This year, all eyes will be on Japan as the 2020 Summer Olympics (July 24–August 9) kick off in Tokyo. But the warm summer season is also a wonderful time to explore beyond the capital city by cooling off in the mountains of Nikko, exploring Hokkaido’s wildflower-strewn peaks, or cycling through the rural islands of Kyushu and Shikoku.
One of Japan’s most skimmed-over destinations is ready for a deeper dive.
When to go: Mountainous Nikko, just two hours north of Tokyo, is a cool respite from the sweltering city. During the annual Ryuou Festival in late July, locals carry portable Shinto shrines through the city streets as part of a traditional parade to celebrate and encourage prosperity.
Why go: For years, Nikko was known as a day-trip destination. Travelers would take the train up from Tokyo to wander the 103 buildings that make up the Shrines and Temples of Nikko, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and to explore Nikko National Park, a 443-square-mile spread with sacred peaks, macaque monkeys, hot springs, and Lake Chuzenji, not far from the imperial family’s former summer villa. Until recently, there were few hotels to tempt overnighters, but this summer, the ryokan Nikko Fufu will open near the Toshogu shrine with 24 suites featuring private outdoor baths. In spring 2020, the 94-room Ritz-Carlton, Nikko will open in the mountains above town, with views of the lake. From the Ritz-Carlton, travelers will be able to walk to the lake’s thundering Kegon Falls and to the former British and Italian embassies, where the grounds have been converted to parks and the historic residences to lakeside cafés.
Need to know: From Tokyo’s Tobu Asakusa station, it’s almost a two-hour train ride to the Tobu Nikko station, where a concierge can provide free maps and directions. Most travelers opt for the efficient bus system, which ferries people from the train station to the shrines and the park’s main highlights. Getting to the lake is an impressive ride: Irohazaka Winding Road ascends over 1,200 feet via 48 mountain switchbacks. —E.G.
Surrounded by the Seto Inland Sea, the quieter islands of southern Japan offer spectacular bike routes and a new hotel that pays tribute to history.
When to go: In June, pink rhododendrons bloom across the slope of Kyushu’s Mount Aso, forming a scenic backdrop for cyclists. Later in the season, the vibrant port city of Tokushima hosts the three-day Awa Odori dance festival (August 12–15), which brings together some of Japan’s best dance teams.
Why go: The islands south of Honshu, Japan’s main island, are uniquely suited to cycling. A new, eight-day trip from Raid Cycling introduces travelers to some of the highlights. The trip starts in Onomichi on Honshu at the stylish Hotel Cycle. From there, guests first tackle the Shimanami Kaido, a 43-mile cycling route that crosses bridges and takes riders through Setonaikai National Park before ending in the city of Imabari on the island of Shikoku. (The trip doesn’t include an overnight on Shikoku, but come spring, travelers to the island’s Ehime Prefecture will be able to stay in Ozu Castle, a re-creation of a 14th-century wooden fortress that overlooked the Hijikawa River.) Travelers return to Onomichi, then ride to Hiroshima and spend the night, before packing up and boarding a high-speed train to the island of Kyushu, a diverse mix of mountains and farmland. Riders spend the second half of the trip winding through green tea fields and shiitake farms and sleeping in traditional ryokans. The grand finale is a 43-mile ride up Mount Aso, an active volcano.
Need to know: In 2019, Delta launched direct flights from Seattle to Osaka, the closest international airport to Shikoku. The seasonal route starts up again on March 30. Bike rental stations are offered at more than a dozen points along the Shimanami Kaido. —Alex Schechter
Visit this northern island in summer for summer blooms, festivals, and some of Japan’s finest hiking.
When to go: By June 1, wildflowers such as lupine and phlox blanket the island’s rolling hills. But the more-than-a-century-old Hokkaido Shrine Festival (June 14–16) is the true summer opener, ushering in a string of events celebrating lavender, fire, and traditional dance, many of which include firework displays.
Why go: With its legendary ski slopes and powder, Hokkaido has long attracted winter travelers, but summer hasn’t been as much of a draw. This year brings a change, as well-known luxury hotels open in the ski town of Niseko with an emphasis on year-round activities. At the new 50-suite Ritz-Carlton Reserve, local mountain guides will lead hiking tours, and a glassy eight-story Park Hyatt will be located within walking distance of trails on adjacent Mount Niseko-Annupuri. Beyond Niseko, the Asia custom tour specialist Remote Lands is expanding its 2020 Hokkaido tours with wildflower hikes to Lake Hangetsu, a volcanic lake at the foot of Mount Yotei, as well as visits to Upopoy, the first national museum dedicated to Japan’s indigenous Ainu peoples, opening in spring 2020. Summer in Hokkaido also brings celebrations of seasonal ingredients, notably fruit, white corn, potatoes, and burdock root. Miyakawa, a three-Michelin-star sushi restaurant in Sapporo, makes good use of Hokkaido’s salmon and sea urchins, while Machimura Nojo, a 100-year-old dairy farm outside Sapporo, mixes burdock root with mascarpone to create one of Japan’s richest ice creams.
Need to know: Hokkaido isn’t as hyper-connected as the rest of Japan, but regularly scheduled trains can get travelers around the island (there’s even a Rail Pass for Hokkaido). Car rentals, widely available at Sapporo Airport, are the best bet for exploring Hokkaido. Roads are safe and most are well marked in English, but drivers need an international driver’s permit. —A.H.G. (AFAR Magazine, AFAR.com)