It can seem that all there is to Japan is big cities, but most of the country is actually mountains, coastlines, and countryside.
It can seem that all there is to Japan is massive cities, skyscrapers, and streets packed with more people than you can imagine. But the truth is that most of the country is actually scarcely populated mountains, coastlines, and countryside. While there is much to love about Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, the heart of Japan is found outside of these megalopolises and hiking here is one of the most rewarding objectives in the world of travel.
When getting into the backwoods of Japan, expect the unexpected — such as bridges made of vines or baccarat casinos (カジノ バカラ) in what seems to be the middle of nowhere.
Top five places to hike in Japan:
Akan National Park, Hokkaido
The most obvious way to get out into nature in Japan is to head straight to Hokkaido, Japan’s most northernly big island. This is a wild land of volcanoes and forests … there is a reason why it’s the home of Godzilla.
When in Hokkaido, be sure to go hiking in Akan National Park. This is a place that’s known for hot springs, crater lakes, and mountains. Go for a stroll by Lake Akan, which is known for its giant balls of algae. For an otherworldly experience, choose a hike that goes to Lake Mashu, which is removed from the world by a 1,000+ foot high stone wall. This lake is remarkably clear, allowing visitors to look down 130+ feet into the water.
88 Temple Pilgrimage Trail, Shikoku
This hike isn’t just beautiful but is also historic and, for many, spiritual. 88 temples around the island of Shikoku are connected by a 745 mile long trail which pilgrims have been walking since the ninth century. The pilgrims still dress in traditional white garb and visit each temple for their spiritual practices, although normal hikers and foreigners are more than welcomed. The word “trek” should probably be used to describe this route rather than hike, as it takes even the most fit travelers a couple of months to complete. This is truly a majestic way to experience Japan, as hikers have the option to stay in traditional inns or even in temples themselves.
Nakasendo Way, Honshu
If you’re looking for other historic routes to hike look no further than the Nakasendo Way. This is an ancient mail route that links Kyoto with Tokyo. This 329 mile trek takes around 11 days and is mostly made up of paved roads and dirt trails which wind through bamboo and cypress forests, mountains, and waterfalls. If you’re really into old time Japanese experiences, be sure to stop at the Tateba Tea House, which is actually from the Edo period, when this trail was mostly in use.
No hiking trip to Japan would be complete with a trek up to the summit of Mount Fuji. At 12,388 feet high, this active volcano is the highest point in Japan, and you can climb right up to the top of it — but going in the summer his highly advisable. As far as big mountains go, Mount Fuji is actually only of moderate difficulty, and generally only takes a day or two. There are stations and shops along the way, and you can book a mountain hut if you want to stay overnight, which we recommend.
There are four routes up Mount Fuji:
The Yoshida trail is around 8 miles round-trip and only takes around ten hours to complete. However, if you’re looking to get away from the crowds, this isn’t the best choice, as it can get a little crowded.
If you’re looking for some solitude, then go for the Gotemba trail, comes in at 13 miles and takes around ten hours. It’s steep and challenging, which is one reason why hardly anyone does it. There’s also a limited supply of huts and other amenities. If you want to rough it up Fuji, this is the way to go.
The Subashiri trail is around ten miles and takes nine hours. It weaves in and out of the Yoshida trail, so if you want the best of both worlds — amenities and solitude — then this may be the hike for you.
The Fujinomiya trail takes around eight hours and is much shorter than the other routes, but is also steep, basically going straight up the volcano.
Find your own hike
Another option is just to take an urban train out to its last station and start walking. I’ve done this in Japan on numerous occasions, and is a surefire way to have those serendipitous experiences that travel is all about.
No matter where you go hiking in Japan you are bound to experience something of immense beauty, wonder, and historical relevance that’s full of welcomed surprises throughout. So pack your bag, put on some boots, and start hiking.