Japan is a land of contrasts. A place where fire and water meet, of snowy mountains and sub-tropical beaches, both spiritual but highly commercial with untouched wilderness and throbbing cities. So, to help you make the most of adventure travel in Japan, we’ve put together this guide to Japanese overlanding.
Japan is a string of four major islands and thousands of smaller islands off the east coast of mainland Asia. Honshu is the main island, Hokkaido is located to the North, and Shikoku and Kyushu to the South. Further south the Okinawa Islands stretches into the sub-tropical waters of the East China Sea.
Covering over 360 thousand square kilometers Japan is similar in size to Germany. But only 18 per cent of Japan’s land is suitable for settlement, so most of its 127 million citizens live in the densely populated cities. Tokyo, with more than 36 million inhabitants, is the world’s largest city by population.
Rugged hills and mountains dominate around three-quarters of the interior. So despite the high population and bustling cities, much of the country is relatively untouched. Meaning adventure travel in Japan is perfect for mountain activities offering everything from skiing to climbing and biking to hiking.
The Japanese archipelago is made up of 6,852 islands sandwiched between the crashing North Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan. With the sixth longest coastline of any country, there are plenty of water watersports to try your hand at, with scuba diving, surfing, kiteboarding and much more available.
Japan is one of the most technologically advanced countries, but it is also one of the most tectonic. The earthquake and subsequent tsunami of 2011 was a stark reminder of the long history of seismic activity, with regular earthquakes – most of which are small – being part of everyday life.
There are also over 110 active volcanoes, of which around fifty have had recent activity. Mount Fuji, Japan’s tallest mountain at 3776 metres, is an active volcano that last erupted since 1707. Around 300,000 people scale its snow covered peak each year, joining them is well recommended in this guide to Japanese overlanding.
Beneath Daisetsuzan National Park on Hokkaido Island there are two huge volcanoes, these fuel the thermal springs that help life survive the contrasting seasons. Covered in extremely thick vegetation, most of Daisetsuzan (meaning big snow mountain) is impenetrable and has been preserved from human influence.
The weather in Japan varies widely, but most of the country fully experiences all four seasons. Honshu and Hokkaido (the more northern islands) have cold winters with lots of snow. There are hundreds of ski resorts, taking full advantage of one of the highest snowfalls worldwide for winter sports – something you must experience during adventure travel in Japan.
The southern islands, have hot and humid summers, with a rainy season throughout June, and a very hot period during July and August. Although cooler in Hokkaido the average temperature in August is still 22 degrees. Further south in Okinawa the weather is warm year round.
Towards the end of spring much of Japan is covered in stunning blossoms that covers mountains and fields with a spectacular sea of pink – there is even a cherry blossom festival. For the most part, autumn is considered cool and crisp as summer quickly gives way to winter. Adventure travel in Japan offers a great deal whatever the season.
From its wild seas and serene lakes to bustling cosmopolitan cities, overlanding in Japan is full of joys. The four main islands and major cities, are easy to travel around, using the world famous Japanese bullet trains (Shinkansen). There are stunning train lines through mountains, rice paddies and along the coast that are worth doing just for the views.
But to really get under the skin of Japan we recommend you hire a car and explore the less visited areas at your own pace. Rural Japan is a joy, with stunning vistas and adventures around every corner. There are a multitude of cultural and natural wonders that you’ll never see unless you take the time to get lost!
If driving yourself sounds daunting, or it is out of your budget, then coach tours to the harder to reach areas are recommended. Its worth checking out Japan Experience to get some idea of the best ways to travel Japan, they offer a full range of transport options and itineraries from group to solo and car hire to train passes.
Accommodation in Japan comes in every shape and size suitable for all tastes and budgets. For something unique we recommend the Japan Experience house rentals in Tokyo, Kyoto, Kanazawa and Fukuoka. Staying with Travel Angels that act as a host and personal guide you gain an authentic experience in the local community.
If you start on the main island Honshu, then a visit to the far south and Hiroshima is a must. The Peace Park and Atomic Dome are a stark reminder of the past. The castle and and Shukkei-en Garden are well worth visiting as is Miyajima ‘Island of the Gods’. The views from Mt. Misen via the ropeway walk are well worth it.
Be sure to visit Osaka. Explore Osaka Castle an incredible experience due to its architecture and golden history. From here, head north to Kyoto, where you can get your fix of traditional Japanese culture in the countries ancient capital – from palaces, temples and shrines to geishas, samurais and cartoons!
Next on the list is Tokyo no holiday overlanding in Japan is complete without a visit. Go there for a few days or weeks to check out this futuristic capital city, bustling with life and ever changing. Nightlife, food, technology, culture, history, nightlife, food…. (you get the picture!).
Head a little further north to Nikko, a world heritage site, which can boast the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu Toshogu – Japan’s most decorated shrine. The Nikko national park also offers plenty of scenery with mountainous landscapes, lakes, waterfalls, and hiking trails where you can see wild monkeys and find hot springs.
Next head north to Hokkaido Island. It is here you’ll find the famous Mount Fuji, a must-do on an itinerary of any traveller of Japan. Walk around the surrounding gardens and lakes, then ascend the mountain, and take in the stunning views from the top of Japan.
Also on Hokkaido, you can find Daisetsuzan National Park. The Japanese flock here due to its abundance of wildlife, such as deer, birds, hares and bears. So is well worth including in this guide to Japanese overlanding.
It is on Hokkaido that you will find some of the best snow worldwide, it’s famous for being some of the lightest on the planet. Niseko is one of the most famous ski resorts in Japan, it is certainly the most international of all and one of the largest. Read our guide to Niseko skiing holidays to find out more.
The highlights of Shikoku include the beautiful landscapes of the Iya Valley and the most famous Japanese hot springs of Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama. Shikoku has a pilgrimage route with 88 temples to visit – taking in a few of these will help give you an insight into the fascinating Japanese culture.
On Kyushu visit Nagasaki, it is a cultural and religious melting pot, plus a reminder of the worst mankind can do, but also of how humanity carries on. Also visit the volcanoes of Mount Unzen and Sakura-Jima. Kumamoto Castle is well worth a visit as part of adventure travel in Japan.
A guide to Japanese overlanding would not be complete without talking about Okinawa – despite the fact you’ll have to fly there. Located 640 km south of the rest of Japan and 1500 km from Tokyo there are 150 islands in subtropical waters. With white sandy beaches and nice year round weather it is the place for Japanese beach holidays.
A guide to Japanese overlanding holidays would not be complete without a few adventure activities thrown in for good measure. Adventure sports is an area that is massively under sold in Japan, many people know about the skiing, but on top of this they have a bit of everything.
There are around twenty well established and globally recognised paragliding launch spots in Japan. These range from in and around Tokyo to the top of Mount Fuji.
If you’d like to have a go at skydiving while on your Japanese overland trip then there are three dropzones to choose from. The most popular in in Tokyo, but you can also skydive in Fujioka and Kansai.
The Japanese have also taken to bungy jumping, with at least six permanent jump sites. The highest, at Ibaraki, is 100m from a suspension foot bridge. Bungy jumping is the perfect addition to adventure travel in Japan, as you do not require any specific skills or fitness just the bottle to take the leap!
Lets start beneath the waves with scuba diving. There is so much to experience, with new coral reefs still being found off Japan’s coast all the time. From the subtropical waters in the Okinawa islands to the colder waters of the far north there is a huge range of marine life to see.
Or you could take to the waters in a boat. From sea kayaking along the dramatic coastlines exploring secluded coves, to white water paddling (kayak or raft) inland, there are options for all abilities. Alternatively, try island-hopping around the Japanese archipelago on a chartered yacht.
Receiving the brunt of the Pacific on the east there are surf spots up and down the coast. Where there are not surfable waves there is often enough wind to kite or windsurf. During the winter, the wind across the Sea of Japan creates overhead barrels for those willing to brave the cold.
There are so many sports to try in the mountains of Japan that we can’t list them all here. But rock climbing – or in the winter ice-climbing – is popular in the northern Japanese Alps. Strangely indoor climbing gyms are so popular that many outdoor routes remain untried.
The Japanese are keen hikers so there are trails all over the country. With volcanic summits, verdant countryside and vibrant forests, the sheer range of terrain is what makes trekking in Japan such a pleasure.
Biking is also very popular. The mountainous climbs appeal to road cyclists and rural exploration by bike is a fabulous way to explore the country. Mountain biking is growing in popularity, with some good trails dotted around Japan, although there is only one dedicated bike park which is located in Fujimi.
If you fancy something totally different, then get involved in Japan’s martial arts – probably the most authentic option for adventure travel in Japan. It’s perhaps the best country to learn about the ways of the Samurai, the technicalities of judo, or the power of sumo wrestling.
If your Japanese overlanding holiday is happening during the winter then a spot of skiing or snowboarding is a must. With over 600 ski resorts across the two northern islands there are plenty of options to take to the slopes. Read our guide to skiing in Japan to find out more.
With snow-capped slopes and steaming volcanic peaks, dense forest and white sandy beaches, vibrant cities and relaxing rural retreats Japan is a unique and fascinating country to explore. To conclude this guide to Japanese overlanding holidays I’d say it is the ultimate country of contrasts.
And it is these contrasts that make adventure travel in Japan so varied. You can pretty much name any action sport, and not only can you do it in Japan, but there will be options the length and breadth of the country that are suitable for everyone from beginners to experts.
We hope you found this guide to Japanese overlanding useful. If you plan to book some adventure travel in Japan then be sure to check out our Japan discounts as you could save a fortune.