With 80% of Japan's surface covered by mountains, the country is a dream for hikers and lovers of the great outdoors. The wilds of Hokkaido, quietly impressive Tohoku, and the vertiginous Japan Alps reward exploration with spectacular scenery and experiences of traditional Japanese culture that have long-since been lost from urban areas.
Nagano Prefecture, host of the 1998 Winter Olympics, is home to the backbone of the Japan Alps. Visit Zenko-ji temple in Nagano City before heading to the hot springs of Yudanaka Onsen or Kusatsu. In summer, try some day trekking in Hakuba.
A one-hour train ride from Nagano, Matsumoto is home to the “Black Crow,” Matsumoto Castle, as well as the fabulous Ukiyo-e Museum. Spend a day wandering the cafés and craft shops of this samurai town.
A bus ride over the mountains from Matsumoto brings you to Takayama, with an optional stop in summer at the alpine retreat of Kamikochi. You’ll find traditional inns, ancient temples, mouthwatering Hida beef, a preserved historical district, and the gassho-zukuri thatched roof farmhouses in the memorable Hida-no-Sato folk museum.
Between Takayama and Kanazawa lie the well-preserved farmhouses of Shirakawago, many of which are open to visitors for day visits or overnight stays. Continue on to the modern city of Kanazawa to visit serene Kenrokuen gardens and wander through the Nagamachi samurai district.
This mountain, the most accessible of the Dewa-san range, a trio of sacred mountains in Tohoku, is worth the trip not only for the lovely but rigorous climb (or bus trip) past cedars, waterfalls, and shrines but also for the thatched shrine at the top.
A day’s ride on the Shinkansen, an overnight ferry from Niigata, or a quick flight on low-cost carrier AirDo gets you to Sapporo, a pleasant and accessible city that serves as a good base for exploring the dramatic landscape of Hokkaido. Mountains encircle Sapporo, drawing Japanese and increasing numbers of Australian skiers in winter. Take day trips out to Toya-ko or Shikotsu-ko, picturesque lakes where you can boat or fish, and the excellent Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum for an insight into the island’s original inhabitants.