Precisely because urban Japan is so modern and alluring, most have forsaken rural life for the cities, leaving places like the Noto Peninsula of central Honshu to thrive unspoiled—well off the radar of tourists and locals alike. Thanks to a few sleek highways that siphon off vehicle traffic, the bucolic region is crisscrossed by smooth, quiet roads where you can tranquilly pedal past terraced rice paddies and see nary a Toyota. The Noto is a smorgasbord of great food, art, religion, scenery, and authentic accommodations: Overnight in simple hotels with tatami mat floors and futon beds; no fancy B&Bs around here. It’s possible to cycle the Noto on your own, but rental bikes are often inadequate three-speeds, and maps and road signs will be in Japanese only. Imagine that.
Vitals: Butterfield & Robinson leads all-inclusive cycling tours across the Noto that run eight days, seven nights ($7,995; butterfield.com).
The brilliantly red Torii Gate, floating off the coast of Miyajima, represents the passage from reality to the realm of the spirit—a fitting symbol for the transition into the otherworldly beauty of a kayaking trip in the Seto Sea. Here hundreds of gumdrop islands dot the water, but tiny Miyajima is the gem. Maine-based H2Outfitters leads paddling excursions that circumnavigate much of the island’s 19-mile coast, nosing into sea caves and oyster farms and settling onto pocket beaches for traditional bento box lunches. Home base is a little ryokan that serves killer fried eel. Beyond the main village Miyajima is mostly wilderness. A trek to its high point, 1,739-foot Mount Misen, passes through lush forest, populated by tame deer and frisky monkeys, to magnificent Seto views. "A paddling trip is a great way to see Miyajima," says H2O’s Jeff Cooper, "and to avoid getting ‘shrined out,’ which can be easy to do in Japan."
Vitals: H2Outfitters leads all-inclusive 12-day trips ($4,450; h2outfitters.com).
Daisetsuzan National Park is the crowning glory of mountainous Hokkaido island. While not exactly the Rockies—the park’s conical peaks top out just above 7,500 feet—the prominent summits, deep snows, steaming fumaroles, and dense subalpine vegetation make it feel like the top of the Earth. Start in the hot-springs resort of Asahi Dake, where a cable car leads to the park’s signature ten-mile trek. Heading into the high country, pause for reflection at Sugatami-ike, a pond that mirrors the surrounding wildflowers and 7,513-foot Asahi Dake. All of Daisetsuzan is visible from its summit, including flat-topped Kurodake—your next peak to bag a few hours farther down the trail.
Vitals: Fly from Tokyo to Asahikawa, where $10 bus service is available to Asahi Dake. Overnight at Asahi Dake’s Daisetsuzan Shirakaba-so Youth Hostel, a spacious inn with outdoor hot springs ($40; youthhostel.or.jp).