7 surprising outdoor adventures near Tokyo

Step beyond Tokyo’s neon skyline and follow the New Golden Route to its forest-clad backyard, where the Nagano and Gunma Prefectures create the ultimate summer adventure playground.

Japan’s classic Golden Route between Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto is well-loved by Australian travellers. But when summer comes to central Honshu’s towering mountains, they become a wild playground with every outdoor adventure under the sun. This New Golden Route between Tokyo, Gunma and Nagano leads to unique hikes, mountain biking, white-water rafting, elegant vineyards, relaxing onsens and one-of-a-kind hotels. And all less than two hours’ train ride from Tokyo. Here are just a few unmissable experiences for your next Japan holiday.

Jump on a mountain bike

Host of the 1998 Winter Olympics, Nagano Prefecture’s 80+ ski resorts deliver some of the world’s best outdoor experiences. Just outside quaint Iiyama, Nozawa Onsen village has easy access to Mount Kenashi’s summer attractions. Try lakeside camping, the Sparena hot springs, and grass skiing on a 500m-long synthetic run. For a rush, book a guided mountain biking tour. The epic 10km downhill adventure starts with a short trip across the treetops in the glass-floored Nagasaka Gondola. After hours, explore the village’s buzzing bars and restaurants. Then bed down at Ryokan Sakaya – a historic inn with atmospheric, traditional accommodations and its own onsen.

Chase waterfalls around Karuizawa

Karuizawa has been a summer weekender for Tokyo’s well-heeled since the 19th century. Located at the base of Mount Asama in south-central Nagano, its traditional village elegance is enhanced by its forests. Meander through the Harunire Terrace and Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza old town centre to see chic locals at play. Dip into the Shinto religion at the Kumano Kotaijinja Shrine. Feast at Suju Masayuki, where the seafood is flown in fresh from Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market every day. Then hit the hay at the hip Twin-Line Hotel. Ready to stretch your legs? Hike to the 150m-wide Shiraito Falls or to the secluded Yugaeshinotaki cascade. The waterfall is located within the elusive Asiatic black bear’s home range.

Harunire Terrace shopping area in Karuizawa © Rachelle Mackintosh
Shiraito Falls © Rachelle Mackintosh

Get a white-water rafting rush

The 322km Tone River is Japan’s second-longest watercourse. It winds through the New Golden Route and in the warmer months, the cool alpine meltwater boosts its rapids, white-water courses and deep, idyllic pools. Explore them with Ziggies Adventures, an adventure crew based in Minakami, in the Gunma Prefecture. The company offers adrenaline-charged half- and full-day canyoning and rafting tours, with expert guides and lunch provided.

Hike to happiness

With forests covering roughly 75 per cent of the New Golden Route, there’s a trail to suit every type of hiker. A few even include spiritual surprises en route. In Nagano, the 10km-return Togakushi Kodo track starts at the footbridge over the Sakasagawa Stream – thought to be the border between the spiritual and mortal worlds – then weaves through giant cedars and ninja training grounds to five 1200-year-old Shinto shrines. For a personalised nature immersion, head to nearby Shinano for forest therapy, or shinrin-yoku, in Shinshu Shinanomachi. This three-hour tour includes an intermediate walk through the forests surrounding Lake Noijiri. Along the way, the healer/guide points out various plants to taste and smell that will awaken your senses, decode the sounds of the wilderness, lead meditation and hydrotherapy sessions, and teaches breathing exercises to promote calmness and healing.

The Togakushi Trail © Rachelle Mackintosh

Kick back on a sightseeing train

If looking out the window on the fast train from Tokyo gave you whiplash, hop on the Rokumon train for a sightseeing journey along the New Golden Route between Nagano City and Karuizawa – and relax in a private compartment while charming cabin crew serve locally sourced bites and regional sake. If you’re lucky, your 2.5-hour journey across the hills and through the forests may also include cameos from local performers.

Sleep in chic surrounds

For a memorable stay where natural surrounds, contemporary design, laidback extravagance and traditional Japanese hospitality shine together, check in to Gunma’s Bettei Senjuan. Each room of this new-school ryokan offers uninterrupted views of Mount Tanigawa; tasteful Zen-inspired interiors and private hot spring baths. Prefer simpler digs? Get back to nature at Glamprook, where plush dome tents feature inviting lounge areas, aircon and huge windows framing Lake Reisenji. 

Feast and unwind between the vines

A range of premium produce grows along the New Golden Route, including rice, apples, peaches, cherries, grapes, blueberries, mushrooms, corn and wheat, which are all highlights of the local cuisine. In Gunma, try the okkirikomi (udon noodle stew) and the koshihikari rice – a prized short-grain variety. And don’t miss the miso – Nagano looks after 40 per cent of Japan’s production – or the sobagaki, delicious dumplings made from soba noodles. The area’s also a top spot to sip the local specialties such as fruit juice, apple cider, sakes and wines. Spend a relaxing afternoon at St Cousair winery, which produces 250,000 bottles of wine and cider and each year, including its award-winning Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Taste them in St Cousair’s restaurant, where moreish dishes like Iizuna Duck and Shinshu Pork and Beef Terrine are served with views of Iizuna town and the Chikuma River Valley. Vineyard tours are also available.

St Coursair Winery
St Coursair Winery © Rachelle Mackintosh

Plan your New Golden Route trip

To organise your own Japan adventure and discover more holiday inspiration, visit the Japan National Tourism Organization or read our Guide to Japan’s new Golden Route.

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