8 mins

Beyond Tokyo: 9 tours that explore Japan’s hidden corners

From the gorgeous subtropical islands in Japan’s south, to the wild untamed corners of its far north, these tours uncover corners of this fascinating country, still largely off the radar...

The Geisha District in Kanazawa (Shutterstock)

1. Discover Japan’s wild north

Asahidake Mountain in Daisetsuzan National Park, Japan (Shutterstock)

Asahidake Mountain in Daisetsuzan National Park, Japan (Shutterstock)

Go beyond Sapporo, deep into the heart of Japan’s most northerly island, Hokkaido, on this wildlife and nature adventure with Audley.

Tailor-made to show you a side of the country’s far north that very few get to see, you’ll witness the dazzling red-crested crane mating rituals in Kushiro, hike through the stunning Daisetsuzan National Park and keep an eye out for for bears in Shiretoko.

Visit during winter and you’re in for an added treat: the world famous Snow Festival in Sapporo, where ice sculptors come from around the world to create icy masterpieces. Skiers will also love the world-class power skiing in Furano and Niseko.

Trip: Wildlife & Hot Springs Of Hokkaido

Who: Audley

Type: Tailor-made

When: Flexible departures throughout the year

How long: 15 days

How much: From £5,440 (inc. flights)

2. Island hop through Japan’s deep south

Buffalo-drawn cart, Taketomi, Japan (Shutterstock)

Buffalo-drawn cart, Taketomi, Japan (Shutterstock)

Island hop through Japan’s sub-tropical south on this tailor-made adventure from Ishigaki to Okinawa with InsideJapan Tours.

Your journey begins on Ishigaki Island, part of the Yaeyama Islands, which is closer to Taiwan than Tokyo. Boasting Japan’s best beaches, untouched coral reefs and a forested mountainous interior, you’ll be immediately surrounded by nature.

From here, you’ll make your way north via Taketomi, where the main form of transport is water buffalo-drawn cart, then Iriomote Island, where you’ll kayak along a river through thick, wild jungle and finally onto Naha, the capital of Okinawa’s main island. 

Finally, you’ll reach Kerama Islands, home to some of the best snorkelling in the world, and a popular resting point for migrating humpback whales.

Trip: Island Hopping: 12 Nights (Self-Guided Adventure)

Who: InsideJapan Tours

Type: Tailor-made

When: Flexible departures throughout the year

How long: 16 days

How much: From £2,440 (exc. flights)

3. Trek an ancient pilgrim path on Honshu

Pilgrims walking along one of the Kumano Kodo trails (Shutterstock)

Pilgrims walking along one of the Kumano Kodo trails (Shutterstock)

Follow some of the most ancient pilgrim routes in Japan and discover a world of wilderness, mountains and tranquil monasteries on this eight-day trek with Intrepid.

Following the Koya-san and Kumano Kodo trails, you’ll discover a world a million miles away from the famous tourist sights of Honshu.

The trails will take you deep into the countryside, providing a strong connection with past and present pilgrims hiking these historic routes. Along the way, stop by peaceful temples and tranquil monasteries, soak in a traditional onsen and experience two of the main religions in Japan: Buddhism and Shinto.

A real highlight is joining in on the morning prayers and sharing a traditional shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian) meal during an overnight temple stay in Koya-san, deep in mountainous Wakayama prefecture.

Trip: Japan: Koya-san & Kumano Kodo Trek

Who: Intrepid

Type: Small group

When: Apr to Jun, Sep to Nov

How long: Eight days

How much: From £2,325 (exc. flights)

4. Lose yourself in Japan’s nature island, Kyushu

Manai Falls, Takachiho Gorge, Kyushu (Shutterstock)

Manai Falls, Takachiho Gorge, Kyushu (Shutterstock)

Peppered with active volcanoes, lush subtropical forests and more hot springs than you can poke a samurai sword at, Kyushu is regarded as Japan’s nature island. This 18-day, tailor-made adventure with Audley will explore it all.

Along the way you’ll experience the beautiful volcanic mountains and dramatic Mount Aso caldera of Aso-Kuju National Park, take a boat ride down the striking Takachiho Gorge, amid tumbling waterfalls and picturesque mountain cherry trees, and visit the hot springs of Kurokawa.

Each night, you’ll stay in a traditional inn, sample incredible food and experience unmatched Japanese hospitality.

Trip: Best Of Kyushu Japan Self-Drive

Who: Audley

Type: Self drive

When: Flexible departures throughout the year

How long: 18 days

How much: From £7,240 (inc. flights)

5. Meet the snow monkeys of Nagano

Snow monkeys bathing in the hot springs of Nagano (Shutterstock)

Snow monkeys bathing in the hot springs of Nagano (Shutterstock)

You’ve seen the photos, now meet Japan’s wildlife superstars - the snow monkeys of Nagano - in the flesh on this wildlife adventure with Flight Centre.

This nature-focused journey takes you from the slopes of Mount Fuji to the mountain views of Nagano, Matsumoto and Sapporo. Depending on what time of the year you visit, you’ll enjoy hiking in the summer or skiing in the winter. 

Either way, the undoubted highlight is watching the snow monkeys warming up in the hot springs of Nagano’s Jigokudani Monkey Park. Definitely one to tell the grandkids about!

Trip: Snow Monkeys & Mountains

Who: Flight Centre

Type: Tailor-made

When: Flexible departures throughout the year

How long: 14 days

How much: From £2,499 (exc. flights)

6. Discover art, history and nature on Japan's hidden islands

The ancient mossy forests of Yakushima (Shutterstock)

The ancient mossy forests of Yakushima (Shutterstock)

See a side of Japan that few experience with this 11-day tour with G Adventures that takes you off the main trails into landscapes and artistic hubs of southern Japan.

It’s a journey that will take you to Naoshima, a picturesque island dotted with impressive contemporary art museums and installations, and Nagasaki, rebuilt and thriving after being destroyed by an atom bomb in the Second World War.

You'll also explore Yakushima, a subtropical island where you’ll hike through ancient mossy forest and discover gorgeous empty beaches.

Trip: Explore Southern Japan

Who: G Adventures

Type: Small group

When: Jul to Dec

How long: 11 days

How much: From £2,399 (exc. flights)

7. Say hello to Shikoku

Oboke Gorge, Japan (Shutterstock)

Oboke Gorge, Japan (Shutterstock)

Regarded as Japan’s ‘Hidden Island’, Shikoku is a land of temples, festivals and spectacular scenery.

The smallest of Japan’s major islands, it’s encircled by a 1,200km, 88-temple Buddhist pilgrimage route, boasts a feudal castle as well as Dogo Onsen, one of the earliest known hot-spring spas in the country.

You’ll experience it all of this tailor-made adventure with Audley. You’re itinerary includes white water rafting in the spectacular Oboke Gorge, ample time in the hot springs that dot the island and a performance at the delightful Bunraku Puppet Theatre. Nature, history and culture – this trip has it all.

Trip: Japan's hidden island: Temples & festivals in Shikoku

Who: Audley

Type: Tailor-made

When: Flexible departures throughout the world

How long: 11 days

How much: From £4,120 (exc. flights)

8. Discover Tohoku – Japan’s next hotspot

Shinkyo Bridge in Nikko (Shutterstock)

Shinkyo Bridge in Nikko (Shutterstock)

Tohoku, on the east coast of Honshu, is tipped to be the next big thing in Japanese tourism. You’ll get an insider’s preview on this 15-day tailor-made adventure through the region.

Staring in Nikko, an old imperial city many believe is as beautiful as Kyoto, you’ll drive through spectacular mountainous scenery, bath in hot springs and stay in rural inns, enjoying delicious traditional local dishes along the way.

You’ll climb the holy peaks of Dewa Sanzan, watch the sunrise over Matsushima Bay and stumble upon colourful local festivals. Get there before the rest of the world does. 

Trip: Tohoku Discovered

Who: Audley

Type: Tailor-made

When: Flexible departures throughout the world

How long: 15 days

How much: From £6,265 (inc. flights)

9. Focus on Japanese tradition

The Geisha District in Kanazawa (Shutterstock)

The Geisha District in Kanazawa (Shutterstock)

This 14-day, tailor-made adventure with InsideJapan Tours takes you off the beaten track and deep in to traditional Japan, where very little has changed over the centuries.

Starting in Kanazawa, you’ll discover a world of former geisha establishments and teahouses line roads lit by old-fashioned street lamps and a beautifully preserved samurai quarter.

From here, the rural villages of Shirakawa-go and Tsumago await, offering invigorating walks, scenic views and accommodation in traditional, family-run minshuku inns.

Your trip will end in the Japanese Alps with a tea ceremony in a traditional machiya townhouse.

Trip: Traditional Japan: 14 Nights (Self-Guided Adventure)

Who: InsideJapan Tours

Type: Tailor-made

When: Flexible Departures throughout the year

How long: 14 days

How much: From £2,400 (exc. flights)

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