15 Unique Things about Hiking in Japan

Hiking is one of the most popular pastimes in Japan. It's no wonder really, as the country is said to be about 70% mountainous. But what makes hiking in Japan unique? Read on!

1. Shrines (little ones along the way and big ones at the top)

Shrine at Mount Takao -- Photo by Athena Lam
Spirits dwell in the mountains. This common belief sees some of Japan’s most revered shrines alongside makeshift altars. When you hike along Japan’s mountain paths, you are following in the footsteps of those who have entered the dwelling of the spirits. Look out for small stone statues with red caps, wooden houses with pristine white streamers, coins littered around stone piles and fresh flowers planted in bottles.

2. The Basecamp

Mount Mitake, near Tokyo -- Photo by Julie Fader
Forgot to get snacks? Need to use the toilet? Rest assured that if the trail you are heading to has historical significance or photographic fame, you'll probably find a shop, restaurant or pop-up stall nearby.

3. Food (stalls and vending machines)

Vending machines are everywhere! -- Photo by Athena Lam
Vending machines exist to save the day. I’ve found them beside car roads that cut through trails and others standing sentinel at the top of mountains. Always keep some spare coins handy just in case you stumble upon a refill opportunity! Also, look out for bamboo springs spouting deliciously cool mountain water (ladles or cups are often provided by locals).

4. Summit Celebrations

Mochi shop at Mount Koya -- Photo by Athena Lam
At the top of Mount Takao, weary trekkers can slurp a bowl of udon or enjoy a soft ice cream with a full view of the mountains. On Mount Koya, travelers can wander through the mountain town which is filled with restaurants (specializing in Koya-san Tofu, no less!) Give yourself a break and treat your belly as you feast your eyes on the view you’ve just worked hard to earn!

5. Cute Signs (and cartoon characters)

Mount Mitake stylized hiking map -- Photo by Julie Fader
If you're getting off at a train station, look out for colorful maps and fliers, or a large stylized map of the area on a board somewhere close by. Japanese kawaii (cute) culture has permeated mountaineering, too. Along hiking trails, look out for "friendly" arrows, stylized icons, and bubbly characters. Welcome to your neighborhood guides!

6. A Route for Everyone

The wilds of Mount Mitake -- Photo by Julie Fader

Mount Mitake paved hiking route -- Photo by Julie Fader
The more famous the mountain, the more routes it has. Mount Takao boasts six hiking routes that include mountain paths of varying lengths as well as a paved road. Area maps can be found at the closest train station or information center.

7. Hop on, Hop Off

Toyama Chiho Railway to Mount Tate -- Photo by Athena Lam
Not sure which part of the mountain you want to see? No problem! Many buses heading to mountain stations stop en route alongside hiking trails. Buses between train stations and the scenic areas such as Nikko’s alpine waterfalls, Kawaguchi under Mount Fuji, and Mount Tate all feature stops at trailheads or recreational paths. For example, visitors to Mount Tate can first take a scenic train ride to the base of the mountain. A tram will then ferry passengers up the mountain to a bus station at the edge of the treeline. Another bus then goes up into the alpine highlands, famous for the snow tunnels and autumn foliage, while a train tunnels through the mountain down to Kurobe Dam. Visitors can hop off at any point to follow the recreational trails through the forests. Circle the mountaintop lakes, the marshlands or climb all 3000+ meters to the summit!

8. Cable Cars & Trams

Mount Mitake Tozan Tram -- Photo by Julie Fader
Some people want to hike on a mountain, but not necessarily make the journey up. As a solution, trams and cable cars whisk visitors up to higher recreational grounds on many popular mountains. For example, the tram up to Mount Koya helps day visitors spend more time exploring the Buddhist town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. People who want a day-break from Tokyo can choose from a network of mountain trails on top of Mount Mitake. Mount Mitake has a 2000-year-old shrine, a mountain town, and dirt paths that lead to waterfalls, a natural rock garden and the nearby peaks Mount Odake and Mount Hinode.

9. Frequent Rest Stations or None

Taking a break from hiking, Mount Mitake -- Photo by Julie Fader
The hardcore trekker wanting to work up a sweat and a couch-loving urbanite who wants to enjoy a breath of fresh alpine air can equally enjoy Japan's most famous mountain views. On popular routes, such as Mount Mitake, convenient lookouts with tables and even a stall or vending machine are available. On challenging routes for mountaineers, expect to find no trace of civilization apart from the occasional, weathered sign.

10. Clean Toilets

Toilet stop at Mount Mitake -- Photo by Julie Fader
Japan is a spoiler for toilets. In addition to free toilets in convenience stores (usually open 24/7), train stations, restaurants and parks often have public facilities. If you see a toilet at the trailhead, use it. The local area hiking map may also have toilet markers.

11. Animals to Look Out For

While hiking you may see wild boar, called inoshishi in Japanese -- via Flickr cc bluXgraphics(motorcycle design Japan)=
Once outside the major cities, the trees grow tall and the villages small. Forests are filled with birdsong and the fields with butterflies. Occasionally, hikers will come across other animals such as snakes, bears, deer, and wild boar. Bells and whistles are often enough to deter bears, who do not like noise. Back away and keep a safe distance from bears and boars with cubs, as mothers are extremely protective. Millipedes with stingers are poisonous, so watch out for those! Keep food sealed, in your bag, and out of sight of potentially aggressive monkeys. The general rule is to leave wild animals alone.

12. Mountain Ryokans or Lodgings

Otozure Ryokan -- via Flickr cc Carol Lin
Some of the bigger mountain sites have lodgings for visitors so they can make the most of the mountain ambiance. Examples include Mount Koya and Mount Tate. Onsen towns at the base of mountains also make great cultural resting spots. Great examples include Shibu Onsen, which leads to Jigokudani Monkey Park, Karuizawa nestled between the mountains in Nagano and Omachi below Kurobe Dam.

13. Kodak (Photo) Moments

Lookout from Mount Mitake -- Photo by Julie Fader
Look out for viewing platforms, rails and signs suggesting a scenic spot. Many hiking routes have clearings overlooking river valleys or distant plains. Mountains are known for their flaming autumn leaves, spring cherry blossom blizzards, summer blue skies, and snow-cloaked winters. Give yourself moments to enjoy sunbeams bursting through torii gates, picturesque sunsets, or just gaze upon Mount Fuji towering above jagged peaks in the distance.

14. Octagenarians

An elderly hiker at Oze National Park in Japan -- Photo via Flickr cc Reginald Pentinio
You may well be in the company of some genki (healthy and energetic) silver-haired climbers. As hiking is a popular past-time, retired folk often take to the hills to enjoy fresh air. Many hike in social groups, but don’t be too surprised by the odd solo walker, marching past at a steady pace.

15. Full Hiking Gear

Hiking is done at Mount Mitake -- Photo by Julie Fader
People who go hiking often take the day-trip seriously. Whether Mount Fuji, over 3000 meters above sea level or a modest hill close to town, hikers like to be prepared with leggings, walking poles, caps, and maybe even a mini-stove to make coffee at the summit. If you want to show off your hiking gear, Japan’s trails are the perfect places to do so!

Interested in hiking? Check out our theme page!

Athena Lam