The symbols of old Japan – carp-filled ponds, misty valleys and onsens tucked away in thick forests – are often overshadowed by Japan's image of the neon metropolis with its rocket ship skyscrapers, sci-fi supermarkets and bullet trains (not to mention its live lobster vending machines, vans blaring military propaganda messages and nappies for dogs).
There's no doubt a visit to Japan must include the natural LSD-like trip that only cities like Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka can provide. But when the hangover kicks in, where can you go to clear the brain, get back to nature and find the essence of Japan? Lonely Planet staffer Kate Morgan recommends these hand-picked nature spots:
Part of the Chubu Sangaku National Park (also known as Japan Alps National Park) in the Nagano prefecture, Kamikōchi is a mountainous highland about 1500 metres above sea level. It's the perfect place to start those watercolour paintings you've always dreamt of doing; all the inspiration and clichés you need are here. Rippling crystal clear rivers to a backdrop of rolling hills? You got it. Dainty toy-like boats tied to piers that hover over still ponds? No problem. The best time to visit is definitely autumn for the amber hues of the foliage.
Located in the Mie prefecture, Akame-shujuhachi-taki (or Akame 48 Waterfalls) is the collective name for a number of waterfalls, big and small, in the area. You also get the stunning scenery of moss-covered rocks, dramatic gorges and gushing river rapids. Allow at least a few hours to meander your way along the 3-4km walking trail that follows the river. It's an especially nice spot to catch a cool breeze and escape the sauna atmosphere of the cities in summer. Take a dip in the water at the bottom of the falls to really make the trip worthwhile. But beware! If you are the ticklish type, the trout nibbling at your toes may be more fun than you can handle.
To get there take the Kintetsu line from Namba station in Osaka to Akameguchi. From here it's a 10 min walk.
3. Iya Valley
There's speculation that Iya Valley on the Shikoku island might not be the 'nature paradise' it once was, what with all the (mostly pointless) jack-hammering and construction going on. But there's no denying it's still a good choice for getting away from it all. It's best experienced with your own set of wheels, stopping off at any number of rotemburo (outdoor hot spring bath) along the way. If you're up for a bit of Indiana Jones action, precarious vine-bridges high above roaring rivers await your crossing.