Beyond the futuristic imagery of its cities, much of Japan is rural or wilderness, especially outside the Kanto and Kansai areas. In the bush you may spot local fauna, such as Japanese macaques (snow monkeys) in the mountains of Nagano, deer in Hiroshima and Nara, wild boar in the hills of Miyagi, foxes in Yamagata, and serows in Aomori. Your best bet for seeing ussuri (AKA grizzly) bears is in Hokkaido at Shiretoko national park, a Unesco world heritage site.
During the summer, try camping: Kokusetsu Shiretoko Yaeijou is £3pp (no advance booking for tents), or rent a basic cabin (camping-in-japan.com). Bear-spotting boat cruises run from spring to autumn (£37, kamuiwakka.jp), and the area has plenty of cheap public hot springs (from £3pp). In winter, take a three-day/two-night sightseeing bus tour and drift-ice and white-tailed eagle birdwatching cruise on the Sea of Okhotsk before unwinding in a hot-spring bath at the end of the day (from £294pp for two nights’ hot-springs hotel plus four meals, japanican.com). Take the JR Hokkaido train to Shiretoko-Shari, then a Shari bus to Utoro.
Go by rail Mount Fuji and one of Japan’s distinctive bullet trainsTravelling by train is a great way to explore, with the shinkansen (bullet train) covering all major hubs from Hokkaido to Hiroshima at speeds of up to 300mph. The newest addition to the network, the Hokkaido Shinkansen, opened in 2016 and goes from Aomori in Honshu to Hakodate in southern Hokkaido, travelling under the Sea of Japan and opening up Hokkaido with its national parks, ski resorts, and endless backcountry.
The Japan Rail Pass is a good deal, allowing visitors unlimited travel on the JR system, including bullet trains (7 days, £199; 14 days, £317; 21 days, £405, jrailpass.com). Passes must be purchased outside Japan, then activated within the country.
You can also take the slow scenic route. The Resort Shirakami sightseeing train travels along the Gono Line between Higashi-Noshiro in Akita to Kawabe in Aomori. It goes at an intentionally leisurely pace, trundling for five hours along the rocky Sea of Japan coastline through the Shirakami-Sanchi national park, and has shamisen players onboard for a taste of local culture (included with the JR Pass or £34, jreast.co.jp).
Cycle up north Tsuruga Castle surrounded by cherry blossomWhile the 2011 tsunami and earthquake hit Fukushima hard, tourists are starting to return to the region (just 3% of the prefecture is a no-entry zone). There’s 150km of Pacific coast, mountains, castles, hot springs and a strong samurai culture. A highlight is the historic city of Aizuwakamatsu and the Aizu region, great to explore by bike – the city has put together a useful set of cycle routes ranging from city tours to climbs in the surrounding mountainous area (aizu-tours.jp/cycling).
Visit Tsuruga Castle, the thatched-roof village Ouchijuku, 30km outside the city, and take plenty of stops to sample the local cuisine, like a drink at 150-year-old Suehiro sake brewery or a bowl of Aizu speciality wappa-meshi – foraged mountain vegetables with seafood – at Takino.
If you have time, head a few kilometres east to float in a canoe on Lake Inawashiro, see the multicoloured swamps of Mt Bandai, and visit the towering white Buddhist deity Aizu Kannon.
Rent a bike from one of several depots around town (from £4 a day, samurai-city.jp/access). Cycling season is from late spring to autumn; in winter the region is covered with snow. Stay in a classic ryokan known for its kaiseki (gourmet seasonal) meals, and relax in a private hot-springs bath at Ryokan Tagoto (doubles from £103, tagoto-aizu.com).
Take the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Koriyama, then the Banetsu line and ride west for an hour to Aizu-Wakamatsu station.
Mount Fuji and other mountains Traditionally Japanese hikers climb Fuji by night to watch sunrise from the summit. Photograph: Yuriz/Getty Images
Snow-capped Mount Fuji is not only a symbol of Japan but an object of veneration. The Fuji-ko sect of Shinto is dedicated to Fuji worship and has shrines established at the base of the mountain. Public climbing season runs from July to early September, and the trails are crowded with hikers eager to see the sun rise on the famous peak. Most hikers start from the fifth station, halfway up the mountain. With four trails, routes vary, but all involve taking a train to the nearest station and then a bus to the starting point. The official website has all the information you need to plan an ascent (fujisan-climb.jp).
Fuji, however, is not Japan’s only mountain: 70% of the land is mountainous, with many peaks actually dormant or active volcanoes, thanks to Japan’s position atop four tectonic plates. All the volcanic activity means there are numerous hot springs to relax in after a day’s hiking.
Kanto Adventures leads regular outings, often combining hiking with hot springs. A sample trip summits Tsurugi-dake and Tateyama in three days and includes transfers from Tokyo, four meals, camping gear and fees, and guiding for £236, while another takes two days to tackle Kita-dake and Aino-dake, the second and fourth highest peaks in Japan, and includes transport, camping fees and meals, finishing with hot springs for £151. They also offer Fuji snow-climbing, cross-country skiing and rock-climbing.
Snow bound Skiing through powder at RusutsuMountainous Japan is a dream for powder hounds, with the Northern Alps (site of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano) and slightly more remote Hokkaido the best-known areas. Both get a heavy dusting of snow, and the season runs from late December to early March. Many of the best resorts in the Northern Alps are an easy two to three hour bullet-train ride from Tokyo, making it convenient to head out for a weekend, while in Hokkaido most resorts are within a couple of hours of Sapporo.
Rusutsu, about 90 minutes from Sapporo’s New Chitose airport, won the World Ski Awards’ best resort in 2017. While it’s not as bustling as neighbouring Niseko, Rusutsu’s more laid-back vibe means fewer lines, less crowded slopes and more fresh powder. The average annual snowfall is over 14 metres, there are 18 lifts, 37 runs and a good mix of beginner, intermediate and advanced courses, plus off-piste skiing is allowed. Explore secret runs or take a lesson with The Powder Guides (six-hour guide, £203). Avoid expensive resort hotels and stay at a pension like Lilla Huset (twin room from £118). Affordable options book out quickly during the ski season.
Festival fever People clad as samurai warriors for the Shingen-ko (Lord Shingen) festival in KofuIn what is sometimes seen as a staid country, sampling the street food, listening to music and joining in the revelry of a festival, or matsuri, is a great way to experience a livelier side of Japan. In early February, head to Sapporo for the snow festival, where downtown is transformed into a winter dreamworld with massive snow sculptures lining the park blocks, tourists wearing ice spikes, and intricate ice sculptures glittering in the sun. Nakamura-ya is a homey ryokan close to the action (doubles from £68). Book early, as hotels and flights fill up fast.
From late March to early April, watch as the whole country comes under the spell of the ephemeral cherry blossom, which flowers for only a few days. In Fukuoka, the Fukuoka Castle Sakura Festival celebrates among 1,000 cherry trees with food booths and picnickers under trees in full bloom. Take the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen to Fukuoka. Also in early April, more than 1,500 people dressed as samurai warriors gather in Kofu, Yamanashi, for a massive cosplay honouring the region’s samurai history. At the Shingen-ko Festival, warriors march through the streets to the beat of taiko drums, some on horseback. Take the Chuo Line Limited Express from Tokyo to Kofu (2 hours).
The Gion Matsuri takes place throughout July in Kyoto, with major street festivals preceding two parades on July 17 and 24. Festival-goers stroll the streets in kimonos, eating street food and buying good luck charms, while the parades feature enormous, intricate, glowing portable shrines. Take the Tokaido Shinkansen to Kyoto.
In mid-August, join the enormous dance party that is the Awa-odori in Tokushima, Shikoku. Colourfully clad troupes twirl through the town in happi coats and straw hats, chanting to the beat of taiko drums and shamisen. Get there on the Awa Express Bus from Kobe (£24 single) or a flight from Tokyo.
Old-school Japanese lodgings A traditional ryokan hotel roomThe recent crackdown in Japan on home-sharing services such as Airbnb has led many travellers to return to traditional hotels and inns. However, out-of-the-box accommodation in Japan has existed far longer than any internet app. One of the best ways to get deep into Japan is to do a farm stay with a family in a rural area. You’ll sleep on futon laid out on tatami flooring, learn about traditional agricultural methods, take in bucolic scenery and cook meals with ingredients you helped harvest yourself. Stays include cycling and horse riding at a sheep farm in Hokkaido, hiking and fishing in Nagano, or harvesting and pickling organic vegetables in Shikoku (from £27pp, authentic-visit.jp/farmstay).
Historically, pilgrims travelled to visit temples and shrines, and those temples would offer accommodation. This practice, called shukubo, still exists today. Quarters are often spartan and include the opportunity to participate in zazen meditation early in the morning; at Komadori Sanso, it’s possible to do waterfall meditation. Many also offer shojin ryori – Buddhist ascetic meals (from £27pp, templelodging.com). Always include a night or two in a ryokan– a traditional Japanese inn, usually with onsen (hot-spring baths, generally sex-segregated and taken naked). Futons are laid out by staff while you’re at dinner or bathing (ryokan.or.jp).
Blazing a trail The Kumano Kodo trailWith mountains dominating the country and trails crisscrossing the ranges, Japan is a nation of hikers. Even in Tokyo, you’re never far from a trail. Trains to the mountains at the edge of the city are stuffed with weekend walkers sporting sturdy shoes, trekking poles and technical clothing, heading out to Mount Takao or Mount Mitake.
In southern Kansai is the ancient pilgrimage trail Kumano Kodo, one of only two in the world named by Unesco as a heritage pilgrimage route (the other is Spain’s Camino de Santiago). This 1,000-year-old route winds through plunging green valleys, the mysterious Kii Mountains shrouded in blue mist, and remote villages, connecting ancient shrines and temples. In parts, it’s untouched by time, the birdsong and susurrus perhaps nearly identical to that heard by pilgrims a millennium ago.
Research your own routes, transport and accommodation on the tb-kumano.jp website, or book a guided or partially guided tour with Kumano Travel, the official tour agent of the Tanabe tourism bureau. The site lets you choose à la carte options for lodging, English-speaking guides and luggage transport. A self-guided, three-night/four-day walk with basic lodging and bag transport starts at £219pp; add meals, mid-range accommodation and daily guiding for a total of around £900pp (kumano-travel.com).
Sake-tasting Dinner in Akita on a Sake Tours tripThere are more than a thousand nihonshu (as sake is known in Japan) breweries all over the country, and many offer factory tours and chances to buy fine bottles that are not for export. Learn about the brewing process from site selection – water quality and weather conditions are key – to rice varieties, processing, and fermentation. And of course, it’s necessary to sample the finished product. For example, Matsuoka Brewery in Saitama, just north of Tokyo, offers free guided tours and tasting in English (advance booking is required).
For aficionados (with deep pockets), Sake Tours offers guided five-day tours to different regions. The Akita prefecture tour, for example, includes visits to four breweries not open to the public, lectures with sake experts and brewmasters, a private folk music concert, cooking lessons and accommodation (£2,300 for five days/five nights). Other 2019 tours include trips to Niigata and Kyushu.