Cities around Japan are pushing to become more foreigner-friendly with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics fast approaching. With that, international flights to regional airports are on the rise as the growing number of repeat travelers are seeking out alternative ways to experience the country in a more authentic way.
A key theme of inbound travel to Japan for next year is relaxation; taking the time to immerse yourself in the atmosphere rather than trying to tick things off a list.
We couldn’t think of a better way to enjoy Japan.
Buried in the softest powder snow imaginable, deep in the mountains of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, is Niseko. The town has experienced a steadily increasing number of foreign visitors lusting for its pristine snowboarding and skiing resorts over the last decade.
Winter sports enthusiasts won’t want for options as the number of resorts, hot springs, and hotels are plentiful. Several foreigner-run local companies offer outdoor adventure tours in English like the Niseko Adventure Center and NOASC Niseko. The luxury Park Hyatt Niseko with private hot spring baths and panoramic mountain views is set to open in January 2020. With English support everywhere you turn, there’s no reason not to visit Niseko if winter sports are your jam.
Hiking, rafting, and bridge swinging tours for the daring amongst us are available in summer to satisfy your outdoor fix. Plunge into the area’s hot springs after hitting the slopes and exploring the buzzing nightlife scene for the full Niseko experience.
Outdoor baths where men and women can bathe together are only the beginning of Minakami’s wonders. The onsen resort town two hours north of Tokyo in Gunma Prefecture is the perfect place in Japan to dive into the adventure tourism trend, where travelers opt for physical activity surrounded by nature rather than shopping and sightseeing.
Opportunities for canyoning and whitewater rafting are amongst the bold ventures available. Jump off a 20-meter-high waterfall for a terrifying, but rewarding, rush of adrenaline with the Canyoning Fox tour which is available in English. This and other blood-pumping tours aim to “show the beauty of real Japan.”
If jumping off waterfalls isn’t your thing and you’d rather get back to the hot spring action, head to Takaragawa Onsen which has some of the biggest outdoor baths in Japan.
The luxury cruise train “Seven Stars in Kyushu,” launched in 2013, offers travelers a once in a lifetime chance to see Japan’s southern region in style. This fantastic voyage shuttles guests across some of Kyushu’s most iconic spots like Yufuin onsen town in Oita Prefecture. All the while, highly-decorated chefs serve posh seasonal delicacies from across the region. Elegant wooden decor, deluxe suites, and piano lounges set the Seven Stars apart from your average train journey.
From April, in lieu of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the extravagant cruise will introduce even more cultural experience tours across Kyushu. These include popular activities like cherry blossom viewing and an exclusive fire ritual at Monju-Senji Temple. Starting at around ¥750,000 a person for two nights, the indulgent carriage is a bit pricey for the average tourist. However, those lucky enough to get on board will have an unforgettable experience traveling southern Japan like royalty.
Ride the train south of Tokyo for 30 minutes to Yokohama and you’ll notice a dramatic change in atmosphere. The port city is electric with tons of entertainment, bars, and artistic neighborhoods. It provides all of this and much more with an “easy like Sunday morning” vibe. The relaxed city is Japan’s second-largest in terms of population and is no stranger to foreign visitors—the bay-side metropolis became a huge center for foreign trade during the early 1960s.
Minato Mirai is Yokohama’s bustling downtown area where you’ll find any number of festivals throughout the seasons along with the towering Ferris wheel at Cosmo World amusement park. Head over to the Noge area around Sakuragicho Station for alleyways crammed full of funky bars that rival Tokyo’s hipster neighborhood, Shimokitazawa.
Yokohama hosted the rowdy final match of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. To make the city more accessible to foreign visitors during the games, the local government launched the Yokohama West Gate Restaurant Guide. The application gives foreigners dining recommendations and real-time translations of menus into English, Korean, Cantonese, and Mandarin. This will be a useful tool for visitors during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, as Yokohama will host several baseball and softball matches.
A trip to Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture will transport you to a historic town with gorgeous shrines and abundant nature straight from a postcard. Its close proximity to Tokyo has given it a somewhat cult-like following amongst travelers looking to trade sky-scraping high rises for mountains and bedazzled shrines.
Toshogu Shrine, with its ornately decorated buildings and samurai history, is Nikko’s star attraction. The forested complex actually consists of 55 shrines and the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first leader of the Tokugawa Shogunate who ruled Japan in the Edo Period from 1603 to 1867. The trek through mystical forests and 207 stone step ascent to Ieyasu’s tomb is something straight out of the fantastical world of Studio Ghibli.
The shrine complex is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site with visitors flocking to its ancient grounds in favor of shrine-laden Kyoto. Nikko is also a very Muslim-friendly city with several restaurants offering halal menus and prayer spaces available. The “Nikko Guide for Muslims” can be downloaded from the Tobu Railway website.
If ever the label “picture-perfect” deserved to be attached to a place in Japan, Lake Biwa would be it. Japan’s largest freshwater lake forms the liquid center of a ring of emerald mountains; between the two you’ll find great hiking, biking, cruises, and water sports. Make the pilgrimage to Chikubushima, a small island floating in the north side of the lake that’s said to be a “power spot” (an area of concentrated spiritual energy) where a water goddess dwells.
On or off it, Biwa looks spectacular from every angle but some of the nicest vistas can be drunk in at the serene Ishiyama-dera temple complex just south of the lake. The views there inspired The Tale of Genji, Japan’s 11th-century literary masterpiece that’s considered the world’s first novel.
The feudal town of Hikone sits on the lake’s shores drawing visitors away from the water to picturesque Edo-era streets and a 17th-century castle and garden. Inside Hikone Castle you’ll find historical artifacts that have been preserved for nearly 260 years.
Local organization Biwako Backroads offers memorable experiences for those hungry for a taste of local community culture. Options include a cycling tour that journeys part of the Nakasendo Way (see No.4) and a chance to interact with a hidden community of artisans who make butsudan, or household Buddhist altars.
With its grid-style layout, tree-lined boulevards and raucous red-light district, Sapporo couldn’t be more different to the wild, primitive Hokkaido landscape for which it serves as the entry point.
Though millions of people hone in on the city every February for the world-famous Sapporo Snow Festival, it’s in summer and autumn when Sapporo shines as a destination worth setting your compass to. Stay awhile to explore the art-filled parks and diverse museums, filling up on the specialty butter-topped ramen as you go. At night, the Susukino entertainment district comes alive as the neon lights are switched on and music blares from behind doorways. Get buzzed with a bottle of crisp Sapporo beer, which you can learn more about at the Sapporo Beer Museum.
A short distance from Sapporo Station is Shiraishi’s AEON shopping mall, a retail paradise for tourists thanks to the multilingual staff, exclusive discounts, and delivery service that lets you send fresh Hokkaido produce back home.
In summer 2020, all eyes will be on Sapporo as the host of the Tokyo Olympics marathon and walking events. Distance running is hugely popular in Japan, so get ready to join a big beer-fuelled party.
Of the “Five Edo Routes” or Gokaido that connected the old capital of Edo (Tokyo) with the outer provinces under the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Nakasendo is the only one that remains largely intact—and beautifully so. Traversing valleys of the magnificent Japan Alps in Gifu and Nagano prefectures, the route winds through tranquil (save for the occasional ringing of a bear bell) cedar forests, intermittently emerging onto a quaint postal town populated with atmospheric Honjin, a traditional inn that once provided a rest stop for traveling samurai.
Tsumago, number 42 of the 69 post towns that lined the Nakasendo, has been so faithfully preserved that it feels as though you’re walking through a movie set. Dip into the pretty craft and souvenir shops, and sample local oyaki (buns filled with red bean paste) and chestnut-flavored sweets to replenish your energy after all that walking.
Modern-day travelers can take advantage of recent 21st-century benefits like free Wi-Fi and multilingual signage. Over in the town of Sekigahara, you can even explore the area where the decisive Battle of Sekigahara—marking the beginning of the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate—took place with an AR smartphone app that profiles each samurai warrior who fought that day.
We couldn’t put together a list of the top places to visit in 2020 without next year’s Olympic host. You can sense the energy of the city being galvanized by this historic event; large-scale redevelopment projects around Shibuya Station, the move of Tsukiji fish market to Toyosu, and the upcoming opening of the four-story Tanakawa Gateway Station are transforming the face of Tokyo and leading Japan into a new era.
The best way to tackle this metropolitan monstrosity is to break it down by theme and give yourself a day or two to explore each. For bright lights and crowds, head to Shinjuku and Shibuya while tradition and (relative) tranquility can be found in retro districts to the east such as Asakusa and Ueno. Pop culture and vibrant colors spill through the streets of Harajuku and Akihabara, while areas like Daikanyama and Nakameguro are Insta fodder for trendy travelers thirsty for craft beverages and people-watching.
All that neighborhood immersion will require fuel, and there’s no better place than the culinary capital of the world to stuff yourself with the ever-innovative menus of around 150,000 restaurants. Don’t let the language barrier stop you; apps like Gurunavi and Tabelog have functions in English to help you make a proper meal of your time in the city.
Spiritual travel is an emerging trend to be reckoned with as Millennials—the generation that holidays the most—search for meaning in far-off lands. Kumano is definitely well-practiced at welcoming wanderers to its misty mountains and sweeping coastlines; it’s been doing so for at least a millennia.
Though the Kumano region also spans some of Mie Prefecture, it’s in Wakayama where you’ll find the most famous section of the Unesco-listed Kumano Kodo trail network. Hike along stone pathways lit by ethereal rays filtering through fragrant cedar trees towards the Kumano Sanzan (three shrines of Kumano). Here you’ll pray to both indigenous Shinto and Buddhist gods, a testament to the harmony cultivated between the two religions throughout a formidable history. The extraordinary Nachi Taisha, one of the Kumano Sanzan, is the omnipresent poster child of Wakayama tourism—but one glimpse of the bright red three-story pagoda shrouded in the godly vapor of Japan’s tallest waterfall and it’s easy to understand why.
That harmonious spirit extends to the modern hospitality with which residents welcome visitors from around the world. In Tanabe City, the gateway to the Kumano Kodo, the multilingual tourism bureau runs a grassroots online reservation platform called Kumano Travel which links local guides and businesses to visitors. Try a farm-stay and harvest ume (Japanese plums) just outside of Tanabe, go whale-watching in nearby Katsuura, become a Shinto priest in Shingu, or sun yourself on the white sand beaches of seaside Shirahama.
Kumano actually made our first ever list of top destinations back in 2017 which proves just how enduringly captivating it is.
Here at GaijinPot, the most important thing is you, the reader. So this year, we left it up to you to vote on what destinations you thought deserved to be visited in 2020. Sixteen nominee locations were chosen and put to a reader’s vote based on three main criteria.
Thanks to the readers’ vote which took place over November, the list was whittled down to the incredible list of places above.
Traveling to one of these destinations? We want to know about it. Tag us on social media with #GaijinPotTravel (Your post may be featured on our site.)