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, taking walkers from shrine to shrine, through majestic woodlands. Others head to high-rising ridges, where the pointed peaks of mountain ranges pierce the skies. Hiking in Japan allows you to explore one of the most unique and remarkable nations in the world. Here are the seven Japanese hiking routes we've chosen to get you started:

  1. The Kamikochi-Yari-Hotaka Circuit (via Daikiretto Gap)
  2. The Nakahechi Route (on the Kumano Kodō Pilgrimage Trail)
  3. The Mount Fuji Pilgrimage Trail
  4. The Mount Takao River Valley from Takao
  5. Seven Waterfalls of Kawazu
  6. The Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage
  7. Hike Miyanoura on the Island of Yakushima

In the view of our in-house experts, these routes embody the spirit, history and wonder of Japan - from the Japanese Alps and Mount Fuji to the mystical forests.

It’s important to note that these route descriptions are only short summaries, designed to inspire but not to serve any navigational purpose. They are not intended to guide you on the route and further mapping and planning (or a local guide!) will be required if you want to safely walk any of the trails featured.

1. Summit Mount Yari and Mount Okuhotaka in the Japanese Alps (via the Daikiretto Gap)

Mt Yarigatake and the formidable dip of the Daikiretto Gap in the Japanese Alps
Mt Yarigatake and the formidable dip of the Daikiretto Gap in the Japanese Alps. Photo: Getty
  • Start/Finish: Kamikochi
  • Distance: 21 miles (33km)
  • Walking time: 3 days
  • Difficulty: Challenging
  • Best for: Japan's best hut to hut hiking

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, where this route starts.

The hiking in the Alps is plentiful, but this trek on the high peaks - commonly known as the Kamikochi-Yari-Hotaka Circuit - is one of the best mountain hikes in Japan.

We should note that this isn’t a single day out, but rather a multi-day adventure. Leaving Kamikochi, your first day on this classic will see you ascend Mt. Yarigatake, which stands 3,180m (10,433ft) 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.

You'll spend night one in a mountain lodge here - where you'll sleep on tatami mats and eat simple, delicious Japanese food like ramen. Day two will then see you take on the Hotaka ridgeline and the legendary Daikiretto Gap, a traverse with steep drops which guides you to Okuhotaka. It's not to be taken lightly, but the gap has unrivalled views of the distinctive Alp mountains.

After another night in a lodge, an early rise the next morning will take 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

The lush forests of the Kumano Kodō have hosted Emperors and Samurai.
The lush forests of the Kumano Kodō have hosted Emperors and Samurai. Photo: Getty
  • Start/Finish: Takijiri-oji/Nachi Taisha
  • Distance: 41 miles (66.5km)
  • Duration: 4-5 days
  • Difficulty: Challenging
  • Best for: tracing the footsteps of Samurai.
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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. The Gotemba Trail, Mount Fuji

The vibrant seasonal view of Mt Fuji from across the Kawaguchiko Lake.
The vibrant seasonal view of Mt Fuji from across the Kawaguchiko Lake. Photo: Getty
  • Start/Finish: Gotemba Trail Shin-5th Station
  • Distance: 13.1 miles (20km)
  • Duration: 9-15 hours (1-2 days)
  • Difficulty: Challenging
  • Best for: summit baggers.

Mount Fuji is world famous. The highest mountain in Japan, standing at a lofty 3,776m (12,388ft), 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 Yoshia Trail is the most popular route up Mount Fuji, but the Gotemba Trail, which is a lot quieter, is our pick for this list. It's the longest, starting at 1,440m (4,724ft), but because of this, it has by far the fewest other climbers on it (and it has similar views). The slopes on the way up are also gentle, making for a lengthy, but manageable hike. The climb up is around nine hours of hiking, but on the way down, you can run down sandy sections, and be down in a few hours.

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.

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4. Hike Takao-Hozukyo, near Kyoto

Mount Takao River Valley. Photo: iStock.
Mount Takao River Valley. Photo: iStock.
  • Start/Finish: Takao/Hozukyo
  • Distance: 6.2 miles (10km)
  • Duration: 5-6 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Best for: a big day out near Kyoto.

If you're looking for hikes near Kyoto, this hike is an excellent choice, combining the serene atmosphere of the Mount Takao River Valley with a couple of temple visits. You'll start in the hamlet of Takao, which can be reached by bus from Kyoto (go to the JR3 bus boarding point and take a bus going to Toganoo or Shuzan). Takao is surrounded with maple trees, with fresh green foliage in spring and blazing red leaves during autumn.

Cross a red bridge to visit Saimyo-ji Temple, followed by a climb up some stone steps to Jingo-ji Temple, the second temple on this route. At Jingo-ji you can buy kawarake - clay discs designed to ward off evil - which you can throw off the nearby cliff into the river valley below. Once you've visited the temples, go back down the stairs towards the river, following it along the east bank as it heads downstream. You'll pass gorgeous emerald pools, and will have glimpses of the surrounding mountains through gaps in the foliage.

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After a few kilometres, the trail crosses the river and heads long the west bank. When you reach the village of Kiyotaki, make sure you take a detour to Kiyotaki Waterfalls - along an atmospheric trail that snakes along the creek into a narrow ravine. After that, it's on to your finish point at Hozukyo, where you can catch a 20 minute train back to Kyoto.

5. Hike the Seven Waterfalls of Kawazu

The Kamadaru waterfall (釜滝) along the Kawazu Nanadaru waterfall trail on the Izu Peninsula of Japan.
The Kamadaru waterfall (釜滝) along the Kawazu Nanadaru waterfall trail on the Izu Peninsula of Japan. Photo: Getty
  • Start/Finish: Kawazu Station
  • Distance: 3 miles (5km)
  • Duration: 1-2 hours
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Best for: An immersive, relaxing adventure

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

The Iya valley and Kazurabashi bridge in Tokushima, Shikoku, Japan.
The Iya valley and Kazurabashi bridge in Tokushima, Shikoku, Japan. Photo: Getty
  • Start/Finish: Ryōzenji temple/Ōkuboji temple
  • Distance: 700 miles (1,150km)
  • Duration: 6 weeks
  • Difficulty: Challenging
  • Best for: Seeing Shikoku, and tracing Japan through temples

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 Mt. Miyanoura on the Island of Yakushima

hiking in Japan: You won't find a forest more enchanting than in the depths of Yakushima.
You won't find a forest more enchanting than in the depths of Yakushima. Photo: Getty
  • Start/Finish: Yodogawa trailhead/Arakawa trailhead
  • Distance: 10 miles (16km) on summit day (plus arrival and departure days)
  • Duration: 1-2 days
  • Difficulty: Challenging
  • Best for: An off-the-beaten track forest and mountain adventure.

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 (6,351ft), 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. 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.

The route can be walked in one day, but it is intensely demanding, and the public transport options are limited. There are also huts in the area. Do your research and planning before you head out.

When is the Best Time to Hike in Japan?

Hiking in the Kamikochi National Park in Japan. Photo: Getty
Hiking in the Kamikochi National Park in Japan. Photo: Getty

Lower altitude trails in Japan can be hiked year round, but hiking season tends to be considered October until May. This avoids the rainy season which falls somewhere between May and July in most regions, and the heat of summer.

One of the most popular times for hiking include late October to mid-November, when autumn foliage in Japan's ancient forests is a glorious blaze of colour. During these months, the temperature is in the early 20°Cs . Another is during the cherry blossom season, which takes place from the end of March until early May - the spring foliage is also vibrant during this period. During these months, the weather is cool, but rises rapidly - from about 8°C in March to 20°C by May. These are also the busiest times of year.

In higher altitude mountain ranges, such as the Japanese Alps, the hiking season is between late April to early November (and shorter at higher altitudes, as snow will block some trails in November). Not only is the weather best for hiking during this season, this is also when the mountain huts are open.

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Inspired? Check out our Ultimate Adventure in Japan, taking you along some of Japan's best hiking trails.