Japan things to do: The nine hidden highlights

Japan - View from Above

Travel to Tokyo's metropolitan skyline, Kyoto's shrines and temples, Fuji's iconic cliffs, and the elegant pagodas and toris of the Japanese countryside.

Already seen the bright lights of Tokyo, the temples of Kyoto and the vibrant culture of Hiroshima? There's plenty more to discover in Japan ...

JAPAN: WALK THROUGH A KUROSAWA FILM

kazurabashi of Iya in shikoku japan Shutterstock 1105419164 tra10-Asia-coverstory

Photo: Shutterstock

The landscapes of Shikoku, all spiky mountains, rocky canyons and roaring snow-fed streams, are straight out of a Kurosawa film, as are the histories of the local warring clans who, instead of building wooden bridges, wove them out of thick vines, so that they could be quickly cut down in case of enemy attack. Shikoku is now at peace, but you can still visit – and walk across – some of these bridges, which these days are reinforced with steel cables. See tourismshikoku.org

JAPAN: RELISH DIFFERENT RAMEN

Most people have heard of ramen, one of Japan's most famous dishes, but first-time visitors to the country will be surprised by the sheer breadth of styles and flavours in which the ever-popular soup can be served. From pork-based broths to fish-based, soy flavoured to yuzu-infused, thick noodles to thin noodles, noodles served in your soup to noodles on the side … the possibilities are almost endless. And delicious. See jnto.org.au

JAPAN: MEET SNOW MONSTERS

Snow Monsters Mountain Zao, Japan Shutterstock_531210445 tra10-Asia-coverstory

"Snow Monsters" at Mountain Zao, Japan

On top of Mount Zao in the Tohoku region of northern Honshu, icy Siberian winds, frozen rain and deep snow shape fir trees into goblin-like ice blobs, affectionately known as snow monsters. Illuminated from late January to February, the trees make a surreal skiing and snowboarding canvas, with the 10-kilometre run enhanced by non-existent lift lines, 12 metres of snow per season and a refreshing lack of Aussie accents. And at the base of the mountain lies the traditional onsen town, complete with open-air hot springs discovered in AD 110 – one of the oldest in Japan. See zao-spa.or.jp

JAPAN: GORGE ON GREAT GYOZA 

Asian dumplings Gyozas Shutterstock_1039121089 tra10-Asia-coverstory

Just one of the many types of Gyoza. Photo: Shutterstock

Gyoza Hohei is a tiny shop in the old part of Japan's Kyoto that might just serve the best gyoza in the world. Tucked down a back street of the Gion neighbourhood, it has an encouragingly short menu: cucumbers with miso, bean sprouts with pork, and two types of the delicious meat-filled dumplings known as gyoza. There's always a huge queue out front and after one bite of the umami-rich gyoza, you'll know why. See jnto.org.au

JAPAN: STAND UP AND DRINK

Japanese tachinomi, also known as "standing bars", are casual drinking dens where patrons stand at high tables to drink cheap drinks and eat cheap food. Though tachinomi have traditionally catered to working-class patrons and salarymen looking to slug a few quick beers before catching the train home, a recent surge in popularity has paved the way for a new, innovative style, some tachinomi focusing on craft beer, or French wine, or sophisticated, tapas-style food. Head to Nakano in Tokyo for some of the city's best. See jnto.org.au

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JAPAN: VISIT A NOODLE MUSEUM 

Cityscape of Yokohama Minato Mirai at night. Shutterstock 1087335575 tra10-Asia-Japanhotsprings

Cityscape of Yokohama, Japan. Photo: Shutterstock

Yokohama is Japan's biggest port and a short train ride from Tokyo, yet strangely overlooked by overseas visitors. It has a big port city's nautical appeal, the dramatic Minato Mirai 21 waterfront redevelopment topped by a giant Ferris wheel, but also a good number of cultural attractions, including a Chinatown jam-packed with eateries, the Bluff district with old European-style buildings, and the lovely classical Sankei Gardens. Even the CupNoodles Museum is entertaining. See yokohamajapan.com

JAPAN: HIKE THE BEST VOLCANOES

Forget Fuji, Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park in southern Japan's Kyushu offers some of Japan's best volcano-hiking, thanks to its 20 odd volcanoes, many still active (for updates see Japan Meteorological Agency's website, jma.go.jp). Self-guided walks offer volcanic views, crater lakes, rhododendrons (in May), autumn colours (in October) and the ultimate post-hike treat: a soak in a natural hot spring. Walk Japan even offers six-day guided hot-spring-hopping treks in northern Kyushu. See walkjapan.com and welcomekyushu.com

JAPAN: WALK THE KII PENINSULA 

Nachi Taisha on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage. shutterstock 685993597 tra10-Asia-coverstory

Nachi Taisha on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage. Photo: Shutterstock

The rugged region near Osaka where the Kumano Mountains meet the ocean is revered as the birthplace of Shinto gods who are said to manifest themselves in trees, waterfalls and rocks. The long Kumano Kodo pilgrim trail links Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples for a scenic walk tackled over several days, culminating at an orange pagoda veiled in the mist of Japan's tallest waterfall and surrounded by giant cedar trees. See visitwakayama.jp

JAPAN: BARBECUE AT YOUR TABLE

Known to the rest of the world as "Korean barbecue", yakiniku is a style of cooking that has been adapted from Korea, and perfected by Japan. At a Japanese yakiniku restaurant, small grills at diners' tables are used to cook bite-sized cuts of the finest marbled wagyu beef, melt-in-your-mouth chunks of sirloin, rib-eye, tongue and more. Find the right restaurant – try Yoroniku in Aoyama, if you can snag a reservation – and you'll be served meat at its absolute pinnacle. See jnto.org.au

See also: 20 things that will shock first-time visitors to Japan

MORE HIDDEN NORTH ASIA HIGHLIGHTS

CHINA: TAKE THE HIGH ROAD

The Karakoram Range is a 7000-metre speed bump separating India and Asia. The Karakoram Highway, or KKH, threads its way through this tectonic knot, running from Pakistan to China. Leaving the lowlands you're soon among trucks bedecked like fabulously gaudy land galleons, and then come mountains that rise like dragons' teeth. Along the 1300 kilometres route you're traversing lands of legend, from fabled Hunza to 4733-metre Khunjerab Pass and finally the old Silk Route caravanserai of Kashgar. See travellifepakistan.com/

CHINA: TEE OFF ON A WORLD BEATER

Few Australian golfers have even heard of Kunming, but this is Asia's golfing capital. There are 20 world-class championship courses set within a two-hour drive of the city in China's south-western reaches. Known as the Land of Eternal Spring for its mild year-round climate set at an altitude of about 1600 metres, several courses here, such as Spring City Golf & Lake Resort, are in Golf Digest's World's Top 100 Golf Courses. See kunminggolf.com

CHINA: SEE ANCIENT SCULPTURES

The Yellow River that flows through central-north Henan province gave rise to China's earliest civilisations. Ancient capitals such as Luoyang and Kaifeng dot the plains, and a stunning 100,000 Buddhist sculptures lurk in Longmen Caves. White Horse Temple (68AD) is China's oldest Buddhist structure. Venerable Buddhist and Daoist temples cluster around China's holiest mountains, most famously Shaolin Monastery, where novice monks practice martial arts. See visithenan.org

CHINA: CLIMB THE TALLEST NATURAL ARCH 

Shipton's Arch, the tallest natural arch in the world, Xinjiang, China Shutterstock_784495438 tra10-Asia-coverstory

Photo: Shutterstock

It's impossible to get a close-up photo of what's likely the world's tallest natural arch; its span so high (460 metres) the Eiffel Tower could fit comfortably beneath it. Tushuk Tash, or Shipton's Arch, stands 50 kilometres from Kashgar in China's north-west, and was only "discovered" on a National Geographic expedition in 2000 (locals knew about it all along). It's reached on a long hike via ladders and staircases. See amazingxinjiang.com

KOREA:BATHE AND RAVE

Whatever your favourite pastime, Busan, South Korea's second city, delivers. Nature lovers will adore its golden beaches and forested hiking trails, and spa fans can indulge themselves 24 hours a day at one of Asia's largest bathhouses. Art lovers will enjoy exploring the city's lively arts scene, and the bustling Jagalchi Fish Market will have food fans swooning. And if temples tick your box, try the atmospheric Seokbul-sa, where images are etched directly into a stony mountainside. See www.bto.or.kr 

See also: The 23 hidden highlights of south-east Asia

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