7 Underrated Japanese Cities to Visit Other Than Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto

7 Underrated Japanese Cities to Visit Other Than Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto

Explore scenes of Japan that’s unlike the usual tourist snapshots in these off-the-beaten-track cities, from Asahikawa to Saga.

Japan has always been a top holiday destination with its irresistible offerings of sights, and cultural and culinary treasures.

It is not surprising that the number of visitors to Japan has tripled in the past five years. Most travellers spend their time in major cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto and form their impressions of Japan based on their experiences of the well-trodden tourist routes. However, the beautiful country is more than Tokyo’s Disneyland, Osaka’s Dotonbori and Kyoto’s shrines and temples.

During my exploration of close to 30 prefectures in Japan, I have discovered that the places not commonly featured in travel guides were usually the ones which filled me with the fondest memories. I hope this humble list of seven underrated cities will inspire you to take the road less travelled!

1. Asahikawa

Majority of visitors to Asahikawa usually head straight to Asahiyama Zoo. As Hokkaido’s second largest city following Sapporo, Asahikawa deserves a longer stay rather than a brief stopover at its renowned zoo.

While Sapporo Snow Festival is the most well-known winter festival in Hokkaido, it is so packed with tourists that Asahikawa Winter Festival may offer a respite from the crowds and high hotel rates. Asahikawa Winter Festival is the largest winter festival after Sapporo Snow Festival and both festivals are held around the same time so travellers can enjoy two top winter festivals in Hokkaido by hopping onto a train. A mammoth snow sculpture that changes every year according to the annual theme is the highlight of the festival. Children as well as adults can enjoy playing on snow slides, and wandering through stalls selling warm food and drinks.

Image credit: Yuko Hara

A visit to Asahikawa is not complete without trying its famous Asahikawa ramen whose shoyu (soya sauce) based broth is different from Sapporo’s miso based broth. For a gastronomical treat, head to Asahikawa Ramen Village which is an epicurean cluster of eight famous ramen restaurants from Asahikawa.

The city is also not far from Daisetsuzan, Hokkaido’s largest national park with many hot spring towns like Sounkyo Onsen that is famous for the magnificent Sounkyo Ice Fall Festival.

2. Okinawa City

Many people do not know that Okinawa’s second largest city is Okinawa City. Overshadowed by Naha, the capital city, Okinawa City is a fascinating city that provides an interesting glimpse into Okinawa’s culture and history.

As the result of the presence of the military bases encroaching on the city, the multicultural community is filled with restaurants serving a variety of international cuisine. The city is the birthplace of A Lunch, a sumptuous Okinawa-American hybrid lunch plate.

A stroll through the famous Koza Music Town, the cradle of Okinawa music, is a good way to learn more about the diverse influences of Ryukyu folk songs and Okinawa rock music. If you visit the city in summer, you have the fortune to participate in the Okinawa Zento Eisa Festival, the largest Eisa festival in Okinawa. Eisa is a traditional folk dance that is performed all over the island during Obon in August when the ancestors’ spirits are believed to return.

The centrally positioned city is close to Chatan’s American Village and beaches, Yomitan’s Zakimi Castle and Cape Zampa, and Uruma where you can access the panoramic inter-island bridge, Kaichu-doro. Should you wish to visit the attractions in and around Okinawa City by car, you can rent one with JTB for the duration of your trip. The pick-up locations include Naha Airport and Okinawa City.

3. Ishinomaki

Ishinomaki may be familiar to visitors who are aware of the effects of the 2011 Tsunami on Sendai and parts of Miyagi Prefecture. The port city east of Sendai suffered the largest damage to life and property during the tragic event. A trip to this cohesive city is vital to understand more about the city beyond the news reports, and support the local communities.

Image credit: Robin Lewis

Visitors can start with a walk to Hiyoriyama Park in the city centre. The park provides a vantage point to look at the city and the affected waterfront areas introspectively in order to gain more insights of the recovery efforts. The park is also a perfect place for cherry blossom viewing in spring.

Image credit: Robin Lewis

underrated japanese citites

Image credit: Robin Lewis

Ishinomaki contributes to the dramatic beauty of the Sanriku Coast which extends for 200 kilometres along the Pacific Coast. For serious trekkers, Ishinomaki is a superb introduction to segments of the inspirational Michinoku Coastal Trail which covers over 700 kilometres of coastline and nature.

After taking in the grandeur of Mother Nature, visit the Ishinomaki Community & Information Center to learn more about the impact of the disaster on the city, and the ongoing reconstruction efforts. Do not just take photographs and leave the city without speaking to the locals. If you take the time to interact with them, you will be enriched by their stories, and humbled by their resilience.  

4. Tottori

underrated japanese citites

Tottori City is the capital city of Tottori Prefecture which has the lowest population in Japan. Bordered by the Sea of Japan, the remote Tottori is entitled with stretches of dramatic coastlines. The city is just a short ride from the acclaimed Tottori sand dunes that has the honour of being the biggest sand dune in Japan. A hike to the sand dunes is best accompanied by a tour of the impressive Sand Museum that showcases spectacular sand sculptures made by international artists.

Tottori City is a gateway to Tottori’s stunning nature like the Sanin Kaigan Geopark and its breath-taking Uradome coast, and atmospheric hot spring towns like Misasa and Kaike onsens. Since Tottori is a mecca for manga lovers for its association to Detective Conan’s artist Gosho Aoyama, and Mizuki Shigeru, the city is a convenient base to travel to Hokuei and Sakaiminato; the respective hometowns of the artists.

5. Imabari

Usually neglected by visitors, Shikoku has compelling cities like Imabari which warrant an extended detour from the usual Kansai route. The second largest city of Ehime Prefecture, Imabari does not attract as many visitors as Matsuyama.

Image credit: Daniel Betts

It is generally treated as a transit area for cyclists to start or end their Shimanami Kaido expedition through the 74-kilometre bikeway that links Japan’s main island of Honshu to Shikoku. The bikeway connects six islands with six bridges and three of the islands – Omishima, Oshima and Hakata – belong to Imabari.

underrated japanese citites

Image credit: Herry Lawford

Travellers can take the Kurushima-Kaikyo bridge’s elevator down to Umashima island to observe the strong tidal currents of the Kurushima Straits. Other than the scenic islands, Imabari has a range of sights like the Imabari Castle, a unique coastal castle with a moat, and numerous beaches, parks and lookout spots dispersed along the city’s coastal region.

Imabari is also home to six of the temples of the famous Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage – Enmeji, Nankobo, Taisanji, Eifukuji, Senyuji and Kokubunji. The Imabari towel is a mandatory souvenir that you have to get as Imabari produces the best quality towels in Japan. Make sure you try yakibuta tamago meshi, a heavenly dish of seasoned pork with lightly fried eggs on rice, before leaving the city.

6. Okayama

The capital of Okayama Prefecture, Okayama is the second largest city in the Chugoku region. A transportation hub, Okayama is frequently bypassed by travellers. The former castle town deserves an extended visit with its trove of attractions.

underrated japanese citites

Firstly, it has one of Japan’s top three best landscape gardens, Korakuen Garden. Just a stone’s throw from the garden is the Okayama Castle. Art lovers can explore the vicinity and museums like the Prefectural Museum of Art and Hayashibara Museum of Art. The city is the origin of the popular Japanese folk hero, Momotaro. There are many adorable references to Momotaro and the city is known to cultivate the most delicious peaches in Japan.

underrated japanese citites

A short train ride connects Okayama City to Kurashiki which is regarded as the ‘mini Venice’ of Okayama Prefecture because of its picturesque canals. The well preserved Bikan Historical Quarter attracts droves of tourists who are mesmerized by quaint shophouses and canals lined with willow trees. Lying next to the canal, the Ohara Museum of Art is the first museum of Western art in Japan with its private collection.

There are many ways to explore the Okayama Prefecture, and one of them is a packaged tour that lets you sample the best attractions of the region. JTB’s Flower Fantasia in Sanyo & Western Japan takes travellers from Hiroshima to Osaka, through Okayama and Kurashiki with a stroll around Korakuen Garden, Okayama Castle and Kurashiki Town. If the departure date does not match your preferred travel period, do look into other packages offered by JTB.

7. Saga

underrated japanese citites

Image credit: Nijinomatsubara

Saga is perhaps one of the least visited prefectures in Kyushu despite its gourmet attractions. Saga City is a good base to indulge in the delights of the prefecture. Surrounded by Genkai Sea and Ariake Sea, Saga is famed for its seasonal seafood. Fresh squid can be found in Yobuko, a port town easily accessible from the city, which boasts one of the largest morning markets in Japan. Fresh squid caught here are best savoured as live squid sashimi.

Saga is also reputed for its beef whose glossy marbled meat is highly ranked in wagyu competitions. Other than food, Saga is highly regarded for its intricate pottery from Arita and Imari which produce exquisite porcelain.

Image credit: claudius_xiv

Not far from the city, Yoshinogari Historical Park is one of Japan’s largest archaeological sites and the massive park provides a window into the Yayoi Period. Saga City also hosts the annual Saga International Balloon Fiesta, and visitors will be spoilt by a visual feast of kaleidoscopic hot air balloons decorating the blue skies.  

If you’re planning a trip to Japan, a great place to start is JTB, the winner of TripZilla Excellence Awards 2017 – Best for Japan. This highly reputable company caters to all sorts of Japan-related travel needs, such as rail passes, tickets to attractions, SIM cards, group tours, and free-and-easy packages.

Be it for the popular tourist cities of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, or for the off-the-trodden-path adventures in Japan, there will almost surely be something that JTB offers which will make your journey a smoother one.

About Author

Wendy Ng

After spending her entire life on the tropical island of Singapore, Wendy moved to another island, Okinawa for 2 idyllic years. During her stay in Japan, she ate through 27 prefectures – still short of her goal to conquer all 47 prefectures. With extensive teaching experiences in Singapore, Japan and around the world on Peace Boat, she is an education consultant who dreams of being a full-time traveller. Find out more about her escapades at whywendywrites.com

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