Having climbed Mt. Fuji four times, I can attest to its beauty, the sheer majesty of the rising sun as viewed from its lofty summit. I can understand why thousands of people flock to climb it every year. With an elevation of 3,776 meters, it is a symbol of Japan and one of the most iconic mountains in the world.
More great hikes in and out of the country:
Beyond Japan’s highest peak, however, the island country has plenty of trails for hikers of all levels. Whether you’re touring the temples of Kyoto or exploring the northern hinterlands of Hokkaido, these mountains are well within reach, thanks to Japan’s efficient train system. Over the decade I have had the privilege of climbing 25 of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains, and here are three challenging—and unforgettable—hikes that brought me to six of these lofty summits:
Kita-dake (北岳) to Aino-dake (間ノ岳) Traverse
Located in the Minami (Southern) Alps, the second and fourth highest peaks in Japan (Kita-dake, 3,193 meters and Aino-dake, 3,189 meters) are located on the same ridge. This makes it possible to reach both in a single hike that takes two or three days. Starting off from the mountain village of Hirogawara (広河原), the hike begins from a coniferous forest before reaching a spectacular rocky ridge that, depending on the time of the year, might be snowy. For me, one of the highlights of this hike was the sight of Mt. Fuji itself, a faint but majestic outline to the southeast.
Tatayema (立山) to Tsurugi-dake (剱岳) Traverse
For many Japanese tourists, just visiting the trailhead, Murodo (室堂), is a destination in itself. Who wouldn’t want to be on a plateau 2,450 meters above sea level, surrounded by mountains, furnished with nice restaurants and open-air onsen? Hikers, fortunately, get to do more; the most exciting route is a three-day traverse from the sacred mountain of Tateyama (3,015 meters) to the sharp peak of Tsurugi (2,999 meters). Considered by some as the “most dangerous mountain in Japan,” Mt. Tsurugi, which means “sword,” is an adrenaline-inducing challenge that requires technical skills and a lot of care. The climber, however, is rewarded by breathtaking scenery along the way. As we were making our way down, we were given the rare treat of seeing a rock ptarmigan (raicho), the iconic bird of the Japanese Alps!
Yarigatake (槍ヶ岳) to Oku-Hotakadake (奥穂高岳) Traverse
This hike is revered by Japanese climbers as one of the most difficult, largely because of the “big cut”—or “daikiretto,” which the hike is also known as—that lies between Japan’s fifth and third highest peaks, Yarigatake (3,180 meters) and Oku-Hotakadake (3,190 meters). Like Murodo, the trailhead, Kamikochi (上高地), is amazing place, tucked in a valley surrounded by the Northern Alps, inspiring writers and artists alike. The classic traverse takes three days. The first day involves a long and winding 18-kilometer trek to Mt. Yari. The second day, meanwhile, has breathtaking ascents and descents in a sheer cliff to reach the massive Mt. Hotaka. Finally, the third day features a descent to Kamikochi via rock slopes and serene forests. In Kamikochi, one can celebrate with a hot spring bath before taking the bus back to Tokyo.
Tips for hiking in Japan
- Generally, there’s no need for guides or registration fees. The trials are well-marked, but be sure to bring a topographic map of the area especially when doing multi-day hikes. These you can buy in any outdoor shop. In some trailheads you should also fill out a form detailing your hiking plans that you can put on a dropbox. This is so that they have information in case they need to look for you.
- Check the season for each mountain. Some peaks are only accessible during the summer months, while others are particularly beautiful during certain times of the year. (For example, spring for the cherry blossoms, fall for the autumn leaves, etc.) Many mountains are open even during the winter months, but you must have the right training and equipment for snow and ice.
- Familiarize yourself with the trail signs with Japanese characters. Check out this useful link.
- If hiking several mountains over a span of more than a week, consider getting a rail pass. Although Japan’s trains are expensive—especially the shinkansen—tourists can avail of the Japan Rail Pass and other rail passes that offer discounted rates.
- Consult the locals. Most of the train stations have a tourism information office that offer up-to-date information, and they would usually offer you maps of the mountains you’re planning to visit. Take note that bus schedules often change between weekdays and weekends/holidays. It always pays to check when the last trip will be as the buses are generally infrequent.