13 Unforgettable Japanese Destinations You Never Thought to Visit
Visitors to Japan usually head for the excitement of Tokyo’s Ginza district, seek out the historic shrines and temples in Kyoto, or stroll through manicured Japanese gardens. They might look for highly rated sushi restaurants or lively bars serving sake and Japanese whiskey. Many will time their visits to enjoy spring’s famed cherry blossoms or winter’s ski slopes and snow monkeys bathing in hot springs.
These are fine reasons to visit Japan, a fascinating country consisting of nearly 7,000 islands, with only about 400 inhabited. Once you’ve visited the popular spots, look into our suggestions for unique Japanese experiences you never thought of.
There’s an island with more cats than people, and a town with more life-sized dolls than humans. There are “haunted” burial grounds and an amusement park with an over-the-top horror hospital. Travelers looking for a novel souvenir can take home a miniature clone of themselves. Foodies who haven’t had their fill of instant ramen during their starving college student days can visit a museum that celebrates the invention of the ubiquitous noodles.
Check out our ideas for a memorable visit to some of Japan’s more unusual attractions.
About 350 life-size dolls, created in the likeness of former residents who have died or moved away, outnumber residents in this shrinking village. Tsukimi Ayano’s first doll commemorated her father, and she went on to fashion dolls to replace other family members and townspeople. Made of straw and dressed in old clothes, the dolls are placed in realistic settings — waiting for the bus, working in the field, sitting in a classroom — throughout the village, attracting tourists who are at once fascinated and stunned by the unusual effigies.
This small remote island is home to well over 100 cats, one of several “cat islands” where felines outnumber humans. Cat lovers enjoy visiting by ferry. The cats were originally brought to the island to control mice, and their population grew as residents moved away, leaving the cats to take over the fishing village’s abandoned houses and buildings.
Aogashima, Izu Archipelago
This sparsely populated island in the Philippine Sea is an active volcano that last erupted in 1785, and its several hundred residents actually live in an area near the volcano’s crater. The locals don’t seem to be fazed by their island’s relatively recent history as they enjoy tourist-free solitude, geothermal spas, natural energy for cooking, scuba diving in the warm waters, spectacular views from Oyama Observatory Park, and perhaps a job at the island’s salt factory.
Over 1,000 rabbits inhabit this small island, attracting tourists who feed, cuddle, and of course photograph the cute furry creatures. How they got there originally is a subject of debate, but it’s clear how their population has grown, with no natural predators and government protection from cats and dogs. During World War II, the island was used for chemical weapon production, and the Poison Gas Museum there testifies to its dark history.
Kawachi Wisteria Garden, Kitakyushu
This private garden, famed for its explosion of purple, pink, and white blossoms in spring, is a collection of more than 150 wisteria trees of over 20 species. Two tunnels formed by drooping branches of the trees attract thousands of visitors to the floral wonderland during the peak season of late April to mid-May. Some of the trees are over 100 years old, and are so beloved that they are the subject of Japanese poetry as well as a popular tourist attraction.
Sagano Bamboo Forest, Kyoto
Amazing to see as well as to hear, the forest of tall bamboo forms a canopy over winding paths. As breezes pass through the closely packed stalks, they bend and knock together, their leaves rustle, creating a sound that is unique and meditative. Japan’s Ministry of the Environment voted it one of the “100 Soundscapes of Japan,” encouraging its citizens to appreciate its wonders. Visitors stroll, bike, or take rickshaw rides along the shadowy paths.
Fuji-Q Haunted Hospital, Yamanashi
Also called the Super Scary Labyrinth of Fear, this haunted hospital experience can bring over an hour of realistic, terrifying action. Claiming to be the biggest and scariest haunted house in the world, it’s filled with zombies, echoes, surprises, special effects, body organs in jars of chemicals, mazes, and dark corners. The back story is an urban legend about unscrupulous doctors who stole organs from patients during surgery until the victims’ spirits returned to take their vengeance.
Mandarado Yagura, Kamakura
More than 160 caves in three tiers form the largest known collection of “Yagura” in Japan. These caves, dating perhaps to the 15th century, contain the remains of samurai warriors, Buddhist monks, and wealthy merchants whose ghosts are said to create a noticeable chill in the air. Samurai culture grew in this area, once the military capital of Japan. An ancient footpath near the caves is now a hiking trail, and volunteers have restored the area providing limited access to the ancient graves.
Aokigahara Suicide Forest, Fujinomiya-shi
For over 70 years, this forest has seen of hundreds of suicides, possibly because of its dense trees and reputation as “the perfect place to die.” Spiritualists believe in the forest’s paranormal activity and cite as evidence the failure of compasses, cellphones, and GPS there, likely due to deposits of magnetic iron in the soil. Despite posted signs discouraging suicide, they continue. Superstitious individuals believe it is bad luck for a corpse to be left alone, so forest workers remove the bodies and place them in a special room at the police station.
Shin-yokohama Ramen Museum, Yokohama
Called a museum and billed as the world’s first food-themed amusement park, the Ramen Museum is actually a food court dedicated to the national dish, featuring over 30 regional ramen specialties. Visitors can learn about the history of ramen and walk through a streetscape replicating 1958, the year instant ramen was invented. In addition to many delicious noodle and broth options, there are shops selling bowls, chopsticks, and utensils as well as sweets and toys.
Kanmangafuchi Abyss, Nikko-shi
The abyss was created by lava flows from nearby Mount Nantai around 7,000 years ago, leaving a unique landscape for the long row of statues representing Jizo, one of Japan’s beloved deities, worshipped as a guardian of children, lost souls, and travelers. It’s a bit incongruous to see ancient moss-covered statues wearing red crocheted hats and scarves, and the legend is that they can’t be counted because of their disappearing tricks. There are about 70 of them overlooking the Daiyagawa River.
Obama Onsen, Unzen-Shi
One of Japan’s 30,000 or so natural hot springs, this onsen is said to be the hottest footbath at 105 degrees Celsius (221 degrees Fahrenheit) and 105 meters (344 feet) long. No worries, many of the hot springs have to be cooled a bit for the safety of guests. It’s not actually named after the American president, but they have taken advantage of the coincidence that obama means “little beach” in Japanese. A cartoon image of a shirtless President Obama bathing in a hot spring is set up with a cutout for your face, providing the perfect spot for a memorable selfie.
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, Yamanouchi
These clever Japanese macaques make the most of their habit in a conservation area equipped by Mother Nature with natural hot springs called onsens. Visitors can observe the wild monkeys going about their daily lives and watch their entertaining activities, especially because the animals are accustomed to humans being nearby. Especially in winter, the monkeys love to soak in the warm water, and seeing a group surrounded by snow as they lounge comfortably is a total thrill for visitors to the park.