Japan walking routes map & highlights

When it comes to hiking in Japan, most people immediately think Mount Fuji. But a bit like the exquisitely wrapped gifts that Japanese love to offer, there are layers and layers of beauty just waiting to be unwrapped. In fact, mountains, forests and national parks cover 70 percent of the country, many of them bedecked with ancient trails. Follow in the footsteps of Samurai on the Nakasendo Trail or pilgrims on the more southern and spiritual, shrine-bedecked Kumano Kodo Trail. The former a 17th century historic byway from Kyoto to Edo, now Tokyo, and the latter an ancient pilgrimage route through the richly forested Kii Mountains. They both feel uniquely unchanged by time.
Dewa Sanzan

1. Dewa Sanzan

The Japanese have a long history of mountain worship, and the three sacred peaks of Mt. Gassan, Mt. Haguro and Mt. Yudono, are collectively known as the Dewa Sanzan. Located in central Yamagata, try and come in summer when all three are accessible. Haguro has a stunning pagoda at the top, and the other two have obligatory shrines. But all are special places.
Kumano Kodo Trail

2. Kumano Kodo Trail

Located on the Kii-peninsula, this 258km route covers the Heian period (794-1185) pilgrimage trail linking three Kumano shrines. At this time emperors and aristocrats sought spiritual solace in nature and mountains, as pilgrims still do today. With temples and omnipresent Oji-shrines tucked into bamboo forests, mountain valleys and villages en route, it’s both ethereal and exquisite no matter which section you explore.
Kyoto & the Philosophers Path

3. Kyoto & the Philosophers Path

Many walking holidays include guided tours of the ancient capital to see its 14 UNESCO sites such as the Golden Temple of Kinkakuji and the district of Gion, with wooden buildings squeezed into narrow streets, many now teahouses and restaurants. Walkers will also relish the 2km long, cherry tree lined Philosopher’s Path. Starting at the Silver Pavilion, it ends in the Nanzenji district.
Mitarai Valley

4. Mitarai Valley

As well as stunning hikes through this 4km river valley, you can stay at nearby Dorogawa, famous for its hot springs. So bathing bliss awaits after walking through Mitarai’s marvels which include waterfalls, dramatic gorge rock formations with steep, stepped walkways, and swimming in river pools. Also spectacular in autumn when it is illuminated by the seasonal change of maple, sakura and sumac trees.
Mount Fuji

5. Mount Fuji

A symmetrical volcanic cone, dusted with snow, it lies at the heart of Fuji-Hakone-Izu NP, easily accessible from Tokyo. Believed to be a sacred place, Japanese flock to its heights, and the 1000 year old Murayama Sengen Jinja temple, just before the 5th level of the climb. Although the Fuji Gen temple in the foothills is enough elevation for many. Summiting at sunrise from Honhachigome is the thing to do.
Mount Yarigatake (Yari)

6. Mount Yarigatake (Yari)

Sometimes called the Matterhorn of Japan, this iconic 3,180m peak is in the Hida Mountains. Located in the Chūbu-Sangaku National Park, the name means spear, due to its sharp pointed shape – you’ll make the final ascent using ladders attached to the mountain. Hikers usually spend a night in Yarigatake Mountain Hut, with hot springs waiting at the end of the trek at Kamikochi.
Mount Yoshino

7. Mount Yoshino

Most famous for being the prime place to see cherry blossoms, with over 30,000 trees on its slopes, Yoshino is also a UNESCO site thanks to its proliferation of ancient temples. A key stop on the pilgrim trail to Mt. Omine in Yoshino-Kumano National Park, you don’t need cherry blossom to appreciate these landscapes, with autumn leaves and high peak snow also adding to its natural and cultural magnificence.
Nachi Waterfall

8. Nachi Waterfall

One of the Kumano Kodo Trail highlights. And high is right, with these being Japan’s tallest falls (with an uninterrupted drop) at 133m and a sacred spot for centuries. The Nachi Grand Shrine is at the top of it, often the finale for people walking the Kumano Kodo, hiking out to the coast from Nachi to catch a train back to the reality. Because at Nachi, when quiet, it definitely feels other worldly.
Nakasendo Walking Trail

9. Nakasendo Walking Trail

Over 500km long, it was established in 8th century to link Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo) so that feudal lords could journey through mountainous terrain, building an empire in the process. There are still 69 ‘post towns’ en route, where you can stay in traditional ryokan inns, bathe in thermal springs, and bask in mountain magnificence. Most holidays cover small, easy sections, linking them with train journeys.
Nara Basin & Mount Miwa

10. Nara Basin & Mount Miwa

Hike through what were once suburbs of an ancient capital but now a landscape of small farms, rice paddies and bamboo forests. The focal point is Miwa, a sacred mountain that is home to Omiwa Shrine, one of the oldest in Japan. You’ll need a permit to climb this 467m peak, starting at the trail head where a rice straw rope hung between two posts represents sacred ground ahead.
Nikko National Park

11. Nikko National Park

Just 125 km from Tokyo, it is very popular for escaping cosmopolitan crowds. The gateway town is World Heritage site Nikko, a must visit en route to the mountains. It is a sacred place for Japanese because of the Tosho-gu shrines - resting place of the Tokugawa shoguns. Hikes up to the Senjogahara Plateau, around Lake Chuzenji, across the Oze Marshlands or to the summit of Mt. Nakimushi are all highlights.
Shikoku Island

12. Shikoku Island

The smallest of Japan's four main islands, many people come here on the pilgrimage trail which covers 88 temples. Or take in a handful of them while dipping in and out of luscious landscapes such as the Iya valley, part of the Mt. Tsurugi Quasi-National Park. Or walk along the Yoshinogawa River, through forests, coastline and end up at hot springs, including Dogo, Japan’s oldest spa resort dating from 8th century.

Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Japan walking or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Japan walking holiday highlights

Jim Eite, from our Japan walking holidays supplier, Exodus, recommends his top Japan walking highlights: “Although Fuji is the most famous peak, the walking in the Japanese Alps is far more appealing to individuals who love the mountains. Mt. Yari is known as the Japanese Matterhorn. Some of the paths on Yari are rocky, and although not difficult you should have good footwear (supporting your ankles) and be confident on lose terrain. Be prepared to queue at the top of Fuji – like with Snowdon in the UK!

“Our walking trips are not just about the walking. The time spent in Kyoto and Tokyo adds to the experience and in visiting the old quarters of Kyoto, the rural mountains, and the bright lights of Tokyo you get a good overview of the country and people.”
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: OKU Japan] [Dewa Sanzan: Crown of Lenten rose] [Kumano Kodo Trail: Kanenori] [Kyoto & the Philosophers Path: Kimon Berlin] [Mitarai Valley: Ise Raido] [Mount Fuji: Reginald Pentinio] [Mount Yarigatake (Yari): prelude2000] [Mount Yoshino: Hiroaki Kaneko] [Nachi Waterfall: Lorena a.k.a. Loretahur] [Nakasendo Walking Trail: Andy king50/Daderot] [Nara Basin & Mount Miwa: Yanajin33] [Nikko National Park: uraomote_yamaneko] [Shikoku Island: Ulanborg] [Jim Eite advice: Rick McCharles]