The Ultimate Guide to Traveling in the Japanese Countryside

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Personne surplombant une rizière à Sapporo lors d'un voyage dans la campagne japonaise.

Exploring and traveling in the Japanese countryside is one of the most harmonic down-to-earth things you can experience in life. This is because Japan has a more than 2000-year old history, rich with temples, shrines, and other historic places to visit. Japan is also a country with beautiful and varying nature. Not only does Japan offer jungles in southern Okinawa. It also offers snow and a Scandinavian climate in northern Hokkaido. Nature also varies greatly with altitude, and Japan is 73% mountainous! This also means that 73% of Japan lies in the countryside!

So, how to best start traveling in the Japanese countryside? What can you do there? That’s what we’ll talk about in this article. Read on if you want to learn more!

A guide map of hiking trails in Japan.

Things to do when traveling in the Japanese countryside

Before exploring different options for traveling in the Japanese countryside, let’s explore why you would even bother going there in the first place. Here are some tips for enjoyable things to do in the Japanese countryside:

Hiking and nature walks

The first and most obvious thing you can do is to just go hiking. There are so many different options for you that it’s hard to cover all of them here.

As for the time of year, we especially recommend hiking during spring and autumn to experience the cherry blossom season or autumn foliage season. Don’t forget to bring good shoes and lots of water and rations.

Hot springs (onsen)

There are more different types of Onsen (温泉) in Japan than you can imagine. Onsen come in all kinds of colors and variations and the best onsen are always found within the countryside. Some onsen come with a fantastic view, some have tea leaves in them, some are so acidic that you can’t put your face in the water.

Local food tasting

You’d be surprised how much local variation there is to cuisine in Japan. Most cities and prefectures have their own set of renowned cuisine (meibutsu, 名物). For example, Aomori is known for apples, Hiroshima for okonomiyaki, Saga is known for dried seaweed persimmons, and so on. Wherever you go, make sure to try out the local cuisine while traveling in the Japanese countryside!

Stargazing

The countryside has less light pollution, and you can see the starry skies much more clearly, providing an excellent opportunity for stargazing. Bring a blanket and flashlight, lie back, and enjoy the night sky.

Person standing in front of a torri gate in Fukuoka.

Different regions in Japan and what makes them special

As earlier mentioned, Japan offers great variation in nature, landscape, and cultural activities depending on which area you visit. To highlight this, let us give a brief overview of the different areas in Japan and what you can do in each area!

Okinawa – A tropical haven

Let’s start in the South! If you want to experience clear, turquoise waters and white sandy beaches, try out snorkeling in the coral reeves, or visit the last jungles of Japan, Okinawa might be for you!

The prefecture of Okinawa consists of 160 islands and many of the smaller islands around the main island have the best beaches and water activities such as snorkeling. Some ferries go back and forth from the Okinawan capital of Naha on a regular basis.

One good thing to be aware of is that Okinawa gets really hot during summer, as such, it may be wise to avoid the peak of summer and the rainy season.

Kyūshū – An enchanting tapestry of nature

If you want to explore the Japanese countryside, one of the best places to start with is the southern island of Japan, Kyūshū. In the southwestern part of the island, you will find Kagoshima, a popular destination most famous for the island of Sakurajima, an active stratovolcano that sits in Kagoshima Bay. 

Further north on the western coast lies Nagasaki. Nagasaki was the only port connecting Japan and the rest of the world during the Edo period when Japan isolated itself to not become influenced by Western powers.

In the middle of Kyūshū, you will find Saga Prefecture. If you are interested in learning about the origins of Japan, you can travel to the Yoshinogari Historical Park and learn more about the Yayoi period and Queen Himiko.
Finally, Kyūshū also has one of the best onsen resorts in Japan, namely Beppu in the Oita prefecture.

Shikoku – A breathtaking pilgrimage

Shikoku is the least populated island of Japan’s four main islands. Therefore, it is also one of the best places to visit if your goal is to experience traveling in the Japanese countryside. One reason Shikoku is beautiful is because there are bridges that connect the many tiny islands dotting the region.
Another local curiosity is the Shikoku Junrei (四国巡礼), a 1200 km pilgrimage that takes you past 88 Buddhist temples on foot and takes 1 to 2 months to complete by foot.

Chūgoku – History, nature, and culinary delights

The Chūgoku region is the westernmost region of Honshū and where popular destinations such as Hiroshima lie. In the region, you can enjoy delicious Okonomiyaki, stop by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum learn about the tragic nuclear bomb strike, and remember its victims.

If you want to explore outside the large cities we recommend visiting the Kintai Bridge (錦帯橋). An absolutely magical place during the Sakura season. You can catch a ferry and visit the island of Miyajima (宮島) which offers delicious food, temples, and hiking possibilities. 

Another peculiar place in the area is Ōkunoshima (大久野島). Or “Rabbit Island” – an island which houses thousands upon thousands of free-roaming friendly rabbits.

Boat on a river in Kyoto.

Kansai – The cultural center of Japan

The Kansai region is the cultural mecca of Japan and an excellent place to experience Japanese traditional culture. Here you will find the old capital of Kyoto. and the second largest city in Japan, Osaka. Kyoto is one of the only larger cities that wasn’t bombed during WWII, and as such, the density of historical temples is unmatched.

By the way, if you happen to be traveling in the Kyoto area, one recommendation is to climb Mt. Daimonji at sunset and see Kyoto from above as the darkness settles. The slow transition from the sunset to how the city lights up is simply amazing.

If Kyoto is a bit too crowded for you, you can also visit the nearby lake Biwa – The largest lake in Japan. Here you can do tons of outdoor activities such as cycling, swimming, camping, and more.

In the area near Osaka, you also have the port town of Kobe, a more peaceful harbor town with an international vibe and lots of hiking options.

Finally, we also highly recommend visiting the city of Nara – Japan’s oldest capital, a city filled with ancient temples and beautiful parks with free-roaming deer that, through the ages, have learned to bow for food!

Mount Fuji in the winter seen by bullet train while traveling in the Japanese countryside.

Chūbu – A gateway for travel, camping, and sightseeing

Next, we have the central region of Japan called Chūbu. Here lies the famous Mount Fuji. Around Fuji you also have the Fuji Five Lakes (富士五湖). This area is one of the best places to visit exploring the Japanese countryside. We recommend renting a bike, staying at a hotel (or camping), and traveling around the five lakes surrounding Mount Fuji.
You will also find the city of Nagoya in Chūbu – a famous city connecting Tokyo and Kyoto. Nagoya offers great variation in local food such as miso-katsu (味噌カツ) or kishimen (きし麵). Nagoya is the ideal spot to have as a base, as it is right in between Kyoto and Tokyo, as well as near remote must-visit locations such as the Shirakawago (白川郷) and the Shima Peninsula (志摩半島).

Kantō – Japan’s big apple

The Kantō region is where you will find the big apple of Japan, namely Tokyo. Although Tokyo indeed is the world’s largest metropolitan area, the beautiful thing is that it’s very easy to access more rural and harmonic places with public transport.

The Kantō region has some of the very best options when it comes to traveling in the Japanese countryside. First of all, we have Hakone at a stone’s throw distance southwest of Tokyo. Hakone is ideal for bathing in onsen, and hiking. We also have Kamakura close by, a historically important port town with lots of beaches, historical buildings, and the famous peninsula of Enoshima (江ノ島).

If you travel North instead you can visit Nikko. Nikko lies in the mountains and is a great place to visit during the winter. Our recommendation if you want to see more of the countryside is to take a bus from Nikko station to Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖). Here you will find waterfalls, a crystal blue lake with the towering Mt Nantai that really makes the snowy landscape a spectacle to behold. You can also rent snowshoes and walk around the marchlands of Senjō-ga-hara (戦場ヶ原)!

Going northwest you can either visit the Nagano prefecture. When it comes to traveling in the countryside, your best option in the area is the town of Yudanaka (湯田中). A small town north of Nagano that is famous for bathing snow monkeys and onsen. In the same direction, you also have the Gunma prefecture which too has a famous onsen resort, especially during summer.
Other than that, we have the astonishing port town of Yokohama and the adjacent Minato Mirai, Saitama, and the Edo-style town of Kawagoe, Chiba with its many parks and rural areas, there are so many great locations to visit that we can’t possibly list them all here.

Tōhoku – A snowy paradise

Proceeding up north we have the region of Tōhoku. If you live in Japan or plan to travel there, our recommendation is to travel north towards Tōhoku and Hokkaido during the winter season! The reason is that Tōhoku has many great locations for winter activities.

Using Sendai as the base, you can, for example, visit Yamadera (山寺), a beautiful temple in the middle of nowhere on the mountainside with an amazing view. You can also keep going to find the rural town of Zaō (蔵王), a lesser-known but very recommended place for skiing and onsen.

You can also travel north and visit places such as the town of Kessennuma (気仙沼市) an area that was badly struck by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and following tsunami.

Birds eye view of the city of Sapporo in Hokkaido during the winter.

Hokkaido – Skiing, hiking and hot springs

Finally, we have the northernmost island of Hokkaido. Using the capital of Sapporo as your base, you can enjoy skiing and hiking, as well as learn about the indigenous Ainu people.

If you want to experience traveling in the Japanese countryside, we recommend using the railway connection that connects the southern towns of Hakodate and Sapporo. Although the train ride takes several hours, there are many stops along the way where you can visit rural villages that very seldom get visitors.

Transportation for traveling in the Japanese countryside

Getting from point A to B is not as straightforward if you are in the rural areas of Japan. You’re likely to encounter hourly bus traffic, signs written only in Japanese, and a population that most likely doesn’t speak English. Therefore, the first and maybe most important tip is to learn some basic Japanese – enough to ask for directions and read signs. Luckily, reaching this level of proficiency only takes a couple of months, if you study at one of our partner schools in Japan, or take an online course!

With that said, let us present your different transportation options for traveling to, and within the Japanese countryside!

Travel by train

Your first choice of travel will probably be by train. Japan has a huge train network that connects all of Japan. We recommend getting an IC card for easier payment. If you are planning on traveling far and want to visit rural areas, it is also recommended to get a Seishun 18 Kippu (青春18切符), a stampcard where one stamp (about 3013 yen) allows free travel with JR local trains for one full day.

Travel by bus

Japan also offers large bus networks connecting commuters far into the countryside from the nearest train station. However, most buses in rural areas don’t have any support for the English language. Therefore, it is highly recommended to directly ask the bus driver if the bus goes to your location before entering the bus. It’s also good to know that you need to press the “stop button” at your station, otherwise the bus driver will just pass by.

Japanese taxi on a road with skyline.

Travel by taxi

If there is no public transport available to your location, your best bet is to simply take a taxi. It may be a bit more expensive, but its convenience makes up for it. If you want to learn more about using a taxi while traveling in the Japanese countryside, check out our guide on the matter here.

*Note that Uber and other ride-sharing apps aren’t commonly used in Japan, and may be unavailable in rural areas.

Travel by bicycle

Depending on how far you need to go while traveling in the Japanese countryside, another great option is to rent a bicycle! Enjoying nature from the back of a bicycle is much more enjoyable than from a car window! But if you are going into the mountains on a bicycle, the roads can both be narrow and dangerous. Therefore it’s important to know your route before departing.

Also, remember to follow Japanese law when cycling, or you may be subject to a fine. It is not allowed to listen to music while cycling. On pedestrian sidewalks, you must have a headlamp installed on the bicycle, and in cities, you may only park the bicycle at designated parking lots.

Communicating with the locals

One thing that makes your rural experience even more memorable is having a chat with the locals. Most often you don’t even need to make the first move. Foreigners traveling in the Japanese countryside are rare, and more often than not, locals will take an interest in you initiating a conversation before you have the chance to.

Of course, to be able to communicate, you must first learn how to speak conversational Japanese. To get the most out of your Japanese travel experience, we therefore recommend that you spend some time learning Japanese! If you are interested in making a study trip to Japan, contact us for more information!

If you want to learn more about Japanese culture and life in Japan, make sure to follow our blog!

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