Joe's Japan Travel Journal
by Joe, staff writer of japan-guide.com

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2014/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2014

As 2014 comes to a close, we here at Japan Guide would like to share some the best of our travels throughout Japan from this year. It's been an eventful year for me, and my first working with the Japan Guide team, and I've had the good fortune to visit some pretty amazing places this year.

Here are my top 10 Japan travel highlights from 2014:

Number 10: Kitayu Onsen

They say you can tell you may have lived in Japan too long when you realize that you plan all your vacations around taking a bath. While that may describe me to a tee, on a winter day as snow is falling around you, bathing in an onsen (hot spring) can be a magical experience for any traveler. I started my year's "onsening" off with a January visit to Mount Nasu's centuries-old Kitayu Onsen. Tucked into a remote, snowy valley on the north side of the mountain, walking into this rustic ryokan is like stepping into another world.

Kitayu Onsen in a remote valley of Mount Nasu

Number 9: Snow monkeys in Yamanouchi, Nagano

An easy day trip from many of Nagano Prefecture's world-class ski resorts, the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Yamanouchi attracts thousands of visitors every winter hoping to snap a shot of the wild (but human-accustomed) monkeys who bathe in the park's hot spring waters. Though it can get crowded around the pool, the unique sight of monkeys soaking away their cares is one-of-a-kind.

Snow monkey shaking off his cares

Number 8: Miharu Takizakura

In April, the whole country comes outdoors again after the cold winter to enjoy the sight of blooming cherry blossoms. In Fukushima Prefecture, an unassuming small town becomes a mecca when a huge sakura (cherry) tree called the Miharu Takizakura explodes into cascades of pink blossoms. The tree is believed to be over a thousand old, and many consider it to be the single most beautiful sakura tree in Japan.

Miharu Takizakura in Fukushima

Number 7: Tashiro Island

Better known to the world as Cat Island, Tashirojima, a small island on the Sanriku Coast, accessible from Ishinomaki Port about an hour outside of Sendai, delivers exactly what you expect when you get off the ferry: cats. Lots of them. With felines outnumbering residents, it's a quirky experience, and another good reason to make a trip to the beautiful eastern seaboard of the Tohoku region.

One of the many cats of Tashiro Island (a.k.a. Cat Island) near Sendai

Number 6: Spring Snowboarding on Mount Gassan

Ever find yourself pining for more skiing or snowboarding after the snow has begun melting on your favorite slopes in the spring? I certainly did in late April, and was I thrilled to discover that Japan has a small handful of resorts that receieve so much snow in the winter that they actually have to wait until the spring to plow their roads and open thier lifts to guests.

One such resort sits on the majestic Mount Gassan in Yamagata Prefecture. While in the warm spring sun, the snow isn't exactly the perfect powder you would find in Niseko or Hakuba in February (expect slush), the views of endless snowcapped mountains are breathtaking and the monolithic peak of Gassan is close enough to touch. The facilities are barebones (there's only one chairlift to take you halfway up the slopes, the rest you manage with a T-bar lift and a long trudge), but access is relatively easy thanks to the Yamagata Shinkansen and lots of bus connections.

Ascending the single chair lift on Mount Gassan in late April
Up-close snowcapped mountain peak views on Mount Gassan in Yamagata

Number 5: Shiobara Matsuri

Every September in the sleepy, picturesque hot spring town of Shiobara Onsen (located in Nasushiobara City, Tochigi Prefecture) the streets come to life as residents pour into the main street in traditional festival attire and pull handmade floats (called dashi) up and down the road. There is traditional festival music, fair food, and a wonderful atmosphere into the night. Combined with the incredible natural scenery and wonderful onsen, it makes another great reason to visit this lovely town.

One of the handmade floats created every year for the local summer festival in Shiobara Onsen

Number 4: Kobe Luminarie 2014

Winter nighttime illuminations have become a tradition throughout cities in Japan, and the tradition is thought to have started with the Kobe Luminarie. The light festival began as a memorial for the disastrous Great Hanshin Earthquake in January of 1995, and has become one of Japan's most popular annual illuminations, drawing over 3 million visitors each December. This year's illumination was stunning.

The main entrance display of the Kobe Luminarie 2014 illumination

Number 3: Mountain Trekking in Kamikochi

Japan has no shortage of fantastic hiking, and for those looking for hikes amongst stunning mountain panoramas, Kamikochi in Nagano Prefecture is a great destination. Home to some of the highest peaks in Japan, Kamikochi (and the rest of the Japanese North Alps mountain chain) offers breathtaking ridgeline trails and a network of mountain huts and camping grounds making multi-day treks accessible to all levels of adventurers.

Morning at the peak of Kamikochi's Mount Chogatake

Number 2: Shima Onsen

Considered one of the best onsen towns in the hot spring heaven that is Gunma Prefecture, Shima Onsen is one of those rare mountain onsen towns that has managed to avoid becoming overdeveloped and has a lovely small town atmopshere despite being able to flout many top-grade ryokan and great natural scenery. I was lucky enough to find myself there in late October, right at the peak of the autumn color season.

Shima Onsen's Okushima Lake in autumn
The Roman-style baths of Shima Onsen's Sekizenkan Ryokan

Number 1: Autumn Colors Across Japan

I don't think it is a stretch to say that Japan is one of the best places in the world to enjoy autumn color. I had the chance to visit a lot of Japan's best spots for fall leaf watching this season, and I got to see some amazing colors over the last two and a half months. Some particular standouts for me were the spectacular colors around the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route's Kurobe Lake, the momiji (Japanese maple)-packed temple gardens of Kyoto, and the blazing red slopes of Mount Nasu.

Kurobe Lake at the peak of its autumn color
A boy looking over the railing of Kiyomizudera's veranda in autumn
Morning autumn mists in Nikko
Red momiji (Japanese maple) against a red torii gate on Tokyo's Mount Takao
Hikers ascend the trails of Mount Nasu surrounded by blazing autumn colors
Susuki (pampas grass) in Hakone
Nara's tranquil Isuien Garden
A fallen maple leaf at Showa Kinen Koen Park in Tokyo

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List of Posts:
2018/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2018
2017/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2017
2016/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2016
2016/03/24 - Setouchi Triennale 2016
2015/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2015
2015/12/04 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2015/12/03 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2015/11/19 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2015/11/18 - Autumn Color Report: Mount Mitake
2015/11/16 - Autumn Color Report: Mount Takao
2015/11/12 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2015/11/11 - Autumn Color Report: Fukuroda Falls
2015/10/30 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2015/10/26 - Autumn Color Report: Bandai
2015/10/22 - Autumn Color Report: Northern Alps
2015/10/21 - Autumn Color Report: Northern Alps
2015/10/20 - Autumn Color Report: Mount Fuji
2015/10/15 - Autumn Color Report: Hachimantai
2015/10/14 - Autumn Color Report: Towada
2015/10/13 - Autumn Color Report: Hakkoda
2015/10/08 - Autumn Color Report: Nasu
2015/10/06 - Autumn Color Report: Nikko
2015/04/14 - Cherry Blossoms 2015: Yoshino
2015/04/13 - Cherry Blossoms 2015: Miharu
2015/04/08 - Cherry Blossoms 2015: Matsumoto Report
2015/01/29 - Crabs, Peonies and Castle Cruises in Shimane

2014/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2014
2014/12/16 - Seasonal Illumination: Osaka
2014/12/15 - Seasonal Illumination: Kobe Luminarie 2014
2014/12/09 - Seasonal Illumination: Ashikaga Flower Park
2014/12/05 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2014/11/28 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2014/11/26 - Autumn Color Report: Nara
2014/11/25 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2014/11/18 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2014/11/13 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2014/11/07 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2014/11/04 - Autumn Color Report: Hakone
2014/10/29 - Autumn Color Report: Shima Onsen
2014/10/21 - Autumn Color Report: Nikko
2014/10/16 - Autumn Color Report: Alpine Route
2014/10/08 - Autumn Color Report: Nasu
2014/10/07 - Autumn Color Report: Nikko
2014/09/26 - Autumn Color Report: Nikko
2014/08/20 - Kusatsu Onsen Beautification