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Traveller's Guide: Japan's great outdoors

Head beyond the vibrant cityscapes to discover stunning shores, sacred mountains – even rural art, says Danielle Demetriou

Think of Japan and you may conjure up images of cities crowded with skyscrapers and people. But visitors keen to explore another side of the country can leave behind such scenes of overpacked humanity faster than you can say "bullet train". Step outside the cities and a different world unfolds: cloud-brushing peaks, rice fields, remote islands, old wooden farms, forests and deserted beaches.

There is also a super-speedy, clean and efficient transport system, which includes the Shinkansen bullet-train network. Upon arrival at the white beaches of tiny Zamami Island, the summer flower fields of Hokkaido or volcanic hot springs of Kyushu, "crowded" is likely to be the last word to spring to mind.

The exchange rate may not be at its friendliest but Japan can still be a good-value destination, if you plan carefully. It is worth buying a Japan Rail Pass before arriving in the country to make massive savings on train travel ( jrpass.com; £214 for seven days, £341 for 14). Eating out is also often cheap and consistently high quality. Options range from food outlets at rail stations (a million miles from the burger bars at British stations) to the tapas-sized dishes served at izakaya – Japanese-style pubs, recognisable by red lanterns outside their doors.

In terms of accommodation, check into a minshuku, a kind of inn, for a fascinating and generally low-cost insight in to Japanese home life; be prepared to take off your shoes at the front door, drink gallons of green tea, sleep on futons on tatami mats and eat fish for breakfast. Another budget option is a night in a temple – this is recommended on remote Mount Koya and in the Kyoto region. The experience offers a dose of spirituality, complete with Buddhist cuisine and often early-morning prayers.

Alternatively, pack a tent. Camping is a much-loved pastime in Japan and so there are numerous sites. Camping wild is not strictly legal but is still common.

With winter approaching, there are plenty of options for skiers. Given that more than 70 per cent of Japan is mountainous, it is not surprising that skiing is a national pastime. However, although the country has twice hosted the Winter Olympics, it is not a well-known skiing destination outside Japan. This is changing, perhaps because of the irresistible combination of excellent powder snow, cheap sushi, heated techno-loos and après-ski fun in the form of volcanic hot-spring onsen baths.

Head to Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido, for excellent powder. Niseko is a popular resort and has a growing number of high-quality places to stay, good restaurants and plentiful runs. Ski Safari (01273 224060; skisafari.com) offers a 12-night trip which includes skiing in three Hokkaido resorts, stays in Tokyo and Kyoto, flights and accommodation with breakfast, from £1,999.

Countless resorts are accessible from the capital. One is the Hakuba Valley near Nagano, which hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998. It is four hours by train from Tokyo. Inside Japan Tours (0117-314 4620; insidejapantours.com) offers seven-night trips – including five nights skiing in Hakuba Valley and two in Tokyo – for £694. This excludes lift passes, equipment rental and international flights.

Mountain exuberance is not confined to winter. When the snow melts, stay in wooden mountain huts while hiking from picturesque Kamikochi to Tateyama in the Japanese Alps. Audley Travel (01933 838 000; audleytravel.com) offers a 16-day mountain-climbing tour in these areas from £4,300 a person.

Japan's best-kept travel secret is the nationwide delivery service Takkyubin (00 81 3 3541 3411; kuronekoyamato.co.jp/english). Fast and reliable, it delivers pretty much anything – skis, suitcases, surfboards – within 24 hours. Pick-ups can be made from hotels, airports or convenience stores, and costs are reasonable: for example, an average-sized suitcase sent from northern Hokkaido to southern Kyushu costs only Y3,040 (£24).

For more information contact the Japan National Tourism Organisation (020-7398 5678; seejapan.co.uk).

Catch a wave?

Japan may not be renowned in surfing circles for the size of its waves. But what it lacks in stature, it more than compensates for in style – Japanese surfers almost always look the part, with top-of-the-range boards and surf gear.

One popular surfing hub is Shimoda, a small and stylish little seaside town with wide sandy beaches and a laid-back atmosphere on the Izu peninsula, a few hours by train south of Tokyo.

Check into White Beach, a former "love hotel" given a design makeover (00 81 558 23 2039; whitebeach-shimoda.com). It is a stone's throw from near-perfect Kisami-Ohama beach, which also offers surfing lessons and board hire. Doubles start at Y8,000 (£64) in the low season, room only, with surfing lessons available from Y5,000 (£40) an hour.

Other surfing hotspots include Kamakura, an atmospheric seaside enclave an hour south of Tokyo with a rich Buddhist heritage and a thriving surf community. Local stores such as Wetland can organise lessons and equipment hire (00 81 467 229571; kamakura-shop.com/shop/wetland.html).

Under the water?

One word: Okinawa. Jump on a plane and fly to the southernmost necklace trail of tropical islands known as Okinawa to enjoy life beneath the surface. With its tropical climate, white sandy beaches, countless tiny fishing islands, unique cultural heritage and a slow-motion pace of life, Okinawa is the perfect antidote to Japan's cities.

An excellent location for diving is tiny Zamami Island, a two-hour ferry trip from the main island. It is home to fewer than 1,000 people and life is centered on the sea. The happily named Joy Joy (00 81 98 987 2445; keramajoyjoy.com) is a local inn and diving operator offering half-day, one-dive trips from Y5,780 (£46).

Another good dive spot in the Okinawa chain is Miyako Island, a scenic tropical island of bicycle-friendly, flat, arable land and sugar cane fields surrounded by coral reefs, located 300km from the main Okinawa island.

Jaltour (020 7850 4409; jaltour.co.uk) has 10-day holidays to Japan including four nights on Miyako from £2,103 per person, including flights from Heathrow, via Narita to Okinawa, and accommodation. Diving activities cost extra.

Mountain highs?

Mountains are sacred business in Japan. The nation’s tallest and most iconic peak is Mount Fuji.

As quintessentially Japanese as sushi and sake, the conic mountain is open for climbing only in July and August. But don't picture yourself alone on a towering peak penning solitary haiku: it is a crowded, and pretty challenging, route with an estimated 200,000 people making the ascent every year.

The climb is not to be taken lightly but timing your trip the reach the summit at sunrise could be a highlight of any visit to Japan.

Exodus (0845 863 9600; exodus.co.uk) offers mountain-lovers a two-week trip taking in Mount Fuji as well as a climb up Mount Yarigatake, dubbed the Matterhorn of Japan, from £2,899 per person, including flights.

Exploring on two wheels

The best way to enjoy Japan's scenery is not from the window of a bullet train – but by hopping on a bicycle. Two-wheeled travel is the ideal way to explore the country, take in the views and meet the locals. And those fearful of Japan's mountainous landscape, rest assured: while hard-core cyclists are more than welcome to tackle steep slopes, there are countless easier – and flatter – routes along coastlines, around islands and through rice fields.

Bicycle rental is available in almost every town, often at the train station. Sado Island in Niigata prefecture is one cycling destination on offer from Oka Tours (00 81 422 26 6644; okatours.com), a Tokyo-based English-speaking company that provides luxury bicycle tours across Japan. A one-week trip includes cycling through rice fields, morning markets, temples, an old gold mine and fishing villages, with optional pottery and noodle-making classes, with stays in traditional ryokan inns. The price, Y320,000 (£2,560), includes a guide, accommodation, food and bike rental.

How do I wind down?

Get naked. Thanks to Japan's lively geology, an endless supply of natural hot-spring baths – known as onsen – is scattered across the country. While some are located in the wild on remote mountainside settings, many have facilities such as somewhere to keep your clothes, and with segregated bathing for men and women.

Bath-lovers should make a beeline for the southern Kyushu island, home to Japan's most picturesque and plentiful onsen regions. A highlight is the Yufuin region in Oita Prefecture, a rural area peppered with an epic 800-plus piping hot springs.

Murata (00 81 977 845000; sansou-murata.com) is a beautiful high-end ryokan inn made up of old farmhouses given a modern design makeover – and the perfect place to indulge in some stylish hot onsen bathing. Rooms start at Y96,900 (£775) for two, including two meals.

Abercrombie & Kent (0845 070 0610; abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers 13-night trips which include four nights in Kyushu as well as stays in Tokyo, Kyoto and Mount Koya, for £5,495 including flights.

The ultimate escape?

During the hot and humid months of July and August, there is only one place to head: the cooler climes of northern Hokkaido. With its green mountains, forests, rivers, summer flower fields – and a glorious sense of space – it offers the perfect respite from the urban heat.

Furano (dubbed the belly button of Hokkaido due to its central location) bursts into a bloom of flowers each summer. Patchwork fields of flowers, from poppies, sunflowers and lupins to lavender (very popular in Japan), transform the area into a floral heaven during the summer months.

Explore with the off-the-beaten-track hiking company Walk Japan (00 81 90 5026 3638; walkjapan.com). The enterprise offers a 10-day tour following the highs and lows (and Alpine flowers) of summertime Hokkaido through forests, mountains, volcanoes and wetlands for around Y360,000 (£2,875) excluding flights.

I want to make a splash

In a country made up of countless islands, it's easy. For high-quality rafting, head to the source of the Tone – Japan's biggest river – at Minakami in Gunma Prefecture during the spring melt between April and June. There is a 12km stretch of white-water rafting heaven. Canyons (00 81 278 722811; canyons.jp), whose staff speak English, offers a string of rafting and canyoning trips in picturesque settings across Japan. Half a day's rafting in Minakami starts at around Y8,000 (£64). Other rafting destinations include Shikoku's Yoshino River, which is at its most beautiful between May and October. The more adventurous can try canyoning in the Minakami region, with slides of up to 40-metres combined with hikes, from Y9,000 (£72) for half a day.

The great art-doors

Forget art galleries. Some of the best places to appreciate Japan's world-class art can be found out-of-doors. One of the easiest to reach from Tokyo is the Hakone Open-Air Art Museum ( hakone-oam.or.jp/English) in Hakone National Park. This is Japan's first outdoor art collection, established in 1969; since then the art has been chosen to rival the spectacular mountain setting. Henry Moore has 26 works, while Picasso has an entire pavilion dedicated to his work. You can reach the gallery using the splendid Hakone Free Pass offered by the Odakyu Railway Company ( odakyu.jp/english), a two- or three-day pass that unlocks Hakone National Park using narrow-gauge trains, a funicular, cable car and ferry trip.

A wave of ambitious art projects is revitalising rural communities across the country – and so are installed surreally across beaches, rice fields, abandoned schools, and old wooden houses.

One of the main highlights is the Seto Inland Sea, dubbed the Mediterranean of Japan. It is home to the established "art island" of Naoshima. This isle boasts a string of museums built by Tadao Ando, together with works of art which would not look out of place at Tate Modern.

This summer, the Setouchi International Art Festival was launched ( setouchi-artfest.jp/en), involving high-quality works by artists from Hiroshi Sugimoto and Lee Ufan to Olafur Eliasson across seven fishing islands – including Naoshima – and a fishing port.

Other art hot-spots include the remote mountains of Niigata, where the world's biggest open-air art festival, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial (echigo-tsumari.jp) has resulted in hundreds of artworks installed across the rural landscape (above).

Cherry blossom

There are few more recognisable images of Japan than its springtime cherry blooms. The arrival of the "sakura" blossoms is monitored with military precision in Japan – and while the exact dates are impossible to predict, they generally arrive around the same time every year.

The first cherry blossoms appear in Okinawa, the southern tip of Japan, as early as January – and, under the watchful eyes of the nation, the "cherry blossom front" then slowly moves northwards until it hits northern Hokkaido around May. Sakura arrives in Tokyo and Kyoto around the end of March and early April.

Visitors whose trips coincide with sakura season should pick up a bento box – rice, fish and pickled vegetables – and a bottle of beer or sake at a convenience store. Then head to a park or riverside to sit beneath the trees and appreciate their fleeting beauty.