2020 may not have been my favorite year on record, but despite the hard times brought on by the COVID-19 epidemic, I'm grateful that I was able to experience some pretty wonderful travels this year nonetheless. Here are a few of my personal highlights from my travels around Japan in 2020.

#5: Experiencing teamLab Borderless and teamLab Planets

It's fairly amazing to me that January 2020 occured in the same year as I write this in December, but photographic evidence seems to prove that in this very same year, before the coronavirus epidemic took hold here, I had the singular opportunity to visit the teamLab Borderless and teamLab Planets museums in Tokyo. These highly interactive three-dimensional digital art exhibitions by the art collective named teamLab were both fun and contemplative for me, and I really enjoyed the experience at both. Fortunately, teamLab Planets, which was formerly scheduled to close its doors in autumn of this year, has extended its duration through 2022 for those who still want to try the experience for yourself (teamLab Borderless is a permanent museum).

"Forest of Resonating Lamps" at teamLab Borderless

#4: Hunt for the carniverous Koshinso

In June, with a small group of botanically curious friends, I climbed the remote Mt. Koshinzan in Ashio, Tochigi Prefecture in search of the incredibly rare "Koshinso" plant. This flowering plant, is only known to exist in the secluded mountainous areas near Koshinzan, which lie in and around Nikko National Park. While delicately beautiful, the plant has a ferocious way of collecting energy: by producing a sticky substance on its stem and leaves which disintegrates bugs into nutrients! We were lucky to find a few (while in bloom no less)!

The deadly (to small bugs) Koshinso

#3: Staying at a farmhouse in Shirakawa-go

I was very excited to finally get the chance this autumn to visit the iconic Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture. The area is most famous for its carefully preserved gassho-zukuri farmouses, which are perhaps best experienced by doing an overnight stay in one--which is exactly what I did! The house's owner was very friendly and the atmosphere of the house as well as Ogimachi Village were wonderfully rustic and memorable.

Farmhouses in Ogimachi Village in Shirakawa-go

#2: Oya Stone Quarry and Temple

In my completely unbiased opinion, Tochigi Prefecture may be Japan's greatest treasure trove of hidden gems waiting to explored (full disclosure: ...I live here). Among its wonders, the town of Oya is a place I hadn't yet gotten to until this summer. This small rural town is probably best known locally for oya stone, a volcanic stone that has been used locally in buildings for centuries (it's easy to spot all over the town I live in northern Tochigi), and was once mined from an enormous underground quarry that is still accessible today. The town also boasts the fascinating Oya Temple as well as a thriving cafe scene.

Peace Kannon Statue in Oya, Tochigi

#1: Backcountry snowboarding on Mt. Nikko-Shirane

For those who weren't here to experience Japan's 2020 winter season...you dodged a bullet. In addition the beginnings of the pandemic spread, the season's snowfall was the lowest in recent decades.

But determined to have my turns as a budding backcountry snowboarder and define my own form of "social distancing," I ventured to Mt. Nikko-Shirane, the tallest mountain in Tochigi Prefecture, in Nikko National Park. In early May, when most mountains in the area are starting to turn green, I was surprised to find this peak still completely snow-capped. So I decided to carry my trusty snowboard along with me from the Konsei Pass near Nikko Yumoto Onsen to the summit and snowboarded my way back down to my car. It was a long, hard slog (requiring winter mountaineering gear and experience), but the rewards were absolutely epic.

Mt. Nikko-Shirane in winter (the snowy streak on the right was my snowboarding line)

By Joe Mignano, japan-guide.com

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