Hiking in Japan is the perfect way for travellers to decompress after a neon overdose in Tokyo or another city.
While Japan’s futuristic cities, with all their great culture, food and nightlife, will provide the outline for most Japan backpacking tours, don’t forget to give yourself time in between to enjoy the Japanese great outdoors, whether it’s a day trip from Tokyo or a more ambitious climb up some of Japan’s highest mountains.
Cities among mountains
Japan is famous for its incredibly large, modern cities. Which is somewhat strange because building cities there must be a complete pain in the a***. Not only does the country sit near a tectonic plate that leads to regular earthquakes, but the terrain is around 80% mountainous. No wonder space in Japanese cities is at such a premium – there simply isn’t enough flat ground to expand into. The upside of this topographical headache for architects and city planners is that hiking in Japan is stunningly beautiful, with mountains of varying size from top to bottom.
For real mountain buffs it’s worth heading into one of the three mountain ranges that make up the Japanese Alps, around four or five hours from Tokyo. Among some of the highest mountains in Japan (3000m plus), there’s hiking, climbing, skiing and, of course, lots of onsen hotspring baths to rest tired feet. For the even more intrepid, there’s Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, which is a nature-lovers’ paradise.
Walk is cheap
But for everyone else, you really don’t have to go far from cities to find yourself lost on mountain trails, discovering secluded shrines and waterfalls. Making the most of the outdoors is a must – especially for backpackers on a bit of a budget. Not only will you see stunning scenery but hiking doesn’t cost much, especially if you stick to day treks and avoid expensive ryokan lodges. Pack a bag full of food and water and off you go – you can walk and hike to your heart’s content without any sign of a price tag or fee. (Read our Japan on the cheap blog post for more budget travel tips).
There are ample opportunities to do a day trip from Tokyo and get away from the hustle and bustle for a few hours. Mount Takao is a short train journey from central Tokyo and offers a number of trails to the top and temples to look at along the way. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon when the pace of city life is getting too much. If you don’t want to travel even 50 minutes by train, there are green spaces within Tokyo that offer a change of pace: the Meiji Shrine is set among wooded hills with paths and trails, and nearby is Yoyogi Park, one of the largest in Tokyo.
Hiking shrine to shrine in Kyoto
Kyoto is renowned for its dozens of temples nestled in hills that surround the city. There are a number of routes that make it possible to walk uninterrupted from temple to temple through the hills. For temple lovers, the eastern route (about 15km in all) is probably the best. You can start at Fushimi-inari Taisha shrine and finish at the foot of Mt Hiei, taking in several temples along the way. There are three parts to this trail, so the 15km is not obligatory – do as much or as little as you like.
The northern Kyoto trail is for experts as it totals 35km! There are fewer temples but more nature – lots of Kitayama cedar trees, in particular, and streams you’ll have to cross or jump over.
To the west of Kyoto is Arashiyama, which is well worth exploring for its other worldly bamboo corridors. Beyond the bamboo, the rest of the Arashiyama area, with its mountains, lakes and temples, can also be explored on bike – a great way to take in the slower pace of rural Japan.
And who can forget about the most famous mountain of all – Mt Fuji. It is possible to climb Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan (at 3776m), usually in two days. While there is a sense of achievement at reaching the top and surveying all beneath you, it is not a particularly beautiful climb. It’s volcanic scree and rock most of the way up, with no trees or vegetation. One alternative is to climb one of the neighbouring peaks, such as Mount Kuro or Ryuu-Ga-Take, and enjoy the view of Fuji from there.
These are all options that can fit seamlessly into a Japan adventure tour that is based around major cities and sights. It’s a great way of mixing and matching the best of Japan’s urban and rural settings.
Check out our brand new 13-day budget Japan tour for a perfect blend of city life and the great outdoors.