Japan’s national parks are not to be taken for granted; history shows their existence to be hard won.
Tsuyoshi Tamura (1890-1979), the landscapist who became the architect of the national parks project, traces their origin to the advocacy of one man, the Meiji Era (1868-1912) peer and justice minister Okabe Nagamoto (1855-1925).
While living in the U.S. in the 1870s and early 1880s, Okabe visited Yellowstone, established in 1872 as the U.S. first national park. Filled with the vision of emulating the park in his native country, Okabe returned to Japan and began his campaign.
Despite his political prominence and his tireless efforts, Okabe did not live to see his project to fruition. Legislation to establish Japan’s national parks was tabled in parliament in the early years of the 20th century, however, it was not until 1931 that the National Parks Law was approved and later still, in 1934, that the first national parks were actually established.
Three arguments eventually won the government over to the idea, according to Thomas R. H. Havens in “Parkscapes”: The need to encourage tourism to bolster the regions; to support “the collective health and stamina of the people,” with some politicians promulgating the parks as a tool for “inoculating citizens against radical ideas from the Soviet Union”; and a growing call for environmental protection.
Eighty-five years since Japan’s parks were established, 34 national parks now cover 5.8 percent of the country’s landmass, many containing World Heritage and internationally important conservation sites.
Managed by the Ministry of the Environment, the parks operate differently to those in countries such as the U.S., and are a mix of public and private, protected and nonprotected lands, rather than the vast swaths of protected, state-owned lands more common abroad.
Despite this, Japan’s national parks encompass some of the country’s most pristine, undeveloped and unusual landscapes. Below are 10 of the finest, selected for their beauty, variety, and domestic and international significance.
Shiretoko National Park
The northeasternmost national park in Japan, the Shiretoko National Park is situated on the Shiretoko Peninsula. Its name is derived from the Ainu word “siretok,” which translates to “end of the earth.” It’s an accurate description for this lonely place in Japan’s far north.
The Shiretoko Peninsula achieved World Heritage status as “one of the richest integrated ecosystems in the world”: It is the southernmost seasonal sea ice area in the Northern Hemisphere, and is home to great biodiversity, including migratory and endemic birds such as the spectacled guillemot and Steller’s sea eagle, as well as Steller’s sea lions and orcas.
Visitors will find the park dramatically different with the season. In winter, it is possible to walk on the sea ice that drifts down from the Sea of Okhotsk, and even dive beneath it, while boat tours and whale watching around Cape Shiretoko are popular in summer.
Access: Between mid-June and mid-October and during the drift ice season (late January to mid-March), buses run from Memanbetsu Airport to Utoro. The closest station to Shiretoko is Shiretoko Shari. Infrequent buses run from the station to Utoro between late April and October.
Kushiro Shitsugen National Park
The red-crowned crane is designated a Special Natural Monument, and though the bird is usually migratory, a resident population lives year-round in the snow-covered marshes of the Kushiro Shitsugen National Park in southeast Hokkaido.
The park is centered on the Kushiro Marsh, which was made the country’s first UNESCO Ramsar site in 1980, recognizing the area as an internationally important wetland. Its landscape is unlike any other in Japan and due to its fragility visitors can only access limited portions of the park on foot.
Head to the Onnenai Boardwalk to walk across the marshes, take a canoe tour up the Kushiro River or board a steam train from Kushiro Station to see the best of the park.
Access: The park is best accessed from Kushiroshitsugen Station. The SL Fuyu no Shitsugen steam train runs between Kushiro and Shibecha stations from late January to March.
Sanriku Fukko National Park
Designated a national park in 2013 following the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, the Sanriku Fukko National Park stretches 220 kilometers along the Sanriku Coast over Miyagi, Iwate and Aomori prefectures.
The highlights of the park are confined to the north, including the Kitayamazki Cliffs —dubbed the “Alps of the Ocean” — and Jodogahama Beach, which takes its name from jōdo, the Buddhist Pure Land it is said to resemble. Peregrine falcons use the cliffs to nest and the rare pink beach rose flowers on sandy coastal areas between May and August.
The recently completed Michinoku Coastal Trail runs 1,000 kilometers from the city of Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, to Soma, Fukushima Prefecture, and aims to be Japan’s answer to the Appalachian Trail and part of the region’s exerted push toward recovery.
Access: The Rias Line runs north to south along the Sanriku Coast and provides access to the majority of the park.
Nikko National Park
First made an imperial park in 1911, the Nikko area has been a tourist spot for denizens of the capital for well over a century.
The park is best known for the World Heritage Nikko Toshogu shrine, which contains the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate that ruled Japan between 1600 and 1868. Natural highlights abound, including Setoaikyo canyon, a vertiginous gorge on the upstream section of the Kinugawa River and the 97-meter-high Kegon Waterfall, fed by Lake Chuzenji.
The park is the stomping ground of Japanese macaques and the Asiatic black bear, the largest mammal on Honshu. Sika deer are also common, so much so that they are posing a threat to the park’s natural environment, as their predators — including the Japanese wolf — have been hunted to extinction.
Access: It is two hours by train from Tokyo Station to Nikko Station, from which local buses run through the park. The Nikko Pass All Area travel pass is the most cost-efficient way to access the park from Tokyo.
Minami Alps National Park
Home to Japan’s giants, the Minami Alps National Park has 10 peaks over 3,000 meters, including Mount Kita, Japan’s second-highest peak after Mount Fuji.
The Japanese stoat is native to the park, as is the rock ptarmigan, a ground bird known locally as the raichō or “thunderbird.” During the spring and summer, the mountains shrug off their winter snow and alpine flowers bloom. Particularly rare is Callianthemum hondoense, an endangered flowering herb that is endemic only to Mount Kita.
Access: The city of Kofu is a good starting point to access the northern part of the park. Buses run from Kofu Station to the base of Mount Kita and Mount Houou. The southern section can be accessed from Shizuoka or Iida.
Joshinetsukogen National Park
Tucked up in the borderlands of Nagano, Niigata and Gunma prefectures, the Joshinetsukogen National Park is home to Japan’s most internationally celebrated group of animals, the hot-spring bathing snow monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park. Other wildlife found in the park includes the golden eagle and Japanese serow.
In the Gomiikehafu Highland, an estimated 1 million Japanese azaleas flower each summer, and particular efforts are being made to maintain this population by combating invasive plant species.
Within the park is the Shiga Kogen ski resort, which hosted the 1998 Nagano Olympics and has one of the longest ski seasons of any resort in Japan, from mid November to the beginning of May. Mount Naeba is another popular ski area and the nearby Tanigawa Mountain Range, home to the Ichinokurasawa Gorge, has been dubbed a “rock climbing mecca.”
Access: The Jigokudani Monkey Park can be accessed by bus from Yudanaka Station, which connects to Nagano Station. The northern part of the park, including Mount Naeba and the Tanigawa Mountain Range, is best accessed from Echigo-Yuzawa Station.
Setonaikai National Park
Setonaikai National Park is the country’s largest national park, comprising 9,000 square kilometers of noncontiguous sea and land with pockets of park spread across 11 prefectures in western Japan. As the name suggests, it is centered around the Seto Inland Sea, and the islands that dot its warm waters.
To see a large swath of the park in one fell swoop, rent a bicycle to cross the Shimanami Kaido, a 70-kilometer cycle route that runs from Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, to Imabari, Ehime Prefecture.
Parts of the park can be found as far west as Oita and Fukuoka prefectures, and as far east as Osaka. The island of Miyajima with its submerged torii gate is part of the park, as are the whirlpools of the Naruto Strait, which can be seen by boat from the town of Naruto.
Access: The park is so vast that it can be accessed by public transport from a number of major cities in western Japan. Hiroshima is a convenient hub to access the western part of the park, while Kobe and Osaka are entry points to the eastern part of the park.
Unzen-Amakusa National Park
The Unzen-Amakusa National Park includes much of the land on either side of the Ariake Sea. Established in 1934, the park is centered around Mount Unzen, an active volcano that erupted to catastrophic effect between 1990 and 1995. Navigate the ropeway to Mount Unzen’s Fugen peak (1,359 meters) from which you can see the smoking summit, or enjoy the hot-springs of Unzen Onsen.
The Amakusa portion of the park was added in 1956, and is known for its population of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, which inhabit the straits between the Amakusa Islands and the Shimabara Peninsula. The remoteness of the region made it an ideal hiding place for Christians facing persecution from the Edo Period (1603-1868) government and in its secluded bays and natural sancturies are Christian churches that speak to the area’s cultural legacy.
Access: The park is best accessed from Kumamoto or Nagasaki cities. A direct bus connects Nagasaki to the Mount Unzen Visitor Center. Trains run from Kumamoto Station via Uto to Misumi Station. Buses connect the remainder of the Amakusa Islands.
Yakushima National Park
Yakushima’s reputation as one of the country’s finest natural assets precedes it. And yet still comparatively few make it to the island’s tropical shores, which remain difficult and expensive to reach.
Originally part of the Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park, it became a separate entity in 2012 and conservation efforts here are primarily focused on protecting the island’s forests and its native yakusugi cedar trees, as well as the loggerhead turtles that make their nests at Nagata Beach, another Ramsar site.
Visit the island’s Jomon sugi cedar, estimated to be over 7,000 years old, or the moss covered Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine. Deer and monkeys collectively outnumber humans living on Yakushima; the park’s rarest animals is the Erabu flying fox, which is endemic to the neighboring Kuchinoerabu and Tokara islands.
Access: Yakushima is reached by hydrofoil and car ferry from Kagoshima Ferry Port.
Kerama Shoto National Park
To the west of Okinawa is the Kerama Shoto National Park, which comprises the larger islands of Geruma, Aka, Zamami and Tokashiki, numerous smaller islands and 900 square kilometers of marine reserves. The activities here are primarily water-based — the scuba diving and snorkeling are excellent year-round, while whale watchers can see migrating humpbacks in winter.
One of the country’s most recently established national parks, it was founded on March 5, 2014, to coincide with Coral Day. The park’s coral reefs are one of its main attractions, and recent efforts have been made to increase their protection.
Access: High-speed ferries connect Naha Tomari Port on Okinawa with Tokashiki, Aka, Geruma and Zamami islands.