Japan's big cities and tourist destinations such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are rightly world-famous. These are fun destinations with tremendous energy and endless attractions. But perhaps you want to get away from the crowds and visit a smaller town in the countryside or take a dive into Japan's incredible natural environment. Fortunately, Japan has many unique and attractive places to add to your list. Let's take a look at some of these. Visiting castle towns, port towns, ancient cities, hot spring resorts, nature-rich regions and remote islands, you'll be able to enjoy a completely different atmosphere from the big cities.

    1

    Izu

    A warm peninsula easily accessible from Tokyo

    Izu is only 1 to 2 hours from Tokyo on the Shinkansen or conventional train lines. This warm peninsula juts out toward the Pacific Ocean, and there are many places here where you can see Mt. Fuji. You'll also find many historical hot spring neighborhoods such as Itoya and Shuzenji, making Izu a perfect place to rest your tired body after spending time in the city. What's more, Izu has both sea and mountains. At the seaside you can enjoy fresh seafood, and there are also beaches for bathing. Citrus fruits are cultivated in the mountains, and the cool wasabi fields that make use of the mountain streams for irrigation are also famous. Izu is the perfect place to enjoy a hike with views of the Pacific Ocean and Mt. Fuji.

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    2

    Lake Biwa

    Enjoy the largest historic lake in Japan

    Lake Biwa is not only the largest lake in Japan, but it's said to be one of the oldest lakes in the world, having existed for over a million years. The lake is surrounded by countless historic sites such as shrines, temples and castles, and it's been renowned as a scenic spot since ancient times, as seen in the Eight Views of Ōmi. Take a walk around the lakeside towns of Otsu, Omihachiman, Hikone, and Nagahama, and you get a real sense of the area's history. Hikone Castle, which stands on the shore of the lake, is designated as a national treasure. There are cycling courses everywhere, so it's a good idea to two the area on two wheels. There are also islands such as Chikubu Island and Oki Island in the vast lake, and a boat crossing will be a trip to rememeber.

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    3

    Hakodate

    A city that combines northern sensibility with more exotic moods

    Hakodate is a port town that opened up to foreign countries in 1859 and became the northern gateway to Japan. The night view from Mt. Hakodate at an altitude of 334 meters is renowned as one of the 3 greatest night views in Japan. Hakodate has an eclectic atmosphere combining Japanese and Western influences, with classic Western-style houses and beautiful churches standing out on the quaint slopes descending toward the harbor. The rows of old brick warehouses in the harbor are now bustling tourist facilities. Goryokaku is Japan's first Western-style fortress. Its entire star shape can be seen from the adjacent tower. Hakodate is also famous for its morning market where fresh seafood catches are brought in. Grab a seafood rice bowl and fill up to get some energy for a walk around the city.

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    4

    Naoshima

    Tour the art islands of Seto Inland Sea

    Naoshima is an island with a population of about 3,000 located in the Seto Inland Sea. Although it has its fair share of temples, shrines and traditional festivals, Naoshima is more widely known as an island of art. You'll find unique museums such as the Chichu Art Museum, where most of the buildings are buried underground so as not to spoil the beautiful scenery, and the Art House Project, which is a renovation of vacant houses. You can also enjoy activities such as sea fishing, beaches, and tours of the metal smelting factory that has been here since the Taisho era.

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    5

    Yuzawa

    A town of snow, hot springs, rice and sake

    Yuzawa is only an hour away from Tokyo on the Shinkansen. This area is famous for its heavy snowfall and excellent ski resorts. The cable automobiles continue to run in summertime, so you can enjoy trekking and panoramic views from the mountaintops. Yuzawa is blessed with hot springs, and there are also many hot spring inns. Plus, being famous for its rice, the area produces delicious sake. At the Ponshukan sake museum you can sample and buy sake produced in Niigata, and there's even a bathhouse filled with sake!

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    6

    Matsuyama

    A castle town full of hot springs, literature, fine food and charm

    Matsuyama is a castle town facing the Seto Inland Sea in the north-western part of Shikoku. It's also famous for Dogo Onsen, which is one of the 3 major ancient hot springs of Japan. Matsuyama Castle in the city centre is located on Mt. Katsuyama at an altitude of 132 meters, giving it an excellent vantage point over the city. The castle also offers great views of the sunset and the city at night. Surrounded by the sea and mountains, Matsuyama is rich with produce and has a warm climate. The fresh fish landed in the Seto Inland Sea are delicious. And citrus fruits are cultivated up in the mountains. In fact, cultivation of mandarins is so popular that it the area is called the "Mikan (Mandarin) Kingdom". Matsuyama is also known as a city of modern literary forms such as haiku.

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    7

    Nagasaki

    Walk through an exotic port town

    Nagasaki is truly exotic city. Its natural harbor was once developed as Japan's only foreign trading port. Even today, Nagasaki is overflowing with the eclectic atmosphere of Western, Chinese, and Japanese influences, and you can get a real sense of its history by walking around the city. The area also has a long history of Christian missionary work, and the heritage of Christianity here is registered as a World Cultural Heritage. Also famous is the beauty of the night view from the tops of the mountains surrounding the port town. However, during World War II, tragedy struck when the second atomic bomb in history was dropped here in Nagasaki. A moving tribute to the preciousness of peace can be seen at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.

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    8

    Ishigaki

    Enjoy the emerald blue sea of Yaeyama

    Located about 400 kilometers southeast of Naha on the main island of Okinawa, Yaeyama is a subtropical island surrounded by emerald blue sea and one of the best coral reefs in the world. The beaches, including the famous Kabira Bay, are all breathtakingly beautiful, and there are spectacular views of the sunset over the sea. Some of the coastline is lined with vast mangrove forests. Up in the mountains, you can explore the subtropical forest with its palm trees and limestone caves. On Ishigaki Island, crafts such as minsa weaving (a unique local textile production) and glasswork are also thriving. There are even workshops where you can experience these crafts hands-on. Ishigaki Island is in the middle of the Yaeyama Islands. Many connecting ships to other islands depart from Ishigaki Port.

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    9

    Matsumoto

    A refreshing castle town surrounded by beautiful mountains

    Matsumoto is about 3 hours away from Tokyo by limited express train. Surrounded by impressive mountains, it's is an unusually refreshing city. Having been developed as a castle town around Matsumoto Castle (which is designated as a national treasure), Matsumoto is full of olde worlde charm. It's also famous for its museums featuring ukiyo-e (woodblock prints from the Edo period) and contemporary art. Matsumoto uses the surrounding mountains as its water source, and the excellent quality of the water is put to good use at sake breweries, while wine is also made from grapes cultivated in vineyards on the edge of the city. It's a good idea to take a bus away from the city centre to the outskirts, where you'll also find the Asama Onsen hot spring town, which has existed for more than 1,000 years.

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    10

    Nara

    Imagine yourself in ancient Japan while visiting shrines and temples

    The ancient city of Nara thrived as the capital of Japan some 1,300 years ago. There are numerous shrines and temples to visit, from magnificent sites like Todaiji Temple to more understated temples quietly nestled in the suburbs. With countless national treasures and important cultural properties, including statues of Buddha and other sculptures, Nara is a treasure trove of Japanese history. Don't miss the views of the temple towers rising behind Nara's countryside and ponds. Oh and don't be too surprised when you see deer roaming freely in Nara Park in the city centre and other parts of the city. The deer is held to be the messenger of the god of Kasuga Taisha Shrine, so the animals basically enjoy the freedom of the city.

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