There are so many unique places to visit in Japan that pointing out the best would be doing an injustice to all the other marvels in this beautiful country. Shrouded in cultural and natural mysticism, the Asian island country is famed for its cherry blossoms and Shinto shrines. Cutting edge architecture and robotic technology dominate the capital city Tokyo while elsewhere, volcanic mountains and dense bamboo groves abound. This juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern makes Japan a truly unique destination.
Unique Places to Visit in Tokyo
For first time visitors to Japan, Tokyo is a must see. The city is known for its soaring skyscrapers, historic shrines and palaces, the Kabuki theatre, and many atmospheric museums offering fascinating glimpses into its stories past.
Also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple, Sensoji Temple is enchantingly colourful. Many legends surround this beautiful temple, which is the oldest one in Tokyo. The temple is dedicated to the goddess of Kannon, and features an outer ‘Thunder Gate’. Visitors pass through a shopping street to reach the second gate called the Hozomon. And then finally, you stand before the main hall and pagoda with five tiers. Look out for different events and festivals on the temple grounds.
Shibuya is the busiest crossing in Japan and you will be wonderstruck at the hordes of people coming in from different directions and going about their lives. The place gives you an idea of just how fast paced life in Tokyo can be!
Chances are, you’ve bought or gifted a beckoning cat figurine at least once in your life. You will find tons of these little cuties at the Gotokuji Temple complex. It can be found in Setagaya Ward and is definitely an offbeat attraction in Tokyo. The story goes that Gotokuji is where the famous beckoning cat statues were created for the first time.
Not too many people realize that Tokyo has its own island: the naturally blessed Aogashima. Situated in the Philippine Sea, the remote island is accessible by a boat or helicopter from Hachijojima Island. The volcanic island measures 9km edge to edge, and is inhabited by around 170 people. It is a truly offbeat destination that offers wonderful views and natural treasures.
Nakagin Capsul Tower
Everyone knows about the lofty Tokyo Tower, which has been modelled on the Eiffel Tower. But have you heard of Nakagin Capsul Tower near Ginza? From the outside, the tower looks rather odd, with capsules jutting out in asymmetrically. It was designed 40 years ago by Kisho Kurokawa but is now in a state of semi disrepair. There are 144 rooms in the tower, some of which are still occupied, while others have been abandoned.
Based on the films of Studio Ghibli, known for classics like Whisper of the Heart and Castle in the Sky, Ghibli Museum is a must-visit for kids. Founder Hayao Miyazaki filled the rooms in the museum with his favourite souvenirs from various films, ranging from sketchbooks and ashtrays to pencil stubs and cardboard boxes. The bus stop in front of the museum resembles Totoro, the studio’s mascot.
Chureito Pagoda at Mount Fuji (day trip)
If you’re spending at least a few nights in Tokyo, you have the opportunity to take wonderful day trips to nearby attractions. The most famous among these is arguably Mount Fuji, which features on most postcards of Japan. It is an active volcano and one of the three sacred mountains in Japan. The best spot to take in views from Japan’s highest mountain is Chureito Pagoda. Depending on the time of the year, you will be treated to views of cherry blossoms, wintry snow, or clear summer skies.
Kotokuin Temple in Kamakura (day trip)
An easy and worthwhile day trip from Tokyo is Kamakura and Enoshima. The former is located in Kanagawa prefecture, and is home to the famous Kotokuin Temple. Here resides the great Buddha of Kamakura, an open-air, 43 feet high statue made of bronze. Dating back to 1252, it is one of the best known symbols of Japan. Another shrine worth visiting is Jomyoji Temple, featuring a 400 years old tea room and a Japanese rock garden.
Tsumago (day trip)
Tsumago is one of the old post stations of Japan. It lies on the Nakasendo Trail, which used to connect Tokyo and Kyoto in the Edo period. Back then, tax collectors routinely traversed the trail. Tsumago has been marvellously preserved and gives visitors a fantastic glimpse into the Edo period. The town is full of traditional ryokans. If you travel further along the route, you can also visit another post town called Magome.
Unique Places to Visit in Kyoto
Kyoto on Honshu Island used to be the capital of Japan. But the pace of life today is much slower than Tokyo. Like Tokyo, there are numerous palaces and temples in Kyoto, along with classic wooden houses, gardens, and tree-lined avenues.
Fushimi Inari Shrine
You might have seen pictures of bright orange pillars inscribed with Japanese alphabets on Instagram. They are none other than Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. The orange torii gates stretch for a long way, making for a wonderful walk. Entrance to the shrine is free and if you want to avoid the crowds, go as early as you can. From Fushimi Inari, you can continue hiking up the mountain for glorious views of Kyoto.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove & Sagano Bamboo Forest
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is a small but very picturesque bamboo grove in Kyoto. Entrance is free, and the grove is ethereal in the early morning. Another bamboo forest worth visiting in Kyoto is Sagano. The sound that the skinny stalks make while swaying is so hypnotic that it has government-recognized status! Though touristy, it is a unique experience walking through the narrow paths with the bamboo trunks towering on both sides.
Gio-ji Temple and Moss Gardens
The offbeat Gio-ji Temple and Moss Gardens are located in the Arashiyama area, making it easy to combine a visit here with the bamboo groves. Walk across the soft moss garden, admiring the various hues of the lush greenery. Footpaths made of stone weave through the garden of moss interspersed with little trees. Sometimes, the greens are punctuated by purple blooms.
The Geisha District of Gion
If you’ve seen or read Memoirs of a Geisha, you’ll definitely want to visit Gion, a renowned geisha district. The quarter is full of traditional merchant houses made of wood. As you walk through Gion, you’ll also see temples and perhaps even the odd geisha. If you fancy, you can dress up as an apprentice geisha and get yourself clicked! In the evening, head to Gion Corner for a cultural show followed by dinner.
Okunoin Temple and cemetery (day trip)
Start looking up hotels in Kyoto, because an extended stay in the city comes with many perks! You can visit many offbeat gems on day trips from Kyoto, such as the Okunoin Temple and Cemetery, which is Japan’s largest cemetery. Countless Buddhist monks and warlords are buried at the cemetery which is surrounded by forests. Nearby is Mount Koya and several other ancient temples. It can be quite an eerie yet magical experience wandering through the cemetery and forest after dusk.
Nara Park and Kasuga Shrine (day trip)
A great day trip from Kyoto is an excursion to the ancient city of Nara, home to a beautiful deer park and several atmospheric shrines. At the sylvan Nara Park, hundreds of deer roam freely, and it is a real delight to witness. You can also visit Todaiji Temple, home to a massive Buddha statue and a ‘pillar of enlightenment’. Nara is also home to the famed Kasuga Taisha, a Shinto shrine full of stone and bronze lanterns.
Himeji Castle (day trip)
Japan definitely has its fair share of scenic castles, and the hilltop Himeji Castle can be easily visited over a day trip from Kyoto. The white façade of the castle has given rise to monikers such as ‘White Egret Castle’ and ‘White Heron Castle’. It is located in the Kansai region and consists of more than 83 buildings. The castle in Hyōgo Prefecture has its origins in the feudal era of Japan. It is a world heritage site and used to be a defensive base.
Kumano Nachi Taisha Shrine (day trip)
Kumano Nachi Taisha is a beautiful three-tiered shrines with the curved roofs typical of Japan. The bright orange and pale green colouring give it a distinctive appearance. Nearby, you’ll find the Nachi No Taki Waterfall, which is so tall that it can be glimpsed from the Pacific Ocean! You can take a train from Kyoto to reach this lovely Kumano shrine.
Other Secret Places in Japan
Apart from Tokyo and Kyoto, major destinations in Japan are Hokkaido, which is famous for skiing; Osaka, known for its ports and nightlife; the ancient city of Nara, the resort town of Hakone, Sapporo with its beer museum, historical Hiroshima, and many more.
Ryusendo Cave, Iwate
Iwate prefecture is home to three wonderful limestone caves, one of which is Ryusendo Cave. Spread across 5km, a small part of the cave is open to the public, but it is enough to get a feel of its mysterious interiors. There are eight subterranean lakes in the lakes, three of which can be visited. The lakes are rather reflective, and the light bulbs hanging on the walls endow the caves with an eerie ambience.
Fukiware Falls, Gunma
Fukiware Falls is definitely among the most spectacular waterfalls in Japan. The sight of the bright blue water breaking into pure white foam on the riverbed is bound to take your breath away. The water descends from three different spots and varies in height and width. If you visit Fukiware Falls in the autumn, you’ll be treated to gorgeous autumnal hues.
Mount Koya or Koyasan as it is also known is a must visit for lovers of culture and spirituality. The mountaintop temple town is home to numerous shrines paying homage to a sect of Japanese Buddhism that has been around since 1000 years. There are also many graveyards on Koyasan. Overnight stays at temple lodges are possible, and allow you to fully experience the mystic vibe of this ancient settlement.
Aoshima Cat Island, Ehime
That the Japanese love cats is no secret. And if you do too, you’ll be mesmerized by Aoshima in Ehime prefecture, popularly known as ‘Cat Island’. There are far more cats than humans on this unique island, with the ratio being 10 cats to every human! It wasn’t always like this though. Cats were brought into the island to deal with the rodents making a beeline for fishing boats. Then the cats continued to reproduce and the rest is history.
Tsujunkyo Bridge, Kumamoto
Tsujunkyo Bridge is a true architectural marvel, having been constructed in 1854. It is an aqueduct bridge with stone arches and the largest of its kind in Japan. The area around the bridge is green and scenic, making it a great picnic spot.
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, Yamanouchi
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is a unique destination in Nagano prefecture. The name refers to the snow monkeys living in the park. The macaques sport red or pink faces and enjoy splashing around in the hot springs. The monkeys are rather playful, and it can be a lot of fun seeing how they interact with each other! A short and beautiful hike through the forest takes you to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park.
Wisteria Tunnel, Kitakyushi
Nature lovers should definitely make their way to Kawachi Fuji Gardens in Kitakyushi, which features a passageway full of hanging wisteria flowers. As you walk through the dreamy tunnel, you will see endless fronds of the beige and violet flowers suspended from the ceiling. There are 150 wisteria plants at the tunnel from various species, which bloom during spring, usually towards the end of April or the beginning of May.