Trek across Japan's dynamic landscapes
The Japanese archipelago stretches about 3,000 km from north to south along a volcanic belt, and about 70% of the country is mountainous. The country has dynamic topographical features, including rugged mountains, lush forests, pond, wetlands, volcanoes, and coasts, as well as a diverse range of flora and fauna, making it a trekker’s paradise. There are easy routes that you can hike in sneakers as well as tough trails featured in the “100 Famous Japanese Mountains” list. You can climb mountains at low elevations along the Pacific side starting from March, while alpine mountains can be scaled from July, with autumn arriving early depending on the altitude. After trekking, take a refreshing dip in a hot spring and enjoy local delicacies. Gear up and get ready to see some of Japan’s most spectacular sites!
Be sure to prepare adequately before trekking in an unfamiliar country. You generally need to fill out a hiking registration form with your contact information, route, and expected date of descent. This is so that you can be rescued if you lose your way. You can easily submit your registration form through the Compass app, available in five languages including English. It can be difficult to navigate the forks in trails, and most trails don’t have signs in foreign languages, so make sure you bring appropriate hiking gear, along with a hiking map, cell phone, and extra batteries. Note that many areas do not have cell phone reception.
You usually have to pay a fee for using restrooms in the mountains, so it’s best to keep some spare 100 yen coins with you. Be considerate of the environment and take your trash with you. If you’re planning to stay overnight, there are designated campsites as well as mountain huts with shared accommodation. They tend to be have modest facilities and privately-generated electricity for environmental reasons.
If you’re visiting an active volcano, check the eruption warning levels from the Japan Meteorological Agency beforehand—they are constantly updated. it’s a 5-point scale and there are generally restrictions on hikers when the warning level is set to 3 or higher. Having a helmet is best for safety reasons.
For more information, check out the hiking magazine Yamakei’s English language website, HIKES IN JAPAN. It offers information that overseas visitors should know in advance before hiking in Japan. Additionally, for those who want to climb a mountain with someone familiar with the region, many spots provide guided hiking tours in English and other languages.
The iconic Mount Fuji is Japan’s highest mountain, soaring at an altitude of 3,776 m. It’s also a sacred mountain and a registered World Heritage Site. Climbing season lasts only about two months, from July to early September. There are four major routes you can take, starting from elevations of 1,440 m to the fifth station at 2,380 m. The most popular ones are the Fuji Yoshida Trail on the Yamanashi side, with plenty of huts and toilets along the way, and the Fujinomiya Trail on the Shizuoka side, which starts at the highest elevation. The climb up takes about 6 to 8 hours and it takes about 3 to 4 hours to descend. Many climbers opt to see the sunrise from the summit, for which you would have to stay at a mountain hut the previous night or begin climbing in the evening. Make sure you bring warm clothes, headlamps, and other hiking equipment, and take precautions against altitude sickness. Note that you can also see the sunrise from the ridgeline as you’re climb. If you’re lucky, you might even spot unkai—a sea of clouds. When you reach the top, you can take the 2.4 km route circling the former crater and visit shrines along the way.
The Hida mountain range, also known as the Northern Japanese Alps, stretches for 105 km, straddles four prefectures, and his home to several summits soaring over 3,000 m. It’s packed with precipitous rock walls, volcanic lakes, and alpine flora and fauna. The national park offers a rich variety of trails, from multi-day trekking courses for seasoned hikers to beginner-friendly highland and ridgeline walks. Novices can try taking a cable car and lift to access the route from Happo-one to Mount Karamatsu (2,695 m), or scale Mount Tsubakuro (2,763 m), a peak with stunning ridgeline views. Experienced hikers can venture up to Mount Oku-Hotakadake, the highest peak in Chubusangaku (3,190 m), the spear-like Mount Yari (3,180 m), or Mount Tsurugi (2,999 m).
The Norikura Highland, Kamikochi, and the Hakuba area also offer opportunities for camping and hot springs. Many trailheads are directly accessible via highway buses from Tokyo and Nagoya in the summer.
Yakushima is an enchanting island located in the subtropical waters south of Kyushu. About 90% of it is forest land, home to 70% of Japan’s plant species and 40 endemic creatures, all within an island with just 130 km around. It also has 46 peaks towering over 1,000 m, meaning that Yakushima has a range of microclimates, from subtropical to subarctic. Heavy rainfall in the region has nurtured giant Yakusugi cedar trees over a millennium old. Because of these diverse features, the island’s primal forests are recognized as a World Heritage Site.
Sites like the giant 7,200-year Jomon Sugi cedar tree attract hikers.
The course involves a 22-km round trip—it takes about 9 hours to complete and is suitable for intermediate level hikers. On the way, expect to see magical forest views and beautiful carpets of moss.
Beginners can pay a visit to Yakusugi Land—it has well-maintained paths, and you can take quick hikes varying from 30 minutes to 2.5 hours. After working up a sweat, relax at a hot spring with fantastic seaside views.
Shirakami Sanchi is a World Heritage Site that stretches across Akita and Aomori. It is one of world’s largest expanses of virgin beech forests, and while some parts of the site have been left completely untouched to preserve it for future generations, it is set up with several trails for light hikes and climbing.
Visitors can take the 1.5-hour scenic course winding through beech forests around the Juniko Lakes—look out for the cobalt blue Ao-ike Pond and Mount Shirakami reflected on the mirror-like surface of Higurashi-no-Ike Pond. Other noteworthy courses include the 5-hour trail to the 400-year-old “Mother Tree” beech and the 8-hour course to the summit of Mount Shirakami (1,232 m).
Note that an entry permit is required to access the core part of Shirakami Sanchi with old-growth beech forests. The best season to visit is between July and October.
Daisetsuzan is a vast volcanic mountain range located in the center of Hokkaido. The indigenous Ainu people called this enchanting area kamuimintara, meaning “the garden where the gods play.”
Daisetsuzan National Park has several peaks over 2,000 meters and about 300 km of trails. Each route is assigned a grade between 1 and 5, depending on the level of technical difficulty. Mount Asahidake (2,291 m), is the highest peak—you can take a ropeway partway up the slopes. The summit is a 5-hour round trip from the ropeway station. Beginners can opt to walk the 1.7-km path around the ropeway station to view an emerald green pond, spirals of volcanic smoke, and stunning panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. Other options include taking a ropeway up to Mount Kurodake. Seasoned hikers can opt to complete a five to seven-day traverse to Mount Furanodake from Mount Asahikdake or Mount Kurodake.
Depending on the area, the leaves start to change color in late August. In the short summer season, visitors can enjoy picturesque views of snow covered valleys and fields of delicate alpine flowers. After an exhilarating hike, relax at a nearby hot spring inn like Sounkyo Onsen.
The Kuju mountain range has over 20 dome-shaped volcanic peaks and, along with the Aso area in the south, form the Aso-Kuju National Park. The area has a unique topography with expansive grasslands nurtured by sedimentary soil from pyroclastic flows. These long grasses are used for grazing, and have for centuries, been maintained through controlled burning.
The scenic Yamanami Highway winds through the Kuju mountain range and many trailheads can be found along the way. There are plenty of courses to choose from—venture to the summit of the range’s highest peak, the 1,791-meter Mount Nakadake (6.5 hours) or explore grassy ridgelines starting from the Chojabaru Visitor Center (3.5 hours). Outdoor enthusiasts can also pay a visit to the RAMSAR-registered Bogatsuru wetland or do an overnight hike to Mount Mitsumata in spring to see rhodhodendrons and azaleas, or June when Miyama-Kirishima flowers (Rhododendron kiusianum) are in full bloom.
Mount Takao, located just 60 minutes by train from Shinjuku, is a three-starred spot on the Michelin Guide and one of the most easily accessible day trips from Tokyo. At an altitude of 600-meters, the mountain may not be too high, but it’s packed with plenty of options. Depending on your stamina and time limitations, you can choose to take a cable or lift partway up the mountain, or traverse rapids and long ridgelines. The cable cars are barrier-free, so wheelchair users can enjoy beautiful aerial views as they ascend from Kiyotaki Station on the Takaotozan Railway to Mount Takao Station. From there, you can take the gentle 1-km Onnazaka slope to Yakuoin Temple.
Mount Takao offers plenty of sightseeing opportunities—savor vegetarian Buddhist fare at Yakuoin Temple or sample soba noodles, dengaku bean cake, dumplings, or beer at one of the mountain huts along the temple approach. In summer, treat yourself to some shaved ice or enjoy spectacular views of the city from the beer garden near the last cable car stop. After your descent, you can take a dip at a nearby hot spring. Mount Takao can also be explored in half a day, making it perfect for a short outing.
If you’re traveling around Shikoku, you might spot some people donned in white garb, sedge hats, and walking sticks. They are pilgrims on the Shikoku pilgrimage route (Shikoku Henro) covering 88 sacred temples associated with the Buddhist priest Kukai (Kobo Daishi) across four prefectures. The belief behind this is that people have 88 earthly desires, so pilgrims can have these desires erased and wishes come true by visiting these sites.
The minimum distance to complete the pilgrimage is 1,130 km. You need about 40 days to complete it on foot and about 10 if you plan on taking buses and trains. The route crosses steep and rugged mountainous areas, and the culture of osettai, the charitable act of offering food and shelter to pilgrims, is an important source of support for those taking on the long journey. It is a way expressing gratitude to Kobo Daishi and these traditions help preserve the Shikoku pilgrimage route.