When you think of Japan’s cities, where does your mind take you? Is it the megalopolis of Tokyo? The culturally rich and picturesque Kyoto? Or maybe one of the storied centers of Osaka, Hiroshima, or Kobe?
All these cities are rightfully famous and certainly worth visiting. But there’s also much to enjoy in Japan's smaller, less well-known cities. In fact, our bike tours in Japan pass through these quieter locations off the beaten path, offering a truly authentic slice of Japanese life, culture, and history.
If you have any questions for our team of experts, please feel free to get in touch. In the meantime, join us as we explore some of the less well-known cities in Japan worth visiting.
Marvel at Historic and Charming Matsuyama
As both the capital of the Ehime Prefecture and the largest city on Shikoku, there’s plenty to discover in Matsuyama. Matsuyama-jo, a 17th-century castle, sits at the heart of the city. Built on Mount Katsuyama, the castle provides stunning views across the city. You can even catch a glimpse of the Seto Inland Sea.
Another of Matsuyama’s main attractions is the historic Dogo Onsen area. Dogo Onsen is one of Japan’s oldest hot spring resorts. Not only does it provide refreshing public baths, private rooms, tea, and traditional snacks, but it’s also a great place to learn more about the Onsen bathing culture.
Traversing the city is even a pleasurable experience thanks to a charming and punctual tram network. Whether you’re on public transport or simply walking around, you’ll soon realise that tourists are a rare sight in Matsuyama. But that just means there are more friendly locals to meet!
For getting in and out, Matsuyama has an airport with domestic and international flights as well as a collection of excellent hotels.
With all this in mind, it was easy to choose Matsuyama as one of the key stops on our Stunning Shikoku Bike Tour of Japan.
Visit Kochi’s Castle, Temple, and Beach
Also located on Shikoku, Kochi is the capital of the Kochi Prefecture. Whereas Matsuyama is in the island’s northwest corner, Kochi is in the middle of the south coast, looking out over the Pacific Ocean. Kochi is Shikoku’s third-largest city. Only Matsuyama and Takamatsu (more on this city below) are larger.
Given its modest size, Kochi has a small, friendly, and casual atmosphere. But there’s plenty more to this city than a laidback vibe. Like Matsuyama, Kochi also has a well-preserved, feudal-period castle standing proudly on a hilltop downtown. On Godaisan, another of the city’s peaks, you can find Chikurinji Temple. This is one of the 88 stops on the famous Shikoku Pilgrimage.
In addition to a lively downtown and Katsurahama beach, Kochi is also the proud home of Sakamoto Ryoma, a key figure in the Meiji Restoration. You can learn more about this local hero at the Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum, a stone’s throw from Katsurahama Beach.
If you’d like to find out more about Kochi, check out the itinerary of our Japan E-Bike Tour.
Take in the Beauty of Tranquil Takamatsu
Another of Shikoku’s largest cities, Takamatsu is in the northeast of the island. It faces Okayama on the other side of the Seto Inland Sea. This city is the capital of Japan’s smallest prefecture, Kagawa. Until the opening of the Seto Ohashi Bridge in 1988, Takamatsu’s port was Shikoku’s main entry point.
The jewel in the city’s crown is the spectacular Ritsurin Koen, a beautifully landscaped garden built by feudal lords in the early Edo Period. Put simply, Ritsurin Koen is considered one of Japan’s best gardens. It’s common to hear its name mentioned in the same breath as Mito’s Kairakuen, Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen, and Okayama’s Korakuen.
Within the park’s boundaries, you can find numerous ponds, historic trees, tranquil lakes, and photogenic pavilions. The garden also uses Mount Shiun as borrowed scenery for an awe-inspiring backdrop. The islands off the coast of Takamatsu also provide some fun and fascinating day trips. Ogijima and Megijima Islands are just two standout options.
Onomichi: Starting Point of the Shimanami Kaido
This small, quaint harbor town in the Hiroshima Prefecture is primarily on the mainland of Honshu, but it spreads onto some of the neighboring islands in the Seto Inland Sea. Small ferries shuttle between downtown on Honshu and the nearby islands, creating a slow-paced, nostalgic, port-town atmosphere.
However, the bridges that make up the Shimanami Kaido also connect the mainland, the islands, and Shikoku. If you’re an avid fan of cycling in Japan and Asia, you may have some familiarity with the world-famous Shimanami Kaido cycling route. Well, Onomichi is the starting point!
The popularity of this bike trail has helped Onomichi blossom into more than the fading ship maintenance town it seemed destined to become. Learn more about this bucket-list biking trail with our Shimanami Kaido Cycling Guide.
Onomichi is also defined by its hills, so it has a cable car which is well worth a ride for the incredible views it provides. We also recommend checking out the city’s art and history museums. We think this is one of the less well-known cities in Japan worth visiting and so created a pre-tour extension option here - the Hiroshima & Onomichi Explorer extension.
Kanazawa, Home to One of Japan’s Most Beautiful Gardens
This city is on Honshu’s northern coastline and is the capital of the Ishikawa Prefecture. Kanazawa is home to some fine examples of well-preserved Edo-era architecture and impressive art museums. But the undoubted twin attractions here are Kanazawa Castle, which dates back to the 1580s, and Kenrokuen.
Kenrokuen is one of only three “perfect gardens” in Japan. Its meticulous design ensures stunning beauty in every season. For many people. Kenrokuen is the most beautiful of these perfect gardens. For that reason alone, a trip to Kanazawa is a worthy addition to any Japan itinerary.
Step into Sapporo’s Snowy Frontier Atmosphere
Located on the northern island of Hokkaido, Sapporo has as close to a frontier atmosphere as you can get in Japan. Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido and Japan’s fifth-largest city. Of all the entries on this list, it’s the one you may have the most familiarity with.
This is also, by Japan’s standards, a young city. As recently as 1875, Sapporo’s population was an incredible seven people! Yes, seven. At the onset of the Meiji Period, the development of Hokkaido took off. Sapporo was assigned the status of an administrative center and was subsequently enlarged on the advice of overseas specialists.
As such, the city itself has a grid street system that is more familiar in the west. Given its relative freshness, Sapporo feels like a city less attached to rules and tradition, avoiding the convention and stuffiness often found in Tokyo and other larger, older cities. Sapporo feels like the perfect fit for adventurous misfits. It’s also well-known for beer, ramen, the Winter Olympics, and a thriving skiing and snow sports scene.
Discover Authentic Japan with Our Range of Bike Tours in Asia
We hope this guide to the less well-known cities in Japan worth visiting has sparked your inspiration to explore this endlessly alluring country. There’s no better way to do this than on two wheels, making memories with like-minded people, and learning about the natural and human history from a local, experienced guide.
This is exactly what our bike tours in Japan deliver. Browse our carefully curated itineraries and learn more about the amazing adventures that await. For more information about any of the tours we operate, please feel free to contact us.