Many travelers typically pick Tokyo as a ‘base camp’ for their first trip to Japan, and it’s no surprise why.
The capital of Japan is a vibrant hub of things to do, from walking across the bustling Shibuya Crossing to visiting Tokyo Skytree, getting lost in the lights of Akihabara, or seeing ancient traditions come to life at one of the many shrines around the city.
While you could spend years exploring Tokyo, there’s an even bigger world waiting for you outside of the capital.
From experiencing ancient Japanese traditions in Kyoto to relaxing in an onsen in Kyushu, seeing samurai culture come alive in Kanazawa, or just sunbathing on a beach in Okinawa, there are plenty of things to see and do beyond Tokyo.
Best of all, you can see these places with the help of the JR Pass.
The JR Pass can be used on almost all trains on the Japanese Railway network, as well as regional lines like JR Kyushu and JR Hokkaido, among others.
Want to experience the famous Japanese bullet trains? The JR Pass includes access to the shinkansen as well.
Explore the Ancient Traditions of Kyoto
One of the easiest ways to go beyond Tokyo is to visit Kyoto (whether on a day trip or longer), as it’s only a 2 hour and 15 minute ride on the shinkansen.
Kyoto is a city that’s steeped in history and culture, since it was Japan’s capital for over a thousand years and is home to some of the country’s most important cultural gems.
We’ll let the numbers do the talking: Kyoto has over 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, including the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine.
While visiting ancient sites is interesting, it’s even better to experience them firsthand — Kyoto offers travelers a chance to participate in a tea ceremony, try their hand at writing Japanese calligraphy, or even learn how to make Kyoto-style soba noodles.
Kyoto is also known for its traditional crafts like textiles and lacquerware, which make perfect souvenirs.
Relax on the Island of Kyushu
Kyushu, the third-largest island of Japan, is a hidden gem that many tourists overlook. While Kyushu has fewer tourists than the other islands, that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in tourist attractions.
Travelers can visit Kumamoto Castle, one of the country’s most impressive castles, and learn about the samurai era at the historical sites in Kagoshima.
After a long day of sightseeing, it’s time to enjoy a classic pastime in Kyushu – a visit to the onsen. These hot springs are a haven for those seeking to experience the therapeutic and rejuvenating effects of nature, and can be found throughout the island.
The onsen are heated by the volcanic activity that has shaped Kyushu’s landscape, providing a unique and relaxing experience.
The three most famous onsen towns in Kyushu include Beppu, known for its variety of baths and steam vents; Yufuin, a quaint town nestled in the mountains; and Kurokawa, with its picturesque outdoor baths.
Experience Samurai Culture in Kanazawa
Nestled on the western coast of Japan, Kanazawa is famous for its rich history and well-preserved districts.
In fact, Kanazawa offers a fascinating glimpse into Japan’s samurai culture, as it was once a center for the samurai class – and still boasts many historical sites to this day.
The best place to get a glimpse of samurai culture is the Nagamachi Samurai District, which features narrow streets lined with traditional earthen walls and wooden gates, as well as several restored samurai houses that are open to the public.
These houses are an excellent example of the architectural style of the samurai class, with tatami mat floors, sliding doors, and beautifully landscaped gardens.
Be sure to stop by the Nomura-ke, a former samurai mansion, and the Shinise Kinenkan Museum, which is a restored pharmacy that was turned into a well-curated museum.
After learning about the lives of samurai, take a short walk over to the Kenroku-en Garden, which is considered one of three Great Gardens of Japan.
It’s an excellent place to walk and enjoy nature, as the park features a traditional tea house, a pond, and stunning views of lush green trees.
Sun, Surf, and Sand in Okinawa!
While most people imagine shrines, beautiful gardens, and castles when they think of Japan, there’s so much more to the country – especially if you travel to Okinawa.
As the southernmost prefecture of Japan, Okinawa enjoys a humid subtropical climate that makes for a perfect beach destination.
The island has more than 130 beaches, including world-class spots like Nishihama Beach (which feels more like the Maldives than Japan) and Aharen Beach.
Travelers who love to mix adventure with relaxation will especially enjoy Okinawa, as there’s no shortage of fun activities like trekking, snorkeling, exploring caves, and even scuba diving.
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