Posted: 26th Jan 2023
Hello and welcome to a slightly different post from usual!
Despite being a huge lover of travelling in Japan, it's not something I've written about much on this blog till now. Today, I've decided to rectify this situation.
I really struggled to whittle this list down to five places, so I've included some honourable mentions at the end that I may write more about in future. I've also tried to focus on places that are slightly off the classic Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka route, so I hope that even if you've been to Japan before, there will be at least one you won't have heard of.
The places that made it onto this list are, above all, ones that hold a lot of nostalgia and happy memories for me. As I spent the majority of my time in Japan living in very built-up areas in Kansai (Nishinomiya and later Osaka), you'll notice I've chosen pretty much exclusively rural areas. One major realisation I had while in Japan was just how much I valued being able to jump on a train or bus (or occasionally plane) and escape to the countryside, and while I have a huge number of positive memories in cities including Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, I'm going to leave those for another time.
If you'd like to jump ahead in this post at any point, feel free to use the links below, and if you find yourself getting itchy feet, don't forget to check out my online Travel Japanese course.
Note: the following places are not listed in order of preference, but rather the order in which I first visited them. This article contains no affiliated links or sponsorships.
1. Minoh Park・箕面公園
First up: Minō Kōen (箕面公園) - generally stylised as Minoh/Minoo Park in English.
Minoh Kōen, located in Osaka Prefecture, is just a 30min train ride from Osaka City's central Umeda Station. That's right: did you realise Osaka is a whole prefecture with its own share of countryside? I certainly didn't till I lived there!
Minoh is one of those places that, for me, no trip to Osaka is complete without. While I wouldn't say it's an absolute must for everyone, if you have the time to spare and fancy a gentle hike, it's a great little spot that will provide a breath of fresh air after the often slightly chaotic (in Japanese: ぐちゃぐちゃ/gucha gucha) feel of Osaka City.
While the climax of the hike is reaching the gorgeous 33m waterfall at the top of the paved walkway, there is plenty more to see along the way, from little restaurants and cafes nestled alongside the river, to Ryūanji Temple and - my personal favourite - stalls selling もみじ天ぷら (momiji tempura), a culinary phenomenon that is primarily found in Minoh.
Another fun way to pass the time in Minoh is by visiting the Mino Onsen Super Garden Hot Springs Spa, which sits at the foot of the path near to the train station. Even if you don't go in, I recommend getting the lift up to the entranceway, from which you can enjoy a great view over the surrounding area. The last time I visited there was also a mini arcade with games including my absolute favourite, Taiko no Tatsujin.
Click here for more info on Minoh Park.
This second recommendation goes out to art fans and anyone up for a little trip across the waves!
Naoshima (直島) is a beautiful island town found in Japan's Seto Inland Sea, just off the coast of Okayama Prefecture - although it's technically part of Shikoku's Kagawa Prefecture.
One of my reasons for recommending Naoshima is that it's relatively accessible to anyone with plans to visit Osaka, Kobe or Himeji. You only need to jump one or two prefectures west to find yourself in Okayama, from which you can get a train to Uno Station (45-65mins) before jumping on a 20min ferry to Naoshima.
If you do make this trip, be sure to not to miss out on Okayama, which has a lot more to offer, from the stunning historical area of Kurashiki (the "Venice of Japan") to Kōraku-en, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan (日本三名園 / Nihon Sanmeien). Okayama is also the home of folk legend Momotarō, aka Peach Boy, meaning there are lots of fun Momotarō-themed foods, souvenirs and sightseeing spots you'll encounter along the way.
But before we get too distracted: what's the big deal with Naoshima?
Naoshima is an island town that is essentially built around art. It boasts several contemporary art museums, a great deal of interesting architecture and some very striking outdoor sculptures: most famously Yayoi Kusama's Yellow Pumpkin, which was tragically washed away by a typhoon back in August 2021, though it has since been rescued. As you can see in the title photo of this post, I had a great time interacting with the Yellow Pumpkin's twin, the Naoshima Red Pumpkin.
While Naoshima is small enough to be walkable, a popular way of exploring the island is by bike. At least when I visited, this was a very fun and comfortable experience even as a not-very-confident cyclist, as the roads were quiet and the surfaces nice and smooth. Just don't make my mistake of almost missing the last ferry off the island!
If the idea of island hopping takes your fancy, check out Spoon & Tamago's Guide to the Setouchi Art Islands or Abroad in Japan's video 24 Hours in Japan's Inland Sea Paradise | Shimanami Kaido (a must-watch for cyclists).
Click here for more info on Naoshima.
3. Mount Kōya・高野山
Moving a bit farther inland this time, my next favourite spot to visit in Japan has to be Mount Kōya (高野山).
I first found out about Mount Kōya when a family friend visited me in Osaka during the winter. I met her a day or two after she had spent the night in a Buddhist monastery on the mountain, and despite having barely slept due to the cold, she was still full of praise for what an incredible experience it had been. Intrigued, I went to visit a few months later, and came back equally convinced that this was somewhere I'd recommend to anyone visiting Japan.
Like most places on this list, Mount Kōya is a little bit out of the way. Located in Wakayama Prefecture, just south of Osaka, it's possible to get from Osaka's Nankai Namba Station to the base of Mount Kōya in around 90mins. From there, you can either take the Kōyasan Cable Car, which gets you to the top of the mountain in 5mins, or walk, which can take several hours depending on the route you choose. This is something it's worth doing some research on in advance, as there are many different pilgrimage trails by the which the mountain and its temples are traditionally accessible.
Note: if pilgrimage trails are something you're interested in, I recommend looking into the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage, which follows a circular route starting and ending at Mount Kōya.
As the centre of Shingon Buddhism, an important Buddhist sect introduced to Japan in 805, Mount Kōya is covered in religious buildings and statues, with around 50 temples offering the chance to experience temple lodging, during which you can get a feel for what it's like to follow the lifestyle of a Buddhist monk. While I personally didn't get the chance to try this (temples book up months in advance!), I recommend looking into it if only to sample 精進料理 (shōjin ryōri), a traditional type of vegetarian cuisine eaten by monks in Japan. (Don't worry if you don't manage to get a booking at Mount Kōya - it is served elsewhere too!)
One highlight when I visited Mount Kōya included visiting Okunoin (奥の院), the site of the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi (aka Kukuai), the founder of Shingon Buddhism and a highly revered figure in Japanese religious history. Okunoin's cemetary is absolutely humungous, housing over 200,000 tombstones, which makes it the largest cemetery in Japan. If memory serves correctly, we walked through it for at least an hour without even reaching the end.
Depending what time of year you plan to visit, don't forget to check if there are any special religious festivals taking place. When I visited, we somehow managed to pick the day of the Kōya Fire Festival, which really drove home the religious significance of the area. Click here for details of this festival as well as others.
Finally, if you're a fan of tofu, don't forget to sample some Kōya-dōfu during your visit! You can even pick some up as a souvenir, as it's sold in freeze-dried packs.
Click here for more info on Mount Kōya.
If you've been paying attention, you may have noticed that all of my favourite places so far have been in Japan's Kansai region or, in the case of Okayama, the neighbouring Chūgoku region (中国地方：chūgoku chihō - not to be confused with chūgoku meaning China, although the kanji are the same).
For my last two recommended travel destinations, we're going to look a bit farther afield, first of all to Hokkaidō!
If you haven't come across Hokkaidō (北海道) before, you're in for a treat. The northernmost of Japan's four main islands, it is home to some incredible natural landscapes, from hot springs to snowy mountains, volcanoes to vast fields of lavender. On a more serious note, it is a part of modern day Japan that comes with a history of colonisation and forced assimilation that should not be overlooked.
While I encourage anyone with an interest in Japan to learn about Hokkaidō and its indigenous Ainu people, the island is nowadays claimed as one of Japan's main islands, with plenty of visitors - both Japanese and international - flocking to explore its beautiful scenery, delicious food and more.
Although I could wax lyrical about pretty much every single part of the trip I made to Hokkaidō with a friend back in July 2017, today I'm going to focus on one particular place we visited: Noboribetsu.
Noboribetsu is Hokkaidō's most famous hot spring resort, with as many as eleven different kinds of thermal waters for visitors to enjoy. However, I will hold my hands up and admit that I didn't actually enter a single one of the official hot spring baths! While I think part of the reason for this may have been the limited time my friend and I had while trying to cover all the different places we wanted to see over a long weekend, another reason was that it's actually possible to enjoy the thermal waters of Noboribetsu while remaining completely outdoors.
When visiting Noboribetsu, one sight you cannot fail to miss is Jigokudani (地獄谷): Hell Valley. This is the main source of Noboribetsu's hot spring waters, and it is quite a sight to behold.
Entering the valley, you will follow a wooden walkway towards a series of hot steam vents, from which sulphurous steam wafts up towards you. While perfectly safe, it does smell quite bad. However, it's worth it to witness the source of the water that flows through this onsen town. Personally I was staggered to see a pool of water that was apparently 80°C despite sitting completely exposed to the open air! While summer in Hokkaidō is hot, it can feel comparably cool when flying in from somewhere like Osaka or Tokyo. If you suspect you might melt in the heat and humidity of the Japanese summer, Hokkaidō may be a good means of escape.
Once you've seen Jigokudani, there are some walking trails that you can follow through the woods that lead to some more exciting sights, including a sulphurous pond with a surface temperature of 50°C and a river named Oyunumagawa (大湯沼川) where you can enjoy ashi-yu (足湯): a foot bath!
While ashi-yu is a common source of entertainment in onsen towns, being able to enjoy dipping your feet directly into a river where the hot spring flows makes for quite a special - not to mention relaxing - experience.
Sulphurous geysers and onsen aside, Noboribetsu is a fun little town to explore, with some great food spots and plenty of oni (鬼 - demon) statues to keep you amused as you wander round the resort. While it's a fair distance from Hokkaidō's largest city, Sapporo, I'm going to go ahead and say the fact that I can't remember the journey means it was more than worth a bit of a trek!
Click here for more info on Noboribetsu.
5. Kurokawa Onsen & Mount Aso・黒川温泉＆阿蘇山
This final recommendation comes from my most recent trip to Japan back in November-December 2019, when my partner and I were able to enjoy a couple of weeks in the country after I left Taiwan, where I'd just spent a few months studying Mandarin Chinese (a story for another time!).
As we wanted to go somewhere that was new to both of us, we started our trip in Kyūshū, the most southerly of Japan's four main islands. While I was a bit nervous that the winter wouldn't be the most exciting time to visit, we ended up having an amazing time discovering some parts of Japan I may not have seen otherwise. Specifically, two highlights that I honestly can't choose between were Kurokawa Onsen (黒川温泉) and Mount Aso (阿蘇山).
"Another onsen AND another mountain?" I hear you ask? Let me tell you what made these two places so very special.
First up, Kurokawa Onsen was quite simply a huge amount of fun. After an hour's bus ride from Kumamoto, we arrived and quickly decked ourselves out with a wooden pass (pictured above) that would allow us to visit three different onsen spots in the town. As it was a weekday in winter, the town was quiet, and we had the first place we visited completely to ourselves. What's more, we had selected somewhere that - quite unusually - had a 混浴 (konyoku - mixed bathing) space. What this meant was that, as in most onsen, the initial part of the bathhouse was split by men/women, but towards the back of the largest bath there was a gap on both sides where you could exit into a mixed space overlooking the nearby river. It was the perfect introduction for my partner, who had never experienced an onsen resort before, and I myself was likewise enamoured.
While to be honest I've forgotten all about the second onsen we visited, the third was equally memorable, consisting of a semi-circular cave tunnel that - for want of a better word - you had to bum-shuffle your way around. Due to it being quite small, again it was mixed, although the amount of steam and the fact that you had to sit alongside one another meant it actually felt relatively private. While it wasn't the most physically comfortable of experiences due to some slightly jagged rocks, it was nevertheless nothing like any other onsen I've been to, and made me wonder what it must have been like to enjoy onsen hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
Like with most onsen towns, Kurokawa had plenty of good food and drink to enjoy once we were done with bathing, including some very tasty シュークリーム (shū kuriimu - cream puffs) and a delicious traditional meal served in a tatami room at a local restaurant. The town was also lovely to just wander around, covered in autumn leaves and shrouded in mist on the particular day we visited. On the bus ride home I was so relaxed I fell asleep with my face planted fully into the seat in front of me!
Later in our trip, we did something I hadn't done before in Japan and booked ourselves onto Explore Kumamoto's Around Aso Tour. While the tour took us to several amazing spots in the Aso caldera, including Kamishikimi Kumanoimasu Shrine (上色見熊野座神社) of anime fame and Shirakawa Spring (白川水源), the best moment was without a doubt getting to see Mount Aso: one of the largest volcanos in the world.
At the time we visited, Mount Aso was very visibly active, belching out smoke and covering everything around it in ash. As such, we couldn't go right up to the crater, but even from a distance it was more than impressive enough. Since words alone can't quite do it justice, here is a photo:
While Mount Aso's most recent eruption in 2021 served as a stark reminder that the danger this volcano presents is not to be taken lightly, I was pleasantly surprised last year when Chris Abroad (of Abroad in Japan fame) and friends launched a silly music video written in its honour:
Finally, I can't end this post without mentioning some of the places that didn't quite make my Top 5 cut, but which I would visit again in a heartbeat. In alphabetical order, these are:
...and of course Tokyo and Kyoto!
I hope to write more about these places in future, as well as about places I haven't been to but are on my bucket list, so if you've enjoyed this post, click here to get updates on future posts sent straight to your inbox via my monthly newsletter.
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