Travelling to Japan soon? Tokyo is most likely the first city that pops into your mind, followed by Osaka — maybe even Kyoto. Rather than go where the masses go, try walking off the beaten path and explore lesser known cities in Japan.

Most of the touristy places, according to its locals, have lost its sense of “miyabi” — an elegant and refined atmosphere. To truly experience Japan as the locals do and enjoy the zen culture outside of the major cities, here are five lesser-known cities in Japan to check out the next time you head to the land of the rising sun.

Kanazawa, Ishikawa

lesser known cities in Japan
The old streets of Kanazawa, lined with traditional wooden shops.

If you want to experience miyabi in Kyoto but don’t want to engage with the throng of tourists, head over to Kanazawa — also known as “Little Kyoto”. For now, it remains a well-kept secret, often overlooked for its bigger cousin, Kyoto. Yet, it’s worth checking out as it artfully preserves the heritage of ancient Japan and its rich traditional culture. Kanazawa has one of Japan’s best samurai and geisha districts. Fair warning: it is considered rude to chase after geishas to take a picture. Admire from afar.

When visiting, head to the old town of Sanmachi, which consists of only three streets boasting old wooden shop lots. In the name of tourism and preservation, these wooden buildings have been turned into restaurants, museums, shops selling traditional crafts, and more.

Where to stay

lesser known cities in Japan
Kanazawa Tokyu Hotel.

Just because Kanazawa is known to be rich in traditional Japanese culture, doesn’t mean that the hotels are equally as “traditional”. Stay at the Kanazawa Tokyu Hotel, a modern accommodation that is centrally located in the capital and boasts spacious rooms for Japanese standards.

Nagano, Nagano

lesser known cities in Japan
Take in the view of the Japanese Alps from Nagano.

Hankering to visit a snowy mountain that isn’t the more-developed Niseko? Try Nagano, which was home to the Winter Olympics in 1998. The view of the Japanese Alps from Nagano is breathtaking, but it isn’t all there is to it. The quaint, cobblestone streets are quiet and peaceful, built around the Zenko-ji Temple, the town’s main attraction. Nagano is also home to the first Buddha statue that was brought into Japan, although it’s not available for public viewing.

Where to stay

lesser known cities in Japan
Aburaya Tousen, a luxury ryokan in Nagano.

There’s nothing quite like soaking in an onsen that overlooks the view of the Japanese Alps. When you stay in a luxury ryokan like the Aburaya Tousen, you’ll get to experience that on top of the best Japanese hospitality — or omotenashi, as they call it. No matter which of the four seasons that you’ll be travelling in, Aburaya Tousen will definitely present a picturesque view.

Hakodate, Hokkaido

lesser known cities in Japan
Take in the night city view from Mount Hakodate.

The next time you’re at Sapporo, take a train to the southernmost part of Hokkaido to a little port town called Hakodate. Naturally, what you would find there is the freshest seafood possible. Head to Hakodate Asaichi, the morning market, where you’ll find fishermen selling their best wares. Get your fix of some freshly caught sea urchin at Uni Murakami, one of the more known restaurants in town to have sea urchin. Later, head up to Mount Hakodate via the ropeway, where you can see an excellent night view of the town. Hakodate used to play host to a foreign Western community, and their influences can still be seen around the town, including Fort Goryokaku — Japan’s first Western-style fortress — as well as Kanemori Red Brick Warehouse, which has since been refurbished to a little shopping centre.

Where to stay

lesser known cities in Japan
Wakamatsu Hot Spring Resort boasts views of the ocean — a rarity.

Most traditional ryokans in Japan usually boast views of the mountains and rivers. It’s not often that you’ll come by a ryokan that have rooms opening up to the view of the ocean. Yet, that’s what you get at the Wakamatsu Hot Spring Resort. This luxury resort is in a convenient location, just minutes away from the JR Hakodate Station and attractions such as Fort Goryokaku and the Hakodate Tropical Botanical Garden.

Toyama, Toyama

lesser known cities in Japan
Toyama Castle was built in the Edo period and later restored after World War II.

Lovers of artisanal craft that are looking beyond Japanese pottery should head to Toyama, known for its glassware — most of the town’s buildings are either made entirely out of glass or have huge glass windows. It’s also known as a city of rivers, thanks to the clear alpine water that flows through it. A particularly picturesque spot during springtime is the Matsukawa River, which is lined with sakura trees.

The town is also home to Toyama Castle, built during the Edo period and later restored after World War II. History buffs will get a kick out of visiting the castle, which is now home to the Museum of Local History.

Where to stay

lesser known cities in Japan
The Toyama Excel Hotel Tokyu in Toyama.

Stay at the Toyama Excel Hotel Tokyu, which is just a kilometre away from the Toyama Castle and a three-minute walk from the train station. This hotel has spacious rooms and oversized windows for those who like a bit of natural light in their rooms. Otherwise, this is a fuss-free hotel with all the amenities you’d need.

Matsuyama, Ehime

lesser known cities in Japan
The Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama was said to have inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away movie.

Visit the largest city in Shihoku island for a rarity: the Matsuyama Castle, one of Japan’s twelve original castles that survived the post-feudal era. It’ll be like travelling back in time to the age of lords, ninjas, and samurais. Other than that, Matsuyama is also home to one of Japan’s oldest onsens, the Dogo Onsen Honkan that was built in 1894 during the Meiji period.

Where to stay

lesser known cities in Japan
The Setouchi Retreat Aonagi was designed by renowned architect Tadao Ando.

Unlike the facades of old Japan that you might see at Dogo Onsen and Matsuyama Castle, this particular hotel in Matsuyama is anything but traditional. Designed by renowned architect Tadao Ando, Setouchi Retreat Aonagi sits just outside of Matsuyama — but we guarantee the far-out location is worth it. The hotel was initially built as a private guesthouse, later refurbished as a modern art museum before finally reopening to the public as a hotel. It bears Ando’s signature minimalist aesthetic and only houses seven suites.

PohNee Chin
Editor, Kuala Lumpur
Poh Nee is the editor and writes about travel and drinks. When she's not living out her holiday dreams via Google Earth and sipping on an Old Fashioned down at the local bars, you can find her snug at home bingeing on Netflix and mystery fiction. Reach out to Poh Nee via email at pohnee@lifestyleasia.com.