Many people out there have seen the amazing neon-lit streets of Tokyo, the beautiful ancient temples and shrines of Kyoto, and the bustling nightlife of Osaka but there is more to Japan than these cities. The lesser-seen towns that dot the country from the north to south all have something special and unique, with different experiences than what you’ll find in the city. From simple little villages to quirky and weird towns, Japan is full of these destinations that are more off the beaten path. If you’re planning a trip, here are some of the most beautiful villages and towns in Japan you must visit.
Located in the mountains, this remote village is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The famous farmhouses here have been around for over 250 years, and Shirakawa is regarded as a place where winter only makes the village look all the more magical. The architectural styles of the houses here were made in such a way as to handle heavy amounts of snow, giving them a unique touch and style known as “gassho-zukuri” or “constructed like hands in prayer” in English. This place is a little remote, but the trip is worth it.
Totsukawa is located in the Nara Prefecture, in the Yoshino district. In terms of area, it is actually the largest town in Japan. This village is the perfect spot for nature lovers since there are tons of beautiful greenery around and plenty of gorgeous things to see. Despite its small population, it has some of the best things in the country, including one of the best onsens. It is also home to Sasanotaki, one of the best waterfalls in Japan. Another landmark here is Tamaki Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in 37 BC by Emperor Sujin.
Tsurui is both a relatively new village and also one of the smallest ones. Located in Hokkaido, the town has a population of just over 2,000 people and is known for being the breeding ground for cranes. The village was founded in 1937 and is also referred to as one of the “100 best soundscapes of Japan”, which means it is one of the least noise-polluted places in the country - a destination where the sounds of nature prevail.
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Feel like you just stepped into a fairy tale and check out the picturesque village of Biei. The small town is surrounded by rolling hills covered in flowers and trees. Drive or bike through the countryside and take in views of this Japanese village that looks like nowhere else in the country. Take in the scenic views of rural Japan and meander through the stunning lavender fields.
Ine is a town that is in the Ine Bay, located in the northern part of Kyoto Prefecture. It is one of the most unique places in Japan, and it is also one of the smallest villages in the country. Located along the waterfront, the village has a long history of being a fishing village. What really makes Ine unique is the prevalence of funaya, “floating” houses sitting on top of the water. Tours of the village are available, as well as the opportunity to stay in a funaya for a night or two.
Known for its beautiful nature and lush forest, Higashi-Naruse is a great little town with a population of just under 3,000 people. The town may be small, but it is also a place with a lot of history. It was once part of the Ugo Province, which was run by the Satake clan during Japan’s Edo period. The town was established in 1889 and enjoys some pretty nice weather considering its location in the north.
Located in the Fukushima Prefecture, the town of Kitashiobara is actually made up of three different areas that each lend a part of their name to make a new village name. The town is known for its beautiful park, Bandai-Asahi National Park that was established in 1950. This is a great place to visit to check out the famous park and see some of Japan’s beautiful rivers and lakes.
Nagiso is consistently rated as one of “the most beautiful villages in the country” by the Japanese government. The town of Nagiso is located in the Nagano Prefecture and is a place that makes people feel like they have taken a step back in time and just wandered into a small village in the past, complete with traditional houses and streets. The town was established during the Edo period, made as a “highway” between Edo and Kyoto for traders and farmers who would travel between the two cities on foot.
Escape to nature and head to the nearby hills around Nakanojo to enjoy a relaxing experience that many tourists don’t usually get to have. Nakanojo was also established during the Edo period and is located in the Gunma Prefecture. There are large mountains and hills surrounding the town, with the Agastuma River passing through its center. Nakanojo relies heavily on people coming to check out the onsens that are naturally occurring and are said to have restorative and healing properties.
Hayakawa is known as the “smallest town in Japan”, with a little over 1,000 people living there. The town may be very small, but it has so much history behind it that it really should make your list of places to visit. This destination is surrounded by mountains, rivers, waterfalls, forests, and fields, making it an absolutely beautiful place to explore, especially for nature lovers. The town was created in 1956, and aside from the beautiful nature found here, it is also known for its calligraphy inkstones.
Located just east of Osaka, in the mountains, is the town of Yoshino. This quaint little town in the Nara Prefecture is steeped in nature, with beautiful trees and mountains surrounding the village. For people who are looking to catch the blossoming of the cherry blossom trees, heading to Yoshino is a great way to do it away from big cities and large crowds. There are 30,000 trees planted in the roads leading up to Yoshino Mountain, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Kamikatsu is another one of the smallest towns in the country, with just over 1,500 residents. Located in the Tokushima Prefecture, what makes this a unique town is that it has made the news recently for being a town with a comprehensive zero-waste policy. Every home here recycles, and it has over 40 different material categories that need to be sorted for recycling. This is one of the few in the world to operate as a zero-waste town.
Minamioguni is a place that seamlessly blends nature and tradition in a beautiful little destination that looks like it was imagined by Hayao Miyazaki. The town is set in the mountains, with rivers and waterfalls flowing right through it. Set on a volcanic caldera, this place has tons of onsens and thermal baths that drive its economy. The ancient ruins here are regarded as “power spots” that represent the people’s attachment to the region and to nature. The shops that line the streets offer traditional Japanese food and goods. With the wide variety of ryokans (traditional Japanese inn) in the area, everything you do here will feel very traditional.
Takaharu is a small town in Japan that has a lot of importance to it. This is supposedly the place where the country’s very first Emperor, Jimmu, was born. On top of that, it is also home to Japan’s first national park - Kirishima Geopark, which lies in the mountains of Kirishima and makes for a great adventure for those looking to explore the mountains and get into nature. Takaharu holds many Japanese historic tales as well as a number of spiritual shrines and mountains.
Aya is a small, mountainous town that is bringing in more and more tourists in recent years. Locals and tourists from big cities come to hang out in nature and experience a slower pace of life here. The town’s population is only around 7,000 people, but most of the area is actually made up of forests, with green spaces covering about 1,700 hectares (4,200 acres) of land. This statistic makes it one of the largest expanses of greenery in the country. People from all over come to Aya to spend some time immersed in nature, doing some fishing and checking out Aya Teruha Suspension Bridge, one of the largest bridges in the country.
Big fun in small villages
Japan has some pretty big cities - some of which are even among the biggest in the world - but it also has a lot of smaller, lesser-known towns and villages that are worth your time to explore and discover. There are plenty of idyllic little places to visit that are in the mountains or by rivers and valleys and look like they are from another time - which many actually are. Make sure to stop by some of these places on your next trip to this beautiful country.
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