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Spring Social Distancing in the Great Outdoors

Finding room to roam and fresh air has taken on a new significance this spring, but luckily Japan has plenty of both. While many large events and festivals have been cancelled or postponed, there are still many ways to safely and responsibly enjoy the green season from human-powered travel to underwater adventures to having plenty of personal space while road tripping around Japan. Here are a few of our favorite experiences you can enjoy this spring. 

Treehouse Camping in Nozawa Onsen

Immerse yourself in nature at Green Field Nozawa Onsen, an eco-friendly campsite deck built among the trees. Great for families and friends who want some privacy (or avoid crowds), this campsite opens from Golden Week to the beginning of October. For ¥30,000 per night (¥35,000 on Saturday nights), rent this private space which comes with two tents for four people each, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, a BBQ grill and Dutch oven, LED lanterns and a hammock. In July to September, you can also enjoy a “Farm Buffet” which sources seasonal vegetables from local farms. 

Some water supply is provided, but it’s recommended to bring additional water to drink and cook. There is no electricity and all trash must be disposed by customers. There is a composting toilet. The campsite is located close to central Nozawa Onsen Village where there are many soto-yu (free natural hot spring) bathhouses.

You could even combine camping at Green Field Nozawa Onsen and stand-up paddling. Go for a relaxing SUP session with Shin’etsu Shizenkyo Activity Center located at Iiyama Station on the Hokuriku Shinkansen line. There are several options here including the Chikuma River, Lake Hokuryu and Biwa Pond.

Japan Road Tripping

There’s no better way to explore Japan right now than camping cars, which allow you to limit contact with others and enjoy the freedom to roam at your own pace. Road trips in Japan are generally convenient as there are plenty of michi no eki (roadside facilities with parking lots, dining options and bathrooms) and onsen baths nationwide. 

The creative folk at DreamDrive have refurbished vans into comfortable “hotels on wheels” that house up to four people. Their recommended routes include a loop around Mt. Fuji, a weekend to the Izu peninsula and a road trip from Tokyo to Kyoto. They’ve also mapped onsen and spots for travelers to easily park for the night. 

“We’re literally a hotel on wheels; our bedding is cleaned and sterilized off site by hotel suppliers,” reassures founder Jared Campion who sees an increase of travelers opting for camping van rentals. “All van surfaces are disinfected with professional graded cleaners and we also provide manuals on what to do in case our customers are feeling ill during the trip.”

Japan on Two Wheels

Based in Ota, Gunma, RideJapan showcases Japan’s regional spots including the Japan Alps in Nagano and Sugura Bay and Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka. These routes are best enjoyed April to June, as clear views of a snow-capped Mt. Fuji make for an iconic image. In summer, Hakuba, Niseko and Matsumoto provide relief from the urban humidity. 

Guided tours are fully supported and balance quality cycling and immersive cultural experiences. Fully customizable self-guided tours, e-bikes and gravel bikes are also available. 

“Although we are primarily focused on the inbound market, we are also hoping to bring back some of our events and long rides which are geared more towards the domestic market,” says director Adam Cobain. “However, we are taking a cautious approach during this stage and advise against group rides.” 

Self-guided tours include premium bike rentals, GPS routes and unit rentals and accommodation. Cobain is currently offering a 10% discount off self-guided tour bookings for Outdoor Japan readers.

Traditional Freediving with Ama Divers

Dive head first into a 3,000-year-old tradition: ama freediving. Ama freedivers are women who catch shellfish and pick seaweed by hand underwater without a diving tank. The number of ama divers have been decreasing around Japan; most of them are in Mie Prefecture. Miescape takes travelers on a half-day experience as you visit an authentic ama hut and are guided underwater by an ama diver. End the day enjoying a seafood BBQ while listening to the divers’ stories. Tours start at Wagu Gyoko Fishing Port in Ise, Mie Prefecture and run every Tuesday and Saturday from April to mid-September and any day of the week from mid-September to the end of October. English translation available. For availability, contact Miescape at www.miescape.jp.

Dive Okinawa’s Outer Islands

Mantas are the main attraction on Ishigaki Island. When conditions are clear, Diving School Umicoza takes divers to visit a manta ray cleaning station, a special dive site Umicoza’s owner discovered. May to October is the best time to view the mantas as the south wind continues and sea conditions remain calm. 

Founded in 1985, Umicoza is one of Ishigaki’s oldest dive shops and part of the Yaeyama Diving Association. It is run by husband-and-wife duo Harvey Tiew and Miki Ando and is the only English, Chinese and Japanese-speaking dive shop. They regularly sterilize regulators, snorkels and mask every after use.

Umicoza currently has a special discount until June 30: a 10% discount for groups over two people and a 5% cashback for every booking paid by credit card.

Kerama Island Hopping

The Kerama Islands are just an hour boat ride from the main Okinawa island and makes for a great day trip. With Seasir you can enjoy a full-day diving trip in clear waters (at least 30 meters visibility) teeming with tropical fish. Their Leisure Diving Package and Refresher Course Dive Package both start in Naha and include two to three dives. Snorkeling and introductory diving tours are also available. 

Seasir has a special promotion for inbound travelers: receive a 10% discount if you have a friend or relative who booked with Seasir in 2019 (fill in their email address in the comment box when booking online). They also have a discounted rate for their Leisure Diving Package: if a minimum of two divers book, receive a 10% discount and free use of full scuba equipment. 

As Okinawa is a popular travel destination, Seasir ensures that all rental equipment is disinfected with alcohol after every use. Their stores and boats are equipped with disinfectants, their staff are given masks and customers with coughing symptoms on the day of the tour are not allowed to participate.

Izu Sea Kayaking

Find white sandy beaches, caves and natural rock arches and bridges at Izu Peninsula just south of Tokyo. Surface Kayak takes visitors on a leisurely six-hour excursion out into the open sea (includes a quick kayaking lesson for beginners and lunch). During the warmer months, the clear waters are great for snorkeling and small cliff jumps. If you’re lucky, you might even see sea turtles and flying fish. 

Owner Masashi Takeda says that now is a good time to get outdoors and into nature. “There’s so much press on everything else that’s going on around the world,” says Takeda. “As an outdoor operator I hope to get people to leave that for a while and come and enjoy nature.”

Mt. Fuji on Horseback

Even if you’ve never ridden a horse before, you’ll feel at ease in no time at Okamoto Riding Club. Located in Gotemba, Shizuoka, this riding club is popular for its tailored riding lessons (for adults and children) and bilingual services. All trainers are certified riding instructors. The half-day course starts off with a relaxing ride through the surrounding hills and rice fields where you’ll see Mt. Fuji up close on a clear day. After that you’ll learn basic horseback riding skills back at the club. 

“Spring is one of the best seasons to go riding,” says owner Masami Okamoto. He represented Japan in international riding competitions and placed in the top 40 world ranking among competitors before the 2000 Olympics. “It’s warm enough to enjoy long periods outside and enjoy the open air.” His team disinfects all equipment every day and lets fresh air circulate in their clubhouse for safety.

Minakami Canyoning

Find solace in Minakami, a UNESCO biosphere reserve just a little over an hour away from Tokyo. In spring, meltwater from the snowy mountains result in excellent whitewater and rafting conditions. Canyons has modified tours to create a safe, immune-boosting experience by limiting tour participant numbers, providing options for private tours, checking participants’ and staff’s health status and thorough sanitization of people, equipment and the Canyons base. 

“Within the chaos, outdoor activities seem to be one of the best options for both mental and physical wellbeing,” says owner Mike Harris. “It also does not conflict with the three ‘no’s’ issued by the government as you would be enjoying the wide spaces and fresh air of the outdoors without the crowds.” 

Keep an eye out for Golden Week specials on Canyons’ website, especially the stay and play packs utilizing their riverside glamping area.

Shikoku Whitewater

The clear emerald green river Yoshino River is nature’s own water park during the green season. Happy Raft has been running rafting and canyoning tours in Kochi Prefecture since 2004. There are half-day, one-day and family rafting trips from March to November and canyoning tours from July to September. 

“I visited Shikoku in 2001 and camped around the island while surfing, hiking and exploring the Yoshino River,” recalls founder Mark Treston who used to work as a rafting guide in North Queensland, Australia. “I was hooked! The following year I moved here with my family and we’ve been in Shikoku ever since.”

Happy Raft’s personalized tours run in small groups and they also own cozy guesthouses perfect for those wanting to escape the city and get some fresh air. There are uncrowded hiking trails nearby as well.

Mt. Fuji Ecotours

Go on guided nature and e-bike tours around the sleepy town of Fujinomiya at the foot of Mt. Fuji with En-Ya Mt. Fuji Ecotours. Visit sake breweries using Mt. Fuji’s clean meltwater, enjoy farm-to-table dining, stop by the famous Shiraito Falls, cycle to temples built in the middle of rice paddies, hike to Hoei Crater and discover what life is like for the people living near Japan’s most famous mountain. 

“Fujinomiya is famous for clean and delicious water that comes from Mt. Fuji so there are lots of opportunities to wash our hands,” owner Masa Shintani half jokes. Shintani has worked on sustainable ecotourism projects in Iran, Vietnam, Gabon and now in Fujinomiya City. 

Mt. Fuji Ecotours is currently working with camper van companies in Japan to provide packaged private tours and limiting tours to up to four people. They are also offering 20% off their e-bike tours.

Cycle Tokyo’s Backstreets

Discover the story behind all the lucky cats at Gotokuji Temple, enjoy a vegan lunch and other local eateries and go beyond the tourist spots of Tokyo with Freewheeling Japan which is located in Sasazuka just a stone’s throw away from Shinjuku and Yoyogi Park. A full-day course which runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. goes for around 15 to 20 kilometers. Their night rides are recommended during summer. 

“Practicing ‘social distancing’ is fairly easy when on two wheels and outside,” says founder and avid cyclist Brad Bennett. “We are doing our best to offer breaks in uncrowded areas with clean restrooms and washing facilities nearby, have lunch under the trees instead of a crowded restaurant and focus on private tours for single travelers, couples and families.” 

Between April and June 2020, Freewheeling is currently offering a 50% discount off their half-day VIP private tour. Participants may request a flexible start and finish time; includes a lunch box set or extra snacks with a coffee or fresh-pressed juice.

Hokkaido Farmstays

Dubbed the “snowiest farm in the world,” Hopi Hills is a charming farmstay located in Akaigawa, Hokkaido—close to Kiroro Ski Resort. Their petting farm houses an adorable family of baby rabbits, ducklings, ponies, alpacas, an ostrich and a goat. Go horseback riding during the day and enjoy a locally sourced grilled dinner at night. 

Their comfortable yurts sleep up to four people and come with a heater and a specially designed clear dome roof that lets you look up at the stars as you drift off.

“We’re surrounded by forests and fields, breathing fresh mountain air,” says farm director Liam Bartley. “There is nowhere on the planet I would rather be right now.”

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