Japan’s natural beauty is breath-taking – whether in the hills and mountains that are becoming increasingly popular for treks and expeditions, or for the colours and ceremonies that surround the spectacles of cherry blossom and autumn colours. A welcome distraction from the high-tech wizardry of Japan’s modern cities, these natural phenomena will amaze you. From island to mountain, Japan delivers.
Japan - The great outdoors
Head to the coastlines of Okinawa
White, sandy beaches frame clear, warm waters, teeming with tropical fish of all shapes, sizes and colours here on Okinawa. These islands are an idyllic haven and a slower pace of life, like most of Japan’s beaches. The island chain is located halfway between Japan and Taiwan and stretches for over 1,000km.
With a chequered history of independence, Chinese and US rule, Okinawa has created a unique culture. The main island, Okinawa-Honto, is developed towards domestic tourism, with the smaller islands to the west less frequented by visitors. This makes it the perfect getaway for a beach break you might have thought impossible in Japan. Or for more of a forest adventure, head to the interior for trekking.
There are hundreds of islands here, some inhabited, others little more than a rocky outcrop in the ocean. You’ll discover great beaches and accommodation no matter your budget. And the crystal-clear waters are ideal for snorkelling, with abundant marine life just below the surface.
Cherish the cherry blossom in spring
The world-famous cherry blossom season in Japan begins to blossom in Okinawa in January, typically reaching Kyoto and Tokyo at the end of March or beginning of April. It continues into areas at the higher altitudes and northward, arriving in Hokkaido a few weeks later. So, while you will have many chances to experience it, the sakura in bloom is one of the country’s most awe-inspiring sights.
Seeing the magical springtime bloom of the cherry blossom is high on many travellers’ wish lists but also a seasonal highlight for Japanese families. They will generally celebrate this time of year with viewing parties and picnics.
Many deem the best view to be in Tokyo in the botanical gardens of Shinjuku Gyoen, Ueno Park and Chidorigafuchi where hundreds of cherry trees are dotted around the parks. But there are many amazing locations to experience and ensure the best hanami (cherry-blossom viewing). You could try The Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto next to a canal or Yoshinoyama (Mount Yoshino) where cherry trees were first planted in Japan around 1,300 years ago.
Hike your way around amazing landscapes
Japan is increasingly a destination for hiking and countryside adventures. Natural wonders such as Mount Fuji are high on visitors’ lists but so are several other less known experiences. The Kumano Kodo set of pilgrimage routes has now been recognised by UNESCO acknowledging their previous popularity with Japanese emperors who battled up the tough, wooded slopes and over the spectacular mountain passes.
At Mount Hiei, near Kyoto, you can choose the cable car ride up its 850m height or the real Japanese experience of hiking with the monkey and tanuki (Japanese racoon) to the pink-tinged Enryakuji Temple. Or head to the Japan Alps, Honshu, but choice abounds here so plan your trip carefully. The Kamikochi Valley offers shorter treks to Myojin-ike, as well as more challenging ascents of Yariga-take (3,180m) and Hotaka-dake (3,190m).
The Japanese great outdoors must also include a visit to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove which is unlike any other forest in the world. Couple your visit with a tour of the Tenryu-ji Temple and then fight your way through the thick green bamboo stalks that are in every direction.
Contrast the autumn colours
During the fifty days of mimijigari (the viewing of Autumn leaves), the colours of Japan are breath-taking. Take a guided tour of the Japanese gardens of Shinjuku Gyoen and Kenroku-en and pick up Japanese gardening secrets from those who consider it a classical art. Shoyoen Garden (Nikko) has spectacular scenes in October for any aspiring horticulturalist.
Indeed, the colours are so amazing here that it is little surprise a whole tradition exists around the spectacle. This used to be popular among Japanese aristocracy of the Heian period (794-1185) when nobles went boating on ponds, playing music and composing poetry while enjoying these colours, or trekked to the mountains to gather coloured leaves.
Since 1912, people have begun to visit places famed for their beautiful foliage, near and far. And just like the beauty of these trees, this tradition continues today.
Experience traditional life in Takayama
One of those rare things, a rural Japanese city, Takayama’s remote mountain location provides an insight into traditional country ways, with its beautifully preserved old town and slower pace of living. Morning markets, the Hida No Sato Folk Village open-air museum and a former castle site help to bring the past to life. This beautifully preserved old town was cut off from the rest of Japan, meaning it has developed its own unique culture and way of life, influenced in part by Kyoto and Tokyo. Here you can explore Shirakawago, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed village. It’s famous for its 'praying hands'-style farmhouses and distinctive architecture.
In April and October, Takayama hosts, respectively, the Sanno and Hachiman Matsuri, when a dozen heavily decorated floats are displayed, including performances of sophisticated mechanical dolls on board, before being pulled through the streets in the evening. If you miss the festivities, during the year the floats are on display at warehouses throughout the city.
Hop from island to island
Often described as bonkers but completely enthralling, Naoshima cannot be missed. The surrealist wonderland, a small islet in the Seto Island Sea, has found fame for its striking and surprising art culture. Modernity is everywhere – from architecture to art galleries, sculptures and museums. Its serene and almost shrine-like in its meditative atmosphere and you will feel to be in a sacred space or privileged museum. Yet old world rules dominate here and there are no televisions. Opportunities for a selfie on social media are avoided by a waiver form on arrival. Here is your time to think, not vaunt.
Follow the ancient pilgrim trails of the Kumano Kodo and find a largely undiscovered paradise. With a long, beautiful coastline and many designated national parks, the Mie Prefecture offers Shinto shrines, ancient pilgrim trails, hot springs and the enigmatic beauty of the Bay of Pearls. Dating back to the 3rd century, Ise Jingu is Japan's most sacred Shinto shrine, an example of architectural style of achingly beautiful simplicity. The rolling hills and ancient woodlands of Ise-Shima National Park are a hot spring sanctuary while the Bay of Pearls is famed for pearl cultivation and as one of the last remaining homes of the Ama female free-divers.
Take in majestic Mount Fuji
Spotting the best views of Mount Fuji can become a holiday pastime all on its own. While it majestically towers at towers at 3,776 m, this shy giant does need a clear day to be seen. So, this really is a case of right time, right place.
In Tokyo, you stand a very good chance of seeing the mountain between the skyscrapers, as long as the pollution is not too high that day. For a closer view of this fierce beauty, visit the largest Shintõ shrine in Tokyo, the Meiji-jung, or take in the whole city from above as well at the world’s tallest tower, the Sky Tree. The Mandarin Oriental’s 'Spa in the sky' sits 37 floors above the city and is another excellent viewing spot – weather allowing.
But don’t limit yourself to the capital. In Hakone National Park, the sublime, Gora Kadan offers the very best of Japanese hospitality and an authentic experience, as well as excellent Fuji-watching. And Ginyu Ryokan Hakone is set amidst the mountain scenery offering panoramic views from your balcony private bath.Find more inspiration to start planning your luxury holiday to Japan.