Though most people know that Japan has cherry blossoms, the country is best known for its bustling cityscapes. That’s why it often comes as a surprise to many when they hear that Japan is in fact also home to dozens of pristine national parks. Thirty-four, to be exact.
Japan’s varied climates and contrasting seasons lend themselves to the parks’ scenery, which ranges from snow-clad mountains, to remote beaches, teeming with spectacular coral reefs. Ready to explore them? Ahead are four of the most stunning and side trip-worthy among them.
Shiretoko National Park
Designated in 2005 as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Shiretoko National Park sits at the easterly tip of Hokkaido, part of the Shiretoko Peninsula that juts into the Sea of Okhotsk. Shiretoko, or ‘sir etok’ from the indigenous Ainu language, can be translated as “the edge of the earth” and the name gives an idea of what awaits.
This peninsula with its marine area is the world’s southernmost place where drift ice forms, which has a major impact on its biodiversity. Foods including plankton are carried by the drift ice to become the diet of earless seals, various sea birds, and sea eagles.
You can explore Shiretoko’s rugged, wild coastline today by boat, looking out for bears and other wildlife along the way. There are plenty of walking possibilities too. Keen walkers can find trails that take in some of Hokkaido’s most stunning lakes, including Lakes Kussharo and Mashu.
Joshin’etsu Kogen National Park
Stretching across Nagano, Niigata, and Gunma Prefectures, Joshin’etsu Kogen National Park is the fourth largest national park in Japan. Formed by intense volcanic activity and lava flows over millions of years, today’s landscape is much more tranquil, yet retains ever-present reminders of the powerful forces that forged this remarkable landscape.
The park has many walking and hiking routes, including rock climbing for the more adventurous. In the winter, the Shiga Kogen highlands is known for its powder snow and, of course, snow sports.
One of the highlights for many visitors to The Joshin’etsu Kogen National Park is the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. Nestled in a valley by the Yokoyu River, the remote area of the park is tranquil and uncrowded most times of the year, and is home to many wild snow monkeys, or Japanese macaques.
Setonaikai National Park
Setonaikai National Park is Japan’s biggest national park spanning a whopping 9,000 square kilometres across 11 prefectures including Osaka, Hyogo, Wakayama, Okayama, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, Tokushima, Kagawa, Ehime, Fukuoka. and Oita. The park has many attractions for both hardened adventure-seekers as well as lighter adventure activities. A guided mountain hike of Mt Misen boasts breathtaking views of Hiroshima, Miyajima, and the Seto Inland Sea from the top.
The coast of Kodomari Bay, surrounded by beautiful mountains, is the perfect place for stand-up paddleboarding, thanks to its calm waves. If you’re a keen cyclist, hiring a bike to explore the small islets of the Seto Inland Sea, which are connected by a web of scenic bridges, is another must. You can even stop at breathtaking lemon groves in Setoda, the largest lemon producer in Japan.
Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park
Mt Fuji’s profile has been a source of admiration since ancient times. Its value as a source of Japanese religious and aesthetic consciousness has been widely recognised and was designated as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 2013. With Mt Fuji located at its northern end, Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park consists of various volcanic landforms and hot springs where major tectonic plates squeeze together, stretching to diverse coastlines and islands.
The park comprises four regions: Mt Fuji, which includes its surrounding lakes, ponds, and plateaus surrounding the mountain; Hakone, which has been renowned as an onsen spa destination for many centuries; Izu Peninsula, which features the Amagi Mountain Range and coastlines; and Izu Islands, volcanic islands including those where active volcanic activity has been observed to the present day.