You've probably heard that Japan is a hot destination for food, fashion, and nightlife. But little discussed is Japan’s ability to give travelers a workout. With landscapes ranging from mountains to coastal regions, it’s a perfect place for hikers, paddlers, and cyclists to break a sweat while taking in everything else Japan is famous for: incredible temples, a rich history, well-manicured parks, and a warm soak in one of the countryside onsens.
Island Hop By Bike
Japan is peppered with thousands of small islands, some of which are connected by masterfully designed bridges. The Shimanami Kaido Expressway is a 43-mile bikeway that takes you from Imabari to Onomichi across six bridges, several islands and charming little villages. Intense cyclists can finish the course in a day, but allot yourself two to savor the spectacular ocean views and enjoy a well-earned sleep at a traditional inn complete with hot spring bath. The ride is mostly flat paved concrete, but the uphill climb to each bridge is a thigh burner. Not to worry — your reward is a breezy downhill sprawl at the end of each bridge.
Hike an Ancient Pilgrimage Trail
Over 1,000 years ago, the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail was a route for retired emperors and aristocrats. They would walk the path again and again over their lifetime for as long as 40 days at a time in search of purification. Today, the UNESCO-designated site attracts hikers of all skill levels thanks to its interconnected spider web network, which allows you to choose your route and difficulty. Go for a leisurely half-day walk or challenge yourself to a grueling multi-day trek. Whichever route you take, you’ll leave with memorable views of majestic cedar trees and an appreciation for what the pilgrims endured.
Kayak to a Floating Shrine
While the majority of tourists take the ferry to Miyajima Island in order to see the famous floating Torii shrine, the more unique, shoulder-burning way to get there is by kayak. Rent a one or two-person vessel from Paddle Park for a two-hour trip to the gate. You’ll be able to glide under the archway and come within arm’s length of the shrine making for some truly epic photos. Kayakers are also treated to a delicious maple pastry filled with red bean paste upon return.
Dive or Snorkel in Okinawa
Okinawa boasts waters as clear as crystal, lending kaleidoscopic views of colorful fish and coral reefs. A combination of several islands in the south of Japan, memorable dive spots include the famous Blue Cave, Miyako Island for its gigantic Yabishi coral reefs, Kerama Islands National Park to see 400 different kinds of coral, or Kume Island to make friends with all the Nemo fish.
Climb Mount Fuji
When you gaze at the Tokyo skyline, it's hard to miss majestic Mount Fuji on the horizon. If your initial thought is, “I have to climb that!” well, you can. Japan’s highest mountain is more than 12,000 feet tall with ascent routes easily accessible by either the train or bus from Gotemba station. The official climbing season runs July to September, and although there’s usually not snow during that time, it’s still recommended to pack winter clothes since temperatures at the summit can drop to zero. Don't worry, you'll be so captivated by the view, you'll barely notice.
How to Do It
The closest airport to the Kumano Kodo trail is Kansai International Airport in Osaka. To bike the Shimanami Kaido Expressway or kayak to the floating Torii, you'll want to fly into Hiroshima Airport. To climb Mount Fuji, fly into either Narita or Haneda. If you want to tackle several of these activities in one trip, your best bet is to purchase a Japan Rail (JR) Pass. Bullet trains in Japan are comfortable and outfitted with state-of-the-art technology, perfect for traveling long distances. Flying is, however, the only way to get to the Okinawa islands (Naha Airport). If you want to maximize your time, there are several tour companies like G Adventures, World Expeditions, and InsideJapan Tours, who can help you with planning so all you have to worry about is staying hydrated and having fun.