From The Straits Times    |

Venture off the beaten track to uncover these hidden gems in Japan, far from the maddening crowd.

Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hokkaido – these are some of the top-of-mind destinations people think of when they think holidays in Japan. But as frequent travellers (and even avid fans of Japan Hour) will attest, there is so much more of the country to be discovered on the outskirts of its most popular cities!

Sometimes, off-the-beaten-track destinations can prove more rewarding and enriching than those filled with tourist hordes. Here are some of the most beautiful places in Japan that you didn’t know existed but now have to visit – whether it’s for the amazing nature, rich culture, or delicious food.


#1 Yakushima, Kagoshima: for fairytale forests

This amazing island just south of the Kyushu mainland is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it’s still one of Japan’s best-kept secrets.

The ethereal Shiratani Unsuikyo ravine is nicknamed “Mononoke Forest”

Yakushima is full of natural wonders you really have to see to believe. Pay pilgrimage to Japan’s oldest tree, a Japanese cedar estimated to be over 7,200 years old; hike the Shiratani Unsuikyo ravine and its surrounding forests (so beautiful that they inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke); and witness the island’s famed loggerhead and green turtles nest at nearby Nagata Beach.

Watch nature at its most miraculous on the shores of Nagata Beach

Travel tip: Nesting season runs from mid-May to August, with tiny hatchlings starting to appear from August to October.

When in Yakushima, be sure to try anything and everything sweet potato! Kagoshima prefecture is famous for growing some of the best sweet potatoes (satsuma-imo and anno-imo) in the country – try them baked, grilled, fried, or in ice cream and tart form.



#2 Yaeyama Islands, Okinawa: for ocean-lovers

Divers will adore this cluster of untouched islands off the southernmost coast of Japan. The Yaeyama Islands are some of the most beautiful in Japan, boasting unspoiled beaches, deep blue waters, and pristine reefs.

Swim with the fishes in a whole new world underwater

Of the eight islands, Ishigaki is one of the most popular (and populated), with Kabira Bay being one of the most popular places to visit – it’s famous for the manta rays which congregate there in large numbers. Use it as a jumping off point to visit the other islands on day trips; Iriomote and Taketoni islands offer glimpses into traditional rural life in Japan with their well-preserved Ryukyu villages.



Travel tip: When in Okinawa prefecture, be sure to try their famous culinary export – salt. Try it in sweets and ice cream at Ma-suya, which has outlets all over Okinawa, including Ishigaki.



#3 Iya Valley, Shikoku: for remnants of feudal Japan

Imagine dense forests, deep gorges, babbling brooks, and pristine hot springs. The Iya Valley offers all these and more. (Read: Adventourous honeymoons! 10 hottest destinations to check out)

Deep gorges and historic vine bridges make up the iconic Iya Valley

This remote, mountainous valley in western Tokushima Prefecture is located deep in the heart of Shikoku Island. Because of its secluded location, trekking here amongst the clean air and clear waters is an absolute treat.

The valley also holds historical significance – it is one of the last regions in Japan where the Taira Clan took refuge after losing the Gempei War (1180-1185), towards the end of the feudal Heian Period. Its rich history contributes to the truly unique experience of Iya Valley.



When in Tokushima, be sure to sample their signature Tokushima Ramen! Unique for its brown tonkatsu soup base (so coloured because of the Tamari soy sauce used) and raw egg topping, it’s a nourishing, no frills dish that reflects the essence of the region.



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Travel tip: A hearty recommendation when it comes to accommodation is Iyaonsen, a ryokan with open-air natural baths serving gorgeous locally sourced cuisine.



#4 Lake Biwa: for tranquil waters

As Japan’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Biwa is often considered to be the defining feature of Shiga prefecture. Lake Biwa’s more secluded views on the western and northern coasts can be reached via the JR Kosei Line.


Drift your way to bliss on the beautiful Lake Biwa

There are also a plethora of boats and ferries departing from Otsu or Hikone (small towns on the shores of Lake Biwa) to take you around the lake or tour its tiny picturesque islands. Navigate the waters yourself with activities like kayaking, stand-up paddling, windsurfing, and even sports fishing.

Lake Biwa’s natural charisma makes for picture perfect shots, especially at dusk and dawn

Travel tip: This remote and serene destination with its iconic torii gates is so beautiful, it’s almost impossible to take a bad picture of it. Shooting at dawn or dusk will afford you the best lighting; high tides also give an ethereal feel of floating torii gates.



#5 Mount Koya, Wakayama: for enlightenment

Widely recognised as one of the most sacred mountains in Japan, Mount Koya (or Koya-san) is also one of Japan’s most magical destinations.


For over 1,200 years, the mountain has been the headquarters of the Shingon school of Buddhism, and is today home to more than 100 temples and monasteries. It’s the perfect place to spend a night at a Buddhist temple for a truly unique, and maybe even enlightening, experience.


Mount Koya, or Kōya-san, is one of the most sacred and spiritual destinations in Japan

Those keen on a more spiritual encounter can visit some of the more famous attractions on the island: Okunoin Cemetery, Torodo Hall (with its 10,000 eternally-lit lanterns), and Kongobuji Temple.

The sprawling Kongobuji Temple grounds are a treat to explore, no matter your religious orientation

Even if you’re not a devotee, a visit to the Kongobuji Temple complex – headquarters of the Shingon sect – will still leave you in awe of its exquisitely-painted gilded sliding doors and Banryutei Rock Garden, the largest rock garden in Japan.

Savour simple but nourishing vegan fare at the many monasteries open to overnight stays

Travel tip: Stay a night at one of the monasteries and try a Monk-led morning meditation after a hearty vegan meal (called “shojin ryori”).

This article was first published on Singsaver in collaboration with Sompo. For Sompo’s holiday insurance plans, visit the Singsaver website