Besides culture, cuisine and great shopping, Japan is also home to breathtaking vistas and mountainous terrain. In fact, three-quarters of the country is mountains.
If this is not your first trip to Japan, discover Japan anew by taking a walk, and discover the warm hospitality of the locals in rural villages. Some treks may be tough, but the views are compensation.
Since travel has resumed, walking holidays have gained popularity. “Since the reopening of Japan’s borders, queries and bookings for our tours in 2023 have surpassed pre-pandemic levels, “ says Paul Christie, CEO of Walk Japan.
Demand is so great that the pioneer in walking holidays – both guided and self-guided (where the company gives detailed directions, makes accommodation bookings and provides support) in the country is adding more tours to the hundreds already listed for 2023 and 2024.
Paul notes that the affluent and well-travelled who form the majority of Walk Japan’s customers from Singapore are usually already familiar with cities like Tokyo and Kyoto. “What they want to do through us is to delve deep into Japan’s geographical and spiritual soul, get closer to the local communities and make meaningful connections.”
And if wonderful cuisine is on the itinerary, you have your instant winner on your hands.
Paul shares that Walk Japan’s Onsen Gastronomy: Oita & Kumamoto tour is particularly popular with Singapore customers. Hikers traverse through Kyushu, meandering through serene valleys, tranquil rivers, and charming villages.
A day of trekking usually culminates with an overnight stay at minshuku or ryokan with an onsen that serves seasonal, local produce and sakes sourced from boutique breweries in a kaiseki dinner. As the Oita prefecture produces 40 percent of Japan’s shiitake mushrooms, the best of the fungi is most likely to make an appearance in one of the courses.
So well-developed is Japan’s hiking culture that there are many mountain lodges along popular treks that cater to hikers. This makes it possible and sometimes, even easy for foreigners to plan their hiking holidays, especially short day treks.
However, because of the language barrier and sometimes, unforeseen changes in route – when the terrain becomes impassable due to extreme weather conditions, it is recommended that you plan your hiking holiday with an operator who can update you and make contingency plans – even if it’s a self-guided trip you are making.
Some routes are very remote, like the Koheichi in the famous Kumano Kodo pilgrimage network which stretches across the mountainous Kii Peninsula.
Here are five of the most scenic walks that one can find in Japan suited for the occasional walker to the harcore hiker.
When you are the only hiker in your group: Jyukai Lava Hiking
If you are travelling with family or with friends with varied interests, going on a long hike might not be feasible, or friendly. Located at the base of Mount Fuji – Japan’s tallest at 3776m, Hoshinoya Fuji offers a win-win solution for all. Nestled in a forested mountainside on the shores of Kawaguchi Lake, getting a booking for one out of the hotel’s 40 cabins means having close-up haiku-evoking views of Japan’s most famous mountain. While your friends or family members learn to smoke food or chop firewood – just two of the many activities offered by the hotel, you can join a leisurely, guided 3.5km hike that explores the Jyukai forest and its lava caves formed from Mount Fuji’s eruptions over thousands of years.
The evergreen hike for all levels: Nakasendo Way
The legendary Nakasendo Way was a mountainous inland road that connected samurais from Kyoto to Tokyo during the Edo period (1603 – 1868). It is also one of Walk Japan’s first itineraries offered to guests, and has remained one of its bestsellers. The five-day, four-night Nakasendo Way: The Kiso Road, is an extract of the classic (and equally popular) 11-day Nakasendo Way tour. It is popular with beginner hikers with limited time on their hands. The routes in the Nakasendo network have remained well-maintained throughout the centuries, are well marked with many relics such as ancient tea houses and even stone altars and statues of deities. The Kiso Valley is also dense with cypress trees, which give off a distinctive scent that assuages weary hikers. Many walking tour companies offer this trail which can also be organised by travellers themselves.
Walk and ruminate in the Tohoku hinterland: Basho Tohoku Walk
Those who appreciate both beautiful landscapes and haiku: Japanese poetry, might enjoy Walk Japan’s 7-day, 6-night Basho Tohoku Tour: Road to the North. Inspired by Matsuo Basho, an itinerant poet in the 17th century who is also Japan’s most famous, the itinerary is a poetic journey through Japan. Basho’s most famous poetic travelogue Oku no Hosomichi (“The Narrow Road to the Deep North”) was the result of five months spent exploring the main island of Honshu. While following Basho’s footsteps to visit the opulent temples and gardens of Hiraizumi, the centre of Shugendo asceticism – Mount Haguro, hikers will get to rest their feet with a boat ride through the isle-dotted Matsushima Bay. A range of accommodations from traditional Japanese ryokans to western-style hotels is available. Interested hikers are recommended to read the Penguin Classic’s English translation of Basho’s book before the trip.
For the do-good walkers: A coastal trail in the northern Tohoku region
In 2011, an earthquake struck Japan’s north-eastern Tohoku region. A tsunami soon followed. Over 18,000 lives were lost, while many buildings were destroyed and communities devastated. Ten years on, the Fukushima catastrophe seems to have been forgotten by many outside Japan. While the memories live on, the locals are determined to rebuild their lives.
This positivity is one of the biggest takeaways for those who have signed up with Walk Japan for this itinerary since the company launched the Michinoku Coastal Trail in 2021 together with other stakeholders (although the track was officially completed in 2019). The Japanese government had requested them to help with the region’s recovery. The trail follows the Sanriku Coast that rims the Pacific Ocean, and continues over grassy promenades, through woods, along quiet beaches, over ragged clifftops; onto fishing ports and larger towns like Miyako, Ofunato and Kesennuma.
For the hardcore hikers: Traipse through Hokkaido’s hillscapes
Paul warns that Walk Japan’s 10-day, 9-night The Hokkaido Hike is the company’s toughest trail. However, the brave (and the fit) will be well rewarded on this walk on the wild side of Japan’s northernmost island. On this fully guided trip, hikers journey through lush forests, across wetlands, climb up spectacular volcanoes past steaming fumaroles, and scale high mountains – to be greeted by panoramas that stretch on for tens of kilometres. Endemic wildlife is also often spotted, making this trip popular with birders and animal lovers. Walkers are required to be comfortable with walking eight hours a day, and of good stamina and health. Those who are confident but short on time may want to take on Hokkaido’s most challenging peak, Mount Asahi-dake in a day. Although it stands at 2,291 metres, its ascent is relatively straightforward and manageable on a clear day. Hokkaido Nature Tours offers guided walks for this trail that usually takes advanced hikers under six hours.