The Japanese Tourist Board are either very good, very lucky, or, most likely, both. Fresh from the success of the Rugby World Cup, in which the 12 host cities were carefully chosen to take fans beyond the tourist trail, Hotels.com has now reported a 100% increase in searches for Japan between 2017 and 2019.
With the Olympics to come in 2020, the surge shows no signs of slowing. These still-just-about hidden gems will help you get away from the crowds, in a nation that’s already known for them…
1. Naoshima Island
There’s probably nowhere in the world quite like Naoshima. A minuscule island in a remote corner of the Seto Inland Sea, it’s become a mecca for art enthusiasts from across the world, with a host of sculptures, galleries and exhibits.
There’s a hotel that’s also an art museum, a bath house that’s also an art installation, and a town designed predominantly by modern Japanese architect Kazuhiro Ishii. You may even recognise some of the works – one of Yayoi Kusama’s famous ‘Pumpkins’ takes pride of place on the pier – but we’re guessing you didn’t know where they were.
It’s bizarre really that Japan’s second largest island (all 32,000 square miles of it) remains a hidden gem, but the northern heartlands of Hokkaido are criminally under-visited by the tourists flocking to the megacities of the mainland.
Natural beauty is the order of the day, and Hokkaido’s national parks serve up soaring valleys, alpine forests, limpid lakes, and boundless opportunities for hiking. For urban pleasures, the main metropolis Sapporo is a widely known for its seafood, and is the undoubted beer capital of Japan.
Those brave enough to visit during winter will be rewarded with the Sapporo Snow Festival – a giant, annual ice sculpture showcase that attracts millions every year – as well as top-class skiing.
3. Rabbit Island
Probably the cutest square mile in the world, Rabbit Island does exactly what it says on the tin. Okunoshima is absolutely overrun with wild bunnies, and, therefore, a viral video maker’s dream. There are conflicting reports of how the rabbits first came to the island, but, with no natural predators, they promptly did what bunnies are known to do, and now likely number in the thousands.
There is also a poison gas museum, recalling the dark days of the Second World War, when the island was secretly used to manufacture chemical weapons. Perhaps unsurprising, the bunnies are what most visitors want to see.
4. Jigokudani Monkey Park
Embedded in the heart of the Jōshin’etsu-Kōgen National Park, atop 850 metres of snow-flecked mountain, there’s no prizes for guessing what visitors to this nature reserve have come to see.
The steam wafting from the hillside hot springs creates an ominously volcanic feel, but a closer look reveals the local tribe of Japanese Macaques (commonly termed ‘snow monkeys’) invariably lounging in the pools. There’s something a bit ‘uncanny valley’ in how the monkeys wash, splash and recline against the side. Our simian ancestors have never seemed so near.
5. Onsen Towns
Now that the monkeys have got their fix, it’s about time you got yours. Onsen are traditional public bathhouses built atop natural, geothermal springs, to be used, and only used, in the nude.
Today, whole towns are built around this concept – street after street crammed with bathing points, and traditional Japanese inns known as ryokan. Be aware that onsen come with a specific code of conduct – where to sit, how to wash etc – so read up before you strip off.
The practice hasn’t always appealed to Westerners, for obvious reasons, but there’s something delightfully liberating about letting it all hang out no questions asked.
Somewhere between mainland Japan and the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, the almost tropical island of Okinawa is a simple domestic flight from the Tokyo, but a world away in character and climate.
Corals glint alluringly from beneath the azure sea, exotic birds flit from tree to tree, splashes of technicolour against the verdant green, while the slower-paced, more analogue lifestyle contrasts starkly with the tech-obsessed mainland.
Though its natural wonders are unparalleled, there’s plenty for culture vultures too. Okinawa was absolutely pummelled during the Second World War, and the island is dotted with museums and memorials.