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10 Hidden Gems You Can Only See in Japan
It’s time to venture outside Tokyo! From subtropical beaches and snow-capped mountains to ancient shrines and animal reserves, there’s no shortage of one-of-a-kind destinations just waiting to be discovered.
Iyakei Valley is one of Japan’s best-kept secrets, but don’t expect it to stay that way for long. This remote area in the western part of Tokushima is an unspoiled natural paradise. Not for the faint of heart, the rocky gorges were traditionally, and continue to be, crossed by way of vine-made bridges, such as Iya no Kazurabashi, a 45 metre-long, two metre-wide overpass, suspended 15 metres above the Iya River.
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A short trip south from Oita Airport, on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, is Beppu, a spa oasis teeming with more than 2,000 hot springs. This resort town doesn’t just offer an impressive quantity but also an unparalleled range of baths and facilities. Relax in the healing waters at Kankaiji or Takegawara Onsen, reap the beautifying benefits of mineral-rich mud at Beppu Onsen Hoyo Land, bury yourself in geothermal sand at Beppu Kaihin Sunayu, or try a traditional steam (older than sauna) at Kannawa Mushiyu.
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Naha is the capital of Okinawa Prefecture, an archipelago south of mainland Japan, renowned for its ancient Ryukyu culture and history. The top tourist attraction is the UNESCO-listed Shuri Castle, the royal palace of the prosperous Ryukyu Kingdom (in use 1429 to 1879), which was restored to its former glory in 1992. In the Tsuboya district, you’ll find many traditional pottery shops as well as the Tsuboya Pottery Museum. Its white-sand beaches, subtropical climate, scuba diving, and laid-back pace are also a major draw.
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Love bunnies? Venture to Okunoshima, a tiny isle off the coast of Tadanoumi in Hiroshima Prefecture. Nicknamed Usagi Shima, which means “Rabbit Island,” it’s a playground for friendly furballs. And you don’t have to search far to find Peter Cottontail and his pals. They’ll come hopping over to greet you (and get fed), the moment you step off the ferry.
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The perfect vacation for fans of winter activities, Yuzawa, nestled in the Japanese Alps, is famous for its slopes, resorts, and lengthy ski season. Fresh powder blankets the mountains from mid-November to late May. In addition to world-class skiing and snowboarding, visitors can take advantage of the hot springs, bars, restaurants, and sake museum. And the fact that it’s easily accessible from Tokyo doesn’t hurt either.
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The largest of the Yaeyama Islands, Ishigaki abounds with natural beauty. Sandy beaches, turquoise waters, rare blue coral reefs, mangrove forests, and majestic mountains make this gorgeous Japanese isle a must visit. It also offers distinctive cuisine and vibrant nightlife in the entertainment district of Misakicho. No wonder TripAdvisor ranked it the top destination on the rise in its sixth annual Travelers’ Choice awards.
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Zao Fox Village
Zao Fox Village is incomprehensibly cute. Nestled in the mountains near the town of Shiroishi, this sanctuary is crawling with six species of nature’s slyest creature, which you can feed and photograph (but resist the temptation to pick ’em up). And if that’s not enough cuteness, the preserve has plenty more adorable critters, plus an on-site petting zoo that kids of all ages will love.
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Set in Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, about 48 miles southwest of Tokyo, Hakone is a picturesque mountain town known for its natural hot springs (onsens), traditional inns (ryokans), and spellbinding views of the volcano Mt. Fuji. After a morning spent soaking away your stress, head to the Hakone Open-Air Museum, a massive outdoor sculpture park where works from famed artists such as Picasso and Yasuo Mizui live in harmony with the natural surroundings. There are also indoor exhibition halls that showcase paintings, ceramics, and smaller sculptures.
Off Japan’s Oshika Peninsula, in the Pacific Ocean, is a small island where cats outnumber people. Tashirojima, better known as “Cat Island,” is home to only about 100 two-legged inhabitants but three times more feline friends (not surprisingly, dogs are not allowed). The locals—who have long-believed cats symbolize luck and good fortune—feed and protect the herds of feral creatures. Many travelers have started taking the 40-minute ferry from Ishinomaki to see these cute curiosities.
Kanazawa flourished during the Edo Period. Today, the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture is celebrated for its well-preserved residences, palaces, and districts. But its star attraction, without question, is Kenrokuen. Hailed as one of the three most beautiful landscaped gardens in Japan, it’s thronged with trees, flowers, stones, streams, and ponds. Beside it is Kanazawa Castle, built in the 1580s, the former seat of the Maeda Clan. Thanks to the bullet train (Hokuriku Shinkansen), the trip from Tokyo to Kanazawa is just two and a half hours.
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Originally published as 10 Under-the-Radar Hidden Gems You Can Only See in Japan on ReadersDigest.com.