Last Updated on January 29, 2021 by

Want to explore Japan off the beaten path? I recently traveled the Northward Golden Route and discovered quaint villages and pristine natural landscapes.

japan off the beaten path - northward golden route

Japan Off the Beaten Path

Alternative Japan: Japan Off the Beaten Path

Japan is both old and new, urban yet full of nature, traditional and innovative, all at once. It is a fascinating destination, with its interesting mix of ancient traditions and state-of-the-art technology, futuristic fashions and centuries-old craftsmanship.

It’s no wonder Japan is drawing in millions of tourists each year. Some attractions like the Arashiyama bamboo forest and the Hakone shrine can get extremely crowded, especially during peak tourism season.

But my recent trip to Japan (my third trip) showed me the lesser-known areas that are just as beautiful, but without the crowds. For those who are interested in veering off the beaten path in Japan, here are some suggestions on places you can visit.

Japan Off the Beaten Path: Traveling the Northward Golden Route

Traveling the Northward Golden Route

On this trip, I traveled the Northward Golden Route, through the Saitama, Gunma, and Niigata Prefectures. The three prefectures are located less than 2 hours away by train, and yet they’re rarely visited by tourists.

In just five days, I got to see and experience a variety of things: from traditional ceremonies at Shinto shrines to sake tasting; learning about the daruma from monks to strolling through onsen towns; even ziplining and SUP in the forests and lakes.

For those tight on time, this is the perfect way to explore Japan off the beaten path without traveling hundreds of miles from Tokyo.

Two Weeks in Japan: My Itinerary & Guide

japan off the beaten path - daruma dolls

How to Travel Around Japan

By Car

The Northward Golden Route stretches across 600km — the itinerary that I chose took 5 days. But you can take anytime between 4 to 7 days to drive it. Check out my detailed itinerary for driving the Northward Golden Route

To plan your route, I recommend using Drive Japan, a website that helps you plan your Japan road trip based on your interests. Just enter your travel period and duration, and the website provides the best driving routes, as well as best restaurants and attractions. 

Once you choose the route, the website lists the best hotels and car rental offers. You’ll receive the MAPCODE which you can input to the GPS in your rental car. Unlike Google Maps, Drive Japan provides the exact coordinates of each attraction’s carpark to make it easier to get there. Use the “Route Bookmark” feature to bookmark the itinerary you’d like to use on your road trip.

Driving the Northward Golden Route in Japan

northward golden route in japan

By Train

The best thing about Japan is just how well-connected the public transport system is. Plus the bullet trains are an experience on its own!

To travel along the Northward Golden route by train, I recommend getting the JR EAST PASS (Nagano and Niigata area), which offers unlimited rides on selected bullet trains (shinkansens), local and limited express trains. 

The pass costs 17,310 yen (or US$160) if purchased abroad, and 18,330 yen (or US$169) when bought in Japan. The 5-day pass can be used on any five days within 14 days of issuance, including the day of issue.

Japanese Food Guide: 40 Japanese Dishes to Eat in Japan

japan off the beaten path - bullet train

Traveling Within the Cities

Within the cities or towns, I would recommend taking the subway and buses. You would need to get the Suica pass. It’s a prepaid smart card that allows you to use most public transport (metro, trains, buses, monorail) in Japan.

The card also functions as an electronic wallet. You can buy things on trains, in vending machines, convenience stores and restaurants that accept the card. Suica cards can be purchased through ticket machines at any JR stations. More info here.

Driving in Japan: All You Need to Know

Japan off the beaten path - yahiko shrine

When to Travel Japan

Spring (March-May) and autumn (September-October) are the most popular months to travel Japan due to the mild weather and moderate humidity. 

I traveled to Japan in September/October on my last two trips. During our trip, we experienced mostly warm days of 21-25 deg C, with some rainy days during which the temperature dipped to 15 deg C. In the mountains of Niigata, temperatures ranged around 12-15 deg C, but a light jacket was enough.

It can get really hot and extremely humid in summer (June-August), which is best avoided. Winter (December-February) is pretty cold with temperatures dipping to freezing point.

japan off the beaten path - torii gate

Japan Off the Beaten Path: Saitama Prefecture

Wander around the Old Town of Kawagoe

Just 30 minutes away from Tokyo is Kawagoe, a small city packed with ancient architecture and historical buildings. Its old town reminds me of Takayama and Kyoto at times. You can experience the same atmosphere and architecture, but minus the crowd, high prices and travel time.

The main thoroughfare of the city’s old town is Kurazukuri Street, flanked by Edo period houses that have been converted into restaurants and shops. Be sure to visit Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine, Kashiya Yokocho Alley, the iconic Toki-no-Kane bell tower, and the Matsumoto soy sauce brewery.

Japan with Kids: My Family Travel Guide

japan off the beaten path - kawagoe old town

Getting here: You can hop on the JR Saikyo/Kawagoe Line from Shinjuku Station or the Tobu Tojo Line from Ikebukuro Station and alight at Kawagoe Station. The old town is about a 15 min walk from the station.

Stay: Tantoku Garden is one of the few traditional ryokans in Kawagoe. It’s housed in a historical wooden building with lush gardens and koi ponds. It’s a big place suitable for those traveling in a group or with kids. Check for rates here.

japan off the beaten path - kawagoe old town

Witness a Worship Ceremony at Mitsumine Shrine

Located at the summit of Mount Mitsumine is the atmospheric Mitsumine Shrine, often described as one of Japan’s most beautiful mountain shrines. A popular center of mountain worship, the shrine’s forested grounds are home to a range of highly ornate buildings.

The shrine holds a daily morning ritual where monks offer prayers and seek blessings for the public. It’s an incredibly spiritual experience and I highly recommend it for those interested in taking a peek into Japanese traditions.

Attached to the Mitsumine Shrine is a Japanese inn with traditional onsen (hot spring bath) and tatami-style dining rooms that serve delicious kaiseki (multi-course dinners). It was glorious waking up to fresh mountain air and seeing the view of mountains peeking out from the clouds at sunrise.

japan off the beaten path - mitsumine shrine

Admission: Free

Getting here: Take the Seibu Line Red Arrow Express from Ikebukuro Station to Seibu Chichibu Station. From there, take the direct bus to the shrine.

Stay: Mitsumine Jinja Kounkaku offers simple ryokan accommodation where you sleep on futons on the tatami floor. Toilets are shared and showers are only available at the onsen. The mountain views from rooms are spectacular.

japan off the beaten path - overnight at a temple

Do a Canyon Walk at Chichibu Geo Gravity Park

High above the lush forested canyons of Chichibu is Japan’s first adventure park. Chichibu Geo Gravity Park currently offers three different kinds of experience for adventure seekers: the Canyon Walk is a unique and fun footbridge perched 50m above the Chichibu river canyon.

The Canyon Fly is a smooth and fast zip line ride that hangs over the bridge. The most exciting experience is the Canyon Swing, which is similar to the bungee and includes a 47m drop! (Check out my video on a canyon swing in New Zealand.)

Soon you’ll also be able to bungee jump here! It’s a thrilling way to experience the nature surrounding Chichibu and inject some adventure to your journey.

japan off the beaten path - canyon walk

Opening hours: 10:00 to 17:00

Admission: Rates range from 3000 to 11,000 yen (US$27 – 101)

Getting here: From Ikebukuro, take the Seibu line (1h20mins) to Seibu Chichibu station then walk to Chichibu station and take the local train number 5 to Mitsumineguchi station.

Stay: Chichibu Route-Inn Hotel is a modern big-scale hotel in Chichibu. It has a great location, just a 3-minute walk to Seibu Chichibu station. It has a range of small modern rooms and quadruple tatami rooms. Check the rates here.

japan off the beaten path - canyon swing

Visit the Metsa Village

Recently opened in November 2018, Metsä Village is an interesting place to experience the Scandinavian lifestyle. It’s a large sprawling space with beautiful greenery, surrounding a lake.

Kayak around the lake in an all-wood canoe proudly made in Hanno, or learn simpler wood craft at the workshop. Or you can indulge in freshly prepared food sourced with local ingredients in one of the village’s cafes, restaurants, or food trucks.

Attached to the village is the MOOMIN VALLEY PARK, a theme park that focuses on the Finnish cartoon character, Moomin. It’s quite a quirky theme park with theatrical performances and interactive museums, making it a great spot for young kids. Don’t miss the pancake house that serves a ridiculously delicious selection of Instagrammable pancakes!

japan off the beaten path - japanese pancakes

Opening hours: 10:00 to 21:00

Admission: Free (1500 yen or $19 for the Moomin Park)

Getting here: From Tokyo Station, take the Seibu Ikebukuro Line all the way to Hanno (1 hour). Exit Hanno and take a bus headed to Metsä. 

Stay: Hotel Select Inn Saitama Moroyama is the closest hotel. It’s an affordable but clean and comfortable modern hotel with spacious rooms. Check the rates.

japan off the beaten path - moomin valley park

Japan Off the Beaten Path: Gunma Prefecture

Learn about Daruma Dolls from Monks in Takasaki

Just an hour away from Tokyo by train is the city of Takasaki, that’s a lot quieter and more laid back than Tokyo. It’s the perfect place to visit if you’re hoping to see Japan off the beaten path without venturing too far.

Takasaki is best known for the daruma dolls, which are a type of Japanese traditional doll modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism. The best place to learn all about the daruma is the Shorinzan Daruma Temple.

Here you can get a guided tour of the complex with a monk and visit the daruma museum. You even get to paint your own daruma (while making a wish). It’s an authentic and insightful experience, definitely one I highly recommend for those looking to go off the beaten path.

japan off the beaten path - daruma temple

Admission: Free but the daruma experience is around US$8

Getting here: Take the Joetsu Shinkansen line from Tokyo Station (1 hour) to Takasaki station. From Shinjuku Station take the Shonan-Shinjuku Line to Takasaki. 

Stay: APA Hotel Takasaki Ekimae is an affordable hotel connected to the train station, and thus surrounded by shops and restaurants. It’s part of a countrywide hotel chain. Rooms are on the small end, so I recommend opting for a Hollywood twin room. Check the rates here.

japan off the beaten path - painting a daruma doll

Wander around Kusatsu Onsen Town

Voted the number 1 onsen town in Japan, Kusatsu Onsen is a quaint village famous for its hot spring water that’s said to cure every illness but lovesickness. Perched at an altitude of 1200m, the village is surrounded by mountains that are perfect for skiing in winter.

The most prominent feature in Kusatsu Onsen is the Yubatake or hot water field. After bubbling to the surface at a temperature of more than 70 degrees Celsius, the hot spring water is cooled down in the yubatake’s wooden conduits by a few degrees before it gets distributed to the various ryokan and public baths.

If you have the time, check out the Yumomi performances, a centuries-old method used to cool down Kusatsu’s hot spring water. The ritual has evolved to incorporate traditional folk songs and dance into the process.

japan off the beaten path - water table at Kusatsu Onsen

Admission: Free

Getting here: The most convenient way to get to Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi Station is by direct limited express train from Tokyo’s Ueno Station, which takes 2.5 hours and costs about 5000 yen (US$46) each way. From the train station, there are JR buses to Kusatsu Onsen (30 minutes, 700 yen or $6.50). 

Stay: Kusatsu Now Resort Hotel is a modern ski resort located just a few minutes from Kusatsu Onsen (they have regular free shuttles). It’s got a huge outdoor/indoor onsen, private onsens as well as several restaurants with high quality buffet dinners. Check the rates.

japan off the beaten path - water table at Kusatsu Onsen

Visit the Setting of Spirited Away in Shima Onsen

Nestled in a mountain valley is a quiet hot spring town named Shima Onsen. This sleepy town is backdropped by a series of mountains, waterfalls, a reservoir lake and a river that winds through the town.

The central town area is the heart of Shima, where you can stroll down narrow streets lined with small shops, nostalgic game arcades, and foot baths. And the biggest attraction of the town is Sekizenkan, a centuries-old ryokan with a beautifully preserved Taisho Era Roman-style indoor bath. It was featured in the movie, Spirited Away.

If you’re a foodie, be sure to have lunch at Kaneichihanare, an exclusive diner that serves gourmet French cuisine using local ingredients. The chef is top notch and displays an impressive level of culinary skills in his open-concept kitchen.

japan off the beaten path - Shima Onsen

Admission: Free

Getting here: The most convenient route from Tokyo is by direct limited express train from Ueno Station to Nakanojo, which takes 2 hours and costs about 4500 yen (US$42) each way. From the train station, there are local buses to Shima Onsen (50 minutes, 930 yen or $9). 

Stay: Shima-Onsen Toshimaya is located alongside a river, featuring luxurious Japanese-style rooms with private hot spring baths. Most of the baths and rooms have awesome views of the river. It’s an excellent hotel for couples looking for some privacy. Check the rates here.

japan off the beaten path - Shima Onsen

Go Rafting or SUP on Lake Shima

For a taste of Japan’s wilderness, I highly recommend a visit to Lake Shima in Gunma prefecture. The road from Shima Onsen to Lake Shima is a twisting journey around the ridges, taking you further and deeper into the forested highlands.

Lake Shima was formed following the construction of the Shimagawa Dam in 1999. Despite not being a naturally occurring lake, Lake Shima is a beautiful example of a place rising to meet the beauty of the natural world in which it is found.

Here, you’ll find crystal clear cobalt blue water backdropped by the forested Gunma mountains. And there’s no better way to explore it than on SUP (standup paddle board) or kayak. I had a blast doing SUP with Green Discovery, an adventure outfitter that also runs whitewater rafting and canyoning experiences.

japan off the beaten path - SUP on Lake Okushima

Admission: Rates start from 5000 yen (US$46).

Getting here: Catch a direct limited express train from Ueno Station to Nakanojo, which takes 2 hours and costs about 4500 yen (US$42) each way. From the train station, take a taxi (15 minutes) to Green Discovery’s Akagi base. Follow their map here.

Stay: The nearest place to stay near the lake is on Shima Onsen town. Shima Yamaguchikan is another beautiful ryokan that offers traditional tatami style rooms with outdoor baths that overlook the flowing river. It’s a 15-minute drive from Lake Shima. Check the rates.

japan off the beaten path - SUP on Lake Okushima

Japan Off the Beaten Path: Niigata Prefecture

Take Japan’s Longest Gondola

Continue further north and you’ll reach Niigata Prefecture, a popular winter destination thanks to its mountains and ski resorts. But winter isn’t the only time to visit — it is just as beautiful, or dare I say even more so, in autumn.

The best way to enjoy the red foliage is on Japan’s longest gondola “Dragondola” (5,481m long). It was given its name for the trajectory of the gondola, weaving its way up and down the peaks surrounding Mount Naeba.

During our visit, the weather was pretty dreary so the views were covered partially by clouds and fog. But we could still see the turquoise lagoon, green forest, and tumbling waterfalls beneath our feet. I heard it’s also common to see Japanese monkeys and serows in the area, though we didn’t see any.

japan off the beaten path - view from dragondola

Opening hours: 09:00 to 15:00

Admission: Rates start from 3000 yen (US$27).

Getting here: Take the Joetsu Shinkansen line from Tokyo Station (1h20min) to get to the Echigo-Yuzawa Station. From there, take the Naebe Prince Hotel Line bus for 40minutes and exit at the hotel stop.

Stay: Naeba Prince Hotel runs the Dragondola and ski lifts, so definitely stay here if you intend to take the gondola or go skiing. It’s a massive ski resort with newly refurnished rooms that are particularly good for families. You’ll find lots of facilities including restaurants, kids playground, bars and ski shop. Check the rates here.

japan off the beaten path - view from dragondola

Visit Niigata’s Famous Yahiko Shrine

Yahiko may be a small village, but its shrine is so famous that it draws in Japanese pilgrims from around the country. As the most important shrine in Niigata prefecture, Yahiko Shrine traces its roots back to 711.

What I love most about Japanese temples is that they are usually built amidst nature, either in the mountains or surrounded by forests. This is because the Japanese Shinto religion draw their deities from nature and they worship the rocks, trees, wind and sun. This shrine is no exception — it’s built on Mount Yahiko, amidst beautiful and lush foliage.

At the main building of the shrine, you can buy an ema (wooden plaque) and write your wishes. This shrine in particular can fulfill any wish pertaining to the affairs of the heart!

Japan off the beaten path - yahiko shrine

Admission: Free

Getting here: From Tokyo, take the Joetsu Shinkansen to Tsubame-Sanjo Station (2-hour journey). Transfer to a local train on the Yahiko Line and get off at Yahiko Station. The shrine is about a 15-minute walk away.

Stay: Minoya Ryokan is a big-scale ryokan located just across the road from Yahiko Shrine. It’s been a fixture in the hospitality scene for hundreds of years and its owner is a gregarious, kind man. It has traditional tatami-style rooms, two restaurants, and outdoor and indoor onsens on its rooftop. Check the rates here.

japan off the beaten path - yahiko shrine

See the Controversial Kokujoji Temple

One very interesting place to visit in Niigata for the alternative traveler is the Kokujoji Temple, which has caused quite an uproar with its unconventional paintings.

In an attempt to attract younger visitors, particularly women to its grounds, Kokujoji Temple installed art panels on its walls depicting historical figures as naked anime guys.

Head priest Kotetsu Yamada says that he wants to dispel the old-fashioned and boring image of the temple to appeal in particular to young women, and so the temple has teamed up with Kyoto-born artist Ryoko Kimura to create scrolls of art depicting five famous historical and mythical figures–bathing naked together.

Japan off the beaten path - kokujoji temple

Admission: Free

Getting here: From Tokyo, take the Joetsu Shinkansen to Tsubame-Sanjo Station (2-hour journey). Transfer to a local train to Yahiko Station then it’s a 10-minute taxi ride away.

Stay: Owani Onsen Koyokan Hotel is the closest hotel to Kokujoji Temple, and it’s located in the charming Owani Onsen town. It’s a simple ryokan with big spacious tatami rooms and traditional onsen baths. Check the rates here.

Japan off the beaten path - kokujoji temple

Go Sake Tasting at Ponshu-kan

Niigata is famous for its local sakes, so you can’t come here without trying some! Located within the Echigo-Yuzawa train station is a fun and quirky sake-tasting bar that lets you try over 129 varieties of sake using slot (coin) machines.

For 500 yen, you can get 5 coins, which means 3-5 shots of sake. Some of the high quality ones cost 3 coins per shot, but most only cost 1 coin.

There are descriptions on the machines, so you can choose base on their taste (dry or sweet) and alcoholic percentage. It was so much fun picking out sakes I liked — I could have spent all day there!

You can also take a dip in an onsen with sake water next door. I didn’t go there, but I have tried soaking in hot spring water with sake in Hakone and it’s a ton of fun. Attached to Ponshu-kan is a big retail outlet with all kinds of Japanese snacks and also the biggest onigiri (rice balls) you’ll ever find.

Japan off the beaten path - sake tasting machines

Opening hours: 09:00 to 19:00

Admission: 500 yen for 5 coins

Getting here: Take the Joetsu Shinkansen line from Tokyo Station (1h20min) to get to the Echigo-Yuzawa Station.

Stay: Shosenkaku Kagetsu was my favorite ryokan of all the places I stayed on this trip to Japan. Just walking distance from the Echigo-Yuzawa train station, the luxurious hotel gives a modern spin to the traditional ryokan. Its big spacious tatami rooms are fitted with comfortable beds, and flat-screen TV. The outdoor onsen is absolutely stunning and the restaurant serves up extravagant kaiseki dinners. Check the rates.

japan off the beaten path - kugatsu ryokan

Hop on the Sake Train, Yuzawa Shu*Kura

For sake lovers out there, this is a fun-filled and unique way of tasting more of Niigata’s renown sakes and taking in scenic views at the same time.

On board the Shu*Kura “Joyful” Train, you get to taste around five varieties of sake and even get to bring home one small bottle. There are different seats available — we had the observation pair seats and were served 5 sakes and a bento set, one of the best Japanese foods to try in Japan.

In the entertainment cabin, there’s even live music performed by a trio and a little introduction by local sake brewers. The Yuzawa Shu*Kura train runs every weekend from March to September. To book a seat on the train, visit a JR EAST Travel Service Center.

japan off the beaten path - sake tasting on the train

Opening hours: Refer to this page for the timetable.

Getting here: The train we took departs from the Echigo-Yuzawa station. To get there, take the Joetsu Shinkansen line from Tokyo Station (1h20min).

japan off the beaten path - sake tasting on the train

I hope these ideas will help you explore Japan off the beaten path. If you’re a first-time visitor to Japan, check out my two-week Japan itinerary. Family travelers, be sure to read my full guide on traveling Japan with kids!

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Disclaimer: My trip was made possible by a JR EAST Travel Service Center, but all opinions expressed above are my own.

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japan off the beaten path