mount fuji sunrise

Japan’s Best-Kept Secrets

25 November 2016
Read Time: 2.7 mins

Where vending machines dispense fresh floral arrangements and lobsters, trains reach bullet speeds and neon lights bathe city streets in a technicolour glow at all hours of the day, modern-day marvels can often overshadow Japan’s natural beauty. Take a break from the big-city bustle and see a different side of Japan with one of these regional escapes.

snow monkey in hot spring One of the highlights of visiting Nagano is definitely seeing the Snow Monkeys. (Image: Getty)

On- And Off-Piste Fun In Nagano

The ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ could well be called the ‘land of the falling snow’ when the winter winds begin to roll off the hills. Having hosted two winter Olympics, Japan’s powdery pedigree is world class, from Hokkaido in the north down to Nagano. Stay awhile in Nagano’s advanced and most foreigner-friendly ski resort, Hakuba, but spare some time after any off-piste action to visit the small town of Yamanouchi. It’s here you can witness colonies of red-faced Japanese macaques splashing in the hot springs. But they don’t get to have all the fun.

The après-ski scene of Aspen has nothing on the Japanese tradition of bathing in these sulphurous spas after a day on the slopes, and popular enclaves like Yudanaka Onsen centre around this ritual. Swap your skis or snowboard for an onsen session, before downing shots of warm sake – or a vending machine beer – and you’ve pretty much nailed the experience.

hokkaido summertime Hokkaido wilderness is equally as inviting in the warmer months for adventure sports and hiking. (Image: Getty)

Blaze A Trail Through Hokkaido

Japan’s wild north – especially Niseko – is synonymous with a heavy, consistent dumping of snow, but beneath that white blanket is a land of great natural beauty, where fertile meadows neighbour blue caldera lakes and primeval forests are home to native wildlife.

With more dedicated national park space than any other island in Japan, Hokkaido’s untamed wilderness is a burgeoning summer destination. Take your pick from single- or multi-day treks past remote onsen, volcanic terrain and glassy lakes in Daisetsuzan National Park, or set off on a rural ride along the North Pacific Coast through the mountainous UNESCO-listed landscape of Shiretoko. If you’re keen to kick the adrenaline up a notch, Hokkaido almost rivals Queenstown with its adventure; try hot-air ballooning, whitewater rafting, zip-lining and kayaking.

boat on blue water in tropical japanese island Enter a tropical paradise in Okinawa, worlds away from the mainland culture and snow sports hype. (Image: Getty)

Live Out Your Castaway Fantasies In Okinawa

With piercing blue seas, white sand and a ring of coral gardens, you’ll swear you’ve landed in the South Pacific. Okinawa and the Southwest Islands are a tropical paradise far removed from the frenzied pace and cultural identity of mainland destinations. With imperial influences, the culture is unique and the vibe akin to what you might find in Hawaii or Southeast Asia: inherently laidback and a little kitschy.

The main island of Okinawa-honto is a hotbed of excitement; scale forested hills and explore fishing villages in the Yambaru area, sink sunset drinks at a beachfront bar and get swept up in the late-night action of Kokusaidori in the capital, Naha. But if you’re after a more solitary kind of island bliss, use Okinawa-honto as a launchpad for the smaller islands. The band of coral reefs and transparent seas surrounding Kerama Islands create ideal snorkelling and diving conditions. The intricate shores of Amami Oshima also call to snorkellers and divers, but its interiors is what makes this island unique, from unusual flora and fauna to a landscape of mangrove forests waiting to be explored.

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Anna Howard

Give me street food over Michelin stars, cellar doors over wine bars and small towns and wide open spaces over big cities any day. Travel for me means ticking off the 'to eat and drink' list one regional flavour and wine bottle at a time.