The Kii Peninsula is considered by many to be the birthplace of Japan—it has 1,600 years worth of culture, the Shinto religion originated here, and it’s home to some of the most pristine outdoors in all of Asia. So it’s surprising how few international travelers are aware of it. In the last 10 years, however, visitors to the area have noticeably increased, says Yuki Naritomi, a local guide from nearby Osaka. That’s when Western travel media first began highlighting the peninsula’s key attractions. “Whereas once a place for natives to pay homage to both their cultural roots and countryside, the Kii Peninsula is now experiencing an influx of Australians, Americans and Europeans,” she says. Thankfully for go-getters, the peninsula hasn’t gone mainstream yet but here are a few reasons why you should visit before it does.

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The Kumano Kodo

Kii Peninsula, Japan

The Kumano Kodo | Photo: Lindsey Snow

Also known as the “Camino de Santiago” of Asia, this 1,000-year-old, multi-route hiking trail was once used by Shintoists to purge their sins, purify their souls and invoke divine help during the struggle for life. Today, the enchanted trail is used for hikers and admirers of the Kodo’s many Shinto shrines, inviting torii gates, and lush cypress, cedar and fern-filled pathways. After hiking the most popular (but crowd-free) Nakahechi route for four days, it’s probably the world’s most terrific trek that nobody has heard of.

The Country’s Greatest Scenery

Nachi Falls, Japan

Nachi Falls | Photo: Blake Snow

When Western media started highlighting the Kii Peninsula a decade ago, they did so primarily for two reasons, tourism officials say: the unspoiled countryside and the highest concentration of cultural sights in all of Japan. Whether along the Kodo itself, in the delightful sleepy mountain towns that dot the trail, or at the pinnacle of zen of Nachi Falls (pictured), the peninsula celebrates the most wonderful mix of natural beauty and ancient architecture we’ve ever seen.

Do as the Locals Do

ryokan, Japan

A traditional Japanese ryokan

While most foreigners visit and vacation in Tokyo, the Japanese head to the Kii Peninsula in droves. And since few Westerners accompany them, those that do will find an unadulterated experience and unique window into local life. That mostly includes staying in traditional, straw-matted Japanese inns known as ryokans, which you can book right here on Travelocity. The experience also usually includes bathing in one of the many hot springs, or onsens, and wearing the freely-provided yukatas (or leisurely kimonos) in a remarkably relaxing and peaceful surrounding.

The Best Cultural Sights

Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto, Japan | Photo: Blake Snow

In addition to inspired landscapes, the area also grants easy access to two of Japan’s most important and venerable cities. In rural Asuka, the country’s first capital, you can appreciate 1,600-year-old megalithic structures such as the Ishibutai Tomb. About an hour north, you’ll find the real star of the show in Japan’s longest-held, most elegant and most influential capital: Kyoto. Tea ceremonies, geishas, cherry blossoms, imperial palaces, zen gardens and the shrine of 10,000 gates (i.e. Fushimi Inari)—it’s all here.

You’re Own Private Japan

Kii Peninsula, Japan

Kii Peninsula

Although numbers are steadily growing, native visitors to the Kii Peninsula still outnumber international visitors. The Kumano Kodo, for instance, sees only a fraction of total visitors (200,000) compared to the 2.6 million total for the crowded Camino de Santiago. On a recent trip, the absence of tourists was obvious. The lack of online reviews underscores this. Although it’s existed for 1,000 years, the Kumano Kodo has just five user reviews on Google.

In short, the so-called birthplace of Japan remains mostly undiscovered by outsiders. Better yet, the Kii Peninsula still displays everything the wider country is known for: immaculate environments, disorienting culture, welcoming people and reverent moods.

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