Japan is a bucket list destination for many people—it certainly was for me. Over 21 million people have visited the archipelago nation so far this year, with most flocking to its magical capital city, Tokyo. It’s great and overflowing with things to do, but the nation extends beyond the busy Shibuya crossing. There's tons of nature to be found! Like, did you know 68 percent of Japan is covered in forests? And all you need to do is pay a visit to Japan's countryside to find it.
A note: I'm not saying you shouldn't visit Tokyo and Kyoto, because as long as you’re flying over 14 hours (like I did), you might as well do it up. Hopefully, you’re staying for longer than a week, because you can’t fully enjoy any part of Asia without being there for at least 10 days (hell, you won’t get over your jet lag until four days in). But once you’re done pushing and shoving and excuse me-ing your way through the more popular attractions, hop onto the futuristic bullet train that runs through the country, and settle into more serene places like Shizuoka and Shiga prefectures. It’s impossible to have a bad time in Japan, a place where even the convenience store will provide you with wonder, but visiting the parts not usually seen will make you appreciate its beauty tenfold.
The Shizuoka Prefecture is one of those off-the-beaten-path areas you wouldn’t necessarily know to seek out unless someone told you about it. So, here we are, telling you about it. It’s located about an hour or so outside of Tokyo and contains over 2,300 hot springs.
The scenery is unparalleled. You'll find Mt. Fuji, the country's largest mountain, following you throughout your trip no matter the distance or the direction. And you’ll soon learn that there’s no such thing as a bad picture of the sometimes-elusive volcano.
Where to Stay
Izu Marriott Hotel Shuzenji: Located at the top of a winding hill, this newly renovated Marriott is the perfect balance between a modern and traditional Japanese experience. Most rooms come with your own private onsen hot spring located on the balcony. (There’s a communal one on the grounds, too.) If you’re lucky, you’ll get a room facing Mt. Fuji. Even if you don’t, you’ll still be presented with endless greenery. Pro tip: Come in the autumn when the leaves start to turn. You’ve never seen proper fall foliage until you’ve seen Japan’s.
A traditional Ryokan: If you’re looking to really immerse yourself in the Japanese culture, Ryokans—or traditional guest houses—are always an option. Most seem pricey at first, but food is factored in, which is seasonal and served fresh. You can sort through the Shuzenji options here.
What to Do
Walk across the Mishima Skywalk: Japan’s longest pedestrian bridge also boasts some of its most picturesque views. It can feel a little unsteady when you’re walking along it—and is probably more wobbly on a windy day—but allow Mt. Fuji to act as your North Star. Once you get to the other side, enjoy some rice balls and stunning sights. It’s touristy, sure, but you are a tourist, dammit, so embrace the touristy things, especially when the reward is Insta-worthy snaps every couple of steps.
Visit Shuzenji Temple: You should want to see everything you can during a visit to Japan, but on your "need-to-do" list should absolutely be a temple of some kind. Founded by priest, scholar, and artist Kobo Daishi, the 1,200-year-old Shuzenji Temple is a quaint and idyllic place. There’s also a garden located on the grounds, which has ponds filled with koi fish and a serene waterfall. Get ready to find Zen.
Then, head to the bamboo forest: When you’re done paying your respects and prancing through the garden, walk around the surrounding area and check out the mini bamboo forest. It’s not as famous as the Kyoto Sagano forest, nor is it as big, but you also won’t have to arrive here at 7am in order to get a picture without other people in it.
Next, make your way over the red bridge, and you’ll find hidden shops filled with vintage and handmaid ceramics, cat-adorned tote bags, scarves with beautiful floral prints, and delicate jewelry. Each store has a different personality, so make sure to test out each one. On your way back, you can dip your feet in the local (and free) onsen foot bath located a couple feet away from the temple.
Go to the Numazu Fish Market: Tsukiji fish market, located in Tokyo, is home to the world’s largest fish market, but Numazu is one of the more untapped ones. Make a reservation, and you can witness fishermen pay upward of 300,000 yen for a big hunk of tuna. It’s cooler than it sounds, and events of this kind top Japan’s must-see list for a reason. You have to get there around 5am, but that should be fairly easy for the jet-lagged set.
Where to Eat and Drink
Uogashi Maruten: Once you’re done circling the fish market, head over to Uogashi Maruten down the street to inhale the freshest sashimi you’ve ever had. If you’re not a fan of fish—specifically the raw kind with eyes and all—then maybe don’t venture here (and, TBH, maybe don’t venture to Japan, the mecca of seafood, at all). If you are a fan, congratulations! But also, sorry, because no other sashimi will be able to top this.
Daikan Yashiki: It’s really, really hard to go hungry in Japan. Meaning, there’s no shortage of really, really delicious food. Daikan Yashiki offers up flavorful unagi (eel), soba noodles, miso soup, and a great matcha jello/pudding dessert—basically, all the workings of a great, well-rounded Japanese meal.
Here is where you’ll find Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest freshwater lake, along with other very local and cultural happenings. Shiga Prefecture is located just east of Kyoto, so visitors of the city can travel here for a day trip or stay longer to get a better feel for the bucolic area.
Where to Stay
Grand Park Hotel Okubiwako Makino: Located on the shores of Lake Biwa, here you’ll have plenty of access to the beach. Summer is preferable if you want to take a dip, but the off-season is great, too, for leisurely strolls.
Lake Biwa Marriott Hotel: If you tire of the sprawling view of Lake Biwa, hit some balls at the tennis court or pop in for a show at the hotel’s on-site planetarium. Or just grab a drink at the bar. Options are never a bad thing.
What to Do
Explore the Omihachiman area: When you picture the Japanese countryside, images of Omihachiman probably come to mind. It’s a charming, quiet neighborhood lined with merchant houses and tranquil canals. Hire a travel guide to take you around and provide historical context for the area; if it’s nice enough, hop on a boat and float down the waterways.
Visit Hikone Castle: This national treasure (an honor held by only four other castles in Japan), completed in 1622, survived the post-feudal era without destruction or reconstruction. Meaning, it’s pretty cool for the history nerds among us. A bonus is that it’s also very lovely. It houses cherry blossoms in the spring and a teahouse year-round, where you can enjoy Hikone’s famous confections as well as matcha green tea. Come at the right time, and you’ll be able to catch the mascot, Hikonyan (a cat with a Trojan helmet on).
Go on a sake tour: Even if sake isn’t your thing (full disclosure: it’s not my thing), learning about how it’s made and fermented and cared for is fascinating. Like, did you know you can store it for 100 years if it’s completely sealed? And that one drop can contain 300 different ingredients, including amino acids and vitamins? You’ll pick up all of these fun (of limited utility?) facts if you sign up for a tour. I highly recommend Fujiii Honke, which has been around since 1831 and is run by a delightful brother and sister pair (see above!). Just make sure to check the available dates ahead of time.
Where to Eat
Sennaritei Kyara: Have you ever had beef that melts in your mouth? Because that’s what you’ll find at Sennaritei Kyara. They have some of the finest Omi beef that you can eat tataki-style (hot pot), boiled, or even raw. It was, hands down, one of the best meals I’ve had in Japan. My only complaint is that the portions should be much, much larger.
Kyo-Ryori Wa Sora: Japanese cuisine is a work of art. Everything is delicately put together, each ingredient meticulously chosen, and Kyo-ryori-style is the da Vinci of the bunch. Here, you’ll be presented with a dozen or so small, yet significant, dishes presented on a low dining table. The offerings will range from fish to meat and tofu, each plating more ornate than the last. The price is steep, but the experience is worth every yen(ny).