Eco destination: Japan

WHILE not exactly off the beaten path, Japan offers a variety of options for nature holidays and eco tourism.

Japan eco tourism

Tourists enjoy a mangrove boat tour at the habitat of Iriomote wildcats in Iriomote, some 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) southwest of Tokyo. Pic: AP.

As a highly developed and densely populated nation, Japan may not spring to mind as a typical eco destination like New Zealand or Costa Rica. But Japan’s unique, varied biodiversity and beautiful natural terrain provide ample opportunities for some great environmentally themed vacations. And there are plenty of corners in Japan that truly are off the beaten path.

The majority of Japan’s 127 million plus population lives in large urban centers like Tokyo-Yokohama, so it’s often surprising how rustic and peaceful the Japanese countryside can be. The islands that make up this East Asian nation are home to 9 forest ecoregions, which span 3 distinct ecozones. Japan is also very mountainous and has a coastline 34,751 km (21,593 miles) long.

When dealing with Japan’s own distinct brand of eco tourism, we see some crucial differences with eco holidays as typically encountered in other, especially Western, countries. Besides trips to nature preserves and the like, Japan attempts to integrate eco tourism with local communities.

From Ecotourism Japan:

In Japan, ecotourism is not limited to nature-based tours but includes tours that focus on experiencing local lifestyles, learning about the culture and history of a place, and supporting locally based industries.

This can include various kinds of environmental education and visits to agricultural projects.

Lake Biwa, Japan

Lake Biwa, Japan. Pic: Shutterstock.com.

More ‘typical’ eco tourism in Japan encompasses things like whale and dolphin watching tours and various island excursions. A visit to UNESCO World Heritage Site, Yakushima Island, offers hiking, canoeing and snorkeling opportunities as well as a chance to witness the giant sea turtle population. Another island destination is Iriomote Island in Okinawa with its mangrove forests, waterfalls, jungles and coral reefs. Other recommended eco holiday spots include Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake, east of the incredible historical city of Kyoto; Northern Hokkaido, with its pristine lakes and wetlands; and the traditional rice farming community of Sumi in Masuda, Shimane, an amazing mix of authentic Japanese culture and natural beauty.

For more on the above destinations see Spirit of Japan Travel.

My own experiences of nature in Japan include a trip to Monkey Mountain outside of Osaka, where macaques still run wild; visits to the temples in the hills of Kyoto; and a traditional pottery-making studio where I made a nice (I thought) clay pot with a lovely traditional celadon glaze. The rest of the time I was either regretfully city-bound or too young to remember anything with detail.

Treehugger lists Japan’s ecotourism options by category:

Hotsprings – Enjoy the volcanic activity that heats up mineral water for your bath, naturally
.

Mountain climbing/hiking – Japan’s highest mountain, Mt Fuji, is not the only tourist spot!

River rafting – Just two hour northwest of central Tokyo, there are great rivers like the Tone

Scuba diving/ snorkling – Okinawa or the Ogasawara islands with corals and rare ocean fish

Shrines & temples – These are the spiritual “homes” of Japan, and for many foreigners too!

Japanese Macaque

Japanese macaques still run wild on Monkey Mountain. Pic: Shutterstock.com.

For those who also want to give a bit back, Treehugger recommends a company that organizes canoeing or rafting trips during which participants spend one day cleaning the river along with tour operators and local government officials.

Besides giving back and doing something that actually helps the environment, what makes a holiday ‘green(er)’ – as perhaps opposed to just experiencing nature ­– has to do with the ecological impact of the vacation. Ways to reduce your eco footprint include carbon offsetting, using more efficient and less polluting transportation (Japan has a great train service), and creating as little waste as possible. So renting a 4×4 and tearing around the country throwing empty cans of Pocari Sweat out the window wouldn’t really qualify, nor would it please the locals. In the end it’s all about respect: for the local inhabitants, whether human, animal or plant. It all sounds very Zen, doesn’t it?

For more info check out USA Today’s Travel Tips for Japan Ecotourism.

Article by Graham Land. Graham also writes on ecological issues at AsianCorrespondent.com and GreenFudge.org