How to Discover Japan Without the Crowds: Oku Japan

Following a very busy cherry blossom season that saw hotels and guides in short supply, and demand already growing for the fall, Kyoto-based tour operator Oku Japan is offering a way to escape the crowds with its array of guided and self-guided walking trips.

“There were a lot of people who wanted to come in the spring but because of surging demand and capacity issues, many of those dates have shifted to June,” said Hiroshi Kawaguchi, general manager for Oku Japan. “Capacity for the autumn months is also getting tighter, earlier than ever before. As such, we are putting measures in place to help alleviate that pressure, ensuring we have guides available for our guided departures, and shifting our focus to even more off-the-beaten-track destinations.”

While Oku offers walking trips that explore all areas of Japan year-round, to avoid the crowds as much as possible, the tour operator recommends focusing on both the off-peak times or, more ideally, the transitional period between summer and autumn when the heat has subsided a bit but before the fall peak hits. The following are Oku Japan’s top trip recommendations with departures in that sweet spot (and beyond):

Nara Ancient Capitals

  • Five-day self-guided tour
  • Departures recommended between January and December
  • Trip level: Active

On this self-guided walking trip, highlights include walking along the historic Yamanobe-no-michi and Yagyu Kaido trails, hiking a forested trail to the Tanzan Shrine and seeing the terraced rice fields of Asuka-mura. Accommodations include stays in a friendly-family homestay for an immersive experience or a traditional minshuku guesthouse for two nights in Asuka-mura and two nights in a centrally located hotel. Guests also have the option to upgrade to machiya townhouse in Nara, which are wooden structures that have seen a resurgence in recent years thanks to younger craftsmen and designers recognizing the cultural significance of such historic buildings.

Nikko and Yumoto Onsen

  • Four-day self-guided tour
  • Departures recommended between April and November
  • Trip level: Intermediate
Sacred bridge Shinkyo in Nikko, Japan
Nikko, Japan (Photo by Fyletto/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

Take a scenic train ride out of Tokyo to Nikko and the picturesque mountains of Tochigi Prefecture. It was here that in 1617, the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu—the leader who is credited with unifying the country—had himself enshrined, with the ornate buildings now UNESCO World Heritage sites. In addition to its history and culture, Nikko is also well-known for its nature, which guests have a chance to explore further as they travel deeper into Nikko’s varied landscape to Oku (“inner”) Nikko and enjoy exhilarating hikes through the marshlands towards Nikko Yumoto Onsen, a hot spring village with inns, where they’ll spend another two days exploring the region.

Wild Lands of Eastern Hokkaido

  • Nine-day guided tour
  • Departures available between June and October
  • Trip level: Intermediate

This tour takes guests on a journey from Kushiro on Hokkaido’s eastern Pacific coast, where they will enjoy some of the best seafood in the country, followed by a visit to Hokkaido’s largest marshland area, and then on to Lake Akan, where guests will visit Ainu Kotan village, home to the largest remaining Ainu community on the island. The trip also visits Mount Meakandake, an active volcano in Akan Mashu National Park, which offers some of the most impressive volcanic landscapes in Hokkaido; Lake Mashu, one of the clearest lakes in the world; and finally, the Onsen town of Utoro on the Sea of Okhotsk. The tour end with a visit to Lake Rausu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the largest lake on the Shiretoko Peninsula.

Japan Hiking Highlights

  • 11-day guided tour
  • Departures available between late March and November
  • Trip level: Active

Combining Kyoto and Tokyo, this 11-day guided walking and cultural tour highlights the country’s best loved trails—the Kumano Kodo and the Nakasendo. Combining more relaxed hiking with cultural immersion, it offers a deeper discovery of the culture that surrounds each trail, with routes suitable for fit and active travelers.

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