The best places in Japan for culture, nature and escape.
It’s been a scary year, and everyone is looking for an escape. We asked our readers to vote for their top 10 travel destinations in Japan for 2021 (once travel is safe again), and these are their picks.
Each destination highlights an escape from busy tourist spots and everyday life for a chance to reflect and get back in touch with nature or even discover the heart of communities in rural and small-town Japan.
If you’re traveling to one of these destinations, we want to hear about it. Tag us on social media with #GaijinPotTravel.
Located at the halfway point of Korea and Japan, Tsushima definitely has a story to tell.
On the northern part of the island, you’ll find the Eboshidake Observatory, which offers 360-degree views of the region. You might even be able to see Aso Bay on a clear day. Try to visit during the morning though, as this is a major tourist attraction that’s visited right after Watazumi Shrine.
For a slower island experience, spend the day at Miuda Swimming Beach. Ranked as one of Japan’s top beaches, this beach has the perfect balance of ocean and mountain views. You can even camp out for a small fee.
Head south for the Tsushima Wildlife Conservation Center and spot the Tsushima leopard cat among the other rare species on the island. The southern part of the island is also home to Kaneda’s castle ruins, one of Japan’s top castles, and Banshoin Temple, one of the largest gravesites in the country.
The end of one journey is the start of a new one. Though home to the Shikoku 88 pilgrimage’s last leg, there is so much left to explore in Shikoku’s smallest region.
A climb up 1,368 stone steps on Mount Zouzu will lead you to Kotohira-gu (Konpira-san), one of Kagawa’s most famous attractions. Being one of the more challenging climbs in Japan, more often than not, you may want to opt for a hiking stick to aid you on your way up. Once you reach the top, though, you’re rewarded with scenic views of the ocean.
For a less intense experience, board the ferry from Takamatsu and visit one of the many islands famous for art museums. You can even get your cultural fix and maybe a less intense workout by biking from one museum to the next.
With attractions that include a volcanic valley, a pirate ship cruise, and a handful of museums Hakone offers plenty to do for those looking for a productive weekend trip.
One of the main sightseeing spots of Hakone is the volcanic valley Owakudani. Formed from a volcanic eruption over 3000 years ago, the landscape looks like it’s straight out of an old sci-fi film. Imagine clouds of steam rising from pools of boiling water, yellow-orange rocks scattered everywhere, and the sharp scent of rotten eggs. Don’t forget to try the black eggs sold at the souvenir shops since it’s been said that you can add seven years to your life if you eat one.
Lake Ashinoko is another popular destination among tourists because it offers a completely different perspective of Mount Fuji. To get the best view, hop on one of the massive pirate ships that cruise along the lake and shoot your shot. Be wary of the gusts of wind on the upper decks though.
If staying at a traditional Japanese inn or ryokan is beyond your budget, end your stay by checking out some of the hot springs or onsen nearest Hakone-Yumoto Station. Most of those establishments offer affordable entrance fees for day trips. There’s nothing like a long soak in an onsen to soothe any aches and pains that come with a full itinerary.
A treasure trove of white sandy beaches and clear turquoise waters, the Yaeyama Islands of Okinawa is a secluded oasis from all the stressors of urban living.
Ishigaki Island is the main island that serves as a gateway to explore the others in the region. Notable attractions on the island include the mangrove-lined Miyara River where you can go for kayaking tours and the Tamatorizaki Observation Point that overlooks the bay and gives you a great view of the island.
Taketomi Island is the island located right beside Ishigaki and is where you can see a piece of Okinawan history in the form of a well preserved Ryukyu Village.
Stargazers should try their luck by visiting Hateruma Island, the southernmost part of Japan. The uninhabited island is said to have the most stunning views of the night sky.
Escape the crowds and just get lost in nature with a natural sanctuary just beside Tokyo. Easily accessible by trains and a ferry, Boso is every nature lover’s playground.
Natural wonders like Kameiwa Cave alone should be enough to entice you to journey a few hours away from the capital. Start your day early and you just might see one of the most breathtaking morning views. Watching the early light fill the cave as it illuminates the cascading water is something made of dreams.
If you’re up for a little bit more of a challenge, make your way up Nokogiriyama (Sawtooth Mountain) to see the country’s biggest Buddha. Did we mention that this Buddha is entirely carved into the mountainside? You may run into a few howling monkeys but it’s all part of the adventure.
For beach bums, catch a wave at Ichinomiya Beach. Originally intended to host the first Olympic surfing competition site for the 2020 games, this beach is a great spot to hang loose and just relax.
As awesome as central Tokyo is, it’s a bit busy, to say the least. Thankfully, the great outdoors is closer than you think. Located in Western Tokyo, the small town of Okutama is well-known among city folk as a rustic retreat perfect for day trips and weekend getaways.
Sweeping forests and mountains envelop the region. Whether viewed in autumn when the trees turn to vibrant hues or during the cool mornings when fog blankets the hills, the scenery is breathtaking. Hikers can discover the “three mountains of Okutama,” Mt. Otake, Mt. Mito and Mt. Gozenyama, or try a more challenging trek up Mt. Kumotori for a rewarding view of Mt. Fuji.
Anglers can try their hand at catching cherry salmon and trout on Lake Okutama, a reservoir that supplies 20 percent of Tokyo’s drinking water. If the fish aren’t biting, take a stroll over the lake using its pedestrian bridge made of floating drums. Upstream from the Tamagawa River, you’ll find the Hatonosu Valley, a spectacular canyon and trail with beautiful foliage and crystal-clear water.
Of course, you’re more than welcome to lounge about, as well. There are many ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) found in Okutama. Some of which are centuries old. You can soak in a serene onsen (hot spring) or try a bowl of spicy wasabi udon, a local specialty.
Takayama is a city in Gifu nestled at the foot of the Japanese Alps. Thanks to its remote location and high altitude, Takayama has preserved much of its culture over the last 300 years. This can be seen in its beautiful Edo-period architecture, temples, shrines and just how the town incorporates it with the natural mountain scenery.
Takayama’s preserved old town, Sanmachi Suji, is the city’s center. Traditional houses, souvenir shops and cafes blend in harmoniously with historic sake distilleries and miso paste stores. Here, you try local delicacies like Hida beef. Sanmachi Suji is also home to the Takayama Museum of History and Art, the Fujii Folk Museum and Takayama Jinya.
Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine, near the northeast of the city, is Takayama’s oldest shrine. It’s home to the popular Takayama Matsuri, most famous for its floats and intricate traditional marionette performances. The shrine is also the beginning of the Higashiyama Walkway, a serene course with stunning views of the Japanese Alps that leads to the city’s east side.
The Fuji Five Lakes is the group name for five beautiful lakes found at the base of Japan’s most distinguished landmark, Mt. Fuji. The lakes are named Kawaguchi, Yamanaka, Saiko, Shōji and Motosu, all of which were formed by Fujisan’s powerful eruptions. Each lake is pristine, offering magnificent scenery.
Of all the lakes, Kawaguchi is the most accessible. However, that just makes the other lakes all the more removed for busy crowds. Still, Kawaguchiko Town does make for a convenient hub for the region. Each lake presents visitors opportunities for outdoor activities such as sailing, fishing, camping, hiking, and much more.
You can take a dip in an onsen or taste the local specialty, hoto noodles, at one of the small towns located on the shores. There are also quaint museums such as the Kawaguchiko Music Forest. The nearby Aokigahara Jukai Forest, a sea of trees home to myths, curses and ice caves, or the grand Fujiyoshida Sengen Shrine may also be of interest.
Choshi is a charming port town famous for its soy sauce and fishing industry and its outstanding panoramic views of the Inubosaki coast. However, recently, it’s also becoming well known for wind energy. The city is at the forefront of developing unobtrusive wind farms right on the shoreline.
The best way to view it is on the historic Choshi Electric Railway. The modest train line travels from Choshi to Tokawa along the coastline and through the city’s picturesque countryside. Passengers on the old-fashioned train can spot European architecture, crashing sea capes and the Inubosaki Lighthouse. Constructed by British engineer Richard Henry Brunton, the “father of Japanese lighthouses,” Inubosaki Lighthouse is the city’s symbol and landmark.
Other attractions include the Chikyu no Maruku Mieru Oka Ocean View Observatory, Byobugaura Cliffs and Enpuku-ji Temple. All of which offer breathtaking views of the setting sun.
Tochigi’s peaceful Nakagawa and Otawara are quaint fishing and farming towns producing several of your favorite foods in Japan, including mango, tea, kiwi fruit, and coffee. The communities are well known for anglers and campers, but they are also increasingly popular with tourists seeking a rural Japan experience.
In Otawara, you can stay with a real farming family, working with them in the fields, and learning what life in the countryside is truly like. Called nōka minpaku, or staying at a farmer’s residence, the experience will let you participate in actual communities and culture whilst interacting with locals.
Nearby, Nakagawa was designated as one of “The Most Beautiful Villages in Japan.” You can dine on wild boar, or try your hand at catching sweetfish in traps at the Takase Kanko Yana, a weir with rushing water on the Ara River. You can even have it cooked right in front of you.