Mountain High, Ryokan Low: The Most Beautiful Hiking in Japan

Mountain High, Ryokan Low: The Most Beautiful Hiking in Japan

With its cloud-cloaked mountain ridges, wild crimson moorlands and deep gorges crowded with 1,000-year-old trees, Japan is a hiker’s delight. Escape the urban excess of its cities at five of our favourite Japanese walking destinations

“Japan” into your Instagram search and we bet the algorithm
will serve up some heart-worthy shots of Kyoto’s temple-trimmed streets, Tokyo’s neon night show and a few fat cats
tucking into instant ramen (we’re serious).

But, in news that won’t surprise anyone, there’s a lot more
landmass in the Land of the Rising Sun than just its cities. This
is a country of cloud-shaking volcanoes and snow-capped peaks,
golden forests and shrine-speckled trails. Over 70 per cent of
Japan’s terrain is mountainous, so going off-grid (or at least
off-road) is easier than you think (especially when you consider
trailheads are often easy to access via public transport).

Skip the queues of hikers wearing fresh-out-the-box boots on
Mount Fuji – we’ve trodden the (quite long) length of Japan to pick
out five adventure playgrounds for you to do some serious walking

Where to head for a hike in Japan

A stream runs through a moss-covered rainforest in Japan

Shiratani Unsuikyo Gorge, Yakushima

Best for: shinrin-yoku (forest bathing)

Watch your step, Indiana Jones. Exploring the twisting trails of
the Shiratani Unsuikyo Gorge requires sure footing as you navigate
the rope-like roots of the ancient cedar trees (called yakusugi)
that grow, gnarled and twisting, to form a storied forest spanning
over 240 hectares. You’ll have to catch a ferry (or a flight) to
Yakushima island, but the hassle is worth it. These forests hide
over 1,900 species and subspecies of flora, including a
7,000-year-old cedar. Routes winding between moss-covered trunks
and wet ferns are relatively easy, varying between one and five
hours in length, and paths (including a historic Edo-period trail)
are well maintained. Watch the animation Princess Mononoke before
you visit: it’s said Studio Ghibli director Hayao Miyazaki took
inspiration from the forest’s countless shades of green.

Walkers cross a bridge backdropped by snow-capped mountains
Photo credit: AffZanila /

Kamikochi, Nagano Prefecture

Best for: some serious scenery porn

Welcome to the Northern Japan Alps. We’d say these beauties are
a little bit different to the European peaks they share a name
with. Stretched across Japan’s main island of Honshu, the Hida
Mountains form the highest range in the country, tickling the sky
at 3,000m high and often appearing half-cloaked in shimmering
clouds. Lower down, you’ll find a thick blanket of bouclé-like
forest cloaking the mountain folds; higher up, the bosky terrain
gives way to sharp, snow-capped peaks. At less lofty heights, the
land swoops into deep gorges, falling beneath clear streams and
rock-strewn lava plateaus. Much of the area lies within the
Chubu-Sangaku National Park, including Kamikochi, a remote alpine
valley famed for its photogenic inhabitants and easy access to
day-long foothill walks. Head here to grab a shot of the famous
snow monkeys in Japan – the ruddy-faced macaques that hop into hot
springs when the weather gets tough – then hit the trail on the
Tokugo Pass, a steep 23km-long day hike. These are – hands down –
our favourite mountains in Japan.

Steaming volcanic activity in Japan

Daisetsuzan National Park, Hokkaido

Best for: otherworldly extremes

Despite its outlandish size and overwhelming remoteness, spread
across the country’s northern extremes, Daisetsuzan, Japan’s
largest national park, is surprisingly easy to get to. Jump on a
bullet train from Tokyo and in just four hours you’ll be a quick
bus ride away from its two onsen towns, Asahidake and Sounkyo. We’d
suggest skipping the much-lauded Grand Traverse route – unless
you’ve brought enough blister plasters for a seven-day excursion.
Instead, grab a map and explore the numerous day hikes
criss-crossing the otherworldly landscapes. For moon-like high
slopes, try the Kurodake Traverse, an eight-hour stomp between
gritty hills of orange rock dotted with dramatic craters. Arrive in
July and you’ll catch endless acres of blousy alpine flora; delay
until September for views of the fiery autumn display.

Autumn trees surround a lake

Towada-Hachimantai National Park, Honshu

Best for: animal encounters

A two-hour drive from Tokyo via Shinkansen, the northernmost
prefectures of Japan’s largest main island don’t get much airtime,
but with remote hills, lush forests and bubbling mud pools, it
deserves to. You’ll want to rent a car to explore as you navigate
Iwate’s thick forests and Akita’s hot springs – and if you’re on
four wheels, it makes sense to take in the road that’s crowned
Japan’s most beautiful, the Hachimantai Aspite Line. Hiking-wise,
though, we’re heading to Mount Hachimantai, a 1600m peak. Reserve a
spot with a local guide for help in deciphering the native flora
and fauna (they’ll know what to do if one of the area’s Asiatic
black bears arrives), and they’ll take you to visit the mountain’s
Dragon Eye, a high-up pond that thaws between May and June in such
a way as to resemble an eye of a dragon. Finish your road trip by
heading to Lake Towada. Created by some serious seismic activity
that began approximately 200,000 years ago, deep, sapphire-blue
waters fill Japan’s largest crater lake. Nearby, the moss-covered,
14km-long Oirase Mountain Stream trail takes around four hours, and
takes in almost 30 waterfalls.

A man walks on a boardwalk across a yellow moorland expanse

Nikko National Park, Honshu

Best for: water-loving wanderers

Straddling three prefectures, Japan’s oldest national park is
awash with… um, water. Lakes, marshes and waterfalls shape its
mountain topography, feeding green-swathed forests, carving out
100m-deep canyons and pouring over cliff faces as glittering falls.
Head south-west to find Lake Chuzenji and Senjogahara, a storied
wetland some 1,400m above sea level that legend suggests was
flattened into a battlefield for a war between two mountain gods.
Boardwalks circumnavigate this high moor, connecting surrounding
hot springs and impressive waterfalls to mountain vistas via trails
that take no more than three hours to complete. Arrive in autumn to
see the normally verdant moor grass transformed to a furious medley
of orange and crimson, with the area’s larch trees flaming a
brilliant yellow-gold.

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