Header image courtesy of bady abbas (via Unsplash)
Just a few short hours away by plane, Japan is a wonderful country to explore. Whether it’s the bustling city of Tokyo, the beautiful snowy island of Hokkaido, or the summer paradise that is Okinawa, you can never quite get enough. But if you’re someone who is eager to take the road less travelled, know that there are still plenty of mysteries to the Land of the Rising Sun. From a volcanic island with a population of less than 200 people, to an oddly beautiful cemetery that’s definitely worth a (respectful) visit, here are some of the most unique and beautiful places you didn’t know existed in Japan.
We’re pretty sure you’ve heard of cat islands and deer forests in Japan, but did you know there is a rabbit island too? Just a short 15-minute ferry ride from the city of Tadano-Umi in southern Hiroshima, Ōkunoshima is populated with over 1,000 adorable wild rabbits, making it the perfect destination for families, couples, and animal lovers. Though as cute as all the fluffy action hopping around the island may be, Ōkunoshima actually has a much darker history. During World War II, the island was used as a secret army base where chemical weapons such as mustard gas and tear gas were manufactured. In fact, it was so secretive that the government decided to remove the island altogether from Japanese maps. It wasn’t until several decades after the war was over that the local residents decided to create the Ōkunoshima Poison Gas Museum so that visitors who came to the island could learn about this part of Japanese history that Japanese government so desperately wanted to “wipe out”.You can get to the island by taking a ferry from the Tadano-Umi port, which runs roughly every 30 to 45 minutes. Also, the Kyukamura Ohkunoshima National Park Resort is the only hotel on the island, so be sure to book in advance if you want to take your time exploring this unusual island.
If you’re an adventurous traveller looking for something off the beaten track, this place is as secluded as it gets. Aogashima is a small volcanic island that lies to the south of Japan, with a mere population of less than 200 people. Getting to and from the island, which is an actual volcanic crater with another smaller volcano in the centre, can be quite the task. The only way to reach Aogashima is by taking a 3-hour boat ride from Hachijoima, a slightly larger island that can be reached by plane or boat from Tokyo. Needless to say, being so far away from civilisation, there’s not much to do on the island except for you to hike up a few mountains, perhaps visit the natural sauna near the volcano, and take in the beautiful surrounding landscape—definitely on for nature lovers. It is also worth noting that there are no restaurants on the island, but you can get food at the village store, a local bar that serves a small variety of bar food, or bed and breakfast hostels that provide meals.
In Hong Kong, you can always guarantee to bump into a monkey or two when you’re hiking in nature, but we bet you’ve never seen as many monkeys as you would in Nagano. Famous for its picturesque scenery, Nagano is a well-known hot spring destination that many would travel to for a hot soak in some of Japan’s finest outdoor onsens—but we’re not the only ones who enjoy a good bath. Nestled on the base of Mount Yakebitai, the cheeky snow monkeys at the Nagano Snow Monkey Park have been known to enjoy bathing in the onsens too! You can catch them throughout the year at the park, but winter is always the best time, as this is when you can catch them soaking in the hot springs while completely covered in snow. I mean, just look at that picture above! The park is only a few hours away from Tokyo by train, so you can easily make it a day trip if you’re short on time.
Established in 1982, the Makomanai Takino Cemetery is an interesting sightseeing destination, to say the least. Upon arrival, you will see rows of Easter Island Moai heads lined up by the gate, along with a full-size replica of Stonehenge. That’s not all—inside the cemetery, you will notice from afar the head of a large Buddha statue poking out of the ground. Boasting 13.5 metres in height, the stone statue itself was sculpted 15 years ago, but as it stood alone in a field in the middle of the cemetery, visitors found it to be somewhat intimidating for those who simply came to pay their respects to their loved ones. Luckily, Tadao Ando, one of Japan’s most celebrated architects, took on the project to create something that was a little less—for the lack of a better word—in-your-face. Surrounded by a field of lavender flowers, visitors can reach the statue through a tunnel, emphasising the peace and tranquillity of this sacred place. The site is truly quite breathtaking, but if you are planning a visit there, remember to be aware of your surroundings and, most importantly, be respectful.
If you’re an art lover of any sort, then Naoshima is the place for you. Located on the northwest side of Takamatsu city, Naoshima is a lively little island that has so much more to offer than just trees and temples. In fact, the whole island is filled with all sorts of artworks, sculptures, and museums created by some of the most influential artists in the world—Yayoi Kusama, Tadao Ando, Claude Monet, Lee Ufan, the whole lot. The ferry schedule for the island is pretty sparse, so if you’re hoping for a day trip, spend your time wisely. If you just want to take it easy and enjoy your time on the island, you can stay for the night at the Benesse House Museum and Hotel. Here’s a helpful tip: once you arrive on the island, take a shuttle bus to reach the museums on the west side of the island, and work your way back to the docks for smooth trip.
Hokkaido may be known for its beautiful snowy mountains during the winter, but the true hidden gem of the island is the Shirogane Blue Pond. Perched along the Biei River in central Hokkaido, the pond itself was artificially formed as a result of a river dam constructed to help prevent erosion and volcanic mudflow. The hues of blue are due to the different minerals in the water as it travels down from the Shirahige Falls and through the Biei River. The pond’s colours tend to change depending on the weather conditions and what time of year you visit. During summer, a clear bright day will make the pond a sight to behold as the surface reflects its natural surroundings, giving off a mirror-like illusion. Winter is also a great time to visit, as an illumination tradition will light up the pond along with its surrounding areas, creating an impalpable glow that adds to the mythic atmosphere.
Seamlessly combining the beauty of nature with the boundless creativity of art, the Yoro Park, also known as “The Site of Reversible Destiny”, is a fun and quirky themed park located roughly an hour away by train from Nagoya. Inside the park, you will find installations, mazes, and sculptures, alongside sweeping views of the Yoro Mountains. Designed by Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins, the artist duo encourages its visitors to explore every corner of the park and discover ways to see things from different perspectives. Without sounding too excited about it, this place is also an Instagrammer’s dream. There’s a pastel colour maze, a building with random household appliances stuck in the wall, slanted hills that distorts your perspective, and bridges that literally lead to nowhere. Sounds like your perfect travel destination? The only advice we have is to wear some comfy shoes!