Japan is well known as a Mecca for food, culture, and skiing. But did you know in summer it’s a hiking paradise? Charlotte explains why you should consider Japan for your next hiking holiday.

 

Please note! At the time of writing, Japan is still operating Covid restrictions and is only open to tourists joining guided tours for the full duration of their stay.

Join retirees cruising the country in converted vans on their quest to conquer Japan’s ‘hundred best peaks’, enjoy the cleanest and most organised facilities you’ve ever seen, and top off a hard day’s hike with a blissful soak in a hot onsen.

Why visit Japan for hiking?

There are a plethora of hiking destinations all over the world, so why choose Japan? Even if you’ve never visited, you’ve probably heard how unique Japan and its culture are. This is also evident in the country’s hiking experiences, with points of difference that’ll pique the interest of even the most well-versed trekker.

Many of the trails are steeped in the country’s long history and tradition. Modern day devotees walk the same multi-day temple pilgrimages that’ve been travelled on for over a thousand years. Ancient samurai postal routes form the basis of paths, passing from post-town to post-town preserved in the edo-era style.

And for the full experience, hikers can stay in traditional inns complete with roll-out futons, a traditional washoku style meal, and an onsen bath.

 

 

Hiking is very popular with Japanese retirees. The work ethic in Japan is tough, and once retirement hits, many of the salary men and women use their newfound freedom to leave the big cities to explore their country.

The Japanese love creating lists and rankings for almost every product and activity, and hiking is no different. Retirees are often embarking on a mission to complete the ‘100 famous Japanese mountains’ – a bucket list book of hikes written in 1964. The criteria for the top 100 are grace, history, and individuality – a wonderful insight into Japan’s cultural values!

Hiking invariably takes you off the beaten path and away from the most obvious tourist destinations, and in Japan it’s particularly rewarding to seek out these experiences.

Read more: Remember to leave no trace!

 

Best Regions for Hiking in Japan

Japan is famous for the hustle of the world’s biggest metropolis, but once you leave the high density of Tokyo, most of the country is actually rural, filled with mountains, volcanoes, and rugged coastline.

 

Hokkaido

One of the most famous regions for getting away from it all is Hokkaido, the northernmost region of the main islands. Its remote peninsulas boast swathes of unspoilt wilderness. Drive the lonely Shiretoko Pass, embrace the rugged beauty of the Shakoten Peninsula, and watch the sunset at Cape Kiritappu.

 

 

Discover small towns overflowing with rustic charm and restaurants cooking up locally grown produce and freshly caught seafood. Look out for the delicious king crab, often cooked up in restaurants owned and run by the families of the fishermen that catch them.

In the centre of the island is the sprawling Daisetsuzan National Park, known to the Indigenous Ainu people as Kamui Mintara, or ‘playground of the gods’. It’s an exposed landscape, featuring clusters of snow-capped volcanoes and is among the first places in Japan to see the changing colours of autumn and winter snows.

 

Photo by Blondinrikard Froberg on Flickr

Chubu Region

Another hiking mecca is the Chubu region, the central part of Honshu where the Japanese Alps and the famous Mount Fuji can be found.

Aside from the pilgrimage to Japan’s tallest peak (expect crowds, likely cloud cover at the summit and a ‘spiritual’ experience rather than a wild one), there are a number of alpine resort areas to use as bases. From there, you can tackle some of the country’s most challenging peaks, take scenic day hikes or explore the ancient shogun-era towns.

 

Across The Country

Aside from these two areas, there’s something to discover in pretty much every region of Japan. From the forests of Shirakami Sanchi, to a network of pilgrim routes in the Kii Peninsula, south of Osaka, to the highly active volcanoes of the Shimbara Peninsula in Nagasaki. There are heaps of lesser known natural wonders in Japan, that would probably be destinations within themselves if they were in another country.

 

 

And if your itinerary doesn’t have room to make a special trip, there are plenty of scenic hikes that can be easily reached from cities. You can get a taste of mountain views from Mount Takao, just an hour by train from Tokyo, and even get a sense of nature at Kyoto’s famous Fushimi Inari Shrine as most of the tourists turn back after the first hour on the way to the peak.

 

 

Just be mindful that many of the mountainous trails are only open for a short window in summer, and that high temperatures and humidity can make city trekking uncomfortable.

Onsens – The Perfect Post-summit Indulgence

As a volcanic country, Japan is famous for its natural hot spring baths known as ‘onsens’. Soaking in 40 degree water is the perfect antidote to relieving muscles after a tough hike, and even in very remote areas you’re almost certain to be close to one. There are thousands of onsens spread across every region, and each one has its own character or special features.

Onsens in rural regions often have their baths overlooking spectacular mountain views, picturesque forest, or even the ocean (check out the Furofushi Onsen). Most are open into the evening so you can take a dip whilst gazing at the night sky. And if you’ve had enough of meditating on nature, there are also baths built inside historic buildings, such as the 300 year old Sakuya Onsen and its ‘one thousand person bath’.

 

 

Some onsens are attached to hotels or ryokans, traditional Japanese inns. You have full access if you’re staying there, but you can also visit as a paying guest at an affordable rate. Other onsens are more like day spas that you visit for an hour or so. Finally, some onsens are ‘wild’. These are community baths that are free or request a small donation, formed by natural pools or handmade rock pools.

Once you’re used to the etiquette, the combination of hiking and onsens make perfect partners in exploring Japan’s provincial areas.

Camping and Driving in Japan

Japan’s famous rail network can get you quickly from city to city, and to smaller towns, but regional travel will be quicker and more flexible if you have your own car. You’ll almost certainly need your own transport to reach hiking trails.

Combining your transport with your accommodation is a great way to save money in Japan, as hotels will be one of your biggest expenses here. Campsites are well run and very clean, however many have a fairly early cut-off for check-in, around 4pm.

 

 

Japan also allows free overnight stays in campervans in many car parks, as long as there’s a toilet facility. Public bathrooms are incredibly clean and this can be a good option if you have a long travel day or want to reach a trail head early.

Small campervans are becoming more popular, but there are relatively few places to hire one from. You’ll have more choice if you start from larger cities, but you should still book well in advance, particularly if you’re planning to visit during the holidays or Golden week. Another option is to hire a car and bring your own camping gear.

Driving is pretty straightforward, using right hand drive and with most road signs using both roman and Japanese alphabets. Once outside of the cities, traffic is not usually very heavy and other road users are generally very well behaved. You might be surprised at the relatively low speed limits though. Most fuel stations are serviced by attendants – just tell them the fuel type and ask them to fill.

So there you have it. If you’re looking for your next overseas hiking trip and want something a bit more than just racking up the kilometres, consider Japan.