A Guide to the Japanese Countryside
The Japanese countryside is little known but much mythologised - separate fact from fiction by exploring the beauty and calm of rural Japan for yourself.
Half the population of Japan lives in either the Greater Tokyo area or Keihanshin, the urban area encompassing Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe. In fact, nearly 94% of the Japanese population lives in towns or cities, high when looked at beside 82% in the USA or 56% in China. The world over, urbanization is increasing, and no where is this more apparent than in Japan.
What does this mean? Lots of things. An obvious point is that as the countryside depopulates, rural Japan becomes more rural, communities become more detached, rarer, and knowledge and experience of rural life becomes much less common among the population as a whole. This process, one which is self-propelling, results in a mystification of the countryside – a phenomenon entailing the idealization of the non-urban as it is placed in a special realm of fantasy and imagination (this can be observed in sources ranging from anime to political discourse).
But is this idealization all fabrication, all fiction? That’s what we’re here to discover.
In what follows we’re going to introduce you to the ways in which you can voyage out of the city and into the wilds of Japan. This is a guide for those who want to experience a side to Japan that few have a chance to enjoy and for those whose natural inclination is away from crowds and noise and toward isolation and calm.
The Japanese countryside is truly a beautiful place to spend time; littered with mountain ranges, lakes, rivers, traditional communities and cultures of years past. We’ll supply you with the information you’re going to need to enjoy all of this, whether on a day-trip or a longer adventure.
Day-trips from Tokyo:
We don’t all have the time to commit to a lengthy trip into the unknown at the drop of a hat. Lives and schedules have a habit of getting in the way. This is why the day-trip was invented. And you’ll be surprised just how far you can go (both physically and mentally) in a single day. These trips offer a bite-sized portion of exploration and can be a vital break from the chaos of everyday life in the city.
Yes, a bit of capital city bias here, and we apologize, but don’t be afraid to adapt the information to wherever you may be. The way of getting there will change but the destination will not.
Takaosan (Mount Takao):
Less than an hour from central Tokyo, Mount Takao is not a surprising entry but it is certainly a worthy one. A holy mountain popular with religious and outdoorsy types alike, if total isolation is what you seek you may be disappointed. But isolation is not really the point here – the mountains winding paths, trails and soaring peak offer a zone of reflection on the nearby metropolis and the area is picturesque enough to dull the memories of packed rush-hour trains and glaring billboards.
Lucky for some, the journey to the top of Takaosan is less than arduous, with the option of several different trails and even a cable-car should your legs be feeling particularly uncooperative. At the summit, food and beer is available to aid you in your relaxation.
Access: From Shinjuku Station take a Keio semi-limited express train to Takaosanguchi Station. Trains leave every 20 minutes, take 50 minutes and cost 390 yen.
Nebukawa is an unmanned station on the JR Tokaido Line, most well-known for its orange orchids. The energizing vitamin-C may just come in handy on a day-trip to this small coastal destination, hiking being the main form of entertainment you’ll find here. There are several routes to choose from, all equally tranquil, with maps at the train station to point you in the right direction.
A nice alternative to a serious hike is to head up the admittedly busy Route 740 to Shiraito Bridge. Take in the orchids along the way and gaze out at the water. The area also has several shrine complexes and restaurants within walking distance should you fancy it.
Access: An 80 minute train ride from Tokyo Station on the JR Tokaido Line, costing 1,620 yen.
The second mountain on our list is another great option for a rural break. Set within Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, an area of outstanding natural beauty, there are several routes to the top of the mountain with varying levels of difficulty. This is definitely a more serious climb than that of Mount Takao but still manageable to beginners and well worth the extra effort.
Just over 2 hours from Tokyo, this is slightly further out than our other options but still doable in a day so long as you rise early.
Access: Take the JR Chuo Line to Ome Station (75 minutes), here, change to the JR Ome Line as far as Mitake Station (20 minutes). From here take a bus to the lower Mitake cablecar station from where you can take the cablecar or begin your walk.
Nagatoro is a small mountain town in outer-Saitama surrounded by largely unspoiled nature, popular with Tokyoites as a day-trip. The area caters to hikers with various trails, as well as water sports enthusiasts – its river being a great spot to try some kayaking or waterboarding.
Leisurely river cruises are also a popular way to unwind in the town, with a selection of shrines also dotted around for the more spiritual sightseers.
Access: From Ikebukuro Station take the Seibu Chichibu Line to Chichibu Station and from here take the Chichibu Railway to Nagatoro Station (110 minutes total).
Trips further afield:
Day-trips are always surprising in just how removed from city-life they can make you feel, but inevitably, a faint voice will remain, reminding you of your quotidian worries. A longer trip can resolve this problem by removing you physically and mentally from the stresses of city travel or regular life. We’ve compiled a list of some of the best the Japanese countryside has to offer those thirsty for isolation:
Oze National Park:
Oze National Park can be easily reached from Tokyo, yet one of its greatest features is that, once there, the vast area lends itself beautifully to seclusion and calm. Camping is the best way to experience this area, with campsites (and other options) aplenty. Though fantastic year round, late spring and early summer are when the parks flora and fauna are in full bloom.
The 6 km long, 1 km wide Ozegahara Marshland is perhaps the most recognisable part of the park. This area, navigatable on elevated wooden walking paths, is home to hundreds of separate pools, groves and wildflower patches. Don’t be put off by the term ‘marshland’, this is no ugly bog. From the eastern end of the marshland, find the Ozenuma pond. With a 6km path taking in the waters edge and forest, this is an extremely sumptuous walk.
The Oze National Park is accessible but its vibe is one of peaceful rurality – an excellent option for any traveler.
Access: From Tokyo, you have three options for access by train. 1) the JR Joetsu Shinkansen to Jomo Kogen Station (75 minutes, 5000 yen). 2) Joetsu or Hokuriku shinkansen to Takasaki, before transferring to a local train to Numata Station (120 minutes, 5000 yen). 3) local trains all the way (150 minutes, 2500 yen).
The Japanese Alps:
Stretching from central Honshu to the far north of the island, the Japanese Alps give their European namesake a run for their money. Dramatic and hulking yet beautiful, the region is highly-regarded yet free of crowds – a perfect combination.
The town of Matsumoto is the best place to begin your adventure. The ‘Crow Castle’ casts a magnificent silhouette against the surrounding mountains, for which the town acts as a gateway to. Another option is to take the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, an exciting and picturesque route from Toyama City to Omachi Town. Using local buses, cable-cars and ropeways this is an excellent way to take in the Tateyama mountain range of the Northern Alps, one of the region’s best spots.
Alternatively, an option for the adventurous is to simply forge your own way through the region. Since hiking took off in Japan in the 1980s, the country has been fastidious in ensuring its areas of natural beauty are well catered for in terms of transport and accommodation options, meaning ultimately, a self-guided trip to the mountains is easy to plan and execute.
Access: 2 trains run between Shinjuku and Matsumoto every hour. Take a JR Azusa or Super Azusa which takes 2.5 hours and costs 6380 yen for a one-way ticket. Alternatively take a highway bus from Shinjuku Bus Terminal. The journey takes roughly 3 hours and costs 3500 yen.
For the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, take the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Toyama. The journey costs roughly 12,000 yen and takes around 160 minutes.
This entry really is further afield. Okinawa Prefecture, made up of dozens of small islands in the waters between the Japanese mainland and Taiwan, is a great choice for seeing a part of Japan that few have the opportunity to experience. Most of the islands are sparse in population and offer countryside of a more subtropical nature to that of Honshu, including dense forests and plentiful beaches.
The Yaeyama Islands in the south are a must-see. The relaxed atmosphere, isolated beaches and clear waters will melt your worries away. If you somehow feel boredom creep in, catch a ferry to Iriomote Island or Takeomi Island for some jungle exploration and a glance at the extremely remote village life of the communites on these islands.
Miyako Island, about 300 km south of the main island, is known to have some of Japan’s best beaches, and you’ll likely have them all to yourself. Also a great place to try some snorkelling or diving should the feeling take you.
Overall, you can’t really go wrong with Okinawa. Every island offers something special yet all are uniformly peaceful and pleasent.
Access: Flights are for some reason notoriously expensive to Okinawa. However, deals and special offers can be found to bring the price of a Tokyo-Okinawa flight down to around 6,000 yen. Advanced booking and extensive research advised.
From the southernmost to the northernmost prefecture in Japan, next we have Hokkaido. Though home to Sapporo, the countries fourth largest city, Hokkaido is many’s first thought in Japanese rurality, with its profusion of pristine forests, natural parks and mountains. For a rural escape, you could do much worse than visiting Hokkaido.
The Nobori-Betsu Onsen is a great place to start. A small onsen resort town offering hundreds of pools and mud baths, as well as various walking trails through the surrounding volcanic area (take a stroll down The Valley of Hell if you dare), this is an easy place to shed the stresses of everyday life.
A more active but equally tranquil spot is the Daisetsu-zan National Park. Literally translating as ‘big snow mountain’, the area surrounding and including Asahi-dake volcanic crater, offers world-class hiking trails through snow, meadows and marshes. Ropeways lead to the crater itself, an experience not to be missed.
Hokkaido is a big island so options abound as to where to explore. A good idea is to head first to Sapporro before catching local transportation out into the countryside.
Access: Flying to Hokkaido is by far the quickest option, but unfortunately, also the most expensive. Numerous flights run daily between Sapporo and Tokyo with several different airlines. Prices online vary massively, though find a deal and it could be as little as 7000 yen one-way. The ferry is a fun and affordable option to consider. Taking around 19 hours with two journeys daily (morning and evening) and costing 10,000 yen, this is a popular way to reach the island.
From Sapporo to Nobori-Betsu, catch any limited express train heading to Hakodate. The trip takes about an hour and costs 3960 yen for a one-way ticket.
Daisetsu-zan National Park is best reached through the gateway town of Asahikawa. For Asahikawa from Sapporo, again catch a limited express train. The journey should take 80 minutes and cost 4500 yen.
Fruit picking, the option for if tough physical labour is your idea of a good time!
In actuality, the work isn’t that hard and can be a lot of fun. This has now become an extremely popular summer activity for Japanese families and tourists alike, a day-out that combines a taste of the countryside with the prospect of all you can eat fruit (strawberries, peaches and cherries in the summer).
Farms offering this service are spread the breadth of the country, with one sure to be close to wherever you find yourself. Commonly, a set picking time is given, at the end of which the fruit is weighed and given a price. Though other options do exist.
Consult your local Tourist Information Center or have a look online for details of farms near you.
If you want complete immersion in rural Japanese life, a home-stay could be the perfect way of doing this. Often used in conjunction with a program of Japanese study, though available to all, a home-stay, set-up by a host company, places you at the heart of a Japanese family for a set period of time. You will eat meals with, go on day-trips and simply get to know your host family throughout your time.
This is probably the best way to see what rural life in Japan is really like, but perhaps not for the faint-hearted.
There is a number of companies offering this service, with homestay-in-Japan one company that comes particularly highly recommended.