If you think that Japan is all bright lights and packed cities, you couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, the natural landscape boasts volcanos, forests, coastlines and underwater marine habitats that are just waiting to be explored, all within the island country’s national parks. With a country that encompasses near to 7,000 islands with 5 main islands making up around 97% of Japan’s land area, there are some 34 free-to-enter national parks scattered across the country, from the northern tip of Hokkaido to the southernmost island of Okinawa.
National parks were first established in Japan in 1931, to designate and preserve places of scenic natural beauty, and visitors can enjoy many outdoor activities, such as hiking, boating, diving and hot springs (onsens) within them. Some parks have also established eco-tourism activities including whale and dolphin watching and guided nature hikes. See below for a round-up of some of our favourites.
Akan Mashu National Park, Hokkaido
Hokkaido is home to six national parks boasting pristine environments, from the forest to the sea with Akan Mashu national park being particularly impressive. The park is well-known for its three beautiful lakes home to some of the clearest waters in the world. Akan is composed of two separate parts, the western part showcasing Lake Akan with the lakeside hot spring resort of Akankohan Onsen and the eastern part hosting Lake Mashu, Lake Kussharo, Sulfur Mountain, Iozan and Kawayu Onsen.
Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park, Kagoshima and Miyakzaki Prefecture
Kagoshima Prefecture and Miyakzaki Prefecture are known for their active volcanoes, volcanic lakes and onsens. The park is divided into two areas; Kirishima and Kinkowan Bay. Within the Kirishima area there are over 20 volcanoes, crater lakes, volcanic gas clouds, hot springs and plateaus. The Kinkowan Bay area is centred around active volcano Mt. Sakurajima with Mt. Kaimon, Lake Ikeda and Chirin Island on the Satsuma Peninsular side, Cape Sata and Ogawa Waterfalls on the Osumi Peninsular side and Shigetomi Beach within the bay surrounding it.
Nikko National Park, Kanto Region
Nikko National Park spreads across four prefectures; Tochigi, Gunma, Fukushima and Niigata, its location makes for the perfect one- or two-day excursion from Tokyo. There are a number of shrines, including Japan’s most lavishly decorated shrine, Toshogu, temples and bridges scattered across the area with the beautiful plateaus, waterfalls, lakes and forests. Additionally, the park hosts an abundance of wildlife including the Japanese macaque, sika deer and the Asiatic black bear. It is advised to visit during the autumn months to experience the stunning colour-changing leaves.
Sanriku Fukko National Park, Hachinohe
The Michinoku Shiokaze Trail runs the entire length of the Sanriku Fukko National Park, which extends along the coastline through Aomori, Iwate and Miyagi prefectures. The trail covers 1000km, running from Hachinohe City to Soma City in Fukushima Prefecture. The biggest city in Aomori; Hachinohe City is known for its sake, fresh seafood, rare wildlife and the stunning Kabushima shrine. Whilst here, visit Kabushima Island, the only place in Japan where visitors can observe the breeding of black-tailed gulls at close range, and admire the red torii Kabushima Shrine.
Setonaikai National Park, Setouchi
The Setonaikai National Park is located in the Seto Inland Sea boarding ten prefectures across Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. There are a number of scenic observation points ashore overlooking the sea, distinct features of the park include; the Daifudo Cave, a traditional monks’ training ground, the five-coloured plateau of Goshikidai and Mt. Misen, a scenic mountain ideal for novice climbers. Surrounding the park are areas of terrace fields and port towns flourishing with Japanese culture.