Ben Richards shares 5 lesser-known Japan destinations, from Ishigaki to Niigata

Japan-based photographer Ben Richards reveals the best spots for every kind of traveler

Travel to Japan is booming—and for good reason. The dreamy landscapes and high-octane cities, the age-old traditions fused with innovation, the outstanding food and authentic craftsmanship at every turn.

Of course, the drawback to all the excitement is swelling crowds, especially in Tokyo and Kyoto. But don’t let that hold you back. There are plenty of places in Japan that offer more breathing space. With this in mind, we turned to travel photographer Ben Richards to share five lesser-known destinations around the country.

For a nature adventure: Shiretoko National Park, Hokkaido

A wild bear at Iwaubetsu River

Shiretoko National Park
Image: Ben Richards

It may come as a surprise but Hokkaido was Richards’ first port of call when he moved to Japan. Apart from it being less congested, he was drawn to the staggering landscapes. And the one place that has captured his heart is Shiretoko National Park. “It remains one of Hokkaido’s greatest examples of untouched wilderness,” Richards says. “It’s one of the best places to see the majestic brown bear in the wild.” That’s not all: You can spot seals, sperm whales, and over two hundred kinds of birds, too. Shiretoko National Park is also great for basking in the beautiful auburn foliage in Autumn and seeing drifting sea ice come winter.

For a family getaway: Ishigaki, Okinawa

A beach at Ishigaki
A wild monkey at Ishigaki

Ishigaki, Okinawa makes a great sunny escape
Image: Ben Richards

Far removed from Japan’s busy cities, Okinawa spans over 160 islands with subtropical climes, cerulean waters, and fab beaches. When it comes to the finest stretches of sand, Richards recommends Ishigaki Island (a one-hour flight away from Okinawa Island), especially Yonehara Beach and Sukuji Beach. Apart from lounging by the shore, there’s “snorkeling or diving with manta rays and turtles at the famous Manta Scramble coral reef across Kabira Bay.” There’s more: You can hike through the rainforest, kayak through the mangroves, and cycle along the coast. You’ll never run out of ideas for the family here.

For a crafty trip: Kanazawa, Ishikawa

An craftsman in Kanazawa
A motorcyclist in Kanazawa's Higashi Chaya District

Kanazawa is steeped in craft and culture
Image: Ben Richards

If you’ve been contemplating a cultural trip other than Kyoto, look no further than Kanazawa. It’s not only a craft capital, but also one of Japan’s storied cities. Get lost in Edo Period architecture, immaculately preserved geisha districts, and handicraft workshops. Richards’ standout moment in Kanazawa was spending an eye-opening afternoon with Matsuda Sensei, a samurai sword artisan. “Each piece is made meticulously by hand in his home workshop,” he says. “It was a truly special experience.” There’s even a samurai district in Kanazawa, with museums and restaurants dedicated to this ancient art. Another unforgettable activity: Learning how to weave a bamboo basket from Chifuyu Enomoto, one of the 100 remaining contemporary bamboo artists in the whole country.

For an artsy jaunt: Echigo Tsumari Art Field, Niigata

Echigo Tsumari Art Field, Niigata
Echigo Tsumari Art Field, Niigata

Artworks are found all around Echigo Tsumari Art Field, Niigata
Image: Ben Richards

With over 200 artworks dotted around the Niigata countryside, the Echigo Tsumari Art Field is like no other. You’ll find fascinating installations among terrace rice fields, along rushing rivers, or nestled within quaint villages—and the dreamy vistas set an ideal backdrop for the art to shine. If you don’t have time to catch every piece, the number one must-see according to Richards is the Tunnel of Light by MAD Architects. It’s a 750-meter atmospheric passageway that leads to panoramic views of the Kiyotsu Gorge. Visiting in 2024 is also perfect timing: the Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale will be on from July 13 to November 10.

For a wild escape: Yakushima, Kyushu

A boardwalk in Yakusugi Land
Yakushima deer

(L-R) A boardwalk in Yakusugi Land, Yakushima deer
Image: Ben Rirchards

Set off the coast of southern Kyushu, Yakushima is an isle that transports you into another world. It’s home to some of the country’s last primeval forests and highest peaks. “Out of Japan’s 6,852 islands, this is one of the most unique and untouched places to visit,” says Richards. The highlight on his list is the enchanting Japanese cedar forest at Yakusugi Land—the moss-covered terrain and misty landscape is believed to have inspired Studio Ghibli’s fan favorite Princess Mononoke. Another highly-rated spot is the Ohko-no-taki Waterfall. It’s not only considered one of Japan’s most beautiful waterfalls, but you’ll also see monkeys and deers along the way.

Ben Richards has spent the past couple of years working on a self-published guidebook, Views from Japan. A result of having visited 30 prefectures, his guide is all about exploring places like a local—it’s packed with timeless recs, stunning pictures, and top tips. You can buy a copy here.


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