Photo: Noah Buscher / Unsplash

Sustainable Travel in Japan

Harmonious tourism for the present and future

By Veronica Carnevale    - 7 min read

In its simplest terms, sustainability is a concept that promotes environmental, social, and economic practices that support a community for present residents and future generations.

What is sustainable travel?

In regards to travel, sustainability refers to ways that people can travel today to maintain and enhance the vitality of tourist destinations for years to come. In our modernized world—where nearly all parts of the globe are accessible—sustainable tourism is more important than ever before. Overtourism is a genuine issue that can have detrimental effects on a region’s environment and the residents’ quality of life. Earth’s resources are finite, and it is imperative that steps are taken toward a more harmonious future so that future generations will have access to the same wonders that are present today.

Fortunately, we can all promote a better future by simply adjusting our mindsets and lifestyles.

Sustainability and Japan

Japan is a truly wondrous country filled with traditional countrysides, seaside paradises, historic temples and shrines, state of the art cities, and renowned cuisine. Unsurprisingly, Japan has been a popular travel destination for years. We can all help preserve the country’s diverse offerings by making travel choices that promote sustainability.

Below are some sustainable travel practices to keep in mind the next time you travel to Japan or elsewhere! No change is too small.

Use trains and public transportation

Tokaido shinkansen in Shizuoka
Tokaido shinkansen in Shizuoka (Photo: tackune / Shutterstock.com)

Although it goes without saying that cycling and walking are the most sustainable forms of travel, here are some other modes of transportation and their effects on the environment:

Trains

Train and bus travel are the most efficient modes of transportation. In fact, trains emit the lowest level of greenhouse gasses compared to other forms of travel. Fortunately, Japan’s extensive railway system and electrically-run shinkansen trains make train travel an easy option while visiting. JR’s regional passes are an economical way to utilize the train systems and provide unlimited access to railways in specific regions.

Cars

Of course, public transportation may not always be a viable option. If you want to travel to the more rural parts of Japan, you may need to rent a car. In these instances, opt for an electric, hybrid, or smaller model to reduce your carbon footprint.

Airplanes

Airplanes produce the highest level of carbon emissions, and thus should be avoided when possible. For domestic travel in Japan, travel via shinkansen rather than by plane. The shinkansen is not only a more sustainable choice, but also provides lovely views of the Japanese landscape.

Eat and shop locally

Enjoy Japan's fresh and flavorful cuisine
Enjoy Japan's fresh and flavorful cuisine (Photo: IriGri / Shutterstock.com)

Japan’s food culture is renowned for its freshness, quality, and above all, deliciousness! During your travels, seek out traditional restaurants, food stalls, and local eateries to ensure that the money you spend fuels the local economy. Plus, you get to enjoy authentic Japanese cuisine. It’s a win-win! Vegan and vegetarian options are also great ways to eat sustainably as they reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions. Use the HappyCow app to find vegan and vegetarian restaurants near you.

Similarly, when shopping for souvenirs, look for shops that sell products created by local artisans. You will not only give back to the community with your money but also support the artist’s craft.

Lodge locally

Lodging locally is another wonderful way to fuel the region’s economy. Stay at guesthouses, homestays, farm stays, and Airbnbs rather than larger chain hotels. These establishments offer insights into the area’s culture and often connect you with regional activities and local guides, which further stimulate the economy. Another helpful tip is to use an eco-friendly booking site when you are looking for a place to stay.

Many rural communities have been practicing sustainable lifestyles for generations. By choosing a farm stay option you not only support the community, but also gain a new perspective on sustainability by participating in environmentally friendly activities.

Pack reusable items

Pack a reusable water bottle
Pack a reusable water bottle (Photo: Aleksey Boyko / Shutterstock.com)

Tourism is a major trash generator for travel destinations. By packing reusable items, you can reduce your consumption of single-use products. One of the easiest ways to reduce your plastic consumption is to bring a reusable water bottle. Mymizu, Japan’s first water refill app, is a helpful tool that helps you find refill points throughout the country. The app also tracks the number of single-use plastic bottles, CO2 emissions, money you’ve saved, and even lets you mark new refill spots! Other helpful reusable items to pack are chopsticks, grocery bags, and lunchboxes.

Respect and learn about local cultures

Toji Temple's garden in Kyoto
Toji Temple's garden in Kyoto (Photo: Nataliya Hora / Shutterstock.com)

Japan’s cultural and traditional practices are one of the most alluring qualities of the country. When traveling, take the time to immerse yourself in the new environment by visiting shrines and temples, participating in traditional workshops, staying in local ryokans, and relaxing at onsens, to name a few. By actively visiting and participating in the local culture, you not only support it but also create valuable memories built on a different way of life. Education is one of the most important aspects of sustainability, and it empowers you to make choices to preserve the wondrous diversity of the world.

Explore nature

Ozegahara Marshland in Gunma Prefecture
Ozegahara Marshland in Gunma Prefecture (Photo: Hiromi Ito Ame / Shutterstock.com)

Japan is an oasis of natural beauty, plentiful in mountains, rivers, forests, and coastlines perfect for environmental excursions. Environmental activities are an integral part of sustainability as they tend to be less damaging to nature compared to other activities and promote education. Visit National Parks or other outdoor areas and go hiking, mountain climbing, mountain biking, forest bathing, or boating. Be sure to respect the environment as you explore it, and take time to learn about conservation efforts. Natural beauty is an invaluable asset. A walk among nature is a perfect way to detach yourself from the world, look inward, and release your worries. The preservation of these habitats is an essential part of continued sustainability.

Carbon offset programs

Sometimes, unsustainable practices are unavoidable, such as flying for international travel. Fortunately, you can balance out these emissions with a carbon offset program, in which you make a monetary investment in a project that neutralizes your carbon footprint. Such programs include renewable energy research, clean water projects, forestry work, and more. Carbon offset programs have gained popularity in recent years, so there are many options to choose from. Be sure to go through a reputable provider to ensure that your investment makes a genuine impact.

Another unique way to offset your carbon footprint is through WWOOF. This worldwide organization links visitors with organic farmers. In exchange for a place to stay and meals, you assist your host with agricultural work and other activities. WWOOFing is a unique way to give back to the community, connect with residents, and experience the local culture firsthand.

Slow travel

Tenryuji in Kyoto
Tenryuji in Kyoto (Photo: Masaaki Komori / Unsplash)

Slow travel is a recent travel trend that prioritizes long, fulfilling vacations over frequent, short trips. With the reemergence of travel after years of COVID-19 restrictions, people are valuing quality over quantity with longer trips that connect them to local cultures, food, and people. Additionally, due to halted travel, the effects of over-tourism became apparent and highlighted the need for sustainable travel to preserve treasured tourist destinations.

Slow travel not only reduces carbon emissions—due to less air travel—but also provides you with ample time to truly learn about and experience new cultures. Also, with fewer time constraints, you can explore off-the-beaten-path destinations, which reduces over-tourism at popular tourist spots.

Takeaway

Overall, sustainable living is crucial if we want to preserve the natural, cultural, and diverse beauty of the world, and thus, is an integral part of continued travel. By making sustainable choices today, we can strengthen the environmental, social, and economic health of both our local communities and future travel destinations for years to come.

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Veronica Carnevale

Veronica Carnevale @veronica.carnevale

Fulfilling my traveler's soul!

Join the discussion

Sebastian Schuster a month ago
A wonderful article that puts the various aspects together. Great work.
Sleiman Azizi 3 months ago
It's almost a shame that commonsense needs to be rebranded but there you go. I hope everyone understands the intrinsic value of sustainable travel.
Elizabeth S 3 months ago
Can I add one more mode of transportation - the bicycle! So many local spots I travel to by train offer bicycle rentals or borrows free of charge. There's no better way to explore and take in the sights, sounds, and scents.
Elizabeth S a month ago
Biking or walking means you get to interact with the environment, right?

I learn so many things by taking my time and talking to people along the way. People in off the beaten path places take the time to chat. It's fun and I learn so much from folks here.
Susann Schuster 3 months ago
Great article on such an important topic!
Kim 3 months ago
Great, practical tips!