So many people visit Japan and spend their entire trip hanging out in Tokyo and Kyoto. But escaping the crowds and intensity of these two cities will allow you to experience Japan’s diverse culture, nature and food!
After living in Japan, I thought I’d give my recommendations for what I consider to be the ultimate itinerary through the country. Some of my favorite spots include Kanazawa, Fukuoka and Hiroshima, and with the expansion of the bullet train services, it’s now really easy to cover all of these places in two weeks.
Before visiting Kyoto, head to Kanazawa, which is a beautiful 2.5-hour train ride from Tokyo through the mountains. Kanazawa has a rich cultural heritage, great seafood and is home to the Myoryuji Temple (commonly known as the Ninja Temple), which was designed with a series of traps and hidden doors to protect against invading ninjas.
Take time to explore Kanazawa Castle Park and the famous traditional gardens of Kenroku-en, then hit up some of the excellent museums (the light-filled 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is particularly impressive). No trip to Kanazawa is complete without a visit to the Omicho Market, which is far less crowded than Tokyo’s Tsukiji and with seafood that’s just as good! In the evening, stroll around the atmospheric Higashi Chaya District and feast on the local gold-leaf ice cream.
Less than two hours’ by train from Kanzawa is the mountainous Gifu Prefecture, which is home to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed villages of Shirakawago and Ainokura, as well as the beautifully preserved traditional old town of Takayama.
If time allows, break up your journey from Tokyo to Kanazawa in Kurobe-Unazuki Onsen or follow the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route (nicknamed the “Roof of Japan”). It travels through the Tateyama Pass (3,015 meters), which is flanked by immense walls of snow during the cooler months. If you’re feeling adventurous, there are plenty of hiking routes through this part of the Northern Japan Alps (and some Japanese even climb the entire pass themselves!)
Kansai region (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara)
From Kanazawa, continue traveling south to the Kansai region, which is home to Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and Nara. I’ve created a separate blog post about what I recommend to do (and eat) in this area, so you can check it out.
From the Kansai region, PLEASE keeping traveling west to Hiroshima. So many people don’t make the trip to Hiroshima but it left a big impression on me. Explore the poignant A-Bomb Museum, experience the energy of Japanese baseball fans while watching a home game of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, and visit Miyajima.
I’d recommend overnighting in Hiroshima and spending a day at Miyajima, an island in Hiroshima Bay that’s home to a giant orange torii gate that seemingly floats on the water during high tide. Ride the cable car or hike the trail that leads to the top of the island for panoramic views across Hiroshima Bay and explore one of the two old naval training bases. The island is also home to Momijidani Park, which nestles at the foot of Mt. Misen and is one of the most famous maple leave valley parks in the country
Hiroshima is synonymous with the atomic bomb that was dropped here at the end of World War II and visiting the museum is a poignant experience. I remember reading about a girl who’d been so disfigured by the bomb that she’d asked her parents to let her die, saying “no one will marry my little brother when they come to our house and see me like this”. I was close to tears reading about this and her screaming in pain during treatments.
The area where the bomb hit is now protected as a Peace Park and I spent hours sitting here just enjoying the greenery, the birds chirping and watching the school children coming and going on their field trips. Almost everything in Hiroshima has been rebuilt during the last 80 years, so it feels quite shiny and new, although the streetcars give it a vintage feel.
Hiroshima’s culinary specialties include noodle-infused okonomiyaki that’s known as Hiroshima-yaki and I found a great hole-in-the-wall restaurant just 10 minutes’ walk from the train station that was run by a mother and daughter team. They cooked in a tiny setting and chatted away to customers – I found the people in Hiroshima extremely friendly.
If you make it to Hiroshima, then don’t stop heading west! Continue on to Fukuoka, which is situated in the north of Kyushu Island. If you have 3-4 days, I’d recommend traveling by train around the entire island, stopping to explore various cities, castles and onsen towns along the way.
Take time to visit Nagasaki, which was the first place in Japan to really open up to foreigners and is also home to another Atomic Bomb Museum. You can see where the Dutch East India Company’s Japanese trading post once operated from at Dejima Island, then wander through the Glover Garden, named after a Scottish merchant who was responsible for introducing steam trains to Japan.
From Nagasaki, continue on to Kumamoto to see its castle and wander through the 17th-century landscaped garden of Suizenji, then head to the small seaside town of Kagoshima. It’s renowned for its cuisine that features locally-raised meats, seafood and sweet potatoes, as well as featuring sand baths that are said to relax your muscles and promote better blood circulation.
Kagoshima also serves as the gateway to Yakushima, a small and mystical island that’s covered in moss and home to Japan’s oldest tree – Jomon sugi (it was the inspiration behind Hayao Miyazaki’s anime film “Princess Mononoke”). I did a great day hike to the peak of Kuromidake, which affords 360° views across the island, then overnighted in a local inn run by an elderly lady on the outskirts of Miyanoura.
Once you return to Kyushu, head to Kirishima, which is the biggest onsen resort in Japan. As you arrive in the city, you’ll see steam rising from streams on the side of the road. If you’re after a challenge, make the trek to the volcanic summit of Mount Kirishima where you’ll find a beautiful lake (and few other people).
A short hop east of Kirishima is Miyazaki where I ate the best steak (the highest grade steak in Japan) that I had in Japan before continuing north to another hot spring town – Beppu. It has the world’s second largest number of hot springs (after Yellowstone) and is home to what’s known as the “hells” – a series of spectacular hot springs that are for viewing rather than bathing. If you’re after a less touristy onsen town, then consider visiting Oita or make a day trip to the beautiful Takachiho Gorge.
You can end your trip in Fukuoka where I found the people to be incredibly friendly. Stroll through beautiful Maizuru Park and be sure to try the local specialty – a creamy tonkotsu ramen that’s available almost everywhere.