January is the perfect time to detox and refresh your body and mind - and where better than the beautiful, spiritual, spectacular country of Japan?
From spiritual retreats to reconnecting with nature, meditation, detoxing, and forest bathing to sustainable eco-tourism and energising outdoor experiences, Japan has everything you need to make good on your New Year’s resolutions. In our ‘New Year, New You’ guide to Japan, we’ll explore all of the above and more as we take you on a journey of renewal and new beginnings across Japan. As always, we’ll be using the JR Pass for unlimited travel on the country’s world-leading domestic rail network - the most stress-free way to travel and admire the view while exploring this peaceful and serene country. We don’t think there is a better country in the world to attempt your New Year resolutions, especially if they involve nature and spirituality. After all, this is the country that practically invented meditation and mindfulness! Ready for a resolution? Let’s begin.
Discover Your Spiritual Side in Japan
There are breathtaking and awe-inspiring temples and shrines right across Japan, and so many to potentially visit that it can be hard to know where to start. An easy pick is Kyoto, which is famous for its temples and shrines and one of the best cities to visit to experience ‘old Japan’. It has more than 1,600 temples and is considered by many to be the cultural and historic capital of Japan. Two of the must-see shrines are the famous ‘Golden Pavilion’ of Kinkaku-ji, and Kiyomizudera ‘Pure Water Temple’ with its wonderful verandah. You can also read an extensive guide to the city’s temples and shrines in our guide, Best Buddhist Temples in Kyoto to Visit. Of course, there are temples and shrines to discover in Tokyo, Osaka, Sapporo, and every other city in Japan, as well as more destinations across the country as we’ll discuss below.
Meditation Retreats and Sacred Places in Japan
Alongside the thousands of temples and shrines in Japan’s cities, towns, and villages, there are many sacred places across Japan, from the cold and mountainous north to the subtropical southern islands, and thanks to the nation’s fast and efficient rail network (which is the envy of the rest of the world), even the most remote corners of this beautiful country can be reached with relative ease. Here are two premier spiritual destinations to consider on your ‘New Year, New You’ journey:
It is difficult to say what Japan’s number one most sacred location is, but Koya-san would certainly be very high on the list. Koya-san is a holy mountain in Shikoku and is the home and birthplace of Shingon Buddhism, which built its temples on Mt Koya in the 9th Century. The town of Koya-san is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is also home to Japan’s largest cemetery, the beautiful and atmospheric Onku-in cemetery, where some of the country’s most prestigious people are laid to rest. Koya-san is also the beginning and end of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, which features 88 temples and shrines and can take three months to complete on foot. Even if you don’t have time for all 88, you can book a Shukubo (a ‘temple stay’) in Koya-san (which has more than 100 temples to choose from, many with their own onsen and zen gardens for maximum relaxation). Temples such as Eko-in and Muryoko-in are 1,000 years old and allow guests to meditate, practice calligraphy, take part in morning chanting and other rituals, and much more. It’s possible to stay for weeks to fully immerse yourself in the spiritual life. Alternatively, you could just visit for the day from Kyoto or Osaka. For a more detailed guide to visiting Koya-san, read our Itinerary Tip: Koya-san guide. Koya-san is most accessible from Shin-Osaka. You can use the JR Pass to travel to Shin-Osaka by Shinkansen bullet trains from nearly anywhere in Japan, such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima.
Kamakura and the ‘Big Buddha’
Kamakura was the ancient capital of Japan in the 12th Century. Today it is famous for its many temples and for being home to the Big Buddha (or Daibutsu in Japanese). This colossal statue is part of Kotokuin Temple and is considered to be a must-see and awe-inspiring sight. For many, going to Japan and not seeing the Big Buddha up close would be like visiting the country without seeing Mount Fuji. Kamakura can be directly reached in less than one hour from Tokyo on the JR Yokosuka line (bound for Zushi). Fully covered by the JR Pass and Green Seats (1st Class) are available if you have a Green JR Pass. Alternatively, coming from Shinjuku, the JR Shonan-Shinjuku Line takes you from Shinjuku (JR) station to Kamakura in little less than one hour. Green seats are available here too. Read our guide for more information on Visiting Kamakura.
Alongside a spiritual journey, your New Year resolutions might also be to undertake a sustainable one. In other words, eco-tourism. But what is it exactly? Ecotourism is officially defined as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of local people, and involves interpretation and education. As you can tell, ecotourism isn’t simply about being environmentally friendly, conservation and promoting sustainable travel, although it involves all of those. It is also about cultural awareness, preserving and celebrating the rights and spiritual beliefs of indigenous people, putting money back into local communities, and the physical, social, behavioural and psychological impact of tourism.
The last 30 years in Japan has seen the formation of the Japan Ecotourism Society in 1998, which has close links to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), the largest and oldest global ecotourism association. Japan has often been associated with modernisation and technology and while that is true, it is also a world-leader in environmental technology and practices such as recycling. The rural community of Kamikatsu for instance, recently became one of the world’s first zero-waste towns. The country is also surprisingly rural and rustic once you get outside of big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Japan is also hugely proud of its traditions and culture and has taken significant steps to preserve them for visitors and future generations. All of this, combined with an incredible natural environment and landscape with amazing wildlife and biodiversity, makes this island nation a particularly special green destination. Non-profit organisations like the Japan Ecotourism Society and Ecotourism Japan work on various eco-activities run by small outfits throughout the country.
Why Trains are a more Eco-Friendly Way To Travel
Climate conscious travellers around the world are choosing trains over planes. Even teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg prefers trains to cars or planes and famously spent two days travelling from Rome to London by train rather than flying. And she’s not the only one. Friends of the Earth and many other environmental organisations are promoting train travel for the eco-conscious traveller. Why? Rail travel accounts for 14 grams of CO2 emissions per passenger mile compared to 285 grams for air travel and 158 grams for cars. They also save on energy, space and are consistently safer. Moreover in Japan specifically, the Shikansen runs on electricity so it is even more sustainable. These facts are another great reason why the JRailPass is indispensable when visiting Japan.
You could also reduce your carbon footprint even further by picking a single area in Japan and explore that to the max. For example, Kansai has many cities close together like Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Wakayama and Himeji. If you use a regional ticket like the Kansai Area Pass to travel around, you save both on environmental impact and your budget. Also, once at your destination, public transport is an affordable and sustainable way to get around, whether it’s via a metro network or city buses. Both cut down on pollution, traffic density and the knock-on effects linked to fuel efficiency and infrastructure upkeep. Of course, for shorter distances cycling or walking is even better. Speaking of cycling in Japan, we’ll have more on this in our bonus recommendations. Overall, Japan is a dream destination if you’re going green. For more on this topic, read our guide to Eco-tourism in Japan for everything you need to know.
Detox and Reconnect with Nature in Japan
Visit Japan’s National Parks
Japan has more than 30 National Parks and with volcanoes, forests, marshes, beaches, coastlines, underwater marine habitats, onsen (hot springs) and snowy mountains, all in one country, it’s safe to say that the country’s national parks are among the most spectacular in the world. Given the number and diversity, recommending one or two is very tricky (as they are all amazing), but here are a couple of suggestions.
Fuji Hakone Izu National Park
Arguably Japan’s most famous national park, Fuji Hakone Izu is, of course, home to Mount Fuji – the beautiful and iconic active volcano. The area has much to offer including Fuji Five Lakes, the famous Chureito Pagoda, Hakone, the Izu Peninsula and the Izu Islands, as well as mountain climbing, peaceful onsen, beautiful beaches, and much more. It’s also one of the more accessible national parks in that it is a straightforward journey from Tokyo. Using your JRailPass, take the JR Chuo Line to Otsuki Station from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo before transferring to the Fujikyu Railway Line to Kawaguchiko Station.
Yakushima National Park
The heavily forested, atmospheric and beautiful Yakushima National Park, on the southern island of Yakushima, is home to Japan’s oldest trees, including Jomonsugi, an enormous cedar believed to be an incredible 7,000 years old. Now that’s reconnecting with nature. To reach Yakushima, take the train from Tokyo to Kagoshima via the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen and then catch a high-speed boat to Yakushima.
Japan’s National Parks are also the perfect place to engage in the art of ‘shinrinyoku’ or forest bathing. Surprisingly, this has nothing to do with taking a dip in an onsen (hot spring) in the woods, but rather ‘bathing’ in the beauty, wonder and majesty of forests.
Viewing the Sakura
Hanami translates as ‘flower viewing’ and is the centuries-old tradition and art of watching and appreciating the sakura (Japanese cherry blossom) when it blooms each Spring. In ancient Japan, the arrival of the sakura meant the beginning of spring and with it, the rice-planting season, but hanami is also about the appreciation of nature and relates to Shinto and Buddhist beliefs and traditions relating to the impermanence of life.
Due to the diversity of the landscape and the abundance of natural wonders, there are a huge range of possible outdoor activities available for visitors to Japan. Here’s a small selection for you to consider as part of your ‘New Year, New You’ journey:
- Climbing and hiking
Japan is a great country for climbing and hiking thanks to its mountain ranges and numerous National Parks. To make hiking easier, consider leave your luggage in storage lockers at stations during the day. Also when hiking, make sure to stick to the marked trails and not take things from their natural environment. Along with taking your rubbish with you, these practices limit your impact on the park’s habitat. For more on these activities, read our Quick Guide to Climbing or our Comprehensive Guide to Climbing and Hiking Mount Fuji.
From crystal-clear subtropical seas and white-sand beaches in the south to the magical ice flows in the far north, the wide range of temperatures in Japan’s waters means there is an extraordinary diversity and variety to the country’s marine wildlife, its coastal geography and its underwater ecosystems. With 3,000 different types of fish alone, not to mention a huge range of other marine life and exotic wildlife to encounter, the country is perfect for nature lovers, and a paradise for diving enthusiasts. Diving also occupies a special place in Japan’s indigenous culture in the form of its community of ama divers. These incredible ‘women of the sea’ free dive to depths of 30 metres for shellfish, oysters and more, and traditionally wore nothing but a loin cloth. You can also experience ama culture first-hand by booking an ama hut experience where ama divers come together in huts called amagoya to share stories and talk about their work while sharing locally-caught seafood grilled over coals. Around half of Japan’s remaining ama population can be found in the coastal city of Toba and the surrounding islands of Tōshijima and Kamishima, and you can visit these special communities using your Japan Rail Pass. From Tokyo, take the JR Tokaido Shinkansen Line to Nagoya, using either the Hikari or Kodama trains. Continue through to Iseshi Station before arriving at Toba.
- Mountain biking and cycling
Mountain biking is an excellent way to get off the beaten track and see nature, while cycling is also a brilliant option generally. Cycling is very popular in Japan and it is a brilliant way to see this amazing country. From huge urban city spaces with pathways, alleys and parks, to rugged mountains, dense forests and beautiful coastal regions, Japan offers some of the best and most spectacular cycle routes in the whole world, in particular the Shimanami Kaido, a 70 km stretch of expressway which joins the country’s main island of Honshu with the island of Shikoku. Furthermore, bikes are eco-friendly, great for exercise, fresh air, and cardiovascular health, and they allow you to experience Japan’s incredible landscape with your own two eyes, unencumbered by windows, roofs or doors. Bikes are also readily available across Japan with bike rental shops right across the country (often handily located near train stations) and also bike-sharing and docking services, which you can register for using your smartphone or credit card. Just remember if you are relying on your phone, it’s worth investing in PocketWifi to ensure you can stay connected while on the move without any unexpected charges or running out of data.
- River rafting, kayaking and canoeing
There are a number of lakes and rivers in Japan that are perfect for canoeing, kayaking and rafting such as the Tone which is just two hours northwest of Tokyo. Ecotourism site Treehugger recommends a company that organises canoeing or rafting trips during which you also spend one day cleaning the river along with tour operators and local government officials.
- Wildlife experiences
Japan boasts around 90,000 animal species, including more than 150 mammals and 600 birds, a number of endangered species, and several endemic species you will only find here such as the Japanese macaque or snow monkey, tanuki, serow, giant spider crab, flying squirrel and many others. Spending time with animals has been shown to increase empathy and relax both the body and mind - and in Japan you’ll have the opportunity to really walk on the wild side. As an archipelago of more than 6,000 islands, Japan’s beautiful and diverse landscape – ranging from mountains, forests and wetlands, to beaches, subtropics and underwater worlds – feature some of the most spectacular and unique wildlife anywhere in the world. From snow monkeys to tanuki, giant salamanders to spider crabs, and humpback whales to hammerhead sharks, a wildlife tour of Japan is guaranteed to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Can there be a better New Year’s resolution than swimming with dolphins or watching whales migrate?
- New Year Health and Fitness
Countless studies have documented the psychological benefits of exercise on the human body and mind. Walking, hiking, climbing, swimming and diving, river rafting, skiing, snowboarding, archery, horse-riding, yoga, martial arts - whatever kind of exercise it is (and Japan is famous for all of these and more), it can help lift your spirits and relieve stress and tension. Japan is a brilliant place for outdoor enthusiasts to detox and you’ll find activities to cater for almost every taste in the country’s amazing and diverse national parks. Snowboarding and skiing enthusiasts meanwhile may want to try areas such as Hokkaido or Nagano (whose Hakuba ski resort hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics), while keen swimmers, divers and surfers will want to find out more about the country’s amazing beaches and coastal regions in our Itinerary Tip: Beaches and Deep Dive into Japan guides.
- It’s definitely possible to have a New Year’s detox and wind down in Japan’s cities, but if you’re craving peace, quiet and isolation, why not try somewhere more remote in Japan? Read our guide to The Most Remote Places in Japan for our suggestions.
- For more on cycling for New Year exercise, fitness, and as a means of eco-friendly travel in Japan read our guide I Want To Ride My Bicycle.
- If all our talk of spiritualism in Japan has piqued your interest about the country’s rich mythology and history, you might also enjoy reading our Folktales of Japan guide.
- Even if you’re going to be switching your phone off in a temple, shrine or spa retreat, it’s still very useful and sensible to stay connected while overseas, for practical reasons or in case of emergencies. That’s why we recommend PocketWifi. It could also save you some unexpected and costly data charges.
- If your New Year trip to Japan is your first time in the country, make sure you read Top 10 Tips For First-Time Visitors to Japan.
- It might also be worth considering our Meet and Greet service, whether it’s your first visit to Japan or your 10th visit, you will definitely feel the benefit from our expert guidance and support.
- If your New Year’s resolution is to visit Japan then there’s still the small matter of when to visit and what season will suit you best. Thankfully our guide, Japan’s Weather and Seasons: Deciding on the Best Time To Visit, is here to help.