South and west of Kyoto and Nara, Japan takes on a different feel. The farther you go, the more relaxed people become. Far from Japan's main islands, the stark divide between the tropical beaches of Okinawa and Honshu's concrete metropolises is reflected in a different culture and cuisine.
Start off in this castle town, Shikoku’s largest city and home to several Shingon Buddhist pilgrimage temples and the ancient hot springs of Dogo Onsen.
The Iya Valley may be slightly difficult to access, but it offers untouched, deep canyons, the best river rafting in Japan, and good walking trails. Despite its isolated location, there are some fantastic lodging options here.
Adjust to the even slower pace of Naoshima, spending a day at the world-class Chichu Art Museum, which integrates artworks into everyday locations, often with inspiring results and the Benesse House Museum.
A quick glance at the busy, attractive city of Hiroshima gives no clue to the events of August 6, 1945. Only the city's Peace Memorial Park (Heiwa Kinen Koen)—with its memorial museum and its A-Bomb Dome (Gembaku Domu), a twisted, half-shattered structural ruin—serves as a reminder of the atomic bomb. From Hiroshima, make a quick trip to the island of Miyajima to see the floating torii of Itsukushima Jinja, a shrine built on stilts above a tidal flat.
One of the locals' favorite pastimes is relaxing in an onsen, and in the artsy spa town of Yufuin, on the southernmost island of Kyushu, you can soak in mineral water or bubbling mud. Nearby, five volcanic cones create Japan's largest caldera at Mt. Aso. An immense 18 km (11 miles) by 24 km (15 miles), the stark volcanic peak contrasts vividly with the surrounding green hills. One crater, Naka-dake, is still active, and reaching it on foot or via cable car affords views of a bubbling, steaming lake.
Check out cosmopolitan Naha, which gives a feel for how Okinawan culture and cuisine differ from those of "mainland" Japan. Explore the main island's many reminders of its tragic fate during World War II. Take a boat to one of the smaller Kerama islands to relax on unspoiled beaches. And to truly appreciate the beauty of the ocean, get into the water—there are plenty of scuba diving and snorkeling centers.