2021 & Beyond : The Japan Hot List

 
We can all probably agree that this year has been a real doozy - to put it lightly.
But, although travel to Japan has been and still is restricted, that doesn't mean there hasn't been exciting news.

Remote rentals boomed in Japan with the opening of the Kosuge mountain villa-village near Mt Fuji (above), alongside traditional renovated Cominca farmhouses across Japan's boundless countryside. Development of new technologies like self-driving delivery vehicles and holographic touch screens accelerated, while a combination of international initiatives and Japan's own traditional hygiene standards helped encourage safe travel domestically.

With vaccines now starting to roll out, we reckon it's about time we allowed ourselves to dream again, so we present to you The Japan Hot List - or, all the new places, experiences and ways of travelling there are to be excited about in Japan for 2021 and beyond.


New places

Cutting down a list of exciting places to visit in Japan is a task we would not wish upon anyone but we had a go anyway! Here are the ones to watch for 2021 and beyond:

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Kimono Retreat Hotel

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Tohoku

2021 will mark 10 years since the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, and what a fantastic anniversary to help celebrate the beauty of the region, the resilience of its people and the journey of recovery it has been on over the past decade. There's a reason it featured on both the Guardian and Lonely Planet's best regions to visit in 2020! Japan's most unexplored region (only 2% of international travellers visit) is also Japan's 2nd largest region, so there is no shortage of things to discover but Yamagata's Kimono Retreat Hotel, opening in Spring 2021 might be a good place to start. Located in the gorgeously rural area of Shirataka, this dreamy getaway is a renovated kimono fabric store that used to belong to a long line of silk merchants, and will retain a huge amount of the traditional charm, architecture, country cuisine and authentic experiences for guests to enjoy.
 

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Treeful Treehouse Ecoresort

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Treeful Treehouse Ecoresort

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RISONARE Kohamajima

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RISONARE Kohamajima

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RISONARE Kohamajima

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RISONARE Kohamajima

©Treeful Treehouse Ecoresort, ©Hoshino Resorts

Okinawa

Beach destinations are on all of our lists for next year as we all try and catch up on some much needed Vitamin D! Okinawa is a perfect bucket list contender for an end-of-holiday splurge and, in 2021, Japan's most southern collection of islands will be welcoming the insanely cool Treeful Treehouse Ecoresort and the Risonare Kohamajima villa resort, complete with private beach access, snorkeling, coral reefs, phantom beaches, star gazing and activities designed for every member of the family. It follows this year's opening of the Hoshinoya Okinawa on mainland Okinawa island, with its sleek and chic modern beach apartments that also incorporate the striking architecture of the local Ryukuan 'gusuku' castles of old. The perfect place to take part in some in-house yoga experiences or karate training sessions.
 

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Fujisan Mishima Tokyu Hotel

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Fujisan Mishima Tokyu Hotel

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Soki Atami

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Soki Atami

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©Tourism Shizuoka Japan, ©Tokyu Hotels, ©SOKI ATAMI, UDS Hotels

Shizuoka

Always popular due to its proximity to Mt Fuji, this destination has a lot more than just iconic mountains. Green tea fields, wasabi farms, heavenly hot springs, white sandy beaches and quaint castle towns make Japan's Amalfi Coast a real gem. 2020 saw the opening of the Fujisan Mishima Tokyu Hotel along the bullet train line from Tokyo to Kyoto - a new and easy way to enjoy Fuji views from the comfort of a penthouse hot spring sauna. Eye-candy aside, it also provides the perfect stop-off point for people moving on to visit the bamboo groves and temples of Shuzenji, or the stylish new wellness retreat of Soki Atami in the seaside resort of Atami.
 

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Ugakei Circles

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Ugakei Circles

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NIPPONIA Hotel Iga Ueno

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NIPPONIA Hotel Iga Ueno

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NIPPONIA Hotel Iga Ueno

 

Mie

2019 was a busy year for this region as Japan's most sacred shrine, Ise shrine, welcomed the coronation of the new emperor. Fast-forward through 2020 and a new eco-friendly, sustainably themed glamping site will be opening in 2021 called Ugakei Circles, in the Ugakei valley. The new sustainability theme park will feature cosy conical villas and a wealth of outdoor adventure opportunities that are already drawing comparisons to the landscapes from Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke
Over in the feudal town of Iga Ueno, NIPPONIA Hotels are also opening a refurbished stately home up to visitors looking to get under the skin of a historic town deep in Japan's ninja heartlands.

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NIPPONIA Hotel Ozu Castle Town

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NIPPONIA Hotel Ozu Castle Town

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NIPPONIA Hotel Ozu Castle Town

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Setouchi

The polka-dot pumpkins of Setouchi's art islands exploded onto Instagram a couple of years back and now their creator, Kusama Yayoi, is set to take over the Tate Modern with a year long Infinity Room exhibition starting in March 2021.  But Setouchi is more than just the art islands in its inland sea, as 2020 saw the opening of Japan's first ever castle stay in the village of Ozu, and the eye-wateringly scenic Kamome Slow Hotel on the connecting island of Awaji. Moving into next year, the Urashima Village complex is set to bring fully rentable cabins to the inland sea coastline, with paddle boarding, sea kayaking, fishing, rental bikes and rental cars all available on-site.
 

New experiences

In many ways, walking down a residential side street is cultural immersion in itself, but the next couple of years are packing a punch when it comes to adventures to write home about.

©Hoshino Resorts (above), ©Aman Properties (below)

Ainu Culture

The 2020 opening of the first National Ainu Museum, Upopoy, in Hokkaido, is only the start of a movement to reconstruct and remember the culture of the indigenous Ainu peoples. On top of all there is to do at the museum, the KAI Poroto ryokan ('poroto' means 'lake' in Ainu) opening in early 2022 (pictured top) will provide access to authentic Ainu experiences while the latest luxury Aman property arriving in the ski resort of Niseko in 2023 (pictured bottom), will celebrate the textile traditions of the Ainu people throughout the hotel.

Renovated prison

Ever wondered what the inside of a prison looks like? In 2021, you will be able to stay in a renovated 100-year old red brick prison. Located a stone's throw from Todai-ji Temple in Nara, the impressive architecture of this outstanding structure adds a new layer to your visit to Nara deer park.

©Transit General Office Inc. SATOSHI MATSUO

Zero-Waste Village

The world has watched on as Japan's zero-waste village, nestled in the mountains south of the Iya Valley, has managed to become 80% sustainable through a series of ambitious environmental initiatives. With the 2020 opening of Kamikatsu's WHY facility, the world will be able to come and learn in person through training programmes and hands-on eco-studies. The building itself is made out of recycled materials, including the kooky circular hotel located in the dot of the building's question mark. And don't forget the insta-friendly, 100% recycled, local watering hole - the Kamikatz.

©Nintendo

Theme parks & family fun

Our jaws were already on the floor when the world's first Godzilla theme park, Nijigen no mori, opened this year on Awaji island, but then came confirmation that the long-awaited Super Nintendo World will be opening its doors in February of 2021.
The park will be located in Universal Studios Japan in Osaka, and will be accessed by a giant Super Mario warp pipe, spitting you out into Peach's Castle, leading out into the Mushroom Kingdom, with Bowser's Castle looming over you. Yoshi and Donkey Kong will make appearances in their own specific rides, and an app-enabled power up band will enable you to duke it out with Bowser Jr. for the Golden Mushroom.

And that's not to mention the Studio Ghibli Park opening in autumn of 2022! The park has now been confirmed to feature, a giant warehouse, a Totoro forest, a Mononoke village, a Howl's Moving Castle and Castle in the Sky hill-zone, and a Kiki's Delivery Service witch valley. Three areas are due to open in 2022, with the remaining two to open in March of 2024.

 

New horizons

©Dream Drives

By car

If 2020 has taught us anything it's that our wanderlust is stronger than ever and what better way to explore a destination than on the open road. Travelling by car in Japan is a lot easier than you might expect - driving on the same side of the road, GPS, English road signage, cheap toll-booth passes and out-of-this-world Michi-no-eki service stations mean that all you need is your International Driver's Permit from the Post Office and you're good to go. Check out companies like Dream Drives for the cushtiest of options when it comes to hotels on wheels.
And if driving isn't your thing, there's always the super cheap network of nightbuses criss-crossing the country, all newly updated with COVID protocols and comfy spacious seating, to boot.

©wondertrunk&co

By bike

Did you know that there is 1 bike for every 1.8 people in Japan? The allure of a bike riding has never been stronger - the gentle exercise, the freedom on the road and the locals you meet on the way. Bikes in Japan are so popular that pretty much every destination will have rental bikes available, so the choice is yours, but for some exceptional examples, take a look at bike tours around the villages of Lake Biwa, Japan's largest lake, and the two-wheel guided excursions across the islands of Nagasaki.

On foot

The Michinoku Coastal Trail, a 1000km long route along the stunning coast of Tohoku, is now in its second year, with English language maps, a complete set of trail markers and suggested regional routes for hiking shorter segments. Hiking is a Japanese national pastime and the first woman in the world to climb Everest, Junko Tabei, actually hailed from the mountains of Fukushima, where the hiking chalet she set up has just been turned into visitor accommodation. Perfect! That is, if you've already walked the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage, hiked the Kumano Kodo and completed Japan's 100 Mountain Challenge...

By bullet train

This year Japan Railways introduced a new online seat and luggage booking system, for booking your details in advance and helping to ease congestion in the carriages. The JR East Pass welcoming foreign nationals living in Japan was also great news for all the friends and relatives of foreign nationals busily planning their next family visits.

2020 also saw the trialling of the new ALFA-X experimental bullet train on the Tohoku line connecting Tokyo to Shin-Hakodate on Hokkaido. The new fuel-efficient service is hoped to cut journeys on the line in half with speeds of up to 360km/h, and an extension to the line connecting passengers to Niseko ski resort (Kutchan) and Sapporo city by bullet train from Tokyo by 2030. It joins plans to extend the Hokuriku Shinkansen past Kanazawa and into Fukui by 2022, plans to add a new bullet train past Hakata and all the way to Nagasaki by the same year, and plans to finish the new Chuo Shinkansen from Tokyo through Yamanashi and the Kiso Valley, terminating in Nagoya, by 2027.
 

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