When you think of Japan, you may have in mind the metropolis that is Tokyo, or the stunning temples of Kyoto—but this country also has some of the most incredible natural wonders in the world.
If you’re looking to reconnect with nature and see something truly amazing, there are plenty of awe-inspiring sights you’ll be putting straight on your bucket list. From ice-blue pools in Hokkaido to the turquoise seas of Okinawa, with ancient forests and sand dunes in between, Japan holds myriad natural wonders. Although some may be more of a struggle to reach than others, they are all incredible displays of the power of nature that you’ll never forget.
If you’re visiting in the colder months, see our article on natural winter wonders in Japan.
The sweeping sand dunes, Tottori
A strange sight in Japan is Tottori’s vista of desert-like sand dunes stretching to the sea. But these are no mirage: they’re the result of 100,000 years of ocean winds blowing in from the Sea of Japan. In the east corner of Tottori Prefecture, the dunes stretch over 16 kilometers in length and are 2 kilometers wide, with incredible 40-meter-deep basins and towering hills that will take you to the Sahara in seconds.
There are plenty of ways to observe and explore the dunes, including horse-drawn carriages, paragliding and sand-boarding, as well as an observation deck. There are even camels to add to the atmosphere. Read more about exploring Tottori’s sand dunes.
The famous Mount Fuji, Yamanashi
You can’t visit Japan without seeing it, even if it is from the plane window or squinting into the distance at the Tokyo Met Observation tower—it has to be done. Aside from being a famous landmark and symbol of the country, Mount Fuji is a natural wonder in its own right.
Whether you choose to see it from across the lake in Hakone, or from Lake Kawaguchi, you can even climb a different mountain to see it from a height. If you’re keen to conquer the beast yourself, see our Mt. Fuji climbing guide for some help. There’s nothing more stunning than a sunrise at the peak, and nothing as hard-earned either!
Kabira Bay, Ishigaki, Okinawa
On the north coast of Ishigaki Island in Okinawa, Kabira Bay is one of the most beautiful tropical beaches in Japan, drawing thousands of visitors every year. The coral reefs and amazing animals just below the surface are as beautiful as the view.
Although no swimming is allowed here due to currents, jellyfish and boats, you can cruise on a glass-bottomed boat to see the sea life. There are also tours to the uninhabited islands and you can kayak around them too. Snorkeling around the islands is the only way to enjoy the water and is carefully monitored. Read more about visiting Ishigaki.
The stunning Nachi Falls, Wakayama
The tallest uninterrupted waterfall in Japan, Nachi Falls is 133 meters tall and 13 meters wide, creating one of the most impressive sights in the country. With the pagoda of the Seigantoji in front of it, this is one of the most beautiful views in Japan, with a magical air about it, and well worth the journey to Wakayama to see it.
While there, you can walk a short section of the Kumano Kodo trail to see Nachi Taisha, a shrine right beside the Buddhist Seigantoji Temple. The falls were originally the primary religious site and considered a point of natural power and beauty by the earliest Japanese people. However, a word of caution—there are tales of lovestruck couples plunging to their deaths to be reborn in Kannon’s paradise, so be careful at the top!
The bamboo groves of Arashiyama, Kyoto
One of the most photographed spots in Japan, the Sagano bamboo forest of Arashiyama is a sight to behold. With dappled sunlight and swaying trees, it’s wonderfully calming. They reach up to 20 meters tall, and looking up can be quite dizzying, especially with a breeze. The overwhelming beauty is enough to make you stop and stare for awhile.
Home to Nonomiya Shrine and Tenryuji Temple, there is plenty to explore and although the path is only 200 meters long, you can stroll through at your own pace, making the most of the relaxing atmosphere. Read more about this Kyoto bamboo forest.
Pro tip: If you can’t make it to Kyoto, check out a few bamboo forests in Tokyo instead.
Iriomote’s mangroves, near Ishigaki, Okinawa
Completely different to the rest of Japan, Ishigaki and its surrounding islands are subtropical—and nowhere more so than the untamed island of Iriomote. Largely undeveloped, the island has an abundance of natural resources to be explored by kayak, stand-up paddleboard, hiking or swimming—perfect for the adventurers out there.
There are a number of tour guides on the island who can take you on half- or full-day trips to see the sights. You can also take a water-buffalo cart out to Yubu Island—a subtropical garden with hundreds of varieties of trees and flowers. Read more about exploring Iriomote.
Alpine views of Mount Yari, Nagano
Right at the heart of the Japanese Alps, Mt. Yari is famed for its stunning ridges and ripples, catching snow to leave beautiful patterns. With views of Mt. Fuji from the top and incredible panoramas of the surrounding mountains, it’s no wonder it’s at the top of most hikers’ bucket lists.
The first recorded ascent was made by priest and mountain ascetic Banryu in the Edo period. The area was nicknamed the Japanese Alps by a British hiker named Gowland, who followed some 50 years later in 1880. The hiking trails are open from the end of April to early November, and the area is considered especially beautiful when covered in autumn leaves. Read more about one unusual hike to a remote onsen hidden in the Alps.
The volcanos of Aogashima Island, Tokyo (technically)
A more difficult place to reach, Aogashima is a small volcanic island 358 kilometers from Tokyo. It features one of the few double volcanos in the world. With only 160 residents, the island is home to the smallest village in Japan, and has a small school and post office.
You can camp on Aogashima, with incredible views of the night sky and a true natural escape from the rest of the world. The island is accessible by boat (four days a week, ¥1,500 one way) or helicopter (¥11,500) from nearby Hachijojima (itself a one-hour flight from Haneda). We didn’t say it was easy, but it’s certainly a natural wonder.
The rush of Shiraito Falls, Yamanashi
The 150-meter wide cascade in the foothills of Mount Fuji is one of the most accessible day trips from Tokyo and is truly stunning. The falls are among the most beautiful in Japan and are 25 meters high—creating thin streams of rushing white water that resemble silk.
The site was protected in 1936 as a Japanese Natural Monument and is part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. There is a walking trail from the main road and a return bus once a day from Tokyo Station.
The blue seas of the Kerama Islands, Okinawa
The Kerama Islands are a slice of heaven, a few miles from the coast of the Okinawan mainland of Naha. The cluster features sandy beaches, coral reefs and even humpback whales. Of the 20 islands in total, only five are inhabited, with a few hostels, hotels and plenty of diving companies as well as kayak and snorkeling tours or rental gear.
You can relax into island life while enjoying the beaches, explore the uninhabited islands and hike to viewpoints for incredible sea views. Tokashiki is especially hilly, with incredible jungle-like walks and regular boats to the smaller islands. There are local restaurants, and after a few days, you’ll never want to leave. Although it’s one of the most popular destinations in Japan, we have a cheapo guide to enjoying the blue seas of Okinawa here.
The magic of Yakushima, Kagoshima
Believed to be the inspiration for the Studio Ghibli film Princess Mononoke, Yakushima has Japan’s most ancient forest, with trees up to 7,000 years old. Despite heavy logging in the Edo period, the forest has now recovered and is protected as a national park.
Trees over 1,000 years old are called Yakusugi (a combination of the island’s name and the Japanese word for cedar) and can be seen at many points on the island. As it is a sub-tropical island, there is frequent rainfall and often a dramatic mist rests in the forest. Read more about exploring Yakushima.
The 8 Hells of Beppu Onsen, Oita
One of the most famous hot spring (onsen) towns in Japan, Beppu is popular with visitors from across the country and beyond, with the city hosting eight different springs (the number being the same as the “eight hells” is a coincidence). One of them, Beppu Onsen, has a stunning collection of natural hot springs that are as beautiful to look at as they are amazing to step into.
The eight hells of Beppu is the name reserved for the particularly stunning selection of pools that range from fiery red to glassy blue—along with one inhabited by crocodiles. The onsen are spread across two sites and are easily accessible by buses or walking.
Pro tip: First time bathing in a Japanese hot spring? Read our guide.
Five honorary mentions
There were some spots that didn’t quite make it by technicality, but are still incredible sights.
The Blue Pond – Hokkaido (Not actually natural)
It may look familiar from your computer screensaver of old, but it’s a real thing, and it’s genuinely that stunning in real life. Built as part of an erosion prevention system on the island to prevent damage to the nearby town of Biei in case of volcanic eruption, the pond is a stunning blue color thanks to the natural minerals in the water. There isn’t much to see nearby, but it is next to the onsen town of Shirogane, so you could always have a soak after enjoying the view! For an insight into the natural beauty of Hokkaido, take a look at our outdoor adventure guide.
Mount Aso, Kumamoto (closed off due to safety concerns)
The largest volcano in Japan and one of the largest in the world, Mount Aso in Kumamoto has an incredible blue crater lake and is beautiful when viewed from afar as well. It erupted for the first time in 22 years in November 2014 and while no one was injured, debris was thrown over 3,000 feet into the air. The caldera (the area above the magma chamber which lies under the volcanic peaks) is one of the world’s largest, with the active volcanic peaks within it.
Note: Mount Aso erupted again in 2016. Due to recent increases in volcanic activity there is currently a no-entry perimeter of 1 kilometer and you cannot approach to see the crater. The ropeway is also currently closed.
The glowing squid of Toyama Bay, Toyama (March to June)
One of the most magical sights in Japan, the firefly squid appear in Toyama Bay due to currents. Usually they are deep below the surface and not visible. With tiny photophores at the end of their tentacles, they create an incredible spectacle as millions swarm to create a sea of glowing blue. The squid are fished in the area but there are also sightseeing boats available, leaving early in the morning to get the best views around 1 kilometer from the shore. (Unfortunately it’s a little tough to get decent shots of them!)
Naruto whirlpools, Tokushima (Limited times)
Off the Naruto Strait, the rush of tides between the Seto Inland Sea and the Pacific Ocean create a natural phenomenon known as the Naruto whirlpools. They happen twice a day and are stronger in summer and winter, and can reach up to 20 meters wide.
Note: You should always check the schedules before you go. The whirlpools can be best seen from sightseeing cruises that run from Shikoku and Awaji Island.
The wedded rocks of Ise, Mie (we put a rope on them)
A tad more accessible, one of the simplest and yet most beautiful views in Japan is the sun rising behind the wedded rocks in Ise. The Meoto-Iwa rocks are bound by a traditional rope made of braided rice stalks. The largest rock—Izanagi, the husband—is 9 meters tall, while the wife—Izanami—is 6 meters tall. There is a small torii gate placed on Izanagi and there are ceremonies held three times a year to replace the rope, which weighs almost a ton.
If you are lucky enough to be able to visit during the summer months, you can see the sun rise directly between them, with Mt. Fuji in the background. As the rocks have great romantic significance, it is common to see couples praying before them for happy marriages, and you can, too. Read our guide if you’re looking for more unusual ways to see Fuji.
This post was first published in 2017 and was last updated by Lily Crossley-Baxter in March, 2020. While we try to ensure accuracy, details may vary.