In Travel

Japan Beyond The Tourist Trail: Spots Only The Locals Know

There’s much more to Japan than Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Niseko. These are the underrated destination worth making a detour for.

Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and the ski fields of Niseko… Japan’s tourism staples are well-known and well-explored. Yet there’s so much more to the land of the rising sun than these icons alone.

For Australian expat Danny Matheson and his partner Kazuo Ikeda, owners of Japanese guesthouse and café Jam Jar Lounge & Inn in Nishijin, Kyoto’s historic weaving district, helping travellers discover what to do in Japan away from the tourist traps isn’t just a day job – it’s their passion.

what to do in japan

Jam Jar Lounge & Inn is located in Nishijin, Kyoto’s historic weaving district. Credit: Jam Jar Lounge & Inn

As Airbnb Superhosts as well as local tour guides, Matheson and Ikeda know their ancient hometown of Kyoto well. They also know many of the hidden gems across Japan, and they have a few tips on which underrated destinations are worth making a detour for – starting with their guesthouse.

A popular hangout for locals and foreigners, it’s a unique fusion of Japanese and Australian culture. Housed within a 110-year-old machiya-style townhouse, it’s a fountain of knowledge and one of the few places in town to find a good long black.

Travelling around Japan is easier than you think

what to do in japan

Japan is surprisingly easy to navigate, says Matheson. Credit: Ben Cheung / Unsplash

Though it may seem daunting for foreigners who don’t speak the language, Matheson says Japan is surprisingly easy to navigate, particularly via its highly-efficient shinkansen bullet train network. It’s also cheaper and more accessible than perhaps most people realise.

“I think we’re getting over the whole perception that Japan is an expensive place to visit, because it’s just not the case anymore, particularly with the weak Yen,” says Matheson.

“Transport in Japan is so efficient too, and it needs to be. Five million people pass through Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station every day, and if the network didn’t operate down to the minute like it does, it would be a nightmare not just for commuters but the rest of the country.

“If you’ve got a JR Pass, which gives you unlimited travel on JR Railways, you’re sorted.”

After exploring the tourist staples of Harajuku in Tokyo, Shinsaibashi Street in Osaka, and the Aussie ski darling of Hakuba, Matheson says it’s essential to get off the tourist trail.

Visit the small town of Kanazawa

“If I was an Australian visiting, Kanazawa would be number one on my list for a few reasons,” he says. “It’s a small city of 500,000 people and, so far, it’s largely undiscovered by foreign tourists. The new shinkansen link with Tokyo makes it so easy to get to, though.”

Located on the Sea of Japan, Kanazawa is a hugely wealthy city. Some 90 per cent of Japan’s gold comes from Kanazawa, including the gold leaf on Kyoto’s Kinkaku-ji golden pavilion.

“The big drawcard of Kanazawa is it was never bombed during the war, like Kyoto, so it’s retained a lot of history and old-world charm,” says Matheson. “The city has an original geisha district home to 10 working geishas, it’s beautiful, plus it also offers something Kyoto doesn’t – preserved Samurai houses. The Nagamachi samurai district is like stepping into a time machine.

“Kanazawa’s location means the fish comes straight out of the sea, into the market, and on to your plate. The shopping scene rivals Tokyo too – it’s like Ginza and Kyoto put together.”

Consider Hokkaido, Kii Peninsula, and Shikoku

where to go in japan

The pagoda at Kumano Nachi Taisha, one of the three grand shrines of the Kumano Kodo, is off Japan’s tourist trail. Credit: Chris Ashton

One destination we also don’t visit enough is Hokkaido, says Ikeda, and we’re missing out.

“We go there for skiing and that’s about it,” he says. “But it actually has some of the best food, sake and whiskey in Japan – it’s a bit like the Tasmania of Japan… in a good way!”

“There’s also great surfing on the Izu Peninsula near Mount Fuji, which is a bit of a local secret – it’s a really tropical destination with great beaches and incredible breaks.”

If spirituality is more your style, the Kii Peninsula east of Osaka, home of the sacred Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail, and the island of Shikoku are both worth adding to your itinerary.

Just across the Seto Inland Sea from Hiroshima, Shikoku boasts some of Japan’s most scenic hiking, including a pilgrimage along mountain trails and rivers to 88 Buddhist temples. It’s a humbling experience taking six weeks to complete, if you were to tackle the full route.

“Most people don’t visit all 88 temples,” says Ikeda. “A few stops are enough for most.”

Other tips: buy a JR Rail Pass and ask a local for advice

Matheson’s biggest tips for foreign visitors are to pick up a JR Rail Pass if you plan on doing multiple shinkansen trips, to eat whatever you can, and to learn a few words of Japanese.

“People will always help you, especially if you’ve made an attempt with the language,” he says. “Everyone thinks that the Japanese are shy, but they’re not. Once you start talking you can’t shut them up. And they love the fact you’re interested in their land and culture.

“There is just so much to see in Japan. It doesn’t matter how many times you come here, you’re always going to find something else, something new you didn’t know existed.”

(Lead image: Jam Jar Lounge & Inn is Japanese guesthouse and café in Nishijin, Kyoto / image: Jam Jar Lounge & Inn)

Published 07 March, 2019