While Japan may be famous for its urban centers like Tokyo and Osaka, it actually boasts some of the most enchanting and hauntingly beautiful wilderness areas in Asia which are ideal for those wanting to take a break from the city and get back to nature. While they may not be the multi-week long distance trails that hallmark New Zealand or the United States, there are nevertheless some quintessential day-trips in Honshu that really take to heart the meaning of “quality over quantity”.
#1. Mount Fuji, Shizuoka – Difficulty: Hard
Perhaps one of the most iconic scenes in Japan, this 3,776 meter tall dormant volcano towers over the 5 Lakes District west of Tokyo, and makes for one of the most strenuous but rewarding hikes. Technically speaking, the mountain is only open during the summer season when it becomes so popular you are literally waiting in line to climb to the top. However, if you time it just right, the day after Fuji officially “closes” is the ideal time since there will be virtually no people – even better, aim for a night hike starting at around midnight, which will give you plenty of time to reach the top for one of the most stunning sunsets of your life. Be sure to bring plenty of warm layers!
#2. Kuman Kodo, Kii Peninsula – Difficulty: Very Hard
Located south of Osaka, this series of pilgrim paths are still important routes for avid Buddhists who make the long three-to-four day journey overland to the infamous Hongu Taisha. Considered one of the more difficult hiking trails in Japan, it criss-crosses tall mountains, deep bamboo forests, and has many rugged stretches, but offers a true taste of wilderness. One of the more remarkable stops is at the top of Miuratoge, one of the 1000-plus meter passes, where pilgrims can catch their breath in an old gazebo overlooking valleys to the north. One of the main features of the Kumano Kodo are the many stone Jizo statues that line the trail, each depicting a different Buddhist monk.
#3. Mount Rokko, Kobe – Difficulty: Intermediate
Just west of Osaka the bustling hub of Kobe is an ideal departure point to explore some of the steep water-fall laden trails of the Harima Alps that overlook the city. There are actually several areas that one can start at, but the ultimate destination is Mount Rokko. Getting off at the Ashiyagawa Station, it’s a leisurely stroll to the Koza Waterfall where the trail begins, and if you’re ever having trouble finding it, just look for Japanese clad in colorful hiking gear. The beauty of Rokko is that there are a number of interconnected trails and plenty of switchbacks so it’s ideal for all skill levels – just watch out for the inoshishi, or wild boars, that live in the underbrush! Considered one of the more dramatic night views, it’s also a romantic location in the evenings when Kobe lights up.
#4. Mount Hiei, Kyoto – Difficulty: Easy to Intermediate
Something about the Buddhist tradition has inspired more than a few mountain-top enclaves, and Mount Hiei is no exception as home to the Enryakuji Temple at 843 meters above sea-level. Considered an intermediate course, it is still remarkably well marked, and was historically built to protect Kyoto (once the capital of Japan). From the Hieizan Sakamoto Station on the JR Kosei Line, the mountain path wanders uphill over stones and through groves of sugi cedar before arriving at the main hall. One of the shorter hikes on our list, it nevertheless strikes a good balance between getting back to nature and experiencing the history of Japan.
#5. Mount Seppiko, Himeji – Difficulty: Intermediate to Hard
Although the trail itself is only about 6 kilometers, this rocky trail is a favorite for those that want a real piece of wilderness, and as a result this is one of the steeper and more difficult courses, both in terms of climbing and actually accessing. Directly north of Himeji, Seppiko is one of the tall crags that overlooks the city, and bus service there was discontinued in 2010, so short of hitching or getting your own vehicle this can be a tricky hike – nevertheless, for those that put in the effort, it offers some of the most expansive and technically difficult hikes in Honshu. In fact, it passes by Izumo Rock, which is a favorite rock-climbing destination for those in the area, and after reaching the top of Mount Seppiko one is granted a sweeping vista of the Hyogo Prefecture.
#6. Takedao Tunnels, Namaze – Difficulty: Easy
From the most difficult to the easiest, Takedao makes the list simply because of how unique it is. Located very close to Namaze, a short (if winding and somewhat confusing) walk takes you to an old rail-bed that used to be the JR Fukichiyama Line. As a result, this hike is flat the entire way, but what it lacks in elevation gain it makes up for in a series of extremely creepy – and implausibly long – tunnels. Many of them take several minutes to get through and have bends, requiring hikers to carry flashlights. Additionally, as it follows the Mukogawa Gorge there are several bridge crossings and a couple of side-trails that lead into some wild gardens – in the spring these hillsides light up in a tumult of pink cherry blossoms and fragrant flowers.