Japan is one of those places that gets a lot of hype for its ski slopes and big cities – but its national parks are something else. Lucy tours us past steaming volcanoes, pristine beaches, quaint villages and remote hiking trails. Here are Japan’s best national parks.


As someone who’s visited twice and moved here for a non-insignificant amount of time (over six years), the visions you conjure up when planning to head to Japan are often pretty standard.

Neon-drenched streets of Tokyo and Osaka, geisha-populated backstreets of Kyoto, and the Aussie-populated snow-fields of Hakuba and Niseko.

However, one of the nation’s most understated features is its national parks. While there are just 34 in total, they are a microcosmic view of the sometimes unrecognized diversity of Japan.

From the sunny tropical beaches of southern Japan, the smouldering volcanoes and lush alps of the centre of the mainland, and the rugged, untamed snowy north, it’s time to get to know wider Japan a little better, your next trip will be all the better for it.

Read more: Japan is a Hiking Oasis in Summer

1. Unzen Amakusa National Park

Location: Nagasaki Prefecture, Kyushu
Activities: Hiking, onsen (hot spring) hopping, cycling
Unique features: Volcanoes, cute inaka (Japanese country town) charm

Unzen Amakusa is Japan’s original National Park, officially. It was the first. Home to still steaming volcanoes, lush hiking trails, and a townscape that embodies what’s perfect about countryside living in Japan, Unzen is a gem of a place.

Unzen Onsen, a township located in the centre of the map, is the park’s centrepiece. There are two major reasons for basing yourself out of here when you visit; volcanoes and hiking routes.

The town is flanked by Mt. Unzen (雲仙岳), which, technically speaking, is a volcanic range of mountain peaks, not one single mountain itself.

If you’ve seen the 2022 National Geographic documentary film ‘Fire of Love’, the love story of two intrepid French volcanologists, Katia and Maurice Krafft, you might recognize the name Unzen; that’s because, in 1991, the pair met their fate chasing the eruption which caused Mt. Unzen’s newest peak Heisei-shinzan (平成新山).

The most impressive hiking route out there is the hike up to Fugendake (1359 m), the highest peak on the Mt Unzen mountain range.

From here you can see the smouldering summit of Heisei Shinzan (1486 m) and sweeping views of the Ariake Sea, all the way to Kumamoto Prefecture.

There are plenty of less strenuous ways to explore the park’s beauty like walks through Unzen Jigoku (in English: Unzen’s Hells), located at the centre of Unzen Onsen town.

A casual walk to the top of Mt. Kinukasa, located right by the city centre making it easy to access the town on foot, is an idyllic way to see the sights and stretch your legs. Once you’re done, take advantage of the volcanic landscape with a soak in the area’s many onsen baths.


2. Chubu Sangaku National Park

Location: Nagano Prefecture, mainland Japan
Activities: Hiking, mountain climbing
Unique features: Pristine alps, no car policy

Sharp, pristine, snow-dusted alps that look like something taken from a Swiss snapshot, Chubu Sangaku National Park doesn’t look like the Japan you thought you knew. But that’s what makes it so great.

This national park is located in the middle of mainland Japan. It covers a majority of the Northern Japan Alps, a mountain range that crawls across Toyama, Nagano, and Gifu Prefectures, and yes is also volcanic.

Kamikochi is the heart of this national park; it’s a mountain resort destination that boasts some of the most almost surrealistic mountain views in Japan. Private cars are banned from entering Kamikochi to maintain the landscape, making it feel all that more special.

Here you’ll find a few accommodations and a campsite with special storage boxes to prevent the local bears from rummaging through your dinner supplies. They’re small though, so don’t fret. There are plenty of nature walks, forest walks – whatever the Japanese equivalent of a bushwalk would be – that snake out from this destination.

For a hike worth writing home about, try to conquer Mt. Yakedake, Kamikochi’s only volcanic summit. It’s a day trip from the main resort area of Kamikochi, and it’s not too difficult but does include a few ladders if approaching from Kamikochi.

Mt. Yari is another option, an overnight choice, as you’ll have to spend the night on the top of the mountain or along the trail. It’s not for the faint of heart, so the best advice is to do some homework before heading off. 


3. Yakushima National Park

Location: Yakushima Island, Kagoshima Prefecture
Activities: Forest bathing, kayaking
Unique features: 7,000 year old trees

Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli crew famously never give away the true locations that inspire the mystical worlds this legendary anime studio creates, but it’s a not-so-well-kept-secret that Yakushima is the ‘Princess Mononoke’ forest.

This subtropical island park is a verdant moss-covered wonderland, home to spectacular forest walks and some of the oldest trees anywhere.

The trees you’ll find here, clocking in at over 1,000 years old, are known as yaku-sugi (a shortening of Yakushima and sugi, cedar in Japanese). A handful of yaku-sugi in the park is estimated to be around 7,000 years old so that arboriculturists can go wild.

As expected from a subtropical island, Yakushima receives some pretty heavy rainfall, so much so that the locals joke that it ‘rains 35 days a month’.

To get a little teaser taste of the island and what it has to offer, Yakusugi Land is a good place to start. While the name sounds like an amusement park, it’s a corner of the island home to a range of hiking courses that vary from 30 minutes to 2.5 hours.

To see the park from a different perspective, grab a kayak. The Anbo River on the east coast of Yakushima is visually one of the most stunning spots to go kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding.

The river mouth is flanked by deep, green forests that continue on through the V-shaped valley. Possibly the most spectacular paddle you’ll ever have.


4. Iriomote Ishigaki National Park

Location: Ishigaki and Iriomote Islands, Okinawa
Activities: Kayaking, diving, snorkelling
Unique features: Elusive oversized cats, tropical views

With perfect white sand beaches, crystal clear blue water, and coral reefs populated by multi-coloured fish, Iriomote Ishigaki National Park is a side of Japan that redefines Japanese travel.

It’s a tropical paradise wonderland that’ll give most of Australia’s beaches a run for their money, but so many non-domestic travellers don’t know much about it.

Technically this park is comprised of two main islands, Ishigaki and Iriomote. Iriomote is the largest island in the park to the west, and six smaller islands are in the park’s centre. Ishigaki Island could be considered the park’s main hub and sits to the east.

The park is home to diverse wildlife and Japan’s largest mangrove forest, offering no shortage of diversity and exploration opportunities.

And if you’re looking to get to know the spectrum of Japanese culture, then traditional Okinawan culture, which is rich here, is a great place to start.

When making the most of this park, it’s worth spending time at least exploring the two main islands. Ishigaki is where you’ll find Kabira Bay on the north coast; with pearly white sand and almost impossibly clear water, it’s perfect for snorkelling and diving.

In Iriomote, you’ll want to hunt down the lush rainforests and the island’s endemic Iriomote cat, of which there are only around 200 in existence. If you can make an add-on, a trip over to Taketomijima to the east of Iriomote is a small, beautifully preserved traditional Okinawan village like something frozen in time. 


5. Sanriku Recovery National Park

Location: Tohoku region, up north of mainland Japan
Activities: Walking, hiking, natural disaster study
Unique features: 1,000km+ walking trails, fishing port towns

The official name of this park is Sanriku Fukko (reconstruction) National Park. It was established in 2013 to help rebuild and support the recovery of the Sanriku region, one of the areas most heavily devastated by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The park also incorporates Rikuchu Kaigan National Park.

While it’s important to the history and legacy of the devastation that occurred here, the coastal park shouldn’t be defined by its hardships.

Here you’ll find a stunning 220km stretch of coastline dotted with pine forests, spectacularly rugged cliffs, and weird and wonderful wildlife.

Some of the best fishing villages and ports, including Hachinohe, Miyako, Kamaishi, Ofunato, and Kesennuma are within the park’s boundaries, meaning that if you’re a fan of fresh seafood, you can’t get much better.

Tohoku, the region in which the park is located, is home to some of the most untouched nature in Japan. According to local travel statistics, only 2% of foreign travellers make their way to this stunning northern region, probably because it’s hard to know where to begin. However, the Michinoku Coastal Trail can offer some guidance.

The Michinoku Coastal Trail is this park’s main cultural and scenic artery. One of Japan’s newest hiking trails, the Michinoku Coastal Trail, is a 1,000km+ trail from Aomori Prefecture down to Fukushima Prefecture.

Of course, a pretty insane feat to complete, but the path offers ample opportunities to drop in and drop out, with plenty of accommodations along the way.



Feature photo by @brmr on Unsplash