Hiking in Japan: 15 awe-inspiring trails
From epic climbs up active volcanoes to temple odysseys through the mists of time, Japan is full of fantastic walking trails and some of the world's most impressive mountains. Here are our top 15 routes, plus a few tips, for the ultimate hiking holiday in Japan.
But first the essentials...
What equipment will you need?
A good pair of proper walking boots to start, then comes the waterproof trousers, a decent rain jacket, a sturdy hat and waterproof gloves. Handily, most places to stay in Japan offer a luggage forwarding service so if you're trekking overnight you can hike with a small bag and send your main luggage on. It's worth looking at a walking-only holiday company with experience and contacts in the country. Macs Adventure offer a range of options and let you sort your own flights to Japan.
Now for the fun stuff...Where to go hiking in Japan:
1. Mount Fuji, Shizuoka
The big one. Japan's highest mountain at 3,776m Fuji is a truly unforgettable sight. Hike up this national icon (and active volcano) during the season running from July 1 into early autumn, before the snows kick in. At any time of year, altitude sickness can be an issue so don't try to rush it in one day if possible. The mountain is a two hour drive from Tokyo and there are four trails, each with their own bus stations at the starting point so it's easy to access from the city (see the official Fuji climbing website for more details). Climbing Mount Fuji made it onto our list of the ten best things to do in Japan.
2. Kumano Kodo, Kii Peninsula
This UNESCO-recognised series of pilgrimage routes, south west of Kyoto, have been popular since the days when Japanese emperors battled up the tough, wooded slopes and over the spectacular mountain passes. You can follow in their footsteps staying overnight at traditional ryokan (inns), where you enjoy an onsen (steaming communal bath) before a feast laden with local produce. A good base for the Kii peninsula is the city of Tanabe, from where you can hop on buses to different points on the trail. If you want an easy section to dip into, start at Hosshinmon-oji to walk a five mile stretch of the main Nakahechi Route, including the Hongu Grand Shrine with its striking stone gate looming over the fields.
Image: Sean Pavone / iStock Editorial
3. Magome to Tsumago Trail, Nagano
This short walking trail is a direct descendant of the Nakasendo, the legendary route that ran through this part of the Nagano prefecture back in the Edo Period (1603 to 1867). Enjoying this section is a great way of exploring the dramatic Kiso Valley between these two small towns. The highlight is crossing the Magome Pass, past rushing waterfalls and through haunting swathes of forest. It should only take two to three hours to complete the entire Magome to Tsumago Trail. Escape the bustle of Tokyo and head out on the main Tokaido Shinkansen line to Nagoya, from here take the bus to Nakatsugawa and change for the last half hour of your journey to Magome.
4. Mount Hiei, near Kyoto
This 850m high mountain just north east of Kyoto can be tackled by cable car, but for the real experience, hike along with the monkeys and tanuki (a type of Japanese racoon) up towards the coral-tinged Enryakuji Temple (700 yen to enter). It works well as a day hike, as you can stay in Kyoto and take the train to Shugakuin Station to start your walk. Alternatively, the Grand Prince Kyoto Hotel is located across the Takaragaike Park, just over 30 minutes walk from Shugakuin. For more on what to see and do in Kyoto - including the Philosopher's Walk for those of you who aren't quite ready to hang up your hiking boots after scaling Mount Hiei - check out our guide.
5. Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage, Shikoku Island
This hiking pilgrimage around the circumference of Shikoku Island is a serious challenge you'll need to train up for if you want to tackle all the temples on the island - there are 88 of them! We are talking a distance of about 1,100km which takes at least six weeks to complete. Many people 'cheat' by working in a few local bus and taxi trips, or by skipping some of the temples. It's completely flexible as to where you begin, although tradition dictates you finish at the temple you started at. The quickest way to get to the island is by train from Osaka to Takamatsu port, on the north east coast - the nearest temple from here is Yashima Temple on flat-topped Mount Yashima.
6. Harima Alps, Osaka
These mountains near the city of Kobe are strikingly rugged and are alive with native pine trees (rather than the ubiquitous cedar) as well as wild boar. The start and finish point is Sone railway station, on Osaka's main commuter lines. If you keep a steady pace with few breaks, the ups and downs can be tackled in around five to six hours. It might take longer if you want really soak up views of the twin-peaked Mount Takanosu, and the vast sprawl of Osaka Bay below.
7. Japan Alps, Honshu
The Japan Alps on the main island offer a range of world class hiking routes. It can be a case of too many options, so hone in on a handful. The Kamikochi Valley offers a range of shorter, less technical walks to suit most hikers. These include short three to four hour treks to Myojin-ike, as well as more challenging ascents of the local mountains such as Yariga-take (3,180m) and Hotaka-dake (3,190m). Kamikochi itself is a lovely resort set in the Chubu Sangaku National Park, so if you're here in spring or summer, check in for an open-air bath at the Kamikochi Onsen Hotel next to the river - the resort is closed between November and April.
8. Mount Takao, Tokyo
Forget the busy bars of Tokyo's Shinjuku district and instead catch a train out to Mount Takao. The peak is only 599m high, but it offers sweeping views and the experience of walking through the thick, verdant forests that are so important to Japanese culture. You should make it to the top in an hour or so, with a cable car on hand for those looking to relax on the way back down. On a clear day you might be able to catch sight of majestic Mount Fuji in the distance.
9. Kibune and Kurama, Kyoto
Just a short train ride north out of Kyoto lies a brace of scenic valleys. There are a network of trails to explore amidst the dramatic scenery, which can normally be enjoyed year round. Kurama village is famous for its temple, Kurama-dera, as well as its hot springs, while Kibune has a flurry of traditional ryokan inns where you can enjoy a feast brimming with local produce before bedding down on a futon for the night. Not stopping for the night? Treat yourself to a kaiseki set (the Japanese version of a posh tasting menu) at Tochigiku restaurant, five minutes taxi ride from Kibune station, before you hop back on the Eizan line to the big city.
10. Daibutsu Hiking Course, Kamakura
This 3km hiking trail around the seaside town of Kamakura, south of Tokyo, offers a slice of nature and a taste of temple culture as it meanders between Kita-Kamakura and Hase. It only takes a couple of hours to complete, but it's a favourite with local Japanese walkers, beginning (or ending) with a gander at Daibutsu, the Big Buddha. Catch the Enoden line from Kamakura Station to start at Hase, or the Yokosuka to go north to Kita-Kamakura.
11. Lake Chuzenji, Nikko
Accessible from the town of Nikko, on the Tobu-Nikko line from Tokyo, Lake Chuzenji is a postcard-perfect body of water that sits in the shadow of Mount Nantai, the volcano that gave birth to the lake crater around 20,000 years ago. Hike around its brilliant blue waters on an undulating 25km trail, with shifting autumn colours making the foliage even more beautiful in September and October. A good start and finish point is the town of Chuzenji Onsen to the east, famous for its healing hot springs. Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel, along the north shore towards Ryuzu Waterfall, has its own onsen bath where you can soak those weary feet once you've completed the trail.
Plenty of hiking opportunities await on the UNESCO World Heritage listed island of Yakushima, of the Kagoshima Prefecture in Japan. Gorgeous beaches and onsen may tempt by the coast, but inland lie serious mountains. The most testing route is the hike to the 1,935m peak of Miyanoura-dake, southern Japan's highest peak. Be warned - this a long day out, which you'll need to be fit for and you should always complete a route plan just in case you get into trouble. To get to Yakushima, fly to Fukuoka and get a bus or train to the port of Kagoshima, where you can get a boat to the smaller island.
13. Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, Toyama
This path is known as the 'Roof of Japan' and it's a stunner, taking in sweeping meadows and the might of Mount Tateyama, one of Japan's most sacred mountains. The full route is about 90km long and most hikers normally use a combination of buses and cable cars to supplement their walking. You can start at Toyama to go on to Tateyama Station and beyond - the full route by public transport alone takes up to seven hours, but short hikes are available if you want a self-guided walk over the mighty Kurobe Dam, or photograph the view from Murodo over to Tateyama. When the weather is fine Tateyama can often be hiked on its own.
14. Mount Hakusan, Shiramine
Delve into the wilds of the Hakusan National Park and ascend the third and final sacred mountain of Japan, Hakusan, on the eastern border of Ishikawa prefecture. A flurry of peaks will greet you, but the main prize is Hakusan at 2,702m high. To get access to the big boys you'll need to stay at least one night in the national park, with a decent hike even to get to the accommodation options. Hakusan Murodo is the best base for excursions - in addition to basic mountain huts, they'll make you up a lunch box for around 1000 yen. Book in advance to be sure of a place to stay.
15. Shiretoko, Hokkaido
Head north to the island of Hokkaido for this famous traverse, allowing two days to cover the 25km from Iwaobetsu Onsen to Kamuiwakka Yu-no-taki. Camp along the way, as you tackle passes and peaks above 1,500km, but be on the look out for brown bears here. Local hikers tend to wear simple cowbells meant to chime and warn them off. Flights to Hokkaido are available from Tokyo, but it can be around a third of the price to go by ferry (around 10000 yen) - just be prepared to take your time, as the boat trip is 19 hours!
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