How to experience nature tourism in Japan

A bear conservationist living in Japan shares his recommendations for nature activities and farm stays. 🐻

4 mins
Written by:
Eli Sooker

When most foreigners think of Japan, their minds tend to jump to Tokyo’s neon lights, anime characters, futuristic robots, the exceptional food or maybe even samurai, ninja and ancient temples. When it comes to technology, culture and history, Japan seems to have it all. But there’s just an important item missing from this list! Nature.

This may come as a surprise, but nature has played a crucial role in the evolution of Japan’s culture. Even today, activities such as hiking, river swimming, hot spring bathing and cherry-blossom and autumn-leaf viewing are enjoyed by a wide range of folk. A whopping 69% of the country is forest-covered, and mountains are relatively accessible from most places, even the heart of Tokyo.

Of course, with Japan’s staple food being rice, 20% of the country also consists of agricultural land, forming large expanses of quiet, peaceful countryside. This countryside is enveloped in mountains, and the foothills closest to settlements – referred to as satoyama – were used in pre-modern times for harvesting firewood and other natural resources. Satoyama are still used today for picking wild vegetables and have been an integral part of rural Japanese life for centuries.

And yet, why is it that so few of us picture vast forests and fresh green rice fields when we think of Japan?

It may be that because the country has so much to offer in other arenas too, nature has been overlooked. Furthermore, within Japan itself, lots of people migrate to urban centres such as Tokyo and Osaka for work and the promise of a more exciting life, which was popularised during the economic boom of the 1960s.

Unfortunately, in the process, the value of nature – often considered unprofitable – has been forgotten by many. Japan’s countryside also suffers from this urban migration, which has led to dwindling rural populations consisting mostly of elderly retirees. Since the working population is low, issues such as a lack of healthcare workers and an absence of important infrastructure are prominent. Once remaining retirees pass away, some areas become abandoned “ghost villages”, with nothing but old houses remaining – and the culture of the village lost forever.

The good news is that there is something you can do about it.

Slowly but surely, nature tourism ventures are increasing in Japan. Additionally, experience programs where you can stay and help out at a farm in rural Japan offer outsiders the chance to delve intimately into Japan’s historic relationship with nature, all the while supporting rural residents and farmers in need.

Rather than take the usual sightseeing route through Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, why not venture a little off the beaten trail and make your trip a sustainable one?

As a bear conservationist who has been living in Japan for years now, I’ve come up with some recommendations for nature-related activities and farmstay experiences, with notes on eco-friendliness to help guide your choice.

See animals in the wild with Picchio Wildlife Research Centre

Picchio Wildlife Research Centre is much more than its name suggests. Not only do they conduct wildlife research, but they are in charge of protecting the entire town of Karuizawa from human-bear conflict through activities such as capture and relocation. Furthermore, they run sustainable nature tours with fluent English-speaking guides in three locations: Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture, Shiretoko in Hokkaido and Iriomote Island in Okinawa. I bet you never thought you could see a bear or a flying squirrel in the wild in Japan – well, here’s your chance!

On that note, I strongly advise against visiting zoos in Japan without thorough prior research. Unfortunately, there is far too much room for improvement with zoo systems here, and it is not at all unusual to see lions in tiny cages or small dirty enclosures. So stick with wildlife tours that show you animals in their natural habitats, and ensure they’re through a sustainable company like Picchio.

Photo by Eli Sooker

Do a farmstay with Stay Japan

Experience the quaintness of regional Japan and stay in an authentic farmhouse! A concern for many is how to organise a farmstay when most hosts cannot speak English – but Stay Japan allows you to complete the entire booking process in English while still connecting you with local hosts. You can choose from a variety of experiences all over the country! For those who have the time, venturing to further away places is recommended, as these are usually the ones suffering the most from urban migration and a lack of tourism.

Explore northern Japan with Adventure Hokkaido

If you’re looking to experience the outdoors in Japan, there’s no better place than Hokkaido. The northern island of Japan is known for its unique landscape, similar to the nearby Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia and somewhat resembling Alaska. More rugged and untouched compared to the mainland, large expanses of nature can be seen driving throughout the island, as well as plenty of wildlife. As for Adventure Hokkaido, they offer guided, sustainable tours in English including hiking, cycling, skiing, and snowshoeing. Some are combined with cultural experiences, including a chance to learn about Hokkaido’s indigenous people, the Ainu, whose strong ties with nature have a lot to teach us today.

Experience Hakuba’s nature with Evergreen Outdoor Center

If you’re not completely willing to go off the popular Tokyo-Osaka route and Hokkaido is a little too far out, Hakuba in Nagano might be a better option – a super cute alpine village accessible in three hours by train or five hours by bus from Tokyo. World-famous in winter as a ski resort, it’s also a dream in summer, where you can indulge in a range of outdoor activities such as hiking, mountain biking, canoeing and rafting. Evergreen Outdoor Center is a great option for a sustainable company offering such tours in English. They even host summer camps for kids, for anyone wanting a bit of a break from parenting.

Do a farmstay or ecotour with Heartland

Heartland’s local founder used to feel ashamed of his countryside roots. When he finally realised the worth of his hometown, he decided to start operating tours and farmstay experiences in multiple rural regions, believing tourism is a key to re-assigning value to the countryside. With a strong emphasis on connection to nature and sustainability, Heartland’s farmstays and tours are a gorgeous and meaningful way to experience Japanese culture.

Photo by Gemma Clarke

Beyond this list, there are tonnes of fabulous eco-tourism adventures and agricultural experiences to get stuck into in Japan – just do some research!

And with that, welcome to satoyama.

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