1. Mie Toiwa
    Photo: Sean Pavone/DreamstimeFutamiokitama Shrine in Mie
  2. Miyazaki
    Photo: Yyama3270/DreamstimeSun Messe Nichinan
  3. Zao snow monsters, Yamagata
    Photo: Kaedeenari/DreamstimeZao snow monsters in Yamagata

Japan's 6 most underrated prefectures – and why you should visit

Travel off the beaten track to these storybook villages, Edo-era towns with geisha (not Kyoto!) and seaside retreats

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Written by
Emma Steen
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For a relatively small country, Japan has a staggering amount of places to explore. This island nation is made up of 47 prefectures, each with its own distinctive regional culture and landscape – even the locals have barely scratched the surface of all there is to see here in Japan. You’ve got the art islands of Kagawa, the onsen towns of Yamagata and the quaint ‘gingerbread’ houses of Gifu – and that’s just the beginning. 

It’s not to say that popular destinations like Kyoto, Hokkaido or Osaka are overrated – there’s a reason why they top many people’s travel list. However, they do draw attention away from other areas in Japan that are just as worthy of a visit. So here are the most underrated Japanese prefectures you should definitely explore on your next holiday.

RECOMMENDED: 20 of the most beautiful places in Japan

Mie
Photo: Sean Pavone/Dreamstime

Mie

Mie often gets overlooked in favour of its deer-dominated neighbour Nara, but this tranquil coastal prefecture has a lot to offer the wanderlusting traveller. The region is famous for its seafood, namely the ise-ebi (spiny lobster) and oysters. They come with the ancient tradition of ama (female divers), who free-dive to the ocean floor to collect pearls without the use of scuba equipment. 

As for sightseeing, there are three main attractions that dominate most of the postcards in the area. The first is Ise Jingu, which is dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu and considered to be among the most sacred sites in Shinto religion. 

The second is the Maruyama rice terrace, one of the largest of its kind in Japan and believed to date back to the Edo era (1603-1868). Finally, you can’t leave Mie without visiting the Futamiokitama Shrine, home to a pair of peculiar rock formations (pictured) that are said to bring good luck to newly weds. 

Yamagata
Photo: Ziggy Mars/Shutterstock

Yamagata

Hokkaido and Nagano are the obvious winter destinations for snow sport enthusiasts, but Yamagata’s vast mountains with powdery white ‘snow monsters’ are a buzzworthy attraction in their own right.

The ‘monsters’ are actually just trees that got frozen in a snow flurry, but they have become an icon of the wintery prefecture, where people go to enjoy winter sports with fewer crowds. When not on the slopes, you can explore the hot spring town of Ginzan Onsen, which boasts centuries-old architecture reminiscent of scenes from Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Spirited Away’. 

In the months that the region isn’t covered in snow, you’ll want to take the opportunity to explore its remote but idyllic shrines and temples which take some effort to reach but are well within the journey. This includes the ancient Yamadera (pictured) dating back to the year 860. Since the temple complex is set up high in the mountains, the view is worth the 1,000 stone steps it takes to get up there.

The sacred Dewa Sanzan mountains – consisting of Mt Haguro, Mt Gassan and Mt Yudono – are worth a trip, too. They each boast a shinto shrine deep in the forests and are considered to be paramount symbols of Shintoism. Mt Haguro is especially scenic, with an ancient five-storey pagoda lodged in the middle of a cedar forest.

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Kagawa
Photo: Denis Kovalev/Unsplash

Kagawa

Art lovers are fully familiar with Naoshima, home to Yayoi Kusama’s yellow pumpkin as well as the amazing museum hotel Benesse House, among a host of other art installations and museums that dot the island. But Naoshima is just one among a group of art islands in the small but sunny southern prefecture of Kagawa.

The surrounding islands of Teshima (pictured), Ogijima and Oshima, to name a few, are only large enough for a few dozen – if any – residents each. However, they play an integral role in the region’s initiative to highlight modern art as a form of experiential travel. 

Back on the mainland, the region’s cuisine is centered around a surprising homegrown produce – olives. With its balmy Mediterranean-like climate, Kagawa prides itself on its lush olive groves, so it’s common for everything from sashimi to rice to be seasoned with olive oil here. As for historical sites, you’ll learn about the ancient Shikoku Pilgrimage that passes through 88 sacred Buddhist temples – a demanding journey that still attracts a handful of devotees even to this day.

Gifu
Photo: Supparuj Taechatanont/Dreamstime

Gifu

Set in the heart of Honshu, Japan’s largest island, Gifu is just one of eight landlocked prefectures in Japan. The prefecture has a proud history of woodworking and craftsmanship. Carpenters from the town of Takayama were even commissioned to help build the important shrines and structures in Nara and Kyoto during the Edo period, including the former capital’s Imperial Palace. 

You can see Gifu’s exceptional wooden architecture in areas like the storybook village of Shirakawa-go (pictured), a carefully preserved Unesco World Heritage Site which features quaint, triangular thatched-roof houses surrounded by a fortress of mountains. Over in Takayama's historical town of Hida Furukawa, you can explore the region’s heritage architecture in the Hida no Sato open-air museum. Here you’ll discover the significance behind the wooden buildings as well as the traditions that surround the town. 

While the prefecture is full of rural areas, don’t take that to mean there are few activities. Come summertime, you can join boat tours for cormorant fishing along the Nagara river. This traditional fishing method has been around for more than 1,000 years and it is sadly a dying practice. Here fishermen light their wooden boats with torches and guide a flock of trained birds to dive into the water and catch fish by swallowing them whole.

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Miyazaki
Photo: Yyama3270/Dreamstime

Miyazaki

No, not the famed Ghibli animator; we’re talking about the southern Kyushu Island prefecture with its breathtaking natural scenery and tropical climate. Like Okinawa, Miyazaki offers white sand beaches as well as vast caves and gorges to please adventure-seeking travellers.

One of its most famous attractions is the Takachiho Gorge, which you can float through on a rowboat to admire the gorge’s waterfalls. Also in the Takachiho area is the sacred Amanoiwato-jinja, a shrine tucked inside a rock cave dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu.

Close to the coast, you’ll find curious landmarks like the rock formations nicknamed the ‘Devil’s Washboard’ as well as the Sun Messe Nichinan. The latter, a peculiar seaside theme park in Nichinan City, features a row of Easter Island Moai statues. These here are the only officially sanctioned Moai statue replicas in the world. They were presented to Japan as an expression of gratitude for assisting in the restoration of the real statues. 

Ishikawa
Photo: Sean Pavone/Dreamstime

Ishikawa

If it’s Edo-era towns, traditional teahouses and old castles you’re after, Ishikawa is the place for you. This small coastal prefecture on Honshu is small but full of fascinating history, complete with feudal castles, carefully cultivated Japanese gardens, and not to mention, mouthwatering seafood. 

Ishikawa’s capital of Kanazawa is a cultural epicentre as it was one of the richest cities in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1867), full of wealthy merchants and powerful feudal lords. You’ll feel the magnitude of the city’s grandeur from the moment you exit the train station, where you’ll see the magnificent Tsuzumimon Gate (pictured) inspired by traditional Japanese drums.

Like Kyoto, Kanazawa continues to be known for its geisha districts like Higashi Chaya, where maiko (geisha in training) are often seen walking in decorative kimonos through the streets of traditional Edo-period townhouses. Other attractions that have existed since the Edo period include the traditional gardenscape of Kenrokuen and Omicho Market. The latter is the city’s biggest fresh food market and a foodie paradise, boasting some 200 stalls of produce as well as street snacks like golden brown croquettes and oysters on the half shell for sampling on the go. 

Before you leave, be sure to check out Kanazawa's 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, most famous for its iconic installation by ​​Leandro Erlich, ‘The Swimming Pool’. 

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