About halfway to the summit of Mount Asahidake – Hokkaido’s highest peak located in Daisetsuzan National Park – I turned around to look at the surrounding volcanic landscape. Plumes of sulfuric steam billowed from the ground and disappeared into the layer of fog blanketing the mountaintops around us. I snapped a photo and sent it to some friends with the caption, “Finally made it to Japan!”
Without that context, I doubt they would have guessed where I was. The stark landscape was far from indicative of how the country is typically represented, and it lacked the iconic imagery of temples, Torii gates, or Tokyo.
Instead, our group would climb another kilometer uphill, share Japanese convenience store snacks, and take celebratory photos at the top – laughing that the view was endless fog. We would make our way down a steep descent, traverse across the Ohachidaira caldera as the skies opened and giant raindrops poured down on us, hike across a ridgeline, summit a few more peaks along the way, and cross a river in already-soggy hiking boots. Arriving that evening at the Hotel Taisetsu in Sounkyo, we’d sit down to an elaborate seven course meal – which included sashimi and grill your own wagyu – and soak in an onsen before settling in for the night on our tatami mats and futons.
This was not the Japan I’d seen on social media and travel magazines. It went well beyond the caricature I’d imagined in my mind and offered a much richer, unexpected experience.
The unique culture of Japan attracts travelers from all over the world. Our trip, operated by Adventure Hokkaido, was led by two mountain guides — Richard Smith and Yasuhito Arata. According to Smith, who is UK born but moved to Hokkaido ten years ago, the area has always had a culture for hiking and cycling, but adventure travel is still new – much like Adventure Hokkaido itself. Founded just before the pandemic hit, the company is in its first full season, though you wouldn’t know it based on the high quality product they offer. From the professionalism, rapport, and experience level of our guides to the variety of accommodations, Adventure Hokkaido is well-poised to be a leader in adventure travel on the island and set a high standard for others to follow suit.
Smith told me that Hokkaido is classic Japan – local food specialties, onsen, and warm hospitality – but it is also unique for its own history, Ainu culture, and a wildly varied landscape. Thanks to a cool climate and abundance of marine and agricultural products, including sake and Japanese whiskey, Hokkaido has a rich culinary scene. “It’s great for people who don’t need to experience a city,” he said.
When I asked Smith and Arata about challenges facing adventure tourism development on the island, they mentioned what most of us had noticed yesterday: most of the trails on the island are on challenging terrain even if they are short. Visitors assume the hikes are easy based on distance and tend to underestimate the difficulty. Smith also shared that Hokkaido still lacks some of the infrastructure needed to develop multi-day tours – including hiring and training more guides. “Every adventure travel guide I know personally is currently out guiding a tour right now this week for ATWS,” he said.
But for adventure tour operators that already offer trips in Japan, expanding their portfolio to include Hokkaido is one way to make use of current in-house knowledge while giving loyal travelers the opportunity to experience a completely different side of the country.
Samantha McCrow of RAW Travel, an Australia-based company specializing in iconic hikes and pilgrimage treks, told me that demand from her clients is higher than ever – they love the Kumano Kodo and Nakasendo Trail, and come back asking for more trips to Japan. RAW Travel was the first Australian company to offer the Kumano Kodo in 2013 when most people had not yet heard of it. Since then, the hike has skyrocketed in popularity.
“I don’t even remember the last person who ever had a bad experience in Japan. It leaves people wanting more and wanting to return,” McCrow said. “Hokkaido offers a completely different landscape – it’s wild, it’s rugged, and offers a great contrast to Kumano Kodo. You're not coming just for the hike, you come for a much more in depth experience.”
For the team at RAW travel, they already have the educational component – the base knowledge to prepare clients who do not want to make a faux pas or be disrespectful. The correct way to wear a yukata robe. How to properly onsen. The etiquette of when to take off shoes. Navigating the train system. These are just a few topics that travelers across the globe wonder about when planning a visit to Japan, and being able to prepare travelers is an investment that becomes a valuable resource for clients and tour operators alike.
“And the people of Japan want to help, so when guests make an inevitable mistake, they are met with kindness, generosity, assistance, and grace,” McCrow added.
For some operators, getting hotels and guides for popular itineraries – especially during the popular spring cherry blossom season – has become nearly impossible. According to Jo Rolls, the Head of Product at UK-based KE Travel, their travelers coming from the UK to Japan want those must-see experiences. But in those popular areas, accommodations fill quickly. As with many mid-range operators, KE also faces the challenge of the cost of running a tour in Japan along with demand for bucket list destinations.
“How do you convince people to go to Japan and not see Tokyo, or convince them to go back a second time?” Rolls said. But she is also sold on the potential of Hokkaido. “It’s everything that already makes Japan as a whole very unique but it’s even more unknown. The landscapes are spectacular and unique. The way of life is simpler. There’s a lot that we would put in a box of ‘self care’ that is just a way of life here – the mindful ritual of onsen, fresh food, time outdoors surrounded by nature. It's not forced, it's just there.”
Tom Manchester of Exodus Travel, another UK-based operator, told me it would make sense to add Hokkaido to their portfolio of hiking, biking, and cultural trips because the culture is so unique from the rest of Japan – especially Honshu where the company already operates. While it is unproven if their travelers would want to go to Japan again, Manchester said they have had enough interest that it is worth trying.
“Japan trips are definitely on the high end of what we offer,” he said. “But the landscapes and active volcanoes are really interesting and would appeal to UK travelers – especially the varied walks and hotels with onsens.”
Varied landscapes paired with onsen culture are abundant on Hokkaido, which is known for its wetlands, volcanoes, and natural hot springs. The island is inhabited by a rich variety of wildlife found nowhere else in Japan, including brown bears, red-crowned cranes, Ezo red foxes, and Ezo deer. In addition to skiing, winter visitors can witness natural phenomena of drift ice, frost flowers, and juhyo—trees turned white by frozen mist. Given the natural fit for adventure travel, the Japan Tourism Agency launched a sustainability initiative in 2018 called “Tourism Vision 2030” which promotes sustainable practices and prioritizes developing tourism experiences that are respectful of Japan's unique cultural heritage and traditions.
As epic as the adventures in Hokkaido are, opportunities for going off the beaten path are abundant throughout Japan since two-thirds of the country is mountainous and forested. Cycling along biodiverse coastlines of subtropical Okinawa, kayaking the crystal clear Kurio River on Yakushima, and learning about the pirates and Shinto priests of Shikoku while traversing the hills by E-bike are just some of the adventures delegates had the opportunity to experience last week ahead of ATWS.
Companies considering offering trips to Japan for the first time can take advantage of these opportunities for sustainable growth by developing itineraries in less-visited regions. According to ATTA CEO Shannon Stowell, overtourism has ramped up again post-pandemic. With predictions estimating 1.8 billion international travelers by 2030, planning and managing for a near 80% increase in tourism will be vital.
“Iconic spots will still have their draw and will be overrun without interventions,” Stowell said. “The best we can do as an industry is continue to look at shoulder seasons and less-used routes, while we continue to educate wherever possible.”
This mindset is already gaining traction among operators who don’t currently sell Japan but hope to, and want to strike a balance between high demand sites on Honshu but also offer something less known. Suzanne Alhouby, the founder of Dubai-based Rahhalah Explorers, sells primarily to millennials from the Middle East – particularly the Gulf States – who want to do as much as possible in one trip. She envisions a combination trip in one itinerary.
“It will be an adventure in a place like Hokkaido and then we’ll do the cultural part in Kyoto and Tokyo,” she said. “I think this landscape is quite different from other places we offer in Asia – the scenery, the lake, the variation. And they are well serviced.”
In many ways, Alhouby said, the bathing and onsen culture of Japan is an ideal match for her mostly Muslim travelers. Her biggest challenge will be finding the right DMC – a local operator who can put together a whole trip on Honshu and Hokkaido and be able to accommodate guests who book at the last minute. She hopes that since her clientele is the biggest emerging market, destinations will work to understand and meet the needs of that demographic.
Kelly Carlin of US-based Adventure Life said her company is looking to add Japan and they will likely start with offering something on the mainland – like the Kumano Kodo – which will appeal to their core clientele looking for soft adventure. But, they are also working to broaden their product offerings and client demographic.
“Hokkaido feels like it has more wilderness – it’s less traditional and more rugged for trekking but still offers the combination of onsen and traditional accommodations,” she said. Carlin thinks that would appeal to younger travelers in particular.
Looking toward future growth of the industry, decisions made by tour operators, travel advisors, media members, and younger travelers will shape how adventure travel impacts local communities and destinations. After all, travelers create their bucket lists based on what they know – what they see and read, what tour operators are marketing and selling, and where their friends and peers are traveling and posting about on social media.
During the opening keynote of ATWS, Her Excellency Lina Annab, Ambassador of Jordan to Japan shared with the audience that she recently completed a trek to the summit of Mount Fuji. Often seen as a rite of passage for many adventure travelers to Japan, it was a milestone experience for her. But, she added, the mountain’s UNESCO listing is endangered due to the number of travelers going there.
“Paradise found is paradise lost,” Annab said. “It’s important to keep the balance so the essence of a place is not lost. We are like minded and are looking to go somewhere where we can do good. Encounters with the people and the small exchanges you have are what makes the experience.”
Annab mentioned Tohoku’s Michinoku Coastal Trail as an example of using tourism for good. Japan’s newest and longest trail, it is part of the region’s recovery and reconstruction effort after an earthquake and tsunami devastated the area in 2011.
At least one operator has already heeded that call to action. After years of working for a supplier in Bhutan, Bethany Betzler founded US-based Hinoki Travels. Betzler’s vision for her company is to develop trips that are more off the beaten path than others, purposefully traveling to remote and rural areas that would benefit most from tourism.
“It’s a better experience for travelers to go somewhere they can be surprised, and it's better for destinations to spread tourism to other areas that will benefit,” she said.
Betzler is currently working on launching a Japan tour that will run in October 2024 to the Tohoku region. The trip will center around a theme of reverence and spirituality in nature – think hikes, visiting a wild onsen, and foraging for wild vegetables.
Shannon Stowell touched on this responsibility in his ATWS opening keynote speech. “It's up to us to show how tourism can be done right,” he said. “We in this room are the model. And this can’t happen quietly – we have to be loud and clear about responsibility in tourism. We have to have expectations of our customers and of our own operations.”