Japan’s culture, history, and gastronomy are often cited as reasons to travel to Japan. But did you know that for those in the know, Japan‘s nature is also a very popular reason to visit?
Nature lovers from all over the world flock to Japan to enjoy primeval forests, active volcanoes, scenic rugged coastlines, drifting ice, and much more. Natural diversity is great in Japan, and if you don’t mind traveling to a bit more remote areas you will be rewarded with sights you can’t see in many other places in the world. These are the 10 best places to visit for nature lovers in Japan!
1. Yakushima (Kagoshima)
Kagoshima is not only a culturally rich area because of its long history with a strong feudal family ruling the area, a scattering of small islands are also part of the southern prefecture. One of these islands is Yakushima (屋久島) which is especially well known for its primeval cedar forest.
As the air is humid here, the trees are often shrouded in mist which adds to the mystical atmosphere. There are only a few small villages on the island, and the forest is undeveloped. You can find a host of hiking trails that lead through the forest, past waterfalls, and to secluded beaches. As the island is mountainous, some of the hikes require multiple days and an overall good physical condition.
2. Mt Aso (Kumamoto)
Mt Aso (阿蘇山) with its very large caldera is a volcano that is still active today, and it is famous for three areas in particular. First of all, in the middle of the caldera, you can find Mt Nakadake whose crater you can view from up close. Volcanic gases spout from the crater give you a slightly unsettling, but still amazing view. Near Mt Nakadake you can find a shapely volcanic cone covered in grass. It is not easy to reach by vehicle, but you can hike around the area.
Kusasenri is the third must-see spot on Mt Aso. The grassy plain is a beautiful sight, and Because of the fact that the volcano is active, access to Mt Aso is sometimes restricted when the situation is too dangerous or visibility is low. On the official website of the volcano, you can check its current status.
3. Amanohashidate (Kyoto)
You may not directly associate Kyoto with coastal areas, but Kyoto prefecture actually has some very pretty seaside locales. Amanohashidate (天橋立) is located a few hours away from Kyoto city, not far from the Maizuru cruise harbor. This sandbar is covered with pines and is reminiscent of a bridge to heaven, hence the name. It’s a very scenic spot, and visitors like to discover the area on foot or by bicycle. There are small shrines and temples to visit, and you can get great views from several observation decks.
4. Oboke Koboke (Tokushima)
Oboke (大歩危) and Koboke (小歩危) are 8-km long gorges on Shikoku Island where you can enjoy the ancient natural surroundings from the water or from the bus/train. The area is remote, and you will feel like the cities are in a different world. It is said that the best way to enjoy Oboke Koboke is by rafting down the white water river, as this river has the fastest current in Japan!
5. Nachi Katsuura (Wakayama)
Nachi Katsuura (那智勝浦町) is a coastal hot spring town on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail. There are several larger onsen hotels where you can find everything you need for a comfortable stay; extensive bathing facilities, restaurants, bars, and even karaoke. If you can, we recommend a stay at the Urashima hotel with a cave bath or the Nakanoshima Hotel with outdoor baths with ocean views. There is also a famous tuna market in Nachi Katsuura with auctions that you can watch in the morning around 7 am.
6. Lake Nozori (Gunma)
Lake Nozori (野反湖) is located around 200km north of Tokyo, and it was formed in the 1950s when a dam was built here. As the lake is situated at a height of 1500 meters above sea level and is surrounded by gently sloping hills, the landscape reminds many of that of northern Europe. In the summer the grassy fields become colorful with over 150 species of alpine flowers in bloom. We recommend combining a hike at Lake Nozori with a soak in the baths of one of the best hot spring resorts in the world, Kusatsu. It is only 45 minutes by car if you have your own transportation.
7. Okutama (Tokyo)
Okutama (奥多摩) could be considered the ‘backyard of Tokyo’, as you can travel from central Tokyo to Okutama in no time and it is a bountiful natural area full of cool hiking trails. Besides hiking, Tokyoites also like to go to Okutama for activities like cycling, camping, river swimming, rafting, and rock climbing. There is also an ancient limestone cave (Nippara Limestone cave) that is especially nice to visit in summer because of the consistently cool temperature in the cave.
8. Shirakami Sanchi (Aomori-Akita)
Shirakami Sanchi (白神山地) is a large area in the northwestern corner of Honshu that is dotted with natural places of interest. Because the area is so vast, it is prudent to plan your trip and decide which places you want to visit beforehand.
There are multiple hiking paths through the forest that go past waterfalls, lakes, and peaks. The Anmon Falls are the most famous waterfall in the area. Juniko, or ‘12 lakes’, is also a must-see destination while you are here as well. The lakes are all connected through trails, and one lake called ‘Aoike’ has a beautiful deep blue color. Another interesting hike takes you from the Dairakyo Gorge via the Tanashiro Swamp to Mt Komagatake.
9. Jodogahama (Iwate)
This natural gem is found in an area where you would maybe not expect it. Jodogahama (浄土ヶ浜) was ravaged in the tsunami that was triggered after the devastating earthquake of March 2011, but this pretty beach has recovered since. You will find calm, clear seawater with a white pebble shoreline with rocky islands in the bay. You can safely swim here in the summer, there are facilities such as showers and toilets, and they operate Blue Cave cruises where you can see the rocky islands up close and enter a cave with intensely blue water.
10. Shiretoko (Hokkaido)
Japan’s northernmost island Hokkaido is chock full of amazing natural highlights, but for now we want to shine the spotlight on one place in particular; Shiretoko (知床). This peninsula on the eastern side of the island is a designated national park and it is so remote that large parts of it can only be viewed from a boat. The part of the national park that you can discover by land is inhabited by bears, deer, and foxes. You can also see many pretty waterfalls and lakes, but one of the main attractions is the drift ice that you can see here in the winter. In Utoro they organize ice walking tours in which you don’t just walk, but even swim among the drift ice. No worries, you will wear a dry suit so you won’t feel too cold.
These 10 amazing natural spots are just the tip of the iceberg, and there are enough other creations of Mother Nature to enjoy in Japan to fill a lifetime of trips. Japan is a must-visit destination for any nature lover, and making the combination of discovering Japan’s cultural traditions and history while also setting aside a few days for visiting natural destinations.
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Stefanie Akkerman moved from the Netherlands to Japan in 2013 with her Japanese husband and son. She jumped into the niche of Dutch tour guiding in Tokyo and Kamakura in 2015 and occasionally writes articles about all the great sights and activities Japan has to offer. She loves (Japanese) food, and to work that all off she goes diving, snorkeling, cycling, or hiking.
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