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Top 3 Underrated Cities to Visit in Japan

Top 3 Underrated Cities to Visit in Japan

Last Updated on June 3, 2024

Japan often surprises you just when you think you’ve got its measure. Tokyo’s neon-lit frenzy and Kyoto’s solemn temples often steal the limelight, but there are many other cities in Japan waiting quietly to be discovered. Here are my top three underrated cities you have to visit – each offering a unique slice of Japanese life and culture, often overlooked but overwhelmingly enchanting.

1. Ehime Prefecture

I veered off the beaten track on my last trip through Japan – and was most definitely rewarded. I took a plane from Tokyo’s Matsuyama airport to visit Ehime Prefecture, which is on the northeast of Shikoku Island. I found it to be tranquil (in a traditional way) and was a much-needed respite from touristy Tokyo. 

The real adventure in Ehime began with the Shimanami Kaido, a renowned cycling route. This 70-kilometre expressway connects Onomichi, Hiroshima and Imabari, Ehime and goes through nine of the Geiyo Islands, including Ōshima, Ōmishima, and Innoshima. It took me about 6 hours to ride across those majestic bridges that connected the small islands dotted along the Seto Inland Sea. 

But the juicy part? It has to be the citrus groves. Ehime is famous for its mikan oranges, and if you’re there in autumn, you’re in for a treat. The Mikan Festival is where it’s at picking fresh fruit under the autumn sun, and the locals turn these oranges into everything from ice cream to mochi. Trust me, the mikan mochi alone is worth the trip!

Ehime Prefecture offers cultural immersion and natural beauty that’s hard to find in the more urbanised parts of Japan. If you’re looking to slow down and savour Japan at a gentler pace, Ehime should definitely be on your radar. 

Matsuyama, Ehime

2. Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture

For my next Japanese escapade, I travelled from Okayama to Kurashiki on a quick train ride, eager to explore a city frozen in time. 

Kurashiki is tucked away in Okayama Prefecture and has a pretty cool backstory that stretches all the way back to the Edo Period, around the 1600s to 1800s. It gets its name from “warehouse village,” which makes sense because it was a major spot for storing and shipping rice and other goods back in the day. Since it was under the direct control of the powerful Tokugawa shogunate, Kurashiki enjoyed a bit of peace and stability, avoiding the usual feudal scraps that affected other places.

What really makes Kurashiki stand out today is its Bikan Historical Quarter. This place is like a snapshot from the past, with its old-time storehouses, or “kura,” that line a scenic canal with willow trees gently swaying over the water. These buildings used to hold rice and other valuables, but now they’ve been turned into museums, shops, and cafes. It’s a great place to wander around and feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

I also explore the Ohara Museum of All, which was established in 1930 thanks to a local bigwig named Magosaburo Ohara. It was the first museum in Japan to bring in Western art, and today you can see pieces by some big names like El Greco and Picasso right alongside classic Japanese works! It’s a neat blend that shows off both the local and global influences that have touched Kurashiki.

If you’re a history buff, an art lover, or just in search of some peace and quiet, Kurashikh has something special to offer. Definitely a gem worth exploring.


3. Hakodate, Hokkaido: A Night View Worth a Thousand Pictures

The third and last place on my list of underrated cities to visit in Japan is Hakodate. It’s on the southern tip of Hokkaido, is one of those places that feels like it’s out of a storybook, especially first thing in the morning when the fog rolls in over the hills and the harbor. It’s got this blend of an old port town feel with a dash of modern flair. Historically, Hakodate was one of the first Japanese ports opened to international trade in the 1850s, which explains the unique Western-influenced architecture scattered around the city.

One of my personal highlights was waking up early to explore the morning market, known locally as Hakodate Asaichi. It’s a real hive of activity! You can get everything from freshly caught squid to huge crab legs. Strike up conversations with the vendors and try different types of fresh seafood right on the spot. 

Then there’s the historical star-shaped fort, Goryokaku. Walking around this massive, star-shaped citadel and visiting the tower that overlooks it gives you a bird’s eye view of how it was designed, not to mention a panoramic view of the surrounding city. Visiting during cherry blossom season? It’s absolutely magical – the fort transforms into a sea of pink blooms.

Climbing Mt. Hakodate for the sunset is another must-do. The view from the top is famously one of Japan’s best night views, and it’s easy to see why. The city lights up at night in a way that just takes your breath away, perfectly framed by the dark waters of the bay and the stark silhouettes of the surrounding mountains.

Whether it’s your first time or your tenth, there’s always something new to discover in this charming port city.Goryokaku Park

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Photo Credit: All images used via Flickr’s Creative Commons Licensing. (1) Matsuyama, Ehime by Shinya Ichinohe; (2) Kurashiki by Lilacandhoney; (3) Goryokaku Park by Hans Permana