As 2018 comes to an end, The Japan Times’ Escape section looks forward to next year and the opportunities for travel around the country in 2019.
The year is an important one for Japan: It sees the Rugby World Cup arrive on its shores, the first time the tournament will be held in Asia. Beyond that, the country is gearing up for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the accompanying tourist boom. Still, there are plenty of places well off the beaten track to explore, and some firm favorites that should be visited no matter how many others are already there. Read on for some of The Japan Times’ recommendations for where to go in the new year.
The city break: Kanazawa, Ishikawa Pref.
Positioned almost equidistant between Tokyo and Kyoto on Japan’s northern coast, Kanazawa remains undervisited compared to the more famous cities in the south. Until 2015, the city was relatively difficult to access but, since the extension of the Hokuriku Shinkansen Line, Kanazawa is now directly connected to Tokyo by bullet train. Kanazawa escaped the air raids of World War II that destroyed many of the older buildings in other large cities, and many of the town’s historical sites — including Nagamachi, an old samurai district — remain in good nick.
Kanazawa is connected to Tokyo Station by bullet train. The journey takes 2½ to three hours and costs around ¥14,000 one way.
The mountain stronghold: Iya Valley, Tokushima Pref.
Deep in the mountains of Shikoku, the Iya Valley is rumored to have been the secret refuge of defeated warriors of the Taira clan in the 12th century. The landscape is dramatic, with deep, rocky gorges and steep mountains, and offers visitors a well-deserved retreat.
The area’s most famous attractions are the Iya and Oku-Iya Kazurabashi vine bridges, which can still be used to cross the valley (though they are now reinforced with steel cables). Located next to the 50-meter-tall Biwa Waterfall, these are two of the three remaining bridges of the 13 that once provided transport links across the valley.
The Iya Valley can be accessed from either Awa-Ikeda or Oboke stations on the Dosan Line that connects Okayama to Kochi. Limited express trains run hourly from Okayama, take around 1½ hours, and cost about ¥3,500 one way. Renting a car is the best way to explore as public transport in the region is limited.
The lonely mountain: Rishiri Island, Hokkaido Pref.
Rishiri Island is one of the most remote places in Japan, located around 20 kilometers west of Hokkaido’s northern tip. At its center stands the 1,721-meter-tall Mount Rishiri, a dormant volcano that gives the island its name: In the Ainu language “Rii Shiri” translates to “high-peak island.” Summer activities include sea kayaking, fishing, hiking and cycling, and during the winter the island is known for some of Japan’s best backcountry skiing and snowmobiling.
Most of the island’s inhabitants live in the tiny town of Oshidomari Port, home to the Peshi Misaki Observatory, which overlooks Oshidomari’s harbor and Mount Rishiri.
ANA and JAL run seasonal flights to Rishiri Airport in the summer from New Chitose Airport. To travel to Rishiri Island in winter, you must first make the long journey to Wakkanai — at the northern tip of Hokkaido. Wakkanai can be reached by road, rail and air from Sapporo. From Wakkanai, frequent ferries leave to Oshidomari Port, the island’s main city. The ferry trip takes around 1½ hours and costs just over ¥2,000 one way.
The island destination: Zamami, Okinawa Pref.
An hour on the high-speed ferry from Tomari Port in Naha, Zamami is one of Okinawa Prefecture’s most picturesque islands.
With 600 residents, the island is the most-inhabited of the Kerama Island chain, and boasts several beaches and an incredible array of subaqua flora and fauna (including sea turtles) that can be explored by snorkeling or scuba diving.
In the winter months, visitors to the island can go whale watching: The waters around the island are a breeding ground for humpback whales when the northern waters of the Bering Sea become too cold.
High-speed boats and car ferries connect Tomari Port on mainland Okinawa with Zamami. Car ferries depart once per day and high-speed ferries two to three times per day. The one-way trip by car ferry takes approximately two hours and costs ¥2,120, while the high-speed ferry takes around one hour and costs ¥3,140. The ferry is canceled in rough seas. Leave enough leeway to get to and from the island with time to spare for ongoing travel.
The ski weekend: Nozawa Onsen, Nagano Pref.
While Niseko still holds the crown for the most popular ski resort in Japan, at least for the international crowd, Nagano Prefecture’s Nozawa Onsen is a ready challenger to that title. As well as having extensive terrain for skiing and snowboarding, the town’s charm lies in the ready availability of onsen (hot spring baths). The town has 13 onsen that are open to the public, as well as numerous others associated with individual hotels and lodging.
The town-wide Nozawa Onsen Dosojin Fire Festival takes place annually in mid-January and culminates in 2019 on Jan. 15.
Unlike Niseko, Nozawa Onsen is easily accessible via train from Tokyo, and is but a short drive from Japan’s famous snow monkeys in Jigokudani Monkey Park.
Nozawa Onsen is best accessed from Tokyo by train. Take the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo or Ueno stations to Iiyama Station. From there take a bus or taxi to Nozawa Onsen for a total journey time of two to three hours, costing around ¥10,000 one way. During the ski season, direct buses to Nozawa Onsen leave Narita Airport four times a day and take five hours at ¥10,000 one way.
Follow the ball: Host cities of the Rugby World Cup
In September 2019, Japan will host the Rugby World Cup. From Sendai and Sapporo in the north to Fukuoka and Oita in the south, 12 cities will host matches.
Besides bringing the best of world rugby to Japan, the tournament provides a perfect opportunity to travel the length and breadth of the country.
Find out more about what to do in each of the cities by visiting The Japan Times’ monthly “A weekend in” series, which explores the host cities of the Rugby World Cup.