Japan consists of 6,852 separate islands—but only 430 of them are inhabited.
But calling places like the country’s capital city of Tokyo inhabited is something of an understatement. The 845-square-mile capital boasts more than nine million residents, with a subway system that’s so congested most visitors considering braving the lines one the country’s most quintessential adventures. Yet within—and beyond—that urban sprawl lies a legion of attractions: bamboo forests, snow-capped volcanic peaks choked with some of the best powder in the world, mazes of ancient shrines, small islands rimmed with coral reefs, and pools of natural hot spring waters.
We already told you the best spots in Tokyo for trail running and the must-see sights in the city; now we cast our gaze wider, across the country, to highlight five of the best adventures in the land of the rising sun.
Bamboo forests, snow-capped volcanic peaks choked with some of the best powder in the world, mazes of ancient shrines, small islands rimmed with coral reefs, and pools of natural hot spring waters.
Scuba Dive in Okinawa
This archipelago of 160 islands located on the southwestern tip of Japan delivers a full menu of diving options, everything from World War II wrecks to vibrant coral reefs to schools of massive hammerhead sharks at Kume Island. Base yourself out of the Okinawa, and hook up with one of the many dive operations to organize shore dives or day-long outings.
You can explore the dense coral reefs surrounding the uninhabited Kerama Islands, the squid and clownfish of Gahi Island, or swim with humpback whales, which use the islands’ subtropical climate as a breeding ground from January to March.
And, if the conditions cooperate, be sure to visit Yonaguni Monument, a submerged “monument” first discovered in 1986, which has staircase-like terraces with flat sides and sharp corners that look to have been man-made, but might’ve been created via natural water erosion. It’s still a thing of playful debate among locals, so you can dive in and cast your own first-hand opinion—mother nature or, as one professor of seismology insists, something that was artificially modified more than 2,000 years ago?
Day Hiking from Kibune to Kurama
The small mountain town of Kibune sits just outside of Kyoto, easily accessible via train from the picturesque city. Start this easy day hike from Kibune to Kurama by climbing up a steep road and if you’re hungry, fuel up at one of the restaurants built over the flowing river that flanks the path. From there, pick up the trail and start the two- to three-hour hike, which climbs through forestland populated with temples and Shinto shrines before reaching the Kurama Temple, which sits high above the surrounding hillsides.
Pay a modest fee to explore the temple, and snap a photo of the “alien rock,” where Mao-son (dubbed “the great king of the conquerors of evil and the spirit of the earth”) supposedly stood when he descended from Venus to save mankind. Then continue down the winding path into Kurama and spend a few chill hours at the <em>onsen</em>, a public bathhouse with a network of hot water pools fed by the region’s hot springs, before hopping the train back to Kyoto.
Ski or Snowboard in Hokkaido
The northernmost of Japan’s main islands, the volcanic landscape of Hokkaido benefits from ocean-effect snow that pummels the island with 580 inches of the driest, most forgiving snow on the planet—nearly twice more than typically falls in North America. Simply put, it’s some of the best skiing in the world—perhaps that’s why the country chose to host the 1972 Olympics in the region.
Simply put, it’s some of the best skiing in the world.
Head for Niseko, where you can ski the resorts strewn across the dormant volcano of Mt. Yotei, including Niseko Mt. Resort and Grand Hirafu, which sits on the slopes of Mt. Niseko-Annupuri. The area also offers easy access to the side- and backcountry; just hook up with one of the operators based out of Niseko for guided skin and snowcat tours. If you can’t get there, Japan’s other Winter Olympic locale—Nagano, which hosted the games in 1998—lies a few hours outside of Tokyo.
Climb Mt. Fuji
Located about 62 miles from Tokyo, Mt. Fuji ranks as the country’s tallest peaks and remains one of Japan’s most endearing icons. Reaching its 12,388-foot summit ranks as one of the quintessential experiences on-island, though the approach is more of a hike than a technical ascent, which is also why the activity proves quite popular, and the route quite crowded.
Mt. Fuji ranks as the country’s tallest peaks and remains one of Japan’s most endearing icons.
The mountain opens to climbers from July through early September, with four routes to the top—mountain huts scattered throughout make it easy to seek civilized shelter. It might not be the hardest summit in the country, but all mountain factors still apply, including elevation and unpredictable weather (even in the heart of summer), so plan and pack accordingly. Busses run to the base from Tokyo, and you should plan on a six-hour ascent, and about three hours to return to the bottom.
Hike and Bike in Towada-Hachimantai National Park
At only 329.7 square miles, Towada-Hichimantai isn’t the country’s biggest national park (that one resides on Hokkaido), but what this park may lack in size, it more than makes up for it with its verdant landscape. It comprises two areas that stretch across the Aomori, Iwate, and Akita prefectures in the northern tip of the main island, and includes Lake Towada, Mount Hakkoda, and most of the Oirase River Valley.
The region ranks as one of the country’s best spot for autumn colors.
The 8.6-mile day hike through the Oirase Gorge drops you right into the heart of the park, with waterfalls, rivers, dense forest, and natural hot springs. Bike rentals can be organized in several places in the park, and the region ranks as one of the country’s best spot for autumn colors.