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17 Underrated Cities To Tick Off Your Japan Bucket List Once It's Okay To Travel

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Becky Ilham  •  Dec 14, 2016

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[UPDATED 3 Apr 2020] It’s a shame that for such a big and diverse country, Japan is usually compressed to either Tokyo or Osaka and occasionally, Kyoto. With 47 prefectures made up by almost 7000 islands, there are plenty of Japan's hidden gems that you've yet to discover!
Credit: giphy So if you would just tear your eyes off the busy cityscapes and crowded heritage sites, let me take you to these interesting, but highly underrated places in Japan! While the COVID-19 situation now isn't a good time to travel, be sure to keep these amazing places in mind and start ticking them off your bucket list once it's safe to travel 🤗
1. Kanazawa, Ishikawa
Before the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen line in March 2015, Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa prefecture, wasn’t very conveniently accessible from the big cities. But now, thankfully, even with the increased throng of visitors, it has retained its countryside charms. [caption id="attachment_15653" align="alignnone" width="900"]
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Higashi-chaya district in Kanazawa[/caption] Credit: Andrea Schaffer on Flickr So instead of braving the overwhelming crowd in Kyoto – head here instead, where Higashi-chaya, its teahouse district has been dubbed as Little Kyoto for its old-time atmosphere.  Kanazawa is also home to one of the three most beautiful traditional Japanese gardens, the Kenroku-en and Kanazawa Castle, which has the longest multi-sided turret hall in the country. Seafood is excellent here, and Omochi Market will spoil you rotten with its choices of fresh seafood fares! Millennial travellers won’t feel out of place, as the modern, minimalist architecture of 21 st Century Art Museum and the D.T. Suzuki Museum look like they’re designed just for you! 
2. Toyama, Toyama
Toyama City is only about an hour away from Kanazawa, but exudes a different vibe altogether. First and foremost, it’s smaller in size and is populated mostly by the elderly. The pace is slower, the living cost cheaper and there’s a melancholic nostalgic feeling in the air that you can feel as you wander around the city. The gateway to the Tateyama Kurobe Mountain - the Japanese Alps - you can see the towering mountain ranges, dusted with white snow all year round, from the city itself. Apart from the Toyama castle, the new Toyama City Glass Museum is a must-visit, even if just for its architecture. Take a soothing stroll along the Fugan Canal Park, a vast public space dotted by rows of sakura trees.  But for the best view that Toyama can offer, a drive to Toyama Bay is a must – as one of the most beautiful bays in the world, you’ll be enchanted by the sparkling blue sea from the Shinminato Bridge! 
3. Nagano, Nagano
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Credit: Dom Pates on Flickr Chances are, you’ve heard of Nagano and would usually associate the city with perpetual winter and snow sports. That’s acceptable, since Nagano hosted the Winter Olympic Games back in 1988. But after the festivities ended, by no means Nagano reverts back into a boring mountain city.
It’s an access point to Jikogudani Monkey Park, the only place where you can witness the Japanese macaques immersing themselves in an outdoor onsen (hot spring) in winter. We visited the park back in 2018 and spent a good hour just observing the monkeys' expressions and interactions with each other! There’s also the famous Matsumoto Castle, a national treasure for being the oldest five/six-stories Japanese castle in the country. [caption id="attachment_15659" align="alignnone" width="900"]
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Kamikochi beckons worthy adventurers[/caption] Credit: Appo Haapanen on Flickr Also worthy for a visit is Zenko-ji, a Buddhist temple built back in the 7th century. For hikers, there’s Kamikochi, the gateway to the Japanese Alps where many peaks await the worthy ones! P.S. Find out more about what to do in Nagano with our 5D4N Muslim-friendly itinerary of Tokyo, Takasaki and Nagano
4. Hiroshima, Hiroshima
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The Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima is where a piece of history is preserved[/caption] Hiroshima is probably more heard than visited, aye? I won’t deny that its best attraction is indeed the Atomic Bomb Peace Park, where skeletal remains of a building, monuments and exhibits inside a museum designed by Japan’s most famous architect Kengo Tange are enough to convert an impartial visitor into a staunch sympathizer. Hiroshima Castle, surrounded by moats and skyscrapers is also an interesting sight, while the local version of okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake), topped with soba, is a unique gastronomic treat!
 But Hiroshima is best known for Miyajima, a sacred island just off its coast. Just a 10-minute ferry ride away from Miyajimaguchi on the mainland, Miyajima houses the vast complex of Itsukushima Shrine and Momijidani Park, a perfect spot to see bright red maple leaves (momiji) every autumn. The island is small, but you might want to stay all day, just to walk to the torii gate in front of the shrine in the morning and witness it being immersed in water during high tide later in the late afternoon! Find out more about where we went in Hiroshima and what halal food we ate during our 7D6N West Japan trip 🤗
5. Nagasaki, Nagasaki
A city mostly mentioned in the same sentence as Hiroshima, Nagasaki, which is located way west in Kyushu, is not without its own charms and eccentricities.
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Credit: Gary Bembridge on Flickr The Peace Park, while smaller in scale than its counterpart in Hiroshima, is a worthy visit for its giant bronze statue and remainder of a prison complex that was reduced to cinders during the explosion. But apart from that unfortunate sealed identity, Nagasaki is first and foremost a flourished port city with rich international influences. [caption id="attachment_15585" align="alignnone" width="900"]
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Welcome to the Netherla- I mean Nagasaki[/caption] Credit: gtknj on Flickr Some of them have been meticulously preserved at places such as Dejima – the site of a former Dutch trading post, where you can experience Nagasaki during its heydays, while Huis Ten Bosch, a Dutch-themed amusement park with tulip gardens and windmills, would transport you all the way to Europe without even leaving Japan! Nagasaki is also known for its unique delicacies, such as the kasutera (Castella), a type of sponge cake that was brought by Portuguese merchants to the city back in the 16 th century. Apart from the original recipe, there are many local variations to it – matcha (powdered green tea) for one - which you should sample all if you can!
6. Onomichi, Hiroshima
Onomichi is a city that should be on everyone’s wish list (it’s on mine for sure!). A quaint little place just off the Seto Inland Sea, it’s usually missed by travellers heading west to Hiroshima. But this charming city, characterized by its many slopes, offers great nostalgic vibes with its strictly monochrome traditional houses and narrow streets.
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Credit: Toomore Chiang on Flickr The best way to enjoy the city is actually by following the trail of its Temple Walk, where you’ll pass 25 temples and many historical spots. You should also cycle – after all, Onomichi is the start of the Shimanami Kaido, a route that links six bridges from the mainland to Imabari on Shikoku Island. It has a 70-km long dedicated cycling path that would surely draw your inner cyclist out! [caption id="attachment_15588" align="alignnone" width="900"]
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One of the bridges on the Shimanami Kaido route![/caption] Credit: nhayashida on Flickr My favourite part of Onomichi is actually U2, a renovated-warehouse-turned-hipster-commercial-complex that contains a cycling-themed hotel, eateries and bicycle shop.  The design of the complex is cool, don’t you think?😉
7. Okayama, Okayama
I’m a guilty party myself; having passed Okayama station several times but never making any efforts to visit. Okayama, conveniently located between Osaka and Hiroshima, is a city in the countryside. It’s hardly bustling, but its landscapes would make up for that; apart from vast, lush green farms, there are terraced paddy fields and also one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan, the Koraku-en! [caption id="attachment_15590" align="alignnone" width="900"]
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One of three most beautiful gardens in Japan – the Koraku-en[/caption] Credit: SteFou! On Flickr If you’re familiar with Japanese folktales, then you would know that Okayama is home to the legendary Momotaro, a boy born from a peach but later turned into a local hero by defeating some evil ogres. [caption id="attachment_15591" align="alignnone" width="900"]
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Momotaro and his loyal dog[/caption] Credit: Daisuke Fujii on Flickr There’s a Momotaro trail to places associated with the local legend, starting from its statue in front of Okayama Station that you could follow! Talking about peaches, you definitely have to pick peaches while you're in Okayama as they are known to be super juicy and sweet 😋 Find out more about our peach-picking experience in our 7D6N Muslim-friendly West Japan itinerary! Another highlight of the city is Kurashiki Historical Quarter – a township littered with white-walled traditional houses with rows of willow trees along the banks of Kurashiki River. You can stroll around town in rented kimono or yukata to truly feel the old town vibes!😊
8. Nagoya, Aichi
Labelled as the most boring city in Japan even by its own residents, Nagoya, an industrial city, has long been perceived as a barren, soulless place. But that doesn’t mean it lacks culture. [caption id="attachment_15671" align="alignnone" width="900"]
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Nagoya Castle is no less majestic than its counterparts in other cities[/caption] Credit: Chris Dickey on Flickr For one, this home ground of Toyota is also home to historical and cultural attractions such as Atsuta Shrine, Osu Kannon Temple and Nagoya Castle, the latter offering a sweeping view of the fertile Nobi Plain.
You can also step back in recent history in Meijimura (Meiji Village), an open-air museum where more than 60 buildings from the Meiji (westernisation) era from all over the country are assembled and exhibited.
 Fans of Japanese ceramics Noritake, are also in for a treat as there’s Noritake Garden built on the original ground of its manufacturing factory. And did I hear anyone say fast trains are not a part of Japanese culture? I’m sure you’ll be converted when you step into the SCMAGLEV and Railway Park! P.S. Feeling hungry? Check out this Japanese fried chicken eatery in Nagoya that became halal because of a grandmother's love. 
9. Tottori, Tottori
I get that Tottori might be under the radar for its location. But really, you have to go there, even if it’s only for its sand dunes. Yes, you heard me correctly. Sand dunes. In Japan. With camels and all. With the biggest area of sand dunes in Japan, you'd probably feel like you're in the Middle East! Besides its famous sand dunes, Tottori was once the regional seat of power during the warring states era and that's why you can find the ruins of the former Tottori Castle. If you're looking to explore out of the city, take a scenic drive to Mt Daisen or Mt Mitoku.
10. Fukuoka, Fukuoka
 Closer to Seoul than Tokyo, Fukuoka is a port city with a long history of being in contact with foreign countries. It was even chosen as the landing point of the Mongol invasion back in the 13 th century. It also happens to be the gateway to Kyushu; so instead of just passing through its train station, why don’t you take the chance to transit for a day or two?
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Credit: JoshBerglund19 on Flickr Fukuoka is known for its Canal City, a multi-storey commercial complex surrounded by a canal, where you can shop, dine and be entertained under one roof!
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Credit: Travis on Flickr But if modern amusement is not your forte, then a relaxing picnic in Ohori Park is an absolute must. It was once part of Fukuoka Castle’s moat so try to spot some of the ruins if you can! This city is also famous for its notable Asian Art Museum, Dazaifu Tenmangu – the head Tenmangu shrine in all of Japan and the Yanagawa River District, where you can go on a boating excursion amidst old traditional houses, buildings and ancient Yanagawa Castle in the background. Our Muslim-friendly guide to Fukuoka will be just what you need to explore this city!
11. Tsu, Mie
 It isn’t just Tsu that is not very well known among foreign travellers, but Mie Prefecture itself is usually off the radar. That’s such a shame because Tsu would be the perfect spot to access Ise Jingu – the head shrine of Japan’s Shinto faith. 
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The stairs to Ise Jingu[/caption] Credit: ajari on Flickr That brings us to another highlight of the city – the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail, a route that encompasses mountain paths taken by people of Shinto faith in the old days to get to Ise Jingu. Stone pavings have been laid in parts of the trail, creating surreally beautiful cobbled paths through the untouched forest Mie! Not far from Tsu is Toba, the area where your Mikimoto pearls come from. Why not take some time to get to know the ama (traditional female divers), who take care of seeded oysters for pearl cultivation? But don’t let the pearls take away all of your attention, because Toba Bay itself is a worthy natural landscape, with centuries-old pine and chinquapin trees dotting the area.
 We visited the Ama Hut Hachiman Kamado in Mie and got to meet the female free-divers and they prepared a Muslim-friendly fresh seafood meal for us! We were regaled with tales of the ama divers (the oldest diver is 86!) translated by their English speaking staff, a traditional dance and even get to try on their traditional ama diving wear! P.S. Check out what else we did in Mie and other places around Osaka!
12. Izu, Shizuoka
Located just 100 km away from Tokyo, you don’t have to spend your whole vacation here if you really can’t bear being away from the city. But you have to give this city a chance to wow you with its unique geological features – a result of a collision between a volcanic mass with the Japan mainland over 20 million years ago! [caption id="attachment_15681" align="alignnone" width="900"]
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Volcanic rocks on the coast of Izu[/caption] I insist that you don’t let the science get to you; not everyone get geology, but all of us can appreciate the beauty of rock formations, right?
13. Matsuyama, Ehime
If you’re into Studio Ghibli, then you’ll know the animation movie Spirited Away. So you would also know that bathhouse where all those spirits go to after dark was inspired by Dogo Onsen, a real-life bathhouse in Matsuyama! Apart from its majestic size and traditional architecture, you definitely need to conquer your fear of intimacy and have an onsen experience here!  Matsuyama is located all the way in Shikoku, one of the least developed islands in Japan so you can still feel and experience the rural, countryside ambiance in the city.  It’s also the setting of Natsume Soseki’s popular novel “Botchan”, which describes the situations during the turbulent Meiji era. There’s even a Botchan train in town, which you really can’t miss!
14. Hirosaki, Aomori
Hirosaki is a notable city in the Aomori prefecture, Japan's Tohoku region. We recommend visiting both Hirosaki and Aomori City (capital of the prefecture) as the exciting Resort Shirakami Joyful Train links both cities together.
Credit: Aomori Prefecture Government and Aomori Prefecture, Tourism and International Affairs Strategy Bureau A must-visit spot in Hirosaki is Hirosaki Castle. This regal castle is best known for its castle grounds which are an incredible place to view the full splendour of cherry blossoms when they’re in season. The Hirosaki Sakura Festival is held annually from late April to early May to celebrate the event and visitors can expect amazing sights such as the cherry blossom trees being illuminated at night, the “sakura carpet” (where the falling petals of the cherry blossoms completely blanket the still waters of the castle moat), and the gorgeous view of the castle surrounded by the pink cherry blossoms.  Note: Currently the castle is not in its original position as it is undergoing repair works to its base structure. The castle was moved in its entirety about 70m away 😯 The castle is expected to be put back into its original place by 2021, though full repairs will take a few more years.  
While in Hirosaki, you can also drop by Hirosaki Apple Park to get a taste of Aomori apples for yourself! The park is filled with 1,300 apple trees of various varieties. You can pick up to 3 apples per person, and pay by weight (around JPY 300 for 3 apples). #HHWT Tip: The best time to pick is from October to November, though there are certain apple varieties that are harvested as early as August. Do check ahead of time if you’re visiting outside the peak harvesting period!
Don’t forget to bring back some apples or apple products as a souvenir when visiting Aomori! Lookout for Apple & Snack Co brand apple chips – they’re a popular snack to buy in Aomori and its ingredients are free from any animal-derived ingredients or alcohol. Check out our 6D5N Muslim-friendly itinerary to the Tohoku region to find out what other exciting activities you should do! 
15. Hakodate, Hokkaido
Sapporo might get all the attention, but Hakodate, the city you’ll arrive at by the Hokkaido shinkansen (bullet train) is a worthy destination, particularly for its famed million-dollar night view from the top of Mount Hakodate. Being the first city in Japan to be opened to foreign trade, Hakodate (and Hokkaido, really), is dotted with historical buildings of foreign architecture. It'll be impossible for you to miss Goryokaku – a star-shaped fort surrounded by a moat to boot, and is best viewed from its own observatory tower.
Credit: ruich_whx on Flickr Then there’s the Bay Area, where there’s a row of redbrick buildings facing the harbour. A stroll, shop-hopping and sampling local specialties such as the soft bite-sized cheesecake are the absolute must-dos in this historical district!
16. Chiba, Chiba
Home to Narita International Airport, Chiba has always been known as a transit city before taking the train to its bustling sister city, Tokyo. Not forgetting one of its most famous attractions, Tokyo Disneyland! But there's more to Chiba than meets the eye.
 Go back in time at Boso-no-Mura, an open-air museum featuring a reconstruction of traditional Japanese village during the Edo period (1603-1868). Here's where you can try cosplaying as a samurai! There's even a replica of a Samurai House that you can visit. 
For a feel of Japan in the olden days, head over to Sawara, a traditional Edo town that was a former transportation hub during the Edo period (1603-1867). Take a boat tour along the Ono River area where gorgeous historic buildings are lined along the famous river. It takes 30 minutes for a return trip! Check out our 5D4N Chiba itinerary will show you just how Muslim-friendly the city is!
17. Okinawa
Okinawa might not be a hidden gem as it's known by many as the Hawaii of Japan. But after we visited the gorgeous island, we found that the island is truly unique and there were so much that was waiting to be discovered beyond its beautiful beaches!
 No trip to Okinawa is complete without doing some sea activities in its beautiful waters! There’s a whole bunch of fun water activities you can do, and it’s not limited to just diving or snorkelling either. For those who can’t swim or just aren’t comfortable snorkelling or diving, a great option would be to go for a marine walk! This is where you walk on the ocean floor while wearing a special helmet that allows you to breathe underwater normally 😉   
Did you know that Okinawa has its own unique version of traditional wear? Called ryusou, this local style of kimono originates from the Ryukyu Kingdom and is quite different from the kimono worn by mainland Japanese. They are often made in bright colours with designs significant to Okinawan culture and history. You’ll also see pretty unique accessories, especially the large flower-shaped hat that’s usually worn by traditional Okinawan dance performers. Not to mention that you'll be greeted with beautiful views of the ocean all the time while you're in Okinawa too. Cape Manzamo in Onna is a popular scenic stop in Okinawa, and it’s easy to see why. For one thing, it has a famous elephant-shaped rock formation. But it’s also a nice place to stroll around and take in the beautiful cliffside views! Check out our Muslim-friendly first-timers' guide for more of what to see, eat and do in Okinawa! So what do you think? Would you ditch the obvious cities for these underrated ones instead? I hope you would – after all travelling is about discovering; don’t outgrow that precious joy!