As foreigners, we are often asked what brought us to Japan. Most of the time, it’s pretty straightforward—work, school or family. However, I like to give a not-always-welcome long-winded answer about Japan’s hiking trails.
Unfortunately, due to the ongoing pandemic, travel has been interrupted and the magnificent hiking trails of Japan have become temporarily out of reach. However, there is one unavoidable silver lining in this unprecedented health crisis: our increased appetite for travel and heightened appreciation of the outdoors.
I try to get out every chance I get to discover the countless trails that rural Japan offers. Moreover, as an avid photographer, I’m repeatedly drawn to the less demanding courses of Japan, where I can focus on capturing the scenery rather than tackling the next challenging climb. It’s the best of both worlds. Mountains cover roughly 73% of Japan, and there are some epic climbs and multi-day pilgrimages you can traverse. It’s where you can see the perfect fusion between Japan’s culture and nature.
I’m yearning to get back to Japan’s mountains, and I know I’m not the only one. So to inspire your next hiking trip (or even your first) once the pandemic is over, here is a list of my favorite trails in Japan suitable for all levels of experience.
5. Susoaidaira Valley
Susoaidaira Valley is in the largest national park of Japan—Daizetsuzan National Park in Hokkaido. Although the famous weeklong grand traverse of Daisetsuzan and its numerous peaks will challenge even seasoned hikers, the Susoaidaira Valley trail allows you to experience some of the most beautiful scenery in the park without demanding much in return. The picture-perfect view of the valley so took me that I changed my travel plans during my last visit to Daisetsuzan to walk the trail a second time.
The scenery along the trail, which takes five to six hours as a roundtrip, is particularly mesmerizing in September when Hokkaido welcomes the autumn colors earlier than any other region in Japan. Given the size of the park and the relatively limited number of visitors compared to other hot spots in Japan, Susoaidaira Valley offers an excellent opportunity to enjoy koyo (autumn leaves viewing) in relative solitude.
July and early August are another great time to visit the valley when the alpine flowers bloom in scenery rivaling the Swiss Alps. You will often spot botanic enthusiasts on the trail with notebooks in hand.
On this trail, you’ll rarely feel lonely. Instead, there’s an unspoken understanding that all the hikers will be looking out for each other. The quickly formed trail friendships are one of the wonderful traits of hiking culture in Japan and my experience in the trails of Daisetsuzan is no exception.
4. Oirase Stream
Oirase Stream in Aomori is another trail that ranks high in scenic beauty while being very easy on legs. The course, particularly popular during koyo, goes through Oirase Gorge and connects Nenokuchi to Ishigedo. It’s very easy to follow and can be walked either way in about three hours.
The gorge features numerous scenic waterfalls, such as the famous Choshi-otaki, in a relatively short distance. The trail gets busy from mid-October, but if you visit early enough, the only other hikers you will come across will likely be photographers patiently waiting for the perfect shot of one of the waterfalls. I could often count on them for generous tips for the best spots and a friendly early morning chat.
3. Magome-Tsumago Trail
Magome-Tsumago trail is for those who want to blend history and culture with natural scenery. Located along the famous Nakasendo Route in Nagano and Gifu which connects Tokyo to Kyoto through 69 different postal towns, the trail unites two of the most well-preserved postal towns: Tsumago and Magome. Many of the hikers spend the night at their end stop in either Magome or Tsumago benefiting from the luggage forwarding service available in the area.
The 8-kilometer-long trail goes through forests, waterfalls, shrines and villages along the Kiso Valley in the Japanese Alps and takes two to three hours one way. You’ll need to cross asphalt roads in certain sections, but it’s barely noticeable.
One of the most unexpected and rewarding stops along the trail was the tea house called Ichikokutochi Tateba-chaya, where a volunteer host happily welcomed me in and offered me tea. It was one of those magical moments where I tried really hard to absorb every detail about the experience—knowing that photos could never do it justice.
I know I talk about the blending of culture and nature in Japan, but Ichikokutochi Tateba-chaya is one of those places where you can sense and visualize it.
2. The Magose-toge Pass
The Iseji Route draws fewer visitors than the more famous Nahakechi route or the Imperial Route of Kumano Kodo but offers an equally memorable experience, if not more. Whenever I’m longing for a quiet and intimate experience, I dream of the Iseji Route. I would usually only spot locals on the weekend and rarely anyone else at all on weekdays.
The trail to Magose-toge Pass starts with a stone-covered path that gently climbs up, passes by a monument to the poet Karyoen Toitsu and stone bridge and then winds down to take you to the seaside fishing town of Owase. I always feel envious of the locals I encounter on the trail.
Traversing this gentle pass takes two to three hours, but you can extend it with a steep but short thirty-minute detour to Mt. Tengourasan, which offers excellent views of Owase Bay. During my last visit, I took the detour to Mt. Tengourasan and ran into two yamabushi—ascetic mountain monks—who were on a training mission.
One of the monks played his horagai—an instrument made of seashell used by yamabushi to communicate with other monks in the mountains. Unfortunately, at the time, my Japanese was not good enough to convey my sincere appreciation with the right words, but I hope that my childish excitement and smile delivered the message.
1. Yakusugi Land
Yakusugi Land in Kagoshima is an often-overlooked nature park in Yakushima, which is a shame (or blessing) because it has some of the best trails there—offering visitors the chance to get closer to the island’s ancient forests.
Yakusugi Land is one of my favorite hikes in Yakushima, and I have completed it multiple times. It is hard to resist the trail’s appeal—especially on a rainy day when the mist brings out the uniquely mystic atmosphere of Yakushima’s moss-covered forests. Even seasoned naturalists are often awed by its beauty. The moss-covered paths are lined by ancient trees and lead across picturesque suspension bridges and pristine rivers. This strangely underrated trail is usually much less busy than the island’s more popular Jomon Sugi and Shiratani Unsuikyo trails.
Several trails in the park take you anywhere from 30 minutes to seven hours (such as a hike to Tachu Dake’s peak). The 30-minute trail follows a wooden pathway and leads to a thousand-year-old tree named Sennen-sugi. Another path, which takes around 50 minutes, leads to Buddha-sugi—a famous tree estimated to be 1,800 years old.
I highly recommend that you spend at least half a day in Yakusugiland and hike a little further to follow the 210-minute course that will take you to Tenmon-no-Mori Forest. The forest gets denser and darker as you go deeper into the park and leave the wooden sidewalks behind. You’ll feel and appreciate the mystical appeal of Yakushima.
Everyone has a favorite spot in Yakushima, and for me, it’s unquestionably Tenmon-no-Mori Forest, especially on a rainy day.