For first-time visitors, a trip to Japan almost always revolves around Tokyo. But locals know that the real adventures start when you venture beyond the bustling metropolis. That’s because the rest of Japan beckons with all kinds of beautiful, off-the-beaten path destinations. To get acquainted with Japan’s wild side, check out “100 Experiences in Japan,” a comprehensive guide book recently released by the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). From world-class skiing to mountain biking and more, it makes a great primer on how to best experience the country’s natural wonders.
That scenic beauty is on full display around Nikko, a city just a few hours north of Tokyo, and Shikinejima, a rugged volcanic island located just a few hours south. Whether you’re looking to hike to the summit of a sacred mountain or explore tidal hot springs at the edge of the sea, Nikko and Shikinejima both make great excursions from Tokyo, and they deserve a place at the top of any adventurer’s list.
What to Do in Nikko
Nikko is a small city in central Japan surrounded by mountains, lakes, and waterfalls. The area is steeped in Japanese history—it’s home to several magnificent shrines and temples that together form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Selected as one of the top National Parks in Japan, it’s especially popular in the fall, when the area’s deciduous trees put on a striking display of color.
To get the most out of your visit, you’ll want to head toward Nikko National Park. This preserve is home to three sacred peaks, known collectively as Nikko Sanzan, that tower above the landscape: Mt. Nantaisan, Mt. Nyoho, and Mt. Taro. Getting there is half the fun. From Nikko, rent a car (just remember to drive on the left!) or catch a bus for the drive up Irohazaka Winding Road, a narrow mountain highway that follows the Daiya River valley and includes 48 hairpin turns. As you drive, you’ll get stunning views of the valley, the river, and the mountains beyond. Make sure to pull off at the Akechidaira Ropeway, where you can take a gondola up to an observation platform for an excellent view over the Akechidaira Plateau.
At the top of the Irohazaka route lies Lake Chuzenji, Japan’s highest natural lake. Make a stop to check out Kegon Falls, where water from the lake tumbles over 328 feet into the valley below, forming the Daiya River. The observation platform at the top of the falls is free and gives a great view, but the cascade is even more impressive when viewed from below. For a small fee, you can hop in an elevator and access the lower observation deck, which gets you closer to the water.
There are plenty of opportunities to get on (and in) the water, too. The Tochigi Kayak Center offers twice-daily guided canoe and kayak tours on Lake Chuzenji—there’s no better way to appreciate the lake’s stunning scenery and the views of Mt. Nantaisan. If you’re looking for an adrenaline rush, sign up for one of the guided whitewater rafting trips on the nearby Kinugawa River. Hop into an eight-person raft and paddle hard to make your way through the river’s churning rapids as you descend through the scenic valley toward Nikko. The Kinugawa valley is also a great place to try canyoning. If you haven’t done it before, it’s a bit like visiting a water park, except instead of sliding down plastic slides, you get to cliff-jump into crystal-blue pools of water and shoot through waterfalls. Trust us, it’s a lot of fun.
Hiking is another big draw in Nikko National Park. There are plenty of easier hikes circling Lake Chuzenji, but if you’re up for a real challenge, head to the trail up Mt. Nantaisan. At 8,156 feet, this sacred mountain is Nikko’s highest peak, and for a small fee and plenty of sweat, you can get to the top of it. The trail starts at the Futarasan Shrine at the foot of the mountain and rises steeply all the way to the summit. The whole out-and-back hike takes about seven hours, but the exceptional views from the top are worth the effort. While you’re up there, be sure to explore the Okusha shrine located on the summit.
What to Do in Shikinejima
More of a beach person? Japan has plenty of those too, and Shikinejima is home to some of the best stretches of sand and surf in the country. A remote, sparsely populated island in the Philippine Sea about 100 miles south of Tokyo, it’s a world apart from the teeming city. If you’re looking for a quiet, nature-focused escape, this is the place to go.
Beachgoers flock to Tomari Beach on Shikinejima, and with good reason: This picturesque crescent of sand is surrounded by towering cliffs that form a sheltered cove with sparkling turquoise water. The rock formations keep the water calm, so this is a great spot to take a dip and enjoy the ocean.
Looking for something a little more active? Head over to Nakanoura Beach, which is great for snorkeling. Put on your mask and flippers to catch views of coral, colorful fish, and even sea turtles. If you want to see even more of the island’s natural beauty, rent a kayak from the Shikinejima Sea Kayak School. The waters around the island are usually calm—perfect for paddling—and you’ll be able to explore hidden coves and beaches and get top-notch views from the ocean.
You can find hot springs, or onsen, all over Japan, but few are as unique as the ones on Shikinejima. Here, the hot water bubbles to the surface right by the ocean, making for a one-of-a-kind onsen experience. There are several springs scattered across the island, but we recommend Ashitsuke Onsen, which is relatively accessible and features several different natural baths at the water’s edge. Try out a few different ones until you find a temperature you like.
The rest of the island is rocky and heavily forested, with plenty of great hiking trails. A trip over to Kambiki Observatory will reward you with breathtaking views of the ocean (and on a clear day, even distant Mt. Fuji). For a more adventurous journey, the trail to Oura Beach makes a great day hike: It winds through the western side of the island and takes you to a quiet cove that opens into the ocean. The beach is famous for its natural stone arch, which looks like a horse’s head bending down to drink from the water. Biking is another great way to explore Shikinejima—rent a set of wheels in town once you step off the ferry, and you’ll be able to get around the island with ease.
How to Get There
Nikko is a short ride from Tokyo. Catch a bullet train from Tokyo to Utsunomiya (a 50-minute journey), and then hop on Japan Rail’s Joyful Train Iroha, which is designed specifically for sightseeing, to get to Nikko in 40 minutes. To get to Shikinejima, head to Takeshiba Pier in Tokyo and catch a high-speed jet ferry, which will get you to the island in about three hours.
Where to Stay
Want to spend more than just a day exploring Nikko? Book a room at the Nikko Kanaya Hotel, the oldest resort hotel in Japan. First opened in 1873, it has attracted visitors—including people like Helen Keller and Albert Einstein—for over a century with its views of the Daiya River and easy access to the surrounding countryside. It blends the best of Japanese and Western hospitality with tastefully decorated rooms, a main dining room specializing in French cuisine, and a wood-paneled cocktail bar that boasts over 200 types of single malt whiskey.
There are plenty of unique places to stay in Shikinejima, including small local hostels and traditional Japanese ryokan, or inns. For a real off-the-grid experience, camping is a great way to enjoy a weekend on Shikinejima. There are two main campsites on the island, and both are perfect for a rustic escape. Just check in at the Tourism Office once you step off the ferry to inquire about tent camping.
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