Japan is a fantastic hiking destination, with great mountains, well-maintained trails and an extensive mountain hut network. You can do everything from easy day hikes to multi-day treks. Wes Lang provides all the details.
Hiking in the Japan Alps: Blue Planet Studio / Shutterstock.com
Where to hike in Japan?
Most new visitors head straight to Mt Fuji, one of the most popular hiking destinations in the entire world. However, those looking for a much more beautiful experience should definitely consider visiting the Japan Alps, which offer a unique landscape of breathtaking alpine summits and lush deciduous forests of towering hardwoods.
North Japan Alps from Happo-ike Pond near Hakuba: Krishna Wu / Shutterstock.com
The Japan Alps consist of three different mountain ranges (North, Central, and South Alps) sandwiched between the Sea of Japan in Toyama Prefecture and the Pacific Ocean in Shizuoka Prefecture. The mountains provide countless hiking and trekking opportunities, from easy foothills walks near Kamikochi to exciting alpine scrambles of 3000-meter peaks. The highlights include Mt. Tateyama, one of Japan’s three sacred mountains, Mt. Yari (Yari-ga-Take), the Matterhorn of Japan, and Mt. Kitadake, the tallest mountain in the Japan Alps. A comprehensive English-language guidebook to the Japan Alps has recently been published and is well worth seeking out for its detailed route descriptions and full-color English maps.
Magome Village on the Nakasendo: Blanscape / Shutterstock.com
A bit closer to Kyoto, the Nakasendo is an 18th-century travel route connecting Kyoto and Tokyo known for its picturesque post roads and stunning rural scenery. In particular, the towns of Magome and Tsumago retain much of their Edo-era charm, and the popular Magome to Tsumago walk can be completed as a day trip from Kyoto if you’re prepared for an early start.
Asahi-dake Peak in Daisetsuzan National Park: THONGCHAI.S / Shutterstock.com
For nature enthusiasts, the northernmost island of Hokkaido is the perfect destination to escape the summer heat and humidity of the rest of Japan. Even in the middle of summer, temperatures can drop below 20 degrees at night. Daisetsuzan National Park, while only around 2000 meters in height, consists of stunning alpine scenery among lingering snowfields and active volcanic steam vents. The grueling 5-day Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse is considered by many to be Japan’s best multi-day trek, with a truly remote feel and the need to boil snowmelt to stay hydrated.
Mt Aso, in Kyushu: gnoparus / Shutterstock.com
Kyushu to the south of Kyoto is considered land of active volcanoes, with Mt. Aso and its impressive active volcanic lake a highlight of the region. The area is frequently off limits to visitors due to billowing steam and poisonous gases, so check the latest information before heading to the area. Just to the north of Aso, the Kuju mountains offer several amazing hikes through a breathtaking series of volcanic cones, including an ascent of Mt. Naka. Yakushima, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is another must-see for visitors, as the island just to the south of Kagoshima features ancient cedar trees and unique rock formations around the summit of Mt. Miyanoura, the highest mountain in Kyushu. There are several day hikes to take in the amazing scenery, including a hike up to the very popular Jomon sugi tree, one of the oldest trees in the world.
Kumano Kodo in Wakayam: Basico / Shutterstock.com
Closer to home, the mountains of Kansai should not be overlooked for those without the time or resources to travel to the rest of Japan. With easy transport, the best hikes of Kyoto are a great place to start, while the Hira mountains provide enough interesting variations to satisfy even the most hardcore hikers. Likewise, the Kumano Kodo is a UNESCO World-Heritage network of pilgrimage trails just a half a day’s train journey from central Kyoto. The four main routes (Kohechi, Nakahechi, Iseji and Omine-Okugakemichi) all converge at Kumano Hongu shrine and each require a multi-day traverse through the heart of the Kii Peninsula. A new full-color guidebook covers the Kohechi and Nakahechi routes in great detail.
With so many options to choose from, it may be hard to choose where to go. However, in this article we will focus on the Japan Alps, which offers Japan’s most stunning hikes.
Mt Yake in Autumn: Ichiro Murata / Shutterstock.com
Where to hike in the Japan Alps
Those with limited time on their hands should base themselves in Kamikochi and aim to climb Mt. Yake, a full 8-hour return climb up an active volcano and one of the best day hikes in the Japan Alps. The trail starts near Taisho Pond and involves one section of near-vertical ladders before reaching an alpine plateau just above the mountain hut. This is a good place to turn around for those without the time or fitness to continue up the final 400 vertical meters to the summit, as the plateau affords magnificent views back down into Kamikochi valley.
Kamikochi: Hiran chulo / Shutterstock.com
The best multi-day hike is the Tateyama to Kamikochi traverse, a 6-day trek through the heart of the North Alps. A well-established network of mountain huts and campsites are positioned along the challenging route, and a couple of escape routes down to bus stops in the valleys along the way allow for flexible itineraries should the weather turn or the terrain become too rough.
Mt Yari (Yari-ga-Take): Amstk / Shutterstock.com
For thrill seekers comfortable with heights, the Hotaka range near Kamikochi features sections of knife-edge ridge lined with chains and ladders in places to aid in the vertiginous terrain. The 3-day Hotaka traverse is an exciting loop from Kamikochi and involves a hair-raising traverse from Mt Kita-Hotaka to Mt Karasawa that is more akin to rock climbing that a standard hike. This route can be extended by first climbing Mt Yari and then trekking through the Daikiretto to reach Mt Kita-hotaka and continuing on to the rest of the Hotaka traverse. Neither route should be attempted in anything but the most perfect of weather conditions, as the risk of slipping on wet rocks and falling hundreds of meters off the ridge is real.
Kita-dake, South Alps – image © Wes Lang
Finally, if you’re looking to get off the beaten path and try something truly epic, then a full 8-day traverse of the South Alps would be the way to go. While not quite as thrilling as the jagged peaks in the North Alps, the Hirogawara-to-Sawarajima trek features eye-popping views of Mt Fuji and long sections of isolated ridges devoid of other hikers. The mountain huts are spread out a lot further along the route, with losses of altitude between each peak, suitable only for fit hikers with previous trekking experience.
Mt Fuji from Kita-dake: Pongpet Sodchern / Shutterstock.com
When to hike in Japan
Due to Japan’s long, snowy winters, hiking is best enjoyed as a 3-season activity. Summers, while brutally hot in Kyoto, are the perfect time to head to the Japan Alps to escape the heat. Once you climb above 2000 meters, the temperatures become much more bearable and even in August you may need a fleece at 3000 meters, as well as a rain jacket to help survive Japan’s fickle mountain weather. The mountain huts are all in full operation in July and August, and peaks can take on a festive affair as many hikers choose to watch the sunrise from the summit of an alpine peak.
Central Alps in summer: Navapon Plodprong / Shutterstock.com
In terms of hiking above the tree line in the Japan Alps, an early start is imperative, with the best clear-weather window between 3am and 9am, after which the clouds roll in, blotting out the views. Many first-time hikers are surprised at just how foggy the mountains can be, but rest assured the cloud usually lifts again just before sunset, once again revealing those breath-taking panoramic views. However, afternoon thunderstorms are also a real possibility in the summer months, so take care in stormy conditions and be prepared to deal with the rain and mist.
Spring in Tateyama (Yuki-no-Otani, or Great Snow Valley): Venus.1777 / Shutterstock.com
April is generally the best time to enjoy the cherry blossoms, but bear in mind that the Japan Alps are still very much in winter mode. Stick to the lower elevations and keep your eye out for other flowering trees such as dogwoods, magnolias, and the parasitic wisteria vines.
Clouds lifting in Kamikochi: onemu / Shutterstock.com
June is the rainy season in Japan, so remember that the weather is often incredibly unstable, with continuous days of heavy rain and high humidity. In addition, the warm rainy weather brings out the mountain leeches that live in forested areas of Honshu.
Summer in the North Alps: Camera Papa / Shutterstock.com
September is generally considered typhoon season, so keep an eye on the latest typhoon information when planning your hikes. In addition, a shorter rainy season also occurs around the first two weeks of the month, and once that passes the humidity and brutal summer temperatures usually drop, making hiking a much more pleasant affair. The autumn foliage peaks in September in both Hokkaido and the Japan Alps, so those who are unable to experience Kyoto’s incredibly beautiful autumn colors can head to higher elevations for a preview.
Autumn in the North Alps: PHUC TRAN CONG / Shutterstock.com
October to November is the definitely the best time to explore the mountains near Kyoto, especially when the foliage has reached its peak. The Japan Alps usually have their first snowfalls in early-to-mid October and most of the huts close up for the season at this time.
Japan Alps in winter: daisai / Shutterstock.com
Winter hiking is also an option, but only for those with the proper clothing and experience. The Japan Alps are usually only climbed by those training for Himalayan expeditions, with frequent avalanche danger and unstable snow cornices. Keep in mind that the sun usually sets around 4:30pm and many mountains (including the Hira mountains of Kyoto) remain snowcapped throughout the winter.
How to hike in Japan (types of hikes)
Hiker in the Japan Alps: Yusei / Shutterstock.com
Day hikes are by far the most popular option for visitors, requiring a light backpack and just an extra layer of clothing, lunch, and enough snacks and water to sustain you. While most of the hikes in the Japan Alps are difficult to do as a day trip, by basing yourself at one of the gateways (see below), you can head into the alpine areas for a taste of the scenery and perhaps a sighting of a rock ptarmigan or two.
Mountain hut, Japan Alps: Hachi888 / Shutterstock.com
Hut to hut:
By utilizing the mountain huts, trekkers can complete a multi-day traverse without having to lug around a heavy backpack. All that you need is enough cash (budget 12,000 yen per day per person) to pay for full accommodation (which includes dinner, breakfast, and futon bedding) as well as a daypack of essentials (snacks, water, sunscreen, an extra layer) to make it your next night’s accommodation.
Backpacking near Tateyama: Meeh / Shutterstock.com
For budget hikers, backpacking is the way to go, as camping is just a fraction of the cost of a night’s accommodation in a mountain hut. Most campsites are located adjacent to mountain huts, so the camp fee (usually between 500 – 1000 yen per person) includes access to the hut restroom facilities. Water is usually not included, however, so budget an extra 1000 yen per day to purchase water. A freestanding tent is recommended, as many of the alpine campsites are on rocky ground that makes it hard to secure tent stakes. Many of the huts along the way also serve lunch and instant noodles, so you could save a bit of weight by bringing extra money to purchase lunch along the way.
Hiking Maps: Japan Alps, Yari/Hodaka, Kamikochi – image © Chris Rowthorn
While many routes in the Japan Alps are clearly marked, it is still helpful to bring a hiking map or GPS device to help during times of poor visibility, and they can also be used as a way of keeping track of your progress. There are two main hiking map options, Yama-to-Kogen Chizu and Yama-Kei Tozanchizu, both of which are available at outdoor shops and bookstores throughout Japan. While the Yama-to-kogen maps cover most of the mountains in Japan, the Yama-Kei maps are only for the Japan Alps, but they are a bit easier on the eye than the cluttered Yama-to-kogen maps. Both maps are only available in Japanese, but the peak names are only written in roman letters on the Yama-Kei maps.
Hiker with smartphone: lzf / Shutterstock.com
Recently, smartphone navigation has been becoming more and more popular, so try the free app Yamap, which includes an English-language interface and free maps for many of Japan’s hiking trails. The app works by utilizing GPS data on your phone and will show your current location even when your phone is on airplane mode, so it won’t use up all of your battery power. Yama-to-Kogen also has a similar app, but you’ll need to pay 500 yen to download each map you will want to use.
Takayama: Suchart Boonyavech / Shutterstock.com
Nestled at the foothills of the Japan Alps, this idyllic town provides a great place to break up the long trip between Kyoto and the Japan Alps. Takayama has a lot of sightseeing options and you could easily spend a couple of days here relaxing in cafes and strolling the narrow side streets.
From Takayama, there are regular buses to Kamikochi (2600 yen one-way, 90 min, involving a bus transfer at Hirayu Onsen) and Shin-hotaka ropeway (2160 yen one-way, 1 hr 45 min). Special tickets are also available at the bus terminal ticket office, including the Alps Free Wide Passport, a ticket (10,290 yen) allowing unlimited bus rides for a 4-day period. This is a good option for wanting to visit multiple places on their trip, as individual bus rides tend to be more expensive if bought separately.
- eph TAKAYAMA – stylish, modern rooms above a cozy first floor cafe
- Oyado Koto No Yume – a traditional ryokan known for its soothing hot-spring baths
Kamikochi in Autumn: Thanya Jones / Shutterstock.com
Located at 1500 meters above sea level along the banks of the emerald green waters of the Azusa river, Kamikochi is a close to an alpine village as you will get in Japan and makes for the perfect place to enjoy comfortable forest walks, idyllic hot-spring baths, and unrivaled mountain views. You could easily spend several days here just admiring the mirror reflections in the Taisho pond and photographing the wild macaques that live in the area.
The easiest access to Kamikochi is by direct overnight bus from Kyoto (6.5 hours, 8000 – 11,000 yen, advanced booking required), which usually arrives around 6am in Kamikochi. This is a great option for those wanting to head straight into the alpine for a multi-day trek. Otherwise, easy access is from Matsumoto by taking a train to Shin-shimashima (34 min, 700 yen) and then transferring to regular shuttle buses (65 min, 1750 one-way) to Kamikochi.
- Kamikochi Lemeiesta Hotel – a popular hotel with modern rooms and hot-spring baths.
- Kamikochi Nishi-itoya Mountain lodge – an old ryokan with a rustic feel and unparalleled mountain views.
Murodo: rincotton / Shutterstock.com
Situated at 2400 meters above sea level, Murodo is an alpine plateau situated on the edge of the active volcanic caldera of Mt. Tateyama. Known for alpine ponds, wildflowers, hissing volcanic steam vents, and relaxing hot spring baths, Murodo is an excellent place to spend a few days doing day hikes of Mt. Tateyama and Oku-dainichi. The plateau faces the Sea of Japan, and on clear evenings the sunset is spectacular, as are the stars that fill the night skies.
Access to Murodo is along the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, a high-altitude transportation network cutting straight through the Japan Alps, connecting Shinano-Omachi city in Nagano with Toyama city on the Sea of Japan coast. Murodo is a bit closer to the Toyama side and first involves a train ride from Toyama to Tateyama (60min), then a cable car to Bijodaira (7 minutes), followed by a bus to Murodo (50 min). Please note that these times are just the actual transport times and do not include the waiting times between each mode of transport, which can easily add several hours to your journey on busy weekends and public holidays. The total one-way fare is 3630 yen, but discount tickets available for those on a tourist visa who want to travel along the entire alpine route.
- Hotel Tateyama – located adjacent to Murodo bus terminal, this mid-range option offers clean rooms and excellent food.
- Midagahara hotel – is 4km walk downhill and it is set among the less-developed lower part of the volcanic plateau. The hotel is located adjacent to Midagahara bus stop, so if everything is already fully booked at Murodo then just get off at this stop and use it as a base to explore the mountains.
Mountain hut interior – image © Wes Lang
Mountain huts offer a luxurious alternative to staying in a cramped tent, and you may be thanking your financial decision on rainy days when you can stay dry, warm and comfortable. Sleeping accommodation is in shared rooms on futon bedding, with space allocations contingent on the number of guests. During the busy summer weekends, you may be packed in like sardines, so aim to go during the weekdays if you can. A pair of earplugs may also come in handy to help drown out the sound of snorers.
Mountain hut near Mt Yari in the North Alps: Hachi888 / Shutterstock.com
A full night’s accommodation with two meals generally ranges between 8000 and 10,000 yen per night, with a sudomari (stay without meals) usually between 5000 and 6000 yen a night. Dinner is usually prioritized for those who check-in first, so the later you arrive the longer you will have to wait for dinner. While bookings are not required, if you plan on staying with meals you will need to arrive at the hut by 4pm so the staff can prepare enough food to serve you. There are plenty of stories of ill-informed trekkers showing up at dusk and being told that there is no more food available. Certain huts may ask for prior booking for groups of 10 or more, so if you’re traveling with a large hiking party it is essential to call the huts ahead of time to confirm.
Hut on Mt Karamatsu in the North Alps: ryuurikyou / Shutterstock.com
When you arrive at a mountain hut, take off your shoes and change into slippers. Approach the front desk (uketsuke, 受付) and tell them you would like to stay with two meals (ippaku, ni shoku, 一泊二食). The huts only accept cash, so make sure you bring enough money to cover your expenses. After payment, the staff will usually explain the hut rules (regarding meal times, toilets, lights out, etc) and then show you to your room. You can then relax and wait around until dinner is served, which is usually done in separate sittings between 4:30 and 8pm or later if the hut is crowded. During dinner, the hut staff will usually tell you the next day’s weather forecast and they are also usually around to answer questions about trail conditions. The hut generators are usually silenced between 8 and 9pm, when everyone heads off to bed. Some hikers opt to stay without breakfast so they can save money and get an early start. The sun usually rises around 4am in the summer, so be prepared for an early wake-up call.
More Useful Japan Hiking Information
- Mt Fuji Climbing Guide
- Best Kyoto Hikes
- Walking the Nakasendo from Kyoto Guide and Map
- The Kumano Kodo Walking Trail: A Guide with Maps
About Wes Lang
Wes Lang is a freelance writer based in Osaka who runs Hiking in Japan, an English-language website providing practical hiking information for many of Japan’s best mountains. His comprehensive guidebook to the Japan Alps and Mt. Fuji is now available on Cicerone Press (UK).
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
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