Pilgrimages and peaks: how to find the right hike for you in Japan

Walk Japan CEO Paul Christie — a resident of Japan for two decades — has explored Japan from its spectacular coasts to its dramatic volcanic interior, and shares five of his all-time favourite rambles.

Monday, May 11, 2020,
By Paul Christie
Hikers on the Yoshida Trail on the way up Mount Fuji.

Hikers on the Yoshida Trail on the way up Mount Fuji.

Photograph by Mark Parren Taylor

From its spectacular coasts to its dramatic volcanic interior, Japan is scored with hiking trails, both ancient and modern. Paul Christie — a resident of Japan for two decades, and CEO of tour operator Walk Japan — has explored the length and breadth of the country. Here, he shares his tips for five show-stopping hiking routes. 

Nakasendo Way
Best for: 
Culture-seekers & samurais
Route: Kyoto to Tokyo
Length: 74 miles (shorter sections available)
The trail’s history goes back to the days of the samurai, but it’s also a great introduction to modern Japan. Not only are you walking through the diverse geography between the cultural cradle of Kyoto and the metropolitan modern capital of Tokyo, you’re also experiencing Japan’s history, culture and society close-up. Passing through little-visited regions, you can enjoy hearty, rural meals and overnight in picturesque communities like Sekigahara, Magome, Tsumago, Narai and Karuizawa. It’s a great way to discover just how fascinating — and welcoming — the country can be. The trip can last between eight to 12 days, depending on the route.

The Kunisaki Trek
Best for: 
Bridges & Buddhism
Route: Fukuoka to Yufuin 
Length: 44 miles 
I lived on the Kunisaki Peninsula for 18 years, so maybe I’m a little biased, but I think it’s one of the most beautiful areas of Japan. It’s one of the oldest and greatest centres of Buddhism in Japan, with fascinating trails once followed by monks in prayer and meditation. The eight-day Kunisaki Trek visits some exquisite temples and quiet hamlets set in a serene landscape, as well as passing along craggy ridges and over towering cliffs. This does demand a decent level of fitness and a reasonable head for heights. Once on the peaks, you’re rewarded with breathtaking scenery and the thrill of negotiating the narrow ridges. If you’re after an authentic taste of Japan, look no further. 

Mount Fuji
Best for:
Conquering an icon
Start & end: Fuji-Subaru Line 5th Station
Length: Eight miles
Fuji is Japan’s highest and most elegant peak, a dormant volcano rising to a height of 12,390ft. It can be hiked between July and September, and the most popular route is the Yoshida Trail, which starts out from the 5th Station (7,545ft). From here, it can take around six hours to reach the top. An average of about 30,000 people tackle Fuji each day and it can feel crowded, particularly during Obon festival in August, but it’s still a great adventure. There’s good camaraderie between those climbing, plus the reward of reaching the very highest point in Japan.

Hiker Hayashi Naoki on the Yoshida Trail, Mount Fuji.

Photograph by Mark Parren Taylor

The Hokkaido Hike
Best for:
Going off the beaten track
Route: Akan-ko to Shikotsu-ko Onsen
Length: 42 miles 
This is serious hiking, trudging up and down peaks in Japan’s last major wilderness. Even the tour leaders only tend to do one of these a season. It’s a 10-day trek, and you can be walking up to eight hours a day and up to 6,500ft above sea level, overnighting in small, comfy hotels. There are bears in these parts, too, so a trained guide is essential, and the best time to go is between July and September. You’ll find rare alpine flowers in mountain passes, hike through forests and wetlands, and face explosions of water vapour from dramatic volcanic vents. There’s the chance to spot wildlife too — sightings can include foxes, deer and eagles. 

The Izu Geo Trail
Best for:
Showstopping coastal geology
Route: Tokyo to Shuzenji 
Length: 26 miles 
The Izu Peninsula, a UNESCO Global Geopark, is only 94 miles southwest of Tokyo, but feels worlds away. Either side of the peninsula are some of the deepest seas in the world, which serve as fertile fishing grounds. Shimoda, on the peninsula’s southern extremity, is where Commodore Perry’s Black Ships first came to Japan in the mid-1880s, portending the end of samurai Japan. This six-day coastal walk follows the east and west shoreline — although another option is to follow the peninsula’s spinal mountains, made famous in Kawabata’s novel, The Dancing Girl of Izu. On clear days, Mount Fuji fills the skyline to the north. 

For more information on Walk Japan's tours, visit walkjapan.com

Interview by Jamie Lafferty.

Published in the May/June 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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