Japan is most often associated with images of megalopolises like Tokyo and Osaka, with their neon lights, futuristic music, crowded subways, and steaming bowls of ramen. But that’s not the whole picture. There is an antidote to all that urban chaos: Japan’s rural side is a hiker’s paradise. From color-changing lakes to storybook forests, here are five places to explore Japan’s wild side on foot.
1. Iya Valley
Deep in the mountains of Shikoku—the smallest of Japan’s major islands—the Iya Valley’s terraced farm plots, thatched-roof cottages, and dense, largely uninhabited forest preserve a piece of ancient Japan. The valley was settled by 12th-century Heike samurai who, fleeing the rival Genji clan, built the region’s most popular sight: three bridges fashioned from knotted wisteria vines. If the enemy approached, the bridges could be slashed, turning the river into an impassable barrier.
The bridges still hang precariously across the gorge, and as hiking trails abound, Iya has remained a destination for those looking to escape—albeit in a different way. The most popular trail ascends Mount Tsurugi, which takes roughly two hours. Thrill-seekers can continue on from the top following the ridgeline to the neighboring Mount Miune. —Free access
2. Rebun Island
At Japan’s northernmost tip, Rebun Island has harsh winters. But come summer, temperatures are pleasant and rare alpine flowers—many of which aren’t found anywhere else—bloom. At just 18 miles long, you can hike the length of the island in eight hours. (The trail, named Hachijikan haikingu-kosu, actually translates to “eight-hour hiking course.”) There is also an abbreviated four-hour course; both start at Cape Sukoton in the north and offer gorgeous bloom-filled vistas. The route skirts the rolling hills at the island’s center then descends to the jagged coastline where men fish for uni. Shorter treks include the three-and-a-half-mile Momo-iwa course, which passes an 820-foot-tall rock shaped like a peach, and Mount Rebun, the island’s highest peak (1,610 feet). The three-hour climb passes through fields of broad-leaf bamboo and a forest of pine and birch. From the summit, you’ll have an unobstructed view of the island below and Mount Rishiri, an extinct volcano on a nearby island. —Free access
3. Tonomine Highlands
The Tonomine Highlands look more like a scene from Wuthering Heights than a place you’d find in the center of Japan’s most populous island. Set atop a plateau, the undulating hills are covered in susuki (pampas grass), which was used as roof thatch for Japan’s early houses. Each spring, the local villagers set the fields ablaze to encourage new grass to grow, which is a memorable sight in itself. By autumn, the new silvery plumes are fully grown and seem to stretch to the end of the earth. Tonomine’s well-formed trails and gentle inclines are suitable for hikers of all skill levels. At a leisurely pace, the main loop takes about two hours, but you could spend all day wandering the highland’s smaller paths and narrow boardwalks. After nightfall, it is a wonderful spot for stargazing. —Parking costs 500 yen (about US$5) for cars, 200 yen for bikes from late September to early November
Situated 37 miles off the southernmost tip of Kyushu, the island of Yakushima is home to a UNESCO-protected forest dominated by thousand-year-old yakusugi (Japanese cedars). The most famous is Jomon Sugi: Estimated to be between 2,000 and 7,200 years old, it stands at the end of the 13-mile round-trip Arakawa trek, which takes about 10 hours and climbs more than 3,280 feet. Despite its rigor, the trail gets crowded during high season. Fortunately, it’s not the only (nor the most scenic) way to see these astounding trees.
Instead, follow the attractive Shiratani Unsuikyo trail, a four-hour route through an ethereal forest that passes dozens of astonishing yakusugi. In Yakusugi Land, a southeastern part of the forest, there are also four fairly easy hiking trails—from 30 minutes to 150 minutes long—that are rife with electric-green moss and babbling brooks and pass at least a half-dozen other ancient cedars.—Entry to both Shiratani Unsuikyo and Yakusugi Land is 300 yen. During Golden Week and peak season (July to September), the road that leads to the Arakawa trailhead is restricted; you must either take the special Arakawa bus (1,380 yen, or US$13, round-trip plus a 1,000 yen conservation fee), or pay for a pre-arranged taxi or a guided tour.
5. Akan National Park
One of Hokkaido’s oldest national parks, Akan is known for its striking crater lakes. Its namesake, Lake Akan, coughs up alien-looking, grapefruit-sized balls of algae called marimo (which you can also view at the visitor’s center), and the resplendent Lake Onneto shifts between shades of emerald green and cerulean from one hour to the next. Both hikes are rewarding, but if you can only hike one, choose Lake Mashu. A caldera lake, Mashu has no connecting waterways; it’s enclosed by a rocky 1,300-foot-tall rim and is one of the clearest lakes in the world, with underwater visibility of 136 feet. You can’t hike to the water’s edge, but the view from the observation deck is enchanting: On a sunny day, the clouds and nearby mountains are reflected in the glassy water. The ascent takes about three hours each way and is moderately difficult until the last hour, when it becomes steep and slippery. It is not for novice hikers or inclement weather. —Entrance to the national park is free, but parking at the lot close to Lake Mashu costs 410 yen; the other lot is free.