It’s a shame that for such a big and diverse country, Japan is usually compressed to either Tokyo or Osaka and occasionally, Kyoto. For a land with 47 prefectures made up by a whopping 6000 islands, it definitely has a lot more to offer.
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 cities!
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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.
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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!
Credit: Masashi Nishioka on Flickr
Millennial travellers won’t feel out of place, as the modern, minimalist architecture of 21st Century Art Museum and the D.T. Suzuki Museum look like they’re designed just for you!
2. Toyama, Toyama
Toyama City is just 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.
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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 castle, the new Toyama City Glass Museum is a must-visit, even if just for its architecture.
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Take a soothing stroll along the Fugan Canal Park, a vast public space dotted by rows of sakura trees. There’s also one of the most beautiful Starbucks outlets in all of Japan nearby that you just can’t miss!
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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
Chances are, you’ve heard of Nagano. Chances are, you 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.
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It’s an access point to Jikogudani Monkey Park, the only place where you can witness the Japanese macaques immersing themselves in outdoor onsen (hot spring) in winter. There’s also the famous Matsumoto Castle, a national treasure for being the oldest five/six-stories Japanese castle in the country.
Credit: Brian Jeffery Beggerly 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!
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4. Hiroshima, Hiroshima
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 housed 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!
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. 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.
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But apart from that unfortunate sealed identity, Nagasaki is first and foremost a flourished port city with rich international influences.
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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!
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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 16th 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!
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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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!
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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?😉
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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!
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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. 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!
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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!😊
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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. 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.
Credit: Chris Dickey on Flickr
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.
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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!
Credit: Ryan G
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.
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Sand dunes. In Japan. With camels and all.
How can you not want to go?
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 13th 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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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! 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!
Credit: Travis on Flickr
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.
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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. And while you’re there, try the unique Ise udon, thick, soft local noodle in dark broth, historically served to weary pilgrims from afar.
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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 paving have been laid in parts of the trail, creating surreally beautiful cobbled paths through the untouched forest Mie!
Credit: @to.hikaru on Instagram
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.
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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!
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?
Credit: Ashlee Cakes
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!
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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!
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14. Aomori, Aomori
I would go Aomori just because it’s the northernmost city you can get to on Honshu Island by train. But that aside, this city, which has harsh weather due to its remote location, is not without its own attractions.
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One of them is the decade-old Aomori Art Museum, a sleek architecture wonder, designed by renowned Japanese architects and built just next to ruins from the Jomon period! It exhibits mostly Aomori-related artists, but there are periodical special exhibitions that have had art lovers coming from all over the country.
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Still, Aomori’s best feature is its nature. You’ll be awed by the beauty of Shirakami-sanchi mountain range that is home to the world’s largest remaining virgin beech forest. Registered as a World Natural Heritage Site in 1993, it’s hard to pass the chance of a lifetime to trek its trails. You’ll be enchanted by Lake Juniko – a group of 33 lakes where the Aoike (Blue Pond) is located: the body of water naturally shimmers in various tints of blue throughout the day!
15. Hakodate, Hokkaido
Sapporo might get all the attention, but Hakodate, the city you’ll arrive at by the new Hokkaido shinkansen (bullet train) is a worthy destination, particularly for its famed million-dollar night view from the top of Mount Hakodate.
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Being the first city in Japan to be opened to foreign trade, Hakodate (and Hokkaido, really), is dotted with historical buildings of foreign architecture. The most obvious that would be impossible for you to miss is the Goryokaku – a star-shaped fort surrounded by a moat to boot, and is best viewed from its own observatory tower.
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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-do’s in this historical district!
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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!
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