The Forest, Japan’s Best Kept Secret

Your best place now for recreation and wellness

By Alena Eckelmann    - 5 min read

Japan’s best kept secret is not found in the backstreets of Tokyo, in the shopping malls of Osaka and in the alleys of Kyoto. It is not found in the intricate presentation of traditional handicrafts nor in its centuries-old ways. It does not usually cost money to get access and it is never too far away (most of the time). In fact, it is right under our nose; it is obvious, spacious, and it is green.

The answer to the riddle becomes clear when you fly over Japan. Mountains and forests cover most parts of the land. Yet, most of us don’t really take in what treasure there lies right in front of our eyes.

Hence, let’s get the statistics: about 70% of land in Japan is covered by forest!

Shirakami Sanchi in autumn.
Shirakami Sanchi in autumn.
Mangrove forest on Iriomote Island, Okinawa.
Mangrove forest on Iriomote Island, Okinawa.

Forests all around, a LOT!

Japan is one of the most forested countries in the world in terms of forest-land ratio (forest area in relation to land area). It ranks only second after Finland where the forest land ratio is with almost 74% the highest in the world. Japan is followed by Sweden with 67% and South Korea with 64%. Brazil comes close to 60%. Countries such as Germany, Switzerland, the USA and Canada hoover at 30% to 35%. Some other countries have a much poorer record, such as China with 22%, Australia with 17% and Great Britain with just 13%!

Reasons for a low ratio include the characteristics of the natural environment but also deforestation and industrialization. Let this be as it may, fact is that Japan has something to offer that many other countries do not have, or not have anymore – lush green forest with a great biodiversity.

Let the fact sink in: two third of Japan’s land area is covered by forest!

This amazing fact remains unknown to those visitors who prefer to stay in the Kanto and Kansai metropolitan areas. Travelling by Shikansen (Bullet Train) between Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka, while convenient and fast, will also leave you in the dark about Japan’s best kept secret: its forest.

Seto Inland Sea's forested islands.
Seto Inland Sea's forested islands.
Forest at the base of Mount Fuji.
Forest at the base of Mount Fuji.

A Great Variety of Forests

Japan’s forests range from the country’s most northeastern corner on Hokkaido Island to its farthest southwestern islands in Okinawa.

Over a distance of 3,000 km you can find several types of forest.

  • Coniferous forest in northern and eastern Hokkaido and in alpine areas.
  • Cool-temperate deciduous forests in southern Hokkaido and in northern and central Honshu.
  • Sub-alpine forests in Honshu’s alpine mountains.
  • Broadleaf evergreen forests in Western Honshu and in Shikoku and Kyushu.
  • Subtropical rain forest in the Okinawan Islands and the Amami-Oshima Islands.
  • Mangrove forests in Okinawa and on islands south of Kyushu.
Alpine forest in the Japanese Alps.
Alpine forest in the Japanese Alps.
Autumn forests in Kumano.
Autumn forests in Kumano.

Industrial Forest versus Natural Forests

Half of all forests in Japan (except for a small percentage of bamboo forests) are artificial forests, also called industrial forests. They were planted by humans for the purpose of logging. These forest plantations consist mainly of coniferous trees such as cedar, Japanese cypress and Japanese larch.

Ironically, most of these cedar and cypress forests are now greatly enjoyed by people, both Japanese and foreigners. Actually, many people think of cedar and cypress forests as a typical Japanese forest, not counting bamboo forests like the famous one in Kyoto Arashiyama.

The remaining half, however, are natural forest, including old-growth forest and forest that was cut but then left to naturally grow again. Broadleaf trees make up the majority of these forests.

Bamboo forests could be found near most villages in the old days.
Bamboo forests could be found near most villages in the old days.
Winter walk in the forest on Kaida Kogen Highland.
Winter walk in the forest on Kaida Kogen Highland.

The Most Precious: Virgin Forests

Large areas of old-growth forest, including virgin forest (forest that was never touched by human hands), are to be found in:

Autumn forest on the Nakasendo trail.
Autumn forest on the Nakasendo trail.
Rest area along a forest trail in the Kizo Valley.
Rest area along a forest trail in the Kizo Valley.

Finding your Balance in the Forest

Spending time in nature might not rank high on your list of places to visit in Japan. Yet, there are ways how you can incorporate walks in the forest in your busy travel plans.

For example, walking along the Kumano Kodo, a network of ancient pilgrimage trails on the Kii Peninsula of Japan. Large parts of the trail lead through forest, including cedar and cypress plantations as well as natural forest. Some parts of the trail are located in the Yoshino-Kumano National Park which was designated in 1936. What’s more, part of the area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004 under the name of “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range”.

Here the trails of nature, spirituality, culture and history cross, an enticing combination not to be missed!

Mixed forest along the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail.
Mixed forest along the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail.

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Alena Eckelmann

Alena Eckelmann @alena.eckelmann

Founder of Kii Monogatari, my story and the story of the Kii Peninsula of Japan. Originally from East Germany, I came to Tokyo, via Berlin and London, in 2005. In summer 2011 I moved by choice to remote Kumano in the south of the Kii Peninsula where I live, work and play now, and explore every day.The whole of the Kii Peninsula is a Healing Hub for me with its abundance of forest, mountains, rivers, waterfalls, the ocean, friendly rural communities and sacred places. This is where nature meets spirituality, and tradition meets sustainability, the new paradigm for travel post-pandemic. My deep interest is in Japanese nature & spirituality. I love being in nature, in the forest and in the mountains, and I love spending time at temples and shrines.  I am building my life and my work around these two passions. I am a Licensed Forest Therapy (Shinrin Therapy) Guide and a Licensed Kumano Kodo and Koyasan Guide. I am also a Licensed Retreat Facilitator and I am planning retreats on the Kii Peninsula. Last but not least, I have been the Japan Travel Partner for Wakayama and Yamagata since the conception of the platform in 2011! These two prefectures are close to my heart because they are the centers of Shugendo, a spiritual tradition of mountain ascetism. I am a Shugendo Practitioner for over ten years now and received Tokudo in 2016 at a Shugendo temple on Yoshinoyama. Please kindly connect via my Facebook Page Kii Monogatari. Take care, keep well, stay safe! 

Join the discussion

Alena Eckelmann Author a month ago
You are right, Lynda, Mother Nature welcomes us with open arms even now during the Covid pandemic. Many areas of Japan are not in a state of emergency; the forests there are waiting. Areas in the southwest of Japan are snow free now, for example the Kumano Kodo trails in the south of the Kii Peninsula.
Alena Eckelmann Author a month ago
The Mount Fuji photo is actually from the 5th Station, Susan, so quite at the "base" if you consider climbing up. Soon after there are no more trees.
Susan Tumanon a month ago
Wow. I never realized that's what the base of Mt. Fuji looks like.
Lynda Hogan a month ago
I've always appreciated the nature here, but I am even more grateful for it since Covid began. We can still safely enjoy all Mother Nature has to offer even during a pandemic.
Sleiman Azizi a month ago
That's right. Nature doesn't 'stop' because of a pandemic and the simpler, dare I say, more profound joys, are still readily available.
Sleiman Azizi 2 months ago
Japan is an underrated paradise for nature lovers.