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A fact that surprises people about Japan? Over 70% of the country is covered in mountains. And though hiking isn’t necessarily the first pastime that springs to mind for most people when planning a Japan holiday, between the dramatically diverse landscapes, unique Japanese twists (bear bells, vending machines in unlikely places and hot spring baths), hiking in Japan is an unmissable treat for anyone who loves to travel on their own two feet.
To celebrate the launch of our brand-new Walking the Nakasendo and Beyond small group tour – which is all about slowing down, savouring the moment and seeing Japan’s spectacular scenery up close on the likes of the Shin-Etsu Trail and Nakasendo Way – our team rounds up the best routes they’ve tried, and who/ what they’re great for.
If you’re trying to decide which of Japan’s famous routes or spectacular landscapes to rove on your next trip, this is for you! Grab a cup of tea and read on for all eight of the top hikes, or use the index below to jump to a specific hike that piques your interest…
The Kumano Kodo
The Nakasendo and Kiso Valley
The Shin-Etsu Trail
The Kumano Kodo
Overview: Follow in the footsteps of pilgrims who’ve been walking the routes between sacred shrines since the 10th century.
Who’s it for? People who want to take in the spiritual atmosphere of a centuries-old pilgrimage route, and who want to experience the homely hospitality of small inns along the way.
While you can visit the Three Grand Shrines by bus, the Kumano Kodo is best experienced on foot. Most days you’ll hike around 13/14k m (6-8 hours) and some sections are quite steep, so a decent standard of fitness is necessary.
Minimum 3 nights, maximum 5 nights
From Tokyo: 5 hours by train to Kii-Tanabe
From Kyoto: 2 hours 40 minutes by train to Kii-Tanabe
From Osaka: 2 hours 20 minutes by train to Kii-Tanabe
“Back when I was living in Japan in 2013, I saw a photo of the Nachi Taisha pagoda with the waterfall behind it. I was so struck with it that I made it my mission to go there one day – and, after several years of thinking about it, I finally made it there on my Kumano Kodo hike in 2017.
“I knew that I wouldn’t be disappointed when I finally saw the pagoda and waterfall with my own two eyes, but what I wasn’t prepared for was how much I would love everything leading up to it. Hiking through cool, sweet-smelling cedar forests; staying overnight in an old, converted school at Koguchi and eating simple home-made food with fellow hikers in the canteen; rolling into my futon at 8:30pm after soaking away the aches and pains brought on by a day on my feet; glimpsing the ocean beyond the mountains from the viewpoints; plodding up the aptly named Dogiri-zaka (‘body-breaking hill’) on the final day; treating myself to a beer and ice cream next to the temple after I’d stumbled last few steps to the finish line. All of it combined to make my eventual sighting of Nachi shrine, after all those years, 100% worth the effort.”
– Madeleine Bromige, InsideJapan Bristol
Hike the Kumano Kodo
- Enjoy some of the best multi-day hikes Japan has to offer on our Honshu Hiking self-guided adventure.
- Explore ancient pilgrimage routes – with a visit to Ise, Japan’s most important shrine – on the Pilgrim’s Paths classic and superior self-guided adventures.
- Add a Kumano Kodo hike to a self-guided adventure of your choice to create a trip tailored to suit you.
The Nakasendo and Kiso Valley
Overview: Retrace the Edo period shogun route, and stay at beautifully preserved historic postal towns along the way.
Who’s it for? Anyone wanting a taste of what Japan was like when samurai roamed the land centuries ago – and who enjoy walking at a slow, unhurried pace through beautiful countryside (think: rice fields, small rural communities, forests, and historic villages).
If you want to include a hike in your first trip to Japan – but don’t want to spend days and days on the trails – this is the one for you!
Minimum 1 night, maximum 2 nights (but it’s possible to do this hike as a day trip).
From Tokyo: 4 hours by train and bus to Tsumago/Magome
From Kyoto: 2 hours by train and bus to Tsumago/Magome
For day-trippers: 50 minutes on the Limited Express train and bus from Nagoya to Tsumago/Magome
“The Nakasendo is a perfectly balanced hiking experience. It’s not too long, but not short; not too hard, but not easy; not too far, but far enough to experience plenty of stunning countryside. There’s history galore to explore if you want – and beautiful flora and fauna along the length of the trails if you prefer checking out the nature and views.
“The Nakasendo trail is defined by a series of picturesque ‘post towns’ that span its length from Kyoto to Tokyo, and some of these have been carefully preserved – cobblestone streets, wood-fronted homes and all – allowing you to experience Japan as it used to be. Stone paths lined with ferns wind between cedar tree trunks, waterfalls are surrounded by wild hydrangeas, and carefully pruned trees rise from the front gardens of Japanese inns. It’s like nothing I have seen, except in magazines like National Geographic.”
– Van Milton, Insider Tour Leader
Hike the Nakasendo and Kiso Valley
- Slow the pace and discover the Nakasendo with an expert Insider tour leader on the all-new Walking the Nakasendo and Beyond small group tour.
- Walk both the Kumano Kodo and the Nakasendo on our Honshu Hiking self-guided adventure.
- See the landscapes that inspired Hokusai and Hiroshige’s famous ukiyo-e woodblock prints on the Through the Floating World self-guided adventure.
- Explore ancient Japanese philosophical concepts – including ‘forest bathing’ – on the Japanese Ikigai and the Path to Happiness self-guided adventure.
The Shin-Etsu Trail
Overview: The Shin-Etsu Trail is one of the best undiscovered long-distance hiking trails in Japan, stretching 70km along the mountainous border between Niigata and Nagano prefectures. It’s not just about the hiking, though – the highlight of the Shin-Etsu trail is staying in small hot spring towns along the way, in little family-run inns where a steaming hot spring bath, home-cooked kaiseki meal, and a comfy futon await at the end of the day.
Who’s it for? If you’re independent and don’t want to be surrounded by other hikers, you’ll love the Shin-Etsu Trail, which doesn’t see the footfall of famous routes like the Kumano Kodo and the Nakasendo. If you’re interested in learning about the history, flora and fauna of the area, then a guide is a must!
Return travellers to Japan who’ve hiked the Nakasendo and completed the Kumano Kodo will enjoy the contrast of the Shin-Etsu Trail, but the route is also great for first-timers.
Minimum 2 nights, maximum 5 nights
From Tokyo: 1 hour 40 minutes by train to Iiyama
From Kanazawa: 1 hour 15 minutes by train to Iiyama
“When I walked the Shin-Etsu Trail a few years ago, we kicked things off with a hike up a dry ski run – and we had awesome views from the get-go! Each section was really varied. One day there were rice paddies and marshlands, then we’d crest the hills and watch clouds bank through the forests below us; another day we walked the forest floor through dense beech with lush forest floor growth.
“Section 5, where the trail goes along a ridgeline, was a personal highlight for me. I was struck by how wild and gnarly the path is, dotted with tree stumps and fallen branches that make hiking (or scrambling) along the route so much fun. It was also the most remote point on the hike, and a great reminder that I was out in the midst of nature, completely away from it all.”
– Dan Campbell, InsideJapan Brisbane
Hike the Shin-Etsu Trail
- Follow the old Nakasendo samurai route and get off the beaten track on the Shin-Etsu Trail on the Walking the Nakasendo and Beyond small group tour.
- Hop off the Shinkansen at Iiyama and spend a few days hiking different sections of the route with one of our Shin-Etsu Trail modules.
Overview: Kamikochi was nicknamed the ‘Alps of Japan’ by a British missionary in the mid-19th century – and when you visit, it’s easy to see why. With soaring 3,000-metre peaks surrounding the icy blue of the Azusa River, it’s a hiking paradise.
Important to note: Kamikochi is only open from early May to early November, as it gets a lot of snow! The best time for autumn leaf viewing is between late September (at 2,000m altitude) and early October (at 1,500m, the altitude of the valley floor).
Who’s it for? Those who crave dramatic scenery! But you don’t have to climb up high to enjoy the views; even a fairly flat hike along the Azusa River is a great way to enjoy the landscape. More adventurous hikers will enjoy the trip up to Karasawa Cirque, where you can stay overnight at the lodge before either retracing your steps the next day, or continuing up to the peaks of Mount Hotaka (the third-highest mountain in Japan).
Minimum 1 night, maximum 3 nights
From Takayama: 1 hour 30 minutes by highway bus
From Matsumoto: 1 hour 40 minutes by train and bus
“Whenever I go back to Japan, I make time to go hiking in Kamikochi. There’s something about the valley that feels almost out of place in this country with a concrete fetish; one moment you’re rubbing elbows with the crowds in the city, and a few hours later you’re strolling by yourself among Kamikochi’s gentle larch trees.
“There are well over a hundred kilometres of hiking trails in the national park, so no matter how fit you are and how long you want to stay, you’ll find something to tickle your feet. At 3,180 metres, needle-like Mount Yari is the tallest kid in the playpen. My favourite part? Sweeping views of the Alps around you. Mount Yari can be tackled in an ambitious two nights, or a comfortable three: prepare to fall in love with the forest, azure river waters and dramatic ridge views from the top of the mountain.”
– Bruno Carrillo, InsideJapan Brisbane
- Take time to explore the naturally beautiful Kamikochi region – with an Insider tour leader to guide the way – on the Classic Japan small group tour.
- See the mountain plateau of Kamikochi in peak autumn leaf viewing season on the Autumn Splendour self-guided adventure.
Overview: There is surely no mountain in Japan more iconic than towering Mount Fuji, which has been loved, admired, and even worshipped by the Japanese people for centuries.
Important to note: Mount Fuji is only open from early July to early September. The best time to visit is in late July, before the summer peak in August. From late August to early September, Mount Fuji can be affected by typhoons.
Who’s it for? Those who want the satisfaction of having climbed a world-famous mountain. The Mount Fuji climb won’t win awards for scenic hiking – it’s a dormant volcano, after all – but the sense of achievement that comes from ascending to the highest point in Japan can’t be beaten!
Minimum 1 night. If you climb Mount Fuji with InsideJapan, you’ll hike for six hours to the 8th station (80% of the way up), stay overnight, then get up early for the final ascent (one hour) to the summit to see the sunrise. The hike back down takes around three hours.
Mount Fuji has four trails, and we prefer to use two of them: the easier but popular Yoshida trail that goes up the north side from Kawaguchiko, and the quieter but slightly longer Subashiri trail which is situated on the east side and links up with Hakone.
The start of the Yoshida trail is a 2-hour highway bus ride from Tokyo, or a 55-minute bus ride from Kawaguchiko (which is a great base – wake up in the morning, take in the perfect reflection of Mount Fuji in the lake, then head out to start climbing it!).
The start of the Subashiri trail requires two buses from Hakone, with an easy change at Gotemba Station.
“On my very first climb of Mount Fuji in 2015, the start of the hike lulled me into a false sense of security. ‘This will be a breeze!’, I thought as I walked the gentle incline among the trees, with birdsong echoing around the forest. Within an hour or so, however, both vegetation and the sound of wildlife had fallen away, leaving just the bare volcanic landscape and the sound of my own heavy breathing.
“I stayed in a mountain hut at the 8th station to help acclimatise my body to the altitude. After a few hours of sleep, I set out in the gloom of the early morning to reach the summit before sunrise. Although the temperatures back at sea level had been typically hot and steamy for summer in Japan, when I arrived at the summit, the temperature was hovering just above freezing.
“As the first rays of sun broke the horizon, a chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ arose from my fellow intrepid climbers. Watching the golden light flood gradually across the landscape below was truly breathtaking – and made the jelly-like trembling of my legs seem like a small price to pay for such a precious moment.”
– Richard Farmer, Insider Tour Leader
Hike Mount Fuji
- Join our Classic Japan small group tour on one of our July-early September departures, and you’ll have the option to climb Mount Fuji with your Insider tour leader.
- Because of its proximity to Tokyo and Hakone, we can add a Mount Fuji hike to many tailormade trips depart from July to early September. Get in touch to find out more.
Overview: For such a compact island, Yakushima has a startlingly wide ecosystem, with thousand-year-old cedar trees, a mountain range, beaches, ocean hot springs, and lush waterfalls. Fans of Studio Ghibli will recognize Shiratani Unsuikyo forest on Yakushima as the inspiration behind the film Princess Mononoke.
Who’s it for? If you want to hike through primeval moss-covered forests, Yakushima is the place for you. Seasoned hikers might want to challenge themselves to the 10-hour roundtrip hike to Japan’s oldest tree, Jomon Sugi, said to be between 2,500 and 7,500 years old.
Shiratani Unsuikyo (moss forest) hike: 4 hours round trip
Jomon Sugi (Japan’s oldest tree) hike: 10 hours round trip
You can also do shorter routes (1 hour-3 hours), depending on your fitness level.
From Kagoshima: 2 hours-2 hours 40 minutes by ferry/ 35 minutes by plane
“The hike to the peak of Tachudake didn’t get off to the best start – it was pouring with rain as we set off along concrete paths, steps and boardwalks through Yakusugi Land. While Yakusugi Land is home to some of Yakushima’s oldest and most impressive cedar trees, the gentle route didn’t really seem like the adventurous hike we were looking for.
“However, after a short while there was an option to break off from the crowds on the standard path and climb Tachudake. Despite my initial grumblings about the weather, the rain ended up adding a little magic to proceedings, as it gave the ancient woodland a misty atmosphere as we ascended. At times the path wasn’t clear – a complete contrast to Yakusugi Land below – but there were occasional orange ribbons tied to branches to reassure us we were going the right way. After two and a half hours navigating the giant forest, we reached the top and were rewarded with clear blue skies and one of the best views I have ever seen in Japan. We were surrounded by trees, lakes, mountains and sea. There was no one else around, making it the perfect spot for my boyfriend to get on one knee and propose! I said yes.”
– Matt Spiller, InsideJapan Bristol
- Explore the best of Kyushu by car, from volcanic Mount Aso to the forests of Yakushima, on our classic or superior self-guided Kyushu Adventure.
Overview: Mount Haguro is one of the three Dewa Sanzan mountains, along with Mount Gassan and Mount Yudono. Together, they represent the cycle of life: birth at Haguro, death at Gassan, and rebirth at Yudono.
Who’s it for? Those who want to explore the most important site of Shugendo, an ascetic religion of mountain worship. As you hike the 2,446 stone steps to the summit, you might pass white-robed Yamabushi mountain priests on a pilgrimage. The beauty of the hike is that you can feel the tranquil, spiritual atmosphere of the mountain.
Stay overnight at one of the shukubo pilgrim lodges on Mount Haguro.
From Tokyo: 4 hours by train
“The journey up Haguro-san is one of the most magical hikes I’ve ever done. Though 2,250 stone steps run up the backbone of this walk in the woods, you’ll never notice the heaviness in your legs as you take in the misty surroundings of this mystical place.
“Picture this: ancient, dense forest surrounds as you make your way up the mountain, past raging waterfalls and extant shrines. You reach a clearing and there stands before you the magnificent Goju-to, the region’s oldest five-storey wooden pagoda, dating back to the year 937. This is just one of the amazing sights waiting for you at Haguro-san, the most accessible of the Three Sacred Peaks.
“The ascetic monks and pilgrims use their hike up Haguro-san as a way to experience rebirth; you’ll understand why once you’ve reached the top.”
– Brett Plotz, Insider Tour Leader
Hike Mount Haguro
- Hike to the top of the sacred Mount Haguro and stay overnight at a shukubo temple lodging on the classic or superior Northern Highlights self-guided adventure.
- Stop off at Mount Haguro on our six-night exploratory Rural Tohoku Trail itinerary, designed to be added on to any self-guided adventure that ends in Tokyo.
Overview: For centuries, the Choishi Michi was the main approach used by pilgrims to reach Mount Koya. The entire route is marked by ancient stone signposts (choishi) every few hundred metres, counting down to number 1 at the entrance to the temple. The hike is around 23 kilometres long, but you don’t have to do the full route; thanks to the trainline that leads less adventurous folks up to Mount Koya, you can get off at one of three stations to shorten the hike.
Who’s it for? People who like to do things properly! If you want to get the full Mount Koya experience, hop off the train and hike instead. If you’re going onwards from Mount Koya to do the Kumano Kodo’ Kohechi Route, the Choishi Michi is a great warm-up for the multi-day hike awaiting you; and if you’re not continuing to the Kumano Kodo, this hike will give you a tantalising taste of what it would be like to complete it on your next trip to Japan.
Complete this hike en-route from Kyoto or Osaka to Mount Koya, where we recommended staying overnight in one of the shukubo temple lodges.
From Osaka: 1 hour 15 minutes-1 hour 30 minutes by train
From Kyoto: 2 hours
“The funniest thing about hiking the Choishi Michi is the mild panic that spreads amongst your fellow travellers when you get off the train at tiny Kii-Hosokawa station. Everyone on that train is going to Mt Koya – but you are disembarking? Should they be disembarking?!
“The answer is a resounding yes. I felt like a proper adventurer as the pleased (if surprised) station staff waved me off and I skipped through a small mountain village on the clearly marked, but utterly empty, beginning of the trail. I spent the next three hours hiking past stone pilgrim markers through stunning forest in brilliant autumnal sunshine, encountering only two other hikers. They were admiring the view and remarking, ‘Honto no nihon desu ne?’ (‘This is the real Japan, right?’). It certainly was.”
– Claire Brothers, InsideJapan Bristol
Hike the Choishi Michi
- If you’re creating your own tailormade trip, we can plan a Choishi Michi hike into your itinerary (and it fits in nicely to our Pilgrim’s Paths and World Heritage self-guided adventures). Get in touch to find out more.
Got the urge to pick up your walking poles and head out into the Japanese countryside on a trip in the not-too-distant future? Get in touch with one of our Japan consultants to discuss your ideas.