Travel is something that has always been a big part of my life. The same goes for my husband - to cut a long story short, we would have never even met each other if a love for travel hadn’t been in the equation. I grew up in Australia, and I think as a consequence of growing up on an island nation it gave me that desire to explore what else was out there. My husband was a military brat, and spent time in both the States and Japan growing up. He’s also has had to travel as a consequence of being in the Air Force himself, so you could say exploring the world is in his blood.
When we found out that we’d be living in Japan for several years as a result of this current assignment, I think our main feeling was excitement.
For my husband, returning to Japan was in part like returning to his childhood home. Despite not being at the same base that he spent a big part of his formative years at, he’s comfortable in Japan - he speaks the language, he knows his way around well, and he had friends here already.
I’d never been to Japan before, but it was always somewhere that I had wanted to travel to.
We figured that this tour in Japan could very well be the only opportunity we have to live here, depending on where future assignments take our family, of course - but we wanted to take the bull by the horns and explore as much of the country as we could. Ultimately, we didn’t want to feel like we’d missed out on any opportunities to see and do things whilst we were here. I think a lot of the time when people think of Japan, they think of the major tourist spots. For instance, Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima were places I had always wanted to visit before we moved here. Little did I know that there are so many things to do away from those places, too! I can’t remember exactly whether it was my husband or I who started the idea of whether we could visit every single prefecture of Japan in our time here, but it’s become something of our mission now.
To give you a brief rundown, Japan has a total of 47 prefectures. The largest of those is Hokkaido, with a land size of 83,457 square kilometers, and the smallest is Kagawa prefecture, only taking up 1,876 square kilometers. Our ultimate goal for visiting every prefecture is that we need to do something in each location. That means some sort of activity, whether it be stopping at a museum or castle, doing some sort of local art or craft, visiting a shrine or temple - the list goes on. It can’t simply be driving on through it, or stopping at a generic rest area to fill up with gas and grab a meal. We have found that a really good place to start if you’re planning on visiting a new prefecture is the local prefectural tourism website. I have found that these tend to have a lot of great information for things to do and see, and also highlight things that are unique to the area. Also, since they’re geared towards tourists, there’s always an English version of the page which definitely helps!
The first prefectures we explored were those that were close to base, to start with. Yokota Air Base is located in Tokyo prefecture, so of course there’s plenty to do there - after all, Tokyo is a bustling metropolis with no shortage of fun activities. I think if you’re visiting Tokyo, then it’s one of those places that has something for everyone. If you’re a history buff there’s plenty of shrines and temples with fascinating stories behind them. There’s the fun and quirky Harajuku, and ritzy shopping in Omotesando. There’s also Akihabara for fans of manga and anime, and the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing in Shibuya - honestly, I can’t even begin to describe just how much there is to see and do here.
I’m convinced that I could live in Japan for my entire life and not even scratch the surface of what there is to do in this prefecture.
There’s a number of other prefectures that can be accessed relatively easily for a day trip or a weekend trip nearby to Tokyo. If you have a car, obviously the flexibility is going to be significantly easier - you can go at your own pace and you can visit places a bit more off the beaten track, without being bound to train timetables or routes. We’ve driven for day trips to Saitama, Gunma, Ibaraki, Shizuoka, Chiba, Kanagawa, Yamanashi, Tochigi and Nagano prefectures. I’ve never seen fall leaves as beautiful as I have in Gunma, and Mount Fuji is on the border of Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures. There’s the snow monkey park in Nagano (seriously, it’s National Geographic magazine worthy!) and Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea are in Chiba - so you can quickly see how you can amass quite a few prefectures locally just by seeing some of the sights that are most likely on your Japan bucket list.
It’s a little trickier with time and distance when it comes to visiting some of the prefectures further afield. Some of them will require long train trips, even longer car rides, or hopping on a plane. We’ve done two super long, but very compressed road trips to try and get as many prefectures visited as possible. The first road trip we took was up north to cover off Niigata, the Tohoku region (Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi and Yamagata) and Hokkaido - we basically did one to two days in each prefecure.
Some people would say it was madness, but it was a lot of fun. We went grape picking in Yamagata, visited a shrine in Akita, saw ancient ruins and the Nebuta Museum in Aomori and went to Hakodate in Hokkaido and enjoyed the morning markets and the historic red brick building area. We also spent time strolling the streets of Morioka in Iwate prefecture, saw the historic Sendai Castle site and Zuihoden in Sendai prefecture, and checked out another castle in Fukushima - it’s all a bit of a blur but it was a great trip!
We also did another slightly crazy road trip to see some of the prefectures further south, again doing essentially a day or two in each place. On that trip, we crossed off all four prefectures on the island of Shikoku as well as Aichi, Mie, Gifu, Shiga, and Hyogo. We’ve taken other trips on the bullet train to Ishikawa, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Tottori, and also just got back recently from a trip to Okinawa prefecture.
Right now, of the 47 prefectures we are challenging ourselves to visit, we only have a total of 11 left to see. Our remaining prefectures are Fukui, Toyama, Shimane, Yamaguchi, Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Oita, Miyazaki and Kagoshima. We’re determined to see them in the remaining 16 months or so that we have left in Japan. Right now, we’re considering the possibility of flying down to Kyushu later this year. We plan on renting a car to do some exploring of the prefectures on the island there, to tick a few more places off our list!
Based on where I’ve been so far, sometimes people ask me if I have my favorite places. I loved Kobe in Hyogo prefecture - something about it just being a city on a harbor reminded me of cities back home in Australia. I thought Tottori prefecture was incredibly unique - I never knew Japan had sand dunes where you could literally ride a camel until I went there. Okinawa has some of the most beautiful clear water beaches I’ve ever seen, Ishikawa had amazing hands on art and crafts that you could participate in and get to take home, and Kyoto truly has some of the most breathtaking shrines and temples you could ever dream of. In short, every place I have been has brought something different to the table and I can wholeheartedly say that I have loved everywhere I have been for different reasons!
Some people ask why we’re attempting to do this, or think that it’s something of a random goal - but for us, it’s really made us look at things differently. I firmly believe now that anywhere we end up living will have a myriad of exciting things for us to do. Being a military family means that we don’t get to choose where we end up, but we do get to choose how we approach our circumstances. It can be all too easy to say “there’s nothing for me to do here!” or “I’ve exhausted everything there is to see in the local area” - but that’s the joy of broadening our boundaries.
This country has so much to offer, and I’m so happy that we are fully embracing every bit of it - as crazy as our self imposed challenge may be!