Do you know what really grinds my gears? When people visit Tokyo and think they’ve seen the whole of Japan. Don’t get me wrong. Tokyo is a super-wonderful place but if you don’t get out of the city, you can miss a lot about the land of the rising sun. Planning a trip to Japan and ready to expand your horizons a bit? Here are 18 places in Japan you’ve never heard of and should consider visiting.
1. Tottori Sand Dunes
What? Japan has sand dunes? Darn right it does! Although Tottori Prefecture may be known as the least populated prefecture in the country, it certainly makes up for this with the Tottori Sand Dunes. If you ride a camel across the dunes (available for rent on site), you’ll definitely feel that you’re not in Japan anymore. Be sure to check out the sand museum next door for spectacular seasonal sculptures!
I’m sure you’ve heard about Okinawa but what about the Oki Islands in Japan? Shimane Prefecture’s best-kept secret is so great that the islands and the surrounding sea are a protected UNESCO Geopark. One of the islands, Nakanoshima, is home to some of the best beef you’ll ever eat in Japan, beautiful beaches, a shrine that honors an exiled emperor, and a boat that takes you sightseeing under water!
If you love wild horses and stunning sunsets, you’ll love Nishinoshima. This popular Oki island is also a great place for coastal walks, especially Kuniga coastline. Be sure to check out Tsutenkyo Arch and Kannon Iwa, a rock that looks exactly like a lit candle on the horizon when the sun starts setting! There are also great beaches for swimming and kayaking on the island.
4. Mount Daisen
Move over Mount Fuji! There’s a new mountain in town, Daisensan! Tottori Prefecture’s Mount Daisen is the highest mountain in Japan’s Chugoku region (Hiroshima, Okayama, Tottori, Shimane, and Yamaguchi) at 1729 meters. Every summer, there’s a fire festival when the monks from Daisen’s Ogamiyama Shrine pray for a safe hiking season.
5. Shigeru Mizuki Road
Ever heard of Gegege no Kitaro? This mega-popular manga in Japan and Asia was invented by Shigeru Mizuki who was born in Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture. The town loved the author so much that they’ve created a museum and an entire road with tiny bronze sculptures dedicated to him and his yokai (Japanese monsters).
6. Izumo Shrine
When I told my students that I visited Izumo Taisha (Shrine) over the winter holidays, they laughed. I was puzzled until someone explained that it’s a popular love shrine where teenaged girls and young women go to pray to find love. Funny story aside, it’s also a very historical and culturally significant shrine. In fact, in 2014, Princess Noriko married the shrine’s head priest’s son!
7. Uonotana Shopping Street
Many travelers have been to Tsukiji Market but what about Uonotana Shotengai? If you’re ever in Kansai and have a hankering for octopus, make a beeline for Akashi , home of a 400-year-old market dedicated to seafood. This is also the perfect spot to try Akashi’s local specialty, akashiyaki, takoyaki (fried octopus balls) dipped in broth.
8. Nageiredo Temple
Ever heard of a temple thrown into a cliff? Even if you think I’m telling porkies, head to Mount Mitoku in Tottori Prefecture to believe with your very own eyes. At the top of the mountain, you will find Nageiredo, a Buddhist treasure hall hanging against the rock face. The story goes that a famous Shugendo monk used his supernatural powers to throw the temple into place.
9. Miho Shrine
Do you love fishing so much that you’ll even consider visiting a shrine dedicated to the practice? You’re in luck because in Japan, you can visit such a place! In Shimane Prefecture’s Mihonoseki, you will find Miho Jinja (Shrine), the head shrine dedicated to Ebisu, the Shinto god of fishing and prosperity. After visiting, try some delicious grilled squid from any of the shops that line the harbor area.
Did you know that Japan has two Kiyomizudera temples? There’s a really famous one in Kyoto and then there’s another in Yasugi, Shimane Prefecture. Why not one-up all of your friends by visiting both? The 1400-year-old Kiyomizudera in Shimane is also home to the only three-storied pagoda in all of Chugoku. There’s also a great restaurant on the grounds that serves shojin ryori (traditional vegetarian food).
11. Lake Nakaumi
Lake Nakaumi is smack dab between Tottori and Shimane Prefectures. It’s the fifth largest lake in Japan and is protected under the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty that protects wetlands. The salty lake is home to several bird species, including swans. It’s also a great place to capture some of the best sunsets on Honshu.
12. Mount Senjou
If Mount Daisen looks too formidable, try an easier hike to the plateau of Mount Senjou. This 615-meter tall mountain is part of the Daisen-Oki National Park, like its big brother, Daisen. The highlight of this hiking destination is a narrow outcrop of rock that juts out into the sky. It’s a bit precarious to get there but the views are simply astounding.
13. Yuushien Garden
Daikonshima is an island found in Lake Nakaumi. It’s famous for daikon (Japanese radish) and a famous garden. Yuushien Garden grows hundreds of botan (peonies). The circuit style garden is also filled with dry landscapes, waterfalls, moon bridges, stone lanterns, ponds, and other traditional Japanese garden features. The best time to see the peonies is spring when they are arranged on the ponds’ surface.
14. Tottori Flower Park
One of the top attractions of Tottori Prefecture is Tottori Hanakairo (Flower Park). It’s one of the largest flower parks in Japan, covering 50 hectares (500,000 square meters). The flower displays change with the seasons. There’s also a massive hothouse with tropical flowers, a walkway around the entire garden, and a touristy train you can hop and off as often as you like. Daisen also features in the background of one of the flower fields.
15. Matsue Castle
In the capital of Shimane, you will find one of Japan’s 12 remaining original castle towers. Unlike other castles in Japan, Matsue Castle was never destroyed by wars, natural disasters, or the Meiji Restoration. The five-tiered wooden building that still stands today was finished in 1611. This Japanese National Treasure is also known as the black castle. It’s a great spot for hanami during cherry blossom season.
16. Hiyoshi Shrine
According to locals in Yodoe, Tottori Prefecture, Hiyoshi Shrine is the only one in Japan that’s located directly opposite a railroad crossing. Everything they said was true when we visited. What’s strange about this shrine is that the chōzuya (water purification area) is located on one side of the tracks and the main torii (entrance gate) on the other! Don’t move until you get the signal that it’s safe to cross because the trains don’t stop for anyone here!
From Izumo Taisha, make your way down to Inasanohama Beach. Close to the shore, you’ll find a small shrine on a rock called Bentenjima. According to local legend, all the Shinto gods meet on this beach on the 10th month of the lunar calendar and then make their way to the shrine to discuss great matters. The beach is also a great place to relax during summer.
18. Adachi Museum
In Yasugi, Shimane Prefecture, you can find one of the best gardens in the whole of Japan. Adachi Museum has six lovely gardens that blend seamlessly with the surrounding landscapes. There are traditional karesansui (dry gardens), a pond garden, and a pine garden to encourage quiet contemplation. The gardens can be enjoyed all year round and look different each season. Inside, you can also find works by Yokoyama Taikan, a famous Japanese painter.