How to Travel and Hike in Japan

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Tenryu-ji garden in fall.

For many international travelers, Japan is a top destination for unique experiences—the food, nightlife, temples, shrines and gardens create a culture unlike anything else in the world. But, in addition to its cultural offerings, the island nation is also known for its natural wonders. From cherry blossom season to fall colors and winter snow sports, […]

The post How to Travel and Hike in Japan appeared first on REI Co-op Journal.

Tenryu-ji garden in fall.

For many international travelers, Japan is a top destination for unique experiences—the food, nightlife, temples, shrines and gardens create a culture unlike anything else in the world. But, in addition to its cultural offerings, the island nation is also known for its natural wonders. From cherry blossom season to fall colors and winter snow sports, Japan makes a superlative outdoor destination.

Outdoor enthusiasts will find natural respites all across the country, like parks tucked into bustling cities and forest-bathing reserves. Though lesser known for long-distance trekking, Japan offers some of the best trails in the world with multiday options to suit any itinerary or disposition.

If you’re just starting to explore the idea of hiking in Japan, this guide will cover:

Why Go Hiking in Japan?

Japan is a country of coastline, forest and mountains. For generations, the natural environment has been considered sacred and a part of life. This feeling of respect and awe for nature is noticeable in many parts of the country, but is perhaps best experienced by slowly moving through forested environments.

Kumano Kodo sunset.

The sunset casts an otherworldly glow over the Kumano Kodo.

In 1982 the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries instituted a national forest-bathing program, shinrin-yoku: slow walking in and among trees as a preventative medicine. However, hiking is considered too strenuous for the health benefits of forest bathing. Many of Japan’s trails are ancient walking routes with cultural significance that have been recognized and maintained for recreational purposes.

Top Hikes in Japan

There are plenty of places to hike in Japan. Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands, is known for its great outdoor offerings, including hot springs, volcanoes, ski resorts and six national parks with ample trails to explore. On Honshu, the island on which Tokyo and Mount Fuji are located, the Fuji Five Lakes region is a popular outdoor and sightseeing destination. Adventurers can hike designated routes or find out-of-the-way trails all over this region, often getting glimpses of the near-perfect cone of Mount Fuji, at 12,388 feet, the highest peak in Japan.

This guide will focus on the two most popular long distance trails in Japan: the Kumano Kodo, which is is a network of trails located on the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture, and the Nakasendo Way, which travels from Kyoto to Tokyo through the Japanese Alps in Central Japan. Both of these routes can be hiked in shorter sections, or as multiday treks with accommodation and luggage support.

Kumano Kodo—Nakahechi Route

For hundreds of years, people have been making pilgrimages to Kumano, a sacred region of healing and salvation in eastern Japan. In 2004, UNESCO designated three World Heritage sites in the Kumano region. The Kumano Kodo’s network of more than 185 miles of undulating mountainous trails connects these sacred sites.

Trail marker.

The Nakasendo Way and Kumano Kodo are well marked.

The Nakahechi Imperial route is the most popular in the Kumano region due to the convenience of Japanese guesthouses, luggage support and train access to and from the start and end points. Historically, the imperial family traveled the route while on pilgrimage from Kyoto.

How Long Does it Take?

The complete Nakahechi route typically takes five days, though most people walk shorter segments using buses to access their desired start and end points. Hikes can be arranged for two to five days. The traditional route begins in Takajiri and ends in Nachisan, with overnights in a few small villages as well as in Hongu or Yunomine Onsen, where you can take in a famous shrine and hot baths.

How to Plan a Kumano Kodo Hike—Reservations

The convenience of all-inclusive Japanese guesthouses and luggage transportation makes multiday hiking relatively easy along the Kumano Kodo. Those who prefer to make arrangements on their own—rather than booking with a travel agent—will want to make reservations through the official Kumano Travel website. Reservations require a minimum notice of one week, but can be booked one to three months in advance during the busier summer months. The Tanabe tourist information center and official Kumano Travel booking agent are both located near the train station in Tanabe and are helpful with English travel advice, trail information, booking reservations and arranging luggage transport.

Kumano Kodo Gateway Cities

Tanabe City is the staging point for most treks on the Kumano Kodo and is easy to get to on the Japan Rail (JR) trains from Kyoto and Osaka. Though most people don't spend more than a night in Tanabe, the downtown area has plenty of great traditional restaurants and inexpensive yet comfortable accommodations.

Bluefin tuna.

A sushi chef displays the tuna that's on tonight's menu.

After your trek, plan a full day and night for recovery in Kii-Katsuura at the end of the trail. The coastal fishing village is best known for its world-class bluefin tuna, abundance of sushi bars and oceanfront hot spring resorts. JR trains and buses depart regularly from the Kii-Katsuura Station.

Top Sites on the Nakahechi Route

The Three Grand Shrines—Kumano Sanzan: The main sites of worship in the Kumano region are known collectively as the Three Grand Shrines, or Kumano Sanzan. Located in the center of the region, Kumano Hongu Taisha is a popular stop for spiritual travelers arriving by tourist bus and is on the popular Nakahechi route in Hongu. The lesser-visited Kumano Hayatama Taisha is located in Shingu City, where the Kumano-gawa River flows into the ocean. At the end of the Nakahechi route, trekkers will see Kumano Nachi Taisha, which is built on the mountainside facing Nachi Falls.

Onsen.

Onsen (hot springs) are common throughout Japan and are a great way to rejuvenate after a long day on the trail.

Yunomine Onsen: Yunomine is a small enclave along the Nakahechi route with limited accommodations and is best known for its hot springs, or onsens. The thermal waters are not only a therapeutic treatment for trail-weary hikers, but historically have also served as a means of cleansing before visiting the nearby Kumano Hongu Taisha. Tsuboyu is a small historic cabin perched over the river where people can soak privately.

Nachi Falls: Nachi-no-Otaki, or Nachi Falls, is the tallest single-drop waterfall in Japan. The falls plunges 436 feet and is part of a Shinto shrine called the Kumano Nachi Taisha.

Daimon-zakaA cobblestone staircase lined with ancient Japanese cedar trees and stretching 1,968 feet in length, Daimon-zaka is a must-see at the end of the Nakahechi Route. The staircase starts near Nachi Falls and descends to Meitosugi, or the matrimonial trees, a pair of ancient “husband and wife” cedars that have intertwined roots.

Nachi Falls.

At 436 feet, Nachi Falls is Japan's tallest single-drop waterfall and is but one of the pleasures of walking the Kumano Kodo's Nakahechi Route.

The Nakasendo Way

The old postal route connecting the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto with Edo—now Tokyo—is a historic road that can be hiked in sections or in its entirety. Though Nakasendo means “through the mountains,” only portions of the route are strenuous.

The Full 11-Day Tour: Most of the Nakasendo Way provides relatively easy walking on roads and wide dirt paths. The full walk typically takes 11 days and is best completed with a guided or on a self-guided tour with agency support for ease of directions, accommodations and luggage transportation. The walk begins in Kyoto and ends in Tokyo.

Magome to Tsumago: Because of the length and commitment to walking the full route, many hikers choose to walk only portions. The most popular—Magome to Tsumago—is a section through Japan’s Central Alps and the Kiso Valley. The trail takes travelers through cedar and cypress woods and bamboo groves, and is accompanied by babbling mountain streams and perfectly manicured home gardens.

A lone hiker practices the art of shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) on the still-wet path of the Nakasendo Way.

How to Hike Magome to Tsumago: From Kyoto, Tokyo or Osaka, take the train to Nagoya and then on to Nakatsugawa. A visitor’s information center located next to the JR Nakatsugawa station has detailed maps and English-speaking tourism officials. From Nakatsugawa, buses depart hourly to Magome where you can begin hiking the Nakasendo Way.

Climb up through the old postal town, which is now full of tourist shops, to a scenic lookout point. This is where the trekking route between the two post towns begins. The trail climbs relentlessly, nearly 750 feet for the first 1.2 miles, to Magome-toge Pass. From here the trail descends gently the rest of the way to Tsumago. The 6.2-mile hike takes most people about 4-5 hours at a leisurely pace.

Buses depart regularly from Tsumago heading back to the Nakatsugawa station. Check the schedule for return times. There are few accommodations or restaurants open late in any of the Kiso Valley postal towns along the Nakasendo Way.

Top Sites on the Magome to Tsumago Route

Magome-Juku: The scenic lookout point at the beginning of the section between Magome to Tsumago offers an unobstructed view of the Kiso Valley.

Tateba Tea House: Not long after reaching the high point at Magome-toge pass, a historic Edo-period teahouse offers weary travelers a respite from the trail.

Odaki and Medaki Falls: These two waterfalls are more than just a beautiful sight. Ancient legends associate the falls with a love story between a samurai and a woman. About a mile past the tea house a short path marked by an information sign leads to the base of the falls.

Ishidatami (cobblestone path): When the soft dirt path turns into an ancient cobblestone stretch of tight turns, you are almost to Tsumago. The section is one of the last remaining remnants of the old road.

Logistics for Visiting and Hiking in Japan

Group vs. solo travel: Japan is fairly easy to navigate via train and bus and offers plenty of tourist information in English. Most accommodations have single rooms available or charge per person, so there is no real cost saving to traveling in groups.

Hiking trails described in this guide are rugged with rocks and tree roots and are often damp from humidity and/or rain. It would not be uncommon to fall while hiking on any of the trails described. The buddy system is recommended primarily for this reason; however, these routes have a fair amount of foot traffic and do not enter into remote stretches of wilderness.

Japanese cuisine.

World-famous Japanese cuisine awaits at the end of each day.

What to Pack for a Japan Hiking Trip: The weather in Japan can be variable year-round, but hikers should always be prepared for rain with a light waterproof jacket and pants. Hat, sunglasses and sunscreen are always recommended. Because of the many rocky trails and cobblestone staircases, trekking poles are suggested for stability. Hikers do not need to carry much water or food as most trails have plenty of opportunities to resupply. A lightweight backpack with a small refillable hydration reservoir or reusable water bottle should be sufficient.

International Arrivals: Most international travelers fly into Tokyo or Osaka on the main island of Honshu. Narita International Airport (NRT) in Tokyo is the largest airport in Japan and is located 37 miles east of Tokyo. Haneda Airport (HND), or Tokyo International Airport primarily services domestic carriers, though international flights have recently expanded to this hub. It is located 8.7 miles south of Tokyo Station, which makes travel in and out of the city relatively easy.  

Osaka is the capital city of Osaka Prefecture and is the closest large city to the Kumano Kodo. Itami Airport (ITM), or Osaka International Airport, is the main hub for international travel to Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe.

Colors of dusk ripple across hill and sky.

Getting around in Japan: Traveling around Japan is relatively simple and efficient. The Japan Rail Pass, often called the JR Pass, is sold in weekly increments and can be purchased for a discounted rate online or through a certified vendor before arriving in Japan. The pass is the most affordable and most efficient way to travel and gives you unlimited access to all JR trains, including the Shinkansen bullet train, as well as some JR buses and ferries.

If ordering online, be sure to allow plenty of time for the pass to arrive in the mail to avoid overnight shipping, which may negate the discount. If you purchase ahead of time, take the paper exchange order with you to Japan and turn it in at any JR pass office for the actual Japan Rail Pass. Both the exchange order and JR Pass are paper tickets that cannot be replaced if lost or stolen.

The unlimited JR Pass was designed for foreigners on a tourist visa for visits of 90 days or less. Until recently, the pass was only sold outside of the country to block Japanese nationals from purchasing it, but for a limited time (through March 31, 2019), the pass can be purchased at Japan Rail offices in Japan, though not for the discounted rate. It is unclear if the JR Pass will be sold inside the country after this trial period.

Whether you purchase the pass at home or in Japan, you will need to present your passport and exchange order at a JR office to get the JR Pass. Once you have your pass, go to any JR office and make reservations for individual tickets. Seats can be reserved in advance or on arrival depending on availability. Trains are easy to navigate with signs and on-train announcements with English translations. Most JR stations also have useful tourism information with English speaking agents.

When to Go

Japan is a year-round destination and the best time of year to visit depends on which region you are most interested in visiting.

Hokkaido—which has plenty of national parks and hiking trails—is the most northern part of Japan and receives significant snowfall in the winter. Though it is a popular skiing destination, for hiking it’s best visited in the summer months and is most popular in July and August.

Cherry blossom.

The autumnal cherry blossom makes fall an especially rewarding time to visit Japan.

Central and Southern Japan can be uncomfortably hot and humid in the summer months. Spring and fall tend to be the most moderate for hiking and offer the added beauty of cherry blossom season and fall colors. Daytime temperatures in Honshu average in the mid-60s to mid-80s Fahrenheit. April to June and September to October tend to be the most reliable and moderate weather for both the Nakasendo Way and the Kumano Kodo; however, Japan can get rain and snow during any month of the year, especially in the mountainous areas.

Where to Stay

Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto have plenty of accommodations ranging from budget to luxury and make great places to explore for a few days before (or after) going on one of the recommended multiday treks. Pod hotels, which are like enclosed bunk beds and operate similar to a hostel, are popular among young travelers and anyone looking for an inexpensive, minimalist place to sleep for a night or two. Additionally, all major cities have a wide selection of Western-style hotel chains and can be booked on most online travel sites.

Traditional Japanese guesthouses, called ryokan, are a recommended experience and tend to be available in a range of price points. Guesthouses in smaller, off-the-beaten-path areas require reservations at least a week in advance. Meals are often included. Japanese Guestouses online booking seems to be the best way for English-speaking travelers to reserve traditional accommodations. Though many hosts do not speak English, it’s rarely a challenge.

See REI Trips to Japan

The post How to Travel and Hike in Japan appeared first on REI Co-op Journal.

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