101 Reasons to Visit the Sea of Japan Coast
The Sea of Japan has seen its share of humanity and history cross over its surface and through the air above it. It defines the geography of nations, and even more colors the very cultures and character of the people living along its shores or in the mountains towering above it. Its rich array of sea life has provided sustenance and so very much more since prehistoric times and it has drawn people to its shores over the ages for its beauty and fascination, as it does today. It began as a landlocked freshwater Asian inland sea between fifteen and thirty million years ago, formed when the edge of Asia began pulling away from the rest of the continent. Tectonic subduction gave rise to a volcanic arc which would become the Japan archipelago, and a back basin which would become the Sea of Japan.
Its surface area is just under a million square kilometers at 978,000, making it the 11th largest sea in the world. Its width is a little over a thousand kilometers at its widest point, and it’s about two and a half thousand kilometers long. Its mean depth is 1,752 meters but it is 3,742 meters at its deepest; about as far down as Mt. Fuji, at 3,776 meters, is up. It's bordered by four countries: North and South Korea, Russia and Japan, with sixteen of Japan’s forty-seven prefectures along its coastline. Here’s approximately 101 starting points, from north to south and east to west, for exploring the amazing Japan coast of the Sea of Japan.
Off the west coast of the island of Hokkaido and the northernmost tip of Japan sits Rebun and Rishiri Islands, two northern jewels with unique, gorgeous, alpine flora. I spent my honeymoon on these islands over 20 years ago and I can attest to their beauty. Climbing Mt. Rishiri, a 1,700 meter extinct volcano from whose peak one might catch a glimpse of Russia, is one of many popular things to do on the islands, as well as trekking, swimming, cycling and driving along great coastal roads.
Wakkanai City, Hokkaido Prefecture, is Japan’s northernmost city and offers rugged views of the Sea of Japan as well as the Strait of Soya, hauntingly beautiful in winter. Around 170 km south lies the city of Rumoi, famous for its sunsets and seafood. Continuing along the west coast of the island of Hokkaido is Otaru, a famous port city known for its enchanting canals and old merchant district, located a short half hour train ride from Sapporo.
Okushiri Island is located off the coast of southern Hokkaido’s Oshima Peninsula and boasts a natural rock arch that is famous across Japan. The warm currents and clear blue waters make marine sports like snorkeling, scuba diving and swimming big draws for visitors despite its northern latitude. Camping is among the island’s accommodation choices along with hotels, guest houses, and hot spring resorts.
Leaving Hokkaido Island, continuing south to Aomori Prefecture, is the tiny fishing village of Tappi which hugs the edge of Japan’s largest and the world’s most populous island, Honshu. Its wooden structures are quaintly laid out on a tiny strip of land at the bottom of cliffs facing the Strait of Tsugaru, at the tip of beautiful Tsugaru Peninsula. A couple hours by car further south is Jusanko Lake. It’s part of some of Japan’s best examples of unspoiled dunes and wetlands and is the source of the freshwater clams served in the freshwater-clam ramen that’s famous in the area.
Next is Akita Prefecture and the town of Noshiro, known for its annual summer parade of huge, elaborate, lighted floats. About half way from there to Akita City, which is famous for its unique culture and regional art and history museums, is Hachirogata, or Lake Hachirou, whose past crosses paths with a mythical dragon and is situated at Japan’s lowest elevation, four meters below sea level.
At the south end of Akita prefecture is Kisakata Beach in Nikaho Town, formed 100 years ago when a 7.1 quake struck and caused an almost two-and-a-half meter uplift, leaving the Tsukumo Islands high and dry. There’s a trailhead in town for nearby Mt. Choukai, an active volcano popular with hikers, and serpentine Route 131 leads up it to lofty views of the sea below, until it becomes Route 210 at the prefecture's border near the top.
The mountain continues into Yamagata Prefecture, which takes up a scant 70 kilometers of coastline with the cities of Sakata and Tsuruoka. Sakata boasts its own version of geisha and one can still catch a glimpse of its wealthy merchant past at the Honma Villa and the Sankyo Soko rice storehouse. Tsuruoka City is famous for its sake and wine festivals as well as the lovely seaside hot spring Yunohama Onsen, whose beach is where the first recorded surfing in Japan took place.
The winding coastal road into Niigata Prefecture skirts the narrow seaside along the edge of the north end of the Echigo mountain Range into Murakami City, known for salmon from the Miomote River. Less than an hour by train south from there is the prefectural capital and past feudal castle town of Niigata City. There’s plenty to do and see in the city, including the Bandai Bridge over the Shinano River, Japan longest, a customs house from the beginning of the Edo period, porcelain and calligraphy museums and the Minato Inari Shrine where seafarers and their families come to pray. Also one can catch a ferry to Sado Island from the city’s port.
Sado Island has a fascinating history, having been a penal colony at one time. It housed some of Japan’s most famous exiles, including artists, monks and members of the aristocracy. Because of this the island has long been infused with a classical sophistication in its art and culture that other far-flung islands cannot muster. Famous for unique Mumyoi pottery and crafts, it’s high on the list of must-see destinations of the Hokuriku region.
Further south along Niigata Prefecture’s coast one comes across Nozumi Waterfall then Izumozaki Village, home of the poet-monk Ryōkan and the lively seafood market of Teradomari-cho. Next comes the red streets of Joetsu City, a popular place for cherry blossom viewing in season, and another port from where travelers can catch a ferry to Sado Island.
Then Itoigawa City’s Benten Iwa which offers spectacular views of both mountain and sea. The Fossa Magna, the fascinating geological boundary between East and West Honshu ends here as do the Japan North Alps, in a precipitous drop to the Sea of Japan.
The historically treacherous road along the Oyashirazu Cliffs they form leads across the border to Toyama Prefecture. Uozu City, an area that saw rice riots in the 19th century is known to be the best vantage point for strange mirages that form out over Toyama Bay. The prefecture’s capital, Toyama City is best best known for Toyama Castle, the Fugan Canal, the Chokeji Temple and the annual regional dance festival, Etchu Owara Kaze-no-Bon.
Noto Peninsula in neighboring Ishikawa Prefecture offers incredible coastal vistas, magnificent shrines and temples along with a car beach. The prefecture’s capital, Kanazawa City has several old districts including a geisha and tea house district called Higashi Chaya and a samurai district called Nagamachi. One of Japan’s most lovely gardens, Kenrokuen, is also located in the city. Kaga City is a real treasure of Ishikawa. It boasts some fabulous bridges such as Ayatori Bridge and Korogi Bridge, top notch hot spring resorts such as Yamanaka Onsen and historic temples such as Daishiji.
In Fukui Prefecture there are fifteen-million-year-old basaltic cliffs, known as Tojinbo, haunted by a disliked Buddhist priest’s ghost. Echizen, famous for its more than 300 shrines and temples and a plethora of castles and fortresses, is located there, as is the city of Tsuruga, whose beautiful bay was celebrated in haiku by the master poet Basho in the 17th century and whose Tsuruga Port opened to Jewish refugees in the 20th. Obama City, unlike Obama the man, is in Fukui, but like Obama the man, Obama the city is historic. Once a provincial capital, its ancient Yamato temples earn it the nickname of “Nara by the sea.”
When one thinks of Kyoto one probably imagines the old capital city, but of course Kyoto is a prefecture as well which claims about 100 km of Japan Sea coastline. Historic Maizuru Bay remains an important strategic naval port, as it has down through history. Amanohashidate Sandbar, Miyazu Bay and Miyazu Town offer views considered some of the best Japan has to offer and are all within the prefecture’s borders, as are Shotenkyo Sandbar and Tango Dunes.
Hyogo Prefecture's section of the coast is next and is essentially all within the San’in Kaigan Geopark. In the area one finds terraced rice fields in Kami City, the relaxing Shin'onsen, sandy Takeno Beach and the picturesque Uradome Coastline. The park continues across one more prefectural border into Tottori Prefecture, home of the famous Tottori Dunes and an interesting Sand Museum.
The two most western prefectures of Honshu Island bordering the sea are Shimane and Yamaguchi prefectures. Izumo Town in Shimane boasts some beautiful shrines like Hinomisaki and its lighthouse, along with the oldest Shinto Shrine in Japan, Izumo-taisha, the birthplace of Japan mythology. Yamaguchi Prefecture lays claim to the current Japan prime minister Shinzo Abe’s hometown of Nagato and the historic city of Shimonoseki at the Kanmon Strait. Hagi City, Hagi Castle and Tokoji Temple are also must-sees in the prefecture.
Across the strait on the island of Kyushu is Fukuoka Prefecture and the modern metropolis of Kitakyshu with all it has to offer, including Kokura Castle, Iwaya Beach, the Wakato area and the Kawachi Wisteria Garden. The prefecture's capital is Fukuoka City, located on historic Hakata Bay. After that is the rocky Saga Prefecture coastline and the historic ruins of Nagoya Castle, not to be confused with the castle of the same name in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture. Also don't miss the beautiful castle in the city of Karatsu, built right on the water, and Tashima Shrine on Kabe Island, where pirates used to pray.
Finally Nagasaki Prefecture spills out into the sea’s Tsushima Strait in hundreds and hundreds islands infused with history, including epic sea battles and pirate exploits. The Goto Island group with its history as a secret Christian refuge contains a number of churches, including Douzaki Church, while the Iki Islands boast Tsutsukihama white sand beach. Watatsumi Shrine is on Tsushima Island, which is actually a group of over a hundred islands and was a favorite stomping grounds of Japanese pirates for centuries.
So there you have it, 101 reasons to get to know the amazing Sea of Japan!