Renowned for futuristic technology and ultra-modern cities, Japanese culture is however still deeply-rooted in Buddhist values and nature-worshipping, and large parts of the country continue to retain their outstanding natural beauty offering the most authentic and off-the-beaten-track experiences.
Having been to Japan, I am well-aware of their deep-rooted social and cultural values, and so I don’t find it at all surprising that Japan is fast emerging as a role model for its ability to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. It is in their DNA to do the right thing for the greater good and so it's peoples' behavior is disciplined, sensible and considerate, which has contributed towards keeping the spread of the virus under control without the need for prolonged restrictions.
This is why I am confident that Japan will be one of the first countries in Asia to bounce back post-COVID19 and it should definitely be at the top of everyone’s travel list for their 2021 holidays. Featured below are some of my most highly-recommended places to explore in Japan that will take you far off the beaten path, away from the crowded and busy cities into remote and exclusive, little-visited holiday destinations.
Once an infamous place of exile, the remote island of Sado lies in the eastern part of the Sea of Japan off the coast of Niigata Prefecture. Still one of the most secluded islands in the country, Sado boasts the widest variety of plant life in Japan and is home to a colony of Japanese crested ibis, locally known as toki, making it a really interesting holiday destination for bird and nature lovers.
Whether you are interested in culture, scenery or outdoor adventures, there is so much to see and do on the island and your holiday can be tailored to your interests. The Osado Natural Cedar Forest is nothing short of a scene straight out of a fairy-tale with magnificent cedar trees that are between 200 and 400 years old.
The Sado Kinzan Gold Mine was once the most productive mine in Japan during the revered Edo Period, producing about 400 kilos of gold as well as silver and copper each year. The mine was closed in the late 20th century and since then it has been converted into a museum to showcase the zenith of ancient Japan’s mining heritage to visitors.
The island lies between two mountain chains, creating a dramatic backdrop. It is an excellent destination for sea kayaking. Another fun activity unique to this region is taking a ride in a taraibune – wooden tube-shaped boats that were originally used for collecting seaweed and shellfish by the local fishermen and women. These boats are still in use on the island’s southern coast in and around the port town of Ogi.
The village of Shukunegi is renowned for its unique architecture with houses built out of lumber salvaged from boat hulls. Most of the old houses have been replaced, but there is an exhibition hall highlighting the village’s rich ship building heritage and some of the traditional houses have been preserved.
If you enjoy sake, Sado Island is home to one of Japan’s finest sake breweries – Hokusetsu Shuzo, which was established in 1872. Sake produced here is served at renowned Nobu restaurants all over the world.
In terms of art and culture, one of Sado’s great traditions is Noh Theatre, which was introduced here by the famous playwright Zeami in 1434 when he was exiled on the island. At its peak, there were over 200 Noh stages on the island and over thirty are still remaining, which form one-third of all Noh stages in the country. Noh performances, an art traditionally transferred from generation to generation, are held annually between June and August.
Located in southwest Japan between the islands of Kyushu and Amami, Yakushima is a mystical island with some of the oldest cedar trees in the world, some of which are several thousand years old. Also known as “the Alps of the sea”, Yakushima’s steep mountains, lush primeval forests and surrounding warm ocean have created a unique and exceptionally diverse ecosystem that is unlike anywhere else in Japan.
Being one of the wettest places in the country, Yakushima’s ancient cedar forests are adorned with fairy-tale-like sceneries created by bright green moss-covered terrain, cascading waterfalls, gushing rivers and lush mountains. It is one of those unique places where the distinct beauty of all four seasons can be experienced with equal aplomb.
In spring, the mountain slopes get covered by a blanket of rhododendrons; in summer, between May and July, the beaches of Yakushima turn into a prime nesting ground for endangered Loggerhead and green sea turtles, and the weather is perfect to enjoy a swim in the ocean and trek in the forest; autumn ushers in migratory birds such as Bulbul and again provides ideal conditions for hiking; and winter is the perfect time to view snow-capped mountains and the popular annual cycling tournament in February, which covers many important sites around the island.
Some of my favourite spots to visit on the island are Shiratani Unsuikyo Forest, Yakusugi Land and Ooko-no-taki waterfall, which is rated as one of Japan’s best. All three areas offer incredible routes for hiking and trekking holidays, and Shiratani Unsuikyo Forest is home to the famous ancient cedar called Yayoi sugi, which is estimated to be around 3,000 years old. On the hikes, besides the amazing flora, you might also spot some unique wildlife including Yakushima monkeys and Yakushima deer.
Located in the heart of Hida Mountains in Gifu prefecture in central Honshu, Hida-Furukawa is a lovely rural village in a lush valley, not far from Takayama. The region’s idyllic rice fields, sleepy villages and beautiful mountain scenery allow for intimate and fun walking and cycling tours giving you a vibrant glimpse of Satoyama – the Japanese countryside.
The charming town of Takayama was established in the 16th century and it became an important merchant town and a source of high-quality timber and highly skilled craftsmen during the Edo period. Takayama’s old quarter is full of old-world charm with well-preserved merchant houses, tea houses and old sake bars and its temples and shrines have earned it the nickname of “little Kyoto in Hida”.
Many of the old houses have been converted into art galleries and craft workshops, and some of the old sake bars have been converted into micro-breweries, showcasing a brilliant fusion of the old and the new in the typical Japanese fashion.
Just under an hour’s drive from Takayama is the historic village of Shirakawago, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its traditional Gassho-zukuri farmhouses. These four-story houses feature a steeply sloped thatched roof that helps them withstand the heavy snowfall during winter. All these unique features make this region incredibly attractive for family holidays and active travellers who want to experience a bit of nature and culture without venturing too far into remote areas.
This region is also blessed with beautiful hot springs and just outside Takayama there is a luxurious ryokan called Wanosato with only eight Japanese-style rooms, offering the most authentic and intimate experience with exquisite food and service. The riverside ryokan features thatched-roofed houses, a big garden and two indoor onsen baths with natural thermal spring water.
Known as Japan’s wild island, Hokkaido is Japan’s northernmost island and has remained remarkably rustic and remote. A stark contrast to the main island of Honshu, where Tokyo and Kyoto are located, Hokkaido is known for its vast open spaces, unique wildlife, outstanding natural beauty and UNESCO-listed national parks, making it the ultimate playground for seasoned outdoor enthusiasts.
Hokkaido is home to some of Japan’s finest ski resorts, which are renowned world over for the quality of powder snow. Although there are comfortable hotels and ryokans in the main cities and popular tourist destinations, Hokkaido is more suitable for people with an adventurous spirit, who prefer rustic local experiences to five-star luxury during their vacations.
Besides the stunning outdoors, Hokkaido has been home to the indigenous Ainu people for centuries and just like the Harbin Ice Festival in China, the Sapporo Snow Festival attracts millions of travellers in February every year. In summer, when the weather conditions across Honshu are unbearably hot and humid, Hokkaido enjoys very pleasant weather with low humidity, making it an ideal destination for hiking, cycling and camping holidays amidst pristine national parks, wetlands and volcanoes. Some of Hokkaido’s highlights include:
If you would like any more information about off-the-beaten-track, social distancing-friendly holidays to Asia for 2021, do please feel free to get in touch. Or, if you would just like to dream for now, you can do so at our Video Library.
Images used by kind courtesy of JNTO Japan