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WHEN YOU think of a trip to Japan, popular hotspots like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto always spring to mind.

What many Aussie tourists don’t know is that the country is home to an array of lesser-known destinations that are well worth exploring.

You’ll find everything from secluded beach destinations and ancient samurai villages to almost empty national parks and Mt Fuji lookalikes – you just need to know where to look.

Thankfully, we’ve done the hard work for you…

1 Akan-Mashu National Park, Hokkaido

For most Australian travellers, Hokkaido is known as a winter playground, but locals and regular visitors in the know have come to discover it’s also a great place to visit throughout the year.

With the national park known for fishing, snowshoeing, canoeing and soaking in hot springs, Akan-Mashu offers a full spectrum of fun activities without the crowds of nearby destinations.

Try Lake Kussharo’s Wakoto Peninsula walk and its trail of open-air hot springs, some of which are so secluded that the only facility is a simple changing room.

3 Mt Daisen, Tottori Prefecture

Evoking comparisons with Mt Fuji, but with far fewer visitors, Mt Daisen is one of Japan’s best-kept secrets.

Located in the sparsely populated Tottori Prefecture, the mountain provides great hiking throughout the year and some of the best skiing on the west coast in the winter.

The mountain has many spiritual and religious connections: the area’s Daisenji Temple was once a busy training site for mountain-worshipping practitioners of Shugendo and has been revered by followers of the religion for centuries.

5 Nagasaki Islands

Nagasaki’s 594 islands, including both the inhabited and uninhabited, are famed for their clear waters, impressive vistas and relaxed vibe.

Among the inhabited islands are Tsushima, Iki and Goto Islands that are known for their uncrowded beaches, outdoor land and water activities, and fresh seafood.

Fukue Island, the largest and most southern of the Goto Islands, is located just a few hours away from Nagasaki by boat. Takahama Beach is a favourite among locals, boasting white sand and blue water.

2 Kakunodate, Akita Prefecture

Developed in the early 17th century as a city of samurai, Kakunodate is often referred to as ‘Little Kyoto’ and is one of Japan’s most well-preserved historical pockets, located in Akita Prefecture in the northern region of Tohoku.

Kakunodate boasts authentic Edo-period architecture in two distinct areas: the samurai district and the merchant district. Around 80 samurai families once lived in the area, and you can get a glimpse of their lives through the architecture of the buildings.

For sakura seekers, a two-kilometre stretch of more than 400 cherry blossom trees line the riverbank and just a few minutes’ walk from the samurai district, you’ll find what is said to be one of the best cherry blossom viewing locations in Japan.

4 Shimane Prefecture

The second-least populous prefecture of Japan, Shimane isn’t as well-known as the others but still offers plenty of culture and history, pristine island beaches and one of Japan’s holiest shrines.

With no bullet train access or major commercial centres, the Shimane Prefecture has preserved much of what gives Japan its appeal.

Locals pride themselves on preserving the old way of life and it’s therefore a place to discover authentic Japanese culture and unspoiled countryside.

The Izumo Taisha, a Shinto shrine in Izumo City, attracts pilgrims from around the country once a year during the tenth month of the old Japanese calendar.