The best destinations in Japan include serene traditional streets and ancient temples in places like Kyoto. In Tokyo, iconic “must-see” attractions such as the Tokyo Tower or the “exhilarating” experience of cruising in go-karts are hard to miss.
However, while these activities offer a glimpse into the culture and are undoubtedly enjoyable for some, they only tell part of the story. Japan’s frequently recommended destinations have earned their reputation for good reasons. Yet, they can often be swamped with tourists. These sites sometimes cater so heavily to foreign visitors that they risk becoming mere reflections of travelers’ preconceptions rather than showcasing the authentic essence of Japan.
Thankfully, for those eager to dig a bit deeper, Japan is peppered with innumerable hidden gems. These lesser-known spots can satisfy your wanderlust, providing experiences that echo the allure of the more renowned locales without the crowds.
Trade Kyoto for Kanazawa
Kyoto is undeniably one of Japan’s top tourist magnets. However, the reality of its overcrowded streets can shatter the dreams of visitors hoping for a tranquil cultural experience. Moreover, the traditional charm of Kyoto is predominantly confined to the streets of Gion. While Gion offers a glimpse into the past, it often feels like a repetitive tableau, with everyone aiming to capture the same photograph. The geisha, iconic symbols of Kyoto, are constantly swarmed, their daily lives interrupted by photos without consent.
Instead of battling the crowds in Kyoto, consider Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture. Historically, Kanazawa has rivaled Kyoto enough to earn the nickname “Little Kyoto.” It remained relatively secret from the tourism onslaught thanks to the city’s less direct accessibility by the Shinkansen bullet train until recent years.
The Higashi Chaya District in Kanazawa mirrors Kyoto’s Gion in many ways, with beautifully preserved wooden buildings lining the streets, and geisha are rooted in the city’s cultural heritage. Kenrokuen is one of Japan’s most splendid gardens, often contrasting Kyoto’s Kinkakuji or Ryoanji’s beauty and serenity. The city also boasts districts dedicated to crafts such as gold leafing—including gold leaf ice cream!
Himeji Castle Over Osaka Castle
Those who want to see a castle that has stood since the days of samurai should skip Osaka Castle. Although the site’s history stretches back centuries, the current tower is not the original structure but a concrete reconstruction that houses a modern museum.
One must travel beyond Osaka to Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture for a genuine glimpse into Japan’s architectural past. This majestic structure is a testament to Japan’s architectural resilience and historical richness. It has weathered the turbulent Warring States Period and emerged unscathed from the ravages of World War II bombings and the devastating Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995.
Recognized as a national treasure and a World Heritage site, Himeji Castle’s main tower captivates visitors with its stunning beauty, intricate early 17th-century architectural designs, and innovative defensive features.
Asakusa’s Crowded, Nezu is Hidden
Renowned for its blend of historical landmarks like Senso-ji Temple and contemporary marvels like the Tokyo SkyTree, Asakusa is a quintessential Tokyo locale that beautifully juxtaposes Japan’s ancient and modern facets. However, this district also ranks among Tokyo’s most crowded spots. Visitors often find themselves in long queues at the SkyTree, and the throngs at Senso-ji can feel overwhelming and sometimes overshadow the temple’s tranquil essence.
To experience Japan’s spirit of tradition and modernity without annoying crowds, head to Bunkyo in Tokyo and spend a day at Nezu Shrine. This historic Shinto shrine, with its serene ambiance and traditional architecture, dates back a millennium, making it one of Tokyo’s oldest. Nezu Shrine is particularly famous for its beautiful azalea garden, which blooms vibrantly in April and May.
The vermilion torii gates leading to the shrine, reminiscent of Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine but less crowded, are another captivating sight. Wander the temple grounds, and you’ll discover ponds, stone lanterns, and small pavilions that perfectly epitomize Japan’s harmonious blend of nature and spirituality. Visitors can immerse themselves in this tranquil environment, attend seasonal festivals, and even enjoy the charm of the Yanaka area, known for its preserved old Tokyo atmosphere.
Street Karts? Try Real Racing Instead
Go-karting in Tokyo might look like it would be a real-life Mario Kart experience. However, in contrast to the high-speed antics of the video game, participants travel considerably slowly for safety reasons when exploring Tokyo’s roads.
Instead of this tour, why not try the real thing? In Fukushima Prefecture, Drift Taxi allows visitors to ride as passengers in modified taxi cabs with professional drivers who drift and do donuts around a course. Tokyo Supercars drive through the city’s iconic skylines and the picturesque Hakone region in supercars like the McLaren 720S and Ferrari 458 Spider. Tokyo’s Tokyo Drift is a tour service that takes you across some of Tokyo’s most iconic sights.
Huis Ten Bosch Beats Tokyo Disneyland
While Tokyo Disneyland offers the allure of Disney magic in Japan, it might not resonate with everyone looking for a distinctly Japanese theme park experience. True, you can meet beloved Disney characters there, but the park’s attractions largely mirror those found in other Disney establishments worldwide. Crowded with lengthy queues similar to its international counterparts, it lacks the unique flavor some visitors seek.
For an authentic Japanese theme park experience, consider Huis Ten Bosch in Nagasaki Prefecture, the largest theme park in Japan. Huis Ten Bosc is meticulously crafted to replicate a Dutch city, a tribute to Nagasaki’s historic trade ties with the Netherlands. As Japan’s largest theme park, Huis Ten Bosch boasts an eclectic mix of attractions: from art museums and cutting-edge VR rides to augmented reality dinosaur games. Its innovation extends to a hotel managed by robot staff. For those looking to mark special life events, the park even hosts weddings, blending tradition with modernity.
Have you encountered any tourist traps in Japan? Where would you suggest going instead? Let us know in the comments!