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Japan Beyond Tokyo: Where To Visit Now

Think outside the capital city and discover Kyoto, Osaka and more

  • The Seven Stars in Kyushu cruise train. Photograph by Kyushu Railway Company

Dwarfing the populations of both London and New York, and larger than every other Japanese city by a factor of at least three to one, it stands to reason that Tokyo dominates our thinking when it comes to holidaying in Japan. But to visit just the capital – as animated and electrifying as it is – would be to do a disservice to one of the most colourful, compelling countries on the planet. This is, after all, a nation of more than 6,800 islands, boasting jaw-dropping beaches and mind-boggling architecture, as well as precious, time-honoured traditions, and a stellar culinary scene.

With the country hosting the forthcoming Rugby World Cup and next year’s Olympics, now is the perfect time to plan a visit. Beyond Tokyo, here are our highlights of other places to visit in the Land of the Rising Sun.

01. Climb Mount Fuji

  • View of Mount Fuji from the D Cabin at Hoshinoya Fuji. Photograph by Mr Akifumi Yamabe, courtesy of Hoshino Resorts

The start of July doesn’t just represent the beginning of Japanese summer, it also kicks off Mount Fuji climbing season. For nearly three months, groups of both locals and tourists ascend the famous volcano, often camping overnight in mountain huts, in order to reach the summit of the sacred peak at sunrise. There are four separate trails to get to the iconic cone, depending on your time and ability, with English-speaking specialists such as Fuji Mountain Guides on hand to help with logistics. Locals joke that this is truly a “once in a lifetime” experience because, as the old Japanese adage goes: “A wise man climbs Mount Fuji once; only a fool climbs it twice.”

Where to stay: Hoshinoya Fuji
A boutique hotel with sleek cabins built into the hillside around picturesque Lake Kawaguchi. A stone’s throw from the foot of Mount Fuji, it makes an excellent staging point and is less than a 20-minute cab ride from Kawaguchiko station.

Where to dine: Hotokura Funari Kawaguchiko
Exactly what you need after a major climb, this is nourishing soul food served in a beautiful modernist building, a short stroll from Kawaguchiko station. Don’t miss the hōtō dish – a vegetable hotpot served with thick noodles – that’s a local speciality.

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02. Hit The Beaches In Okinawa

  • Ishigaki-jima Island. Photograph © JNTO

Still largely undiscovered by mainstream Western tourism, Okinawa Prefecture is a cluster of paradise islands strung out between Japan and Taiwan, like a set of subtropical stepping stones. Okinawa Main Island is easily the most populous, and its capital Naha is the best base from which to explore the spectacular beaches, pretty villages and exotic marine life of this picture-perfect region. (The Yaeyama Islands are said to be the most exquisite of the lot.) The equatorial climate here means the temperature rarely drops below 20°C, resulting in a laid-back, Caribbean-style vibe throughout.

Where to stay: Ritz-Carlton Okinawa
Overlooking the sea on one side and one of Japan’s most feted golf courses on the other, this is five-star luxury at its finest. When you’re not out exploring outstanding local beaches at Nago Bay, you’ll be savouring a traditional tea ceremony in the gardens, or enjoying a massage amid the forest.

Where to dine: Ryukyu No Ushi
A popular, upscale Japanese barbecue restaurant in a superb spot near Tiger Beach on Okinawa Main Island.

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03. Ride a Seven Star Train Across Kyushu

  • Deluxe Suite in the Seven Stars in Kyushu cruise train. Photograph by Kyushu Railway Company

Japan’s most opulent rail service, the Seven Stars in Kyushu, takes luxury to new levels, as it purrs around Japan’s third largest island. Kyushu is famed for its onsen (hot springs), which feature prominently in both the two-day and four-day official itineraries, as do scheduled stops throughout the island’s volcanic and historic locations, from Mount Aso to Nagasaki. On board, it’s all gourmet champagne dinners, accompanied by a live band, before you retire to your spacious, well-appointed suite. This is how travel should be.

Where to stay: Luigans Resort & Spa
All of the train’s deluxe “land cruises” begin and end in the city of Fukuoka, on the north shore of Kyushu Island. After your journey, check into this lush resort to gently ease yourself back into the real world.

Where to dine: Kappō Yoshida
You’ll eat like an emperor on the train, but if you’re still hungry when you return to Fukuoka, check out the exquisite seafood dishes here.

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04. Steak Your Claim In Kobe

  • Kobe Beef. Photograph by Mr Trevor Williams, courtesy of Setouchi Tourism Authority

Whatever your beef, Kobe is the place to get your teeth into the Japanese practice of kuidaore, a food culture which essentially involves eating until you drop. You’ll go out in style here though, in a scenic city famed for its signature marbled meat. Whether you’re a rump man or a fillet fan, you’ll find getting here from nearby Osaka easy. Your only problem will be choosing between the many mouth-watering options on offer.

Where to stay: Nakanobo Zuien
A serene hot-spring inn with open-air bathing and an ornamental garden. The perfect place to relax and chew the fat when you’ve been outflanked by lunch.

Where to dine: Royal Mouriya
Priding itself on its English-speaking staff, this is one of the star steak restaurants in a town that’s heavy with them. Come for the Kobe steak with a French-inspired twist, stay for the exceptional wine list, so you’ll be washing down that wagyu in style.

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05. Go Whisky Tasting In Kyoto

  • The Suntory Yamazaki Whisky Distillery. Photograph courtesy of Suntory Holdings Limited

Just in time for World Whisky Day on 18 May, Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto, is the place to be. Rightly renowned for its thousands of temples and shrines, Kyoto is also the spiritual home of Japanese whisky. Here, the famed Suntory Yamakazi distillery, about 15 minutes out of Kyoto Station, is Japan’s first and oldest malt whisky distillery, and therefore the spirit’s official birthplace here. Tasting tours have become incredibly popular since the distillery stole the best whisky in the world title from Scotland in 2014, the first of many international accolades since. After sampling Yamakazi’s finest single malt, head back into Kyoto for one of the best nights out in Japan. In particular, coffee and whisky bar Yamatoya is a real treat, serving up delicious drinks over smooth jazz. If you are in town for more than the whisky and would like to visit the aforementioned temples and shrines, Japan’s official tourism organisation will ensure you don’t miss all the must-see sights.

Where to stay: MGallery Kyoto Yura Hotel 
This brand new hotel opened last month, blending five-star luxury with artefacts from Japan’s legendary Samurai era.

Where to dine: Chihana 
A Michelin-starred hotspot with no fixed menu that is revered by foodies. It specialises in kaiseki or Japanese haute cuisine.

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06. Explore The Riveting Home Of Japanese Denim

  • The Betty Smith Jeans Museum, Okayama. Photograph courtesy of Okayama Prefectural Tourism Federation

Kojima, a charming coastal town in the prefecture of Okayama, is better known by its nickname these days: “Denim Capital”. Here, on Kojima Jeans Street, you’ll find shops and cafés dedicated to the fine art of Japanese selvedge denim, with many of the country’s leading brands represented, from Momotaro and Evisu to Japan Blue Jeans and Blue Sakura. Fittingly for a town where denim has been woven into the cultural fabric for decades, there’s also a dedicated Jeans Museum, as well as an Instagram-friendly “Jeans Bus”, entirely decked out in denim.

Where to stay: Hotel Granvia
Nearby Okayama is your best bet for accommodation. Take your new selvedge wares back to Hotel Granvia, a luxury hotel near the city’s famous 16th-century castle.

Where to dine: Teppan Ku-Ya
A local favourite famed for its seafood dumplings and welcoming atmosphere.

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