For generations, the Japanese have trekked through dense forests and over barren mountains, using ancient pilgrimage routes to reach remote temples and holy shrines. During the Edo period, extensive trade routes were constructed, on which travellers would journey on foot, stopping at local ryokans (traditional inns) to visit onsen (hot spring baths) in sleepy, snow-covered mountain towns. Hiking is a big part of Japanese culture and the country has great infrastructure and facilities, making it a perfect destination for hikers. We have selected three of the best places to go hiking in Japan: for beginners, intermediates and experts.
The Kii Mountain Range – Good for Beginners
An ancient pilgrimage route links the three holy sites of the Kii Mountains: Kumano Sanzan, Koyasan, Yoshino and Omine. These sites were considered the home of gods (or kami) according to Shinto beliefs, leading to many temples and shrines being constructed throughout the mountain range. When travelling in the Kii Mountains, it is easy to understand why the region is considered sacred and pilgrimages to the area are believed to be auspicious.
Along the way, hikers will traverse rivers, waterfalls, climb ancient steps, and pass through mysterious burial grounds. Travellers are constantly surrounded by what seems like an endless forested landscape, giving the whole experience a timeless atmosphere, like something out of Japanese legend. To complete the experience, it is recommended that you stay at a ryokan or onsen to truly immerse yourself in Japanese culture. The excellent accommodations and services offered along the way, make this one of the best places to go hiking in Japan for beginners.
The sacred sites and pilgrimage route were inscribed into UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2004, the second pilgrimage route to be inscribed after Santiago de Compostela. The integrity of the Buddhist and Shinto temples is incredible. Since the sites have been in near constant use, the structures have been preserved using original materials and traditional techniques.
The Japanese Alps and Takayama – Suitable for Intermediates
Located in the mountainous Hida region of Gifu prefecture, Takayama is a well-known destination for travellers wishing to experience rural Japan. This charming mountain town is sometimes referred to as “Little Kyoto”, due to its well-preserved traditional houses dating back to the Edo period. The surrounding landscape is densely forested and Takayama is famous for its carpentry and traditional crafts.
The Hida region is extremely pleasant for hiking, with trails to suit nearly any level of proficiency. Known as the Japanese Alps, the Hida Mountains offer amazing views and great photo taking opportunities. There are several small towns and villages built around natural springs, nestled on the steep slopes. The area is often compared to famous European hiking destinations, such as the Swiss Jura Mountains or Austrian Tyrol.
Takayama is very popular with visitors, especially during festival season. When visiting the Hida Mountains it is therefore also recommended to visit one of the quieter towns, such as Hida-Furukawa. This gives visitors the opportunity to really immerse themselves in the culture and history of rural Japan. These quaint country towns also offer great opportunities for cycling tours.
Daisetsuzan National Park in Hokkaido – Ideal for Experts
Also known as the “Roof of Hokkaido” or “Big Snow Mountain”, Daisetsuzan is the largest national park in Japan and an area of outstanding natural beauty. Daisetsuzan National Park is also home to some rare species of wildlife including deer, brown bears and the notoriously cute pikas, a small rabbit-like mammal with rounded ears. The park offers some of the most wild and rugged scenery in all of Japan, if you are an experienced hiker then this area provides some great opportunity to challenge yourself on the route known as the “Grand Traverse”.
The “Grand Traverse” is a network of routes linking the Asahidake onsen in the north with the Shirogane onsen in the south, with stops at small mountain huts along the way. This trail can be extremely challenging if you are not a hiking veteran, and can take anything from 5-7 days, but there are many other shorter hikes which can be enjoyed by beginners and intermediates.
The area around Daisetsuzan is also extremely charming, with various traditional onsen from which you can enjoy the breath-taking landscapes. Even if you are not an experienced hiker, we can strongly recommend a trip to Hokkaido and Daisetsuzan National Park.
We hope you enjoyed this guide to the best places to go hiking in Japan. As always, if you have any questions or suggestions, please leave a comment below.
Make 2017 the year you discover Japan and add these hiking routes to your completely customisable itinerary.