10 things to know before hiking in Japan

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Little did Madeleine know when she moved to Japan from the UK that hiking would become one of her favourite pursuits. But as a newbie, there are certainly a few things she wished she’d known before hiking in Japan for the first time.

Before living in Japan I’d never considered heading off into the hills to go hiking. I’d happily go for a country walk or a stroll in the woods, but that was about it. However in Japan I was soon swept away by the hiking itch. Over 70% of the country is mountainous so there are plenty of day trip or multi-day hikes all over the country, including plenty of places that were easily accessible from my base in Tokyo.

Here are some of the things I picked up while hiking in Japan; tips, tricks, and things I wish I’d known before!

10 tips for hiking in Japan

1. Be prepared for the weather

This is true anywhere in the world where there are mountains, but I’ll say it again – the weather is changeable so be prepared for all eventualities. It might be blue skies at 1,500m, but once you’re down in the valley a rainstorm can quickly move in.

Rain-wear that can be unpacked in a trice and lots of layers are just two examples of hiking gear to bring. A good quality map is also a must when hiking in Japan, and I always made sure I went over my route before I got there.

2. There will be crowds

Hiking is a big business in Japan, and during the relatively short hiking season in the summer and autumn months, don’t be surprised to find lots of other geared-up hikers on the buses and trains heading out to the trail-heads. Autumn leaf season in particular is a popular time, and the paths in places like Kamikochi will be full of eager hikers. Build extra time in your itinerary for the hiking – it might be slower going than you thought on some of the trails. Don’t worry, it’s worth it in the end!

hiking in Kamikochi
Photo opportunities in Kamikochi

3. You’ll be sleeping in a yamagoya

A yamagoya is a mountain hut, varying in size from a tiny hut with space for two futons, up to a staggering 800-people capacity (I’m looking at you, Mount Shirouma).

A stay at a one of these ‘Swiss-chalet-meets-hostel’ yamagoya is memorable for a whole host of reasons. Sleeping in close quarters with other hikers (bring earplugs!), communal bathrooms, school canteen-esque dining, and rather fragrant shoe lockers. They’re heaps of fun though, and if you’re hiking in Japan solo they’re a good way to meet other hikers. One of my absolute favourite things about yamagoya, especially the larger ones, is that they serve beer and snacks – the perfect way to celebrate the end of the day’s journey. “Kampai!” (Cheers!)

Cosy quarters at Karasawa Hyutte in Kamikochi
Cosy quarters at Karasawa Hyutte in Kamikochi

4. Lights out! Early to bed, early to rise…

Time moves differently on the mountains. Dinner at 5pm? Well ok… Don’t fancy breakfast at 4.30am? Tough, because that’s what you’re getting. When hiking in Japan you will get up with the sun, or even before to get a head start. It might seem strange getting into your futon at 8pm, but you’ll find that the exhaustion from the day catches up with you quickly and you’re out like a light.

5. Not a hobby for fussy eaters

If you’re staying at a yamagoya, breakfast and dinner will probably be included, as will a bento packed lunch for the following day. Dietary requirements and food preferences go out the window here – don’t like grilled salmon for breakfast? It’s that or go hungry, I’m afraid.

Despite all that, the food at the yamagoya I’ve stayed at has always been hot, filling, and delicious after an 8-hour hike. While not being a miso soup for breakfast fan normally, I found myself looking forward to it each morning. When in Rome and all that.

A leaf-wrapped rice ball bento

6. Take sensible snacks

While convenience stores are a dime a dozen in the cities, they are non-existent at higher climes. On the evening before I left home to set out on my hike, I’d always stop by a convenience store and stock up on my favourite snacks. Energy jelly pouches, protein bars, and salty snacks are my personal top picks. If you’re hiking in the winter, don’t pick up any onigiri rice balls – they’re apt to freeze into an ice cube! Opt for the sandwiches instead – they’ll stay softer.

7. Japanese hikers are friends you haven’t met yet

If you already think Japanese people are exceptionally kind, wait until you meet a hiker. I can’t count the number of times an older hiker would offer me some snacks, a cup of hot soup, or (less appetisingly) a sour umeboshi pickled plum while stopping for a rest.

Once, while hiking down from Mount Shirouma I hurt my knee quite badly, and the kindest 76-year old man helped me down the more precarious bit where there was a chain built into the rock face. I spoiled his enjoyment of the day, but he made all the difference to mine. If it weren’t for him I’d probably still be there now.

8. Age is just a number

Before hiking in Japan became one of my favourite hobbies, my image of hikers were young and sprightly folks gambolling like mountain goats around snowy peaks. I was quickly dissuaded of that notion when I saw the average age of a group of hikers I joined in Kamikochi.

They were all old enough to be my parents, and their fitness put me to shame. That’s not to say that there aren’t young hikers around – there certainly are, especially ‘yama-girl’ or ‘mountain girl’, aka young women in their twenties and thirties – but generally the demographic of hikers in Japan is older. Don’t be surprised if a kindly old lady overtakes you with a cheerful “konnichiwa!”

9. Relax your cleanliness…

Some of the more ‘luxurious’ yamagoya in the valley of Kamikochi or at the start of the route up Mount Shirouma in Hakuba have hot spring baths, but the ones at the top certainly do not. After a day of hiking in the sunshine, you’ll probably be feeling hot and sweaty and in desperate need of a shower. This is where handy body wipes come in. They are readily available in convenience stores (in a startling variety of scents) and are an absolute godsend when bathing is not on the menu.

10. Take loose change

Take plenty of 100 yen coins with you. Many of the toilets at mountain lodges or rest stops on the hiking routes have an optional 100 yen ‘fee’, which goes towards the maintenance of the facilities. There isn’t an attendant waiting at the exit to take your money off you, but you’ll certainly get an approving nod from other people in the queue as you drop your coin in the donations bucket. Cash is also handy if you want to treat yourself to that ice cold beer…

So what are you waiting for? Grab your rucksack, strap on your hiking boots, and head into the mountains to discover a completely different side of Japan. For more information about hiking in Japan get in touch with our team (of hiking converts).

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