The Top 5 Most Overlooked Cities In Japan

21 July 2014

Australians have travelled a well-worn path to Japan for years, and major cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto act as magnets for curious international visitors. But with more than 10 Japanese cities home to over a million inhabitants, some of Japan's most exciting destinations are overlooked in the rush to explore Tokyo and Kansai's big hitters.

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Some of my favourite memories of living in Japan come from hopping on the Shinkansen and exploring a new city. And with a Japan Rail Pass and a map of the country's comprehensive rail network the only things you need to discover more of Japan, I've put together a list of the country's Top 5 Most Overlooked Cities to consider for your next trip to this intriguingly diverse destination.

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Yokohama

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 The picturesque port city of Yokohama

Some guidebooks inexplicably list Yokohama as an outlying suburb of Tokyo. Some suburb! Far from being the nondescript district of a major metropolis, Yokohama is actually Japan's second-largest city.

More than 3.5 million residents call Yokohama home, and it's no surprise they do, with the capital of Kanagawa boasting a picturesque harbour and one of Japan's most cosmopolitan settings. Home to the truly breathtaking Cosmo Clock 21 Ferris wheel and one of Asia's oldest Chinatowns, Yokohama's cavernous Nissan Stadium was even the setting for the 2002 FIFA World Cup Final.

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Kobe

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 Lights sparkle across Kobe

"If you can't go to Paris, go to Kobe" goes the old Japanese saying, and there's no doubt Kobe is one of Japan's most cultured cities. Lying barely 30 kilometres from Osaka but feeling like it's a world away, Kobe is as renowned for its international outlook as it is for its famous Kobe beef.

The city's eye-catching Kitano-cho is one of its most popular tourist attractions, playing host to dozens of historic homes once owned by Kobe's sizeable foreign community. Meanwhile, the downtown areas of this picturesque port city light up spectacularly at night, commanding an impressive view from nearby Mount Maya.

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Nagoya

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 Nagoya's bustling Sakae district

Lying almost smack-bang in the middle of the island of Honshu, Nagoya is often overlooked by visitors precisely because it is essentially halfway between Tokyo and Osaka. Yet to skip Nagoya is to miss out on the very essence of 'big city' Japan.

A relatively young city and the populous capital of Aichi, Nagoya's allure lies not in its historic attractions but in its infectious big city charm. Boasting a vibrant nightlife around downtown Sakae and one of the world's busiest train stations, Nagoya is very much the place to experience a thoroughly modern Japan.

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Sapporo

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 Odori Park in Sapporo

Some Japanese cities look like much like any other, however that's certainly not the case in Sapporo. Known for its wide boulevards and neat grid layout, the European-inspired capital of Hokkaido is home to a beloved ice festival and one of Japan's most famous breweries.

The Sapporo Beer Museum is one of the city's most popular attractions, and a perfect place to enjoy a beverage in the beer garden on a sunny summer afternoon. Come winter, the main attraction is the Sapporo Snow Festival - a week-long outdoor event showcasing spectacular creations carved from solid ice.

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Nagasaki

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 Night sets on Nagasaki harbour

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Sapporo - both geographically and in climate - sunny Nagasaki on the southern island of Kyushu commands plenty of attention. One of the few Japanese cities to welcome foreign traders during the Late Middle Ages, Nagasaki has long retained a distinctive foreign influence.

But while Nagasaki is one of Japan's most cosmopolitan cities, what makes it a particularly worthwhile destination is its stunning harbourside setting. Add to that the classic trams which trundle amiably through the city and an eclectic range of theme parks, and it's easy to see why Nagasaki attracts its fair share of visitors each year.

Mike Tuckerman

From Europe to Asia and many places in between, there's rarely a town or city I've not enjoyed exploring. When I'm not wandering the streets and discovering new destinations, you can usually find me hanging out with the locals at major sporting events.