Where are the best places to walk and hike in Japan? Well, you might not know this, but Japan is a nation of hikers. From the tippy top of northern Hokkaido to the lush jungles of Iriomote, there are beautifully maintained walking routes in every corner of country, and they’re generally easy to access and explore without a guide.
One of the great joys of hiking in Japan is the quality of the après-hike experience. After a hard day’s rambling through the mountains, to stay at a Japanese inn is absolute magic. Eat a hearty, home-cooked meal prepared by your hosts, then join your fellow hikers and soak your muscles in a natural hot-spring bath. It’s absolutely the best post-hike relaxation you can get. Then, after a cosy night on a futon in a tatami-mat room, you’ll be given a packed lunch to take on your merry way.
If you don’t have time for an overnight in the countryside, there are also plenty of day hikes to be had just outside of the city. You’ll be missing some rural hospitality, but — needs must!
So, where should you go for the best hiking in Japan? The following destinations are some of our favourites, but this list is a long, long way from comprehensive. Take it as a starting point and run (or rather, hike) with it.
Best for: History
an accessible and rewarding walk not far from Nagoya follows the old Nakasendo Way through the Kiso Valley, linking the old post towns of Magome and Tsumago.
This feudal-era route was one of five main highways linking the shogun’s seat at Edo (now Tokyo) with the Imperial capital at Kyoto during the Edo Period (1603-1868). Back then, samurai tramped this 540 km (335 mi) cobbled road through the mountains, hunkering down at inns in post towns along the way — much as hikers do today.
These days, most of the Nakasendo has been lost, but parts of the original cobblestone road still survive in the Kiso Valley. The towns of Magome and Tsumago have been lovingly preserved almost as they were in the days of the samurai, and the trail between them winds for 7.3 km (4.5 miles) through woods and farmland little changed by the centuries.
Easy to difficult
Best for: Spirituality
The Kumano Kodo is a paradise for hikers. A complex network of pilgrimage trails spanning the Kii Peninsula just outside of Osaka, it’s attracted ramblers for over 1,000 years. In fact, such is its cultural and spiritual importance that the Kumano Kodo is the only pilgrimage route in the world besides the Camino de Santiago to be designated a World Heritage Site.
The three main destinations on the Kumano Kodo are three shrines: Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha, and Nachi Taisha. Beyond these, there are subsidiary trails leading off to Ise (home of the most important Shinto shrine in Japan), Yoshino (Japan’s no. 1 cherry blossom spot), and Mount Koya (famous for its temple stays and vast, otherworldly graveyard).
Though historical pilgrims were heading for one or more of these religious centres, the hike itself was as important as the destination — and so it remains today. Whether you walk just a small section or opt for a multi-day trek, some of the best experiences to be had on the Kumano Kodo come from spending nights in tiny hamlets, soaking in hot springs with fellow wanderers, and happening on tiny shrines hidden in the forest.
Best for: A challenge
No post about hiking in Japan would be complete without a mention of the mother of all mountains: Mount Fuji.
Hiking on Fuji is a different experience from the other destinations on this list. For a start, there’s the scenery. Up close, much of Fuji is barren, rocky, almost moon-like in its sparseness — quite different from the lush forests and national parks elsewhere.
Then there’s its popularity. Fuji is suffering from over-tourism and can get so busy that hikers now have to queue to pass at certain passages. For that reason, it’s certainly not a place to go to find stillness or sanctity, and we’d go as far as to say that it’s more picturesque when admired from a distance.
All but the most experienced hikers must scale the mountain in the official climbing season (early July to mid-September), and you’ll need to plan your timing carefully if you want to reach the 3776-metre summit for sunrise. Accommodation is provided at mountain huts, and you’ll need to pack warm clothes for the thin air of the summit — even when it’s sweltering at sea level.
The climb is taxing but not technically difficult, so anybody in good physical fitness can tackle it (and, like everywhere in Japan, you’ll no doubt find yourself beaten to the top by a few Japanese grandmas and grandpas). The view from the peak is breathtaking, and the sense of achievement is out of this world.
Easy to difficult
Best for: Stunning scenery
Kamikochi, literally “Land of the Gods”, was not misnamed. It’s often cited as the most beautiful place in Japan, and far be it for us to disagree. This 15-kilometre plateau is part of the Chubu-Sangaku National Park, and follows the luminous, turquoise waters of the Azusa River through some of the most dramatic mountain scenery in the country.
Private cars are banned from the area, so the only way to reach Kamikochi is by bus or taxi. A network of hiking trails fans out from Kappabashi Bridge, near the bus terminal, encompassing everything from easy walks along the river (including to stunning Taisho Pond) to challenging, technical hillwalking on Mount Hotaka and other surrounding peaks. This really is a hiking wonderland.
Easy to medium
Best for: Temples
If you’re looking for some beautiful hiking that’s easily accessible from Tokyo, Nikko ticks all the boxes. Some of the most stunning, elaborate shrines and temples in the entire country? Check. Spectacular autumn leaves? Check. A huge, beautiful lake fringed with forest, hot springs and waterfalls? Check, check, check.
It’s possible to visit Nikko on a day trip from the capital, but if you want to fit in hiking as well as the lavish World Heritage shrines, you’ll need to spend the night at one of the local inns. Hikes range from leisurely walks along the lakeside to more moderate hikes further into the national park.
Best for: Avoiding the crowds
The Shin-Etsu trail is a 70 km (43 mi) hiking path that traces a centuries-old trade route along the backbone of the Sekida Mountains, roughly following the border between Nagano and Niigata Prefectures. The trail passes through beech and cedar forests and marshland, and boasts epic views over the Sea of Japan, including Sado Island. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get to see the sea of clouds phenomenon forming over the valley below.
Despite being one of our favourite hikes and easily accessible from Tokyo, the Shin-Etsu trail rarely gets busy, making for a wonderfully peaceful hiking experience. The route is divided into six sections, each of which takes around six to eight hours to hike. You can choose to tackle just a section or two — or devote a whole week to the endeavour, spending your nights in guesthouses along the route. With easy access from Iiyama station on the newly extended Hokuriku Shinkansen line, there’s no reason not to.
Tateyama Kurobe Alpen Route
Easy to difficult
Best for: Epic snow corridors
This unique and spectacular route isn’t just for hikers: it’s a multi-transport adventure linking the city of Toyama with Omachi Town via a combination of cable cars, trolley buses and ropeways. The mountain scenery is amazing (naturally), but the most novel attraction is the famous snow corridor, where banks of snow up to 20 metres tall line the roads in spring. From the middle of April until late June, a stretch of this corridor is open to pedestrians, and it’s certainly a walking experience like no other.
Elsewhere along the route, expect to see plentiful alpine flowers in spring and beautiful leaves in autumn, with plenty of hotels, mountain huts and campgrounds along the way to break up the journey. The Kurobe Dam is a particularly impressive sight — especially when it’s discharging water from late June to mid-October.
Easy to difficult
Best for: Ancient rainforest
Quite a contrast to the other hikes on this list, the island of Yakushima off the coast of Kyushu is covered in primeval temperate rainforest, including many Japanese cedar trees over 1,000 years old.
Hiking is the main activity here, so you can bet there are some beautiful routes. One of the most popular takes walkers to Jomon Sugi, thought to be the oldest tree in Japan — perhaps even as old as 7,000 years.
After you’ve tramped through these beautiful, atmospheric forests (which served as the inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece, Princess Mononoke), you can soak in an onsen hot spring on the beach before retiring to one of the islands exceptional ryokan inns.
Easy to difficult
Best for: Hot waterfalls!
Heading north to Hokkaido, we come to Shiretoko: a wonderfully untouched national park on a far, northern peninsula. All roads finish about three quarters of the way into the park, so that the northern tip can only be reached by boat or on a multi-day trek.
In winter, this is the northern hemisphere’s southernmost region of drift ice, beloved by birdwatchers for its colonies of magnificent sea eagles: among the best of Japan’s winter wildlife. For the rest of the year, it has some of Hokkaido’s best hiking — including a unique hike up the Kamuiwakka River, which is naturally hot due to its volcanic hot-spring source.
Hikers actually walk up the centre of the river (helmeted and booted, we might add), because the natural acidity of the water means there’s no slippery algae on the riverbed. As you ascend, you’ll climb up three successively warmer waterfalls, reaching temperatures of 38°C (100°F) at the top. Amazing.
Medium to difficult
Best for: True wilderness
We’re staying in Hokkaido for our final destination, which might just be the best hiking of all.
Daisetsuzan National Park is the largest on the island, covering an area larger than some of Japan’s smaller prefectures. Unlike more southerly hikes, which tend to be speckled with towns, hamlets, temples and farmland, this is proper wilderness. It’s a paradise for hikers — and for Ussuri brown bears — so you’ll have to undergo a short training session in bear etiquette before you head into the park (don’t worry, sightings are extremely rare).
Daisetsuzan is the first place in Japan to see the leaves start to turn in autumn, and the first to see snow when winter falls. Start your hike among the lovely wooden lodges and hot spring baths of Asahidake Onsen or Kogen Onsen, then head out into some of the most stunning scenery in all of Japan.
We meant it when we said that Japan’s hiking opportunities are endless. Our team know the best places to walk and hike in Japan, and we’ve put together many hiking modules which can be added to any Self-Guided Adventure. We’ve also planned entire trips for ramblers (see Honshu Hiking). Speak to one of our Japan travel experts to plan your own walking holiday today.