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. Beyond the well-trod trails of famous mountains such as the Japanese Alps and Mount Fuji, here are six spectacular places to explore Japan’s wild side on foot.
Deep in the mountains of Shikoku—the smallest of Japan’s major islands—the Iya Valley’s terraced farm plots, thatched-roof cottages, and 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 that could be slashed to turn the river into an impassable barrier for enemies. These bridges still hang precariously across the gorge and connect the valley’s variety of hiking routes. One of the Iya Valley’s most popular hiking destinations is Mount Tsurugi, which takes roughly two hours to ascend by foot. A chairlift also takes visitors up to the summit, where a spiritual shrine, various mountain huts, and panoramic views await.
Located off the coast of Hokkaidō at Japan’s northernmost tip, Rebun Island has harsh winters. But during the summer months, temperatures are pleasant and exquisite alpine flowers—many of which can’t be found anywhere else—bloom. You can hike the length of the island along the Hachijikan haikingu-kosu trail, which translates to “eight-hour hiking course.” This 18-mile route runs along the island’s eastern coast from the northern to the southern tips. (There is also an abbreviated four-hour course; both offer gorgeous, bloom-filled vistas.)
Shorter day hikes on Rebun Island include the three-and-a-half-mile Momo-iwa course, which skirts jagged coastlines and passes an 820-foot-tall rock shaped like a peach. The four-hour trek up Mount Rebun, the island’s highest peak, passes through fields of broadleaf 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.
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.
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 tree in the ancient forest 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 climbs more than 3,280 feet and takes about 10 hours to complete. Despite its rigor, the trail gets crowded during peak hiking season from July through September.
To get off the beaten path, 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 lively brooks and pass at least a half-dozen other ancient cedars.
South of Osaka, this mountainous peninsula is home to the Kumano Kodo, a UNESCO-designated network of sacred pilgrimage routes that offer access to sweeping views, Buddhist shrines, and traditional Japanese onsen. Nakahechi, the most sacred of the Kumano’s trails, was developed by emperors and nobles in the 10th century and connects three grand shrines known collectively as the Kumano Sanzan. There are a couple of ways to take on the circuit, including a 72-mile trail that passes all three shrines, a 42-mile course that traverses the Kii Mountains, and shorter day hikes between the area’s many hot spring villages. Depending on which route you choose, the trip can take anywhere from two to six days to complete. Hikers typically stay in ryokan and minshuku (guesthouses) along the way.
Akan National Park
One of Hokkaido’s oldest national parks, Akan is known for its striking crater lakes and healing hot springs. The park’s namesake, Lake Akan, coughs up alien-looking, grapefruit-sized balls of algae called marimo (which you can also view at the visitor center). Nearby, the resplendent Lake Onneto shifts between shades of emerald green and cerulean from one hour to the next. All routes in Akan National Park 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 up to 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.
This article originally appeared online in January 2018; it was updated on December 4, 2018, to include current information.
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