MAPPED: There's more to Japan than its cities - 10 rural routes of the Land of the Rising Sun

2019-01-20 10:30 - Gabi Zietsman
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Along coastlines, over mountain ranges, through forests and marshlands - travelling through Japan doesn't mean the only things to see are in the cities.

Away from the neon lights and bustling streets, you can discover Japan's quieter, more traditional side of life in its countryside and national parks. Either by car, train, bus, boat or even just with your legs, there are rural routes across Japan that will make you want to leave the city lights as fast as possible. 

Whether you're looking for road trip ideas, hiking trails or interesting transport experiences, these itineraries will definitely give you a unique Japanese holiday really off the beaten track.

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Bandai Azuma Skyline

Transport: By car

Starting in Fukushima City, this winding road will take you up through the eastern elevations of Mount Azuma, a volcanic mountain range that is still active. 

The best time to do the drive is in autumn when the region bursts with colour. Remember though that the road is closed from mid-November to mid-April due to extreme winter conditions.

Oze National Park trailheads

Transport: By walking

About 150km north of Tokyo, Oze National Park is a top hiking destination, taking you on trailheads through its many mountains, iconic marshlands and around the Ozenuma Pond. The most popular time is late spring between May and June when the skunk cabbages are blooming.

You can either make it a day trip from the city or stay overnight in one of the mountain huts, or you can stay in Tokura where buses drive to the park.

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Trans Kyushu Route

Transport: By bus (Kyushu Odan Bus) or by car

Kyushu is Japan's third largest island and the best way to see its rural beauty is on the Trans Kyushu Route between Kumamoto and Beppu. You'll mostly be on the Yamanami Highway that will take you through rolling hills and past relaxing hot springs, and while you can technically drive it in a day, you'll end up spending a week stopping along the spots on the route.

Some highlights along the route include the volcano Mount Aso, the hot spring town Kurokawa Onsen and the Kuju Mountains where you could do various hiking trails.

Sagano Scenic Railway and Hozugawa River Cruise

Transport: By train or boat

Want to take it slow at your own steam in the beauty of Japan's nature? Why not take an old-fashioned train from Arashiyama along the Hozugawa River, surrounded by forests into Kameoka. The Sagano Scenic Railway route's most popular time is during autumn for the orange colours, but the train is closed during winter from December to February. 

On the way back to Arashiyama you can opt for a traditional river cruise - flat-bottomed boats guided by oars and bamboo poles originally used to transport logs up and down the undeveloped ravine.

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Kibi Plain

Transport: By bicycle

Discover the folklore and legends of the Kibi area on the rural and historical 17km cycling route between Bizen-Ichinomiya and Soja Stations. It follows the same route as Prince Kibitsuhiko, who according to legend is said to have defeated an ogre and conquered the Kibi region.

You'll pass quaint farmhouses, burial mounds and temples on quite a flat plain. You'll be able to rent the bikes from both stations. 

Boso Flower Line

Transport: By car

Although this is a short drive - it's only 45km long - it's a beautiful jaunt on the Boso Peninsula through fields of flowers from January to April when spring is in full bloom. 

Starting in Tateyama and ending in Chikura, you'll be able to see, buy and even pick flowers like rapeseed flowers and poppies in the Shiramazu and Senda Flower Fields, or the Tateyama Family Park and Aloha Garden. You can also make stops on the coast along the Pacific Ocean and visit the second oldest lighthouse in Japan - the Nojimasaki Lighthouse.

SEE: Where and when to see the best cherry blossoms in Japan 

Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trails

Transport: By walking

Along with the Camino de Santiago, the Kumano Kodo is the only other pilgrimage route designated as a world heritage site. These are trails that have been used for over a thousand years that connect sacred shrines on the Kii Peninsula. There are three main ones collectively called the Kumano Sanzan - Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha - but the trails are lined with smaller subsidiary shrines called Oji.

Some of the trails have been broken up by development and disuse, and others need a lot of preparation to undertake as they pass through treacherous mountain passes with little accommodation. The most popular and well-preserved one is the Nakahechi, which starts in Tanabe to Hongu Taisha and then onwards to the other two main shrines, but there are many ways you can do the route. 

Northern Japan Alps

Transport: By train, walking and ropeway

Situated in the Chubu Sangaku National Park, the Northern Japan Alps is one of the grandest landscapes in the country and shows off its splendour in every season. You can explore this volcanic mountain range via many routes and methods, stretching over the Toyama, Nagano and Gifu Prefectures.

You can either take a double-decker gondola to over thousand-metre elevations on the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway, traverse the forested Kurobe Gorge's steep cliffs with a train or take on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route which consists of multiple forms of transport connecting Toyama City with Omachi Town. In 2019 the route will be open from 15 April to 30 November.

ALSO SEE: Japan is now giving away homes for 'free' 

Dewa Sanzan

Transport: By bus and walking

Yamagata Prefecture is one of Japan's most remote areas, and the pilgrimage to the three sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan is quite a hiking experience. Atop each mountain is a Shugendo shrine that represents birth, death and rebirth, and people normally visit the mountains in that order.

The shrine on the tallest mountain is Gas-san - the death shrine - and at the steps up to Haguro-san - the birth shrine - has 33 figures carved into stone and brings luck to anyone who finds them all. The rebirth shrine, Yudono-san, is quite secretive and you're not allowed to take photos inside. The best time to visit all three is between July and mid-September.

Japan Romantic Road

This 350km stretch of road is bliss through rural towns, hot spring resorts, poetic mountains and the Nikko World Heritage Sites. Starting in Ueda City through the mountains of Gunma Prefecture to Utsunomiya City, you'll need a rental car and about two to five days of leisure to really take in this romantic trip that's off the beaten track for foreign tourists. 

Along the route you'll find forgotten silk towns, castle ruins, thousand-year-old temples and onsen hot spring resorts that will make any Japanese road trip memorable. 

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