The best hikes in Japan are the routes that immerse you in the remarkable forests, mountains and rivers of the country while also showcasing its unique culture - from the distinctive architecture to the spirituality and folklore which drives it.
Many of the best hikes in Japan are actually old pilgrimage routes, going from shrine to shrine, through majestic woodlands or cresting the skyline of a mountain range. If you know where to look, hiking in Japan allows you to slowly explore on foot one of the most unique and remarkable nations in the world. Here are seven of the best Japanese hiking routes to get you started.
1. Summit Mount Yari and Mount Okuhotaka in the Japanese Alps (via Daikiretto Gap)
The Japanese Alps is a term used to refer to the Hida Mountains, Kiso Mountains and Akaishi Mountains that stretch across Japan, bisecting the island of Honshu, which is the largest and most populous island of the country (with Tokyo on the east coast and Mount Fuji in the south). The name was popularised by Reverend Walter Weston, an English missionary known as the "Father of the Japanese Alps," for whom there's a plaque in Kamikōchi. The hiking in the Alps is plentiful, but this trek on the high peaks is a real jaw-dropping bucket lister.
We should note that this isn’t a single day out, but rather a multi-day adventure (or lots of day hikes). Mt Yarigatake stands 3180m tall, in a distinctive spear shape which gives it its name (‘Yari’ translating as ‘spear’). The route up passes through lush forests and rivers until you reach the truly rugged peak, looking over the 15 mountains that make up the Japanese Alps. The trek will then take you over to Okuhotaka via the legendary Daikiretto Gap, an intimidating route with steep drops. It's not to be taken lightly, but the gap has unrivalled views of the distinctive Alp mountains. An early rise the next morning takes you to the summit of Mt Okuhotaka, the third highest mountain in Japan, with some iron ladders for assistance, then it's back to Kamikōchi. This is a truly adventurous, mountainous hiking route - and we firmly believe, one of the best hikes in Japan.
2. Hike the Nakahechi Route on the Kumano Kodō Pilgrimage Trail
Japan is a country rich in tradition, history and natural beauty and the Kumano Kodō hiking trails capture all of that. The trail was routinely walked by emperors and samurai who considered it sacred and left behind detailed diaries of their voyages here from Kyoto. Thanks to this, and the stunning nature, the pilgrimage route became one of only two to have UNESCO World Heritage status in 2004, the other being the legendary Santiago de Compostela route finishing in Spain.
The Kumano Kodō is not one trail but a network of routes - the most popular of which is the Nakahechi Route, which passes the three grand Shintō shrines of Kumano that would traditionally be visited by pilgrims. Tanabe, on the Kii Peninsula is the starting point for the Nakahechi route, the gateway to Kumano. From there it's ancient pine groves, small villages, forest trails, stunning viewpoints, a stop at Japan’s tallest waterfall and some stunning Japanese architecture. The trail is just under 70km and usually walked in four to five days.
3. Hike the Mount Fuji Pilgrimage Trail
Mount Fuji is world famous. The highest mountain in Japan, standing at a lofty 3,776m, the dormant volcano is named for the Buddhist fire goddess Fuchi, and there's a shrine to the Shinto goddess Sengen-Sama found at the summit. The pilgrimage trail up Fuji passes through sacred forests, home to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. If you've only got a short time to go hiking in Japan, it's a real classic.
The climbing season for Fuji is in July or August, when most of the snow has melted, but you can still take on part of the Fuji hike year-round. There are ten stations along the way on the Fuji climb, the first station being at the bottom of the mountain, and the 10th on top. Many people venture to one of the four 'fifth stations', and the trek to this point really is a beautiful hike in itself. From here, if the sky stays clear, you can look down on the five lakes of Fuji; Lake Kawaguchiko, Lake Yamanakako, Lake Saiko, Lake Motosuko and Lake Shojiko.
4. Summit Mount Takao from Tokyo
Within the borders of metropolitan Tokyo, you’ll find the hugely popular 599m Mount Takao. It’s only a 50 minute trip from the vibrant area of Shinjuku in Tokyo to Takao Station on the JR Chuo Line. From there, there’s a funicular that’ll take you halfway up Mount Takao, or the walk from top to bottom is about an hour and a half. The Omotesando Trail is the most popular route up. It's mostly paved and passes all the sightseeing spots. It does get super busy though. A nice alternative is the Biwa Waterfall Trail, the second longest at 3.3km and probably the most challenging way up. You’ll pass a waterfall, the site of religious retreats, and walk on lovely forest paths.
It’s only a 50 minute trip from the vibrant area of Shinjuku in Tokyo to Takao Station on the JR Chuo Line.
The Inariyama Trail is also worth a look - an unpaved 3.2km, it's a tough little climb via Mount Inari, known as the "every-season trail" as the beautiful flora can be found year round. Neither the Biwa Waterfall Trail (also known as ‘Trail 6’) or the Inariyama pass the ropeway or funicular stations, which can be interesting to see, but this does mean that they also tend to be significantly less crowded than the Omotesando Trail. A nice compromise can be to go up one of the lesser-walked routes and return on the main trail. There are wild boars, monkeys and over 1,200 species of plant life on the mountain. It’s also one end of the 1,054-mile Tōkai Nature Trail, running from Mount Takao to Minoh near Osaka.
5. Hike the Seven Waterfalls of Kawazu
For a lot of people, hiking in Japan is all about enchanting forests, mesmeric rivers, ancient folklore and beautiful waterfalls. If that’s what you’re after then this seven waterfall hike in Kawazu is one of the best hikes in Japan for you.
Deep in the Amagi Highlands, this route follows an age-old track winding through native beech forest and farmland until you arrive at the waterfall trail. The seven range in height from the Odaru, falling a full 30m to the Kanidaru, falling just two. There are wild swimming spots and hot springs en route, and in terms of culture, the trail is connected by setting to the work of Nobel-prize winning author Kawabata Yasunari, who immortalised the area in his story “The Izu Dancer”. You'll find statues depicting the heroine of this short story dotted along the charming walk. This is a relatively easy one or two hour hike, but one which really captures the beauty and culture of Japan.
6. The Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage
If our last two entries have been a bit short for you, then perhaps the Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage trail is more your type of thing - one of the world’s few circular pilgrimages, the route spans 750 miles and takes in over 80 temples along the way, as well as numerous other sacred sites where Ku-kai (or ‘Kōbō Daishi’, founder of the esoteric Shingon school of Buddhism and one of the most important figures in the religion) is believed to have trained.
Over the course of that mileage you get to see the best of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s major islands, from the forests and rivers to the culture, and get a sense for the spirituality that drives the island. There are plenty of hiking opportunities. When walked in full from Temple 1, Ryōzenji in Tokushima, the Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage can take up to six weeks to complete. It’s a mission in slow travel, self-discovery and remarkable nature. With the most common route following the order of the temples, it’s also easy to plan a part-route trek, for example walking from temples 13-17 or temples 71-77, to create a less time-intensive hiking route.
7. Hike up Miyanoura on the Island of Yakushima
Yakushima is an island in the Kagoshima Prefecture renowned for its cedar forests, home to some of the oldest trees in Japan, and for its array of wildlife, which ranges from red-bottomed macaques and sika deer to Japanese raccoon dogs and Japanese weasels.
Descending, you'll pass Jomon Sugi, the largest and oldest cedar tree in the forest, dated between 2,170 and 7,200 years old.
The forests are now a national park and were declared a Natural World Heritage Site way back in 1993. Locals joke that it rains “35 days a month” here, but as you can imagine all that forest, rain and the flora and fauna that come with it make for some mesmerising and particularly unique views. At 1936m, the hike up Miyanoura is nowhere near the Japanese Alps or heights of Fuji, but it's one of the best hikes in Japan thanks to those beautiful forests and because it's just so distinctive. Starting with an intense vertical, the route leads through an array of forests, and eventually up to the 360 degree panorama at the top. Descending, you'll pass Jomon Sugi, the largest and oldest cedar tree in the forest, dated between 2,170 and 7,200 years old (quite a range!). If you love forests and want to get way off the beaten track, this is the Japanese hiking route for you.
Inspired? Check out our new range of adventurous hiking holidays in Japan!