Japanese cities are a world of their own – urban labyrinths where you could get lost for days exploring their eclectic sights and sounds. But while the cities are dense and brimming with activity, Japan also has a vast unspoilt countryside waiting to be discovered.
Whether you’d prefer to hit the open road or take a more relaxed approach using Japan’s extensive rail network, here are some of the best adventure journeys to appreciate Japan’s boundless natural wonders and rural culture.
Spellbinding routes by road
Best for: Mt Fuji views and iconic lakes, just a short hop from Tokyo.
Highlights: A little over an hour outside Tokyo, the infamous Hakone Turnpike is the gateway to Hakone and descends more than 1,000 metres through dense forest, giving drivers and their passengers thrilling views of Mt Fuji and Sagami Bay.
Why go: Hakone is the gateway to Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park which is a famous resort area offering the highest quality onsen (natural hot springs) and stunning views of Mt Fuji. The Hakone area can be explored by foot, car, or even by boat, but the efficient “ropeway” system is the most recommended. The modern cable car connects Hakone’s best-known attractions, and a Hakone Freepass offers unlimited on-and-off riding privileges throughout the region.
Best for: Mountain views, lavender fields, and outdoor adventures.
Highlights: Cruising along this straight 4-kilometre undulating road is a great way to view the iconic paddy fields, hills, and landscapes of central Hokkaido’s Furano region which lies at the base of the Tokachi Mountain Range. The Roller Coaster Road is also often referred to as “Provence Road” due to its resemblance to the Provence region in southern France.
Why go: If you love outdoor sports, head to Furano for hiking, cycling, fishing, parasailing, thrilling rafting trips down the Sorachi River, and skiing through soft powder snow at the nearby Furano Ski Resort in winter. For one of the top hikes in Hokkaido, you can climb to the summit of Mt Tokachi to enjoy a dynamic view of its active volcano.
Best for: Crater-side driving that spans a diverse subtropical landscape.
Highlights: The trip traverses Kyushu (Japan’s westernmost main island) and begins by running alongside one of Japan’s many active volcanos, Mt Aso, before weaving along the caldera’s outer rim offering glimpses inside the volcano.
Why go: The 6-hour road trip takes you through some of the top highlights of Kyushu, from its shoreline and mountainous interior fit for water sports and scenic walking trails to its world-class seafood and ramen. While the Aso Panorama Line (the name of the impressive road that leads up to Mt Aso) is the star of this drive, you should also make sure you save time on your trip to Cape Sata to take in southern Kyushu’s other impressive sights.
Best for: Stunning coastlines, rural landscapes, and rich agricultural history.
Highlights: Begin at the northern end of the peninsula in the port city of Wajima which is home to a 1000-year-old morning market, as well as ‘Shiroyone Senmaida’ – a scenic hillside of tiered rice paddies. Finish the journey in Kanazawa, a former samurai stronghold and custodian of Japan’s traditional arts and crafts.
Why go: Noto’s stunning coastal rock formations, beaches, onsen towns, and cultural sites are not frequently served by public transportation, so travelling by car opens infinitely more possibilities for adventure. For offroad lovers, the Chirihama Nagisa Driveway is a sandy beach on the western edge of the Noto Peninsula that is open to cars. Traffic runs in both directions along the 8-kilometre stretch of beach flanking the Sea of Japan, and it offers a fun and unusual way to travel and soak up the unspoilt sights.
And for something different….
Japan’s ‘Melody Roads’ enable drivers to hear harmonious tunes as they travel around the country – through their own wheels. There are approximately 30 Melody Roads around Japan giving drivers the rare opportunity to hear various tunes from Japanese culture coming from their tyres as they quickly roll over thousands of precisely cut grooves in the stretch of highway. These unique roads are not only a popular tourist attraction, but they also act as an ingenious road safety device because you must travel at the signposted speed to hear the song correctly. The roads can be found in Hokkaido, Wakayama, Shizuoka and Gunma prefectures, and they all play different tunes.
Rail adventures not to be missed
Best for: Cherry blossoms running alongside passing valleys in springtime.
Highlights: In springtime, passengers get the best seats to catch a glimpse of the countless cherry blossoms in full bloom in the valleys and mountains of the Kansai region. Linking the neon-lit mecca of Osaka and the seaside gem of Wakayama along the scenic coast, this commuter train line operated by JR West extends from Osaka’s Tennoji Station to Wakayama Station (with some even breaking, conveniently, for Kansai International Airport).
Why go: The trip connects two ‘must see’ destinations on any Kansai itinerary. Wakayama’s tranquil beaches and onsen are the perfect complements to experiencing Osaka’s energising foodie scene, fun attractions, and general fast pace.
Best for: Green and lush landscapes in summer and snow-covered peaks in winter.
Highlights: Connecting Gifu and Toyama, the line primarily functions to access the scenic and rugged mountains of northern Gifu Prefecture. The surrounding areas boast traditional architecture, opulent festivals, and a range of the best mountains and onsen in Japan.
Why go: This region offers so much, and it can all be accessed on the one line. Perfect for a hop-on hop-off trip with sights such as Gifu Castle which sits atop Mt Kinka, the hot springs of Gero Onsen, the historic structures of Takayama, canals and breweries of Hida-Furukawa, and Toyama’s Matsukawa River which is popular for boating.
Best for: Panoramic views of the Sea of Japan.
Highlights: Resort Shirakami runs on the Gono line, past the stunning seaside scenery of the UNESCO Natural World Heritage listed Shirakami-Sanchi wilderness. Connecting Akita Prefecture to Aomori Prefecture, the scenic train has ‘so close you could touch’ views of the Sea of Japan on one side, with the other offering stunning mountain views. The trains also host Tsugaru-jamisen (Aomori shamisen) performances and storytelling in the local Tsugaru dialect.
Why go: The train line connects two of Japan’s most vibrant, but oft under-travelled prefectures. Relatively unexplored, Aomori’s verdant landscapes, famous festivals and World Heritage sites can all still be called “hidden gems,’ while Akita is a popular choice for outdoor adventurers and history buffs.
And for something different….
Decked out from top to bottom with Pikachu cuteness, the POKÉMON with YOU Train is a must for Pokémon lovers of all ages. Travelling from Ichinoseki in Iwate Prefecture to Kesennuma in Miyagi Prefecture, station stops along the way also feature Pokémon decorations and there is even a playroom car with Pokémon toys.