Somehow in the past few months, I’ve “recaught” the hiking bug. I used to be a pretty avid enjoyer of the outdoors. I spent my post-college weekends exploring the trails of the greater DC area with a local hiking club, and I tested out my rain gear on a few hiking vacations in Europe. (For the record, that’s Ireland: 2, My Waterproofs: 0).
But when we moved to mountainless Okinawa four years ago and followed that up with the birth of our daughter not too long after, my hiking boots began gathering dust in my shoe closet. However, thanks to the gift of a hiking carrier and our daughter reaching the age where she can actually enjoy a walk in the woods, we’ve been slowly remedying our situation.
The following is a list of a few day hikes around Japan. They don’t have to be done in the autumn, by any means, but I certainly don’t object to the added enjoyment of some leaf-peeping on my rambles. Most of these are accessible by public transportation and some won’t take more than half a day. And if these get your heart pumping and eager for more, there are some excellent hikes – from easy walks to tough peaks – all over this island. Happy trails!
1. Sugatami Pond Trail (Hokaido) – Fall comes first to Japan in the northern latitudes of Hokkaido. I mentioned Daisetsuzan in an earlier post as a great place to enjoy the first of Japan’s seasonal leaves and there’s no better way to do that than on a hike in the national park here. For day trippers, a ropeway from the tiny hamlet of Asahidake Onsen takes most of the work out of your day, lifting you to the upper slopes of Asahidake (Mt Asahi). More experienced (and prepared) hikers can summit Asahidake in a two hour hike, or even continue over the park’s other peaks to reach Sounkyo Onsen on the other side (this is better as a two-day hike). For those just looking to stretch their legs, an easy trail circles the alpine meadow and leads to Sugatami. It only takes an hour to cover the 1.7 kilometer trail and you’ll be treated to a few ponds, some volcanic vents and either leaves or summer wildflowers, depending on when you’re here. Regardless of the season, know that the weather at the bottom of the ropeway is often drastically different from that at the top. Even in mid-July, we encountered fog and light rain and were glad of our extra layers.
2. Daibutsu and Tenen Hiking Courses (Kamakura) – Most people come to Kamakura for the temples, the food or the relaxed atmosphere, but you can get in a bit of exercise on one of the city’s hiking courses. My favorite is the Daibutsu (Big Buddha) hiking trail, that takes you from Kita-Kamakura across the hills to the Daibutsu statue in the Hase neighborhood of the Kamakura City. The trail itself takes about 1-1.5 hours to complete, but you have the option of detouring to the Zeniarai Benten shrine along the way, famous for its “money-washing”. The Tenen hiking trail, in contrast, starts in Kita-Kamakura as well but leads in the other direction across the eastern hills to Zuisenji Temple. It also takes about 1-1.5 hours to complete the entire course but you can lengthen that by exploring some of the old tomb caves in the area.
3. Kurama to Kibune (Kyoto) – This is one of my favorite trails, mainly because of the post-hike food possibilities. Both Kurama and Kibune lie on the Eizan Railway, a local line that covers the towns just north of Kyoto. You can start the hike from either village – both are easily accessible by train. In the warmer months (May – September), I like to start at Kurama. You can tackle the stairs to the Kurama Temple if you like, or hop onto the tiny ropeway to help get you up the mountain. The views from the temple grounds are lovely, but the trail doesn’t stop there. It goes up and over the mountain to the hamlet of Kibune, passing several mountain shrines en route. The whole hike takes about 1-2 hours, just long enough to work up and appetite for lunch. Summertime in Kibune sees the local inns setting up platforms over the river that runs along the gorge and diners are invited to chow down “kawadoko style”, over the cool waters. In winter, hike the trail the other way and you can catch a free shuttle to the Kurama Onsen at the end of your adventure. Free hiking poles are offered at both ends of the route – use them on the honor system.
4. Mt Yufu (Yufuin, Oita Prefecture) – Mt Yufu is one of Oita Prefecture’s more popular hikes and is easily reached by local bus from Yufuin to Beppu. In fact, the bus stops about five feet from the trail head, so you really can’t get too turned around. This is a tougher hike than the previous ones, taking about 5 hours roundtrip and involves a lot more gain in elevation. It’s a well-traveled trail, though, and you’ll find everyone out here from grandmas to five-year-olds when the weather is good. The trail is very well kept, though expect a number of switchbacks and some rock scrambling near the end. Mt Yufu has two peaks – the eastern one is the easier ascent, while the western one (the higher one) involves chains and more scrambling. On that rare day when clouds aren’t clinging to the summits, the view from the top is breathtaking.
5. Mt Tawara (Kumamoto) – There are plenty of hikes in the Mt Aso region, including those that give you an up-close look at the active volcano itself. If Nakadake crater is being a bit too frisky, however, your chances of completing those hikes drop significantly. My favorite view of the peaks – all five of them – of Mt Aso comes from Mt Tawara (or Tawarayama). This mountain sits to the south of the volcano and is the least accessible of all the hike. There IS a parking area at the trail head, and a park a few steps away offers sweeping views but the views get better the higher you go. The initial climb is pretty tough, but 15 minutes in, the path evens out and you travel through grasslands and a pine forest. There is one final very steep section at the end but it’s worth it to hit the summit and see as far away as the peaks of Unzen in eastern Nagasaki prefecture. Turn back and the entire Aso area is in your field of vision. I’ve been all over the area in the past year and this is my favorite view yet. The entire hike takes about 3 hours roundtrip, though there are multiple trails you could take from the summit to stretch out your day a bit.
There are plenty, PLENTY more hikes in Japan, from simple day hikes like these to longer, multi-day treks for experienced hikers. Lonely Planet’s Hiking Guide to Japan is a great start, as are local tourism bureaus. They often have maps of their area’s trails and can help you by writing the kanji down for some of the signs you might see while walking.