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Top 5 Hidden Worlds in Japan That You Need to See

Bright red Torii gates, blooming cherry blossoms and steaming onsens have become iconic sights of Japan, but go beyond the usual tourist hotspots and you can uncover some spectacular and unique landscapes that will make you wonder if you are really still in Japan. It’s hard to believe all these amazing sights exist in a single country. Here are some hidden worlds that you need to seek out on your next trip to Japan.

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Notsuke Peninsula, Betsukai, Hokkaido

The northern island of Hokkaido is known for magnificent natural scenery, but along the coast of Eastern Hokkaido is a hook-shaped sand spit known as the Notsuke Peninsula, a 28km-long land strip that is the largest in Japan, and where you can find the ‘End of the World’. That’s the nickname of the forest called Todowara – a grove of withered fir trees that have been eroded by weathering and saltwater, leaving barren trees that stick out amidst the relatively flat landscape. Nearby, Narawara is a similar grove that features dead Mongolian oak trees instead.

Extending out into the Nemuro Strait, Notsuke Peninsula is served by a single road that is so narrow at points, one feels like they are skating over ice during winter when the shallow waters around the peninsula freeze over. During the summer from June to August, the road is flanked by blooming flowers like black lilies and rugosa roses, making this a very picturesque drive against the backdrop of the sea.

The remote Notsuke Peninsula is also home to plenty of wildlife and migratory birds throughout the year – head to the Notsuke Peninsula Nature Centre where most of the trails begin, and where you can make reservations for walking or boat tours depending on the season.

Out on the water, it’s easy to spot the unique triangular white sails of Utasebune boats fishing for seafood in Notsuke and the surrounding bays during the summer and autumn months. Notsuke specialties include the bright red Hokkai shrimp simply boiled in saltwater to preserve its natural flavours, jumbo-sized scallops eaten in a burger, washed down with a glass of Bekkai milk from local dairies  

Don’t wait too long to visit Notsuke Peninsula though: apparently the bay is being eroded quite rapidly due to climate change and rising sea levels and estimated to disappear in 20 years, so make that trip soon if you want the chance to see it.

How to get to Notsuke Peninsula

Notsuke Peninsula takes some effort to get to. From Singapore, you can fly to either Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport or Tokyo’s Haneda Airport and take a transit flight to Nakashibetsu Airport in Nemuro. From there, it is recommended that you rent a car and drive to Notsuke Peninsula as public transport is not readily available in this remote area.

Check out this winter itinerary that covers Eastern Hokkaido’s Notsuke Bay and Mount Zao in Tohoku in X days. [LINK TO ITINERARY ARTICLE]

Mount Zao, Yamagata, Tohoku

Japan has many amazing powder snow slopes for ski enthusiasts, but none as unusual as Zao Onsen Ski Resort in Tohoku which are famous for hordes of snow monsters on its slopes. These ‘snow monsters’ or juhyo are really just trees blanketed with heavy snow in winter and shaped into scary-looking natural sculptures by the freezing mountain winds.

This phenomenon takes place on top of Mount Zao, accessible by the resort’s gondola and ropeway, where you can pretend you are being chased by a mob of monsters as you ski your way down the slopes during the day. When darkness falls, the juhyo are illuminated with colourful lights for the resort guests to enjoy. Juhyo can be seen throughout winter but are usually at their peak around February.

Zao Onsen is one of Japan’s oldest ski resorts, but skiing isn’t the only thing you can do here. If you are in Mount Zao before ski season from May to October, take a trek up to see the spectacular Okama crater lake. Named for its cauldron shape, this crater lake is also known as the ‘five-coloured pond’ as the lake’s colours change depending on the light and weather conditions.

For something more relaxing, throw on your yukata and make a beeline for the onsens that the resort is named after: the hot springs here have some of the most acidic sulphuric waters in all of Japan, which is said to be good for the skin. Zao Onsen is famous for their large outdoor baths where you can soak in steaming waters while enjoying the natural scenery around you.

Make sure to indulge in some hot spring snacks after your bath: igamochi (rice cake with azuki bean paste filling) and chewy tama konjac balls seasoned with soy sauce are a great way to replenish your energy. For something more hearty, order the Genghis Khan or Jingisukan mutton barbeque that’s cooked on an iron dome skillet like Thai Mookata.

How to get to Mount Zao

Located in the northern Tohoku prefecture of Yamagata, Tokyo is the nearest major airport for international visitors. From Tokyo, the easiest way to get to Mount Zao would be to take the JR Shinkansen train or a transit flight to either Yamagata or Sendai, where there are buses to take you to Zao Onsen. During winter, there is a direct bus from Tokyo to Zao Onsen.

Yonaguni, Yaeyama Islands, Okinawa

Beach lovers and scuba divers often flock to the islands of Okinawa for white sand beaches and untouched nature, but along the southern coast of the island of Yonaguni, the underwater landscape is far more mysterious than anything above water. This is the location of the Yonaguni Monument, a cluster of megaliths that look like an underwater city carved out of rock. There are conflicting views from experts on whether this is a sunken Atlantis type of city or a strange natural phenomenon, but it is clearly an impressive sight nonetheless.

Yonaguni’s waters are also a hotspot for schools of hammerhead shark sightings in the winter months from November to April if you can brave the tough conditions and colder waters. And if you are very lucky, this is perhaps the only place in Japan that you might spot a passing whale shark.

Image Credit: Steph Winkelhake

The island of Yonaguni is considered the western-most point of Japan, and is actually closer to Taiwan than mainland Japan. Cape Irizaki on the west coast is a popular spot to view the last sunset in Japan on the cusp of a new year, while Agarizaki on the east coast is where you’ll find rolling green meadows and the famous Yonaguni horses – pint-sized brown steeds that only grow to about a metre tall – roaming freely.

If you can hold your liquor, try some hanazake before you leave. Hanazake is a type of awamori – a distilled rice wine liquor that is commonly found in Okinawa, but this Yonaguni speciality is particularly potent at 120 proof or 60% alcoholic content and traditionally drunk straight without any mixers.

How to get to Yonaguni

Yonaguni is part of the Yaeyama Island cluster on the far western end of Okinawa, of which Ishigaki is the main island. You will need to fly to Okinawa Honto’s Naha Airport first, and from there you can fly direct to Yonaguni three times a week, or you could stop off in Ishigaki where there are daily transit flights between Ishigaki and Yonaguni. There is also a car ferry that transits between Ishigaki and Yonaguni twice a week.

Yonaguni is not a very large island with a single road that encircles it, and while a free shuttle bus service serves the three main villages on the island, you are better off exploring on your own. Car rentals are available, though numbers are limited so reservations should be made in advance. Mopeds and electric bicycles are also available.

Read more about other unusual islands to check out in Japan here.

Onioshidai Park, Agatsuma, Gunma

Japan is famous for its seasonal fields of flowers forming various colourful vistas at various points in the year, but here on the slopes of Mount Asama, one can take in a unusual panorama of a sea of jagged volcanic rocks instead at Onioshidai Park. Onioshidashi loosely translates to ‘rocks pushed by the devil’, a description of the unruly nature of the rock formations that emerged after Mount Asama erupted in 1783, said to be one of the most destructive eruptions in Japan in the past millennium.

Learn more about the surrounding geography as well as flora and fauna in volcanic terrains at the Asama Volcano Museum nearby, or enjoy a view of the surrounding area from the viewing deck at the temple in the middle of the park dedicated to Kannon, Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.

Gunma prefecture is famous for its many highly-rated onsen towns around the region like Kusatsu Onsen, Ikaho Onsen and Shima Onsen. Manza onsen which is one of the highest onsen resorts in Japan is one of the closest options to Onioshidai Park. Another popular option is checking out the town of Karuizawa which lies on the Nagano-side of Mount Asama. Of note is the Shiraito Waterfall, a 70m-wide waterfall in the forests that is particularly picturesque in summer when the trees are at their most lush.

Getting to Onioshidai Park

Located in the larger Joshinetsukogen National Park, Onioshidai Park lies on the northern slopes of Mount Asama, not far from the border with Nagano prefecture. The best way to get to Onioshidai Park is from Karuizawa which takes about half an hour by bus and has buses almost every hour.

Karuizawa is easily reached from Tokyo by the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen which takes around 1-1.5 hours journey. Highway buses are cheaper but take around three hours of travel time.

Tottori Sand Dunes, Tottori

Image Credit: Aomyeam_sog

Japan has some amazing sandy beaches around the country, but none compare to the coastline just outside Tottori City which is famous for the Tottori Sand Dunes, undulating sand dunes that stretch 16km along the Sea of Japan coast. These sand dunes are a result of sediment from the nearby Chugoku Mountains that was washed out to sea and shaped by currents and wind.

The Tottori Sand Dunes or Tottori Sakyu are perfect for climbing and fun pictures – Take the chairlift up to the Sakyu Center Observation Deck for a view of the coast. The more adventurous can try some sandboarding, paragliding and even camel rides. The sand dunes are impressive sights throughout the year, but you might encounter purple dunes in Autumn when Japanese scallion flowers or Rakkyo are in bloom on some of the dunes, and snow-covered white dunes in winter.

If you can’t get enough of this natural sand phenomenon, head to the Tottori Sand Museum where you can see various exhibits showcasing intricate sculptures and dioramas all made out of sand.

The Tottori Sand Dunes are just one part of the larger San’in Kaigan Geopark, a UNESCO Global Geopark that stretches from Tottori through Hyogo prefecture all the way to Kyotango City in Kyoto. Another spot nearby worth visiting is the Uradome Coast in Iwami on the eastern end of Tottori Prefecture. This scenic coastline is filled with beautiful beaches, unique rock formations and crystal clear waters that are best enjoyed on a scenic boat tour.

Food lovers will find themselves spoiled for choice in Tottori. Given its coastal location, seafood is the star of food specialities in Tottori: Mosa shrimp, Matsuba crab and white squid are just some of the must-eat seafood in Tottori. Also of note is Gyukotsu ramen which uses beef bones for its broth base, as well as Tottori wagyu beef which apparently is the progenitor of more famous wagyu around the country.

How to get to Tottori

Daily flights are available from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Tottori Airport and is the most direct way to get to Tottori. There are overnight buses from Tokyo as well for a cheaper option. You can take the shinkansen to Himeji or Osaka and transfer to the Super Hakuto line to Tottori as well.

Ready to see a different side of Japan? There are plenty of hidden worlds to explore throughout Japan’s 47 different prefectures if you know where to look. Make sure you plan for enough time as some of these locations can be located in rather remote areas. Check out Skyscanner for flights to and around Japan.

See more of Japan here.