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Every month, our Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist Amy Tadehara brings us insider knowledge on how to access semi-impenetrable experiences, avoid crowds, and find hidden delights. This month, she’s letting us in on her favorite stops for driving vacations in Japan.
Japan is famous for its futuristic bullet trains. If you’re thinking of visiting the country, it may not even occur to you that you could hire a car. However, driving vacations in Japan have always been a favorite of mine, and I’d love to spread the word on this staggering cultural experience.
To enjoy the flexibility and freedom of exploring a side of Japan most visitors can’t access, grab some wheels, travel at your own pace and stop wherever you like – spend the night in little hot spring towns, stumble across little-known local festivals, or admire impressive mountain views on your own terms.
If researching driving vacations in Japan has left you feeling daunted at the prospect of navigating the country’s cities, you needn’t worry. Beyond picking and dropping off a rental car, it’s possible to spend your whole vacation cruising around the countryside, far from any busy metropolis (unless that’s your scene, of course). So – here’s my advice below on where you can drive to find authentic experiences in the heart of unexplored Japan!
With its beautiful coastal scenery, slow pace of life and fascinating history, the largest island in the Sea of Japan makes an unusual yet highly rewarding addition to an adventurous itinerary.
Once a penal colony for political exiles, Sado Island benefitted from an influx of culture, philosophy, art and architecture from the mainland. Stretching back for centuries, Noh theater – a type of musical drama – has been deeply connected with Sado Island. Today, Sado is probably most famous for its excellent taiko drummers, who have won international renown for their superior skill. I really recommend visiting Sado Island Taiko Center, where you can learn about the history of taiko and have a go on the drums yourself.
Another claim to fame for Sado Island is related to the Gold Rush of the early 17th century. The discovery of gold in 1601 changed the course of history for the island. I’d definitely suggest you pay a visit to the Sado Gold mine, which you can explore sections of on a guided tour.
With its untouched cedar forests and rocky bays, this wild island is perfect for exploring by foot, kayak or bike. However, I’d recommend renting a car for zipping around, as it’s easy to feel isolated and a bit stranded with the infrequent bus system.
If this sounds like your kind of thing, check out our Northern Highlights tour.
Beautiful and isolated, the Noto Peninsula on Japan’s north coast makes for a perfect driving destination. Meander along the coastline and you’ll find tiny fishing villages dotting the rugged landscapes and dramatic rock formations. Check out Senmaida, thousands of rice paddies clinging to the slopes in terraces climbing down to the ocean. For those interested in traditional crafts – Wajima is known for their unique lacquer ware, you can learn about the extensive process during a factory tour or simply admire the finished products at the Wajima Morning Market. The local cuisine is often prepared with deep sea salt that is locally harvested. I loved staying a few nights at the Lamp no Yado, a luxury ryokan with hot spring baths.
Note: Public transport does not reach far into the Noto Peninsula, making getting around very expensive and difficult without a rental car.
Curious? Take a look at our Traditional Japan tour.
I’d suggest a driving trip on the northernmost island of Hokkaido for those that truly want to get away from it all. Hokkaido is quite different from the rest of Japan. You really get the sense of being somewhere completely different. To some it doesn’t even feel like Japan, until you come across a roadside vending machine to remind you that you’re still in civilization!
Rugged and remote, Hokkaido contains miles upon miles of untamed wilderness, making it a haven for those who love the great outdoors. In winter, skiers and snowboarders flock to Hokkaido. However, there are draws for Hokkaido in every season: colorful spring blooms; warm, lavender-filled summers and a rich autumn foliage.
Soak in the scent of lavender as you drive by purple fields in Biei and Furano. Here, they sell lavender everything. I’d definitely encourage you to try the lavender flavored ice cream. While in Biei, check out the other-worldly Shirogane Blue Pond, made a deep blue color from minerals dissolving in the water over time. Another must-see in Hokkaido is Jigokudani a famous hot spring resort, in Noboribetsu, to experience the natural wonder of volcanic activity up close and personal.
I’d also recommend visiting Daisetsuzan National Park and Akan National Park. Keep in mind, however, that national parks like Daisetsuzan and Akan are really hard to see/do anything on foot alone. You can find more staff recommendations here.
Though technically Hokkaido is accessible by public transport, if you want to experience the truly wild side of Hokkaido, I’d advise renting a car to get around. A rental car allows you the freedom and flexibility to experience the most of a rural destination: being able to go anywhere, stop anywhere and take pictures anywhere. And in Hokkaido there are definitely a lot of places to stop for a photo-op!
Check out our Wild Hokkaido tour!
Shikoku and the Iya Valley
Get off the highway and head for the land that time forgot! Nestled in the crook between western Honshu and Kyushu, Shikoku is the least visited of Japan’s four main islands. Therein lies its charm; easy to reach, yet off the beaten path. Shikoku boasts sleepy isolated villages, original castles and unique arts and crafts such as Bunraku puppet theater and paper making —all set to the backdrop of Shikoku’s dramatic scenery: mountains towering above winding roads that lead you deep into hidden valleys of waterfalls and vine bridges.
Iya Valley, buried in the heart of Shikoku, is Japan’s hidden secret, cut deep in an island of gorges, steep sided mountains and untamed rivers. Here, you will find authentic Japan at its best. Wherever you are on Shikoku, you are never far from one of the 88 temples of Japan’s well-loved pilgrimage route. In honor of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, it takes two months to complete the 1400 km journey on foot. While you might not have that much time available, I really recommend visiting a temple or two and looking out for the white-clad pilgrims in their pointy straw hats.
Shikoku is famous throughout Japan for udon: steaming bowls of thick white wheat noodles. Sweet potatoes in Ehime prefecture, sudachi citrus fruit in Tokushima and a huge variety of seafood along the southern shores of Kochi prefecture are also gourmet highlights.
Driving through the winding roads of Shikoku and standing on the edge of a deep gorge watching the river rush by you, you can’t help but feel like you’ve been let in on a well-kept secret.
Keen to see for yourself? You’ll love our Secrets of Shikoku tour.
And if you’d like tips on how to navigate the roads during your driving vacations in Japan, check out Amy’s guide here!