STORY 7 places you would have never guessed are in Japan
You’ll feel like you’ve taken a round-the-world trip after visiting these amazing spots in Japan!
What comes to mind when you think of Japan? Maybe it’s the bustling Shibuya Crossing, iconic Mt Fuji, or some of the many beautiful temples, shrines and manicured gardens.
If you’ve actually travelled through Japan, you’ll discover all of these things, plus a diversity of experiences and attractions that might surprise you.
We’ve put together a list of unique places worth visiting that you might never have guessed are in Japan and will make you want to return again and again!
1. Hateruma Island
Nishihama Beach, Hateruma Islands. Image: San Hoyano/Shutterstock.com
The azure water, white sand and colourful coral reefs could be mistaken for the Maldives or the Caribbean. In fact, Hateruma Island is part of the Yaeyama Islands in Okinawa Prefecture.
Hateruma Island is the southernmost inhabited island of Japan and sits around 60km southwest of Ishigaki Island. The clear skies and lack of light pollution make it the perfect spot for star-gazing. The Yaeyama Islands are Japan’s first International Dark Sky Park and one of the few regions where the Southern Cross is visible to the naked eye. The best time to view the Southern Cross is on cool, clear evenings from late April to mid-June.
A visit to Hateruma Island isn’t complete without heading to the beach. Nishihama Beach has soft, white sand and clear blue water that will meet any need for a tropical getaway. This is also a great spot for any snorkelling and diving enthusiasts. Offering up to 30 metres of visibility on a clear day, you can explore the coral reefs until your heart's content. Keep an eye out for clownfish and oriental butterflyfish as you float along.
Getting there: The only way to reach Hateruma Island is by high-speed ferry. Travel time for the ferry is 60-100 minutes departing from Ishigaki Port on Ishigaki Island. There is no public transport on the island so a rental car or bicycle is the best way to get around.
Old Japanese Village in Shirakawago. Image: kuro3/Shutterstock.com
As you wander past traditional thatched-roof houses and admire the scenic mountain backdrop you might think you are in Switzerland! Explore a little deeper and the village of Shirakawa-go will transport you back to pre-contemporary Japan.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a popular destination for travellers and it’s easy to see why. The traditional gassho-zukuri style houses are an architectural marvel. Built to be very sturdy, they have stood the test of time, with some dating all the way back to the 1800s.
Many of the houses are museums where you can learn about the history and culture of the region. Others are guesthouses and some are private residences, in which locals go about their day-to-day lives.
After exploring the museums, walk up to the Shiroyama Tenshukaku Observatory. Enjoy the panoramic views over the village and across Mt Hakusan. If you'd like to extend your stay you can sleep in one of the lodging houses. Enjoy sweet dreams of fairy tales inspired by your village visit.
Be sure to plan to return in a different season. Depending on the season, you'll see snow-covered roofs, charming cherry blossoms, lush green mountains or 'enchanting autumn leaves!'
Getting there: From Nagoya or Gifu take the JR Limited Express Hida Line to Takayama. Take the Nohi Bus to Shirakawa-go departing from the Takayama Bus Center. The drive is approximately 50 minutes.
3. Shodoshima Olive Park
Greek windmill at Olive Park. Image: T.Kai/Shutterstock.com
Set on a cliff overlooking the sea lies an olive garden. A tall, white windmill slowly turns in the breeze… you’re about to break out into Mamma Mia because you must be in Greece? Don’t be fooled, Olive Park is actually located on Shodoshima Island in Kagawa Prefecture, Japan!
It is a picture-perfect setting and the photo opportunities are endless. Used as a film set for the live-action version of ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’, one of the more popular activities in the park is taking photos with a ‘magical broom’. You can borrow a witch's broom free of charge from Olive Memorial Hall and take it anywhere within the park. Get creative with your very own magical moment!
Wander the olive grove and find a ‘Happiness Olive Leaf’. Like the luck of the four-leaf-clover, they say that when you find a heart-shaped olive leaf you will be happy! You can even get your leaf turned into a bookmark to keep as a special souvenir.
After the photos and olive leaf hunting, head to one of the two restaurants to try some of the local cuisine. Sampling the Shodoshima olive oil is a must!
Getting there: From Okayama take the train to Takamatsu Station then walk to Takamatsu Port (10 minutes). Catch the ferry to Tonosho or Ikeda Port (approximately 60 minutes). Take the bus from the ferry terminal and hop off at the Sun Olive bus stop.
4. Abashiri and Mombetsu
Drift Ice and tourist cruise on the Sea of Okhotsk in Abashiri, Hokkaido. Image: atthle/Shutterstock.com
Have you ever wanted to go on a real adventure and board an ice-breaker ship? Marvelling at floating sea ice covering the ocean surface as far as the eye can see. Sure, you could go to Finland, or you could tick it off the list when you visit Japan in winter!
The natural phenomenon of ryuhyo drift ice occurs off Hokkaido's northern Okhotsk coast from late January, with February and March typically being the best time to see it. When freshwater from the Amur River, located on the Russian-Chinese border, enters the sea the salt concentration lowers which makes it freeze. The ice then floats over 1,000 kilometres, stretching all the way from Hokkaido to Siberia!
Hopping on an ice-breaker boat cruise is one of the best ways to see this wild, winter wonderland. Make sure you keep your eyes peeled for wildlife along the way, such as spotted seals and ribbon seals, cliones (a type of floating sea slug) and seabirds such as Steller's sea eagles and white-tailed eagles.
If you’re feeling extra adventurous try a drift ice-walk, snorkel or even scuba dive at the town of Utoro. It will take your breath away!
Getting there: For Abashiri, fly from Tokyo or Sapporo to Memanbetsu Airport and drive or take the limousine bus approximately 40 minutes to Abashiri and on to the Aurora ice-breaking ship. For Mombetsu, fly from Tokyo to Okhotsk Mombetsu Airport. Take a 15-minute taxi from the airport to the Garinko icebreaker.
5. British Hills
Group picture of British Hills staff members. Image: Tohoku Kanko
In the countryside of Tenei Village in southern Fukushima Prefecture, surrounded by dense forest, you’ll find British Hills, a faithfully reconstructed British village centred around the Victorian-inspired Manor House. Just 2 hours from Tokyo by train and shuttle bus, British Hills was established in 1994 to facilitate the study of the English language and culture. The village and manor are authentic replicas, with all of the materials and furnishings imported from England.
It wouldn’t be a true British experience without afternoon tea! The Ascot Tea Room serves 23 kinds of tea along with freshly made cakes to complement your choice of beverage. For dinner, try fish and chips and a pint at The Falstaff Pub or enjoy fine dining in the Refectory Dining Hall. After dinner, retire to the Executive Lounge for a glass of scotch, a cocktail or a coffee. Stay overnight in one of the dormitories or in one of the luxurious suites fit for British aristocracy.
Getting there: Travel from Tokyo to Fukushima via the JR Tohoku Shinkansen to Shin-Shirakawa Station. Then take a shuttle bus to British Hills (approximately 40 minutes).
6. Huis Ten Bosch
Hui Ten Bosch theme park, Nagasaki. Image: Suchart Boonyavech/Shutterstock.com
A wondrous world of windmills, tulips, Dutch architecture and canals awaits. But you’d be mistaken if you thought you were in the Netherlands. Located in Nagasaki Prefecture, Huis Ten Bosch is a Netherlands themed resort and park.
Meaning ‘House in the Forest,’ Huis Ten Bosch was built in March 1992 to commemorate the history between Japan and the Netherlands. There is plenty to explore from playgrounds and shops to theatres and restaurants. Take a boat tour along the park's canals and you will feel as though you really are in Amsterdam. Seasonal displays of flowers decorate the park throughout the year, including the ‘1 Million Tulip Festival’ which features Japan’s largest number of tulips blooming and Asia’s largest ‘Rose Festival’.
From dusk, you can admire the world’s largest LED display with 13 million lights that illuminate the park, known as the ‘Kingdom of Lights’. The displays change according to the season, so there is always something new to discover with each visit.
The park also hosts Kyushu’s largest fireworks festival, with over 22,000 fireworks. This year’s event will be held on 8th October 2022.
Staying overnight? Choose from one of the onsite accommodations including European-style accommodation, spacious family-friendly cottages and even a hotel where you will be checked in by robots!
Getting there: Fly to Nagasaki Airport, then take either a bus or high-speed ferry to Huis Ten Bosch (50 minutes). From Nagasaki Station it’s a 1.5 hour train or bus ride to Huis Ten Bosch Station.
7. Aogashima Island
Aerial view of Aogashima Island. Image provided by Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau.
To all the nature and outdoor lovers, this one’s for you. While a trip to Hawaii sounds nice, why not experience the uniqueness of Japan as well as beautiful islands and volcanoes all in one country?
The entire island of Aogashima is a volcanic crater and within it, lies another smaller volcano. Located 358km south of Tokyo in the Pacific Ocean, a visit to this remote volcanic island will satisfy any tropical travel urges. Hike up to a lookout at Oyama Observation Park to enjoy the 360-degree views of the island and across the vast ocean from one of its highest points. Then try cooking eggs and vegetables over volcanic steam vents. After a big day of adventures, relax in the geothermal sauna and then wind down with a glass of aochu, a vodka-like drink made from sweet potatoes.
Getting there: Travel to Aogashima via Hachijojima Island. Depart from Tokyo Takeshiba Pier in the evening and arrive at Hachijojima the next morning (10.5 hours). Or fly to Hachijojima from Haneda Airport (50 minutes). From Hachijojima Island, it’s a 3-hour boat ride or 20-minute helicopter ride to Aogashima.