I am no seasoned hiker by any means, but on my recent trip to Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, I wanted to avoid the temples, brave the wilds and imitate adventurous outdoorsy types. So I mapped out a route and prepared for Japan’s great outdoors. Unfortunately, I failed to notice that my trek ended with impenetrable mountains and was only accessible by road.
I had also neglected another essential thing—bus times. Thus, by sunset, my partner and I were stranded on one side of Lake Chuzenji. It didn’t help that this was in bear territory. Thankfully, a shining slither of phone signal was enough to call a rescue speedboat to whisk us back to civilization and our hotel.
So that no other would-be adventurers end up like me; here is a list of all my missteps with extra tips on how not to be a complete dummy like me. Do as I say, not as I do.
Plan your route
This was where everything went downhill (or uphill, to be apt). I can’t stress the importance of planning, especially in rural Japan. Buses can run once an hour or day and stop early. Signs aren’t always in English. Apart from popular trails, there aren’t too many people.
I used AllTrails and Google Maps, but I should have asked the locals before trekking into unknown territory. This was especially true of the masses walking in the opposite direction (a bad sign). All it would have taken was a quick, “Tadashii michi desuka? (Is this the right way?)” tagged onto the obligatory, “Konnichiwa (Hello).”
Another error was that I, as a beginner, didn’t realize the importance of elevation gain. The constant up and down added time and contributed to missing the last bus. Experienced hikers tend to start earlier in the day.
- Go to the tourist center, get a map and some advice—that’s why it’s there.
- Use an app such as AllTrails, Yamareco (Japanese) or Komoot to plan your route.
- Inform someone of your route and plans, like your hotel, or use a tozan posuto (hiking trail itinerary box) for longer journeys.
- Know your limits: don’t aim for high peaks if you’re new to hiking or out of practice.
While some may think it’s overkill, you can’t go wrong by packing extra supplies. Extra food and water are essential but don’t forget a simple compass or GPS device. If your phone dies or doesn’t have a signal, you’ll be happy you have it. Speaking of dead phones—don’t rely on your phone for a map. Bring a physical map just in case.
Other items you’ll kick yourself for not having in case of emergency are good hiking shoes, a whistle, a blanket, a flashlight and a first aid kit.
Surprisingly, you’ll find a vending machine in even the most rural places in Japan, but there are limits, so pack plenty of water. We presumptuously thought there would be one at the end of our hike, and while indeed there was, it hadn’t been restocked in a long time. So all that was left was coffee—not exactly thirst-quenching.
- Bring a physical map.
- Don’t waste your phone battery.
- Pack lots of food and water.
- A compass, flashlight, blanket or first-aid kit could be a lifesaver.
Don’t go off course
Those ominous warning signposts are there for a reason and are extremely important, especially in certain seasons when terrain can slip and slide underfoot, or lack of shade can leave you baking in the sweltering Japanese sun.
Trail markers in Japan can be anything from a wooden signpost to an often bright pink ribbon tied around a tree. If you miss one, you may be scrambling up the side of a rock face by mistake like me. You also don’t want to spoil the surrounding natural beauty. In places like Yakushima, the moss-covered forest floor is almost sacred.
- Keep checking that map.
- Look out for signs leading the way.
- Learn a few essential kanji like the name of your destination, 現在地 (genzaichi, you are here) and 注意 (chui, caution).
Bear in mind the wildlife
Japan is known for several deadly animals that inhabit the mountains and wild nature areas—just where you plan to hike. Of course, your chances of meeting a bear on the path are low, but attaching a bear bell to your backpack couldn’t hurt, no matter how irritating the sound may be.
And, if in doubt—turn back. It may wound your ego, but a bear can do so much worse.
The one upside of our deserted trail was a deer and monkey sighting (right after I finished my banana, how cliché). Thankfully, we saw no bears, but the danger came with the pesky bees and bugs following our every move.
- Check recent bear sightings (Nikko, for example, has an online bear tracker).
- Make noise on the trail to alert bears and other animals that you’re coming.
- Don’t feed that seemingly cute monkey.
- Clean up your trash.
If you are lost or in danger
Despite all the preparation in the world, sometimes it’s not enough, mistakes happen or things just go wrong.
If you find yourself lost or in danger:
- Call emergency rescue by dialing 119.
- Stop, think and stay calm.
- If there is no immediate danger, stay put.
- As a last resort, follow a stream downhill.
Has anyone else made a hiking faux pas, or is it just me? What are your best trails in Japan? Tell us about it below.