Hiking in Japan – 11 Breathtaking Trails
Japan is one of the world's best hiking destinations. Forests, mountains, wilderness, wildlife - hiking in Japan has it all. Read on for our choice of the 11 best routes out there.
The landscape of Japan is diverse: From the ice-plains of rugged Hokkaido and the sprawling metropolises of the mainland to the beaches of Okinawa, there’s a little of everything, making casting generalisations a foolish game. Yet, one thing is certain—hiking in Japan is some of the best in the world.
If you’re planning a hiking holiday in Japan, read on. Whether you want to stay relatively close to the cities or push out into the wild, tackle a volcano or follow a sacred pilgrimage, our list of 11 of the very best hiking routes should be able to help you out.
We’re going to ease you in gently with our first hike—Mount Takao, or Takao-san in the local parlance. People who own carbon fibre walking poles and wrap around sunglasses—the hiking world dilettantes—may scoff at the mountain’s modest height (a little off 600 meters), gentle trails and cable cars (admittedly a little ridiculous) but don’t let the haters put you off, Takao is a genuinely enjoyable hike and one that requires next to no preparation.
From deepest Tokyo, the mountain’s base can be reached in under an hour, from where the city’s pandemonium will seem like little more than a fever dream you’d rather forget. There are people, quite a lot in fact, especially if you’re visiting on a spring or summer weekend or public holiday, but there’s plenty of room for all out in the countryside. Besides, most people opt for the leisurely cable car, leaving the trails nicely serene. If you’d like to join them, the cable car depot is a five-minute walk along the main road from the station. We’re here for the hiking, however.
There are three main routes to the summit: the first, trail 1 or the Omotesando trail, is mostly paved, very easy, the most crowded and the least interesting; the second is the Inariyama trail which is considered the more difficult, though it still only takes around 90 minutes to the peak and is mostly composed of steps cut into the mountainside; and the third is the Biwa trail which takes around an hour to the top depending on your pace and is perhaps the more scenic of the three. No matter what route you take, everyone winds up at the same place at the top. Here, find refreshments, a visitors centre and some sublime views, especially on a clear day. During the warmer months, there’s even a beer garden that offers a nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) option for those who’d like to spice up their descent a little.
Access: From Shinjuku Station, take the Keio Line to Takaosangushi Station - from here, the cable car depot and trailheads are signposted.
Our next choice requires no introduction, but we’re going to give you one anyway, it is, of course, Mount Fuji. There are those who claim that climbing Fuji is a waste of time, that the best thing about the old volcano is its iconic form, which cannot be appreciated when scrambling up its rocky surface. They may have a point. However, this doesn’t deter the thousands who make the ascent every year.
Climbing Mount Fuji requires a degree of preparation, can only (legally) be tackled within a certain time-frame and is reasonably difficult, though hardly the sole reserve of seasoned hikers. Get organised and the climb, the stuff of bucket lists the world over, is more than doable.
For detailed answers to all your Fuji related queries, we’ve taken care of the all the major FAQs in some detail:
Kumano Kodo, Kii Peninsula
Our next pick is a little less well-known than Fuji or Takao, though is no less rewarding because of it. Kumano Kodo actually refers to a series of ancient hiking trails that traverse the Kii Mountains in Wakayama prefecture, roughly 100 km south of Osaka. More accurately, Kumano Kodo is a pilgrimage, one undertaken by everyone from peasants to emperors dating back a thousand years. It is also one of only two pilgrimages in the world recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If that wasn’t enough, hiking in this area is consistently ranked as some of the best in the world for its combination of natural and man-made wonders. It is, therefore, certainly pedigreed.
The aim of the pilgrimage is to take in the three principal shrines of the mountains: Kumano Hongu Taisha, Kumano Hayatama Taisha and Kumano Nachi Taisha, together known as Kumano Sanzan. Along the way there are hundreds more subsidiary shrines and religious sites to see, making it very obvious just how religiously significant this area is. Though we don’t have the space to go into that now, if you’re going to hit up Kumano Kodo, reading up on its history makes the trip even more rewarding.
In total there are seven trails through the mountains: some are more difficult than others, some more popular, though they all have spectacular beauty in common. Do your research to find the trail for you, though you can’t go wrong with Nakahechia—a popular trail that runs from Tanabe City to Shingu and pretty much includes everything that makes the area great. Some stretches plunge you deep into cedar forest, others have you scrambling over rocks and through streams, there are breathtaking mountain views and, of course, plenty of shrines. In all, it’s a solid six hours of walking, but can be split up however you like or used as a springboard to another trail if you’re looking to make a longer trip of it.
Access: For Nakahechia from Osaka, take a train to Hineno Station in Wakayama. From here, transfer for Kiitanabe Station and take a bus to Takijiri-oji from where the trail begins.
Kyoto—the former seat of imperial power, where the fate of dynasties was decided—is now held up as the most Japanese place in Japan and has become a tourist hotspot par excellence. This isn’t to say it’s not worth visiting, just that you should be prepared for the perennial sound of American accents and crowds. Get tired of this and you’re in luck, Kyoto is hemmed in by mountains, meaning escape into the wilderness is easier than you may have thought. One of the best spots for a hike is Mount Hiei.
Located to the north-east of the city, just 20 minutes from central Kyoto by train, the mountain is highly accessible, yet head there on a weekday and you’re unlikely to have too much company. From the station (Heizan Sakamoto), the trailhead (or cable car station) is another 20 minutes away on foot. The stone steps that mark the start of the mountain path are known as Honzaka and can be found right next to Hayao Shrine. The first section of the hike is a steep climb through a dense forest, eventually giving way to a flatter section and some fantastic views. On one side, metropolitan Kyoto, on the other Shiga prefecture and the domineering Lake Shiga, Japan’s largest lake. Continue on, past the cable car station, and you’ll reach the summit and the mountain’s crowning glory, the majestic Enryakuji Temple (actually a collection of three temples).
Access: From Kyoto Station, head to Hieizan Sakamoto Station.
Mount Tsurugi, Toyama
Our next choice is not one for the faint hearted. The jagged Mount Tsurugi is one of the highest peaks in the Japanese Alps and was the last to be conquered by climbers. For good reason; the climb is perilous, fraught with vertical drops and sheer rock faces that require nerves of steel and experience to overcome. The spectacular panoramic views over the Alps and priceless bragging rights, however, make it one of the most rewarding hikes in the country.
The hike begins at Murodo bus terminal in Tateyama, starting off relatively straightforward up until Lodge Tsurugigozen, a glorified mountain hut where it would be a good idea to spend the night (prices start at 6,000 yen) for maximum climb time the following day. After the lodge, things get interesting. The path is steep, with a lot of scrambling required in parts. For the sections that border on vertical there are steel chains to help you out, though great care still needs to be taken. It’s a tough climb but the adrenalin should give you the energy required to get to the summit. The way back down is arguably more dangerous, so don’t switch off for the descent.
Access: From Tateyama Station, take the bus to Murodo bus terminal from where the hike begins.
Mount Chōkai, Akita-Yamagata
Straddling the border between Akita and Yamagata prefectures stands Mount Chōkai, a volcanic peak that can boast some of the best hiking in Japan. As a relatively easy climb for the moderately fit and not too far from Tokyo, the hike is great for those wanting some adventure without exerting excessive energy. Snaking through year-round snowfields, past volcanic lakes and wildflower meadows, there’s a little bit of everything along the way on your way up Mount Chōkai.
Follow the path leading away from Hakodate car park and you’ll soon come across a picturesque gorge which sets the tone for the rest of the journey nicely. Carry on onto the Sai-no-kawara flatlands and you’ll soon get your first taste of snow, you’ll then pass the Ohama hut before eventually reaching a fork in the road. The route to the left is more direct and thus quicker, while the right path takes you along the ridge and offers some fantastic views. The best idea is to walk in a loop, up one way and down the other, meaning it doesn’t particularly matter which direction you take. On your approach to the summit things get a little tricky, with some large rock formations to duck through and sections that may call for a bit of scrambling. The actual peak has room for just three people at a time, so be prepared to queue up if it’s busy. In all, the round-trip should take 8-10 hours.
Access: There's a bus from Kisakata Station to Hakodate but it's pretty infrequent. If possible, rent a car.
Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, Toyama
The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route traverses the Japanese Alps, in doing so connecting Omachi in Nagano prefecture with Toyama prefecture and ultimately the Sea of Japan. This one isn’t technically a single hike, indeed, a lot of the journey is undertaken via an exhilarating series of specially adapted buses, ropeways and cable cars. However, some sections are walkable in the warmer months and there are various opportunities to veer off the route and get hiking. The route is incredibly scenic and very diverse, with the lower sections, particularly through the Chubu Sangaku National Park, wonderfully verdant and wildlife rich and the higher sections either lunar and rocky or treacherously snow covered. The sheer walls of snow that flank the road between Midagahara and Murodo provide the best example of this.
The entire route is only open from April to November each year, though some sections may be accessible outside of this timeframe. During the summer months and during festivals the route is very popular, so expect crowded buses and queues to use the cable cars and ropeways. There are various hotels and campsites along the way, though be sure to make reservations in advance, especially during popular times of the year.
Access: The route begins at Tateyama Station, which can be accessed via the Toyama Chiho Railroad from JR Toyama Station.
Mount Asahi, Hokkaido
For outdoor enthusiasts, Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido has much to give. If the tumult of the mainland’s cities don’t appeal, the rugged beauty of Hokkaido and its endless opportunities to escape into the wild may well do the trick. And where better to start than with the island’s highest mountain, Mount Asahi (or Asahidake).
Located within Daisetsuzan National Park, a vast area of unsullied wilderness and mountains in the centre of the island, Mount Asahi is exemplary of Hokkaido’s tendency to flick between stark, volcanic landscapes and lush frondescence. The greenery of the mountain’s base soon gives way to a rocky terrain pocked by deep-blue crater lakes and rising steam as you ascend—reminders that Asahi is still an active volcano.
From the base, most visitors hop on the gondola which takes them part of the way up the slope and knocks a few hours of the climb time, eschew this option though and the round hike should take the best part of eight hours. It is a moderately difficult climb, but hardly one requiring too much preparation or specialist equipment. From the base, the trail is well marked, taking hikers past streams, lakes and ultimately onto the spine of the mountain and directly to the top. Most simply turn around and head back down the way they came, though there is an alternative root (again well signposted) down the opposite side of the mountain, past a snowfield and campsite, which eventually loops back around to the trailhead.
Access: From Sapporo, head to Asahikawa, from there, take a bus to Asahi-dake Onsen where the trail begins.
Another popular spot in Hokkaido is Shiretoko National Park, a world heritage site famed for its virgin wilderness, extreme beauty and ominously large population of wild brown bears. Shiretoko is Japan’s most remote location (the name translates as “end of the earth” in the native Ainu tongue), though this doesn’t seem to put off visitors, least of all those with an acute sense of adventure.
Hiking in Shiretoko isn’t just a leisurely pursuit but vital. The park has only limited infrastructure, leaving many areas accessible only on foot. The very tip of the peninsula, known as Shiretoko Five Lakes, is one such area and a great spot to explore. Only one of the lakes is openly accessible to the public via an impressive elevated walkway (the others require guides), though there are a number of different hiking trails to check out all over. From Shiretoko Five Lakes visitors are treated to breathtaking mountain and sea views, as well as the chance to spy foxes, deer and bears.
Another good hike in Shiretoko is Mount Rausu, the park’s highest peak. The ascent begins through thick forest which gradually gives way to reveal spectacular views of the park and the Sea of Okhotsk in the distance. The hike isn’t particularly difficult but preparation is necessary given the lack of amenities on the mountain. You won’t fail to notice the many signs warning of bears as you climb, and, indeed, bear encounters are common. To ensure the bears know you’re there and prevent them from being startled, a bear bell is an essential item.
Access: For Shiretoko Five Lakes: From Shiretoko Shari Station there is a bus (only between April and October) to the first lake, but they are infrequent and unreliable. For Mount Rausu: Head to Utoro Hot Spring and catch the bus to Iwaobetsu Hot Spring. There's only one bus a day, so make sure you get there for 08:50 or be prepared for a walk.
Mount Oku-Hotaka, Nagano
Next up were in Nagano, climbing Mount Oku-Hotaka, the third-highest peak in Japan and one of the most exhilarating climbs out there. Oku-Hotaka is an intimidatingly jagged spike of rock that should not be undertaken lightly—each year, hikers fall to their death down one of the mountain’s perilous slopes. Prepare fastidiously, however, and the thrill of the climb and the spectacular views over the Kita Alps won’t be quickly forgotten.
The climb is a long and arduous one but it is possible to complete it in a day. However, a better idea is to split it over two by staying in the hut that sits just below the summit. There’s room for tents or you can pay for a little more comfort inside, the choice is yours. Before getting there, however, you’ll need to make your way up the rocky gulch that forms the bulk of the hike. The route is marked by spray painted white and yellow Xs and Os, though it can sometimes be a little difficult to make out. As long as you’re heading upward, you should be OK. After you reach the hut, the summit is close at hand. Up there you’ll find a small shrine atop a large pile of rocks, said to be there to nudge the mountain above its nearest rival. If you do stay overnight at the hut, make sure you get out of bed early and catch the magical sunrise.
Access: From Takayama or Matsumoto station take a bus to Kamikochi. There are also night buses available from Tokyo and Kyoto.
Mount Kaimon, Kagoshima
To round off our list it’s over to Kyushu for a hike up Mount Kaimon. Located on the southern tip of the island, not far from Kagoshima, Kaimon offers unbeatable sea views and some very pleasant scenery along the way. With the look of a miniature Mount Fuji, this dormant, perfectly conical volcano is a joy to behold and a hike suitable for all.
Ascending Kaimon is pretty easy and perfecly doable in a day, though the sweltering heat of the summer months may complicate things a little. From Kaimon Station you’ll be directed toward the trailhead, roughly a 30 minute walk away. To keep things simple, there’s just one path to the summit. Snaking gently around the mountain, the hike is a relaxed one with plenty of opportunities to stop and take a load off. The summit is pretty small and gets crowded on weekends and holidays, though the views more than make up for it.
Access: From Yamakawa Station take a train to Kaimon Station.