Want to see the best of Japan? We suggest hitting the road.

Whether you’re swerving along the asphalt in the wild and expansive north, skirting the towering bluffs and wave-battered coasts of western Honshū, or winding through the archipelago of the Inland Sea, you can’t beat the freedom of being behind the wheel.

And as an island nation with nearly three-quarters of its terrain covered by mountains, Japan knows how to deliver epic scenic drives.

Buckle up: here’s the list of our 10 favorite road trips in Japan.

Kurushima Bridges in Seto Inland Sea, Japan
Ultra-modern suspension bridges meet scenic islands as you cross Japan’s Inland Sea © Yoshinori Okada / Shutterstock

1. The Seto Inland Sea along the Shimanami Kaidō

Best road trip for scenic island-hopping via suspension bridges 
Onomichi – Imabari; 70km (43 miles), allow one day

A popular cycling and scenic driving route, the Shimanami Kaidō traces lazy “S” shapes along the Seto Inland Sea via wind-whipped suspension bridges and island villages lost in time.

Drivers who move at a leisurely pace will be rewarded with watercolor views of the Inland Sea haze silhouetting the many humpbacked islands that dot its expanse. 

Detour: For a detour you won’t forget, check out Kōsan-ji, a singularly kitschy temple on the island of Ikuchi-jima. This garish religious monument fuses a litany of architectural styles, from Italian marble foundations to ancient Chinese iconography. 

People in an alley packed with ramen restaurants, Ganso Sapporo Ramen Yokocho, Sapporo, Hokkaidō, Japan
A ramen feast in lively Sapporo will be your reward after a road trip across Hokkaidō © KP Suwannasuk / Shutterstock

2. Coast-to-coast Hokkaidō

Best road trip for gorgeous northern countryside
Rausu – Hakodate; 700km (435 miles), 3–4 days

Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaidō is a driver’s dream: vast, untamed, sparsely populated and veined with quality roads (though they’re best avoided during winter’s copious snows).

The recommended coast-to-coast drive traverses over 400 miles (644km) of open road, from the UNESCO-recognized Shiretoko Peninsula in the east to the old colonial port town of Hakodate in the west. 

Given the wealth of natural scenery and worthwhile diversions, this is a worth savoring slowly savored,: the 17-mile (27km) pencil-straight “Road to Heaven” highway  (天に続く道); the calderas and primeval forests of Akan-Mashū National Park; the “Roller Coaster Rd,” which zigzags almost vertically through the pastoral farmlands of Biei; and Sapporo, a lively entertainment hub and the largest metropolis north of Tokyo

A pilgrim wearing white taking on the 88 Temple Pilgrimage, Shikoku, Japan
You can’t miss the white-clothed pilgrims on this route through Shikoku © Masayoshi Hirose / Shutterstock

3. Shikoku’s 88 temples pilgrimage 

Best road trip for meditative magic, secret surf spots and solitude
Naruto – Sanuki; 1200km (745 miles), two weeks

It may seem antithetical to embark upon a pilgrimage on four wheels. Yet with 88 individual temples to discover along 1200 kilometers of terrain on the Shikoku henro (pilgrimage) – dedicated to the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kōbō Daishi – you’re going to want all the help you can get. 

We recommend entering from Kōbe along the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, the world’s longest suspension bridge (its main span is 2km /1.25 miles): you’ll have jaw-dropping sea-to-coast vistas.

The temple route traverses all four of Shikoku’s prefectures, passes through its most bustling port cities, and encourages plenty of stops for bucolic forest walks, onsen soaks and short temple sojourns.

Local tip: If you get lost, keep your eyes peeled for pilgrims in white clothes and carrying bamboo walk sticks along the roadsides.

Aerial view of the curves of a scenic mountain road in Fuji-Hakone Izu National Park in autumn, Japan.
The mountain roads around Hakone are famously twisty © Marco Bottigelli / Getty Images

4. Izu Peninsula to Hakone

Best road trip for variety, from sea level to Mt Fuji highs
Minamiizu – Hakone; 115km (71 miles), 1–2 days

The epic route from the Izu Peninsula to Hakone is a favorite among driving enthusiasts.

From the Izu Peninsula’s southern tip, the coastal highway passes through Shimoda, a surfers’ haunt and historic port town, and Higashiizu, whose “Moon Road” – so called for dreamy view of waxing moons that trace a beam of light across the Pacific – supposedly imbues any witness with a divine energy.

Further north, the road hugs the shores of Lake Ashi in Hakone, from which you’ll get scintillating views of Mt Fuji on a clear day. 

Finish this road trip in style on the Hakone Skyline, a famously twisty tōge (mountain road) that served as an inspiration for the Hollywood movie The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (though the actual mountain drift-race scenes in the film were shot in LA).

Local tip: The driftway is one of 30-plus “Melody Roads” in Japan – the name derives from the tactile grooves that produce a range of notes as they send vibrations up through your car.

Biker stopped at Kusasenri parking lot with fuming Nakadake crater at the background, Aso, Japan
Japan’s largest caldera and active volcano, Mt Aso, is best appreciated from the road © Amehime / Shutterstock

5. Kyūshū: Mt Aso to Cape Sata 

Best road trip for soaking up subtropical volcanic vibes
Mt. Aso – Cape Sata; 322km (200 miles), 2–3 days

Drive through the rolling grasslands of Kumamoto to find Japan’s largest caldera and active volcano, Mt Aso. The Aso Panorama Line offers the best course, weaving along the caldera’s outer rim and perpetually casting its gaze toward the belching volcano in the middle. 

From Aso, head south along the spine of Kyūshū toward the most southern tip of Japan’s four main islands, Cape Sata.

Planning tip: Before you arrive at the observatory pinned to the Pacific coast, consider a night at one of the many onsen towns en route, or an overnight stay in the laid-back subtropical city of Kagoshima to enjoy some black pork, sweet-potato shōchū (distilled liquor) and views of volcano Sakurajima seemingly floating on the bay.

Rice terraces at sunset, Shiroyone Senmaida, Ishikawa, Japan
The stunning coastal scenery along the Noto Peninsula includes picture-perfect terraced rice paddies © Norikazu / Shutterstock

6. The Noto Peninsula drive

Best road trip for dramatic coastal seascapes
Takaoka – Kanazawa; 236km (147 miles), 1–2 days

From the picture-perfect sunrise of Amaharashi Beach to the bracing coastline of Ishikawa Prefecture, this road trip will take you past some of Japan’s finest coastal scenery.

The route centers around Noto, a dark, rugged peninsula that’s home to solemn shrines and dramatic seascapes. In west Noto, you’ll also find the Shiroyone Senmaida rice terraces tumbling down toward the sea, and the port city of Wajima, with its 1000-year-old morning market.

Finish the journey in Kanazawa, a former samurai stronghold and custodian of Japan’s traditional arts and crafts.

Planning tip: The city is home to a number of enlightening museums, including the impressive 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art.

People walk on Kumano Kodo (pilgrimage trail) through woods in Kumano, Japan
Wakayama is the gateway to the misty forests of the Kumano Kodō pilgrimage trail © Basico / Shutterstock

7. Coastal Wakayama

Best road trip for onsen, sacred trails and a castle
Wakayama City – Shingu; 180km (112 miles), allow one day

Wakayama Prefecture sits on the bulbous Kii Peninsula south of the Osaka–Kyoto conurbation and is the gateway to the misty forests of the Kumano Kodō pilgrimage trail. 

The 100-mile (160km) coastal road skirts Wakayama’s 16th-century feudal castle and the onsen (hot spring) resort town of Shirahama, where evening suns set behind the moon-shaped hole of Engetsu-tō Island.

The toothy rock features and soaring cliffs of Kushimoto in the south will both vie for your attention. The route culminates in Shingu on the Mie Prefecture border, where Kamikura-jinja shrine marks the spot upon which Japan’s Shinto gods are said to have first descended to the earth. 

People on the sand dunes of Tottori, western Japan
Tottori boasts Japan’s only large dune system – and it’s a stunner © phichak / Shutterstock

8. Central Western Japan: Shimane to Kyōtango

Best road trip for cool geology, chill coastline and an ancient shrine
Iino-Ura – Ine; 355km (22o miles), 2–3 days

The scenic drive from Iino-Ura (Shimane) to Ine (Kyōtango) snakes between dense forests and a sparsely populated coastline.

Along the way, you’ll hit Izumo, home to one of Japan’s oldest shrines (Izumo Taisha), the sparkling bay of Lake Shinji in Matsue City, and Japan’s only large dune system at Tottori’s San’in Kaigan Geopark. 

In the Kyōtango region, rolling hills and crystal-blue waters set the scene for your final destination: Ine, a picture-book village famed for its funaya (fishing boat houses) built on stilts above the waterline.

A view of a boat passing through Matsushima Bay with cherry trees, Matsushima, Honshū, Japan
The beauty of Matsushima Bay has left poets speechless © yspbqh14 / Shutterstock

9. Tōhoku

Best road trip for exploring rural backroads
Fukushima City – Aomori City; 335km (208 miles), 2–3 days

Tōhoku, a region whose name means “northeast,” is webbed with immaculate roads that carve through its national parks, virgin forests, and towns and cities still recovering from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. 

The journey from Fukushima to Aomori swerves past the green-coated islets of Matsushima Bay – whose beauty is said to have put the 17th-century father of Japan’s haiku poetry, Matsuo Bashō, at a loss for words – and the foamy seascapes and knobbly sea stacks of the 1000km-long (621km) Michinoku Coastal Trail.

Detour: Top detours include the winding road to the large volcanic crater lake at Mt Zaō in Miyagi Prefecture, and the road circumnavigating Aomori’s pristine Lake Towada, whose serene waters you can paddle by kayak.

People at the torii at Watazumi Shrine, Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan
Get off the beaten track with a road trip through Tsushima, a Japanese island in the Korea Strait © KO-TORI / Shutterstock

10. Tsushima

Best road trip for remote historic sites and isolated beauty
Cape Tsutsu – Kankoku Observatory; 70km (43 miles), 1–2 days

Limited access to public transport and an abundance of lush coastal scenery make Tsushima perfect for exploring on a road trip.

This small island – off Japan’s west coast, in the middle of the Korea Strait – provided the backdrop for the critically acclaimed 2020 PlayStation game Ghost of Tsushima

Though only 43 miles (70km) north-to-south, Tsushima brims with natural and manmade wonders: the Kaneda Fortress ruins, the lonely Watatsumi Shrine, islet-littered Asō Bay and the Korean-style Kankoku Observatory on the island’s northern tip.

(On a clear day, you can see Busan in South Korea in the distance.) Day hikers can summit one of Tsushima’s forested peaks, while its rivers and beaches offer plenty of inviting spots to relax along your island drive.

This article was first published Apr 19, 2021 and updated Mar 28, 2024.

Explore related stories

the temple Sinheungsa at Seoraksan national park

Road Trips

The best road trips in South Korea weave through mountains, islands and history

Feb 17, 2024 • 10 min read