Japan’s numerous mountains and various climates offer great outdoor experiences. In this article, we cover a wide variety of hikes, including some of the country’s most remote, historic and beautiful routes. You’ll soon learn that there’s much more to hiking in Japan than Mount Fuji.

Historic routes and pilgramages

1. Nakasendo between Magome and Tsumago

tsugamo - Nakasendo trail hike
Tsumago with lots of well-preserved traditional wooden houses and shops | Photo by chris kirkland

Nakasendo (also known as Kisokaido) was one of two routes that connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) with Kyoto. This 534 kilometer road weaves through mountainous central Japan, and this particular stretch traces a pleasant walk between two old towns in the Kiso Valley: Magome and Tsumago. With much of old Japan lost to concrete and modernization, this trail is a good opportunity to see an older way of life, traditional wooden houses, original Nakasendo stone paving and nature.

Not only is the trail an easy walk with only slight hills, it’s also easy to get to—only a little over 2 hours on trains and buses from Nagoya. If you’re traveling on a Japan Rail Pass, you can get most of the way there using the JR Shinkansen and JR Chuo Line. There’s plenty of accommodation in the area, so you can round off your authentic “old Japan” experience by staying at a traditional ryokan or minshiku (Japanese traditional inns and B&Bs).

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2. Old Tokaido Road

cobblestones of Tokaido Route
Photo by iStock.com/dar_st

The Old Tokaido Road is one of the most popular pilgrimage routes in Japan (along with the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage). It’s a historic samurai-tread trail, dotted with religious sites and castle ruins, that connects Tokyo to Kyoto. One great thing about this hike is that you can make it as long or as short as you like. You can do: 1) an easy one- or two-day trek through Hakone, 2) a seven-day hike + train journey, or 3) the full 21-day walk from beginning to end. Check out the above-linked article for more info on all three options.

The downside? Much of the old trail has been swallowed up by the Tokaido Highway—a motorway with no pedestrian paths. That means to complete the full route by foot, you’ll have to detour around or along side it. But there are tons of great sightseeing spots along the way, so it might not be a downside at all.

3. Kumano Kodo

  • Level: Moderate – some steep mountain paths, but you can take a gentle pace
  • Transport: Train + bus, 3 hours from Osaka
  • Time of year: Year round
  • Length: 2 to 6 days
  • More info: Article on hiking Kumano Kodo
Nachi Falls
The iconic Nachi Falls found along one of the Kumanokodo routes | Photo by Chris Kirkland

While not the very best of Japan’s nature and scenery, Kumono Kodo is still a contender for one of the best all-round routes for getting a taste of off-the-beaten-track Japan. This ancient pilgrimage route dating back to the 10th century offers a chance to visit ancient shrines and temples as well as hot springs, and to stay in some traditional villages with the wonderful Japanese hospitality. The hiking trail connects villages and religious sites across the Kii Peninsula, and you can choose from a variety of multi-day routes. The walking level is relatively easy, and paths are well marked, but you’ll need to be reasonably fit to hike the path comfortably as some sections of the route are steep and rise above 1,000 m in altitude.

Much of the hike is through an evergreen cedar forest, so take a break and make the most of any view points along the way. Two view points worth a mention are near the route that passes by Nachi Falls: Mount Myoho Fuji view point and Irokawafujimitoge. These are the most distant land points from which Mount Fuji is visible—a staggering 320 km and 323 km away, respectively. But don’t bank on seeing Mount Fuji when you visit. Even if you get there in time for the sunrise, your chances of having the right air conditions to be able to see that far are low. You can instead just gaze pensively into the hazy yonder.

Photo by Chris Kirkland

Similar to the Nakasendo route above, this path still has many of the original paving stones along which pilgrims have walked for centuries. The religious sites and temples along the way make for nice waypoints. If you want to dip your toe into pilgrimage, you can collect a stamp at each spot and walk your way to the complete set. If you end up completing the full Kumano Kodo route, you can set yourself the stretch goal of “dual pilgrim” by then going on to walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain. Once you’ve completed both, you’ll receive a dual pilgramage badge.

As is typical for some of Japan’s more authentic experiences, many of the ryokan and minshiku are run by Japanese families (who tend not to be very tech literate) and aren’t often found on modern Western booking sites. But thanks to the great efforts of community-run Kumano travel, you can relatively easily book a multi-day trip with accommodation, food (vegetarian options often catered for), and even the taxi service to ferry your luggage to your next destination each day.

Hiking in nature

4. Mount Yoshino

  • Level: Easy
  • Transport: 1 hour 40 min train ride from Nara or just over 2 hours from Osaka
  • Time of year: Best in spring/cherry blossom season
  • Length: 1 day
  • More info: Article on hiking Mount Yoshino
Mt. Yoshino cherry blossoms
Photo by iStock.com/SeanPavonePhoto

Hike up Mount Yoshino in Nara Prefecture during spring for a truly incredible sight. Home to 30,000 cherry trees, Mount Yoshino is considered the best spot in all of Japan for sakura viewing. The best spots to take it all in are from Hanayagura Observatory or Yoshimizu-jinga Shrine. The 7 km hike from Yoshino Station to Hanayagura Observatory will take just shy of 2 hours. You’ll pass through the main town where you can pick up sakura-themed (of course) snacks along the way.

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5. Sandankyo Gorge

Sandankyo Gorge is a famed nature spot located just an hour from Hiroshima by bus. The 12 km nature expanse, designated a Special Place of Scenic Beauty by the Japanese government, offers a variety of routes with rivers, waterfalls, and beautiful geological structures along the way. Ramble along leisurely paths to reconnect with nature, or more ambitious hikers can choose the 5-hour full trekking course. There’s even an option to rent a kayak for those wanting to up their outdoor adventure.

6. Hike to Jomon Sugi, Yakushima’s oldest tree

Yakushima - Jomonsugi - Anbo Trail
Yakushima | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

The journey to Jomon Sugi, Yakushima’s oldest tree, is the main hike of the island. The tree, believed to be as old as 7,000 years, is a Japanese cedar. Yakushima’s ancient rainforst, rich with 1,900 species and subspecies of flora, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Two paths will get you to Jomon Sugi: the Anbo Trail and the Okabu Trail. The Anbo Trail (8 km) is an easy but long walk that follows defunct railway tracks, while the Okabu Trail is a proper hike, with sections that require an arduous workout of climbing up stairs and ladders and hopping over roots.

Mountain hiking

7. Takamagahara, a hike to Japan’s most remote hot spring

  • Level: Expert
  • Transport: Buses or private taxi, 2 hours from Toyama
  • Time of year: June to late October
  • Length: 3 to 4 days
  • More info: Article on hiking to Takamagahara
  • View from Kumonodaira - chubu region
    View of Yarigatake in the distance | Photo by Chris Kirkland

    After the being sandwiched among the millions in Japan’s dense cities, you’ll appreciate this hike for it’s expansive skies and abject lack of civilization. It’s a 2 hour drive through tunnels and winding up a narrow mountain road (that closes after dark) just to reach the trailhead. From there, it’s four days of hiking to complete the trip. The route takes you across meadows, streams and mountain plateaus with stunning views, and you’ll have the hot spring to look forward to at the end.

    view south from takamagahara
    View south from Takamagahara | Photo by Chris Kirkland

    The route to Takamagahara is remote and all above about 2,000 m altitude, so you’ll need to have plenty of mountain experience and be well prepared. Be warned: There’s little or no mobile phone reception for the entire trip, weather conditions can change quickly and mountain resuce insurance is highly recommended. If uninsured, a helicopter resuce costs 1.4 million yen.

    takamagahara onsen
    The “rotenburo” at Takamagahara onsen. Open air, and open to both men and women. | Photo by Chris Kirkland

    Despite being several days travel from civilization, the route is fairly popular and there are some very well-equipped mountain lodges along the way, so you can travel light if you book them for board and lodging.

    8. Yatsugatake Mountains

    Panoramic views from Yatsugatake | Photo by Chris Kirkland

    Relatively easy to reach and with breathtaking views, this volcanic ridge of eight mountains is a great introduction to some of Japan’s higher-alitude hiking. Akadake, the highest peak at 2,899 m, boasts incredible views from Mount Fuji to almost the entire length of the Japanese Alps.

    While you can stay the night at one of the lodges at the base of the mountain range and hike up and down in a day, it’s usually more fun to extend the route into a multi-day trip by camping or staying at some of the mountain lodges that are dotted along the routes. Moreover, if you stay at a mountain lodge close to the summit of Akadake, then you’ll be able to catch the incredible views at sunrise. If you opt to continue on a multi-day ridge hike, weather permitting, you’ll enjoy great views along the full trek, as you are mostly above the tree line with uninterrupted views in all directions.

    9. Mount Kobushigatake

    Dawn view from Mt Kobushi
    Dawn view from Mt Kobushi | Photo by Chris Kirkland

    The problem with climbing Mount Fuji is that you can’t really appreciate its aesthetic from up close. To get a good view of Japan’s most famous mountain, you’re better of hiking one of the nearby mountains—and Kobushigatake will not dissapoint. Sunrise from the 2,500 m summit offers a breathtaking mountain vista, with Mount Fuji in the middle.

    Kobushigatake is good for most seasons outside of winter. The summer, while a bit sweaty, offers a plethora of mountain flowers, while late autumn lends itself to better views due to the drier air. The mountain is snowcapped from November till late spring, and the mountain hut at the summit is unstaffed from the end of November, so only the very experienced should venture out in the winter.

    Our article (linked above) covers a simple overnight round trip, but you could in theory extend this into a multi-day hike and trace your way back to Tokyo as the trail connects with the trails to Kasatori and Kumonotori (Tokyo’s highest point), with other mountain huts on the way for accommodation.

    10. Mount Fuji

    • Level: Moderate
    • Length: 1–2 days
    • Transport: Train + bus, 3 hours from Tokyo
    • Time of year: July to early September
    • More info: Article on hiking Mount Fuji

    Last but not least—and certainly first on many people’s Japan hiking bucketlist—is Mount Fuji. This iconic snow-capped mountain is famous the world over and elicits bragging rights for those who make it to the 3,766 m peak.

    In addition to a moderate level of fitness and stamina, the hike requires some preparation, especially if you plan on spending the night in one of the mountain lodges (see the above-linked article for options). You’ll also have to sort out your transportation in advance (the cheapest option is booking a round-trip bus ride) and pack your bag with enough water and food to last your journey. There are some shops along the way and a small restaurant at the top, but they are overpriced. Not to mention the are hordes of people who are also hiking up Fuji, so wait times may be an issue. Best to cover your bases.

    In terms of scenery, it’s not that impressive. As Fuji is a volcano, you’ll be met with a barren black landscape for most of the way. However, the views from the top are pretty spectacular—there’s high praise for catching the sunrise and being one among the clouds. Alternatively, you can climb some nearby mountains if you’d prefer a view of Fuji instead.

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