You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

On Your Next Trip to Japan, Venture Into Nature

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 10/5/2022 Lale Arikoglu

All listings featured in this story are independently selected by our editors. However, when you book something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

During the drudgery of the pandemic lockdown, my travel thoughts returned often to Japan, which I spent two weeks exploring back in 2018. Again and again I recalled the same handful of experiences: drinking a vending-machine Sapporo in my hotel-room bathtub, bludgeoned by jet lag; darting across Shibuya Crossing with an old university friend at midnight; tasting chunks of crispy tempura in Kyoto; and, most enduringly, inhaling the damp, musky smell of the towering cedar trees that lined the Kumano Kodo, a network of ancient pilgrimage trails along the Kii Hanto peninsula south of Kyoto that I hiked for seven days.

Clearly, I’m not the only one desperate to return to Japan: Even after more than two years of sealed borders, our readers have voted Tokyo their No. 3 large city in the world and Japan their No. 2 favorite country. In Tokyo alone, so much has changed since most Westerners last visited, thanks to the investments related to the 2020 Olympics, including a slew of shiny public transit upgrades and hotel openings like the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Otemachi and The Tokyo Edition Toranomon. But while Japan might be best known for its cities, it’s also a worthy outdoors destination—and my time on the Kumano Kodo was just a glimpse of what it has to offer. “Japan’s national parks vary dramatically from region to region,” says Andres Zuleta, founder of luxury-tour operator Boutique Japan. “But one thing they almost all have in common is that they’re generally off the tourist track. In virtually every corner of the Japanese countryside, the natural and cultural elements go hand in hand, adding an incredibly unique dimension to adventurous outdoors travel.” 

Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyōto-shi, Japan © Redd/Unsplash Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyōto-shi, Japan

It’s why the Japanese government has been encouraging visitors and locals alike to venture beyond its urban hubs, first through its 2016 VISIT! National Park initiative and more recently its Step Up Program 2020. Originally intended to encourage international tourists to explore less-visited parts of Japan, the latter spotlights eight national parks around the country—including historic Nikko, not far from Tokyo, and coastal Ise-Shima, northeast of the Kumano Kodo, one of just a handful of places that sustain a traditional ama diver culture—in an effort to boost local economies and reinvest in conservation efforts. A single day in one of these parks could include hiking, rafting, or canyoneering, followed by a soak in an onsen and dinner at a rural ryokan. Zuleta’s personal favorites include Keramashoto, within the Okinawan archipelago, and Shiretoko, in the far north of Japan—the former for its subtropical climate, jungles, and laid-back culture, and the latter for its extremely remote location on Hokkaido.

There is a rising trend of outdoorsy accommodations that go beyond the traditional ryokan too. The chic Japanese outdoor brand Snow Peak recently enlisted the acclaimed architect Kengo Kuma to design Field Suite Hakuba, a year-round glamping resort that opened last year in the mountainous ski region of Hakuba Happo-one. And Danish outdoor-equipment brand Nordisk is developing the ambitious Hygge Circles-Ugakei, a sprawling and sustainable campground in Mie prefecture’s Uga Valley where guests will sleep to the sound of roaring waterfalls and the crisp mountain breeze—much as I did on that memorable trip farther south.

This article appeared in the November 2022 issue of Condé Nast Traveler.  Subscribe to the magazine here.

View our full list of the 2022 Readers' Choice Award winners here.

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from Condé Nast Traveler [Articles/Slideshows]

Condé Nast Traveler
Condé Nast Traveler
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon