Futuristic cities and delectable cuisine might be what draws you to Japan, but hiking here is a completely unique experience that you simply have to experience for yourself. Located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan is mostly covered in mountains and volcanic peaks. This explains the country’s rich hiking culture, which means its many hiking trails and national parks are well-kept and oft-travelled. Japan offers a ton of great hiking trails that showcase the country’s natural beauty, many of which carry cultural or historical significance. Hiking is an incredibly accessible activity for all ages, skill levels, and abilities in Japan – everyone is encouraged to take advantage of the nature that surrounds them and engage with it regularly for health of the mind and body. Lodges and vending machines can be found along many trails, giving hikers a place stop and refuel, and it’s common practice to go for a dip in an onsen for a special after-hike treat. Pick any one of these trails for your next trip to start exploring Japan’s countryside!
Located less than an hour away from Tokyo, Mt Takao is the prime destination for city dwellers to escape for the day. Its modest height makes for a quick climb to the summit, where beautiful scenery awaits. On a clear day, you can even catch a glimpse of Mt Fuji! Skip the cable car and take the Omotesando trail to catch the monkey park on the way up, where you’ll see over 40 Japanese macaques in their element. The perfect time to climb Mt Takao is during the spring, where you can see cherry blossoms away from the concrete backdrop of the city.
The Kumano Kodo is a sprawling network of pilgrimage trails that connect the Grand Shrines of Kumano and the collection of smaller subsidiary shrines that lie in between. 100 km south of Osaka, this off-the-beaten-path pilgrimage is not only steeped in religious significance, but also makes for a beautiful nature hike that contrasts architecturally stunning shrines against the soft backdrop of nature. The Kumano Kodo is one of two pilgrimages that are recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and hiking it in full takes around 4 to 5 days. Many visitors punctuate their journey with stays in ryokan, or traditional Japanese inns, along the way, but it’s also possible to hike only a small portion of it. Try starting at Hosshinmon-oji for an easy day trek that will lead you to Hongu, one of the Grand Shrines along the trail.
A stunning display of natural beauty, Shiretoko is one of Japan’s many national parks and home to many a scenic hiking trail. Its name meaning “the end of the earth,” the park is located in Hokkaido, one of Japan’s northern islands, and requires a long ferry ride to get there. Upon arrival, you’ll be immersed in Shiretoko’s incredible wilderness – infrastructure is at its barest here, and the area is teeming with wildlife. Hike around the Shiretoko Five Lakes to enjoy beautiful views of the placid open water, and for those up for an additional challenge, summit Mt Rausu, the highest point on the Shiretoko peninsula. Just watch out for brown bears, which are known to frequent the area.
Formed over 20,000 years ago by Mt Nantai’s eruption, Lake Chuzenji is a tranquil body of water that’s surrounded by a gentle 25 kilometre (15.5 mile) trail that offers great views of the lake against the backdrop of Mt Nantai. Catch the stunning Kegon and Ryuzu waterfalls on the trail, or see the area from the water on a sightseeing boat ride as well. The area is also home to beautiful foliage in the fall months from mid to late October. Start and end your hike in Chuzenjiko Onsen to enjoy a relaxing soak after a long hike. Yakushima
Yakushima is an island south of Kyushu that is home to some of Japan’s oldest living cedar trees. Walking in the shade of these huge ancient trees will make you feel small, in the best way. Many of the trees on Yakushima are over 1000 years old, and their branches intersect above you to form a mystical green canopy. Being a subtropical island, the area receives lots of rainfall, and the result is an endless green mess of roots, and moss-covered boulders that will make you feel like you’ve entered another world. In fact, the Shiratani Unsuikyo area of Yakushima served as inspiration for the setting of the epic Japanese animated film Princess Mononoke. If you continue through to the Anbo trail, you’ll reach the main attraction on Yakushima – the Jomonsugi, which is the oldest tree in Japan.
Mt Kaimon is a dormant volcano located on the southernmost edge of Kyushu. Known as the Mt Fuji of Kyushu, its perfectly conical shape is reminiscent of the iconic Mt Fuji, but it stands at only a third of Fuji’s height. The walk to the top of Mt Kaimon curls around the mountain, and the path takes around 5 hours to complete. The climb can get hot in the summer, and there aren’t any water stations along the way, so make sure to come prepared. The view from the summit is an incredible panorama that offers a view of Yakushima on a clear day.
20 minutes from central Kyoto by train, Mt Hiei is a quick escape to the wilderness. It’s a mountain with an interesting history, involving the generations of monks that live at its peak within the beautiful Enryakuji temple. Incredible views of Osaka await at the top, and white snow monkeys and tanuki, a type of Japanese raccoon, can be spotted on the ascent. Cable cars also service the mountain, which makes this an accessible summit for all abilities.
Yamanobe no Michi Trail
Once a road used in ancient times, the Yamanobe no Michi trail is now known as a scenic cultural heritage walk that takes you through rolling hills and patches of rural countryside. On the way, you’ll encounter charming fruit and vegetable stalls and vending machines, as well as a number of shrines and temples, including the Chogakuji temple, as well as the tomb of Emperor Sujin, one of Japan’s earliest emperors.
The Nakasendo Trail is an old route through the mountains from Kyoto to modern-day Tokyo. Now, the well-preserved Edo-period townships on the way make for a charming stroll. It’s a self-guided trail that can take around 7 days to complete if you’re up to the challenge, involving stays at ryokan each night to rest and enjoy traditionally prepared Japanese cuisine. Many trekkers choose the most popular section, the Magome to Tsumago trail, for a sample of the route. This portion can be completed in 2-3 hours, and is well-marked, making it easy to follow. The Kiso Valley lies on this portion of the trail, making the walk dramatic at times and incredible scenic. Waterfalls and swaths of cedar and cypress forests, bamboo groves and tranquil farmland are featured on this meditative walk. To minimize any distractions, it’s possible to forward your bags from Magome to Tsumago through their tourist office.
Of course, no list of the best hiking trails in Japan would be complete without mentioning Japan’s most iconic snow-capped peak. Mt Fuji is the tallest mountain in the country and experiencing the hike up to its summit is an essential experience. A picture-perfect active volcano, Mt Fuji attracts over 300,000 hikers to summit its peak each year. The trailheads are bus accessible, a short two-hour ride away from the city. Though the popularity of this quintessential activity can mean that the paths get a little crowded, the people you meet supplement the experience by adding a real sense of camaraderie. The terrain on the way up is relatively even, but the real challenge lies in acclimating to the change in altitude when ascending the mountain’s 3,776 metre (2,346.3 foot) height. Mt Fuji’s official climbing season starts in early July, ending in mid-September, and while it’s possible to complete the climb in a day, many choose to stay overnight to catch the amazing view of the sunrise from the peak.