Few countries in Asia boasts such dramatic natural diversity and such a range of hiking opportunities as Japan. Mountains make up two thirds of the country, with beaches fringing the coast and the balmy southern islands.
There are active volcanoes to tackle, epic long-distance pilgrimage routes once smoothed by the feet of emperors, and steep hikes that take you from the beach to lofty peaks thousands of metres above the sea.
Japan is well set up for hikers, with the ultra-efficient rail network making getting around the country a breeze, and a handy system where you can forward bags for little cost between hotels. Here are seven of our favourite places to go hiking in Japan.
1. Shikoku Henro
This is an essential pilgrimage for those with an interest in the roles that tradition and religion play within Japanese culture. This island adventure is both a fascinating physical and spiritual journey, which is undertaken by many religiously-minded Japanese, as well as overseas hikers.
You will need plenty of time on the smallest of Japan’s main islands, Shikoku. If you want to conquer the whole route – taking in a whopping 88 temples in the process – you are going to have to hike for over 1000km. You can do it in just over a month, but most devotees allow closer to two. Savvy hikers and pilgrims alike can use public transport to cut out some of the sections and skip a few temples too.
2. Kumano Kodo
Another pilgrimage route, the Kumano Kodō is so highly rated that its temples have been placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Battling across the thickly wooded slopes in the Kii Peninsula on Japan’s main island of Honshū was a task emperors themselves used to often undertake. There are three main routes, all are challenging but rewarding. A large part of the fun is staying in traditional ryokans (inns) en route where your nightly feast will be preceded by an onsen (communal hot spring bath).
3. Mount Fuji
One of the world’s most famous mountains does not disappoint. It is Japan’s most iconic peak, unmissable on any bullet train trip south of Tokyo. It is a 3776m-high volcanic monster, famous for often being capped with a dusting of snow, which isn’t ideal for hikers – note that it’s only open for trekking between July and mid-September.
Fuji can be tackled in a day trip, though altitude sickness can be an issue even when you do an overnight in the area, so going easy on your body is advised.
4. Japan Alps
Honshu’s most impressive mountain scenery comes in the form of the deeply dramatic Japan Alps. There are myriad options for getting your boots on here. Relatively gentle hikes are can be found in in the Kamikochi Valley, though you can also use the valley as a staging point for tackling more serious ascents, such as Yarigatake (3180m) and Hotakadake (3190m). The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route uses a mixture of walking and public transport to cover a swathe of the finest scenery in the Alps.
5. Nakasendo Trail
A route with serious heritage, which has been walked since the eighth century, this ancient highway from Kyoto through what are now Shiga, Gifu and Nagano Prefectures culminates in Tokyo’s predecessor, Edo.
Venture on it today and you are following in the footsteps of the Tokugawa Shoguns (Japanese military chiefs), who used it to travel through the mountains on their military campaigns. It would take them around three weeks to cover the 533km distance, which was split into 67 stages.
Today you can take on the various stretches of it that survive, using public transport to link sections. En route you, stop at charmingly-preserved old towns, where weary travellers could rest up and enjoy a bed for the night before moving on, such as Tsumago and Narai.
6. Daibutsu Hiking Course
This popular three kilometre hiking trail opens up a short, but scenic landscape of temples and mountains and can be tackled in between one and two hours. To really get the most out of the area, extend this walk with a detour to the cave-shrine dedicated to the goddess Zeniarai Benten, known as the ‘Money-Washing Benten’. This goddess was said to be associated with good fortune, music and water.
The UNESCO World Heritage listed island of Yakushima is worth visiting whether you are a hiker or not. Its beaches are lovely, as are its onsen, which are ideal after a tough hike.
The biggest challenge is taking on the towering 1935m high mountain of Miyanoura-dake, which is southern Japan’s highest peak. The island actually boasts six mountain peaks over 1800m. Make sure to fill in a form with your route on it before heading out; this safety system has saved many lives on the island over the years.