Ancient shrines. Sacred forests. Volcanic gorges. Emerald islands. And, at the end of a rewarding day of travel, a sip of locally-brewed sake and a restorative soak in a hot spring onsen.
Rural Japan is a deeply seductive destination. For visitors, it is prized not only for its dynamic landscapes — dense with breathtaking scenery and natural attractions — but for the many unique, quintessentially Japanese offerings you can experience there. Those who venture off conventional tourist trails to explore these far-flung regions will be rewarded with the ultimate mix of cultural heritage and outdoor adventure. Here are three one-of-a-kind destinations that guarantee unforgettable memories in Japan.
Follow in the footsteps of centuries of spiritual pilgrims on a journey through lush, primeval forests to Kumano Hayatama Taisha Grand Shrines. Located in the Wakayama prefecture of Kansai, this shrine is one of the Kumano Sanzan — a trio of shrines found along an ancient World Heritage-listed walking route, the Kumano Kodo. Deeply steeped in spirituality and mythology, the area is popular for shinrin yoku (or forest bathing) — the Japanese practice of healing the body and mind through immersion among trees.
If you prefer to swap meditative walks for high-speed adventures, head to the Kumano River and try your hand at traditional log rafting. On this guided excursion, you’ll board a long raft — much like those historically used to transport timber through the region – and hold on tight as you make your way down winding streams and thrilling rapids.
Any day in Wakayama should end with three things: a delicious dinner with seasonal ingredients; a sip of world-class nihonshu sake from a local Wakayama brewery, such as Nakano BC Co.; and finally, a pre-bedtime soak in the restorative waters of a hot spring onsen bath. One spot to relax and recharge after dark is Kirinosato-Takahara, a scenic hotel with breathtaking mountain views. Nicknamed the “Organic Hotel,” they offer traditional, organic cuisine made from locally grown vegetables, and a steaming onsen bathing for tired post-trekking limbs.
How to get there from Tokyo: Take a bullet train from Tokyo Station to Nagoya Station, about one hour 40 minutes. Next, board a 3.5-hour limited express train to Shingu Station, then catch a 90-minute bus to Hongu Taisha-mae (Kumano Hongu Heritage Center).
How to get there from Osaka: From Shin-Osaka Station, take a Kuroshio Limited Express Train to Kii-Tanabe Station, about 2 hours 15 minutes. Next, take the Kumano Hongu line about two hours to Hongu Taisha-mae (Kumano Hongu Heritage Center).
Photo: Provided by Organization for Promotion of Tourism in SHIKOKU
An equally enchanting journey awaits in Shikoku, a tranquil island in southwest Japan. The northern part is surrounded by shimmering waters of the Seto Inland Sea, dotted with small islands famed for their citrus fruits and lushly temperate climate. For a truly unforgettable experience, explore Imabari and its neighboring islands on two wheels with a beginner-friendly cycling adventure on the Shimanami Kaido.
One of the world’s most picturesque cycling routes, the highly accessible, 70-kilometer toll road connects a scattering of six small islands with scenic bridges. There are multiple entry points, such as Imabari, where you can rent an e-bike for a day and travel the Shimanami Kaido Road with ease — or expand your journey with overnight stays at various the hotels, campsites, or local minshuku inns that line the route. With comfort stations and clear signage along the way, you’ll pedal past shrines, sandy beaches, and aromatic citrus groves — enjoying coastal breezes and mesmerizing scenery along the way.
Highlights include the island Omishima and its ancient shrine Oyamazumi which has been worshiped for more than 1,400 years and houses an impressive collection of artifacts which have been designated Japanese National Treasures; Kirosan Observatory Park on Oshima, a good spot to catch the sunset with famously epic panoramas of the surrounding islands; the powerful rapids of Kurushima Strait, which you can observe up-close on a thrilling 40-minute boat tour; and the artful engineering of Kurushima Kaikyo Bridge, the world's first triple suspension bridge.
How to get From Tokyo: Take a bullet train from Tokyo Station to Okayama Station, a little over 3 hours. Next, board a JR Limited Express train to Imabari Station, a little over 2 hours.
How to get there from Osaka: Take a 45-minute bullet train from Shin-Osaka Station to Okayama Station. Next, board a JR Limited Express train to Imabari Station, a little over 2 hours.
Photo: Mount Aso provided by Kyushu Tourism Organization
On the southern island of Kyushu lies an otherworldly paradise: two towering rock walls flanked by ancient trees, with misty waterfalls tumbling into a flow of emerald water at the base. This is Takachiho Gorge — a narrow chasm formed over 100,000 years ago by eruptions from the volcanic Mount Aso nearby. It was in this mystical setting that one of Japan's most famous mythological stories unfolded — when the sun goddess Amaterasu, angered by her brother, retreated into a cave and deprived the world of light.
Visitors can take in the mystical atmosphere with a stroll along the paved walking path that lines the chasm. Or for a different perspective, rent a rowboat and drift along the calm waters for a close-up look at the gorge’s steep rock walls. The dramatic scenery changes with the seasons, with autumn being a highlight as the landscape bursts into vivid orange and red leaves.
Further north, Mount Aso is also a fiery must-see. Home to one of the largest calderas in the world, it has five distinct peaks thought to resemble a reclining Buddha. For a once-in-a-lifetime view, hike or drive to the Nakadake Central Crater (just be sure to check if it’s closed due to volcanic activity). Visitors are rewarded with the mesmerizing sight of a vast crater filled with turquoise-hued acidic water, shrouded in an ever-rising cloud of smoke and steam.
For hiking, countless scenic trails crisscross the landscape – from Mount Eboshi, wrapped in grasslands, to Mount Kishima, famed for its year-round wildflowers. And where there are volcanoes, there are always hot spring onsen. Hot spring baths provide the perfect post-hike relaxation – including Uchinomaki Onsen, a hot spring resort wrapped in the outer rim of Mount Aso itself. And there are not many better – or more quintessentially Japanese – ways to close a long day of hiking than by checking into a ryokan inn, enjoying a delicious dinner and a soporific soak.
How to get there from Tokyo: Take a flight from Tokyo Haneda to Kumamoto Airport, about 2 hours, then board a bus to Takachiho, a little over 2 hours. To reach Mount Aso, take a 1.5-hour bus from Kumamoto Airport.
How to get there from Osaka: Take a flight from Itami Airport to Kumamoto Airport, about 1.5 hours. Then take a bus to Takachiho, a little over 2 hours. To reach Mount Aso, take a 1.5-hour bus from Kumamoto Airport.
Ready to go off-the-beaten-path in Japan?
Click to discover more things to see and do in Kansai, Shikoku, and Kyushu.
For more regions to explore, discover Japan’s stunning mountains and epic outdoor adventures.