus,” an oversized plush cat that can be climbed, while adults will enjoy the museum’s rooftop garden, which features a robot from one of Miyakazi’s most beloved movies, Castle in the Sky (1986).
Kochia Hill (Hitachinaka)
Many tourists flock to Japan in the spring to see cherry blossoms, but few make the pilgrimage to the city of Hitachinaka in October to see Kochia Hill during peak bloom. Not far from Tokyo, Hitachinaka is home to Hitachi Seaside Park — an outdoor space composed of rolling hills filled with thousands of kochia bushes, also known as summer cypresses. Although these bushes are a vibrant green in the spring and summer, they turn a shockingly vivid crimson in October, transforming the landscape into a sea of red plants. The park is filled with paths meant for meandering, and as it is located next to the Pacific Ocean, it’s a breathtaking place to take in the Japanese countryside. The park also hosts the Kochia Festival every October, to celebrate the arrival of autumn in conjunction with the changing colors.
Yokai Street (Kyoto)
Yokai Street used to be an unassuming street in Kyoto, filled with shops and eateries run by local business owners. At one point, the street was called Ichijo Dori, which translates to “first street,” since it was in one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. But when business owners began losing customers to big shopping malls, they hatched a plan to entice more visitors. Statues of yokai, which are spiritual monsters, ghosts, and demons famous in Japanese folklore, began appearing outside the shops, in reference to an old legend that Ichijo Dori was the site of a monster parade. As a result, Ichijo Dori turned into Yokai Street, or “Monster Street,” and has since become a beloved site for shopping while also celebrating the ghostly tales of Kyoto.
Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum (Yokohama)
A draw for noodle lovers and foodies alike, the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in the port city of Yokohama celebrates all things ramen. Through an in-depth gallery demonstrating the history of the dish, visitors will learn that ramen was brought to Japan from China when Japanese ports opened in 1859. Eventually, the Japanese put their own twist on the noodle soup, with the creation of dashi, a delicious stock crafted specifically for ramen. The museum also promotes hands-on learning, with a replica of old ramen stands in Tokyo where visitors can try mini ramen dishes from varying Japanese regions. Be sure to come on an empty stomach to make the most of the experience.
Translating to the “Great Boiling Valley,” Owakudani is a sulfurous ravine located in the mountainous town of Hakone. Travelers can make the journey to the hot springs of Owakudani on foot or by aerial tram in order to see the kuro-tamago, or “black eggs.” These black eggs are regular chicken eggs that have been boiled in the hot spring, transforming the light-colored eggshells into a deep charcoal black. Local lore asserts that eating one egg will add seven years to your life. Visitors to the hot springs can watch the eggs being boiled — a process that only takes about five minutes — before purchasing the black eggs in a set of five. Plan to share them: Although the black eggs have no difference in taste to normal boiled eggs, it’s not recommended to eat more than two.
Namba Yasaka Shrine (Osaka)
In a country filled with temples and shrines, the Namba Yasaka Shrine in Osaka makes a lasting impression. Referred to in English as the “Lion Head Shrine,” this uniquely shaped temple is exactly as it sounds — a 39-foot-tall lion’s head located within a bustling shopping district. The lion’s mouth, which is agape and lined with sharp jaws, is said to swallow evil spirits that plague its worshippers, while also bringing success and good luck in business and school. As a result, Namba Yasaka is most popular with students during final exams and with businesspeople at the end of financial quarters. On the third Sunday in January, the shrine’s annual festival features a massive game of tug-of-war, with the rope signifying a giant snake that was defeated by the lion deity as a way to bring peace to the region.
Iriomote Island (Okinawa)
Intrepid travelers who want to hike through the jungle, walk on white-sand beaches, and kayak through mangrove forests should make the journey to Iriomote Island. The second-largest of the Okinawa islands, Iriomote is most sought after for its access to jungle adventures, including river cruises on winding waterways and spectacular waterfalls in the tropical wilderness. It’s also famous for being home to the Iriomote-yameneko, an endangered wildcat that wasn’t discovered until 1965. The water surrounding the island is ideal for snorkeling and scuba diving, with the nearby Manta Way offering opportunities to spot manta rays in the spring and summer. To reach Iriomote, book a buffalo cart from Ohara, which will take you and your luggage across the shallow strait that separates the Okinawa islands.
Hida Folk Village (Takayama)
There’s no better place to experience the Japan of yesteryear than in Hida Folk Village. The village is composed of 30 traditional buildings that were built between 1603 and 1867 during the Edo Period, but were moved to the city of Takayama in 1971. The result is an open-air museum that walks you through Japan’s past, with logging huts, storehouses, thatched farmhouses, and the impressive home of the former head of the village. Thanks to fires lit in each building every morning and historic tools and utensils placed throughout, visitors to Hida Folk Village can get a strong sense of everyday life in an old Japanese village. Nearby, the Hida Takayama Crafts Experience Center provides workshops on local handicrafts, such as Hida lacquer work, weaving, and dyeing.
Hakone Open-Air Museum (Hakone)
Another must-see in Hakone, aside from the famous Mount Fuji, is the Hakone Open-Air Museum. While the indoor section of the museum is home to works of art from Renoir and Picasso, the museum’s outdoor section is a bit more playful. Filled with permanent displays of art from contemporary sculptors, the 17-acre museum invites visitors to interact with over 100 art installations throughout the lush, outdoor space. From a tower surrounded by stained glass to a jungle gym hidden inside a wooden sculpture, every single piece is designed to be touched, climbed, or viewed up close. Since all the pieces are installed inside a bucolic park, the museum is able to combine the beauty of the outdoors with the intrigue of contemporary art, making it an ideal excursion for all ages.
Tomita Farm (Hokkaido)
Fields of lavender are more often associated with the Provence region of France than Japan, but the Japanese prefecture of Hokkaido is famous for its lavender. Established in 1903, Tomita Farm is best visited between late June and early August, when the farm’s acres of lavender are in full bloom. Visitors can take the Lavender Bus for a tour of the fragrant blooms, and also learn about the differences between the farm’s four varieties of lavender — Hanamoiwa, Kamurasaki, Yotei, and Noushihayazaki — and how the oil is extracted to make soap, sachets, dried bouquets, and lavender-flavored ice cream. If you don’t have time for a full day, the scenic Norokko Train makes a seven-minute stop at the farm, allowing travelers to take a quick walk through the lavender fields.
Nachi Falls (Wakayama)
Despite being one of the tallest waterfalls in the country, Nachi Falls is off the beaten path for most tourists. This is largely due to the fact that the 436-foot-tall falls are in the Kii Mountain Range, making them difficult to reach. In order to see the plunging falls, travelers must commit to a four-hour drive or an eight-hour train ride from Osaka, plus additional bus routes to the remote site. For a fee, visitors can drink from the pool at the base of the waterfall to receive a long life with good fortune. The falls have long been considered a sacred place that predated organized religion, with locals worshipping the cascading water as a deity. Since then, Buddhist and Shinto shrines have been erected beneath the falls, surrounded by deciduous cedar trees and coexisting in harmony.
Akasawa Forest (Nagano)
The birthplace of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” can be found in the dense woods of Akasawa National Recreation Forest within the Kiso Valley in the Japanese prefecture of Nagano. In 1982, Akasawa was the site of the first forest bathing event in the world. As an established mindfulness practice, forest bathing requires people to use all of their senses to observe their surroundings and connect with nature. As the trees were logged during the Edo Period, Akasawa is not an old-growth forest, but conservation practices have since turned it into one of the most beautiful woodlands in the country. With a mix of evergreen and cypress trees, Akasawa offers six hiking trails for walking or forest bathing, with numerous vistas and resting spots along the way. Another great way to see the forest is on Akasawa Forest Railway — the old logging railway used to haul timber that now carries tourists through the valley’s beautiful woodlands.
Nyuto Onsen (Akita)
In Japan, natural hot springs used for bathing and health purposes are called onsens, and they are a long-standing cultural tradition. Although onsens can be found throughout the country, the remote Nyuto Onsen in Akita provides a rustic experience without the crowds. A visit to Nyuto provides a well-rounded onsen experience, with shuttle buses connecting you to the seven different ryokans (traditional inns used to house hot-spring guests). As each ryokan uses a different spring, each site provides a unique experience, although they are all purported to benefit your health, such as by aiding digestion and curing skin problems. Although the ryokans are open year-round, Nyuto Onsen is best visited in winter, when the springs will keep you warm even as the snow falls.
Cat Island (Ishinomaki)
On a map, Tashirojima looks like an average, rural island off the coast of Ishinomaki City. But this small island has more feline residents than humans, earning it the nickname “Cat Island.” Originally, the cats were brought to Tashirojima to assist with the pest problems that were arising from the abundance of silkworm farms. Before long, however, the humans became outnumbered by their feline friends. In Japanese culture, cats are believed to represent good luck and fortune, so island residents don’t mind the influx of four-legged inhabitants. In fact, the island is home to a small, cat-sized shrine that honors a cat that passed away. With so many cats roaming the streets, Tashirojima is becoming an increasingly popular destination for animal lovers. However, be forewarned that the island doesn’t provide many facilities, so day-trippers should plan on bringing their own food and water.
Firefly Squid Museum (Toyama Bay)
The firefly squid might look like an average squid in daylight, but in the dark of night, the photophores on the creature’s tentacles are luminescent. As a result, these fascinating creatures — which measure around three inches in length — bring droves of people to Toyama Bay to see an underwater light show. Located in the central Japan Sea, Toyama Bay is one of the best places to find the incandescent squids, as the current of the canyon forces the sea creatures up to the surface. If you’d rather not take an early morning boat ride into the bay to witness the squid’s glowing blue tentacles, a trip to the Firefly Squid Museum is in order. Although the museum displays are in Japanese, the facility provides daily demonstrations with firefly squids, so you can witness the glow-in-the-dark phenomenon in person.
Yoro Park (Gifu)
Located in the small town of Gifu, Yoro Park is one of the most mind-bending attractions in Japan. Also referred to as the Site of Reversible Destiny, Yoro Park was the brainchild of visionary architects Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Helen Arakawa Gins. As it's meant to be an “experience park,” visitors to Yoro are offered a helmet and a guide upon entrance. From there, you’re on your own as you explore the 4.5-acre park and its unique structures. Visitors can climb, jump, and crawl through the park’s illusionary attractions, best described as "athletic art." Like an elaborate puzzle brought to life, the experiential park needs to be explored to be understood.