There is more to Japan than just Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Why not take a step out of your comfort zone and visit these charming, less well-known prefectures instead?
The island nation of Japan consists of some 6, 852 islands. The four largest islands – Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku – make up about 97 percent of its land area. It’s a long, narrow land mass that stretches from north to south, which explains why its climate varies from cool to tropical in any given season. Given their unique climate, every area offers a unique experience in terms of food and culture.
For your next trip to Japan, consider visiting one of the areas mentioned below:
The city has picked itself up from its WWII atomic bomb attack. It is now a bustling city with an international cruise centre. This year, the Hashima island, also known as Gunkanjima (Battleship Island), was accorded UNESCO World Heritage status. The abandoned coal mining island, with its concrete facade, resembles a battleship and a shot of it was immortalised on silver screen in the James Bond film, Skyfall. Nagasaki was the first port-of-call for foreigners arriving in Japan in the 16th century, when the country practiced a policy of isolationism. This, you will find, created a lot of food bearing Chinese and Portuguese influences. Some of the food you definitely have to sample are: Champon (a bowl of soupy noodles initially created to help Chinese students enjoy a taste of home back in the Qing Dynasty), Castella cake, and Shippoku cuisine (a veritable feast featuring dishes that marry Japanese, Chinese and Portuguese culinary traditions).
At first glance, Yamaguchi prefecture doesn’t seem have much to offer by way to tourism, but you’d be oh-so-wrong. If you are looking to take things down a notch, consider checking out the quiet, quaint town of Hagi. It’s very much a provincial town where cottage industries still thrive. To experience Japanese hospitality and service at its finest, book a stay at Hagi no Yado Tomoe, a traditional ryokan that’s played host to Japanese politicians and royalty. Decked out with a luxurious and generously sized onsen, we won’t blame you if you just want to hole up in there and not leave for a couple of days.
Shimonoseki is another city worth visiting in Yamaguchi. Why? Two words: Puffer fish. Most of the puffer fish sold in Japan comes straight out of Shimonoseki, so it really doesn’t get much fresher than that. The prices are a fraction of what they cost in Tokyo, and it’s not just the fancy restaurants that serve up this delicacy either. Head to Kaiten Karato Ichiba Sushi, a conveyor belt sushi joint located at the famed Karato Sea Market in Shimonoseki and you can enjoy your fill of puffer fish sushi for crazy-affordable prices. Pro tip: Make sure you’re there before 12pm because that place fills up fast.
3. Sado Island
If you’re a nature lover, I promise you will fall in love with the natural beauty of Sado Island the moment you arrive. Touted as one of Japan’s best-kept travel secrets, Sado Island is located off the coast of Niigata prefecture, and is made up of a flat land sandwiched between two parallel mountain ranges. The northwestern part of Sado Island is called Osada. There, you’ll find an abundance of government-protected lush forests, including Ishina Natural Cedar Walkway, which is home to majestic cedar trees. Another must-visit in Osada is Senkaku Bay, a designated Quasi-National Park that offers spectacular views of rugged cliffs and the Sea of Japan – perfect for viewing sunsets.
Apart from being nature’s paradise, Sado Island is also renowned for its gold and silver mining operation, known as Sado Kinzan Gold Mine, during the Edo period. Today, visitors can check out two main routes inside the mountain to learn more about the island’s rich mining history. Thanks to Sado Island’s strategic location, it also boasts amazingly fresh local produce that’s gained international acclaim. One notable mention is koshihikari, the crown jewel of Japanese short-grain rice. It is slightly sticky and has got a sweet, nutty taste unlike any other types of rice I’ve tasted!
Foodies, you may never want to leave this prefecture. In addition to having a relatively warm climate, Shizuoka is located between Japan’s highest mountain (Mount Fuji, in case you didn’t know) and deepest bay (Suruga Bay). So what, you ask? Well, those factors contribute to Shizuoka’s ability to produce more than 430 high-quality agricultural and marine produce – from sakura shrimp and skipjack to wasabi and green tea. Even the globally acclaimed Chef Tetsuya Wakuda, head chef of Waku Ghin in Singapore, has only praises for Shizuoka’s ingredients! He works exclusively with some of the prefecture’s top producers, including Sasue Maeda, a supplier of exceptionally fresh seafood; Yamashita Melon Farm, which produces the highly coveted musk melon; Marumo Mori, a premier tea producer; Miyahara Farm, which specialises in producing four types of wasabi; and Isojiman Premium Sake Brewery, one of the world’s top sake producers.
Of the opinion that Hokkaido’s too commercialised? Then consider its slightly less touristy, yet equally beautiful cousin, Niigata. Niigata is located just an hour away from Tokyo by Shinkansen, yet has a completely different landscape and climate from Japan’s bustling, neon-lit capital city. Visit during winter and you’ll be greeted by the majestic sight of the most snowfall you’ve ever seen in your life the moment the Shinkansen exits the tunnel. For those aching to ski or snowboard, it really doesn’t get much better than Akakura Kanko Resort. This sprawling luxury resort was modelled after European ski resorts, with 52 Western and Japanese style rooms. The abundance of fine powder snow also makes for an excellent skiing experience (so we’re told). After a tiring day out on the slopes, make use of the hotel’s excellent spa to soothe those aching muscles. There is even an outdoor onsen where you can take in the sight of people doing their thing on the slopes as you soak.
Of course, no visit to Niigata is complete until you’ve stuffed yourself silly on its world-famous Koshihikari rice. Although it was almost always served at the end of a meal, we found ourselves finishing every bowl of rice that was dished out to us as we couldn’t resist its subtly sweet flavour and fluffy texture. A restaurant not to be missed is Harumi-so in Myoko city. Its bamboo leaf sushi, sasazushi, is simply seasoned with vinegar yet very delectable. Sushi toppings include shiitake mushrooms, zenmai (Japanese flowering fern) and kinshi tamago (strips of thin omelette). The set meal comes with noppei (vegetable stewed in potato starch), butajiru (a rich pork-based soup) and agebitashi (deep-fried eggplant soaked in dashi) – winter comfort food at its finest.
If you love food, you will adore Tokachi. A subprefecture within Hokkaido, Tokachi is known as the “rice table of Japan” because of its abundant output in farmed produce and cattle. The area loves its meat – from buta-don (grilled pork rice bowl) to a special beef named Mirai Memuro – and dairy products too. You will find lots of awesome cheeses and confectionaries, thanks also to the huge output of milk and wheat.
While it’s a wonderful place to visit in winter, the best time, however, is spring or summer when Tokachi’s natural greenery is out in full force. The Tokachi Millennium Forest is a breath-taking sight to behold both in its scale and design. Onsen-lovers should most definitely schedule in a night’s stay at the Tokachigawa-Onsen Daiichi Hotel. Known as bijin-no yu (beauty bath), its water is famed for its beautifying and healing benefits. If you are there on your honeymoon, or with your partner, make the trip to Kokuku, a decommissioned train station that is now a tourist attraction because its kanji name means “happiness”. You can buy a train ticket, scribble your wish on it, and stick it up on the walls of the station.
7. Northern Hokkaido
When people think of Hokkaido, the first thing they probably think of is “snow”, and the second thing is probably “seafood”. While the largest prefecture in Japan certainly is renowned for its ski slopes and abundance of fresh seafood, there is so much more to Hokkaido worth exploring. For example, in northern Hokkaido, you can visit Daisetsuzan, which is the largest national park in the prefecture. This mountainous area of unspoiled wilderness is larger than even some of the smaller prefectures in Japan! Other places of natural beauty worth visiting include the hot spring resort town of Sounkyo, Shikisai-no-Oka (a stunning collection of flower plantations), and Blue Pond, which is located on the left bank of the River Bieigawa. Fun fact: this picturesque pond became famous after it was used as one of the wallpapers included in Apple’s OS Mountain Lion!
Sightseeing aside, what are some of the must-eats? Well, there’s Jin-gisu-kan (also known as Genghis Khan Nabe), which is a dish unique to this region. Served in a cast iron skillet or pan, this one-dish meal comes with thin slices of marinated mutton, assorted vegetables and beancurd, and udon. This hearty and rustic dish truly hits the spot after a day of outdoor adventures. For the best of Biei’s produce, head over to Biei Senka, a one-stop complex that includes a farmers’ market, restaurant, cafe, and boulangerie. All four establishments sell food and produce sourced from the region.