When planning a trip to Japan, many people think about the big cities: Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Not strange because they are shown by media; they have lots to offer and play an important role in the Japanese society. However, I would like to challenge people to look beyond the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ of Tokyo – Kyoto – Osaka. To experience the true beauty of Japan, I believe one should definitely visit the smaller places as well. So where to go then?
Don’t get me wrong, I love spending time in Tokyo. Tokyo is a fun, crazy, mind-blowing metropolitan with themed restaurants and many cool activities. Kyoto is a justified favorite with its gorgeous authentic city center, traditional low buildings, beautiful temples, mysterious geishas and bamboo forest. A must see! Diehard city lovers may want to see Osaka as well. However, if schedule is tight, personally I would skip Osaka, as to me Osaka is ‘just another big city’, and prioritize smaller places.
Keep in mind: the more remote and harder to reach, the fewer tourists you’ll encounter.
Going in this article – more or less – from east to west, and from north to south (except for the last). For your orientation, at the bottom of this article there is a map with the main places mentioned.
Mt Fuji / Lake Kawaguchiko
On a clear day, make sure you visit Mount Fuji. The Five Fuji Lake area is absolutely gorgeous. Enjoy walking or cycling around Lake Kawaguchiko and visit the beautiful Chureito Pagoda. Thrill seekers may want to visit the Fuji-Q Highland theme park. You can visit the Lake Kawaguchiko side of Mt. Fuji as a guided day tour from Tokyo, or even better: spend the night in Kawaguchiko before traveling further, especially if you travel on your own by train.
For further details including how to get there, accommodation, day tour, more photos and info see my earlier blog Riding my bicycle around Mount Fuji, Chureito Pagoda and Lake Kawaguchiko (Japan).
This charming town is located two hours north of Tokyo. Possible as a rushed day trip, but it’s better to spend at least one night in Nikko. Visit Lemitsu Mausoleum, Futarasan jinja (Shinto shrine), Tōshō-gū shrine (including The Three Wise Monkeys and Sleeping Cat), Tōshōgū Museum, Rinnō-ji (15 Buddhist temples), Kosugi Hōan Museum of Art, Shinkyo bridge, Kegon waterfall, etc. All great!
How to get to Nikko from Tokyo
- From Shinjuku Station (2 hours): take the direct JR Nikko-Kinugawa train to Tōbu-nikkō Station (9 stops).
- From Tokyo Station (2 hours 15 min): take the Tohoku-Hokkaido Shinkansen (direction Sendai), at Utsunomiya Station (4 stops) switch to JR Nikko Line and get off at Nikko Station (6 stops). Or take the JR Joban Line (direction Narita), at Kita-Senju Station (5 stops) switch to JR Nikko Line, get off at Nikko Station (7 stops).
- Guided group tour to Nikko and Discover The World Heritage Toshogu Shrine by bus
- Group tour to Nikko, Lake Chuzenjiko & Kegon Waterfall by train and bus
- Guided private tour to Nikko’s World Heritage Shrines by train
- Guided private tour to Nikko & Edo Wonderland or hot spring by mini-van
Jigokudani Yaen-koen Snow Monkey Park
Especially in winter, the snow monkeys are a fun place to visit. I loved going here to enjoy nature after a long intercontinental flight. It is possible to visit Jigokudani Yaen-koen Snow Monkey Park in Nagano Prefecture as day tour from Tokyo or Nagano city. Best is to spend the night at Yudanaka (Yamanuchi), for example at this lovely traditional ryokan with onsen close to the train station, the oldest in the region actually, built in Edo time.
For further details including how to get there, accommodation, tours, more photos and info see my earlier blog Visiting the Jigokudani Yaen-koen Snow Monkey Park in Japan.
If you want to explore a little bit more of Japan without having to travel far from Tokyo, Yokohama could be a nice place to visit. You can go shopping, visit the Cup Noodle Museum, Yamashita Park, Chinatown, Minato Mirai, etc. Yokohama is the second largest city of Japan, definitely not country side or anything, but I know many people like Yokohama, so could not resist mentioning it shortly anyway.
Magome & Tsumago
Magome and Tsumago are two charming, old postal towns in the Kiso Valley, on the border of Gifu Prefecture and Nagano Prefecture, connected by part of the Nakasendo Trail (8.3km), an important route that connected Tokyo with Kyoto during the Edo period (17-19th century). You will see traditional wooden houses, bamboo forest, ryokans and much more. A great example of historical rural Japan!
For further details including how to get there, accommodation, day tour, more photos and info see my earlier blog Walk the Nakasendo Trail from Magome to Tsumago to experience rural Japan.
Matsumoto (Nagano Prefecture) has a beautiful old castle which is the local number one wedding photo location and considered a top 3 historical castle in Japan. The castle is an easy 15 min walk from Matsumoto Station. Joyama Park and Alps Park are extra enjoyable during blossom season.
With its location up in the mountains of Nagano, blossom tends to arrive a bit later I Matsumoto than for example in Tokyo, which was an important reason for me to add a visit to Matsumoto to my itinerary.
Matsumoto is also a good base for trips into the Japanese Alps, such as Kamikochi (resort, only open mid-April till mid-Nov) and Norikura Kogen (many onsens). Be warned that Kamikochi, especially around Kappabashi, gets crowded during the summer holidays (mid-Jul through Aug) and autumn leaf season weekends (Oct).
For further details including how to get there, accommodation, more photos and info see my earlier blog Cherry blossom hunting in Japan: Matsumoto Castle & Joyama Park.
Cultural and historic wise, Kanazawa (Ishikawa Prefecture) rivals with Kyoto and Tokyo. Kanazawa has a long history of ninjas. Visit the former samurai district Nagamachi and Ninjadera, a temple equipped with secret doors and traps. Check out the tea houses and performing geishas in the Higashi Chaya District or Nishiu Chaya District.
To me, Kanazawa will always be the ‘Garden City of Japan’. What attracts most people to Kanazawa is Kenrokuen, Japan’s top 3 landscape gardens, considered the prettiest by many. Another place you may want to visit is Omicho Market, close to Kanazawa Station. And check out these tours to and activities in Kanazawa.
How to get to Kanazawa
Kanazawa is connected by shinkansen to all large cities in Japan.
- Kyoto (2 hours): take the JR Thunderbird to Kanazawa Station.
- Tokyo (2.5 hours): take the Hokuriku shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Kanazawa Station (5 stops).
- Matsumoto (2 hours): take the JR Shinano to Nagano (50 min, 3 stops), switch trains.
- Nagano: take the Hokuriku shinkansen (1 hour, 2 stops) to Kanazawa Station.
Shirakawa-go & Gokayama
Shirakawa-go (Gifu Prefecture) and Gokayama (Toyama Prefecture) are two neighboring regions in the Shogawa River Valley, part of the so-called Japanese Alps. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ogimachi is Shirakawa-go’s largest and most popular village full of historical, unique farmhouses with thatched roofs. Some of those ‘gassho-zukuri’ houses are more than 250 years old, designed to withstand large amounts of snow.
Unfortunately I could not fit in Shirakawa-go in my last visit to Japan, but my friend of ‘Elizabeth on the Road’ wrote a nice blog about it. It’s definitely on my to-do-list for next time! Shirakawa-go is also a nice place to visit in winter with lots of snow.
How to get to Ogimachi
Modern times have also penetrated Japan’s countryside. On the village’s website you can find an extensive description of how to get to Shirakawa-go. Count on 4-5 hours from Tokyo and Kyoto. Shirakawa-go is in the (other) triangle of Nagoya, Nagano and Kanazawa. Every 30 min there is a direct bus between Kanazawa and Shirakawa-go, the ride takes app. 75 min.
Takayama is a city in Hida Region of Gifu Prefecture, in the southeast of the Japanese Alps, with a beautifully preserved old town. Takayama is less than 1 hour from Shirakawa-go. Twice a year there is a harvest festival in Takayama, the one in the Fall is considered one of the largest and best festivals of Japan.
Walk along the Miyagawa River, get a snack at one of the food stalls, visit the old town and Hida Folk village, visit a Sake brewery, walk the Higashiyama Walking Course (3.5km), visit Hikaru Museum, check out the ruins of Takayama’s former castle, try Hida beef, enjoy the tranquility of a nice ryokan… Enough to explore!
How to get to Takayama
Takayama can be reached via the direct JR Hida train line from Nagoya. Like Shirakawa-go, count on 4-5 hours travel from Kyoto or Tokyo to Takayama. The bus ride between Takayama and Shirakawa-go takes app. 50 min. In high season bus reservation is recommended as it can get pretty busy since tour operators also discovered Takayama.
Cannot choose and looking to combine Shirakawa-go and Takayama?
Nara is Japan’s first permanent capital established in the year 710, then known as Heijo. Some of Japan’s oldest and largest temples can be found in Nara. Like in Miyajima Island, in Nara the cute deer are a big attraction too. Buy a bag of special treats for the deer (¥150) and enjoy their company. They can be a bit cheeky though! I found the deer on Miyajima Island more relaxed.
Deer are considered sacred as messengers of God in Shinto religion.
Nara offers several temples to visit. I limited myself to the largest: Todaiji Temple, one of Japan’s most famous and historically significant temples, constructed in 752. The Temple of Todaji is definitely worth visiting. Todaiji’s Big Buddha Hall is the largest wooden building in the world. The 15-meter tall Buddha is impressive. Go early in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the big crowds. A full day is ideal but half a day is OK should you have limited time.
Visit Nara on a rainy day and it will be almost empty & gorgeous
How to get to Nara
Most people will visit Nara as a day trip from either Kyoto or Osaka.
- Kyoto (55 min): take the JR Nara Line to Nara Station. There is also a direct express train (Track 1) but it’s not covered under the JR Pass. Lockers at platform usually have space.
- Osaka (55 min): take the Osaka Loop Line (20 min, 9 stops), which goes further as the Yamatuji Line (35 min, 6 stops).
Nara has two train stations:
- Kintetsu (bus stop N1)
- JR Nara (bus stop N3)
Follow the bus signs at the station. Take the circle line bus 1 anti-clockwise and get off at stop N7 for Todaji temple (¥120). You can take the same bus back to the station; the bus rides in a loop around the city. Or walk 30-45 min to/from Todaiji Temple. Kintetsu Nara Station is by foot closer to Todaiji than JR Nara Station, but usually requires an extra stopover by train so in total it does not matter. Take into account about two hours to travel from your accommodation in Kyoto to Todaiji. If you prefer a guided tour and joining a group, consider this one.
Staying in Kyoto? After visiting Nara, take a 30 min detour for dinner in Osaka.
Kyosan is located in Wakayama Prefecture, a few hours south of Osaka. Kyosan is listed as UNESCO heritage with more than a hundred temples and shrines to visit. In autumn, the leaves color beautifully (Nov). Just try to avoid the weekends (many day trippers from Osaka).
Kyosan is home to a special monk temple with 800 years of history where you can actually sleep and witness the monks’ prayers in the morning. A unique experience, totally worth the trip! My friend of Elizabeth On the Road wrote a nice blog about it.
How to get to Koyasan from Osaka
- Direct bus from Osaka to Koyasan (1.5h), which only goes once a day (11.30am). This bus is not covered under the JR Pass and costs ¥2,000 one way. Should you want to depart earlier or miss the once-a-day-bus, you will need to take several trains or rent a car.
- From Umeda Station (2h 15min), take the metro Midosuji Line (4 stops, 8 min) to Namba metro station. Walk to Namba Station (8 min) and take the Nakai-Koya train to Hashimoto Station (14 stops, 52 min). Take the train (same line) to Gokurakubashi Station (9 stops, 40 min). Take the Nankai Koyosan Cable Car to Kyosan (5 min, ¥390).
- Or take the direct Limited Express train (79 min) from Namba Station to Gokurakubashi Station (8 stops), which saves having to switch at Hashimoto Station. Just be aware that Limited Express trains are not covered under the JR Pass.
Accommodation: Kongo Sanmaiin
Meat lovers alert! Make at least a pit-stop and enjoy a meal with Kobe beef. Kobe beef is worldwide known for its superior quality and tenderness. The cows get massages! Not cheap but soooo worth it! The Kobe beef steak at Wakkoqu is the best I ever had! They make like five different dishes out of one perfect juicy piece of meat, with each one of them I almost ate my fingers too, so tasty! The chef prepares the beef and veggies right in front of you on a hot plate (teppanyaki).
Wakkoqu restaurant is only a few minutes’ walk from Shin-Kobe Station. Via the covered pedestrian walkway, go into the big grey building Shin-Kobe Oriental City and Ana Crown Plaza. Stay on the same level (3F), immediate right and then left, across to the other side. Reservation highly recommended (call phone number on Tripadvisor, they speak some English). Lunch and dinner options. Expect to spend 80-120 euro per person, depending on your choices. I did not take the cheapest option (app. €95) and got an appetizer (salmon or roast beef), tenderloin 200 gram, two glasses of excellent wine or beer and coffee.
If you have got more time on your hands, consider spending a night at Kobe (Hyogo Prefecture) and visit Mariken Park and Kobe Port for example. If you don’t, hop off the train, get Kobe steak for lunch or dinner and hop back on the train again! Kobe is perfectly possible as (half) day trip from Kyoto, Osaka, Himeji, Nara, etc.
How to get to Kobe
- Kyoto or Hiroshima (25 min): Shin-Kobe Station is the perfect stop right in the middle between Himeji and Kyoto by Hikari shinkansen. Other stations in Kobe (there are plenty) require more train switches.
- Sin-Osaka Station (12 min): take the Tokaido-Sanyo shinkansen Hikari in the direction of Hiroshima (get off at first stop).
Another top 3 historical castle in Japan: Himeji Castle. If you arrive in time, it’s possible to see the interior of Himeji Castle. Otherwise you can only walk around the castle garden, which is basically a big green lawn bordered by a walking path, blossom trees, the castle wall and moat, where you can take a boat ride. The park is free, the inner courtyard closes at 16:00h. The castle is a UNESCO world heritage site and a national treasure.
If you stay longer in Himeji (Hyogo Prefecture), take at least the Shishazan Ropeway. Obviously Himeji has a number of parks and gardens, numerous shrines and of course the necessary temples. Nothing too special in my opinion, the castle is the true highlight of Himeji.
How to get to Himeji
Himeji Castle is only a 15-min walk straight from Himeji Station (North exit) via Otemae Street. Himeji is a good combination with Kobe and/or Nara as a day trip from Osaka, Kyoto or Hiroshima. By train:
- Kyoto (55-92min): take the Tokaido-Sanyo shinkansen Hikari in the direction of Okoyaka (4 stops, 55min) or the JR Tokaido-Sanyo Line train (11 stops, 1.5h).
- Osaka (63 min): take the JR Tokaido-Sanyo Line train (8 stops).
- Nara (2h): take the JR Yamatuji Line (6 stops) that goes further as JR Osaka Loop Line (6 stops), switch at Osaka Station (continue as per above).
- Hiroshima (61 min): take the Tokaido-Sanyo shinkansen Sakura in the direction of Shin-Osaka (3 stops)
- Kobe (15 min): from Shin-Kobe Station take the Tokaido-Sanyo shinkansen Hikari in the direction of Okoyaka (non-stop)
- Tokyo (3.5h): from Tokyo Station, take the Tokaido-Sanyo shinkansen Hikari in the direction of Okoyaka (11 stops, 3h 37 min) or take this 2-day tour from Tokyo to Himeji
Himeji Station has enough coin lockers, if you wish to store some luggage (carry-on size). Or store your luggage at the hotel should you have booked accommodation in Himeji.
Miyajima & Hiroshima
Hiroshima and Miyajima both made a big impression on me, for completely different reasons. Actually I think their contrasts make a great combo. And located so close to each other! If you get the chance, I would definitely recommend to visit both. Hiroshima with its history, Miyajima Island with its deer, famous floating Torii and nature.
For further details including how to get there, accommodation, day tour, more photos and info see my earlier blog Japan: Miyajima Island & Hiroshima, a great combo.
Soon I will write about places south of Hiroshima, on Kyushu, Japan’s 3rd largest island, including Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Huis ten Bosch and Beppu, one of Japan’s most famous hot spring resorts. I visited a wisteria garden and saw a bit part of my own country re-build in Japan. All definitely worth visiting and less crowded than the Kyoto-Osaka-Tokyo ‘golden triangle’.
Tip: stay at this Robot Hotel near Huis ten Bosh!
Hokkaido is the second largest, northernmost and least developed of Japan’s four main islands. You may have heard about Niseko, Sapporo or Furano. Hokkaido has several ski resorts such as Rusutsu, Tomamu and Kiroro. Hokkaido is the latest prefecture for blossom to reach their peak (May). To me, Hokkaido will always be linked in my mind with the crane birds at the Kushiro Wetlands I saw in a National Geographic documentary. Unfortunately I have not been there yet, but it’s on the to-do-list!
Obviously Japan has more to offer than the places mentioned in this article. I made an attempt to give an overview of the 15-20 places that I would recommend, the most logical places, to visit beyond the Golden Triangle Tokyo – Kyoto – Osaka. I hope you find it useful. Please feel free to leave a comment or question below.
Check below map to get an idea of where which place – mentioned in this article – is. It’s mobile friendly!
Going to Japan? I wrote 13 other, detailed articles about it full of tips! Check all my Japan articles in the Japan Blog Archives.
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I hope you will find this article useful. Please feel free to leave a comment or question below.
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