Urban Routes to Ancient Trails: Walking in Japan
To walk is to travel. According to the Japan Walking Association, 75% of the muscles in the human body are located in the lower limbs, so keeping your legs moving is important to maintaining your health. Pack light and wear comfortable sneakers before you head out to make the most of your stroll.
The Japanese archipelago stretches from north to south with a rich variety of environments. Each season has something to offer—cherry blossoms in spring, lush greens in summer, and colorful foliage in autumn. Walking lets you explore at a leisurely pace and experience the charms of each landscape with your five senses.
Check the weather, make sure you’re in the right physical condition, and hop into a pair of comfortable shoes before you step out. Warming up your legs properly is important, especially when it’s cold—stretch your Achilles tendons and calves to get ready. People tend to sweat even in cold weather, so it’s best to wear clothes made with absorbent material and put on a pair of gloves—it could be risky to walk with your hands in your pockets. To stay hydrated, pick up a sports drink or water at a vending machine or convenience store.
If you’re planning to walk in the summer, it’s best to opt for early mornings or evenings, and avoid direct sunlight as much as possible. Hats and sunglasses are essential, and make sure you drink plenty of water. Wherever you go, be considerate of the locals and respect the natural environment.
The Japan Soaring Association was established in 1965, a year after the first Tokyo Olympics. To commemorate the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the association has selected a number of recommended walking courses*. One of them is the Minato Seven Lucky Gods Walk, a feasible course to explore during your stay in Tokyo. The 10-km course takes about two hours and 15 minutes to complete and starts at Azabu-Juban Station in the heart of the city. It takes you to a total of eight shrines and temples enshrining seven deities before finishing at Shiba Park at the foot of Tokyo Tower.
Just like in Greek mythology, each deity is associated with some kind of fortune—the Tenso Shrine is dedicated to Fukurokuju, the god of longevity, while the Azabu Hikawa Shrine is for Bishamonten, the god of warriors.
The area also has a great mix of stylish shopping complexes like Roppongi Hills and Midtown, as well as traditional houses and old-fashioned shopping streets, so you can find interesting alleyways and unfrequented paths as you walk around.
Located in the ancient capital of Kyoto, Philosopher’s Path is a serene spot known for its stunning cherry blossoms and fall foliage. This quiet path is best explored alone or with a small group. The 2-km route starts at the Nyakuoji Shrine, taking you past Otoya Shrine and Honen-in Temple before you arrive at the Ginkaku-ji Temple area. It takes about 30 to 40 minutes to walk the entire route, but it’s best to stop by at the temples along the way, pick up rice dumplings at a food stall, or take a break at a cafe to make the most of your stroll. If you have time to spare, try walking from Nyakuoji Shrine to Eikando (Zenrinji) or Nanzenji Temple. Fun fact—the name “Philosopher’s Path” comes from an anecdote about the philosopher Kitaro Nishida, who spent time here in contemplation.
Kumano Kodo was originally a site of nature worship, revering the deities dwelling in rivers, waterfalls, and rocks. It is one of Japan’s most notable pilgrimage trails and is registered as a World Heritage Site. In the past, pilgrims had to traverse steep and dangerous mountain paths to reach the Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine. Now, parts of the trail have beginner-friendly walking courses with rest spots.
The most popular route for a stroll runs from Hosshinmon-oji (literally, “gate of spiritual awakening”) to the Grand Shrine. This 7-km route is moderately wide and has a gentle descent, taking about three hours to complete. Expect to see plenty of greenery surrounding the stone-paved path, and beautiful views of tea fields and terraced rice paddies along the way.
The tougher routes are still preserved. For full-fledged treks, opt for the 7.1-km Akagi-goe course to Yunomine Onsen, which is riddled with ups and downs, or the Kohechi Route, which requires traversing mountains passes with an elevation difference of over 1,000 meters.
In the Edo period (1603-1868), Tokyo and Kyoto were connected by two routes— Nakasendo and Tokaido. The Tokaido Route used to run along the Pacific coast and now serves as Shinkansen’s pathway, but the Nakasendo Trail is still walkable. Nakasendo literally means “middle mountain path” and, as the name suggests, it involved traversing mountains. It ran from the Sanjo Ohashi Bridge in Kyoto to Nihonbashi Bridge in Tokyo, covering a total distance of 534 km.
In its heyday in the 17th century, the Nakasendo was packed with travelers, including feudal lords, samurai, merchants, and pilgrims. Now, it’s a quiet historic trail that takes you past the scenic countryside. Highlights include views of the Japan Alps, the richly forested Kiso area, the historically significant Sekigahara battlefield, and the summer resort of Karuizawa. Many ancient buildings still survive in the Narai area in Kiso, transporting you back to the 17th century. Stay at a rustic inn or hotel to explore the area at your own pace.
The Izu Peninsula, located 150 km from Tokyo and about two hours by train, is a popular holiday spot with a mild subtropical climate, beautiful ocean views, mountains, and hot springs. About 20 million years ago, crustal movement caused an island that was originally located far to the south to collide with the Japanese archipelago, resulting in the Izu Peninsula as we know it today. It’s a geologically fascinating area where the Philippine Plate and the Eurasian Plate meet, and was recognized as a UNESCO Global Geopark in 2018.
Throughout the area, you’ll find plenty of volcanic sites like the Ryugu Sea Cave with a 50-m wide opening, Ebisu Island, where the remnants of an ancient underwater volcano are still preserved, and the Omuroyama Volcano, formed by an eruption about 4,000 years ago. Take a walk around these sites, followed by a fresh seafood meal. Finish your day with a soak in a hot spring created by volcanic activity.
The Tohoku area, packed with stunning natural landscapes, is home to the Tohoku Nature Trail*, a course spanning six prefectures and a total of 4,389 km. It’s also nicknamed the “New Basho Trail” as a tribute to the master haiku poet Basho who traveled through the region.
It begins in Hatajuku, Shirakawa in Fukushima, winds through various parts of Tohoku before finishing in Koriyama, also in Fukushima. There are 229 sections of the course that can be explored in one day, as well as connecting courses, so it’s a good idea to use the Tohoku Shinkansen and set up a multi-day plan. The course includes highlights such as Matsushima, a site that inspired Basho’s poetry, spots associated with samurai warriors or literary figures like Kenji Miyazawa, and the World Heritage Site Shirakami Sanchi.
You can opt to pay a visit to the Hachimantai area, known for trekking and spectacular autumn colors. Recently, it has been garnering attention for its SDG initiatives and efforts to use renewable energy sources such as geothermal power for a more sustainable society.
Even if you’re staying in Tokyo, you can still walk in lush natural surroundings. Yoyogi Park and Meiji Jingu Shrine are particularly convenient—you can shop or enjoy a meal after your stroll. The course is about 4.8 km and takes an hour and a half to complete. Start from Harajuku Station on the JR Yamanote Line and make your way to the nearby Meiji Jingu Shrine. The shrine itself is dedicated to the Meiji Emperor and serene park it is housed in is a striking contrast to the hustle and bustle outside. It’s also the shrine with the largest number of worshippers on New Year’s Day, and you might even spot a wedding ceremony taking place. The spacious grounds are lined with towering trees that provide a pleasant shade in the summer. Stop by the Japanese pond garden famous for its irises and look out for traditional architectural features.
The adjacent Yoyogi Park serves as a relaxation spot for locals—you’ll see dog-walkers and people enjoying picnics. It also has a pony park for kids and stalls selling beverages and snacks. Yoyogi Park is where the first airplane flew in Japan in 1910, and it’s marked by a monument.
Pick up some snacks on-the-go to make your stroll even more enjoyable. The shopping streets are an important part of local Japanese communities and offer you a valuable chance to delve into Japanese culinary culture. Sample tasty fare in spots like Ameyoko Market in Ueno, Tsukiji Outer Market, as well as the old towns of Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi. The snacks and sweets in these areas tend to be arranged so that they can be easily eaten while standing. They’re guilt-free treats since you’ll be burning calories walking!
Japanese-style croquettes are a walk-and-snack signature. Made with potato, minced meat, and onions breaded and fried, they’re simpler than their French counterpart. These croquettes are served freshly-fried and wrapped in paper, and cost about 100 yen. Be sure to try some if you see them being sold at a shopping street. However, be wary that other than in designated areas it can be considered rude to walk and eat.