Japan is known for its high-tech bullet trains, delectable sushi offerings, and traditional samurai and geisha culture; however, there are endless opportunities to explore the natural phenomena peppering the islands. From sakura (cherry blossoms) to geothermal hot springs to the snowy peak of Mount Fuji, families seeking to explore the great outdoors will have no shortage of options in Japan.
Quick layout of Japan:
There are four main islands in Japan—along with over 6,000 smaller ones!
∴ Hokkaido is in the northernmost main island. The most famous city on Hokkaido is Sapporo.
∴ Honshu is the largest island. The famous metro areas of Tokyo and Kyoto are here.
∴ Shikoku is south of Honshu.
∴ Kyushu is the southernmost main island. The main city here is called Fukuoka.
Most travelers begin their Japanese jaunt from the international airports in Tokyo. Although this city isn’t famous among nature-lovers, it is worth spending the first few days recovering from jet lag in Japan’s capital. There are even a few spots to escape from the concrete jungle within Tokyo. Firstly, no trip to Tokyo is complete without exploring Ueno Park, conveniently located right next to a metro station. In the spring, the park offers a stunning view of sakura (over 800 trees!), while those traveling in autumn have a chance to bask in fall colors. Here, children can climb all kinds of native Japanese trees and listen for birdcalls. Shinobazu Pond is a lake full of lotus flowers in the center of the park. Next, try Todoroki Valley, another special nature retreat within Tokyo, only minutes from Todoroki metro station. Enjoy a stroll through the scenic, lush park on the cobblestone paths and make countless stops for tea! Finally, check out the Imperial Palace, where you can rent bikes for free (!) on Sundays between 10 AM and 3 PM at Tokyo’s Imperial Palace. There are tandem bikes available as well! The closest subway station is Nijubashi off the Chiyoda Line.
Transportation: Traveling within Tokyo is simple on the Tokyo metro. A 24-hour ticket costs about $6 USD, or you can pay per trip if you are traveling short distances.
Day Trip from Tokyo: Oshima Island
Take a sleeper ferry from Tokyo to Oshima Island to see volcanoes. The active volcano Mount Mihara crowns Oshima island, which is also known for its snorkeling and hot springs. If you’re visiting between January and March, look out for gorgeous camellia flowers! You can also camp overnight if you wish to visit to more remote locales like the Ogasawara Islands. Of course, there are onsen (hot springs) here as well to relax after hiking.
Transportation: Catch a ferry from Takeshiba Ferry Terminal in Tokyo. Tickets cost $60 USD each way—just make sure to check schedules as departures can be limited depending on the season.
Once you’ve gotten settled in Japan, venture outside of Tokyo to soak in some greenery! Take a trip to Okutama and leave the frenetic energy of the city to bask in the serenity of Mount Mitake, Lake Okutama, and Mount Kumotori. From Hantosu station, stroll around the Tama River and over the bridge. Hantosu Valley is a great introduction to the Okutama area. Then, head to the Nippara Limestone Cave. Hop on a bus from Okutama to reach these natural limestone caves and pay $7 USD for admission. Teach your little ones about stalactites and stalagmites in the cool cavern air. You can also try fishing for your lunch on the Tama River. You can rent fishing equipment in Hikawa and cooks can grill trout to your delight.
Transportation: The train will cost $9 USD from Shinjuku Station and take two hours to reach Okutama. Make sure to check schedule, as this route isn’t traveled as much as some other destinations outside of Tokyo.
To experience Japan’s most impressive natural sight, take your family to visit 3,776 meter-tall Mount Fuji. The best time to visit Mount Fuji for hikers is July to early September. The most famous trail is the Yoshida trail, but there are three other trails that are often less crowded (Subashiri, Gotemba, and Fujinomiya). The most popular week is the first week in August, so traveling to Mount Fuji at the beginning and end of the season will offer the most solitude on the trails. Even if you are not planning on hiking, the view of the mountain alone makes the trip a must for nature enthusiasts. Many people travel to Mount Fuji to celebrate Shogatsu, or New Year in early January. During this time, family and friends exchange gifts and enjoy endless bowls of soba noodles. From March to May, rosy pink sakura are on display during the Hanami festival.
Transportation: This snow-capped peak is 130 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, and easily reached by train or bus–Mount Fuji is only about 2.5 hours from Tokyo by bus. Buses leave regularly during hiking season, but if you are traveling at other times you may need to transfer. There are also numerous Japan Railway (JR) trains that go to Mount Fuji. However, trains are not recommended because they cost much more than buses.
Okuhida: Hot Springs
After a grueling visit to Mount Fuji, it is imperative to relax in some nearby onsen. Okuhida offers views of the Japanese Alps along with countless spots for soaking in onsen after hiking around Mount Fuji. There are five towns around Okuhida, each complete with a natural hot spring. Let the family unwind in a myriad of natural geothermal waters. The popular dish to try here is mountain vegetables with beef. There are also numerous multi-day backpacking trips that begin in the foothills of the Japanese Alps.
Transportation: There are buses between the many onsen in Okuhida. You can buy bus passes for unlimited travel during your multi-day stay in Okuhida. There is a bus from Tokyo to Hirayu, near Okuhida, which takes about 4.5 hours and costs $50 USD. You can spend several days in Okuhida before heading to Nagoya on your way to Kyoto.
Kyoto is well-known for its iconic golden palace (Kinkaku-ji) and whizzing bullet trains. Just like Tokyo, however, Kyoto has a few natural havens within its bounds. It is worth seeing a few temples because they are often surrounded by impeccable gardens, and below are a few more destinations for outdoor enthusiasts. Firstly, invite your family to marvel at the impressive bamboo grove in the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, which is complete with its own gang of monkeys. Children will love peering at the Japanese macaques monkeying around in Arashiyama! You can even witness park officials feeding monkeys throughout the day—a sure favorite with kids. A short hike along the Hozu River here offers views of Japanese macaques along with panoramic views of nearby Kyoto.
Transportation: You can take an express bus from Hirayu station near Okuhida to Nagoya, a city in the southern part of Honshu. From there, hop on another bus to Kyoto. There are many bus lines, but this trip will cost $50 USD. From Kyoto, take the Hankyu line to Arashiyama station. Make sure you reserve your bus tickets in advance if possible.
? Box out: Hokkaido: Daisetsuzan National Park
Hokkaido is the wildest and least-populated of the major Japanese islands. The entire island is studded with bike paths, hiking trails, and untouched wilderness. Here you will also find the best skiing in Japan—not to mention the best ramen. The national park is the optimal beginning to an expedition through Hokkaido’s natural wonders. From Tokyo, you can travel north to the island of Hokkaido to visit Daisetsuzan National Park. Search for deer and brown bears here in the park along numerous hikes that meander through pines. The park boasts numerous onsen and mountains to climb, and offers some of Japan’s most impressive displays of fall colors—plenty of leaf-crunching for the little ones!
Transportation: Since Hokkaido is so far north, the best way reach the national park is by plane from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (HND) to Asahikawa Airport (AKJ). From there it is a short ride to the national park where you can stay for a week exploring the acres of trails and wildlife watching. You can also travel by road from Tokyo to Sendai, in northern Honshu, where you can catch a ferry to Tomakomai in Hokkaido, and then travel by road again to reach the national park. Either way, it will cost at least $150 USD to reach the park from Tokyo.
Travel Options in Japan:
Travelling in Japan is quite different than in other parts of Asia. Countries like Nepal, India, and Thailand are notorious for lengthy, bumpy bus rides that can often take hours to cover just a few kilometers. On the other hand, traveling in Japan is flawless, clean, and speedy. Japan is one of the most expensive countries in Asia. Transportation is the most budget-busting aspect of travel in Japan, so if you can think of the bullet trains and ferry rides as integral parts of your journey you can appreciate them more and accept the high costs more readily. Although traveling in Japan might be simpler than in other Asian countries, it can be difficult to find competent English speakers in Japan. Police officers and train agents can often only speak a few English phrases. It is important to have a good idea where you are going before you begin your intra-national journeys.
Rail: Bullet trains are the easiest, cleanest, and fastest way to travel in Japan; however, ticket prices can be high. For weeks of travel, consider investing in a rail pass that will offer unlimited travel for certain periods of time.
Boat: Although ferries are not a cheap way to travel between islands in Japan, they do offer a unique chance to see the Japanese archipelago from the ocean. One of the most scenic routes is between Osaka to Hiroshima, costing about $85 USD.
Plane: All four major islands in Japan have domestic airports. There are also two international airports in Tokyo, along with international airports in Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka. There are many smaller airports in Japan that offer flights between China or Korea and Japan.
Bus: You can also buy multi-day bus passes if you prefer traveling on the highway. Japan Railways, the same company that operates trains, has a bus company that links most major cities in Japan.