Travel Highlights 2017

Every December here at Japan Guide we like to share our year's most inspiring travel experiences in Japan. In hopes we can offer a bit of inspiration for your own Japan travels, here are my highlights from 2017:

#10: Nozawa Onsen and Backcountry Snowboarding at Madarao

After a disappointingly rainy 2016 winter snow season, 2017's plentiful snowfall was a welcome gift for skiiers and snowboarders. I made the most of it this year visiting the famously powdery Nozawa Onsen and taking on my first backcountry snowboarding experience on nearby Mt. Madarao.

Incredible powder snow on Mt. Madarao

#9: Cherry blossoms near the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant

Six years after the Great Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, which caused the deaths and displacements of tens of thousands of people in northern Japan, one stricken town was taking big steps to recovery.

After lying entirely within the exclusion zone of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, located just 10 kilometers away, the town of Tomioka in Fukushima Prefecture was finally declared safe to return to by authorities in spring this year. Fortuitously, the timing coincided with the opening of its once-famous cherry blossoms, which I had the honor of reporting on during our 2017 cherry blossom reporting season.

Crews clear contaminated topsoil under Tomioka's cherry blossoms

#8: Climbing Nikko's Mt. Nantai

Though I've been to Nikko National Park, located in my home prefecture of Tochigi, more times than I can count, I'd only ever enjoyed the view of majestic Mount Nantai from the surrounding Okunikko area. That is, before I finally made the climb to the sacred mountain's summit this May from Futarasan Shrine, and was rewarded with the most stunning views of Lake Chuzenji I'd ever seen.

The gorgeous Lake Chuzenji from the top of Mt. Nantai

#7: Kawachi Wisteria Garden in Kitakyushu

Japan is no stranger to beautiful displays of flowers, and one particularly picturesque flower spot, located on the outskirts of Kitakyushu in Fukuoka Prefecture is the Kawachi Wisteria Garden. In early May, the park explodes into colors as its thousands of wisteria plants bloom, drawing huge crowds—be sure to reserve your ticket well in advance!

A purple wonderland of wisteria in May

#6: Sharing Mt. Shirouma-dake in Hakuba

I was pleased this September to have the opportunity to share one of my favorite hikes in Japan in the first entry in our new outdoor adventure blog Among the Peaks. The hike: Mt. Shirouma-dake, located just outside Hakuba in Nagano Prefecture. The two-day hike features year-round snow, abundant alpine flowers, and spectacular views.

And don't miss the video my talented colleage and hiking partner Andrew made of the hike for some unique views, and helpful tips for mountain hiking in Japan!

View from the ridgeline of Mt. Shirouma-dake

#5: Nagasaki Peace Park

On my quest to finish visiting every prefecture in Japan this year, this spring I finally made it to Nagasaki Prefecture, and to the powerful Nagasaki Peace Park in the city of Nagasaki. The park and its commemorative statues were extremely moving in their simplicity and symbolism.

The powerful statue commemorating Nagasaki's resolve to remember and move forward after the atomic bomb

#4: Yamaage Matsuri in Tochigi Prefecture

Of the hundreds of traditional festivals held around Japan, one of my favorites is the Yamaage Matsuri, held every August in the small town of Nasukarasuyama in rural eastern Tochigi Prefecture. The boisterous summer festival features centuries-old festival floats, Shinto traditions, and the grand spectacle of erecting a huge kabuki theater set and putting on a performance in the middle of a busy street.

This year, the festival also had the honor of celebrating its first year being registered on UNESCO's Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The massive, changing kabuki theater set in the streets of Nasukarasuyama during the Yamaage Matsuri in August

#3: Autumn Colors on Mt. Nasu

No list of Japan travel highlights would be complete without mentioning Japan's beautiful autumn colors. This year, one of my favorite autumn sights was in my own backyard: the gorgeous colors around Mt. Nasu, located in Tochigi Prefecture. After a slightly underwhelming color peak last year, the colors this October were happily stunning.

The colors of Nasu, my home mountain in Japan—they never get old

#2: Nachi Falls in Wakayama, My Last Prefecture!

After seven years of traipsing about the country, this May, I finally made it to all of Japan's 47 prefectures! My last one: Wakayama. While the entire prefecture is fascinating and beautiful (and very remote in many places!), one spot that stood out for me was the impressive Nachi Falls, Japan's tallest waterfall.

Nachi Falls, Japan's tallest waterfall

#1: Taking on the Daikiretto in the Northern Japan Alps

After years of planning, and a previous attempt thrwarted by unexpeceted snow, this October, I finally got to take on one of Japan's most venerated alpine hikes: the Kamikochi-Yari-Hotaka Circuit. The 3-day trek starts at Nagano Prefecture's popular Kamikochi resort and scales Japan's 3rd and 5th tallest peaks along a route that traverses the exhilarating knife-edge ridge known as the Daikiretto.

Mt. Yarigatake, "Japan's Matterhorn", and the Hotaka Ridgeline at sunset