Photo: iStock/ deimagine

Japan’s worst tourist traps and where to go instead

By Laura Payne

The best destinations in Japan include serene traditional streets and ancient temples in places like Kyoto. In Tokyo, iconic “must-see” attractions such as the Tokyo Tower or the “exhilarating” experience of cruising in go-karts are hard to miss.

However, while these activities offer a glimpse into the culture and are undoubtedly enjoyable for some, they only tell part of the story. Japan’s frequently recommended destinations have earned their reputation for good reasons. Yet, they can often be swamped with tourists. These sites sometimes cater so heavily to foreign visitors that they risk becoming mere reflections of travelers’ preconceptions rather than showcasing the authentic essence of Japan.

Thankfully, for those eager to dig a bit deeper, Japan is peppered with innumerable hidden gems. These lesser-known spots can satisfy your wanderlust, providing experiences that echo the allure of the more renowned locales without the crowds.

Trade Kyoto for Kanazawa

The pristine Higashi Chaya district of Kanazawa Photo: iStock/ bee32

Kyoto is undeniably one of Japan’s top tourist magnets. However, the reality of its overcrowded streets can shatter the dreams of visitors hoping for a tranquil cultural experience. Moreover, the traditional charm of Kyoto is predominantly confined to the streets of Gion. While Gion offers a glimpse into the past, it often feels like a repetitive tableau, with everyone aiming to capture the same photograph. The geisha, iconic symbols of Kyoto, are constantly swarmed, their daily lives interrupted by photos without consent.

Instead of battling the crowds in Kyoto, consider Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture. Historically, Kanazawa has rivaled Kyoto enough to earn the nickname “Little Kyoto.” It remained relatively secret from the tourism onslaught thanks to the city’s less direct accessibility by the Shinkansen bullet train until recent years.

The Higashi Chaya District in Kanazawa mirrors Kyoto’s Gion in many ways, with beautifully preserved wooden buildings lining the streets, and geisha are rooted in the city’s cultural heritage. Kenrokuen is one of Japan’s most splendid gardens, often contrasting Kyoto’s Kinkakuji or Ryoanji’s beauty and serenity. The city also boasts districts dedicated to crafts such as gold leafing—including gold leaf ice cream!

Kanazawa, Ishikawa - Map

Nearest Station: Kanazawa

Himeji Castle Over Osaka Castle

The White Heron Castle looms over the city. Photo: iStock

Those who want to see a castle that has stood since the days of samurai should skip Osaka Castle. Although the site’s history stretches back centuries, the current tower is not the original structure but a concrete reconstruction that houses a modern museum.

One must travel beyond Osaka to Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture for a genuine glimpse into Japan’s architectural past. This majestic structure is a testament to Japan’s architectural resilience and historical richness. It has weathered the turbulent Warring States Period and emerged unscathed from the ravages of World War II bombings and the devastating Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995.

Recognized as a national treasure and a World Heritage site, Himeji Castle’s main tower captivates visitors with its stunning beauty, intricate early 17th-century architectural designs, and innovative defensive features.

68 Honmachi, Himeji, Hyogo - Map

Nearest Station: Himeji

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Easy to avoid tourist places if you use your brain.

OMG, Himeji castle, went once and never again, even Wakayama Castle was more fun, never going back, no way Pedro.

-13 ( +3 / -16 )

Yeah… the castles… visited Odawara castle a few years back before restorations… was actually really good… took my folks a couple of years later… it seemed to have completely lost any authenticity. Very disappointed the second time. Are there any castles that haven’t been destroyed with “restoration”?

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Is Osaka Castle all that popular? I thought Himeji Castle attracts far more visitors.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Osaka castle has never been the same since it was sacked in 1615. These days it is just a Disney rebuild. I never go to Osaka, it's full of tourists.

-5 ( +4 / -9 )

Osaka is well worth a visit, especially in the cherry blossom season. The gardens and the park area are very nice.

We live near Himeji Castle the best you will see in all of Japan. Restored back in 2019. But in the cherry blossom, it's like baseball-sized crowds. Took my brother from Rome there last month during the week and there were not many people. Mostly foreign tourists. I think Himeji Castle attracts 3-5 million visitors every year. There are good places to buy bentos and enjoy them in the park.

Hikone Castle on Lake Biwa is worth a visit as is Matsumoto Castle.

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

If you are staying in Osaka and only vaguely interested in castles, then I would give Himeji Castle a miss.

-8 ( +1 / -9 )

If you are staying in Osaka and you want some castle culture, I'd go to Kyoto. It's easily accessed by train. All culture in "Oh" got bombed to death. Check out Kyoto's 元離宮二条城 for its 桃山時代 decor. Busy but worth it.

-1 ( +4 / -5 )

Why would any of us recommend our favourite spots,unless we were profiting from the tourist industry?

Come to Saitama!

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Saitama has 秩父市. The surrounding environment is worth a visit according to friends and colleagues. I've only been to the 東京 side of 秩父多摩甲斐国立公園

2 ( +5 / -3 )


I would give Himeji Castle a miss

> Why the hate for Himeji-jo? It is certainly not the worst of the "famous" castles to visit (that would probably still be Osaka-jo). Granted, it's something one only does once, but IMHO that applies to almost any castle. I particularly enjoyed the forest walk around the castle, which at least when I visited half a decade ago was almost eerily devoid of tourists.

I don't hate Himeji Castle, I live near there. But I wouldn't visit from Osaka unless I really wanted to see a castle.

Where are the forest walks about Himeji Castle?

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

Where are the forest walks about Himeji Castle?

I thought you know everything about said castle. Seems not.

1 ( +4 / -3 )


Yes, Hikone is a good one. Took some friends there in 2015, wasn’t too busy either.

Lat went to Himeji castle in 2021 because my partner insisted on going, just don’t like it at all, not really into castles you see. most I enjoyed was the shopping arcade near there with some stores looking like they haven’t changed for 50 years, very interesting especially the music stores selling records etc.

Would advise anyone to avoid Kyoto unless they want to feel like a squashed tinned sardine. It was lovely during the pandemic mind, went a lot with my partner. Unfortunately it’s packed now and many tourists behave in an irresponsible and uncouth manner.

-7 ( +2 / -9 )

Elvis is here

Where are the forest walks about Himeji Castle?

> I thought you know everything about said castle. Seems not.

I never posted I knew everything about Himeji Castle. I posted according to the article and my experience of it. There are no forests around Himeji Castle, period. Check out a map.

-4 ( +2 / -6 )



Lat went to Himeji castle in 2021 because my partner insisted on going, just don’t like it at all, not really into castles you see. most I enjoyed was the shopping arcade near there with some stores looking like they haven’t changed for 50 years, very interesting especially the music stores selling records etc.

Which why I wouldn't recommend people to visit from Osaka unless they are really into castles because there is not much else.

0 ( +3 / -3 )


Akashi Castle ruins are worth a visit in the cherry blossom season and a picnic around the lake.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

One of the best castles that is quiet with an award winning garden is in Kishiwada, walking along the Gardenia hedges by the moat with the castle in the background attacks the senses with beauty, history and a beautiful scent.

A visit to Mt Koya gives you time for quiet contemplation and it's easy to avoid crowds.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Himeji Castle is very fine but there periods with large crowds.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

How about driving a Mari Car through the streets of Kanazawa?

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

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